Vanubiti Island, Oceania
Christmas Day, 1874
Storm-driven slate-gray waves threatened to swamp the small dinghy as it approached the shore.
“Close enough,” Captain Matheson said.
The coxswain hauled back on the oars, trying to hold position.
Matheson vaulted over the side and waded through the churning surf.
He waved off the coxswain. “Return to the ship. I must do this alone.”
Matheson sprinted across the narrow strip of sand, his feet squelching within his calf-length boots. He held a hand up against the gale-force winds that carried stinging sand and palm fronds and ducked among the trees where he stopped to catch his breath and get his bearings.
He pulled the locator from his pocket and swept it in an arc as he watched the display. A momentary blip showed the direction, and he pushed on.
The village stood where he remembered, even after twenty years’ worth of seasonal storms. The past didn’t matter, though. He knew the village wouldn’t survive this storm; the damage and death toll would be catastrophic.
Can’t be helped, he told himself. You have a job to do. Better get to it.
He wiped rain from his eyes and shook his head. Sometimes knowing how things would turn out was worse than not knowing.
Several damaged huts came into view through the intermittent rain, and he increased his pace. Matheson began searching these. There wasn’t much time, and he had to find the old man.
The first homes he came to were deserted.
Early bands of storm-driven wind and rain assaulted the small island and made his task more difficult as most of the native inhabitants were absent. They had probably evacuated to higher ground farther inland. He would go there, if necessary.
Many of the villagers’ homes, those exposed to the strength of the oncoming typhoon, had collapsed. The occupants of these, ones who delayed evacuating, died or were severely injured, as Matheson discovered during his search. He ignored the dead and cries of the wounded and pushed on.
He found the old man in one of the battered huts, broken and bleeding, but alive.
Matheson removed the fallen rafters and thatch from the old man and knelt. “Kulani, can you hear me?” He wiped blood and water from the man’s face. “It’s Matheson. I’ve come back for the stones. Do you still have them?”
Kulani groaned and opened his eyes. “M… Matheson?”
Matheson exhaled; relief flooded his chest. There’s still a chance. He nodded. “Yes, it’s me. Do you still have the power stones?”
Kulani blinked and appeared confused. He glanced left and right. “Stones? I don’t—”
Matheson grabbed the man by the shoulders. “Think, man. You said you would put them away to be safe until I returned. Remember?” He shook the old man. “Where are they?”
Kulani uttered a wet scream of pain. Blood sprayed from his mouth as he coughed.
“You’re broken inside, old man.” Matheson leaned closer. “You don’t have much time. Where did you put them?”
Kulani squinted in the dim light and met Matheson’s eyes. “L… Lieutenant? You came back?”
Matheson nodded. “Of course. You promised to keep the stones safe for me. Now, where are they?”
Kulani turned his head away. He pointed with one thin arm toward the extinct volcano, visible only as a dark shape against the gray sky. “The mountain.”
Matheson peered through the rain and shook his head. “I know about the mountain, old man. You told me. What of the stones we gathered? Where are they?”
Kulani blinked, then looked to a fallen hut a few feet away. “Help Oliana.” He shuddered and gasped and went still. Rain pelted his open eyes.
Matheson shook Kulani’s limp body. “Kulani.” But the village chief was beyond answering. He sat back and cursed. “Bloody hell.”
Lightning flashed, illuminating the extent of the storm’s destruction. The nearby hut’s roof and two walls lay in a twisted heap within the confines of the remaining walls. It looked hopeless. No one could survive that.
Matheson wiped rain from his face, ran fingers through his wet hair, and stood, facing the fallen hut of Oliana, Kulani’s daughter. “Damn.” He stepped over the dead village elder and made for the hut.
Thatch and timber framing leaned against a far wall creating a small void. Matheson crawled over and aimed a pocket torch into the shadowed space. Two bodies, women, lay entwined in each other’s arms. He recognized the older, Oliana, who looked like she died shielding the younger woman. A portion of the roof lay across Oliana’s back.
Matheson reached out and pressed fingers to Oliana’s neck. He jerked back when she stirred at his touch.
His earpiece crackled. “Sir, can you hear me? The storm… can’t hold position…”
Matheson moved clear and stood. He pressed his earpiece. “Zeb? What’s that? Come again?”
“G… Geoffrey? Is that you?” A weak female voice called from within the protected space.
He pocketed the torch, knelt, and moved closer. In the subdued light, Oliana’s brown eyes looked back at him. “Yes, it’s me. I’ve come back.”
“So long,” she said and winced, her eyes squeezing shut against some pain. “Where have you been?”
“Long story, darling. Are you hurt bad?” He tried to move a roof beam from her body but stopped when she screamed.
“Don’t, please. The rest will fall on her.” Oliana turned her head to nod at the younger woman beneath her.
Matheson could see the girl was breathing but appeared to be unconscious. He saw no apparent injuries and turned his attention back to Oliana.
“Kulani is dead. I’m sorry.”
Tears, or it might have been rain, streamed down her face. “He told me to leave Va, but I came back for her.” She stroked the young woman’s hair with a bloodied hand.
“Oliana.” He shook her lightly to get her attention. “Did your father give you something to hide for him? Stones, perhaps?”
She squinted up at him as the old man had as if seeing him for the first time. “You came back for them? For the god stones? Not me?”
“I came for the stones, yes,” recalling the term the natives used for the scarce source of power. “But to get you too. The storm will kill everyone here. I don’t want you to die.”
“Too late for me.” Oliana pointed to a wooden chest. “Take the stones if they are what you came for.” She turned back to the unconscious girl. “But take Va’ilea with you. You can’t save me, but you can save her.”
Oliana grabbed his wrist in a firm grip. “Geoffrey, you must. Don’t let her die. She has to live. She’s all I have left, after you…” She broke off and coughed, groaning in agony.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t take a girl with me on the ship. It’s not allowed.”
“Look at her, Geoffrey. See her for who she is.” Oliana’s body spasmed, and she cried out in pain. She squeezed Matheson’s wrist tighter.
He pulled back and tried to pry Oliana’s fingers from his arm. She was strong.
Her grip relaxed, and he removed her hand, setting it down. “Oliana?” The rise and fall in her chest went still. He pressed fingers to her neck, but this time felt no pulse.
Matheson stood and shook his head. “Sorry, Oliana. I can’t.” He went to the chest and removed a canvas sack. He loosened the drawstring and peered inside; a faint blue light shone from the dull gray stones within.
“Hello again,” he said. “It’s been too long.”
He swung the sack over his shoulder and stepped clear of the debris. Now that he had them, he could leave.
As he exited the hut, he heard a moan and stopped. Not Oliana. He dipped his head. The girl?
I can’t. It’s not my responsibility.
He heard another moan, this time mixed with movement from within the hut. Was she waking up?
“Bloody hell.” Matheson set the sack down and went back. He carefully removed the fallen beam and thatch covering the two women, lifted his dead lover’s body from the girl and laid Oliana aside. He stood looking down at the unconscious girl.
Can’t be mine. I won’t believe it.
She groaned and moved an arm from over her chest. A necklace of shell and carved-wood beads lay against her brown skin.
In his pocket, the locator beeped. He took it out and looked at the display.
The blip on the screen shone bright and steady. He looked from it to the necklace. The marker was in the necklace.
He turned to look at the dead woman—Oliana—whom he once loved. “You gave it to her?”
His eyes found the girl once more. He could see Oliana in the lines of the girl’s face. “Are you her daughter?” He shook his head. “No, dammit, that’s the last thing I need.” He turned away again.
He bent to pick up the sack of god stones, and the girl stirred again.
Don’t let her die. She has to live. She’s all I have left. Look at her, Geoffrey. See her for who she is.
He lifted his face to the sky in frustration and screamed.
Returning, he bent and carefully picked the girl up, placing her over his shoulder. On his way out of the hut, he retrieved the canvas sack. Before leaving, he turned and tipped his head to the girl’s mother. “I told you I never wanted a kid. It’s not fair what you’ve asked of me.”
He shifted the girl’s weight and silently cursed his better nature. “But even if she’s not mine, I’ll see she is cared for.”