A Sinking Feeling

This is the story I wrote for a Kickstarter shared universe book a few years back. I didn’t make the cut, due to breaking the rules of the canon, but I didn’t enjoy the canon or tone of the first version, so whatever… Let me know what you think.

 

A Sinking Feeling

JF Perkins

Laurie sat sobbing at the third stop sign from her former ranch. It didn’t matter. She was so far from anywhere that she could let the antique pickup truck rumble all night. Thoughts came in jumbles and tangles. That man. Why did I let it go on so long? I do deserve better, right? She snagged another Kleenex and glanced once at the single duffel she had managed to extract from her life. It contained nothing more than a solitary change of clothes, a few items hastily scraped from the bathroom, and a substantial pile of cash. That part made her smile through bleary eyes. Her husband may have treated her like a barn cat, but he definitely respected the contents of his safe.

Decision time. North to join her mother, or south to her father and that evil third wife of his. Easy choice. Laurie turned left with only the company of a restored V8 and the faint static of syndicated talk on distant AM radio.

Merrick never expected the throb of steam engines to represent so much visceral promise. He gripped the rail harder in an attempt to connect more closely with the mechanical heart of the giant ship that would ferry him to a new life. The salty air and the harsh cries of sea birds blended in a smoothly fascinating concoction with the throngs of people waving cheerfully at those lucky enough to book passage on the massive new vessel. A faint tug of acceleration pulled him to the left and his old life slid away.

The third son of low grade nobility, Merrick was raised to the same standard as his older brothers, but was never given the slightest hope that it would ever amount to a life of purpose, unless a great progeny-killing disaster struck his family. He could have become a priest, he supposed. That was a good use of third sons, but nobility of the modern era only presented a faint show of piety, and he was not inclined to waste his life on antiquated pretense. On top of that, Merrick saw the writing on the wall. The world was changing, and even if he were first in line, he expected to spend the rest of his life trying desperately to hold on to the legacy of his ancient line. Off to America, then, where both dreams and opportunity were boundless and new.

In Hearthspace, Jacob scanned all of reality. One step through the Fire, and possibility became infinite. Time no longer mattered any more than distance. He was a Ferryman, one of the few who could pause in the endless and choose. It had taken him a very long time to develop the knack of it. For decades, he felt fortunate even to return from the gaping, frameless void, much less to arrive where he intended. Ferrymen of many races and even species universally watched his dimensional staggering with their own version of baffled headshaking and considered him the most hopeless Ferryman ever to hear the Call.

Much later, as lives were measured, Jacob’s face grew gaunt, his fingers long and knobby, and he found his mastery of the space among the Fires.

The only thing I’m going to miss is those horses, Laurie thought as she struggled against the hypnotic flash of centerline dashes on the lonely highway. She wasn’t really worried that he would come after her. Deep down, she understood that only a coward hits a woman rather than just tell her to get out of his life. Or maybe, the hitting was part of his life, and he would seek out another woman for that exact purpose. She had walked this mental path so many times… She lived in fear that she would never think another thought.

Finally, a crossing highway overpass signaled the end of arid ranchland and the beginning of the city, where help was only a phone call away. She remembered the Interstate exit with its rows of cheap hotels that had appeared seemingly overnight, and she hoped to find one where she could park her truck in a dark corner and get a night’s rest before the long drive to Michigan – not that there was much night left.

Merrick sat in a haze of cigar smoke and the chatter of the upper crust. He couldn’t argue with the benefits of first class accommodations, but he found himself rebelling against the traditions of his own people almost immediately. At that moment, he wanted to stand up, deliver a lecture on the meaningless nature of the discussion, and walk proudly out of the opulent sitting room. He did understand that the only purpose it would serve was to make the rest of his voyage uncomfortable. He could wait a few more days to change everything. He understood that Americans were a practical people.

For no apparent reason, the rhythm of his promise suddenly changed. His back pressed more firmly into the leather chair and the steady thrum of engines lurched and shuddered ever so slightly. He glanced around with mild alarm to see that he was the only one who seemed to notice anything amiss. That moment of peace erupted into a wave of polite alarm as the entire room rattled in time with a new sound, a sound that spoke of chaos and disaster.

Merrick left his brandy glass on a side table and watched as it immediately began marching for the edge. He was out the door and into the frigid wind before it toppled to the floor. He saw the white wall sliding astern, but his mind refused to identify it. Fog, it said. He ran up the ladder to the observation deck and spent long seconds before the sight made any sense at all. Once it did, he felt a shiver jangling his spine. He knew the water was deadly cold.

Hearthspace existed outside of everything the child Jacob would have said was real. It was both infinitely smooth and hopelessly tangled. It was profoundly empty and full of all that exists. It had texture, its own terrain and its own topography. Ferrymen recognized two limitations to near godlike power. The first rule was: Don’t mess with time. Although every Ferryman had tried it exactly once, without exception each one of those Ferrymen watched as fate unraveled around them. The lucky ones destroyed a single life. The unlucky… Well, there is a reason that the universe is not brimming with life.

The second rule referred to the Sinks, places in the In-between where even Ferrymen did not willingly go, the quicksand of Hearthspace. The reason was quite simple. As far as anyone knew, no Ferryman who had gone in had ever come out. No one knew why.

Jacob was fully aware of this problem, but as his hair had begun to turn gray at the temples, he had found himself caught in a growing fascination with these Sinks. They were much easier to spot than actual quicksand; they stood out like neon signs in a Ferryman’s scans of the void. Jacob spent long subjective moments of no-time-at-all staring at one in particular. It was growing into a middle-aged obsession, and though he didn’t know it in the rulebound recesses of his mind, there was a part of him that wanted to let go, to fall into the ever expanding gravity of a Sink.

The pounding at the door was a shocking wake up call. Laurie’s eyes snapped open and darted around in confusion. Motel 6. Surly counter clerk. Right. Then the sound resolved into a meaningful fear. Her husband had found her.

She was still in her jeans and shirt. Her boots were placed neatly by the bed and her bra hung unclasped underneath her clothes. She made a scrambling attempt to get herself arranged before she reached the door. As she gave up on the clasp, a realization washed over her. She knew it was him, and she was reflexively trying to please him, to do what he commanded, to keep him from punishing her. This sudden understanding made her furious with herself. And with him.

“Stop it! I’m coming,” she yelled, in a demanding tone of voice that she didn’t even remember she could possess.

“Laurie! You open this damn door!”

“Give me a minute!”

She stopped, took a deep breath, and settled her bra back into place. She leaned back to check herself in the mirror reflexively, and saw a face she barely recognized. One more deep breath and she opened the door a crack, the security chain still in place. “What do you want?”

“Get your ass home, Laurie,” he growled in his usual way.

“No. I’m leaving you. I’ve had enough.” Her calm surprised them both for a second.

She saw it coming. He had a way of puffing himself up right before he committed violence. He took a step back and kicked the door wide open. The chain held but the wall gave up a sizable chunk in the instant before the door banged off the long dividing wall of the room. She watched in that strange slow motion as his huge hands reached for her shoulders – possibly her neck; he typically used both methods. Some part of her refused. No! Her leg shot out on its own trajectory and her sock-clad toes buried themselves about a mile into his scrotum.

She had her duffel bag and boots in hand before he finished his moaning collapse to the dingy motel carpet. His hand reached out feebly as she stepped over him and ran for her truck.

Sitting on the highest deck of a sinking ship, Merrick was surprised to find that he was not wrapped in a panic. Everyone else seemed to be. It didn’t take very long to understand that the life boats were no salvation at all. People were fighting like rabid dogs to get on board, and there were far more people than boats to carry them. Once Merrick realized his lack of options, he decided to sit down with a bottle of Scotch and watch the show.

He had plenty of time to review his life. He made peace with a few bad decisions and surprised himself again when the decision to board this ship was not among them. How strange that a ship this large could appear so vulnerable as it settled deeper into the calm waters. People died at sea, had for a thousand years, but this ship was his entire world a few hours earlier. Now, his world was ending.

The chair was quite comfortable, and the sporadic screams faded slowly with every pull on the bottle. By the time the ship began to tilt in earnest, Merrick was in no condition to compensate. He and the chair were sliding astern with significant speed before his drunken reflexes caught up to the moment. The chair splashed into the edge of the cold water, sharpening Merrick’s senses with the shock, and into a tiny room at the end of the deck. He tumbled sideways out of the chair and looked up to see sparks shooting from a heavy electrical panel on the wall. He knew that electricity and water did not mix, and tried to back out of the room. The deck was slick with the shallow water and his dress shoes could gain no traction. The back of the room had a narrow doorway into water lay beyond. The water was bound to be deeper, but he preferred cold water to electrocution. Merrick turned the heavy latch and let door swing open with the rushing water.

Fire. The room was on fire. He had just enough time for those two thoughts before the water carried him feet first through the narrow opening and into the flames.

Laurie circled the motel and pulled out into the broad thoroughfare. She caught a glimpse of her husband staggering to his feet as she accelerated for the Interstate ramp. Her truck had horsepower to spare since the hotrod restoration. She was doing ninety as she merged onto the freeway and headed east. Any thoughts of an easy escape had abandoned her. She knew he would pursue her – for the money if nothing else.

Sure enough, her husband caught up with her less than fifteen miles down the road. She would have been content with a nice paint job on her pickup. He was the motorhead who decided to add all the go-fast bits, which meant that he would make sure that his vehicle was the fastest, and it was. She spotted the black Escalade well over a mile behind her and put her foot to the floor. She was doing 115 and he walked up on her rear bumper like she was cruising the mall parking lot. She could see his fury even through the vibration of her rearview mirror.

He must have seen her glance up, because he was emphatically pointing to the shoulder, like he actually expected her to pull over. With her newfound courage, mania, whatever… She extended her middle finger and waved it in the air. Bad idea. He slammed into her rear bumper, not very hard, but still enough to make an antique truck – traveling far beyond its intended speed – consider all kinds of dangerous maneuvers. The straight shot didn’t upset the machine, but she knew it wouldn’t go on much longer. She began to watch the rearview mirror intently, hoping to anticipate his next move.

Another bad idea. Something thumped the underside of her truck. She jerked the wheel in reflex and found herself mowing through a line of traffic cones. Some kind of construction truck flashed in front of her, and she pulled hard to the right to avoid it. She was still above a hundred when the truck bounced sideways off the far side of the grassy verge and launched itself into the air. She had a blurry impression of sheet metal flying apart and a column of black smoke. The truck rolled slowly in a long flight that hit the ground and carried it into the fire of construction debris. Pieces kept tumbling, but the mangled core of the truck was gone, and Laurie with it.

In timeless Hearthspace, Jacob strained to sense into the Sink, to find some kind of destination, to feel his way in. He hoped that meant he could find his way back out. He felt nothing. His obsession grew.

Something was different, Laurie knew. Maybe she was dead. She certainly should be. She was hanging from her retrofitted modern seatbelt and her head was pounding with pain. A sudden urge to sneeze sprayed blood all over the shattered remains of the windshield. She immediately looked for her cell phone to call for help, but it was wedged under the far end of the dashboard, along with her duffel bag. Well, if I’m not dead, I may as well get out of here.

She felt around for the seatbelt release, and although she was sure where it was located, it eluded her fingers for what seemed like a long time. When she finally found it, she dropped to the headliner of the truck, felt a bright blast of pain, and promptly passed out.

Something is different, she thought. For one thing, she was looking up at impossibly tall trees. A long way from the Great Plains of America. The place smelled entirely different, although she could never have described the smell of Oklahoma any more than she could this place. Definitely less manure here. Then she noticed the sky. It was shining through the gaps in the foliage with a distinctly purple hue.

“Ah, you are awake, I see.”

Laurie turned her head and immediately regretted it.

“No, no. Don’t move. You have a great lump on your head,” the male voice said.

“Where am I?” she asked.

“Ah, a very good question, and a long story,” the man replied with an accent. “Let’s just save that one until you are feeling better.”

“Who… are you?”

“Merrick. And you?”

“Laurie.”

“Well, Laurie. Let me say that it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance and that you make quite an entrance.”

“My husband…”

Merrick spoke softly. “I’m sorry to say that I can guarantee… You won’t be seeing your husband again.”

Laurie smiled, and Merrick wondered if she had hit her head harder than he thought.

Without a destination, Jacob was blind. He counted on the fact that the Sink had its own form of dimensional gravity into which he could merely fall. No. Not falling, exactly… It was a release of his bindings to the Fire. He was swimming out beyond the breakers and letting the tide take him where it may. His perception of the weave of reality twisted and turned as he approached, until he reached a point in Hearthspace where it simply sheared. The threads connecting the universe together did not extend into this place. Like descending through the clouds, Jacob could suddenly perceive all of the world below and none of the starlight above. From his view, he had left the whole of everything behind.

He saw the bright concentration of pinpricks in a glowing sea of life, and he chose his Fire.

Laurie’s first real reaction was to sleep. Merrick thought he had offered his explanation gently, but he knew there was no real way to make the bizarre seem acceptable to a sane human mind. That was key. She was human. For the mere chance at human company, he was willing to wait another hundred years in this timeless place.

Merrick gathered food well beyond his normal foraging range and simple needs. He built a shelter over her sleeping body, and set to work on a real cabin – his fifth effort since he had popped into this existence. She occasionally opened her eyes long enough to drink, to eat, and to ask incredulous questions. The answers were always too much. She offered a weak smile for his kindness and crawled back into the safety of her unconscious.

After a nebulous span of time and a thousand repetitions of the same path, he hiked through the deep shadow of the forest, laden with a bundled stack of the local grass he used for roofing thatch. His feet thudded dully on the fir-like needles carpeting the cathedral spaces among the trees. Each step triggering a thought he had considered many times before. Life reduced to its essence didn’t provide much diversion or gossip or newsworthy events. Yet he realized that each thought arose from a different place now. Add one other human being to a solitary life, and everything changed.

He emerged onto the jumbled rocks of the riverbed, the tumbling water reduced to a humble trickling stream in the late summer. The sight of Laurie’s crumpled pickup truck greeted him with garish pink glare, and reminded Merrick of his own inglorious entry into this world. He had poured in with a rush of salty water, dousing the campfire of some very non-human individuals, and immediately became the most unpopular fellow in the woods.

If it hadn’t been for the help of a man who actually looked quite human, but sadly spewed the natural odor of old piss, Merrick most likely would have been cooked on the very next fire. The man’s name was Carr, more or less, and he still roamed the forest, as ageless as everyone else. Carr had used a series of gestures and dirt drawings to explain the situation, and Merrick’s reaction was to become an ape.

When he finally came down from the trees, starving and bedraggled, Carr had been there to help. Merrick slowly understood that Carr was a trader, and through an amazingly complex series of transactions with a wide range of intelligent species, the man of piss had set Merrick up with the tools of wilderness survival. It was a long fall from the smoke-filled staterooms of ocean liners, but by the time Merrick had paid his debts to everyone involved, he had discovered that this life suited him just fine.  A fortunate thing, because as far as he could tell, it was never going to end.

Merrick understood the woman’s retreat into sleep. Between the trauma of whatever brought her here, and the sudden understanding of what “here” actually was, it was a saner response than his own. And with that settling of mental accounts, he stopped in front of the partially roofed cabin and pulled the loose end of the rope to release his load of dried grass. He grunted and stretched to work the kinks out of his spine, and sucked in a sharp breath when Laurie walked out of the cabin as if she belonged there.

With the experience of a million destinations, and a thousand traveling species, Jacob arrived with a measure of grace. He ducked out of the hearth and into a primitive but comfortable room that smelled like a latrine. The man at the table looked up from his supper with only mild surprise. He spoke in one of the common languages.

“Ah, a Ferryman. Welcome. I hope you like it here.”

Jacob breathed shallowly against the wall of stench. “Ferrymen have been here?” He felt a mild disappointment that he wasn’t the first.

“One. Once. He went mad,” the man replied with a shrug.

“Oh.” Jacob’s disappointment changed to something icy in his gut.

“You are human, correct?”

“Yes. Or at least, I was… Long ago,” Jacob said.

“Close enough. My name is Carr. If you need anything, I can get it for you,” the man said with an almost human smile, which turned into something decidedly less friendly. “Except for a way out.”

“I see,” was Jacob’s measured response. He took a half step in the direction of the door, hoping that the rest of the planet didn’t smell like this.

“Ferryman,” Carr said, “There is one other human here. He headed south a while back. He’s probably still alive. Everyone here is still alive, except the Ferryman.”

Jacob regarded the man with an icy stare. “For a trader, you seem to be missing a little in the way of manners.

Carr lost his greasy smile and recoiled from the Ferryman’s grim tone. He shrugged again. “Doesn’t matter. Captive market, including you. Which reminds me…” He rose from the table and opened a wooden chest under the single window. Carr dug into the contents until he came up with a simple steel knife. He held it out to the Ferryman handle first. “You’ll need this.”

Jacob offered a tight smile of his own. He pulled back the edge of his long coat to reveal his personal blade and the long handgun beside it. “I’m all set, Trader.” He walked out the door, took a deep breath, and sighed with relief.

“You’re kidding me!” Laurie exclaimed and jumped to her feet. “You were on the freaking Titanic?”

“Indeed. Right up to end. Obviously, I missed the actual sinking, but not by much,” Merrick said calmly.

Laurie sat back down on the sun-warmed rock, and pondered for a moment. “But that would make you…”

“I was born in 1888, but I don’t think that means much here.”

Her mouth fell open. “You are 125 years old.”

“Or 24, your choice,” he said. Clearly he had taken plenty of time to accept such things. “And you… You were living in 2013?”

She nodded in a way that made Merrick nervous that she might need another long nap.

“That would explain your shiny automobile. Well, formerly shiny.”

Laurie laughed. “That was an antique. Not as old as you by a long shot, but still an antique.” Her mischievous grin was compelling.

Merrick smiled in return.

Jacob fought the urge to kindle a Fire. This endless hike could be resolved in an instant. With almost every step, one part of him explained patiently that he had arrived with perfect control, and the other part screamed that he was inside the Sink and he had no idea what might happen in Hearthspace. He kept walking.

All things considered, he was lucky. The local life was compatible, and within days he had rekindled his ancient skills for hunting and gathering. He carried a number of useful items, including a smart medical kit manufactured by a highly developed race he had once helped to evacuate as their planet crumbled.

He encountered a surprising number of people as he worked his way south. In fact, he was building the impression that people ended up in the Sink with almost pure randomness. He had yet to encounter two members of the same species. That would make this the loneliest place in the universe, he reckoned, and as time passed he began to feel it himself. Ferrymen weren’t usually the type to develop relationships, but they were in constant contact with new people. Given the status accorded them among people in the know, finding a companion was never a problem.

On this world, those same people regarded him with a bitterness, the opposite of respect. He should be able to take them home, but he could not. Even so, they were willing to point him in the right direction more often than not. As he moved south, the information about the other human gradually improved. Jacob now knew his name, and had a decent understanding of where he might be found.

She didn’t discuss her life, but Merrick could see the almost-invisible tightening when he came too close to physical contact. Time was on his side. He could wait until she no longer regarded him as a threat. He believed she would be attractive in any context, but after a century of being alone, she was intensely compelling. He found himself trying hard not to stare as she simply moved from one task to the next. She was almost an exotic animal of mythical grace, a unicorn with untold promise. But she was frightened and angry on some deep level, and Merrick could sense it the moment he breached her safety net. He held fast to his ancient concept of gentlemanly behavior and stayed at a comfortable distance.

When the tall man in the dark cloak strolled out of the forest, Merrick felt a moment of desperation. Without even a conscious thought, he smelled human competition, and harshly squelched the aggressive thoughts that followed. Laurie sensed something as well, and stood up from where she was squatting by the stream. She saw a strange man, and instinctively moved toward a large boulder that could shield her if necessary.

The stranger smiled openly at Merrick, and showed a moment of surprise when he spotted Laurie. He held up his open hands in a gesture older than human civilization and spoke in English. “Are you Merrick? I’ve been searching for you for quite some time.”

Merrick recovered from the shock and stepped haltingly in Jacob’s direction. “I am. Who are you?”

“My name is Jacob. I’m a Ferryman.”

Merrick didn’t react to the news. He simply pointed to the little stream and said, “I’m not sure we need a ferry here, but since we’re discussing careers, I’m a useless third son from England, and Laurie here is a rancher from Oklahoma.”

The Ferryman laughed uproariously, an outpouring of relief and irony in all its interwoven forms, given the situation. Of course. Very few people of Earth knew the Ferrymen. It was a myth, a mystery explained by magic and religion. The few who understood were not interested in sharing the truth of it. “I guess we’d better start at the beginning.”

Merrick quickly understood that Jacob had only one purpose – to escape – but in the meantime, he was useful to have around. Laurie could see the mystery even after it was all explained. Jacob’s eyes had the cast of someone who had seen too much, like a Vietnam veteran from her time, and the darkness slightly repelled her. The Ferryman was good, but he was dangerous, and she had eaten her fill of dangerous men. Once the dynamics were established, they became a strange family unit of humanity loosely surround by a sloshing sea of whatever flowed down the drain of the universe, and there was comfort in that relationship.

The weather grew colder, and although the seasons were not as pronounced here, the discomfort added fuel to Jacob’s hot internal demand. He was a Ferryman, master of time and space. He could travel anywhere in an instant, and he was stuck living like his Medieval original people on the bank of some tiny river on an unnamed world. He had considered the problem from every angle, had discussed it at length with two people who acted as confused but solid sanity checks, and he knew the answer lay in only one place, and that was in the attempt.

Jacob stoked a fire, pulled on the strings of reality to layer the energies needed to weave it into his kind of Fire, and stared hopelessly into its infinite depths. He turned to Laurie and gave her a smile. He shifted his gaze to Merrick and asked once again. “Keep the fire alive.”

Merrick nodded with his commitment, and watched as his friend stepped into the flame.

Hearthspace was a nightmare. Jacob took an sweeping glance below the could layer of disconnect and saw the familiar starry sky of flame and life. He looked up and felt the tangle of connections overpower his circuitry. He willed upwards into the chaotic margins and lost himself. A small piece of his seething mind was seeking the key, a transformation that would refold the clump of reality into the clean passages of Hearthspace. Pieces of him were shedding into the abyss, his mind ablating itself into the heat of reentry. And there, a final twist, and he had it. And lost it.

Jacob rolled out of the fire onto the rocky riverbank. A young boy’s voice, yelling something in English. Jacob had nothing left to understand the words. Gray margins pushed inward on his vision. He made a sound that was intended as speech, but his own meaning escaped him. Gray became black.

His next experience was that of a dimly lit room, the slight flickering of firelight. A wooden chair creaked and Merrick’s face hovered over him. “Thought we’d lost you, Ferryman.”

“How?” Jacob tried to speak.

“Don’t worry about that right now,” Merrick answered. “We’ll discuss it later.”

Later turned out to be dinnertime, and nine years. Merrick and Laurie had worked through their own tangles and were raising two children, who seemed to be aging at the normal rate. Jacob decided that it was the displacement into the Sink that froze time, not existence in the place. Rules in here, rules out there, he believed. The forest was giving way to small plots of local crops, although Merrick confessed that most of the wood had gone into Jacob’s Fire.

“I saw the way, Merrick,” the Ferryman said.

“You were gone for nine years, Jacob. Nine years.”

“It felt like two minutes at most. Right at the end, I saw the way out.”

“Nine years to solve a puzzle. Are you sure?”

“Yes. We can go,” Jacob said with certainty.

Merrick heaved out a long sigh. “No. You can go. We’ll stay.”

Jacob looked surprised. “I thought you wanted…”

“We talked it over – many times. You know us from hours ago. For us, it’s been years. We learned to live here, and we’re content to stay. If you can truly escape and return, check in on us from time to time.”

Jacob searched Merrick’s eyes for a different answer and found none. The Ferryman nodded and stepped once more into the Fire.

*End*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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