The mid-morning sun shone down brightly, dispelling the shadows cast by Neo-Venezia's close-set buildings and highlighting the clear blue water of the canal as the weathered black gondola made its way along. It was a homely-looking boat, with countless dents and scuff marks from long use, but it suited Antonio. After all, as a goods carrier, his pride was in delivering freight around the city. Whether it was things that people had bought, raw materials being taken to the city's craftsmen, or finished goods being brought to retail stores or even to the spaceport for shipment to Manhome, the hard-working gondoliers of the cargo-hauling trade were the lifeline of everyone's well-being.
Antonio couldn't help but chuckle at himself right after that thought had passed through his head. That was definitely not a line he'd tell to his co-workers while sharing a bottle of wine at the café after work! It sounded like something an Undine would say in describing some aspect of Neo-Venezian life to a tourist. A little flowery, a way to romanticize the simple act of taking goods from point A to point B.
Still, the phrasing lingered with him as he rowed along, driving the laden gondola with strong sweeps of the oar. And maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to be a little romantic about his work. It wasn't as if it was completely plain and ordinary, or devoid of importance because of that simplicity.
Take this morning's job, for example. He'd been sent by his company to the home of an elderly couple. Their children had all married and moved out to start their own households, and the family home had gotten a bit much for them to properly care for as they'd aged. So they'd sold the house to a new family that needed the space and were moving to a smaller, one-story house on the other side of the city. The crates and boxes piled in Antonio's gondola held all the various possessions that they were taking with them. It might not be complex, but it certainly couldn't be called unimportant. Nor was rowing a freight-loaded gondola through the city's canal traffic something that just anyone could do at the drop of a hat.
That point was proven quite plainly as Antonio made his way into the Grand Canal. A motorized vaporetto (one of Neo-Venezia's very few concessions to technological ease that was openly visible) was making its way along, coming the opposite way when a gondola suddenly emerged from a narrow side canal. It was being rowed by a very young Pair Undine and her cry of "Gondola coming through!" had either been forgotten outright or so soft that it was swallowed up by the vaporetto's motor.
Reacting quickly, Antonio turned his gondola to port while at the same time reducing speed, to give the apprentice the best chance to get into clear space. Unfortunately, while she correctly turned to her right, away from a possible collision, in her panic she forgot to slacken speed and the bow of her gondola struck Antonio's sharply about a foot behind the prow. The impact caused the goods hauler to jolt just a bit more to port. Antonio fought the surge, but the inertia of the heavily laden gondola was too much; there was a grinding sound as the gondola's side scraped along the side of the vaporetto for a couple of seconds before he was able to get the boat away.
"I...I'm so sorry!" squeaked the Pair. She wore the red-trimmed uniform of the Himeya Company. "If I'd called later—or if I had better control of my gondola—this would never have happened."
You've got that right, Antonio thought, but he swallowed the angry words. The apprentice was obviously sorry for what she'd done. It was her fault, of course, but she already knew that, and would work to do better and avoid such errors in the future, not like someone who tried to make excuses to avoid responsibility. Besides, you screwed up plenty when you were an apprentice yourself.
"Ah, don't worry about it. A few more scrapes and dents on this old boy aren't going to hurt anything. Just another story to carry with him, right?" And it was true enough; the gondola already had plenty of marks when its finish had been damaged or the wood had been cracked or a patch showed where repairs had been made. A lot of the gondolas the freight haulers used were secondhand boats that had gotten too scuffed and damaged to be used in professions like the Undines' that dealt in public appearances.
"You...you're sure?" the Pair asked nervously, clearly worried.
"I'm sure. Just work hard at your training and that would be the best apology you can make," he assured her and was rewarded by a smile from the girl.
"I will, sir!" she said.
"Good, then you'd best be off, and I need to be on my way as well."
She gave him a little bow, then bit her lip while concentrating on her oar-work, backing her gondola away without causing any further mishaps. Antonio, too, put his back to it, getting the gondola moving again. It had been a bit of an irritating encounter, he decided, but not horrible, and it had been a bit to chuckle over, the girl's earnestness. He wondered if he'd been like that as a teenaged boy, still learning how to handle a boat from his own master.
Probably not, he decided. Maestro Argus would likely have called me a little hellion back then. But he stuck with me anyway. Without the old man's patience, Antonio would never have made it to where he was today, working successfully at a job he enjoyed. I wonder how the Maestro's doing these days? I ought to drop in and see him.
Thoughts like these occupied Antonio's mind as he steered the gondola through the canals towards its destination. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the harmless incident hadn't been quite so harmless. At first, he noticed nothing, but eventually began to be aware that there was more to the sluggish handling of his gondola than just the large quantity of cargo he was transporting. The collision with the vaporetto must have caused Antonio's gondola to spring a link below the waterline, and now the canal water was filling up the space between the boat's hull and the flat deck laid down inside it for setting the cargo on. Steadily, the gondola was settling deeper into the water, and eventually it would sink.
I need to get aground! he thought desperately, but that was easier said than done in the canal, with its walled banks. The only other option was to increase buoyancy by lightening the load, but the thought of abandoning any of the cargo he'd been entrusted with made his gut twitch. Everything he was revolted at it, and yet sacrificing some might be the only way to save at least a portion of the freight.
The gondola was settling almost too fast to do anything at all, Antonio realized a moment later. Water was already lapping over the gunwales. In seconds it would pour over the sides, starting to fill the upper platform, and in that moment it would go down.
Suddenly, the boat twisted as if it had struck something under the water. The bow twisted down and to the left, plunging into the canal. Water rushed over several of the crates, and the sudden unbalancing made the load start to tumble apart. Boxes splashed into the water, others bounced, and one smallish one fell backwards, hitting the rising gunwale on the starboard side and continuing to bounce afterwards, almost landing at Antonio's feet as the stern rose with the sinking bow. Gravity took over once it hit, but the gondolier's reactions were fast: he let go of the oar, bent over, and grabbed up the box before it had slid more than a couple of inches down towards the water.
But that didn't do any good—the gondola was going down and this box would go in with all the others. Yet...when the boat had twisted to port, the stern had swung right, coming to within only a foot or two of the canal edge. Straining, Antonio reached up and out when fighting for balance and managed to set the box down on the narrow walk in front of the row of houses.
Then, as if something propping it up had been jerked away, the gondola plunged into the canal, and Antonio followed. He accidentally sucked in a mouthful of water, choking, but he pushed himself to the surface with a powerful thrust of his legs, swam to the canal edge, reached up for a handhold and pulled himself up where he coughed up water for a bit. He was glad that he was a gondolier in Neo-Venezia on Aqua, not in the original, now lost city on Manhome, thanks to one of the less obvious influences of technology. Not only were there strict standards as to what could go into the canals, but purification and filtration technology kept them crystal-clear and shining instead of choked with pollution and the city's effluvia.
"Are you all right?"
Antonio turned his head, seeing that two people were coming towards him from the next house down.
"Yes, yes I think so." He pushed himself to his feet and turned to face them, and his heart sank when he recognized the faces: Adam and Anne Garvey, his clients. The gondola had sunk within sight of its destination, right before the eyes of the people whose freight he'd been entrusted to safely deliver. "I'm so sorry. If I had realized earlier what had happened, then this disaster might not have occurred."
"The important thing is that you're safe," the side-whiskered old man said.
"That's right," his wife added. "Our things are insured, after all, but a person's life and health can't be replaced."
He sighed and bowed his head to them.
"You're very kind, both of you, but even so..." He bent and picked up the box and offered it to them. "I only wish that I could have saved more than this; it was sheer good fortune that it came to me at all."
The old man reached for the top of the box and pulled the leaves apart, revealing a variety of objects. Antonio could see letters, an album, and framed photographs inside. The woman let out a little gasp.
"So this was the one that was saved..." she breathed out. Tears were forming in her eyes, and although her husband tried to put on a stoic face, Antonio could see that he, too was touched by emotion.
Anne looked up at him.
"Do you know what these are? This box contains all the keepsakes we have of our children. Family photographs, letters they'd written to us, artwork they'd done as children." She reached in and pulled out an old-style video card; Antonio had heard of them but never actually seen one before since they'd gone out of use before he'd been born. "This is a recording of when we brought our first child, Alexander, home from the hospital. It's doubly precious because my mother was the one to record it, and she passed on four years ago."
"How much of this would have been ruined by the water, lost forever?" asked Adam. "Of all the boxes you could have saved, this is the one that truly mattered."
~X X X~
"Well, there it is," the operator of the crane-boat said. The gondola dangled in the air in the sling attached to the crane hoist, water streaming from it. The workers and Antonio had already hauled up the packing crates so that they could be opened, examined, and whatever was intact could be saved, leaving the gondola for last.
"Do you think it can be repaired?" Antonio asked.
"Oh? Is it that much of a problem for your company to replace?"
He shook his head.
"No, not as a matter of money or trouble. It's just that, well, this gondola has been a friend to me these past few years, and I'd hate to see it go. Particularly because of an accident that I should have been able to prevent."
"Ah, Antonio, you're a sentimentalist!" the crane operator laughed and slapped him on the back. "Still and all, I don't think—"
What it was that he did not think remained unknown as he was cut off by the call of a female voice.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Crane Operator!"
Antonio and the crane-man both turned their heads to see the bright white gondola of a Prima Undine gliding through the water towards them. The patterns on the boat and the highlights on the young woman's uniform were blue in color, representing the Aria Company. The Prima herself looked to be in her mid-twenties, with light red, almost pink hair. Oddly, she wore her hair with long tresses in front of her ears like sideburns, so long that they were looped up and back to join her ponytail.
"Hey, Akari; what are you up to?"
"Not very much. I dropped my last customers off at their hotel, and I don't have another booking until two, so I thought I would get some lunch. There's a new café that they say serves wonderful pasta dishes. President Aria couldn't wait to try it!"
A fat white feline with the oversized head of an Aqua Cat who was perched on the seat gave an enthusiastic meow.
"Well, well, you'll have to tell me how it is."
"Hahi!" Her "yes" had an unusual accent to it. "But, um, can you tell me what happened to this gondola?" she added, a trace of worry in her voice.
"It sprang a leak in an accident and sank, so I've gone and hauled it back up."
"Doing salvage work must be like digging for treasure!" Akari remarked. "But...will it be all right? It can be repaired, can't it?" There was definitely worry in her voice, Antonio decided. But why? She couldn't have been the mentor or something of the Pair who caused the accident, since they were from different companies.
The crane operator laughed heartily.
"Hah! You and Antonio here think the same way, Akari. Well, neither one of you has to worry. It looks to me just like a matter of replacing a couple of boards and properly sealing it up. I'm sure when we take it along to the boatwright and get the expert's opinion he'll say the same."
Antonio let ought a sigh of relief, but was surprised that Akari did as well.
"That's good," she said, letting her gondola move forward so that she was next to the suspended one. "I'm glad that it can keep working."
"Oho? You seem moved by that. Is it just your natural sympathy as a gondolier?"
Akari shook her head.
"No, it's that this particular gondola is special to me." She reached up and brushed her bare hand against the bare wood. "It was my very first gondola, when I was an apprentice, and I have so many good memories with it. I'm glad that it will be able to keep on making those memories with someone else."
The crane operator tossed back his head and laughed.
"Well, your boat went to the right guy, then, Akari!" He clapped Antonio heavily on the shoulder. "Just before you got here he was going on about that kind of thing and hoped it could be repaired. He sounded almost as sappy as you can!"
"H-hey!" Antonio protested, feeling his ears grow hot with embarrassment. "Don't go telling her stuff like that!"
The pretty Undine, though, didn't call him out on his mushy side. Instead, she beamed at him with a smile like sunlight.
"I'm happy to hear that! Maybe you and this gondola were meant to work together, then?"
"O-of course! This is my important partner. We goods carriers keep it so Neo-Venezia can function!"
Akari giggled at that, and the crane operator chortled.
"It was nice to meet you, Mr. Goods Carrier. Bye, Mr. Crane Operator!" She patted the gondola again, then set her own boat to moving again, sliding through the water with the silken grace associated with Prima Undines.
"That's a nice girl, but man, she's a bad influence on you, Antonio, with those sentimental tendencies of yours!"
"Ah, stow it, you. But who was she?"
"Huh, you don't know her? That was Akari Mizunashi, one of this generation's Three Great Water Fairies, the one they call Aquamarine."
"Aquamarine? I thought...isn't that the name of the classical goddess who protects sailors? The one that they named this planet after?"
"Huh? Yeah, I guess that's right, now that you mention it. Kind of funny they'd give that name as an Undine's alias, isn't it?"
Antonio looked up at the gondola that had once been Akari's, remembering it heeling to one side under him, almost throwing one certain box out of the stacked cargo virtually into his arms.
"Yeah...Funny thing..." he murmured.
~X X X~
A/N: Boats, of course, are generally called "she." Given that the spirit of Akari's gondola appeared to her as an elderly man, though, I'd have to say that this one in particular is male, and Antonio could pick up on that.