[Well, I know I said Harry would be back first but he’s not quite ready to make a comeback yet, but the next snippet of Henry’s journey is, so here we go. Hopefully Harry will join us in a day or so. Excuse? I got the second jab of the Pfizer vaccine earlier this week and I can report it offers peace of mind – as well as a real swift kick in the pants. Injection site pain (check), fever (check), muscle aches (check), as well as night sweats (check) have made for a week much less productive than anticipated. Apologies. And one of our girls is about to have puppies, too, and that will no doubt interfere with writing for a week or so. Also, off to oncology on Monday, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say…! Anyway, enough of this blather. Enjoy.
Sailing less than a mile off the beach, Time Bandits felt like she was finally back in her element now – slipping along silently under full sail in the gentlest conditions, making easy headway in a close reach about a mile off the beach. Only now her crew was, literally and figuratively, sailing in the dark.
With no moon up, the shoreline was a blackish-green strip hard to differentiate from the sea, and every village and town they passed was darker than dark. A few homes and shops had candles going in windows, but those were the exception, not the rule, and there were no cars out on the roads yet…making the passing landscape feel almost medieval.
And all the large commercial ships normally steaming through the English Channel 24 hours a day were at a standstill, too, with no lights visible and all of them swinging at anchor. No aircraft had been visible since the massive CME hit earlier that day, and Anton mentioned that any aircraft out over the open ocean would have – probably – been lost unless they were within gliding range of nearby land.
This had been a world driven by the internet and guided by GPS, that now – suddenly, dauntingly – had grown coldly silent, like a cemetery in winter. Stock exchanges? Gone. Ordering food or goods online? Unavailable. Having chest pain at midnight? Good luck with that. Your car won’t start. Your kitchen appliances either don’t work or barely get the job done. Taggart wondered how long the niceties of civilization would last under these conditions? How long would it take for local governments to reassert control after two centuries of centralized federalism? Local farmers’ markets might return, and small ‘main street’ shops might too, but society was no longer organized along these lines, was it?
Or would the CMEs abate and the poles revert? What then?
How would the climate respond if they didn’t? Would a new ice age begin, or would warming accelerate?
And every question Henry asked himself led his gaze to Rolf. How would the boy handle all these changes?
Then the real question came into sharp relief. ‘How would I handle them?’ Because, Henry thought, if he couldn’t then how could he expect a teenager to make his way through the coming maze. He looked at Mike and the boy hunched over their charts, advancing the plot – laboriously. They were marking objects on shore and timing passages on an ancient windup Omega wristwatch, then deriving first their speed then their distance made good, then marking their progress on the chart – and though Rolf was soaking up the knowledge like a sponge – focused and interested, Henry wondered if the boy could see and understand that now more than ever knowledge meant survival.
And so Henry quite naturally thought of his father and their own passing rituals. How knowledge and understanding was passed quite naturally from one generation to the next, whether at sea or on the football field, or even hunched over desks trying to wrap minds around quadratic equations. Patiently, quietly, developing real understanding as well as a responsibility to the future, because if his father’s life had any meaning at all it revolved around one simple precept: there’s no such thing as freedom without responsibility.
Then he looked at Dina and seemed a little surprised by what he saw. She was sitting almost rigidly at attention looking out to sea, as if with nothing else to do she had slipped into some kind of hibernation mode…yet she had been like this since her brief disappearance the day before.
“Can you take the wheel for a minute?” he asked her, and she blinked out of her trance and slipped behind the wheel while he went aft to the swim platform to take a leak in the bucket they kept there. He couldn’t pee in the ocean anymore – he would look at the orcas and feel guilty, like he was taking a leak on their living room carpet. ‘Man, I gotta get a grip on this…’ he thought as he looked up at the pulsing waves of pink and green that were still rippling through the night sky. ‘Because like it or not, I’m running out of daylight…and there is no freedom without…’
“Henry?” Rolf asked, a question hidden in his voice.
“We are approaching Boulogne-sur-Mer,” he said, pointing to a darkened city ahead to port. “Shall we continue to follow the coast or try to sail direct to LeHavre?”
“Let’s stay just off the beach…all the way. Without a reliable compass…”
“Yes, that is what Mike said too.”
“Unless the wind changes we’ll be okay, but if the wind shifts to northwesterly we’ll need to tack offshore.” He looked at Dina as he climbed back into the cockpit and scowled at her rigid countenance. “You baking bread tomorrow?”
“Hmm? – what? Oh yes, I think so.”
He nodded, convinced now that something was really wrong with her…
Then the music pushed it’s way back into mind…the same maddening melody as before…only now the music was growing in complexity and clarity – almost like…
‘No, it couldn’t be.’
‘It’s like the closer we get to Paris the richer the music becomes…’
‘Every voyage is a teacher,’ he thought again, then as if heeding a voice from the past: ‘There is no freedom without responsibility.’
‘Why, of all the things my father taught me, am I thinking of those two things right now?’
They would, he knew, be in LeHavre tomorrow, and there, for all intents and purposes this voyage would be over. They’d spend a few days getting the mast down and make arrangements for repairs when such facilities reopened, but all that would remain was the final trip to Paris.
‘Yet that won’t happen without engine power, will it?’
He looked down, shaking his head at the thought of such an end to this last journey. Would he finish the trip on a train? Or on horseback?
The water was warm here, Eva thought – until she remembered she was breathing this water. Or…was she?
She held her hands up in front of her face and could just make out the contours in the deep gloom, then she opened her mouth – expecting fluid to rush in. But nothing happened. Thick, moisture-laden air filled her lungs, then she leaned back until she felt the back of her head supported by water – or something like it. She reached out and almost immediately felt that the large female orca was still by her side, still almost motionless, then, as her eyes grew adjusted to the light, she looked up – and gasped at the sight.
There were hundreds of stars overhead, but many were so close she could easily make out planets in orbit around them…until she realized she was on a moon or some sort of satellite…perhaps a small moon orbiting – a huge ringed planet. The side of the planet facing this moon was in ‘night’ just now, but by the size of the rings she’d just seen the planet must have been very large indeed, with a third of her view of the sky dominated by an obsidian hole that simply had to be a huge planet. Yet beyond this planet and the nearby stars were vibrant fields of ionizing gases – nebulas of an astonishing variety of color and transparency, with pinks, yellows and pale greens predominating.
Then something else struck her: she wasn’t tired – neither was she expending any effort treading water. She was simply floating, yet the water wasn’t briny at all – it was simply very, very viscous, but otherwise very neutral – and despite not being a chemist that didn’t seem to add up.
Then a sliver of sunlight appeared on the limb of the planet overhead, and in this unexpectedly blueish light she saw land not at all far away. In fact, she saw a white structure of some kind, and then she felt Henry reaching out to her.
‘Where are you?’
She sent images of her surroundings to his mind, and even impressions of the ‘ocean’ she was in.
‘Where is Britt?’ he replied.
‘I haven’t seen her since I arrived.’
‘Were Dina and Rolf with you recently?’
‘No. Aren’t they with you?’
‘They are now, but they were gone for quite a while yesterday. Dina has no recall of anything like that.’
‘They weren’t here.’
‘Are you alone?’
‘Okay. You should make for land, see what your options are for food and shelter.’
Henry felt something odd and shook himself out of what felt almost like a trance-like state; he opened his eyes and looked up to find Anton standing by the wheel, but he was pointing at something ashore.
“Genry! Look! See lights?”
Taggart looked where the aviator was pointing and sure enough just ahead he saw an island of bright lights not far from the coast, and they were seemingly ablaze within a small forest; he pulled out his binoculars and looked at the scene, smiling as he recognized the familiar shapes surrounding a large nuclear power plant. Steam was rising from all four cooling towers and red anti-collision lights were blinking merrily away in the night, yet as “normal” as the scene looked – judging from surface appearances, anyway – an unsettled air of discontinuity still pervaded the scene. There were no cars or trucks moving about, and no streetlights or other signs of normalcy existed beyond the confines of the plant’s walls.
“They’re hardened facilities,” Mike said, now standing beside Anton and looking wistfully at the plant. “It gives the rest of us something to build on, I suppose.”
“Assuming everything inside the plant is intact, you mean,” Henry replied, his voice barely a whisper now.
“You feeling okay?” Mike asked.
“You no look so hot, Genry,” Anton added. “Here, I help you back to bunk.”
Henry nodded and tried to stand, but now it felt like the bones in his legs were about to snap and he cried out after a sharp pain in his right knee left him almost breathless. He slumped back then felt helping hands lifting him and carrying him down the companionway steps, and a few minutes later he was back on his bunk and restlessly asleep.
Mike went topsides and found Rolf at the helm, still holding their course to parallel the coastline about a mile off the beach, and Mike resumed his work on the chart.
“Whoa!” Rolf said, his eyes on the binnacle.
“The compass is swinging wildly again. It is so weird to see.”
Mike nodded then looked up – and as expected he found the upper atmosphere was a riot of iridescent pulsing waves, now filled with deep green and purple. He looked up in awe but a moment later the lifelines and the standing rigging began to glow, then even the winches and other deck hardware took on a blueish glow as static electricity began flooding through the atmosphere.
“Be careful,” he said to Rolf. “Try not to touch anything metal without grounding first.”
They heard Dina shriek from down below and Mike shook his head. “Sorry!” he called out. “Another CME is hitting and the compass is swinging again.”
She came thundering up the steps, glowering at Mike as she gained the cockpit, then she looked around with growing alarm in her eyes. “Where’s Henry?”
“Down below. He’s not doing too good right now.”
“Why didn’t you come get me?”
“Well, for one thing, we didn’t see you.”
“What do you mean you didn’t see me? I’ve been in the galley for the past two hours!”
“Oh? Well, you weren’t when we came down…”
Mike looked at her and shook his head. “Anton?”
“Was Dina in the galley when we went down with Henry?”
“I not see her.”
Mike looked at Dina and smiled. “Maybe you were in the head?” he said, a little sardonically. “You know, like lost?”
Grumbling incoherently, an ambivalent Dina took off down the steps and disappeared into the aft cabin; Mike saw lights turn on and assumed Dina would begin looking after Henry, but Mike went to the hatch over the aft cabin and looked down; he instead saw her sitting down there like she was in some kind of deep trance, looking straight ahead and – resolutely ignoring Taggart.
“Something not right here,” Anton whispered, standing beside Mike and peering down into the cabin.
Mike looked up at the aviator, startled, but when he looked below again – Dina was gone. He raced down below but she was nowhere to be found. He made his way back up to the cockpit and found Anton at the wheel, and now Rolf was nowhere to be seen…
“Boy gone too,” Anton said, his voice strained, then he added: “Better look up.”
Mike looked; beyond the masthead several dimly glowing spheres were up there in the mist, and for an instant Mike almost thought the orbs were talking amongst themselves. One would pulse excitedly for a moment then grow dim, and then another would grow more animated for a while.
“This fucked up,” Anton sighed.
“I don’t think that was Dina,” Mike said, lost in thought as he looked at the gathering up there.
“Boy too. He not acting right.”
Mike nodded. “You’re right. They were like doppelgängers, or avatars. So…”
“So, where real Dina and boy?”
Mike felt a little out of sorts now, too. Henry needed attention, the kind only Dina could render, but she’d apparently been gone for most of the day and now he wondered if she’d ever be back. And without her, how long could Henry hold on?
© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next element will drop soon.