Chapter 9: Mentor
The next stage of her family’s long journey begins after a night sleeping on the docks. Bread dunked in bacon drippings for breakfast. Excitement stirs the bright air and fills Bianca’s belly with butterflies. “McClellan Ferries, Holyhead to Dún Laoghaire,” reads the ticket she holds. Constrained to London all her young life, she puzzles over the Welsh signage: “Tá failte romhat.”
Her family is returning to Ireland after a generation removed to claim a homestead, the inheritance of a spinster aunt. Not quite rural, Mum says it’s a healthier place to raise a family than a tenement in Mile End. Daddy’s not thrilled, but at least her nagging will cease or at least, shift to a spot less sore from the rubbing.
Daddy will be keeping the books for a poplin mill in Dublin, thanks to an old school friend of Uncle Matthew’s. It was all quite fine with Bianca, whose fingers ached, armored with callous from months of piecework in the London mills.
Bianca would need to learn how to be Irish again, but Mum gave her a pretty good idea of what that meant. Could be worse, she told herself. I could be stuck learning how to read and write Welsh.
Mum with sinking face and sagging eyes tends to little brother Devon on the brow. Daddy, bearing his vaguest smile, is the last to board the ferry. His precious, leather-bound ledgers, their interiors as blank as the family’s future, are tucked under his arm. Only the olio of fishy smells from dead and rotting things on the pier sour Bianca’s joy in spying. All else is perfect, from the swooping, pealing gulls to the billows of sun-laundered cloud.
Underway, in their third-class compartment, the odor of decay still lingers faintly. She stands by the porthole, puzzling over how quickly the sun had vanished and how such shining, silvery-blue seas could take on the pall and texture of a dead and scaly beast. Dad lies swaying in a hammock. Mum sits clutching Devon with one arm, her stomach with the other, worrying a half-eaten cross bun. She shuts her eyes.
A crunch and jolt of cataclysmic proportions rolls Dad onto the floor with a tremendous thump. Luggage scatters. Mum’s sleepy eyes widen with alarm as she braces her feet against the tilting floor, struggling to hang onto Devon. The floor buckles and becomes a ramp. Daddy snatches a ledger as it slides down to the back of the compartment.
“On deck. Everybody out. Chop-chop!”
He herds us out to a bulkhead bottle-necked with panicked passengers. The floor steepens. The once vertical ladder lies at a gentle grade in comparison, and confounds her attempts to climb it. The world has become as warped as Alice’s Wonderland.
She exits a hatch into a bizarrely bright fog, catching a brief glimpse of a dark and frightening hulk astern. People struggle to deploy lifeboats from the acutely tilted deck, as the winch lines twist and tangle. She grips the rail, afraid to let go but people are pushing behind her. Somehow, Mum and Daddy and Devon are still below decks.
The ferry lurches and swings her out of the way. People fall and slide down the deck. Waves splash over the bow and work their way up, as the ferry rolls slowly, till she dangles from a rail surrounding the hatch.
Something massive and bulky barrels into her, knocks her breath away, and plucks her off the rail like a cherry from a twig. She plunges like a stone into the cold, cold water, knifing in feet-first, surrounded by bubbles, deeper than any air-breathing creature has a right to go.
She kicks and bobs up to tumultuous seas. The ferry twists and rolls overhead. She gasps for air as a wave crashes. Stinging water reaches deep into passages where the air should have gone.
Her desperate imagination grasps for some kind of hope. That Mum or Daddy will save her. That they will wash ashore with the stores and luggage of the ferry. Build a new life on a deserted isle.
She sinks. The last thing she sees is the dark hull of the ferry jutting out of the water like a breaching whale.
Her only natural dream, this remembrance. The only one she has left. Proof that her soul remains less than clear.
Bianca rouses herself from a shallow but numbing slumber. She has advanced far up the queue during her somnolence. Mother Ebbani is but several layers removed now, her master cell bathes the other cells in an amber glow, their inhabitants suspended like embryonic tadpoles in an egg mass.
A membrane tenses and pulses. Peristalsis squirms Bianca’s cell forward. Fluids gurgle and jet between cells adjacent, rippling the soft walls, supporting Bianca’s head.
One more tick of the cycle. Her cell would nudge her Mentor’s. The membranes would fuse. The lambasting would commence.
She basks as she waits in the sweet and bitter afterglow of her lonely dream. Few souls are perfect. Not even a Mentor’s. Perhaps not even the Primentor’s.
At least she retains the capacity to assemble artifices of imagination. Day dreams of beaches and bungalows, quiet lagoons and would-be lovers. They ease the pain of waiting.
The susurrus of a trillion thought-voices fills the foreground, rebounding and replicating like as if through an array of audio mirrors. Her cell compresses left and right. She has shuttled forward in the queue, squeezing between two adjacent cells. Her cell continues to slither and spin, passing those ahead of her. She has been noticed, selected, prioritized over other Guides and unassigned Ascendants—not a good sign.
Bianca braces for what is to come as her cell abuts and blends with the cell of her mentor. The membrane fuses and separates like soap bubbles merging. Bianca smooths back hair that resists her strokes, clears a throat already clear.
“Eleven charges, four Ascendants,” says Mother Ebbani, slow and assured, almost bored.
“It’s insufficient, I know,” says Bianca.
“What are you doing about it?”
“I visit each of them, almost every day,” she says. “Some of them are salvageable, but the rest are lost causes. Squatters. I need some new assignees.”
“We just gave you one.”
“And how is he doing?”
“Fine,” Bianca shrugged. “Bit of a mishap regarding his gender, but he’s taking it well.”
“That was no mishap.”
“He is a special selection. The Primentor chose him, and apparently … she requires a female.”
“Odd, that you would choose me to handle such a case.”
“I didn’t,” says Mother Ebbani. “It was the Primentor.”
Bianca had the words stunned out of her momentarily.
“No kidding?” she says, finally.
“And where is your Daniel now?”
“On the windward slope. Where I left him.”
“Don’t tell me! Marco?”
“They’ve descended,” says Mother Ebbani. “And passed through Gihon. On their way to Dilmun, no doubt.”
“How? Why? Do they seek—?”
“The Passage? Quite likely. The mere promise of it has lured many an Ascendee off the slopes, and shall continue to do so as long as they arrive on our beaches still feeling the shock of death. But this is for you to find out and reverse. This lapse will not be tolerated.”
“I can barely tolerate it myself,” says Bianca. “How dare he?”
“The Collectors and Facilitators should have been called off,” says Mother Ebbani. “But one never knows if they listen anymore. So beware.”
“They’ve been called off … Marco, as well?”
“Not him,” says Mother Ebbani. “At least not those he hasn’t already influenced, however he manages.”
“But he’s still salvageable, Mother.”
“How many chances has he already spoiled or rejected? He’s hopeless.”
“I remain hopeful,” says Bianca.
“This is not hope. This is infatuation. Your coddling of him is more likely to lead to your Fall than his Ascendance.”
“I happen to be encouraged by his progress of late,” says Bianca, standing her ground.
“Progress? Absconding with your newest charge, a charge our Primentor has marked for special Guidance … is progress?”
“He hasn’t tangled with Cato. He’s stayed away from Mammon.”
“Consider this a chance to test your mettle,” says Mother Ebbani. “Prove your competence here, and perhaps we can overlook your previous misfires.”Amoeboid flanges swoop in and restore the membrane. The barrier goes opaque, and Bianca’s cell tumbles away to the outer capsule of the corpus.