Where's North?

"Where's north from here?"

Edwin threw open the lighthouse door as he shouted his question over the increasing blizzard outside. Stray snow blasted into the firelit study until Edwin heaved and strained to shut the door again against the frigid wind. He was keenly aware of the lighthouse keeper watching him as he dug his booted heels into the wooden floor to push harder. Finally, the steel and glass door thudded shut, cutting off the blizzard's howls.

"Whew." Edwin shook himself like a dog. Snow sprinkled off his brown parka and thick trousers. He peeled off his creaky old aviator cap and tossed the damp thing onto a nearby control console, along with his copper-framed flight goggles. The pressure gauges and brass knobs and levers looked like they hadn't been touched in a while.

The lighthouse keeper got up from his chair by the fire and grunted. "You done gettin' everythin' wet, boy?"

"Boy? I'm thirty-two, you know," Edwin said, going pink in the face. "How young do I look?"

"Too young to be out 'round these parts," the lighthouse keeper snapped. "Name's Garl, by the way."

"Garl, it's a pleasure," Edwin said, bowing theatrically. Then he stood upright. "Back to my old question, though... can you guide me north from here? Time's running out."

"Slow down a moment, boy." Garl ran a hand through his short, gray hair, his moustache twitching as he thought. "You mean you're going back out there? Now?" He looked out the wide windows, where dark gray clouds threw tidal waves of snow and frigid air against the glass.

"Yeah, I gotta hurry," Edwin said, rubbing his hands. "The Ivory won't like to be moored for too long. Moving helps keep her warm."

Garl grunted again. "Funny. I didn't think anyone cared anymore how their ships feel. Proved me wrong, did you?" He wandered over to a stove and lit a burner. "Think you're special?"

"No, Mr. Garl. Just genuinely concerned about my zeppelin's well-being. Honest."

Garl was quiet as he prepared hot soup. He set a bowl down at a rickety wooden table and pointed for Edwin to have a seat. "I've got compasses aplenty, Edwin. Borrow one if you want. But north ain't a friendly direction to go to. Especially not in this." He jerked his head at the windows. The weather was dismal as ever.

Edwin sat and gratefully ate, noting Garl's simple long-sleeved tunic, open leather vest, and the pistol holstered at his belt. Simple, but proud, in a way. "The Ivory and I are desperate, Mr. Garl. I'll admit it straight up." He swallowed a mouthful of disappointing stew. "The other scavengers are finding all kinds of loot, based on how their zeppelins list and lean. Heavy cargo. I haven't found enough stuff to fill a lady's bonnet."

Garl snorted in amusement. "Bad scavenger?"

"Unlucky!" Edwin said hastily. "There's supposed to be some well-preserved relics in an old coastal city north from here. Y'know, one of those port towns from back in the days of the civilization?"

Garl had a funny glint in his eyes. "No fool would go north here and now. D'you want that to be the last bowl of soup you ever eat?"

"I hope it's the last bowl of soup I eat from you," Edwin mumbled.

"What you say?"

"I said, I have a strategy in mind," Edwin said, pointing at Garl with his spoon, a grin on his face. "The Ivory smelled lots of other zeppelins around here. If I'm gonna beat 'em to the loot, I'll have to go where they won't, when they won't. I'll brave the snow if it means taking first crack at whatever the old civilization has in hiding up north."

Garl threw back his head and laughed deep in his chest. "I dunno if you're noble or selfish, boy!" He wiped his hands on his vest. "I bet yer zeppelin will change its mind once you launch this plan. And all so you can sell trinkets at the caravan markets?"

"I..." Edwin went red. He hadn't thought of it that way. On the tide here, the Ivory hadn't complained about the plan through its usual intercom mouths... but what if it really did resent...

Too late now.

"So..." Edwin changed tack. "It's scavenger business. Let scavengers like me worry about it."

Garth shrugged. "Scavenger business."

"May I have a compass, good sir? I must find north. It's the only way."

"Pun intended?" Garl asked as he stomped off to a waiting ladder.

Edwin winced. "N-no."

"Right." Garl climbed back down with the promised compass, a dented, copper the width of Edwin's palm. It smelled faintly of gunpowder. "This old gal works like nothin' else. Interface that beauty with your zeppelin, and off you go."

"Thanks for that." Edwin carefully took the compass into his hands and slid into his pants pocket. He scooted his soup away. "Is there any more?"

"Yeah, if you want some."

"Actually, I don't. Shame you made more of this, because it tastes quite awful."

Garl went red as he clenched his hands into fists. "What did you say to -"

"But," Edwin held up a finger, "I'm thinking that some seasoning will really turn it around. If anyone else comes in here, I recommend you hold back on the soup 'till it gets some upgrades."

Garl scowled and pointed at the door. "Just go north already."

Edwin stood, saluted Garl the lighthouse keeper, put on his parka, goggles, and aviator cap, and headed out.

*o*o*o*o*

"I know, darling. We're almost there," Edwin said, running a soothing hand along the Ivory's wood-paneled control board in the zeppelin's front cabin. Snow hammered against the windows and melted away just as quickly... it reminded Edwin of an old saying how the flakes are like scavengers, arriving in huge numbers to old ruins, and disappearing just as fast.

Stories...

Edwin flushed as one of the intercoms chattered with the squeaky language of zeppelins. "Sorry. You're right. You would know better than me just how close we are. And whether or not you can take much more of this. And whether or not I'm worthy of being your pilot..."

He whistled to distract himself as he spun the steering wheel, eyeing the dented compass plugged into the navigation computer. Dead north, just like that... way ahead of the pack! Easy as -

"Whoa doggies!" Edwin felt a thrill as he yanked the steering wheel hard to starboard against a sudden blast of air. "Yeah, I felt it too!" he added when the Ivory squeaked at him. "Can't you tell I'm doing something 'bout it? Crazy old bat..."

This time, air came from directly above, and Edwin cursed more colorfully as he plotted a course through the maze of air currents. He squinted through the windows... "There!" he cried, pointing with a gloved finger. "The port city! I can see the old skyscrapers. Oi, they've seen better days, haven't they?"

Through the teeth of the blizzard, Edwin coaxed the Ivory on a smooth, downward trajectory, headed for the tallest skyscraper's roof. With luck, it would have an old "helli-copter" landing pad, something the Ivory could sink its retractable legs into for stability. If not... this had better be a short scavenging trip!

Edwin and the Ivory sighed with relief together as they landed with a gentle bump, and Edwin grinned as he heard the clank of gears and creak of unspooling rope as the Ivory deployed its six insectoid legs to latch itself down. Steeling himelf for the cold, Edwin tapped his finger on a sensor panel. It blinked green in the affirmative, and Edwin stepped down the unfolded ramp.

"Mother!" Edwin cursed as he hurried across the helli-copter pad, and he sprawled onto his side as the wind picked up. He collected himself and half-ran, half-staggered to a wide hatch. He strained against the round operating wheel, and once it groaned and turned in Edwin's hands, the scavenger swung open the door, climbed down, and shut the hatch over him.

Once again, silence fell except for distant, low moaning of air snaking its way through this old place. Edwin flicked on his 10,457-candle flashlight (he had no idea why the manufacturer settled on that number) and made his way through dusty old hallways, over fallen timber and water coolers. Patches of the floor had collapsed, and Edwin either circumvented the holes or simply jumped.

"Scavenger is as scavenger does," Edwin said, just to hear a voice as he plodded through derelict offices. Old metal desks, swivel chairs, copy machines, and telephones were scattered at random, some on their sides or broken open. Damn, had scavengers been here before? Probably not in a while, though; Edwin traced his gloved finger along the dust that had gathered in a broken copy machine's innards. If the dust was this thick after someone broke open the machine for parts... well, that was encouraging!

Secretaries, business calls, faxes... Edwin remembered these alien words popping up in stories that older scavengers told each other at the caravans. Where did they learn them? From older-generation scavengers? How far up the chain did these words go until the original users were alive, using them? Hard to say, now!

No need to know, either. Where was the loot?

"Crap!" Edwin jumped back as a section of the floor crumbled, revealing a vast open space below him. He'd end up pretty flat if he fell down there and went squish... well, at least he'd fit into a smaller pants size. He picked up a fire extinguisher and bashed open a hole in the plaster wall to avoid the new chasm in the floor.

The wind howled outside the rattling windows as Edwin kept going, his stomach churning with that bad soup. "Come on... come on, gimme anything..." Edwin muttered. A circuit board? Old jewelry? Rare metals or explosives? Scavengers had found those, and much rarer and stranger things in the ruins of civilization before! Including magazines of nude people... why would anyone make that? Civilized people must have been weird.

Edwin gasped when he threw open a handle-less door and discovered the treasure he'd always coveted.

*o*o*o*o*

"I'll be damned," Garl said when Edwin threw open his lighthouse's ground floor door. "You're back? And so soon!"

Edwin shut the door easily and threw off his damp coat and aviator hat and goggles. "The Ivory and I are tougher than you think, Mr. Garl."

Garl nodded, halfway through wiping a plate clean with a red rag. "So I see, so I see. Bring back any goods? Or were those old ruins as pointless as I suspected?"

"Found some treasure," Edwin said with a sly smile as he cross the room. The fire seemed brighter and happier, somehow.

Garl perked up. "No way."

"Sure did." Edwin whistled as he sat at the table with a sigh. "Ain't even gonna sell it to the caravans. I'm gonna share it with you, Mr. Garl."

Garl set down the plate and rag and sat opposite Edwin, leaning closer. "Don't waste any time, boy," he said. "What did you find? Are you rich? Gonna give me a cut to pay for the hospitality?"

"The very best."

Garl pounded his fists on the table. "Well?"

Edwin drew something from his pocket and set it on the table between them. "Freshly-ground pepper, sealed in the can from the skyscraper's kitchen." He beamed. "Pour some soup, old Mr. Garl. Can't wait to taste it now." He cracked open the glass bottle of pepper.

Garl obliged him. "Taste of the past, huh?" He shook the pepper onto their soup.

Edwin took a bite. "It's the little things that count, right?"

Even old Garl couldn't argue with that.