By Jon Buck
Shiloh, Tennessee, April 4, 1862
Peach blossoms rained down upon us. My brother and I were pinned down by Rebel gunfire, our fellow soldiers dying around us. Only by sheer luck neither of us had been hit yet. Though the same couldn't be said for our fellow soldiers of the 58th Missouri Volunteers. The pink blossoms covered us, living and dead, falling silently despite the thunder of thousands of muskets, rifles, revolvers, and artillery. The irony wasn't lost on me, even all those years ago.
My brother and I had joined the fight on the side of the Union, though if not for quick Federal troop movements, Missouri surely would have joined the Confederacy. My brother and I were at best indifferent to which way things went. In our rural viewpoint it hardly mattered if the federal government was in Washington or Richmond. One of the few beliefs we'd shared with our mother and father. But the Union Army had provided the only real escape from our father. Even as a young man I had places that ached from the whippings.
As twins we were inseparable. We did everything together. And at moment, it appeared we were going to die together. My brother looked at me, wild-eyed with fear. "I'm almost out of ammo, Henry!" He hugged the ground, frantically searching for any extra cartridge boxes. Leave it to Michael to get the most powerful gun he could, but end up one of a kind in our regiment. "I can't find no more powder!" Bullets whizzed above our heads.
I saw a Rebel coming towards us and I got off a shot, getting him in the stomach. The man dropped his musket and crumpled to the ground in a heap, adding to the blood already soaking into the soil from hundreds of other bodies. It was then that I saw that he had the same gun as my brother did. Not all that unusual, considering. I got off another shot from my musket and drew the revolver I'd taken from our dead commanding officer. "I'll go get you some!" I yelled at him, already beginning to crawl.
Michael started yelling, but some artillery started and I never heard a thing. Then in the next instant, pain like Hell had come for me. Then...
Silence and darkness.
But it wasn't the end of all things, nor was it the trip to Heaven or Hell that I expected. It was something else, both wonderful and horrible. An incredible place, as if I saw the world through a distorted lens. The "landscape" seemed to shimmer and flow, changing with such speed I could barely follow. There was no feeling of having a body. No arms, no legs, no hands nor feet. Not even a face and all that came with it. I merely was. Myself.
I wasn't alone in this place; around me were shining, translucent bubbles of every color in the rainbow, and even some that weren't. Furrows and holes filled the landscape below, into which these bubbles would go and vanish in a flash of light.
The shock of knowing what had happened was wearing off amazingly fast, and I attempted to try and move around. But there was no way to do so. I was forced to follow whatever current was taking me, like a dandelion seed floating on the wind.
I drifted for a long time, the bubbles dancing around me, moving with other currents in swirls and eddies; then be pulled down into these openings. They seemed to have no more control over their destinies as I, which actually made me feel a little better. Whatever force was pulling me wasn't acting on myself alone. Then a bit of chance brought me close to one of the bubbles, and I saw for the first time the ghostly images of people and animals.
I realized I must be looking at what I was, as if in a mirror. Dear God... Is this death? I asked myself. The preacher never told me anything that matches this... Suddenly I became aware of a hole in my being. I wonder what's happened to Michael. Is he among these bubbles, too? A question that I thought would never be answered. For in the next moment I found myself pulled towards one of the many thousands of openings, then drawn down into one.
And then I knew no more.
For there was nothing to know. Nothing in my life as a human could have prepared me for what happened next. My mind was blank, and I was in a tightly enclosed space. All I knew at that moment was that I wanted out. Out! My neck was curled against my body, yet I had some freedom of movement. So I used that freedom to thrust my head at this barrier. With every stroke I'd hit harder, and harder. I felt it give a little, eventually. That only made me work more.
I wanted nothing more than to be free of this tiny place! The outside world was calling me, and I could feel some type of presence beyond it. A large, comforting presence. There was now air in the space where I was, so I started to make sounds that amounted to "I'm in here! Get me out!" And then... light. A single crack that I worked out to make larger and wider. Every struggle worked towards that goal.
Eventually I was free.
Mother and Father were really big, and had chests that were a bright red, though Mother was a bit duller than Father; and I had a few nest mates. Mother and Father fed me things that were soft and went down easily, and I eventually got bigger and bigger. My feathers changed, too. Becoming stiffer, longer, more colorful. I'd flap my wings every so often, and feel them try to lift me out of the nest.
One of my nestmates just kinda vanished when I accidentally pushed her out in my zeal to get at the good food Father brought me. She fell out of the Nest and I never saw her again. Though I forgot I ever knew her in a few moments. Food was everything in my little world.
Then came the fateful day. I was nearly as big as Father, though I seemed to lack his coloration. When I preened myself my chest was covered in black and red feathers, rather than his or Mother's deeply red ones. Though I knew one day I'd look exactly like them! I cocked my head, watching him as he'd do twists and turns in the air, flapping his wings, chirping encouragingly.
It took no more encouragement. I simply opened my wings, spread my tail feathers, and took to the sky I was hatched to take.
From then on, my life was my own. I found a mate the next year, settled down with him. I laid eggs, then like Mother taught me, fed my hatchlings with loving care. I even experienced the pride that she must've felt when I first took wing. It was a good life.
But life was nothing if not difficult and dangerous. Often food was scarce or nonexistent. The snows came two more times before, while looking for food to feed my chicks, a shadow from far above plunged me into darkness again.
Once more I found myself in the landscape, flying above it. I now knew what flying was like, and I had something to compare it to. But I found it odd that I was thinking differently here than I was when I had in the Other Place. There was a very simple concept here that shook me to the core of my being. I... Am....
As I drifted in the aircurrents, having discovered that I had no wings or tail feathers to direct my flight, I found I had something so shocking that I reeled under its blow. Memory. Memory beyond my life as a robin. Yes! There was a word associated with it! A human thing. Humans had been so beneath my notice in my last life that I didn't pay them any heed, other than the occasional "small" one that might try to get close to me while I was looking for food.
I had been human, once. Fighting some sort of battle, with a nestmate... No. A brother. And I wondered what had happened to him. I didn't notice my decent into another one of those holes, and I lost all thought and sensation.
A brief twitch of a muscle. Light entered my eyes for the first time. And a mind so simple there was little room for thought. There was only the waters, food, and following the others of my kind to the Sea. Time was meaningless, only food mattered. I was vaguely aware of others in my school vanishing as I got larger. But by some miracle I survived.
Then the Urge came.
There was only a single place where I wanted to go. Home. Where I'd first started, with my schoolmates. To do what we were supposed to do.
Excitement flowed through the school when we first smelled Home. Onward I swam, flexing my fins. The closer Home got, the more energetic I felt. By hook or by crook I avoided being caught and eaten by those that were lurking where the waters of Home met the sea where I'd grown up. Though others in my school were not so lucky. I felt my head start to shift and change, my upper jaw becoming hooked and fierce to protect the place where my Mate and I would spawn. As for what would happen after, I didn't know nor did I care.
For this was my Purpose in life.
The trip up the Home river was hard, the current was strong in places; and I hadn't eaten in a long time. Then came a place where the waters fell from Above, and I knew I had to jump. But now there were other dangers that lurked above the Surface. There were large creatures with a shaggy coat of something on their bodies. One swipe of on oddly-shaped fin and yet another one of my schoolmates would be gone. How I avoided them, I didn't know. And I nearly didn't.
In my drive to go Home, I had to make yet another leap out of the water. I did this without thinking, and my eyesight wasn't too good. Out of the water I couldn't sense if something or someone near me by the way the water Felt. I was suddenly caught from behind by a crushing force! A force that, somehow, lost its grip on my slippery skin. I gave my tail a few hard kicks and slapped whatever-it-was in what I hoped was a sensitive place. Then I returned to the water.
The struggle didn't get any easier. But there was soon a feeling of Home in the waters. The changes to my head enabled me to get nearest the females, and when I saw her release her eggs, I too did my Duty.
There was nothing left in my body after that. No energy, no will. Only a sense of complete happiness and satisfaction that buoyed me as my body finally gave out on me. Then the world grew dimmer, quieter. And finally, I could no longer Feel the waters.
It was a familiar place now. This place beyond and between life. Where the memories of my selves intermingled with one another, forming odd amalgams of events, none of which made a shred of sense. And all I could do was wait until the currents of whatever inexorably drew me towards whatever was in store for me next.
There was nothing quite like fresh grass, I decided. Nope, nothing at all. The way it crunches as it goes down the first time, and the way it tastes when it comes up again later. Mother had told me about this many times. So many times that even I remembered it. And I had to agree with her, wherever she went. Every morning my sisters and I were herded out into the pastures to eat our fill, something I had no qualms about. For there was always food. Even when the grass withered and died when the snows came, the human-friends gave it to us.
They also relieved us of the burdens that we carried. In return for shelter and food, we gave them of the milk that we produced. A very good agreement our Guardian had made, I thought. And as long as the humans didn't tug too hard (I'd give them a warning kick when they did), then I really didn't mind. The relief of pressure cleared the mind for other things.
My personal view of the humans was that they were rather a mystery. I mean, they just couldn't understand plain talk! My sisters understood me, of course. And I shared my insights with them and they with me.
For example: After a full week of thinking about the sky, I came to what must have been some kind of Truth, so I immediately told everyone in the pasture. And they of course replied in kind. The debate immediately followed, of course. Even when we were brought back into the milking place. And the human milking me laughed! I mean, really! How dense can one get? The debate settled itself, eventually. Then I forgot it ever happened.
The pressures of life are many, after all. And one can't be expected to remember everything. Especially as the seasons passed, and I got older. I felt the pressures in my udder lesson. And I was sick more and more often.
I knew it was coming. One morning, I gave all I could give. Then waited. I had the presence of mind to know that what I'd seen happen to others in the herd was going to happen to me. I couldn't hide my fear as one of the male humans came in to get me. I could even smell a bit of sorrow coming from the one I knew the best. I didn't even try to escape. We walked a distance away from the shelter, I heard a clicking sound and saw his vague form hold up a long stick. And then, a loud noise and darkness.
Once more between lives, I decided that even the incredible could get monotonous. But I resolved one thing while I waited for the currents once again to take me where they willed.
This time, I would not forget.
Unfortunately, this life was something where I didn't want to remember what I had been, or what I really was. For I was now in a tightly enclosed space that had smooth walls. I felt... odd. There were... hmm... one, two, three... four. Five. SIX? Six legs?!
What on God's Green Earth was I this time?
I felt a lot more behind to my behind than I'd ever felt before. Before? There was no "Before", what was I thinking? I realized that just sitting in the Birth Cell was silly, I had a lot of work to do. The Hive was depending on me. I moved my antennae to feel where the top of the cell was, opened my jaws, and started to cut through the wax. The humming of the Hive above me was very comforting and encouraging. The Hive was everything. And without us, the Hive was nothing.
We were Workers. For We were the ones that made things possible. My first job was to help tend the Queen in her egg-laying duties. She would lay an egg, then I would take it and place it in a cell then seal it with wax that I made myself. When I wasn't doing that, I was relieving the incoming Foragers of their burdens, using my tongue to take the sweet nectar they brought in from the outside.
I did this without a thought that things might've been a bit monotonous for any other creature. But not for me. These were things I was born to do! And then game the time of transition. A rare moment when I had nothing to do.
So I just stood there in the Hive, waiting for my next set of instructions to click in. It’s a very hard thing for a bee not to have any work. But I was stuck until the new instincts of a Forager to start working. So I waited. Waited, while the others milled around me in their duties. I fanned my wings in preparation. It was at that very point when Epiphany decided to rear its ugly head.
For in that moment, I remembered everything.
I knew at that point it was the first time I'd been an insect. There were six legs to deal with, not four or two. And the fact that so much of me was behind my legs was for some reason very distressing. Then there was the two antennae sticking out of my head! I could move them about and feel my Hive-mates. And also smell the instruction-scents coming from the Queen.
There was an emptiness inside me that made my wings quiver in shock. It must have been years since Shiloh! And I was in no condition to search for Michael. What can a honeybee do except what instinct tells them...me...to do? I was frozen, my body wouldn't do what my mind asked of it. There was just no way to get around the instincts!
It was then that my new set of instructions clicked in. I moved towards the area of the Hive where the Foragers were Dancing. I got as close as I could so I could follow what they were saying. That done, I walked out to the entrance of the Hive for the first time. I didn't think twice as I spread my wings and buzzed off towards the food-place.
My buzzing wings and my tiny size made the trip out very difficult. Now that I had memories of being other things to contend with, I could compare what and how I was seeing though unblinking insect eyes to how a fish, a bird, and even a human might see it. I smelled the food on the winds, and saw others of my kind arriving around me. However, nothing in my human memories compared to the yellow-and-black colors that I saw, in a pattern that I knew pointed to where the nectar was. Without further adieu, I landed and extended my tubular tongue, drinking a bit for myself, but mostly for the Hive. Bits of grainy pollen stuck all over me, and I used my many legs to scrape it into the correct places on my hindmost legs. I visited five flowers in all.
It turned out that there was nothing more satisfying than a job well done! I deposited my load in an empty cell, then did my own Dance. So others might find the food-place even more quickly.
But my amazement and confusion never ended. Time passed quickly, and I was forced to concede that there was no way I could ever really gain control over myself. I simply lacked the mental capacity to not follow the instructions that were engraved in my brain. There was nothing to do but get food, store it, dance, get food, store it, dance... Pure monotony that nearly drove me mad.
And then, one day, the Hive opened up. The message-scent flowed through the Hive like lightning as what could only be an INTRUDER ripped the Hive's roof off, and started to remove the honey I'd worked so hard to make! There was smoke in the air, and the others started to gather what honey there was left. While others, myself included, were called upon to defend the Hive.
I knew it was a human, though his or her incredible size boggled my mind. I now knew how bee must have seen me, when I'd once tended the hive that my parents had had on the farm. It'd been a job that neither I nor Michael had liked, as we always got stung at least five times. At the very moment when my own stinger went into the arm of the human, I remembered one watching one of those bees die within minutes.
I felt the tip of my abdomen snap and then the world was filled with nothing but pain! Pain that reached a crescendo as I convulsed in shock. Then, release...
Although the next life was short, it was enjoyable up until the last minutes. I ran and pranced and played in the grass with my herdmates, and tried to keep up with mother as we went from one place to another, following the rains and the food. I knew mother both by her scent and the pattern of black and white stripes on her sides. Running was everything to all of us, for it meant survival.
I was perhaps a perfect specimen of a zebra stallion. Though I wasn't very high up in the herd, by the time of my third summer I knew that I'd go far in life. Humans, it seems, had other ideas. What I now know was trophy hunter ended it before I could even make sure my bloodline continued.
And now there was only the waiting. The currents of this strange sea seemed to take me everywhere. I watched the spiritual froth arrive out of nowhere, and then leave just as quickly. All the while I was waiting, pushed from place to place in the endless landscape. But I never bored of looking at my memories. Such a variety!
But nobody to share the experience with.
I felt empty, purposeless, wanting. Without Michael, what was the point of remembering? There was none. So, this time, I decided to try the opposite tack. I wanted nothing more than to forget everything I'd ever experienced. Every single shred of memory.
The currents did as they'd always done, and delivered me to an opening. With a rushing sound of incredible volume, I was sucked in.
My first awareness was the music. Even in the womb I felt its sounds, and the clicking noises my parents made. And my mother's comforting heartbeat. So when it came time to leave I was not afraid of the world outside. When I was free of mother's body she lifted up to the surface of the waters, and I took my first shuddering breath of salty air. I stroked my little flukes as quickly as I could to keep myself up, and spyhopped, keeping my eyes above water.
The world was made of tossing waves and sparkling water, and I saw huge white mountains of something in the distance. And I felt wonder.
My father's voice came from below the Surface. "Welcome to the world, my son. Now, come along and eat. Your mother is positively bursting."
That early in life there are really no more concerns other than eating and playing. Though our pod was small, I had an older sister that was still young enough that she didn't consider just having fun to be a bad thing. And as the weeks passed, she and I did things away from our parents that would've made them stand on their flukes! Not that we ever told them, of course.
There are just some things young orcas had to keep to themselves.
As the years passed and my dorsal fin grew taller there came the time for me to choose my own name. The most exciting day in my life! The time came during a gathering of about ten other pods. I didn't even pay attention as the other orcas my age announced their names. I was so nervous! There was even one of Orca's Disciples! I didn't know who, but he radiated this totally weird aura of sheer oldness.
I was so nervous I was shaking down to my flukes! Then the Disciple spoke! I nearly jumped out of he water! He said, "Don't be nervous, young fin. Just tell us what your name is."
Orcas have two names in a lifetime. The one their parents give, and the one they choose for themselves when maturity was reached. I really wanted to forget the one mine had given me. So I chose one that I always thought was totally above the Surface! I stopped shaking, surfaced for a breath, then clicked my name for all to hear. "En-ri! My name is En-ri!"
The greatest surprise of all awaited when I came back from my successful ritual seal hunt. The Disciple himself congratulated me! That wasn't so amazing, though, as what he said after. "Glad to see the bloodline is still strong!" he clicked happily.
My parents were swimming up behind me, their location-clicks sounding just as happy. I was puzzled, though. "Uh... what do you mean by that, sir?"
The Disciple bobbed his head. "Don't 'sir' me, En-ri. You're one of the family and I won't have it! Besides, I'm not like some of the stuffier humpback Disciples, am I?"
"I... uh. I've nevermetany. Humpbacks, I mean." I sputtered. I pulled myself together a bit. "Mother's been trying to teach me Humpback for about six winters. Haven't picked it up yet." But then, I hadn't really been trying. What was the point? What little I knew all they sung about was things that made no real sense. What were "steamships", for example? And "humans"? The two always seemed to go together.
I felt like he expected an answer. And I felt funny in the head. Like he was doing something to me. "Well, perhaps I understand better than you think. But I'm getting ahead of myself, here. I'd like to talk to your parents, if I may."
I surfaced for a nervous breath and send a single click of agreement. "Yessir." My parents were nearly upon us, anyway.
They congratulated me, of course. I loved them very much, which goes without saying. I just wished they didn't have to say it all the time! They knew I loved them, didn't they? Mother gushed about "how much I'd grown up" to the Disciple, mentioning all sorts of embarrassing things I'd rather have forgotten. I hardly paid attention until Father said something that brought me back to reality. "Darius says you have some untapped potential," he clicked.
Yeah. Right. "So... what do you want me to do about it?"
Darius went on. "Nothing right now. I'll come back in a few years and see how you're doing. Then we'll decide."
I sent a click of "Whatever" and then the meeting ended.
Yet as years passed I did learn Humpback. Through their Songs I learned that the odd noises I heard were made by the things that humans made. Those "steamships" or "steamers" that I saw on the horizon, their own rotating flukes making an awful racket as the metal beasts pushed the water aside. And I even learned some of their names, though they made no sense even to the humpbacks. Lusitania, Celtic, Mauretania, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Adriatic and hundreds of others. They spouted black smoke and left things in their wakes that made the water foul. Humans had a Guardian, didn't they? Why wasn't he doing his job?
By the time I was pod-leader Darius came by for his first visit since my coming-of-age. I more or less expected this at some point. I knew things about Disciples now that I hadn't as an adolescent. "I hope I've lived up to your expectations." >> Darius scanned me, the thrum of his sound-sight that flowed through my body feeling like he knew more than he was telling. I'd finally grown to accept that I'd be told things as I needed to know them. "Come with me," he said in a tone that brooked no opposition. I followed him as he led me away from my small family pod. "I have something I want to ask you, young fin. Something that might be a little strange at first." I clicked my approval. "Do you remember anything about your former lives? Not this life, En-ri, but the ones you've had before you were a whale?"
An odd question indeed. "I can't say I've ever felt anything like that, even in dreams."
"With your permission, I'd like to look into your mind. Just call it a search for 'untapped potential'."
In a society where one could look at another whale's innards and tell if they're lying, honesty is more than the norm. Those that don't learn that untruths are things that are just not done are quickly ostracized and become outcasts. Most often they get themselves killed by humans. Humans with harpoon guns! (Learning Humpback had many uses, including learning the humans words for things. Though how they knew was rather a mystery). I sent my agreement, and for a brief moment I felt another mind overlapping mine. A mind with such depth that I was completely blinded by it! But there was also an undercurrent of loneliness that overshadowed all.
Other than that, it was actually rather soothing. He nudged a few parts in my mind that found memories of certain female orcas that I'd gotten to know. I had at least two children by now, but neither of their mothers had found it necessary that I stay. Such was the way of things. My parents were unusual in that they'd stayed together for a long, long time. With my permission he went even deeper into my memories. Past when I'd first met him at my Naming, past where I'd first seen a human steamer belching smoke on the horizon, past when my sister and I had gotten into trouble by daring each other to beach ourselves. Even past where I'd been born, right to where my awareness first awakened in my mother's womb.
And then he hit a block. An impassible barrier that had absolutely no give to it. It merely stood there like the glaciers of Greenland. His kind voice echoed in my mind. This is very odd, En-ri. This barrier, you see, is normal. But I've never encountered one so solid before.'
"What is it, anyway? I never knew it was there."
It's the barrier between this life, and your past ones as many different animals. I was hoping I'd be able to glance in and see if you'd perhaps been human at some point in your history. I think I'm going to have to get Orca himself to work at it, with your permission...
Curiosity overcame me. "What do you want of me?" I asked the question as he was withdrawing from my mind. "For what possible reason could this be relevant to my current life? I'm an orca, now. I'm not a beluga, or a seagull, or a fish."
We both surfaced for a breath, but Darius didn't come below the Surface. Instead, he spyhopped. I joined him, and saw in the distance out of my left eye the coast of what humans called Newfoundland. And just in sight, out of my other eye, something I rarely saw any more. A quiet sailing ship of immense size all decked out in full sail. It was a sight to behold! Such a ship, unlike the steamers, didn't deafen me with the clanging boom of the whatever was inside of them. But I knew art when I saw it! "That's... that's beautiful!" I clicked with enthusiasm.
There was pride evident in Darius's voice. "The man who designed it for me put his heart into it. And it shows with every rivet and detail in the design of the rigging. Two years of his life. Sometimes I think that humans understand the Sea as least as well as we do."
Then I realized something. "That's the Sothesby! What is it doing here?"
My great-grandfather surprised me yet again. He dipped below the Surface, and sent several strong clicks. From what I felt when they came back they'd made the ship vibrate! I watched in amazement as the sails began to furl, and the ship slow to a stop not a hundred orca lengths away. Darius sent me a pulse that he wanted me back under the Surface. "Tell me, En-ri. What do you think a Disciple does for their Guardian?"
The question caught me off guard. "Mother and Father were never really specific about that... I'd always assumed that you helped Orca with making sure everybody got along with everybody else. The humpbacks I've talked to were very silent about it as well. I think they like to listen to themselves sing more than talk any sense."
The Disciple clicked positively. "That is part of our duties, yes. But you also hit on something not too long ago that not every whale figures out. Humans have a Guardian, same as we do. But you see, he's not doing his job. At least, not consistently.
"You see, humans are very unique among land creatures. They are the only ones that are fully sentient. Although we whales and dolphins have minds very much like theirs, we are limited by our environment. We cannot, for instance, have something like ---." An unknown word.
"Too hard to explain right now. Though you might understand later. Our other limitation is we don't have --" another word I didn't know, "to manipulate things and make tools."
"That's pure gibberish to me," I admitted. "But I get the idea. Orca sends his Disciples to help things along where Ape should be working instead." But something didn't feel right. "Wait... That would mean you'd have to go up on land! That's impossible!"
Darius released some bubbles from his blowhole as we surfaced again. He then started towards the ship close by. "Come with me, young fin, and I'll show you what 'impossible' is." He was off towards the waiting sailing ship with a few quick flicks of his flukes. I could only follow. On the way I noticed that something had been dropped over the side.
As we got closer, I began to feel a kind of indescribable presence in the water. Then, to my sound-based Sight, the form of a huge orca appeared. His voiced boomed both in my skull and through the water. ["The impossible is always that way until you've done it so much that it becomes commonplace. Though I hope you won't feel that way for a long time to come."]
"Um... uh... I..." I felt like a small fin again! My Guardian was waiting for me to say something, and I was completely speechless! I even kept myself from sending bursts of sound-Sight, for I didn't want to learn things I knew were none of my business.
"Stop that! I hate it when my Children won't even look at me! I'm not a God, En-ri. Far from it. Think of me as somebody who just has a bit more responsibility than most, so I am able to do more than the average whale." His tone of voice changed, and I knew he was going to ask something of me. "As you may have figured out already, I can't be in several places at once. Some Guardians can, but I'm not one of them. Therefore, I need others to do my work for me. Like Darius, here. And, if you'll agree, like you."
I was so overcome with humility all I could blurt was a startled, "Me?!"
He clicked his affirmation. "Three of my Disciples have decided to retire. And since this is volunteer-based only, I had to let them go. So shall it be with you, when you decide to retire. If you decide you want to take the job, that is."
"If I do, what would be my task, exactly?"
"Simple, actually. Since Ape, the humans' Guardian, isn't yet acting his age, we do our best to do his job for him."
"Isn't that a little impossible to do? They're landwalkers, and we die if we get out of the water."
Orca suddenly felt frustrated. "There's that word again! Just float there and watch, young fin, and I'll show you what 'impossible' is!" He started to glow, giving of waves sound that made him seem to "glow" in my Sight, and in my light-based sight. He was shrinking! Two small protrusions appeared out of his sides, while his tail shrunk and flukes started to vanish. His flippers thinned, and the ends separated into separate parts. Five of them. His dorsal fin vanished into his back.
When he was finished, there was a human in the water with me. But the human still felt like Orca! He didn't look like he was having an easy time swimming. I could hear him coughing and sputtering as the many small waves pulled at him. He spoke directly into my mind. So now you see, En-ri, that nothing is impossible! It's just not always comfortable! He changed back in a flash of blue light. "So the choice is yours, my Child. Will you join us?"
The decision didn't take nearly as long as I thought. I was ever curious about the world above the waves, after all. And as long as I had the ability to rejoin my true people, why not? "What's next?" I asked enthusiastically.
"Good lad!" Darius said. "I knew you were one of us!" He swam towards the ship, where something had been lowered into the water. It was a wide, open-mesh platform. When Darius got near it, there was another flash and he was in some sort of half orca, half human shape. "I'll wait for you both up here!" He actually got out of the water!
Orca chuckled. "One would almost think you a young fin again, Darius. But on with the work ahead." Orca turned to face me. "A while back Darius searched your mind for potential human past lives. He did find at least one, but he also found some sort of block. You see, what I normally do to speed things along is reactivate a potential Disciple's humanity. So therefore I don't have to teach so much about human society before being able to release you into it to do my Tasks."
I considered my choices for a moment. "If it smoothes things over, then go ahead. I have nothing to hide." I did what I thought might help Orca the most.
"Not necessary, En-ri. Just clear your mind of all thought. Think of nothing. I will do the rest."
I did as he told me, and felt his mind settle over mine. I marveled at the depth of his wisdom! Fifty million years! He'd experimented endlessly, with many different sizes and kinds of whale. And he still wasn't satisfied! For most of his current Children were sentient, he was still on a quest for perfection. But that wasn't his only purpose in life.
He and Ape were very close. And when Ape looked up into the sky and wondered what was there, Orca finally noticed the stars that shone at night. He wondered what they were, and knew that only humans could satisfy that hunger for knowledge. I heard his voice in my mind, It's a whole other Sea, En-ri. One so vast that this world is nothing in comparison. Perhaps less than nothing. I intend to help humans explore that Sea, and we shall go with them. It'd be only natural, after all.
He was very gentle in his search. He left no reef in my mind untouched by his gentle sound-sight. All seemed to be going well, until I felt him stopped short with such force that I nearly blacked out. I apologize for that, he said, But you have a block here to your past lives that's so strong that I can't break through it. At least, not without shattering your mind.
"Can you remove it another way?" I asked.
Afraid not. You see, this kind of block can only be removed by the one who placed it there.
"And who did that?" I was beginning to wonder, now.
You did. When I didn't answer, he continued. I can sense in a general sort of way what you once were, including a strong human component to your sense of Self. But there's also something associated with that humanity that for some reason you want to forget. I also sense that you had no lives before you were human. You're a very young Soul, En-ri.
"Does this mean I can't join your Disciples?"
By no means! It simply makes things a lot harder in the beginning. But you should also consider removing the barrier to your human Self once you've learned how to use some of the Abilities I'm about to give you. But only you alone can make this decision. Because you may not like what you discover.
I didn't like it right now, really. I would deal with this little problem in my own good time. If ever. "So, what first?" I was anxious to get on with it! Little did I know the trouble it would cause at first.
First swim over near the platform. And be quiet. There's a little ceremony I have to perform. He went for a breath, clearing his breathing passages. By the power vested in me by my Mother, and by the virtue of what I am, I bestow upon you the powers of being one of my Disciples. And all the responsibilities associated with those powers. Do you, En-ri of the orcas, accept this responsibility, and the consequences if you misuse your Abilities?
I could never have known that what I was about to do would give me such problems. But my next words would change me, for good or for bad. "I accept." The moment I said it, I felt a chill flow across my body. The world grew around me, and my Sight diminished to nothing. The next thing I really knew was being lifted bodily out of the Water, then there was a whirring sound. All I wanted to do was block the messages that were bombarding my brain! It felt unnatural! But there was nothing I could do about it.
I have no idea how long I lay where they placed me, inside a large room in the bottom of the ship. I wasn't in any condition for any conscious thought. I didn't sleep very much, for it was a different kind of sleep than what I'd known before. I'd dream about odd things. In one dream I was struggling up a river, avoiding large things that had fur all over. In another, the land around me was wide with an expanse of greeness. I'd drop my head and graze upon it, the taste fresh and sweet in my mouth.
Sometimes I heard the voice of Orca and Darius above me. Their speech sounding slow and deep. "Do you think he'll ever come out of it, Orca?" Darius said, concern plain in his voice. Orca replied, "It'll just take a little while longer. Look, he's responding to our speech. That's a good sign. I won't have to teach him how to talk, I don't think."
"That would take more than a few years. And we need him now."
"I know, my son. But have patience. Time heals all wounds."
The dreams continued. And they only got worse. There was one that was so vivid, it felt more like a memory. I was being shaken! A pair of hands gripping me so hard that it hurt! I heard an angry voice. "Git up, ya useless thing! Y've got yer chores t'do!" I was slapped across the face. "Git up!"
"I'm up, Father! I'm up! Gawddamit!" The sound of my own voice startled me.
I was slapped across the face. "Don't take the Lord's name in vain, boy! Git up and git goin'! Yer brother, too!" I was lifted bodily out of bed, and shoved in front of a basin. My brother was given the same sort of treatment. I knew that my parents would go back to bed once he and I were set getting things done. Water was splashed on my face...
...and I awoke. The dream was gone as quickly as it came, and I remembered nothing at all. But I was up, and standing on my own two legs. A mirror right in front of me. I stared at the face that was staring back at me. The long, thin stuff on my head was black in color, and my skin was somewhat dark in complexion. I looked at myself as closely in the mirror as I dared, straining to see any sign of my orca-ness in my features. And I saw a slightly lighter color to my skin on my lower jaw, and on the sides of my head just in front and above of... what were those?
"They're called 'ears'," came a female-sounding voice from behind.
There were certain other factors to deal with that I didn't expect. The changing angle of the... I didn't have the word for it. But it's sudden angle made me fall to the hard surface painfully. "OUCH!" My first human word. I wish it had been a better one.
I was lifted onto my... yet another word. But they seemed to hold me up. "Those are called feet, En-ri. And they're attached to your legs." The ground pitched again, this time violently. "You picked a kind of bad time to wake up, you know. There's a storm coming in and we've 'battened down the hatches', as they say."
I walked on unsteady legs with her helping me. I finally saw her when I let myself down on the soft surface. Then I finally got a look at her.
She probably wasn't pretty for a human. Very thin, with huge bulges next to her flippers (?). Very pale, with small, dainty "feet" and long "legs". The stuff on her head was a shiny white in color. And she had a very expressive face. The corners of her mouth turned upward. "I see Orca was right when he said you didn't know anything about humans. As for myself, the last time I was human some of my last words were something like 'let them eat cake!', then they cut my head off. Very unpleasant. Perhaps this time I can make up for the mistakes that I made."
"What were you, before?" I garbled and slurred some words, unused to having air come out my mouth. My lips were much more flexible than before, too.
"In reality, I'm a beluga. Which is why my skin is so white. You'll notice that most of us have some sort of outward sign of what we really are. Look at yourself, for instance. Your skin tones are a bit different where they would be as your orca self." She looked at her flippers.
"What is it like having flippers like that?" I asked. The ship pitched again.
"'Flippers?' Perhaps while this storm is so strong that neither of us can move around, I should give you a vocabulary lesson..."
The new vocabulary was perhaps the easiest thing to learn. I found human language extremely simple and very easy to get a hold of. As time passed, I even expanded my abilities to languages like French and German. Language was naturally a very fluid thing to me, so I had no problems and learned with the normal speed of a whale-made-human. But it was the thing known as "writing" that really "got my goat", as humans sometimes say. My teacher, who had the musical voice of a humpback, seemed to think the whole concept was so simple anybody would know what it was. Not me, unfortunately. "What are you doing?" I asked him.
He was a large black man with a booming voice that one paid attention to, or else. He was going bald, and his hair had gone a stark white. It looked like his head was frosted around the edges. I'd been told that male humans sometimes lose their hair when they got older; and I'd actually grown rather attached to mine. I was young yet, but I hoped that wouldn't happen to me.
My teacher (who hadn't even told me his name yet) seemed to look down at me though his glasses. "THIS is a capital 'A'. The next letter will be a 'B', then..."
"I still don't understand what you're doing," I interrupted. "What possible purpose can this serve? It's just meaningless markings on a hard surface."
That seemed to frustrate him. "THIS, young fin, is how humans have gotten as far as they have! It's called 'literature' and one can find great insights into humans in this way. It will bring you up to date on the way humans are currently, and not the way they were when you were last one of them..."
I sighed. "Sir, I thought you knew. I can't remember being human. So you need to be very specific as to why I have to do this..."
His face went red with what I knew was anger. He was so serious about both himself and his subject, I reasoned he was definitely a humpback. They took most things, especially themselves, very seriously at times. And sometimes, overly so. He opened his mouth and took a deep breath. Then a voice came from the door behind me. "Take a break, Charles," came the calm voice of Darius. "You two have been in here all day. I think you need to change back to your trueform for a while and think things over."
Charles let his breath out slowly in the presence of Orca's most favored Disciple. Silently, he left the room by slipping past Darius standing in the doorway, momentarily glaring at him. Then we both heard a huge splash as he changed forms when he leapt from the ship. Darius sat down at a desk next to me. He smiled, what I now knew was a encouraging expression. "So, how's school going?"
I sighed and dropped my pencil. "I never knew human society was this complex! And now I've got this 'writing' thing to learn..."
He laughed softly. "I've been around humans for a few hundred years and they still seem strange to me! It doesn't matter that I was human at some point in the past. Because what dominates most is what you were born as in this lifetime." He stood up again. "Perhaps you need some fresh air. We need to talk a bit, anyway."
I stood up, then we went outside to stand near the mainmast. The fresh salt air invigorated me, and I felt renewed. I looked at the rolling waves sparkling in the late afternoon sunlight a bit wistfully. Darius knew what I was thinking. "You can change back whenever you feel like it, you know."
"I know," I replied. "But I want to see this through before I go back home, into the water. I'm afraid if I break this roll I'm on I won't be able to get out of the Sea again."
"I understand," he reassured. "We've been out here a few months now. Long enough for you to get over some of the odder things about humans. This is why we're going to go into port for a few days."
I blinked. "Already?"
Darius nodded. "I will not be with you, myself. While we're in port you'll be given your first minor Task."
I blinked again, shocked. "And... that would be..?" I asked nervously.
"I simply want you and Lana, your beluga counterpart, to go into the city and purchase a few things at a local general store. Nothing major." He sounded like he had all the confidence in me in the world.
I swallowed a lump that had suddenly come up in my throat. The collar on my shirt felt too tight, and I felt queasy to my stomach. "Uh... Perhaps I should spend some time with flukes again."
Time passed, and the ship moved eastward towards the land. I stood in the bow as the great sailing ship found its way into the port of Southampton. I was surprised and disappointed to find that there were few sailing vessels. I noted about four or five other ships like ours, but they were far less numerous than the steamers that seemed to be everywhere. Somebody walked up behind me. I could tell it was Orca instantly. "Windjammers are becoming steadily less common on the sea lanes," Orca said sadly. "Steam has nearly surpassed sail as the fastest and cheapest way to move people and products. I fear that sailing a ship like this one will be a lost art within half a century."
I'd gotten to know him better as the weeks passed. He didn't think of himself as anything but a normal whale with a few more responsibilities than most. He was very easy to talk to and I saw why the other Disciples loved him so much. He was like a father to everyone.
Looking out at the mouth of the River Test that we were fast approaching, I saw a one of the huge liners that I'd caught glimpses of as an orca moving towards the open sea, black smoke pouring from the four stacks and blown quickly away by the wind. I knew that outline, even if I didn't know how to read. "That's the Mauretania, isn't it?" I asked.
"Yes, good call. She and the Lusitania look a lot alike," Orca replied. "One of the most opulent and largest steamers afloat. Though that will soon change. The White Star Line will soon have three new ships that will far surpass them. Shipbuilder magazine has called the designs 'virtually unsinkable'. And I'm sorry to say that the general public believes it. Olympic will make her maiden voyage next month, and Titanic will be launched by the middle of the year. The third one is to be called Gigantic, and will surely surpass them all."
I looked at the sight, the cold winter wind pulling at my warm coat. "That sounds a trifle arrogant, to me," I said.
He sighed sadly. "I'm afraid I've gotten wind of Mother planning something. I think it has something to do with one of those ships. I'm thinking of doing something to prevent unnecessary deaths. My worry right now is that I won't have anybody to send on this particular Task, as the others are on equally important ones. Darius is thinking of retiring for good."
"Why is that?" I blinked in surprise.
"He's been burning the candle at both ends for quite a while, Henry." Orca used my human name. It was very close to my orca one. And it felt perfect for me for some reason. He continued, "For over three hundred years, in fact. It's been about nine years since I gave him a major Task. He's spent most of that time looking for who might become his replacement if he decides to retire. That person might be you, Henry. But this particular Task is so important I may have to do something I don't like. I'll have to Call him and perhaps force him into doing this. I don't want to do that, but I need his experience."
Nothing more was said as the sails were furled and the tugboats finished the job of putting the Sothesby at her berth. Lana appeared out of the decks down below, dressed in the colors of a "middle-class" woman. "You should get dressed, husband," she said in a satisfied voice, "you aren't presentable looking like that."
I looked around to see who she was talking to, only to realize that she was speaking to me. I knew about the human tradition of marriage. It was one of their peculiarities that still mystified me. I pulled at the coat I was wearing. "What's wrong with it?" I asked, a bit indignant.
Orca laughed. "It's not your clothing, my son. It's that over the past few minutes you've begun looking more and more like your true self. Go have a look in a mirror and I'll be along in a moment."
I shrugged and went to the nearest bathroom (called a "head" on ships), and found that Orca was right. The texture and color pattern of my skin was totally orca. I had no hair, and my hands and feet were webbed. There was also a small lump on my back that was a tiny dorsal fin. My face had pushed out into a blunt muzzle with my nostrils visibly moving up my forehead. "How did that happen?" I said in a strained voice that was somewhere between human and whale.
"Congratulations, Henry," came Orca's voice from behind. "I was wondering when you'd stumble on the hybrid form. I normally have to teach my Disciples how to find it. But now that you've done it on your own you should be able to find it again."
I looked at my black, webbed hands. "What made this happen to me?"
"Very simple. Lana made you feel uncomfortable so you instinctively started to change back into the form in which you are most familiar."
"But what happens if I'm on this Task and I change like this?" The changes completed. I had a foot-tall dorsal fin that had ripped out of my shirt. I'd thrown off my jacket just in time. The rest of my clothing felt uncomfortably tight as well.
Orca, who'd changed forms to look a lot like me, laughed again. "Don't worry. I think you'll be surprised. But first, let's see if we can't get you to change back."
The worst thing about the Task was that I knew I'd probably disappointed Orca almost as soon as I stepped off the ship. But apparently contingency plans had been made for this sort of thing. I unbuttoned a slit in the back of my coat, letting my dorsal fin out. We were stuck in a dark alley close by when I finally lost it. Lana, of course, was calm and cool. "Come on, Henry. We can't stay here all day."
I stared at the crowd moving just beyond the open end of the alley. "I can't go out there like this! I'll cause a panic!"
Lana shook her head. "You sure are stubborn for an orca. Here, I'll show you." She glowed blue for a moment as she changed into her own hybrid form. Even in that shape she had a large bulging melon that could change shape as one watched. "Look at this," she said/clicked. Then she left the alley and vanished into the crowd.
I was left standing there, staring, until she came back and resumed human form. "People see what they expect to see, Henry. They don't see me as I am, they only see a beautiful human woman going about her business on a cold winter morning. Nothing special. The only drawback to this particular Ability is that should anybody touch you they could tell that you aren't as you seem to be. So I therefore think that you should make an effort to change back."
Her demonstration gave me pause for thought. I struggled with it for at least a half hour while Lana waited, perhaps a trifle impatiently. But eventually humanity returned to my features. "Let's get this over with..." I said.
When we finally found the shop, I stuttered and stumbled over words. The shopkeeper saying little, merely staring at me as if I was out of my mind. Which wouldn't have been so far from the truth! "I... uh... need a few things." I said in a timid voice.
"And what would those be, young man?" The shopkeeper had a handlebar mustache and was wearing a bow tie and a white apron. "We're here t' serve, don't ya know."
It took at least five minutes just to get the items I'd memorized in my head. But I eventually got my pound of butter, my loaf of bread, my can of green beans, and my small wheel of cheddar cheese. "T-t-thank you, sir!"
I'd obviously frustrated him a hell of a lot. He frowned as the register rung up the total. "That'll be three and six pence." I handed him the money. "And next time, keep your list straight." He turned to Lana. "And how my I help you, my lovely lady?"
Surprisingly Lana seemed to have almost as much trouble. She treated the man like he was less than nothing, seeming to look down her nose at him. Eventually, the shopkeeper got fed up with Lana's treatment. "Madam, you might be able to treat people like this wherever you come from, but not here in Southampton. So if you would take to take your business elsewhere?"
A look of shock crossed Lana's face, and she realized she'd made a mistake. But she didn't back down right away. "Well, I'm going to get this kind of treatment then I will go elsewhere! Good day, sir!" She left the shop in a huff.
The man shook his head and looked at me. "Quite the shrew, she is. How do you deal with her?"
"Very carefully," I replied. Then I quickly thanked the man and left the shop, then looked around for Lana. But she was nowhere to be seen! The crowd was so thick and she was so fast I couldn't tell which way she had gone. But I wasn't about to return to the ship without her. So I started searching.
For hours I walked the streets of Southampton, and in the process, discovered things about humans that I never knew existed. In the dockside areas, I found the pubs that Darius had so often spoken of. It was nearby one of those places where I first heard something that shocked me to the core. Humans singing. For some reason that was one of the things that'd been left out of my education about them. Sure, it wasn't very good singing, but there was an enthusiasm in the voices that made me smile. I reluctantly moved on.
The pubs, warehouses and tenement buildings (where laundry hung to dry above me) gave way to smaller structures with stone chimneys and steeply sloped roofs. Houses. It was then I heard the second most shocking thing of my life. It sounded like singing, and taken as such had a very profound meaning. But the tone and quality of the notes was like nothing I ever heard. I followed the sounds to the source, and found yet another mysterious yet wonderful thing about humans. They could make music without needing to use their voices.
The female was sitting, her nimble fingers moving over a narrow shelf of white and black keys. The sounds came out of the box that was a part of the contraption. I was so captivated by the music I nearly forgot what I was doing, and hastened to find Lana before dark.
I heard her crying, first. No human made those kinds of sounds. But no whale did, either. I dropped my purchase and ran for the source of the sound, and found Lana, in her odd-looking hybrid shape, curled up near the end of an alley. Cautiously, I walked towards her. "Lana? Are you okay?" No response. "Lana?"
She suddenly sprang to her feet and grabbed me around my neck, her sobbing renewed. "Please, Henry! I don't want to be her again! She's an arrogant, childish, spoiled princess! And I don't want to be her again!" She nearly choked me.
"Be who again?" I asked.
"Marie Antoinette! You wouldn't know about her. But from the moment Orca reawakened her inside me she's symbolized everything I hate about humans! I want to go home... I can't take this!"
I couldn't resist just putting my arms around her. And for the first time I consciously shifted to my hybrid form, my clothing somehow changing to fit my increased size. "You're nothing like that now," I clicked. There were nuances in the cetacean language that humans sadly lacked.
There were tears flowing down her white-skinned face. She certainly wasn't pretty by human standards in that form, but to me she looked just fine. Even for a beluga. "You really think so?" she asked, her tears slowing.
"I've lived with you for two months, Lana. I know you better than anybody else on the ship. You're nothing like this human you used to be. You finally got me talking again, after all." I cradled her in my arms. Any human who saw us as we were probably would've screamed and ran off. "Since when does a bratty princess help a lowly orca out of his stupor?"
She sighed. "You might be right. But how can I be sure I won't backslide again?"
"Perhaps we can figure it out together, back at the ship. We don't have much time, you know. They're leaving on the evening tide."
"Oh! That's right! We'd better get moving." She resumed human form and stood up, brushing the dirt off her dress. "We don't want them to leave without us, after all." She wiped her face with a handkerchief, blowing her nose. "Let's go before I break down again."
I changed back and we started off, going a shorter route this time back to the docks. On the way there we passed many more of the narrow houses that were steadily becoming less visible in the thickening fog and growing darkness. We walked arm-in-arm towards the docks, and happened upon a woman at the edge of her fence, looking down the street with a hopeful look on her face. We walked by her for some distance, Lana looking backward every so often. Then suddenly she pulled us both into an alley between two houses. "What are you doing?" I asked, perplexed.
"Just wait a minute," she replied. "That woman over there is waiting for somebody. She's not dressed for this cold. So it must be somebody important..." She trailed off as we both heard whistling coming from the direction we'd been walking. It got steadily louder, and then the figure passed by our hiding place without noticing us. She kept her hand over my mouth. "Let's watch," she whispered. "I want you to see this."
Thinking that perhaps this might be some sort of human custom I should pay attention to, I did my best to remain unseen by the humans down the street. The woman was barely visible in the fog, looking like a blur of white and brown. The sound of the whistling must've been dampened by the fog, I reasoned. But when the man got within a certain distance of the house, the blur of the woman seemed to take notice. She seemed to strain her ears towards the melodic sound. Then a decision was made, and she dashed towards the man, grabbing him around the shoulders and making him drop his shovel to the street with a clatter.
In the fog, we seemed to be the only people in the area. Though a moment or so later we heard more footfalls from others. And I realized that this was a man coming home from a long day at work. The man smelled of coal, and his face was blackened with the dust. "He's probably a stoker," Lana whispered. "They don't make much money, but his wife must do something to enable them to at least rent the house. She probably hasn't seen him in two weeks."
We both heard an excited chorus of "Poppa!" as we saw two small figures dash out of the house and bowl over their father. Two little girls, it looked like.
It was a scene that would be imprinted on my mind as long as I lived. I unconsciously hugged Lana closer to me. "I think we'd better let these people alone," I said quietly. "I feel like I'm intruding on their privacy."
She didn't say anything, and merely pulled on my sleeve for me to follow.
The fog only got thicker, and with it the world seemed to contract to only the buildings right beside us, and we ourselves as we walked down towards the docks. The only way we could tell we were going in the right direction was the gaslights that glowed along the route. With the air so calm, it seemed to take forever. We heard muffled sounds from inside the houses and tenements. Lana sighed.
Then we arrived at the quay where the Sothesby was supposed to be docked. She was nowhere to be seen. "This fog isn't that thick!" Lana exclaimed.
"They must've put to sea before the fog came in," I said. "Now what do we do?"
I could see her smiling, even in the dark. "We swim for it."
The she unceremoniously pushed me into the cold waters of the river.
The shock of cold water was only momentary, as I instinctively changed to my natural form. Lana joined me a minute or so later. "What did you do that for?" I spluttered indignantly.
"Oh, no reason. The fog should help us, too. Nothing's moving in it, so we should have no problems getting out of the harbor."
"Good idea," I clicked. She had a point. "Let's get out of here before the fog lifts and we have those huge propellers to worry about." We flexed our flukes and were off.
Lana became more and more nervous as we approached where the ship had anchored for the night outside the harbor, awaiting the morning tide. Eventually, about a half mile from the ship, she stopped completely. "I don't know if I can face him..."
"I failed the test, Henry. I'll probably be sent back to my pod in disgrace. I probably deserve it..."
"Don't say that! Orca's a very understanding Guardian. I'm sure he won't wash you out just because of one test failure."
She surfaced and took a sighing breath. "You're probably right. But I'm still scared out of my flukes."
"You're not alone. I failed too, remember? I could barely get the words out of my mouth! And I don't even have the items I bought to show for it..."
"I didn't even get that far..."
Orca's Presence filled the water before I could continue, and his voice boomed out of the depths. "Stop all this brooding, you two! Neither of you failed! It was merely a personality test." He materialized fully and scanned Lana. "Yes, you used to be Marie Antoinette. But that particular lifetime of yours was an aberration on your larger personality. Look deeply into yourself, and you'll see what I mean."
"Well, what about him?" Lana exclaimed, spraying me with Sight-waves. "He hasn't even opened his own memories yet!"
I opened my mouth and clicked my surprise. What did that have to do with anything? I'd do it when I was ready, and not before. But then Orca gave me a very penetrating look. "Lana has a point. You, Henry, need to reconsider opening that door in your mind. It would smoothen things in your transition to working for me."
I surfaced and looked at the Sothesby, riding at anchor and awaiting the morning tide. The fog was nearly nonexistent, here. The moon was but a sliver, and the water was a dead calm except for the ripples I made when I breached the surface. The ship was nearly dark but for a few small navigation lights that reflected off the surface in long trails. It was an image that demanded I think about Orca's suggestion. I dove back down, looking at the stars from under the water, and sent my Guardian my decision. "I'll sleep on it."
And sleep I did, on the ship. I'd somewhat gotten used to the odd sleep of humans, and their dreams. But nothing prepared me for the images that flashed across my mind when I reluctantly opened the door I never knew was there.
In my dream, a pair of familiar hands shook me awake. "Git up, Henry!"
I groaned and blinked at my brother's silhouette. "C'mon, Mikey. The rooster ain't even crowed yet..." I started to drift off again, until I thought I heard something. "Say that again?"
"I said, I think I may have a way to git us offa this farm!" Even in the near-total darkness I could see his wide smile. When I just stared at him, he continued. "We'll join the army! When father sent me into town yesterday I heard that they'll calling up a regiment of volunteers to fight against the Rebels!"
"Are you crazy? We could get killed!"
"I'd rather die with my boots on and a gun in my hand then being beaten by father! Let's get outta here!" He quietly threw off the sheets and started to pull me out of bed.
I'd always done what Michael wanted me to do. I'd always been a bit clumsy, and Michael had always helped me do things right from the time we were little. So I did things for him out of habit (and perhaps love). And so, we went.
And I died.
But what happened to him?
I didn't cry. This was beyond tears. I only felt a sense of loss that gnawed at me all the way to the bone. When I didn't get out of bed Orca came and saw me. "So it's finally happened. Do you want to talk about it?"
"What for? There's nothing I can do to find him. For all I know he's a cockroach. I guess I just have to live with it..."
"We all carry burdens, Henry. But you're not alone. Most of my other Disciples have things they don't want to remember. I've Called them here. Perhaps you all should talk."
I reluctantly rolled out of bed, sighing deeply. "It certainly can't hurt any more than it does."
I was most certainly wrong, of course. Talking about it only seemed to magnify everything all out of proportion. "I really wonder what he is, now... I've been a few things in my soul-life that I haven't liked very much, or only lived a very short time. I just hope he's enjoying himself." I looked around at the room, once again amazed at the care put into the details of the finishing. "At least as happy at the one who designed this ship."
Darius was even here, taking a short time out of his retirement to come talk with the rest of us. "You're one hundred percent right on that account, Henry. I've never met a human with more love of the Sea. And if I have my way, you two will meet each other."
I looked back at my great-grandfather. "What do you mean?"
"You now remember your human past, but you are still a whale at heart. So in three months or so I'll be sending you to work for the company that built this ship. It's in a small Welsh town that I've never been able to remember the name of even after over two hundred years. We use it as a kind of 'University' of sorts to get you used to your Abilities, as well as to get used to being around humans. Things have changed in forty nine years."
"So I've seen," I remarked, remembering the "holier than thou" attitudes of some of the wealthier people I'd met. Technology had grown astronomically. Not only were there larger trains, but something called a "automobile" or "horseless carriage". "What happens after my time at the University?"
Charles, my humpback teacher, replied, "You get a year or so with your family before your first real Task. You must also remember that you're immortal, now. Your family will grow old and die, while you will remain at what age you are now. Though even that is changeable with the right effort." He closes his eyes and the years seemed to melt off of him. He looked like a teenager. "See?"
"I do see."
He changed back to his familiar human form. "Mind over matter, Henry. We aren't even constrained to remain as the whale species we were born as. You can become a bottlenose, a narwhal, or even a beluga like Lana, there."
Lana blinked. "And I can do the same things as he?"
"Of course," Darius replied. "We're a group of equals, after all. The only thing Orca does that annoys me is that he tends to send only one of us on a particular Task when it could be more quickly completed with a team. He can be stubborn when he wants to, that's for sure." That got a quiet laugh from the twelve of us in the room. Orca had his quirks; but then, who didn't? Darius smiled. "So, Henry. What do you want to do next?" he said.
In our discussions we'd ranged through many subjects. Including human music. I'd seen that female human playing some kind of musical instrument. It was a fascinating and magical thing for me, even though I now remembered being human. I smiled and sipped some fruit juice from a glass. "I think there's a couple things, actually." I looked at Charles. "I think I want to learn to read and write. I never did when I was human, really. But I also want to learn how to play the piano."
The Sothesby left Southampton for points west that day. On the way, Orca activated a few more Abilities. We stopped in Greenland to spend some time with Lana's pod. "You look good in white," she remarked.
I was a bit uncomfortable with both the smaller size, and the bulging melon. But it really wasn't all that different. I was more maneuverable, certainly. I found that amazing because I had no real dorsal fin. Lana's pod was just as nice as the orca ones I was used to. "This isn't too bad. No, not bad at all."
"I'm glad you like it. I'm looking forward to trying out an orca, myself. I've always wondered what makes you Big Ones tick."
She liked being an orca just as much as I liked being a beluga.
Afterwards we headed back east, then southward. Following the natural oceanic currents. Lana and I were now further south than either of us had ever been. It was very warm. Warm enough to make me sweat! I spent a lot of time in the water, trying out one of the smaller porpoise forms, using the bow wave the ship made to lessen the effort of my swimming. It was great fun! Lana liked it just as well.
All through the trip, Orca was deep in thought. He had thirty Disciples, all with important Tasks. "I think I'm going to have to invest certain others who are qualified with certain limited Abilities. This next Task I'm planning is going to take quite a few... But I'm sorry to say that neither of you are suitable for it."
"Oh? Why?" Lana asked.
"For one, you're very new. I have a Disciple candidate in mind that won't need your training period."
"Then why did you take the two of us in, then?"
"I don't have to explain everything I do, do I?" Orca replied a bit steely. "Let's just say that I think I can fill the void in Darius's life. The humpback I have in mind is just who I'm looking for."
I couldn't help but laugh. Something very natural, since at that particular moment I'd taken the form of a bottlenose. "One could almost accuse you of matchmaking, Orca!"
He actually Felt a little embarrassed. "Well... that and the fact that she can do something that nobody else can. She can bond with inanimate objects. Something that may buy us precious time. You two will have a role in this Task, anyway."
"Glad to know we won't be left out completely." Lana said. She was in the form of a spotted dolphin. They didn't seem to be as lighthearted as bottlenoses were.
"Don't get angry at me, Lana. I have my reasons, and I've told you more than you really need to know. Don't push me further. I'll Call you both when you're needed." He vanished.
A new voice came from just beyond a reef. The Sothesby had dropped anchor in the Bahamas, a place where bottlenoses abounded. But the tone of this voice was weird even for a bottlenose. "Heya dudes! Whassup?"
"And you are?" I clicked in the direction of the new arrival.
"That name's 'Bottle', and I think Orca's been looking for me..."
On cue, Orca reappeared. "Where have you been? I sent out the Call hours ago!"
"Don't get your tail in a knot, Orca. I was a bit preoccupied with a certain acquaintance of mine... she wouldn't let me go. If you know what I mean." Bottle winked in the human manner.
Surprisingly, Orca laughed a bit. "I think I can understand. Just don't do that to me again. In any case, I have a little Task for you."
Bottle sighed. "I hope it's not blowing up more whaling ships."
Orca sounded apologetic. "I'm sorry I had to assign you that one. But you were closest to the place at the time. This Task might suit you better. And you won't be alone this time..." Orca's expression changed, and I knew he was conversing with Bottle mind-to-mind. "Understand?"
The bottlenose thought for a moment. "I'm honored, master. And I'll be happy to do it. Who else is working on this job?"
"Darius, and a humpback whom I'm about to Call. I plan to get the two of them on the ball in the next week or so."
"Darius? I thought he retired..." Orca started to say something, but Bottle continued. "Knowing him, though, he's more bored than anything. I'm sure he won't mind the reinstatement. Can you tell me any details about the humpback?"
"Only that she's not expecting me to Call her. Her human name will be Emily O'Donnell. As for right now, I'm sending you with these two trainees to the University to show them the ropes. Emily should be along in the next few weeks. As for now, this is Henry and Lana."
We greeted each other appropriately for dolphins, then boarded the ship. Once in human form, Orca had once last announcement to make. In his hands he held two pieces of jewelry. I recognized this. For around the necks of the other Disciples, I'd noticed they wore pendants that signified their exact species. Hanging from his left hand he held a pendant made from white alabaster, a beluga; and hanging from his right hand was an opal that had the coloration and shape of an orca. Bottle was smiling, of course. But he had a tear in his eye. Orca smiled. "You two have come far since I Called you. And I am impressed. You do not follow authority blindly, you ask questions when you don't understand. You also know when following orders is important, no matter what you think. You have shown compassion for another species that you once were. But above all, you've cared for each other like family. Therefore, you have earned the right to wear these symbols of full Discipleship." He handed them to us.
When I put it around my neck, it glowed blue for a brief moment; and I felt lightheaded. "What do these do?"
"When I first came to you I only gave you a few minor Abilities. This pendant will give you others. Which you get are highly dependent on who you are. But it does include the Ability to transform humans if need be." He barked some orders to the ship's crew, who started to make ready to sail. "As for now, it's time for you to meet some humans in their natural habitat. In order to do that I will have to create a kind of pseudo-reality for you."
"What does that mean?" Lana asked, puzzled.
"It's easier to show you rather than tell you... But I need to warn you that I'm not perfect. The implanted persona might be a bit strong to break through if you need to. Bottle knows what to do if that happens." He nodded at his still-smiling Disciple, who hadn't said anything since we got on board. "But this can wait until we get to Southampton. I'll return at that time. For now, enjoy yourselves." Once more, he vanished into thin air.
My name was Sean O'Rourke. I was a riveter originally from Belfast, Ireland who had worked at Harland and Wolff. But due to a disagreement with one of the foremen they fired me and told me never to return. I'd tried once to get back in, but they'd thrown me out bodily, and no other shipbuilding company in Ireland would hire me thereafter.
So I went across the Irish Sea to Wales, having heard through the grapevine about a small company called Cetacean Shipbuilding. A small company that'd been around longer than the town that surrounded it. I could read a little, so I knew what the "est. 1630" on the main building stood for.
As I looked around the place before going to the hiring office I noted that there were only two fitting out basins, and perhaps three gantries from which only one of them had the visible frame of a small cargo steamer abuilding. Fortunately for me, and a few hundred others, one more of those gantries would soon be filled with the skeleton of a ship that I would help build.
The rest of the space looked to be made for the construction of the tall ships known as "windjammers", but that part of the shipyard hadn't seemed to have been used in quite some time.
They didn't ask me about my background other than proof of my experience. It was as simple as that. Work on the steamer Wessex would begin next week, and I was anxious to get started. But first I had to find a boarding house.
It was during this search that I met my first real friends in Wales. A happy-looking man by the name of James Bottleman, an American, and his cousin Emily O'Donnell from Ireland. She and I shared something unusual. Neither of us had picked up the brogue that was a characteristic of the majority of our counrtrymen. We chatted a while, and the three of us found a place to live together.
From underneath Sean, I sat in a corner of my mind. Orca had done a bang-up job when he'd implanted the persona above me. Perhaps he'd done it a bit too well, since it was a struggle to shut it off without damaging it. I could otherwise direct his (my) actions.
Bottle helped Emily and I a lot. But the speed at which the humpback acclimated to her humanity amazed me! "Let me guess," I said one evening, "You've been human more than once."
She smiled and sipped her tea. "About ten times that I can remember. Last time was about fifty years ago..."
That got my attention. "Oh? Where?"
"Somewhere in India, I think. I was some sort of holy man. I'll never fast like that again!" She actually laughed!
Emily was one very odd person, though we did get along well. I just wondered what Lana was doing, since I hadn't seen her in the three weeks I'd been in Gwynedd, the town where the Company was located. I was getting rather concerned, actually. And then one night there was a knock on the door. When I opened I found her standing there in a maid's uniform. I had to stifle a laugh!
She glared at me. "Well? Am I to stand out here all day?" I waved her to come in and went to get her some tea. She sat down heavily in a chair next to my small table. This version of her human form had red hair and was a bit on the plump side. One could say she looked "Motherly", but not to her face. My own human form was similarly homely, actually. So the two of us were invisible, even our outward signs of not being human were muted to a minimum, though they were still present.
She talked about her job working as a maid for a wealthy family just outside of town. This was her first chance to get away. "I can only stay a short time, I'm afraid. It's a long walk, and the people I work for aren't noted for their understanding. They have three motor cars!"
Sundays were a time for resting and socializing with the other Disciples-in-training that were employed at Cetacan. Of the two thousand that were employed, only about a hundred were provisional Disciples. Species ranged from rodent to bird to insect to reptile. Inside the pub known as "The Animal House" we were able to assume our hybrid forms and talk about our past human selves, and the problems of overcoming certain non-human behaviors that marked us.
During one of those noisy Sunday nights I decided to see if I could meet the one who designed the Sothesby. I asked one of those who worked in the Drafting and Design Department. Webster, a seagull, looked rather sheepish. "Uh... I don't think that'll happen right now."
I blinked. "Oh? Why?"
"Well... he's always been the suspicious type. There's some humans that are sensitive to what we can do. We've had to tiptoe around this guy ever since we got here. Our teachers said he's been like this ever since he was in some kind of war..."
He was avoiding the issue. "So, when can I meet him?"
"Uh... well... I..."
One of the University's teachers, a tiger, answered me finally. "Webster there hasn't been with us for long. Personally--and I agree with Darius on this account--I think that Gull gives out Abilities that he shouldn't."
"What did he do?" I asked again.
"He changed our Chief Designer into a seagull, then lost him. That happened about ten months ago. We're hoping he returns or that we can find him soon. He's very important to this company."
Considering that everything about the company was legitimate, with no "magical" assistance, I was very impressed with Darius's business prowess. Keeping a company of any kind around for so many years was quite an achievement. The tiger gave me a skeptical look, then smiled. "But I don't think that you'll make the same sort of mistake, right?"
I thought my teeth were sharp! "Right." I gulped down my beer.
I re-learned a lot about humans during those months. The boarding house was filled with people of all kinds. I marveled at the variation of human personalities and temperaments. Sometimes it horrified me, as when Bottle and I discovered one couple beating their children. Something I had no choice but to interfere in.
I'd been through it myself. There was no way I could stand by and let it happen to others. We found them some foster parents in Glasgow that Orca recommended.
Then, one day while I was working hard, I felt some sort of voice in my head. It was Orca. I need all of you, my Disciples. Come to me as soon as possible. I will be on the ship.
When we arrived the Sothesby left port immediately, and headed westward on a northerly course. Orca was unusually silent throughout the whole trip. It was just the end of January, 1912. It had been an unusually warm winter, and judging by the amount of floating ice already in the water it would be a very touchy spring on the shipping lanes. All of us on board had seen the Olympic on her way eastward. Seeing that ship immediately think of Titanic.
The name had been whispered throughout the shipyard for years. "Unsinkable!" "She could ram ten ships and not sink!" "God Himself couldn't sink that ship!" Were common things said among the workers in the yard.
As Orca told us what was to happen in the next couple months, we knew that Nature had other ideas.
Orca signaled for us all to go into the water, and we followed him, stopping about five hundred lengths from the tip of the glacier, where we all Saw and heard the cracking noise of a enlarging fracture. It was deafening! But all those sounds paled in comparison to the Presence I felt working at that break in the ice. I was cowed by that Presence, for it could only be one being.
Nature had come to take a personal hand in things.
And then there was only the waiting. Orca had asked us to wait with a pod of dolphins near Queestown, just outside the main lanes. In the time that Lana and I spent with them we leaned many things, including how to identify each ship by the sound of the propellers. It was very useful, and kept the both of us from having to get too far into the outgoing lane.
Word reached us on April 3rd that the Titanic was now in Southampton. Only days remained, now.
On that same day word reached me from Orca that the Sothesby had been run aground near Gwynedd. It had actually been done on purpose, though Darius didn't seem to know it. I was worried for Darius, actually. The one time I'd met him since he started the Task he seemed not to remember me. Neither Bottle nor Emily were present at the meeting, either.
But the oddest thing was that the Sothesby seemed to have been converted from a school to some kind of private yacht, and the crew were all real humans that had memories of working on the ship for years. I recognized some of them as humans we called "Acolytes". Those were humans who knew about us, and for one reason or another had been allowed to retain their memories of the Disciples and Guardians. They often did minor Tasks that we couldn't do for one reason or another.
With the Titanic now in port it was only a matter of time. Lana and I started talking about what was going to happen, how to best introduce those that would be changed to their new lives. Naturally, the discussion found its way to Michael, and the worry I still felt. "Do you know what I hate the most? It's not knowing. I feel like it's eating me up. Now I know how a fish feels..." A stray memory of being a salmon crossed my mind. "Literally."
"So you've told me. But worrying is going to get you nowhere. You'll be alive a long time. Perhaps long enough to encounter him again. You never know."
That was some comfort, at least.
Then we waited more. But not as long as it seemed, for seven days after the ship arrived, at noon on April 10th, the Titanic left port for a destination she would never reach.
Orca had assigned us the Task of providing the ship with an Honor Guard on her way out to sea. Bow Wave Surfing was great fun, and actually took less energy than going the same speed on one's own. The wave at Titanic's bow was the largest I'd ever surfed! But it took a lot of concentration. It didn't help to have a human standing right on the railing and yelling "I'm the king of the world!" at the top of his lungs.
When we felt we'd done as much as honor dictated we waited for Orca to appear. When he did he appeared with no sense of Presence, and he didn't say a word. He merely wrapped us in his blue glow and we vanished from the seas, reappearing in waters so cold for our current forms we changed back to what we really were instantly. "Wait here," he said, then vanished.
"Well, I guess he's a little preoccupied," Lana said. She looked happy to be back in her natural form. "And frankly, I'm a bit nervous myself."
"I know what you mean," I clicked back. "They should be here in only a few days."
"With all this ice around? Won't they slow down?"
"Not a chance! From what Orca told me about J. Bruce Ismay, he'll get Captain Smith to push for all available speed."
The sunset of Sunday, April 14 was the most beautiful I'd ever seen in my life, and I thought that only Nature herself could've had an actual hand in that display! The water was a flat calm, with no wind or moon to show the bergs that were everywhere. The stars shone more brightly than I'd ever seen in my life. Correction. In all my lives!
How could such a terrible tragedy happen on such a perfect night?
We heard her coming before we saw her. Her triple screws thrashing their way through the water. She was making at least twenty one knots, I judged. And heading straight for the ice field right in her path. "Looks like you were right," Lana said. Then we didn't do anything but watch and wait.
She was perhaps a half mile away. She was lit up like a Roman Candle, and heading right for a berg that I seemed to recognize from last January. A bell was suddenly rung with fervor from the crow's nest, and even from a half mile we heard a panicked voice. "Iceberg! Right ahead!"
She hit, the hull scraping along the berg like a harpoon going into a whale.
We could only watch in horror as the bow sank lower and lower in the water. Lifeboats were launched. White distress rockets flashed above. We heard a band playing ragtime tunes. There was a steady murmur of voices that got louder and louder as the largest moving object yet built by man sank into the cold North Atlantic. We'd taken our hybrid forms in order to watch and listen better, but Lana turned her back once the forecastle submerged. There was a terrible clattering sound under water, so we were unable to return there. We sat on a berg and watched.
The lifeboats were finally gone. The bow took a plunge not long after, and I heard screams from those left on board. People started to leap from the stern and fall into the water, splashing around ineffectually and bringing their "death" more quickly. For within all that death I could feel the Presence of Orca's will. There was an increasing roar as everything not nailed down rushed forward as the stern lifted slowly into the air. Higher, and higher. Until there was such an angle to the deck it was a wonder that the lights were still on. As I thought of this, as if to mock me, they flickered a couple times and plunged us all into darkness.
Then there was a wholly new sound. It was a incredibly loud booming reverberation that sounded like bending, snapping metal. Which, of course it was. The Titanic broke in two, dragging down the stern with it at first, but then as I looked below with my Sight, the bow broke away and plunged for the bottom. The stern's huge shape was silhouetted against the starlight. It just seemed to hang there, fully vertical, for an eternity.
I watched with an odd sort of detached feeling as the stern sank lower, and lower. Then finally slipped beneath the waves for Eternity. Lana broke into tears. I joined her.
The crying drowned out the roaring noise of the fifteen hundred people in the water. But that sound was less disturbing than the fact that as time went on, it got quieter, and quieter. Finally, there was only silence.
Neither Lana nor I had noticed that we'd been holding each other in a very close embrace during the whole thing. Even when we noticed we still held each other closer. And still, we waited for Orca to give the all clear.
The signal came in the form of Orca's booming voice. "It is time for the Rebirth," he said from not too far away. Lana and I disentangled ourselves from each other, each a little embarrassed at what we were doing in the midst of a tragedy, then started for where we'd heard his voice from. But we didn't reach him before his next words seemed to shake the Sea itself! "AWAKEN, MY ADOPTED CHILDREN! IT IS TIME!"
And so began the work of helping hundreds of people begin new lives as different kinds of whales. Orca would awaken them in groups of about fifty. Lana and I saw little of each other as about ten other Disciples arrived to help us in our work. I briefly caught sight of Darius, who sent me an approving click. My heart swelled with pride. I was doing a good job!
Then there was a particularly difficult case. Orca sent his pulse to the jewelry the man was wearing, who then changed into an orca. But then he started to thrash around and go into some kind of convulsions! "I need help!" I clicked.
To my surprise, one of the other new orcas came to help me! At the first Feel of his Sight, I felt some kind of shock of recognition through my body. I knew this orca! But how? I was forced to push those thoughts out of my mind as the more pressing problem of keeping this man from dying again was more of a problem. Darius appeared out of nowhere, focused on the panicking whale's mind with one of his own Abilities. The orca started to calm. Darius sent a click of acknowledgment. "Good to see you, Mr. Andrews. We have much to talk about."
The now-calm whale said nothing, merely floating dejectedly in the water. Darius turned to the orca that had helped me. "I want to thank you, sir. You seem to be getting used to things rather quickly."
The voice that came out of him was hauntingly familiar. "I'll panic later, I think. I kept myself calm though the whole sinking. I'm not about to start now. I just wish I could remember my name..."
It came to me out of a fog of memory. "Your name is Michael Bates. You're from Rock Falls, Missouri. Born on May 21, 1843."
Darius and the new orca blinked at me, sending short clicks of amazement. Then the new one said, "You know, I believe he's right. Aren't you... Henry?"
We didn't question how we knew. It was just there.
What do you say to somebody whom you haven't seen nor spoke to for fifty years, and for several lives?
You act like you've never been separated.
Darius just stared for a long moment, then left the two of us to figure things out. Though he said he'd need to speak with us later.
My brother surfaced for a breath with the ease of one who had done it all his life. "Please help me with Mr. Andrews, Henry. He and I grew to be quite good friends aboard ship. It pains me to see him like this." He moved his right flipper around, as if amazed. "It'll keep my mind off what's happened to me."
It occurred to me that the nearly catatonic orca floating above us must be Thomas Andrews, the designer of the Titanic! "Perhaps while we're waiting we can trade stories of what's happened to one another in the past fifty years." I realized something. "Nearly fifty years exactly, I might add."
My brother and I surfaced for a breath, and we began a trade off of making sure Andrews kept his blowhole above water.
Michael had his own story to tell.
Shiloh, Tennessee, April 4 1862.
Peach blossoms. Falling like snow. Falling on what was left of my brother. Falling on my face, on my body frozen from shock. Falling.
I was the perfect target for even the most novice Rebel marksmen. But I didn't feel the shock as a bullet hit me in the right arm. Not until the arm lost all strength did I collapse to the ground, the arm folded underneath me. With the pain brought release. I screamed at the top of my lungs! But less from the pain then of the knowledge that it was my fault Henry was dead!
I used what strength I had to throw the gun away, it only went a few inches. At least I could no longer touch it. I never wanted to see the damned thing again! My injured arm felt numb, and I was getting weaker. The battle raged around me, and over me. I was nearly trampled by the stamping hooves of a Rebel horse.
I wish I could've thrown myself under, but I had no strength left. I simply lay there, waiting to die. But it would not come. Then I got thirsty. Somehow I dragged myself towards where I knew was a small pond. It was now twilight, and the battle had decreased to only a few shots. The dead and the dying surrounded me. I had to crawl over them to get to the water.
What was I doing? I was trying to die, wasn't I? Water wouldn't help me. So why was I crawling?
I made it to the pond, and reached down to use my good hand to scoop out some water for my parched throat. But there was a metallic tang when I tasted it... Blood?
Blood! I gagged and nearly lost my meager breakfast.
I groaned and rolled onto my back, going into a delirious daze. My thoughts going randomly in many directions. But mostly that ever-present question of "why?"
Why had I insisted on joining the army? Why did I ask Henry to go and get me ammo, when I knew he'd do whatever I told him? Why?
The world was growing dimmer, I saw things that were not there. Even what looked like a fairly large woman that could best be described as "handsome", though I wouldn't say that to her face! It's not that she was ugly, but from my spot on the ground she looked incredibly tall for a woman, with a long shock of dark hair that reminded me of a horse's mane. She was looking over the dead soldiers around me, pushing at them with blunt stick, or shaking them frantically. Then she saw me. "Coryn! I found another one!" she yelled in a surprisingly deep, yet feminine voice.
The voice that responded was quite the opposite. Soft, caring, but also frustrated and fatigued. "Don't just stand there, Amara. Pick him up so we can get him to the surgeon!"
"Right! Sorry. I'm not used to this, yet..." She lifted me up like I was nothing, her grip was stronger than anybody's I'd ever felt. Even a man's. "You're as light as a feather!" she said with a toothy smile.
Those teeth I'd seemed to have seen before. But they belonged in the mouth of a horse, not a human. I took one look at that and croaked, "You're as strong as a horse!"
"Why, thank you!"
I was placed in a cart with a few other surviving wounded, who were also groaning. And as we got closer to camp, I heard another sound. Screaming.
I was still delirious as I was put on the surgeon's bloody table. I saw the glint of a sharp knife before the horsey woman held me down. And then there was nothing but pain.
When I came to I knew my arm was gone, just above the elbow. The pain was so intense it was all I could do to keep from screaming at the top of my lungs! In fact, I did so on numerous occasions. Only the face of the nurse that tended me would stop my screaming. The face that belonged to that soft voice was just as odd as the horsey woman's, but it had a very different quality to it. Her eyes were large and brown, with large irises. Her hair was shoulder-length and a shade of red that I'd never seen before. She moved with a grace that was almost inhuman.
She moved like a deer, and with those features, perhaps one could say she looked like one, too.
I was one of hundreds of wounded, yet for some reason she was always there when I opened my eyes. I slept little, for whenever I closed my eyes all I saw was my brother being blown to pieces by that cannonball. But always, when I opened my eyes, was the kind face of the graceful nurse. She was a very silent person, and rarely said anything to me.
There was one rare moment when the pain had lessened, when I reached towards her while she was changing my bandage. "Please... I have to get out of here! I can't stand this! There is nothing for me here!" I would hardly remember what I said, as the movement produced pain that made me fall into unconsciousness.
But before I passed out completely, I saw her nod.
When next I awoke I could already tell I was no longer in the manor house that had served as a hospital. I felt a warm, wet cloth on my forehead, I was weak and unable to move. A soothing voice came from above. "Shhh. Don't say a word. You've been very sick. Your wound got infected."
I groaned but couldn't croak out anything other than a weak, "Where am I?"
"In my cabin about twenty miles west of Boston. You said you wanted to leave, so I decided to grant your request. You've been sick for quite some time." The cloth was once more wiped across my brow. "Sleep, and get well. We'll discuss your future once you regain your strength."
Sometimes in my delirium, I'd open my eyes and see not the face of my familiar nurse. But instead the face of a doe. Yet she had hands, hands that were covered by fur and were tipped by thick black nails. Sometimes it was like I was seeing both faces at once, the human inside the doe. There was a deep concern in either face, as well as an equally deep curiosity.
This time there were no nightmares. Only odd dreams. It felt like my mind was being peeled away, to reveal memories so deep that I never knew they were there. They were made of strange images in muted tones of gray, my field of view distorted in such a way I seemed to be seeing things nearly behind me. The feeling of walking on all fours, moveable ears that were very large. And a tail.
Thought was simple and instinct-driven. A large thing blocked my vision directly forward. The world was a grayish mass of leaves and grass that I seemed to be eating. They tasted quite good, actually. Those were the most peaceful of images. Others weren't quite so benign...
I stared at the other buck in front of me, ears backward against my neck, head lowered and antlers forward. But he didn't back down. So the battle was joined in earnest. CLACK! The sound echoed through the woods. CLACK! We only tangled twice, but that was enough to teach my rival that I could not be beaten. He turned and galloped off as quickly as he could! I chased him for a short time, then returned to the doe I'd defended...
I awoke from the dreams with a feeling of complete satisfaction, though I didn't remember any specifics. I felt much better, though weak. I snapped open my eyes, and found myself staring at the wooden roof beams of a small cabin. I turned my head to the side, and found it to be just as small as I thought. Perhaps ten feet by twenty, with a stone fireplace at one end; where a fire was merrily burning. There was a kettle on a hook, with a lid that was hopping up and down as if there was something being cooked inside. It smelled like some kind of soup or stew.
For a brief moment it felt like my right arm was still there, but when I tried to move it all I saw was the stump. But the end looked to be better than the raw meat it'd resembled before, when I looked under the bandage. There was a bandage of medium thickness over it. I put the bandage back and sat up in bed.
I was certainly alone in the cabin, but there was obviously somebody else taking care of me. The look of the place indicated that person was female. I suddenly remembered her soft voice and gentle touch. I was hungry, but since she wasn't around I resolved to get out of bed and get myself some of that meaty-smelling stew.
My coordination was off, and I was unused to missing an arm. I flailed around with my left arm until I managed to grab a hold of the covers and throw them off. Ever so slowly, I stood up on weak legs. There was a small window just above the bed, so I looked out to get an idea of what the world out of doors looked like.
Oak trees full of the dark green of late Spring, the leaves moving back and forth in a gentle breeze. I loved trees, we had a few to act as windbreaks at the farm, but nothing like this! I looked down. There were at least a dozen deer just in the narrow view out the window! They all scattered the moment they saw me, except for one doe. One that looked somehow familiar. She was gone when I blinked. Then the door opened and a woman walked in. "You're awake. Good."
It was the red-headed, graceful nurse who had tended me back at the manor house after the battle. She was clothed in a simple gray dress and blouse. She came in and closed the door, sitting down next to the fireplace to stir the stew. "I hope you like this. I'm not all that good at cooking," she got a disgusted look on her face, "meat."
I sat back down on the bed, still a bit too weak to stand. "Why did you bring me here?"
"You asked me. Don't you remember? You said you wanted to leave the hospital, among other things. And I was getting sick of tending all those wounded. So much blood..." She took a deep breath, closing her eyes as if to wash them of things she didn't want to see. "I think you can understand."
I understood all too well. "That still don't answer my question," I replied. "Why me?"
"I don't think you would believe me if I told you. Once you regain your strength we can decide what you want to do next. I'm quite willing to help you go where you want to go, since you've already answered my questions." She took out a bowl and ladled in some stew. It smelled a bit odd, but had large chunks of meat and vegetables. She put the bowl on a plate and put a large slab of bread next to it. "I hope you enjoy this. I got the recipe from a friend of mine in Boston."
It was quite good, actually. Though I wasn't used to having acorns in a stew! A little later in the day we had company. A woman and a short man. The woman looked not unlike my benefactress, having the reddish hair and deer-like grace to her movements. But the man was a bit plump, with faint dark patches around his eyes. He also had odd hair that was grayish with black hairs mixed in. He had nimble-looking hands she was always doing something with, at that particular moment he was whittling.
The trio came into the cabin while I was still struggling to use my left hand for eating. I'd been right-handed before. I probably spilled half the stew. They sat down in roughly-made chairs set near my bed. My nurse spoke first. "We need to introduce myself ourselves, I think. I'm Coryn, that's Whitetail," pointing at the other woman, "and the one with the stick is Bandit."
"Odd names ya have," I commented. "Odd" failed to even begin to describe these three. But even a country bumpkin like myself knew something of manners.
The two women looked at each other for a moment. I got the impression that Coryn was somehow a subordinate to Whitetail. The little man just sat there, whittling away at his wood. Coryn looked at me again. "We're an odd group," she said with a grin. "But we also can feel the pain you must be going through."
I set my spoon down. "Ya do? How? I haven't told ya anythin'!"
"Like the woman said," the little man said, "we're strange people." For a moment the man's hands opened enough that I could see what he was carving. It looked like a raccoon on a log. "But perhaps we can help you out in some way, in return for what you've already told us."
I blinked. "I haven't told ya anythin'! I just want to know what's goin' on!"
"What's going on, Michael, is that in return for services rendered, we're willing to send you anywhere you want to go. If you want to go home..."
My response to that suggestion was immediate. I don't know what I'd done for me, but their offer seemed genuine. "NO! I don't want to go home! Father..." Father would kill me. I was sure he had that shotgun all polished up just so he could shoot Henry and I as soon as we appeared on the road up to the house. Except Henry was already dead.
Why wasn't I? Because, when I thought about it, I really didn't want to die. But I couldn't return home. Where could I go? "I don't know what I want to do..." I said with a sigh.
Whitetail smiled and leaned back in her chair. Her ears seemed to move a little, but that was probably only a trick of the light filtering through the trees. The sun was low in the west by now. "It's a big world. Do whatever you want to do."
I stood up and looked at the forest out the window. I remembered that Coryn had said that we were close to Boston. That was the farthest east I'd ever been in my life. Far from the farm where I'd grown up. Far from Shiloh. Far from Henry's memory. The farther, the better. "How about east? I'm sure there are other places out there. My grandparents came from someplace called 'Great Britain', or so Father said."
Coryn pointed to a few bookshelves that were nailed to the wall opposite the fireplace. "I've got one or two things about Britain. Maybe you can read them while you get better."
"Uh... I can't read. Father always said it would 'give you bad ideas' or some such." I thought a moment, then smiled when I knew that reading was something father would definitely disapprove of. "But I'm game to learn."
"'Game'?" Coryn said. "Oh. I see what you mean. I'm willing to teach if you're willing to learn." She looked at Whitetail, who nodded approval. Something else seemed to pass between them. "I'm willing to have my friends here look into passage eastward if you want to go. Just tell us where and we'll send you."
That seemed agreeable, so we shook hands on the deal. Our two guests lefts not too long after. Though they seemed to not have used any horses or anything. They'd just vanished into the forest without a trace. As if they'd never existed. "Gawd Almighty..." I swore.
"Shall we get started?" Coryn said.
It wasn't easy by any means. Some of the words were complex and their meanings often escaped me. But as the weeks passed and spring turned into summer, I was actually able to read through several pages without needing to ask Coryn what a certain word meant. My speech even changed, I no longer said "ain't" or clipped words short. The book itself was fascinating! It was a history of Britain from Roman to modern times. Coryn looked on approvingly. "You're about strong enough to travel. Have you decided where you want to go?"
I closed the book and smiled at her. The first smile since Henry and I had left to fight the war.
We left for Boston the next day. It was early in the morning, and when I looked out the window there were all those deer again. They'd gotten used to my presence, and I theirs; though they would always would stop eating and watch me as I moved around. They looked at Coryn with what seemed to me a sense of awe and respect. I glanced back at the deer-woman. "They like you, I think."
"Oh? How can you tell?"
I looked at the ten deer or so that were closest, then I looked back at her. I'd always seemed to me that they were always one and the same. Coryn was a very mysterious woman, with a lot of secrets. "They almost seem to consider you one of them."
Her laugh seemed to go on just a little bit too long. "Perhaps I am, and you just don't know it." She took a deep breath to stop chuckling. "Now, shall we go?"
I looked around. No horses were present. She had no wagon. "How? Walk?"
She put a hand on my right shoulder. It seemed to be glowing the color of the leaves that surrounded us. "Exactly."
The next thing I remembered was awakening in a new bed, with an odd scent in my nostrils. I sat up in the bed and looked around the room. I'd never been in one before, but I could only be in some sort of inn. Coryn walked in as if called. "Good, you're awake."
"What happened? I seem to have lost track of several hours..." I looked down at my arm. I swore that the hair there had a reddish tint to it. But that was rapidly fading.
"It's not as long a walk as it seems. There was a train station not to far from my cabin. It took us about four hours to walk there, then we took the train into the city. Right now we're in a dockside inn. You made a beeline for the bar then spent the rest of the night drinking."
I'd done something like that once before, when father had sent me into town. I'd gone into the local saloon and drank more than was perhaps wise. Yet another reason for Father to beat me. But with Father no longer a part of my life it was no surprise that I'd want to try it again. That would explain the headache, actually. As well as the momentary double image I saw... Coryn looked for an instant like some kind of deer/human cross. "I'll never touch beer again..." I swore. When I looked up she was normal again. Though she still smelled like a deer. Only now did I notice, since they were always around before. Not all that unpleasant, actually. "What next?"
"I've booked passage for you on a clipper ship owned by a friend of mine. He's bound for Liverpool in two days. I'll give you some British money and once you're there, you're on your own." She put a small duffel bag on the bed. "I got some clothing for you. I hope it fits."
I opened the bag. There were three shirts, three pairs of trousers, a pair of boots, a frock coat, a hat, and some underthings and socks. "They look about right. What's the name of the ship?" I took another breath. "And what's that smell?"
"The ship is called the Actaeon, and that smell is the harbor. It doesn't smell very good, does it?"
I took another deep breath. "Actually, it's sort of like freshly turned earth after plowing."
She just stared at me for a moment. "Whatever you say. I'm going to be leaving in the morning. So don't spend all your money in one place. Boston is a big city. If you want to explore then don't go far. You could easily get lost."
I never left the inn. I was leaving the United States of America forever, as far as I was concerned. For what possible reason would I want to see more of it? The next day I saw Coryn off. There was little I could really say to her that I hadn't already. She'd saved my life. Perhaps I'd find a way to repay that one day. Though how I did not know.
I did spend the time I had before the ship was supposed to leave walking the docks. The first time I left the inn I must've stood there for at least fifteen minutes, simply staring at the forest of masts from ships of every kind. I felt a sudden surge of curiosity. And I wondered how it all worked.
The next day I went to find the Actaeon. Coryn had given me directions to a certain dock, as well as a description of the man whom I was supposed to meet. Strange she hadn't just described the ship, I thought. I found the man at the end of one of the long wharves on the North End of the city. He was dressed in a pair of rough canvas trousers, a kind of floppy hat, and a shirt made out of equally rough blue cloth. He caught sight of me, and then surprised me with his voice. "There you are! Coryn said you'd be here by noon, it's half past now. I was beginning to think you'd gotten lost in the city." He shook my hand and hurried me into the longboat. "Well, don't waste time we sail with the afternoon tide, you know."
I barely had time to throw in my duffel bag before the lines were undone and the four other seamen started to row out toward the many ships that were at anchor out in Boston Harbor. About fifteen minutes after shoving off, I caught my first sight of the Actaeon.
She was beautiful.
"Never seen a tall ship before, my boy?" Said the man I'd met. I shook my head no. "Never? Where are you from?"
"Missouri. I've never even seen the ocean before!"
He looked as me as if I was some sort of alien thing. "Perhaps before we go further I should introduce myself. I'm Captain Edward Farthing of the Actaeon."
That the captain of such a wonderful ship could look so much like his crew had never occurred to me. "Pleased to meat you," I replied, once again extending my hand, which nearly unbalanced on the slightly rolling longboat. "You'll excuse me if I don't shake your hand this time. I'm Michael Bates."
"Pleased to meet you, again." He looked at my missing arm. "Fought in the war? Don't answer, because it's plain on your face. I take it that's the reason why you're leaving the States?" I nodded slowly. "Ah. I see. No reason to go into specifics. I just want you to have a pleasant voyage to Liverpool."
I looked at the ship, she seemed to be riding high in the water. I asked about this while we were drawn up to her side. Captain Farthing smiled sadly. "I'm afraid we don't have much cargo for the voyage east. But I have a mind to try my luck on getting a contract to ship Chinese tea. We Brits love our tea, we do." He chuckled.
A rope ladder was dropped over the side. My duffel bag was tossed upward onto the deck. "I don't know if I can climb that, sir..." I was only barely used to using my left arm for easy tasks, let alone climbing.
"Nonsense!" He turned to his crew. "Hoist the landlubber up, boys! Then make fast the lines! We sail in a half hour!"
I was hauled up on deck before I could say otherwise. I felt not a little bit humiliated. I wasn't helpless after all. I just stood next to my duffel bag and waited for orders on what to do next, spending my time looking at the ship around me, amazed by the complexity of the rigging and the fact that the crew seemed to have no trouble remembering what went there. It was an odd feeling just standing on the deck. There was a tension... no... an anticipation in the air as the crew made ready to sail. I could feel it so acutely it was almost physical.
The air was filled with the sounds of booming canvas as a few small sails were unfurled and caught on the fresh breeze out of the west. The anchor was raised, and with the ease of long practice, Captain Farthing maneuvered out of Boston Harbor out into the Atlantic. All the while I just stood there, dumbfounded and ignored by the crew. Listening to the sounds of the wind through the rigging, and the orders barked by the Captain.
Perhaps an hour or so later did he return to me. "Are you okay, my boy? You look a might flushed. But I thought you'd like to see your home country one more time before you leave it forever."
He led me over to the stern rail, I finally looked up. My last sight of America, a place I'd always considered home, was a dim purple haze on the horizon. But there was nothing for me there any more. I turned my back on it. Captain Farthing gave me a sad look. "Come, Mr. Bates. Let's get you settled below decks. You have a long trip ahead of you. Perhaps longer than you think."
Little did I know just how right he was.
Liverpool, England. August 23, 1862.
It was raining when I stepped onto the dock. And, as I would quickly discover, rain was the norm for most part of the British Isles. But I didn't care. I had a fistful of sketches that I'd made during the two week voyage across the Atlantic. Little did I know just how important those would be to me.
The first day out from Boston I'd spent standing in the bow of the ship, hardly moving. I listened to the sound of the wind through the rigging, the splash of the water against the hull, the booming sound the sails made. I took deep breaths, just taking in the soul of the ship and the Sea.
It was love at first sight, really. The way the light shimmered and changed late in the day as the sun went below the horizon. The up and down of her waves, forcing me to shift my balance to keep from falling over. I looked--no--stared at her in utter speechless admiration. What else could it be? The Sea and I would be lovers forevermore. There could be no others.
The ship was carrying a small cargo of something unbreakable, so the cargo hold was very empty. Empty enough for me to look and see how things were made. There was a central large piece of wood called a "keel", flanked by regularly spaced struts called "ribs" that made up most of the structure of the ship. But these were just the basics. I wanted more.
Spar, rigging, mast, sail, ratlins, backstay, halyard, braces, downhauls, shroud, foremast, mizzen mast, top sail, royal, topmast, stud sails, stay sails, flying jib, outer jib, crossjack, spanker... There was just so much to learn! I wanted it all! But my initial hopes were dashed to bits. There was no use for a one-armed man on a ship of any kind.
I'd never know what prompted me to pick up some paper and a pencil from the Captain's store of them, after asking his permission first. From then on, about two days into the voyage, I could be found sitting on the deck with the pencil in hand, sketching what I saw. They weren't very good, but I could decipher what each thing was and deduce what it did when the crew wouldn’t answer my questions.
During meals, when I'd look over the day's sketches, the Captain would answer my questions more thoroughly. When I was confused between what exactly did what, he would gladly clear up my confusion. It was the beginning of a working knowledge about ships and how they worked.
I was a bit unsure of what to do next after I stepped off the ship, though. Here I was in Britain, finally. But I honestly didn't know what I was going to do next after I got there. I had one hundred "pounds" (of what, I wondered), that Coryn had given me. So I decided that I'd find a boarding house or someplace to stay until I decided what to do with my life, now that I was here.
Liverpool was alive with travelers on their way to other places. I heard people speaking in many languages, and in that ever-present English lilt that was music to my ears. No American spoke as they did! I suddenly found that I wanted to speak like that. Correction. I had to speak like that. This was home, and I was going to become as British as I could.
I started by drinking tea. Something that seemed rather small at first, but it was a step in the right direction. I also spent my days in the Liverpool marketplaces, listening to the way people spoke; then at night I would practice what I heard. In only two weeks, when I was buying my tea, the merchant gave me a startled look. "You sound like you're from Kent, but you look like an American."
There was a flaw in my plan, I saw.
My funds were reduced to under fifty pounds after a trip to the local clothing shop. But now I looked as well as sounded British. But unfortunately, the façade didn't work on everybody. It came on a day that I'd spent thinking about what to really do next. I had to find a job of some kind. Something to do with ships. Anything.
My applications to the various shipping and passenger ship lines were all rejected. The apologies were all polite, of course. And all proper. All. Very. Proper.
By the tenth rejection I wanted to punch the man out. And I nearly did. If not for a man I would soon call my closest friend. The man grabbed me by the jacket and dragged me out the door. "So sorry, old boy! My friend here had a bit much to drink last night and I'm afraid he's still over the barrel. Cheerio!" When we were out in the alley he dusted me off and apologized. "Sorry, but I don't think you want to spend any time with the bobbies. They can get rather rough." He looked at me close, I could smell fish on his breath and on his mustache. "You're a very good English imitator for an American."
I leaned against the wall, still coming down from my overreaction. "Thank you very much. I was on the verge of doing something rather daft. Your name is?"
His black handlebar mustache seemed to cover his lips almost fully. It moved back and forth, giving his facial expressions a rather comical bent. "Brendan Lyons at your service." He was wearing a suit of clothes that looked old and frayed, but at some point must've been very fine. He was otherwise well-groomed, and his bowler hat was perhaps the newest thing on him.
I took his offered hand and shook it gratefully. "Michael Bates. And you're right, I'm an American. How could you tell?"
"Let's just say that I see things very clearly. But it was my pleasure." He looked at me again. "Perhaps we have a bit more in common other than the fact we need a job. What say we discuss it over dinner. You're buying."
It was the least I could do, so we went to a small café close by the boarding house where I was staying. Over dinner, he told me a bit about himself. "See these rags? They used to be quite a fine suit. I wore it to many a dinner party. Ah... those were the days." He took a sip of some beer. His third glass for the night.
"What happened to make you lose it all?" I asked, taking a bite of fish.
"Bad luck, I suppose. I really can't put a finger on it. But within a week the bank came and took everything. I barely got out the door with the clothes on my back. That was nearly three years ago, when I was forty. I've been a vagabond ever since, moving from job to job. I may have been rich but I do have some skills. Carpentry was a hobby of mine." He took another deep gulp of beer. "So, what brings you here to England?"
I drummed my fingers on the table, unsure of how to answer. "Escape, I guess. I've read a lot about Britain and decided to try it out for a while. As simple as that."
He gave me another one of those penetrating looks, wiping the beer foam from that mustache of his. "I see," he said simply, looking at my missing arm. "So, tell me. Exactly where in America are you from?"
I gave him the short version of my life story while he drank more beer. When I was finished his eyes looked a bit glazed over and unfocused. "Thas a good ssstory. Sad story, too. But ya got any skills you can use?"
I hadn't touched any drinks beyond milk, keeping true to the promise I'd made in Boston. "Well, living on a farm you have to know a lot of odd jobs. I know a bit of carpentry and other odds and ends. What did you have in mind?"
He gulped down another half tankard of beer and wiped his mouth. "I've heard of a company down in Wales that hires anybody they can get their hands on. But I've not had the money to get me there. How much of that hundred pee you got left?"
"'Pee'? Ah. You mean 'pounds'." I checked my wallet. "About ten..."
He raised his half-full tankard of foaming beer. "Terrific! Tomorrow we shall leave for Gwynedd and see what the future may bring!" His brief moment of steadiness vanished as he downed the beer, then suddenly collapsed in a heap on the floor.
I paid for our meals and considered what to do next. I couldn't leave my new friend sprawled on the floor in such an undignified matter, of course. "Can somebody give me a hand, here? I'm afraid I only have one..." I said, smiling. Two acquaintances of mine obligingly carried him up to my room, and dumped him unceremoniously on the floor. "Thanks," I told them. They tipped their hats and left me to my unconscious charge.
It was then that I found out just how difficult a drunk could be. He flailed around when I tried to move him, making growling sounds like some sort of sleeping lion. He'd flex his hands like he had claws, even. I once more swore to myself that I would never touch drink or spirits. I used what dexterity I had to maneuver him into my bed. But I was unexpectedly knocked out when he made a slashing motion with one arm.
When I opened my eyes the next morning, what I saw nearly scared me out of my shoes! There was a lion's paw right above my face! I moved backward against the wall, knocking myself on the head again, but not enough to knock me out.
There was a lion on my bed.
Frankly, I didn't know they could get that big. He had a full mane that was nearly black, and a pair of dark marks over his eyes that gave him a permanently angry expression, even with his eyes closed. I could see his tufted tail swishing slowly behind. Yet there was a gentleness to the beast that showed through that scowl. And his whiskers seemed overly thick and hung down over his mouth. Exactly like Brendan's mustache. I blinked.
Then there was a shift in the light, and it... changed. Or did it? I had to see if what I was seeing was real. There seemed to be both Brendan and the lion occupying the same space. I reached out to touch him, just to be sure what I was seeing was right. But I only felt his normal clothing.
What was wrong with me?
I went and threw open the curtains and turned back to face him. The image was still there, but was nearly drowned out by the bright sunlight. The light stirred him, and he groaned. "Bugger," he said, "I did it again, didn't I? Complete with those dreams, even..."
"What dreams?" I asked, still trying to shake the image from my mind. It was still there, faintly. And it moved as he did.
"Odd ones. I'm a lion, living at they do. Mostly lazing about in the sun, really. That's all the males really do. Silly, eh?"
I nodded agreement, putting the whole thing out of my mind. "Yes. Silly. Perhaps we ought to get moving?"
"Not until I've at least had some tea... Lord, I feel awful." My new friend groaned and collapsed on my bed again, the double-image finally vanishing without a trace. Though I still had a headache.
"I'll go down and get us some. Just sit tight." I left the room and went down to the boarding house's kitchen, where a small pot was always kept at the ready. When I returned I found my hair-lipped friend looking at the ship sketches I had laid out on the small table. "Don't laugh. They're how I use my copious spare time."
Brendan looked a bit injured. "I'm not laughing, Michael. They're very good. In an exacting sort of way..."
"Oh? What do you mean?"
"They look more like a draftsman's work. I don't see any rulers or anything around here, either. You said last night you were right-handed?"
"When one loses certain things, one learns to adapt. Here's your tea." I set the cup down on the table. "I don't know how you take it, so I have a few lumps of sugar on the tray. Take it as you please. And when you feel well enough, we'll leave for Gwynedd." I felt a sudden need to move on. I'd worn out every possibility here. I'd need to find a job to fill my pockets, and soon.
We left Liverpool just as soon as Brendan was steady on his feet. I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. I'd come into this country with no skills whatsoever! What the hell was I thinking?
Wales was a mountainous country. But is was as beautiful in the rain as the fields of Missouri were after planting. We rode the train towards Gwynedd, watching the scenery go by. I recited some of what I remembered about the town's apparent namesake. "'Gwynedd' was the name of one of the most long lasting lordships in Wales. Gwynedd and England warred with each other for two hundred years, until in about 1282 the last ruler of Gwynedd died." I pointed at the ruins of the castle looming in the grayish gloom, "That's why the English built so many castles. To put down rebellion."
My friend stared at me for a long moment. "I'm embarrassed. You know more about my country that I do."
"Reading your history is one of the things that inspired me to come here." I leaned out the window. "Looks like there isn't far to go. Funny, I thought it might take longer..."
"We're not as big as the States. Just sit tight. You young people are always so impatient."
My headache had returned. And with it, the odd double images. But this time it wasn't confined to Brendan, whose head was once again overlaid with that of the lion I'd seen earlier. I swore I also saw a ghostly tail swinging behind. But my hallucination wasn't confined to my friend. I saw... other things, too.
Over in the front of the car was a woman who seemed to have a pair of horns, and small ears that went straight outward from her skull. Against her black hair there was a sheen of stiff whitish fur. I heard the faint sound of stubborn bleating in her direction, where she was arguing with her husband. Her husband was quite a contrast. A long spotted feline tail swished behind, and as he argued with his wife in a calm, purring voice. Lastly, the child who was standing between them had the look long-snouted lizard with many pointed teeth. The child was ravenously biting into a lollipop.
There were others, too: A fly-headed man read a newspaper sitting next to a window, his antennae seeming to be feeling the page. A cute freckle-faced girl not more than four looked like she had the bare head of a vulture. I had to close my eyes for a moment, or at least look away from the visions. I decided to look down at the floor, where someone had brought along a terrier... A terrier with a human face. I felt faint and shut my eyes.
After some minutes of deep thought, I came to a kind of realization. Looking at these images, there was always the feeling of seeing something that once was. An echo of the past. Of course, following that line of thought meant that my friend Mr. Lyons had been a...
I decided that I must be going quite mad. But the realization didn't go away. But the visions did, at least. For a while. Brendan looked concerned. "Are you okay? You look a bit peaked."
The world would never be the same again. I just nodded numbly and waited for the train to stop at the station. My friend and I joined the rest of the throng of other hopeful workers. The train was about a third passengers and the rest was cargo. About thirty flatcars of lumber for the ships that were being built here. Seeing that, I decided that this might not be a bad alternative to working aboard ship. After all, somebody has to build them. Why not me?
But the others tended to give me looks that said "What are you doing here?" But I had to try. We were forced to go to an area that was marked "New Workers", for people with little or no experience with shipbuilding. There were at least fifty of us waiting in front of a raised platform, wondering how many of us they would choose. Or if they would choose any at all.
When nobody appeared, a quiet murmur slowly spread around the crowd. A murmur which got louder and louder as some of those more vocal voiced the opinion "We've been stiffed! They're not going to hire us! I'm leaving!" About seven followed him out the door to the courtyard. While I was focused on more pressing matters. My headache had returned in full force. And with it, the visions.
One man got fed up enough that he waved his fist angrily in the air. What I saw was like the end of a bird's wing. I could just make out the tips of black feathers, and the long beak of a human-sized crow around his head, as it cawed with his shouting. One man, who was wearing clothing that was little more than rags, was clothed in an illusion that made him seem like a very well-dressed bird of some sort. A tall bird that stood upright and made it look like he was wearing a tuxedo over his rags.
I felt like I was standing in the middle of some cageless zoo, and the animals were getting angrier and angrier. Then two men appeared from a door behind the platform. When I saw them I absolutely knew I was going mad. For their forms seemed like more than an illusion, but totally real. One man looked like a tiger, and the other a dolphin. Their blending of human and animal features was so complete that I gaped openly. I saw no double-image as I did with the others. I had to be going mad.
The happy-faced dolphin looked in my direction, and made a startled sound from the top of his head. He poked his striped companion on the shoulder and said something too quiet for me to hear over the crowd. The tiger looked directly at me with his inhuman amber eyes that widened in shock. Oddly, for a moment the tiger-man looked panicked as I felt! Then a look of concentration crossed his face...
"Are you okay, Michael? You have that look again," Brendan said, interrupting my line of thought.
"What? Oh." I looked up towards the platform again, to see the two men, one who looked to be from India and a happy-faced Englishman, who were both scrutinizing the crowd closely. "You really must've hit me on the head hard last night."
"I did that? I'm sorry." He raised his right hand. "I'll never touch spirit or drink again. That better?" His promise had the air of something he'd done many times before. He didn't mean it. He was chewing on his mustache nervously. But I didn't want to come right out and say that I didn't believe him.
So I nodded, not wanting to offend him. "Better. Now let's see what these men have to say."
The Indian raised his hands in the air and his voice rose to a volume that it was almost like he was roaring. An incredible thing for such a short man. "ATTENTION PLEASE!" That shut up the lot of us instantly. "Thank you," he continued in a lightly accented voice, "and welcome to Gwynedd. As you may know already, Cetacan hires a certain percentage of you unskilled folk with each job. In case you are wondering why, it's very simple. We benefit just as much for teaching you skills as you get from the skills themselves.
"Anyway, on with the questioning." He looked around at the crowd with a penetrating, almost predatory, look. "You there, sir!" He pointed right at Brendan. "Do you have any experience with carpentry or metalwork?"
It surprised me that he'd called on Brendan first, and my friend stammered an answer. The Indian seemed to like what he heard and my hair-lipped companion was taken into the building. As he walked away he whispered in my ear. "I'll put in a good word for you!" I didn't doubt he would. So I waited.
And I waited.
Then when I was finished waiting, I waited some more.
Out of the fifty of so men that had originally been in the courtyard, there were only five of us left. And those four were watching me with a certain distaste. A good portion of the men had been just given a cursory glance and dismissed outright. Except for me and these few others. It was getting dark and I hadn't eaten a bite since the morning.
The Englishman ("Mr. Happy Face", as I thought of him) reappeared out of the door, looking over the rest of us. "We just need one more man to fill out the roster. So one of you is going to come in for tea and dinner, while the rest of you will have to try your luck elsewhere." One by one, he fixed each one of us with a certain look. It was a very, very odd stare, really. Each man seemed to become a little dizzy under it. And them he came to me.
For a brief moment, it was as if a window had been opened in my mind. An instant where the years past stretched out behind me like a train two million cars long... Then the door closed, and vanished. Happy Face extended his hand. "Come on in, sir. I'm James Bottleman. And I've got a job for you."
The other four men started to yell. "Why him?! He's a cripple!" "One arm can't handle lumber!" "Why not pick a man who's all in one piece?" "I'll punch yer face in!"
The last man did try to take a swing at Happy Face, but the smile never left his face as he met the angry man's fist in midair. "Naughty, naughty." Then the smile dropped from his expression. I saw then that this was a man you did not want to get angry. The look he gave the man was pure ice. "Do that again and I'll toss you out by your ear." He glared at the others, who withered under his stare. "That goes for you, too. Good evening." The men left with nary a word.
The smile reappeared just as soon as they left. "Now, where were we... what was your name?"
"Michael Bates." I smiled widely. Then I thought a moment. "Just what kind of job can a one-armed man do, anyway?" Not that I cared what I got. Anything that got me closer to the ships that I'd seen rising in the yard.
My only answer was a wider grin.
Gwynedd, Wales. September 3, 1865.
Three years of sweeping floors. Three years. And I didn't mind a bit. For the place that I cleaned up was the Research and Development Department, located in a building that had a spectacular view of the Shipyard. I worked mostly in the evenings, with the light of the oil lamps illuminating the large vaulted space of the Drafting Room, where often there were various in-progress designs laid in full view on large angled tables.
I truly wondered why they needed me at all. The draftsmen were very clean, and I only needed to mop the floors and clean the tables once before my job was mostly finished. This gave me time to look at the ships that the naval architects were working on. I took what I saw, then when I wasn't working, went back to my sketches at home and made changes. Yet, there were times when what was drawn on the paper didn't quite seem right to me. A spar out of place, too many shroud lines, a bit less curve on the sternpost than I thought would work. So, about two years after my arrival, I started to make small corrections to their work.
Nobody caught me.
Ships were launched. Schooners, clippers, barks, brigs, and others. Eventually virtually no ships left the Yard that hadn't known my touch. But I never made it obvious.
For my friend Brendan and I life had taken a turn for the better. Normally when a ship was finished a man was out of work until the next one was contracted. But Cetacan did things differently; when somebody shows some kind of talent at what they do, they were normally kept on. Such had happened to Brendan.
When I wasn't working I was at our small house in town, making my own designs and putting what I'd learned into practice. It was too bad that none of these ideas would ever be built, I thought. I only worked half the time that Brendan did and got less than a third the pay. But with the both of us we were able to find a two-bedroom house that had everything we needed. So while he worked, I drew.
My current project was a little craft called a "gaff-rigged catboat". It was a small boat, about twenty feet long with a fairly wide beam compared to her length and deep draft, giving her a lot of stability in the water. Her single mast was stepped on very nearly the point of the bow, and was rigged in the way that gave the boat her name. The mast supported a boom about halfway up that angled out about ten degrees from the vertical, which in turn supported a four-sided sail. She had a very small cabin for comfort, equipment, and enough stores for a full day's sail in any direction. The perfect little boat for Brendan and I to have a bit of fun on the water. And with luck, we'd soon have the money to build it.
The house was rather small, but it had a large yard and a shed in the back. It was placed on a small hill that had a view of the Menai Strait, with the island of Angelesey in view just across; though most of the time the island was nearly hidden by the frequent rains that swept across at any time of the year. The masts of the clippers and other ships being fitted out in the Shipyard were also plainly visible, though partly hidden by the other houses and warehouse buildings. We were often awoken by the supply trains arriving with their lumber early in the morning, blowing their whistles. It was a very pleasant place to live.
Then how come I still felt like my life was going nowhere? Like I was running in place?
I gazed at the piles and piles of rolled-up vellums that occupied a corner of the room. I'd experimented with dozens of kinds of ships, trying to find the perfect combination of material, hull lines, rigging plan, and what I hoped would be the same kind of "Soul" that I'd felt aboard the Actaeon three years before. But I doubted I'd ever find out of anything I'd done might come to fruition. I was only a lowly janitor, after all. And a useless one at that.
I was still staring at the nearly-finished catboat when Brendan arrived, whistling happily. "Michael, I have some great news!" He said loud enough for me to hear him from the front room. "I just came from the bank, and I do believe we've gotten enough saved up that we can start up that little project of yours." When I didn't answer, he came into my drafting room. "Michael? Are you okay?"
I looked up at him, seeing that ghostly leonine double-image once again. A sight I'd slowly gotten used to in the years since I'd first seen it. In fact, it'd gotten harder and harder for me to separate the image from the man, so I no longer tried. The lion was Brendan, and Brendan was the lion. They were inseparable. But I hadn't seen that particular image in at least a month, since the last time I'd gotten a headache. It was only then that I noticed that my head was hurting just a little bit. I only got these headaches when I was under a lot of strain. "I'm fine. Just got one of those blasted headaches again..."
My mustached friend looked at the backs of his hands. "I still don't see any paws. Are you seeing the lion again?" I'd told him about my little problem about a year ago. It was a month before he'd even speak to me again afterwords. I still wondered if he thought I was mad. Hell, I still wondered that myself! I nodded, and my leonine friend continued. "I just wish I could see it, too. No matter. But if you're ready, we can go see about buying the lumber. I remember our agreement, after all. You draw it, I'll build it." He smiled, the lion-image's tail swishing back and forth.
Even the image had changed over the years. Most of the time it was like a normal lion, on all fours. But today, it was more like some kind of cross with a human. It was as if my friend had become more closely related with his Echo. But this was a puzzle for another time. "I thought you'd never say that! Let's go!" On the stump of my right arm I strapped on a special prosthetic that I'd had made. It wasn't anything fancy, but it had a hook for hanging things like a pouch for my designs. Very useful.
In a town where half the population or more was people who worked for the Company it was surprisingly hard to find the right lumber. It took a week to get all the materials into the shed, and another month before Brendan could even start on it. Such is what happens when manpower is too small for the amount of work that the Company had, since he had to put in extra hours. Trainloads of workers arrived daily, yet there always seemed to be not enough people on hand. But that wasn't the oddest thing about the Company.
There were always a small group of people who seemed more than a little odd. I would watch them from the windows of the R&D department in the early morning, when most of the workers arrived. One could almost say that they didn't act quite human. But after a while I at least had a few of my questions answered. But those only gave me more questions to ask, if I could ever get the courage to do so.
I must be mad, I thought.
One morning, around dawn, I'd paused in my clean-up and decided to watch the group as they arrived on site. It was rather odd that they were there at all, since it'd been a rare time when there were no ships arising in the Yard. I watched about ten men go behind a large pile of scrap wood. Then came a strange feeling that pulsed through the air like a thunderclap. The whole world seemed to throb, and my headache returned in force. Then an acquaintance of mine appeared through a side door. "Good morning, Michael. I thought you'd been told that you had the day off." It was Mr. Bottleman. Or "Bottle" as he preferred to be called.
I looked at him. He was a humanoid dolphin. Again. He had a tail with flukes, a dorsal fin, smooth grayish skin, and a dolphin's snout and forehead. But it wasn't a double-image. Somehow, the real thing was standing before me. For some reason this man merely chose to look human to everybody else. But for what purpose? I could never form the question, or it was somehow being repressed. Bottle seemed to know that I knew what he was. He knew that I knew he wasn't human. But, for some reason, he either didn't care or he had some ulterior motive.
I leaned against my broom. "I know I had today off, but I feel at home here, you see." I looked around at the huge room, its skylights, its row upon row of drafting tables. The images of ships yet-to-be dotting the room.
The dolphin-man looked at one of the designs, a clipper ship to be called the Star of York. He looked directly at the sail plan, where I'd modified the placement of the flying jib. "You're very good, you know. That'll increase her speed a quarter knot in a good following wind. In theory, at least."
"Theory? Is there a problem with that?" I was more surprised at his commentary then the fact he seemed to know what I'd been doing.
He made a clicking sound and shook his head. "Not as such, Mr. Bates. But thought and application are two different things. A ship is an entity unto itself, you must come to realize that." He pointed at my broom. "And until you do, you'll just have to be satisfied with that."
I had so many questions for him. Not the least of which was exactly what he was, and why he allowed me to see him as he really was. But only one question left my lips. "What am I missing?"
"You know it already. And in fact, you'll be correcting it soon. But for now go home and enjoy your day off." Then he'd fixed me with a certain look, and I felt a certain pressure on my mind. "You're a very special man, Michael. Though this goes against my better judgement, you will remember this conversion, and remember what I am. You deserve to. Are you frightened at what you see?" He moved his tail up and down.
I shook my head of my own accord. "Afraid? After watching people be blown apart by cannon shot? No. I cannot be afraid. I just wonder if I'm going mad..."
He smiled even wider. "You're not mad, Michael. Let's just say that you're one of those extremely rare people who see things a little clearer than most. Something very valuable to people like me." He turned to leave. "If you would like to talk again, just call me." He left the room, the door nearly closing on his flukes.
I never told anybody about that encounter. And I hardly saw Bottle around the Yard. When I did see him, he was human.
What most surprised me about that conversation was that I didn't really think of it very much. Like I was supposed to think of it as "normal", even though the man looked like he should be standing on his tail in the bay. What made me remember it all was when, about two days after Brendan started building the catboat, my friend walked into my drafting room and said "I have a problem."
I looked up from the spread-out cross section and blinked. "Oh? What do you mean?"
He walked over to the table and pointed at a certain part of the keel, where one of the ribs attached at the bow. "If I put that there then she'll spring a leak the moment we put her in the water. There's too much curve to the bow for the type of wood we have."
"Didn't we get the best?"
"You can't get too much for seventy eight and six. I had to compromise. You'll have to make a few changes before we can move on."
I stared back at the boat on paper, and sighed. "Give the specifics and I'll be right out to take a look."
I would have to make many, many changes to that little boat. So many, that it was hardly the same design I stared out with by the time we were finished. The mast was too short, the sail too large, the hull too fat, the rigging not strong enough. Over the four months it took to build it I nearly burned both the plans and the shed. But as she reached completion, I noticed something.
Even a small catboat can have a soul.
And then the day came. For three days we'd left her out in the rain, in order for the wood to soak up the water. If we hadn't she would have sank right away, the swelled wood closed the seams. My leonine friend put on the finishing touches, but for one. "What do we call her?"
I'd never really considered a name. But considering the love I had for the Sea, there was only one name for her. "How does Seawind sound?"
My friend nodded. "That just might turn the trick. There's some paints over in the corner. You can go and paint the name on her while I go see about getting a cart to bring her down to the water." With that, he left the shed.
I spent the better part of two hours trying to get it right. By that time it was late in the evening and I was forced to use oil lamps to finish. First I tried a rather extravagant font, but that didn't seem quite right. So I started over and painted it in simple, plain lettering. She was finally complete, we only needed to put her in the water.
Nature had other ideas.
By that time it was deep winter, and it snowed more often than was normal. Or so I was told. But all that mattered was that there was little work in the Yard, and no chance to put the Seawind in her element. So we spent time making small changes to her design, adding another ten and six to her total cost. We must've put in six coats of paint during that winter, finally settling on a basic black and white color scheme. White above the waterline, black below.
When Spring finally came we were both anxious to get her down to the water. On the first clear, calm day that we both had off, we got the cart from a friend of ours, and with the help of others we took the Seawind down to the Yard, where to our surprise many other friends were awaiting us. Including Bottle, and the owner of the Yard, Thomas Cetacan III. The dolphin-man's smile was wider than normal. "Word gets around in a town like this, Mr. Bates. I just thought you'd like a proper send off for your maiden voyage."
With the help of ten others we righted the boat and stepped her mast into place, tightening the rigging, then lifting her up once more and taking her down the launching ramp. Oh, what a thrill that was! And when she touched the water, she seemed to sigh in delight as she became one with her element. The Company's president congratulated Brendan and I for a job well done! I blushed. "Well, we haven't actually sailed in it yet, sir..."
"What are you waiting for, then?" The president was a man of medium height, with black hair, and was graying at his temples. There was an odd quality to his voice, almost like some sort of singing.
I looked at my leonine friend and without any further words, we walked over to the moored Seawind and prepared to raise the sail. "We've got a nice fresh breeze, watch that luff." The "luff" of the sail was the leading edge. I sat down next to the tiller while Brendan cast off the lines. The wind was out of the southwest, and we both hoped we'd be able to get back to the dock.
The moment the sails filled with air my life changed yet again. For the ten glorious minutes of our maiden voyage I felt a oneness with the Sea that I never felt before. I loved her, and she loved me back. I watched the sail carefully, turning the tiller left and right, making sure we stayed on course; while Brendan worked the rigging. He tightened the mainsheet gently to camber the sail to get the maximum use out of the following wind. "We must be going ten knots!" he shouted excitedly.
We didn't have the experience to really be out long, and we didn't want to break in the boat too quickly, so with great reluctance we turned back towards shore. But the wind had shifted and we were forced to try a tack course for the first time. The Seawind's large sail was hard for one person to manage. He slackened the mainsheet line and the sail filled out, I turned the tiller a bit away from the wind. But there was no way we'd make it to the right place on the dock.
"Coming about!" I yelled, going for the opposite tack. We overshot the mark, but we now had momentum on our side. As soon as the group standing on the dock was behind us I once again swung the tiller around and ducked as the boom swung toward the portside. The sail filled and shot us forward right towards the spot on the dock. I trusted Brendan's judgement, here. At the proper moment he dropped the sail and we coasted right up to the right place to the applause of Bottle and the others.
"Good show!" Mr. Cetacan said. I beamed back at him. "Now tell me, Mr. Lyons, how long did it take you to design and build this boat?"
My friend hopped back onto the dock. "Well, sir, my friend Michael drew the boat. I built her."
The owner of the Company looked at the boat, then looked at me. "You're a janitor, aren't you?" I nodded slowly. "And you're the one who's been making changes to our designs! And good ones, mostly..." I gaped openly. He continued. "I see I've been blind. Bottleman here told me you had some hidden talent, but he never told me what it was." He glared at the smiling man. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Bottle shrugged. "I wasn't quite sure if he had the gift, sir. I had to be sure. So with your permission, I'd like to apprentice him to the Chief Designer. Especially in light of certain recent developments. We need to cultivate all the talent we can get."
Cetacan sighed deeply. "I'll see about making the announcement next month. We've delayed long enough as it is. At least we have the money to make the changes to the Yard that are needed." They were quite clearly talking about something else now. I wondered what that might be. The president shook his head in a resigned matter. "I'm getting ahead of myself, here. Come, let's get you set up in the R&D department. I sense a very happy future for you."
William Wallace had been the Chief Designer for over twenty years, and had been a shipwright for at least forty. He was getting on in years, but the whole staff revered him and thought of him as a father-figure of sorts. He took me under his wing with a smile, and my life once again changed forever.
I'd been doing a lot of that lately, I thought.
However, my first task as an apprentice was rather different than I'd hoped. Once he introduced me to the ten other draftsmen I was led into a large room that had seemingly hundreds and hundreds of rolled up plans. "Your first task is to choose three of these, and to copy them. I need to see what your skill level is before I know what parts of the ship you're best suited for working on."
I was to choose plans from three different time periods. There was a copy of each type of ship that the Company had ever built. Which was rather a lot, since Cetacan had been operating since 1630. Nearly two hundred distinct designs, all perfectly preserved and usable even over two hundred years. From the earlier period (before 1700) I chose a simple merchantman, from around 1750 or so a Man-of-War battleship, then lastly a recent brig from the 1830s. The first and third of those choices were the easiest, and only took me a week each to copy. But the middle one gave me headaches like there was no tomorrow.
Wallace looked remarkably rodent-like, I soon found out. A large, gray rat with beady black eyes that still somehow didn't give him the mischievous look that most rats had. During the worst of my headaches I would sometimes not see the man, but only a giant humanoid rat; in the same way Bottle was a dolphin. But there was a difference, I noted. Much like the way in which I continually saw Brendan.
Even though this I worked on the plans of the H.M.S. Wadsworth with great enthusiasm and respect for the man who had designed her. She had seventy-two guns on three decks, and was a hundred twenty five feet long. Her length-to-beam ratio was better than 3 to 1, and though she was by no means fast by modern standards, in her day she was the pinnacle of sail.
It still gave me headaches beyond belief, though.
I was still in mild pain when I finished the last set of plans. When I finally inked the last line I could hardly keep in my child-like enthusiasm! I waited until the first possible moment and presented them to Wallace. He looked them over carefully, his expression neutral. Finally, I could stand the waiting no longer. I was twenty-three and I felt like a child. "Well?"
He spread out the elevation plan of each vessel, the man-of-war in the middle. He motioned for me to come over. "Is there a problem?" I asked.
"Of sorts, laddie," he said calmly, the ears of his rat Echo's head flicking back. The image was faint, and mostly around his hands and his head, but present. He pointed at the bowsprit of the merchant ship, and a spot close to it on the brig. "You made changes to these two. And the only reason I know it is that I've seen these particular vessels so many times that I know what they look like backwards and forwards." He turned a few pages on the battleship's plans. "But you didn't make any changes to this one. Why?"
"They just... well..." how could I put this without hurting him? The hell with it, I thought. "They just seemed right to me, sir."
He just stared at me, a smile hovering in his expression. "Laddie, I'm so glad you said that. Because the changes that you made are very much like those that I would have made." He turned to the archives of more recent ships, specifically, the ones that had been done since I'd arrived here. He gestured to the many cubby holes where the finished plans were kept in leather pouches. "Would you mind doing me a favor?"
"Show me which plans you made changes to. Because for the life of me, I cannot think of where you might have made your alterations."
I nodded, then reached for the first set of plans.
I finally got home that day two hours after the sun had set. Brendan had his own good news for me. "I've been promoted to Yard Supervisor! With what we make now, we could probably afford a larger house... With a larger shed in back. We've gotten so many comments about the catboat that I think we can have a bit of business on the side..." He broke off as I saw I was staring at him. "Seeing the lion again?"
I shook my head. "I am, but it's not that. I don't have a headache right now, but I'm still seeing it." I stared hard at my hair-lipped friend, and the dark brows and mane of the lion that he had been came into clear focus, even in the candlelight of the front room. But when I focused on his humanity, the lion Echo faded into near-invisibility. "In fact, it won't go away."
My friend sighed. "I wish I could help you, Michael, but I really can't see how you're seeing what you're seeing..."
I grabbed my coat and left the house before he finished his sentence. There was only one person that I knew might have the answers to my questions, and he normally went to a pub called "The Animal House" most nights. The place was nearly on the other side of town, and it was raining lightly as I walked along the streets that were lighted with gas lamp. I didn't care about the weather, I just pulled into my coat and settled a hat on my head.
There was a buffalo-man outside the door of the pub. The sounds from inside confirmed what I knew was the only possibility for the place. I heard growls, squawks, bleats, squeaks, yowls, and clicks. All sounded like jovial, happy sounds. I felt no fear as I walked straight up to the horned brute and looked him straight in the eye. "I'm told that Bottle spends much of his time here. I'd be much obliged if you'd take me to him."
The shaggy man merely gazed at me with one of those penetrating looks. "Bottle said this might happen," he rumbled. "Come in. And don't be afraid at what you see. We're all family, in a way." He opened the door.
The room was silent when I walked in. The door was closed quietly behind me. I swallowed my nervousness and looked around at the animals that had gathered to stare at the lonely human. "Uh... Is... Bot.. uh..." I stammered.
"Is Bottle here?" came a faint, familiar voice from in the back. I then saw several of the taller species move aside. "Move over, Daniel. Your tail's in the way..." A crocodile moved aside. "Thanks." Then the dolphin finally came to the front, after having to move a pair of horses who were standing on their hind legs. He looked at me with that happy grin of his. "So, you finally decided to accept my invite, eh?"
"After what's just happened to me I... I thought I could use some help." I felt a little bit uneasy under the gaze of so many with such predatory eyes. I even felt that way from the look a long-horned gazelle was giving me. I looked at Bottle rather sheepishly. "I just hope you all know the answers I'm looking for."
Bottle nodded solemnly, unusual for him. He seemed to sigh through his blowhole. "I wish we had those answers for you, my human friend. But we don't. We're as mystified as you are about why you see what you see. Even our Guardians don't know..."
Guardians? These people--they were undoubtedly people, even though they had fur or feathers or scales--were obviously part of something that was a lot bigger than I'd thought. I'd ask about that later, though. "Then I don't suppose you can help me get rid of these visions."
"I'm afraid not. Come with me, please." He reached out with a webbed hand and took hold of mine. His skin felt smooth and like rubber. I was led through the crowd, who had started to mill around again, to a bar stool. I reluctantly sat down. Bottle lacked his fluked tail, I noticed. That made it easier for him to sit. "What I'm going to tell you next will shock you. Though perhaps not as much as some. So just sit tight, enjoy your beer, and listen."
He held me enthralled for several hours at least. Nature, he told me, had an actual spirit. She was the maker of Life. She encouraged it to grow in the most inhospitable places. But her focus was so large that she could not care for the millions of individual species that inhabited this world. So from the life that had come out of her, came her children. The Guardians were also sentient spirits, but their focus was on the different like-types. They often showed a preference for either a male or female version of one of their Children. But it's how the Guardians and species themselves were born that was most interesting for me.
Nature is not static, as most humans seemed to believe. She is a dynamic, changing thing of both incredible complexity and astonishing simplicity. The changes she made to the Earth's climate and things that were even beyond her control (the sun, for instance), forced her Children to make changes to the species that were under their care. And so new species arose, and with it, new Guardians.
Humans had a Guardian. But he was little more than a child, even after millions of years. He's experimented with his Children (apes... I couldn't believe I was related to a monkey) to such a degree that something new had happened, the first time for a land creature, or to Bottle told me. Humans became sentient. "We whales and dolphins talk, Michael. We are sentient, and we ponder this question of what we are, just as you do," Bottle explained, "But look at what you're doing right now." When I didn't respond he grabbed my hand, where I'd been just holding onto the beer glass I hadn't drank from. "These hands are what sets you humans apart from we cetaceans. This combination of hands and language." He paused and gestured at the pub itself and all that it symbolized. Progress.
"So what's the problem?" I managed to ask.
"The problem will be hard for you to accept. The problem is that humans are doing too well at things like this. We don't object to all the progress you've made, my human friend. It's just how you've gotten here and where you are going that worries our Guardians. You see, if Ape was doing his job and making sure you didn't unbalance the Whole, we Disciples wouldn't be here right now."
"Wait just a moment... I just had a thought." I looked at the others in the room, most of which were staring at me again. "From what I've gathered in the past few years, from the things that I've seen. The Echoes. This would mean that you've all been human at some point. It seems to me that you're all here to halt all the progress we're making! Don't you care about your former lives? Why would..."
Bottle made a clicking sound. "God, no! You have it all wrong. We are here because our Guardians care for Ape and his Children, even though they don't always agree. They're family." He raised his beer glass. "All one big happy family, right?" He threw the question to the room.
His answer was an incredibly enthusiastic and jovial "NO!", followed by a chorus of animal laughter that grated on my nerves. Bottle laughed in dolphin manner and drank some beer, some of which spilled down the sides of his mouth between his conical, pointed teeth. "See? One big, happy, though sometimes argumentative, family. Just like any other."
He had a point. "You mentioned a role for normal humans, earlier? Acolytes?"
"Well, yes. But I'm afraid that due to your unique situation that you're just not suitable for it."
He gestured widely at the room behind us, while the bull-man bartender everybody called "Donny" served him another beer. "You see, we normally choose humans that are Sensitive to one of their past lives. They act as go-betweens when there isn't a Disciple to do the necessary work. But you're different from those humans. You're too sensitive. If we did for you what we normally do for activating Acolytes, I fear you would go mad.
"Quite frankly, no Disciple in history can do what you do. See those 'Echoes' as you call them. At least, not in the exterior sense with the ease that you seem to naturally possess. We know our own past lives, but in order to get an inkling of what a human has been in the past we have to touch them physically." His snout briefly shrank into a human mouth and nose, he sipped his beer, then he changed back again. The sight nearly made me faint, and he had to reach out to steady me on my chair. "Sorry about that. Anyway, I'll discuss this with Orca, my Guardian. But I'm sure that we'll just let you continue in your chosen profession that you've shown so much talent for."
I couldn't help but smile. Yes, ships and the Sea were my life. My calling, as it were. I really didn't want to do anything else. But at least now I had some people to talk to about certain things. Something I'd been craving for years. "I'll do whatever you want me to. Just as long as I'm not taken from that drafting room."
Bottle turned to the other Disciples. Most of whom were Disciples-in-training, actually. "Agreed?" He once again threw the question to them.
Gwynedd, Wales. May 21, 1888
Memories. Why did there always have to be so many of them?
The house was empty of people. I'd given my servants the day off, as was my custom on my birthday. I had three good people working for me. A cook, a maid, and a gardener. And though my house was not large, it still echoed with the emptiness.
So empty, since Brendan had died. I remembered it like it was yesterday.
It started when Mr. Cetacan announced, a month after I'd started working in the R&D department that the Company would start building steamers. "They are the future of the Sea, I'm afraid," he'd said in his speech to all, "so changes are going to have to be made in the way we do things. And I expect you all to do your part. Details will be given to you by your Yard Supervisors. Good day."
I'd walked in the next morning to find that a quarter of the available drafting tables were now marked as "Reserved for Steamer Division". I'd complained about this to Wallace. "It's only temporary, laddie. They're building something special for the steamies, but until that's finished we have to share. We've got more room than we really use, anyway."
The head of the Steamer Division was a man by the name of Spencer Chapman, from London. He clearly didn't think much of our little town compared to "his" London, and I had to keep reminding myself that it was only temporary that he and his draftsmen were here. My other consolation was that Spencer's Echo looked like he'd be perfect on a Thanksgiving dinner table.
Sometimes the noise from the Yard, combined with that from the construction being done close by, gave me such a pounding headache that it was impossible for me to work. Under such strain I lost the bit of control over my ability to see these Echoes that surrounded me. There were times when I only saw a normal sized rat where Wallace should've been.
Even after the migraine relaxed it was a full week before I could see anything close to normal again. During that time it was as if I was in a world populated by animals that talked and acted like humans, and some few humans that behaved like animals. I got to know the Echoes of my colleagues quite well until I even started to get used to them. Not for the first time I pondered the meaning of what I saw. Sometimes there was a total contrast to the human form of the present and the animal one of the past.
For instance, Jacques Petard, a French-Canadian and one of the Yard Supervisors, had the body of a lumberjack and the attitudes to match. However, his Echo was that of a delicate whitetail doe. The only reason I'd known it was him was because I'd been looking at the Echo, remembering Coryn and the deer around her cabin, he'd (she'd?) trotted up to me and in his deep voice had said "what are you looking at?"
I made it a point to never openly stare after that, no matter what I saw.
Life settled down afterward. Time moved on, the Steam Division did get their own building. I watched steamers take half our business away, and the ten draftsmen in my department were reduced to eight, then six. I watched the clipper ships that had so dominated the seas during their time start to fade into the past, becoming uneconomical. Steamers were slowly taking over the shipping lanes, even though they were so much slower than sailing ships. So the Company was suddenly going full pelt to build them. The pace was literally deadly.
I was looking over some plans that had been sent to me by a friend of mine in Belfast. He'd sent me some blueprints of a new type of sailing vessel that some called a "windjammer". It showed great promise over the steamers, in fact. Something that heartened me greatly.
The noise was the cracking boom of tearing metal that echoed from the mountains to the Strait. I covered my ears as best I could with my one hand but the clatter only lasted a short time. Then, a dreadful silence.
The man who'd I'd always considered the father I never had was dead. Crushed when a boiler that was being lifted into a new ship fell from its crane. The investigation revealed that the crane wasn't strong enough for the weight that it had to lift. The thing had fallen to the ground and bounced, rolling Brendan and three others over. If it hadn't been one of the newer cylindrical boilers then they might have been able to escape.
That was ten years ago.
A knock on the door startled me out of my memories. I reluctantly left the candlelit dining room and opened the door. Bottle was standing there, actually looking apologetic. "I'm sorry if I'm intruding, but I thought you might like to talk."
His arrival awakened a hunger to talk in me that hadn't been there for years. "No. you're not bothering me. Please, come in out of the rain." For once he was his human self, wearing one of those new waterproof coats. "Can I offer some tea? Coffee? Some fish, perhaps?"
He walked in and hung his coat on the rack, and his hat, too. "Thanks. I was starting to freeze my tail off out there..."
"You don't have a tail right now, my finny friend," I pointed out, my mood lightened by his arrival.
He made a show of turning around in circles, looking at his behind. "I guess it was colder out there than I thought!" His laugh was dolphin-like even as a human. Then he stopped and his expression turned sober. "How are you feeling, old friend?"
"Lonely, if you haven't figured it out already. I have my work, and little else." I led him into the Study, where one table always seemed perpetually piled high with books and issues of Shipbuilder magazine. The drafting table next to it was hardly better. A pile of large half-rolled vellums was on one side, and the paper that was mounted had scribbles of various thought experiments. Some of which had actually been built.
I hadn't touched that table since Brendan had died.
"How long has it been since you've taken the Seawind out?" Bottle said boldly.
"You know the answer to that!" I snapped back. The boat itself was now inside a shed at the Yard, gathering dust.
He nodded glumly. "That I do. But you were always so happy out there." His eyes suddenly lit up. "What about that time when you finally got out of the Strait and into Caernarfon Bay? How long did you spend out there? Two days?"
I managed a small smile, not very sincere. "And dolphins with us all the way. I'd always wondered if you were among them. They shadowed us through the entire trip." The memory was a good one, I had to admit. I got a couple cups of tea from the kitchen and brought them into the study, with a bit of sourdough bread to munch on. I set the tray down on the table and sat down in the padded chair across from Bottle. "You didn't come here just to chat, did you?"
"Partially. I'm genuinely concerned about your health, Michael. Your mental health, that is. I think you need some companionship, and I have a proposal for you."
"I guess it can't do me any more harm. I'm quite mad already." I meant it, too. "What did you have in mind?"
"The amount of Disciples that are coming through here has doubled. There are also some Guardians who are putting out Disciples for the first time. This makes things rather difficult. We're running out of space in the University dorm."
"So you want me to take a few in?"
Bottle nodded, sipping his tea. "Yes, but they won't know about your particular ability. The object of this is to have them learn to be human again. If they knew of your particular quirk they'd see it as an excuse to act as they normally do as their real selves."
I considered it a while, finishing my tea in the process. "I can't see how it can do me any harm. I have three empty bedrooms. It might at least give me a bit of variety in my life. I've been lacking that."
Bottle pointed at the drafting table. "Perhaps we can even get you to start working again. Your insightful ideas have been sorely missed." He got up and walked over to the table, picking up an issue of Shipbuilder. "I see you've at least been keeping abreast of current developments. Have you been putting anything down at all?"
"Here and there," I admitted. There were actually several drawers stuffed with paper scraps I'd collected over the years. A mast here, a spar there, a scribble of some hull lines. There was so much more possible nowadays with iron, I thought. Some of the new windjammers were at least twice the size of their clipper forebears. And they were still the best way to move things on the Sea, I realized. For the first time since Brendan's death I actually smiled.
"There's something I want to tell you about Brendan," Bottle said from behind me. I hadn't noticed that I'd gotten up and was staring in one of those drawers. I looked back up at Bottle. He continued. "I should've told you this years ago, but neither he nor I was sure how you'd have taken it. Since about the time you first got your job in R&D he was one of our Acolytes. That is, one of the humans who know of us and help us, as I explained..." He broke off as he saw me nod. "You're not surprised?"
"I'm nothing if not observant, friend. I noticed the difference between his Echo and those of others before you told me about your whole organization. I'm just disappointed that you didn't trust me enough to let him tell me..."
"It was his decision. He thought you might be able to deal with your own 'problem' better if you didn't know what he was doing. He was teacher of sorts, really. And a really tough one at that."
"So now you want me to 'teach', too? Though not in any 'official' way. Sure, why not?" I walked over to my drafting corner, lighting a few chimney-covered candles, and to my surprise the oil lamps lit without trouble. Mia, my maid, had thoughtfully kept them topped off. "I've been away from this too long..."
Bottle interrupted me. "Before I leave you alone to your work, may I assume that I can send over three likely candidates in the morning?"
"Give me a day or so to put the place in order. Brendan's room hasn't been cleaned in ten years, and I'm sure there's a few inches of dust." I got up and walked with him to the door, and then wished him good night.
Before turning in that night, my thoughts turned towards a person whom I only thought about on my birthday. "You would have liked Bottle, Henry. He's a true friend, human or not," I muttered to myself. For the first time in years I slept soundly, and with dreams of tall ships sailing upon the Seas.
Bottle was waiting for me the next morning at my office door. He was dressed for sailing. "Forgive me if I'm being too forward, my human friend, but I believe you need to spend some out on the water."
I felt a brief moment of rage. How dare he! I detached my carry-pouch from my right "hand" and set it on the table, nearly picking it up and hitting him with it! I had to take a deep breath, and when I let go, my rage vanished. "Let me get my things together."
Somebody had spent a while restoring the Seawind to seaworthiness. Which was fitting with Bottle's overly-optimistic personality. He'd probably been planning to talk to me on my birthday for weeks. I had to admit, he'd chosen just the right moment. He was also an expert seaman, which was more or less a given, considering his true form. I handled the tiller while he trimmed the sail. We were out in the middle of the Strait and heading towards the Bay. As always, there were dolphins swimming exultantly alongside. I looked back at my finny friend. "Looking at them, and looking at you, makes me wonder what it's like to swim underneath the waves with such ease."
Bottle settled in next to one of the cleats that secured the mainsheet, holding he line in his hand and adjusting the sail with a practiced eye. "It's really hard to explain to a non-dolphin. The best I can compare it to is what we're doing right now."
I watched a bottlenose leap just off the port bow. "I find that a rather inaccurate comparison." I sighed, looking again at my friend and concentrating on him. Then I got a surprise. "Funny. Your last life wasn't human. It was a songbird of some kind... Hmm... red-tipped crest, rather dull coloring overall, large beak. Cardinal? And female." I'd long since gotten comfortable with the idea that there was an even chance that one could be the opposite sex in another life. After seeing Jacques as a doe and an overly-feminine woman that I knew as a bull rhinoceros, one gets used to anything!
He blinked. "I thought you couldn't see that sort of thing with us. You're correct, I should say. We Disciples have a lot of control over our past life memories. We see Echoes of ourselves in the same way that you see Echoes of others."
"So you've told me before," I replied, turning the tiller a bit to starboard. "When were you last human, if I may ask?"
"You may ask--as if you already haven't. The last I was human was 'round about the seventh century. I was some Frankish commoner. I had quite the rapier wit, as I recall." He smiled, then sighed. "I died in my thirties from some disease."
"'Rapier wit,' eh? Sounds like you were always a dolphin, no matter your form."
That got a laugh out of him, something that was easy to do. "You're probably right. One of the things we've discovered is that one's personality--and sometimes name--changes very little from life to life. Don't get me wrong, though. A person can change very drastically. It's just not very common."
I looked at my one hand, gazing into it as hard as I could, yet once more I saw no Echo of myself. "I just wonder what I've been... I remember when you opened that door in my mind all those years ago."
Bottle looked reluctant. "I don't think I should do that again. You have an Ability that might interact in such a way with your past lives that it might drive you insane." He paused, noting the look on my face. "I need to talk to my own Guardian about this again. No promises, but I'll see what I can do."
"That's all I ask. Thank you."
The next morning the three Disciple candidates were brought over by Indri, the tiger-man whom I'd seen the first time my adopted father and I had arrived at the Yard. "Hello Mr. Bates," he seemed to growl, "I would like to introduce Horatio," a tall, thin man with black hair and pale skin, "Chan," An oriental man with a proud bearing, "and Margaret," a rather rotund woman with blond hair and a maternal look on her face.
I found out their individual quirks, as well as their species, as I got them settled in their rooms. Horatio was the oddest of them all. His true form was that of a squid. And the only English he remembered was from the days when he acted in Shakespeare's plays with the Bard himself. He quickly gave me a headache with all his thees, thous, hasts, and forasmuches. Chan seemed rather... lonely. He was used to the huge flocks of his fellow Canada geese, rather than the small groups of humans. Than lastly was the matronly Margaret. I decided to make it a point not to get her angry. A charging elephant is not something I wanted to deal with. Ever.
When word got out that I was working again I started to get letters in the mail from certain well-to-do people. The Company no longer worked in wood on a regular basis, but they prided themselves on the fact that they still had the specialists and facilities to build wooden ships. So I started designing luxury yachts.
But when I was asked if I could make her be steam-powered, I declined. Steam could only mean death. Only wind power was life. And soon steamers wouldn't need sails at all. Even now they were much larger than in the past ten years, and only had a schooner rig at most. No, not much time left at all.
Progress marches on if one wants it to or not, I reflected.
The years rolled by, passing much quicker then during my years of depression. I hadn't realized just how deeply I'd sunk into self pity until the day that Bottle decided to leave me alone for a few hours on the Seawind. "It's a calm day, you can handle this boat one handed. You designed her well." Then before I could utter a rebuttal he dove over the side and changed into his natural form. I watched him make a single leap about a hundred feet off the stern, and I didn't see him again for hours.
But it was something I needed very much. Just the Sea and I, alone together. And nothing between us but a thin plank of wood. It was certainly the closest I could ever get to being a dolphin or a whale.
In the summer of 1895 I was sent a telegram from a man in Cambridge who insisted that I have dinner at his house just outside the city. I hadn't left Gwynedd since I'd arrived, over thirty years before. The amount of money he was offering was flattering, but I was reluctant to leave the place that I considered home for even a little while. I asked Bottle for advice. "The travel will do you good, my friend. I suggest you at least go and see what the man is like. Did he say what kind of yacht he wanted?"
I looked at the telegram. "With the money he's offering, he could afford a good-sized schooner. He's insisting on a pure sailing vessel. At least that counts in his favor..."
In the end, I decided to go. What harm could it do?
The carriage that met me at the train station was pulled by four white horses that had Echoes of a crocodile, a shark, some odd insect with transparent wings, and a tiny rodent. A hamster, perhaps. The driver was a small lizard, and acted rather like one, I thought. He scampered over to open the door, then when I got in, seemed to scamper back to the seat. And we were off.
I got an increasingly uneasy feeling as we got closer and closer to the country house. It was like there was something inside that I could probably do without seeing or doing. But I was on my way and there was nothing I could do about it. A gate made of black iron, with a pair of ornate griffins on the top, fronted the property. Rather predatory, I thought. I wondered what kind of Echo this man would have.
The foreboding feeling grew by degrees as the carriage approached the house. My stump itched and I felt a chill up and down my spine. I began to wonder if this was a good idea. The chill wasn't a physical one, but more something that a part of me deep inside felt. A man in a butler's suit who had the Echo of a ladybug opened the door from the inside. "Mr. Wadsworth will be with you in a moment, sir. Please enter the second door to the right down the hall."
With great reluctance I stepped inside. Just inside the foyer was a HUGE stuffed grizzly bear, in the classic rearing pose. The sight made my heart thump in my chest so I quickly found the door to the Study.
I wished to God for the rest of my life that I'd never opened that door.
The chill intensified until I was nearly shivering, even thought it was just the start of summer. The feeling seemed to emanate off the dozens and dozens of animal heads that lined the upper part of the ceiling, as well as the smaller animals posed in what the man probably thought of as "natural" positions.
Against the dark oak paneling I saw lions, tigers, deer, moose, elk, bears, antelope, wildebeast, and zebra. Elephant tusks decorated the walls in gigantic arcs, bearskin rugs all over the place, game birds from pheasants to eagles, stuffed and mounted. A couple fox pelts draped on the arms of chairs. The room was lit by a fire, even though it was beastly hot outside in the noonday sun.
Utter. Speechless. Shock.
"I say, old man. Are you feeling quite all right?" The disturbingly young voice broke me out of my stupor. "Can I have my butler help you to a chair?"
I turned to face a young man who looked to be about eighteen. He was holding a lemonade in a cold glass. For the first time when I looked into that face I started to feel my age. "No... no. But thank you." I slowly moved over towards a large, padded chair that looked comfortable. To my surprise the room was cool enough that I wasn't sweating. When I sat down I realized that there was no way to avoid seeing the macabre spectacle above my head.
There was a pervading feeling in that room that was hard to put to words. It was the sense of deepest loss. The death of a hopeful future. The sense of one's purpose in life stopped before it could be fulfilled. And that feeling came most from the head of a young zebra mounted above where the young man was sitting. He gave me a cordial smile. "I'm Fenton Wadsworth the Third. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bates." We shook hands. "I hope you find my Study comfortable. I certainly do."
"It's very... homey," I lied.
"Thank you. Most of the trophies you see around you were shot by me, you see. I've had a gun in my hand ever since I was nine." He gestured with the hand that was holding the glass. "Goes to show where Man is in the scheme of things, doesn't it?"
I merely nodded slowly and made a show of opening the pouch that carried the rolled up plans of a few basic ship designs and interiors. I concentrated, preparing to see what kind of Echo this young upstart had. "I have a few basic types of smaller ships for you to look at, Sir. Perhaps that would be the best place to start."
I laid out three different kinds of small ships that were my personal favorites. The smallest was a fifty-foot staysail schooner, a rather simple rig that could be handled by a small crew. The next, about ten feet longer, was what was called a topsail schooner. Her mainmast had two square sails near the top so she would go faster in a following wind. The most complex I dared go was a brigantine. About eighty feet long, she had square sails on the mainmast and a fore-and-aft rig on the mizzen. That is, triangular sails made for following closely to the wind.
When I looked up to see the youngster's Echo, what I found was something I'd never seen before. There was simply the face of another human male wearing clothing that looked to be the uniform much like I had worn during my brief stint as a Union soldier.
It was then that I noticed another aspect to that cold feeling in the room. A familiarity, coming from his direction. My God! Could this be... Henry? No... Couldn't be. The timing was all wrong. This youngster was too young. If Henry was immediately reborn as a human then the man he was would be near my age. No. The feeling of familiarity was coming from above him. From the head of the young zebra...
I broke off from looking at Fenton and looked up at the head. There was no Echo of Henry's face as I expected. Just that feeling of death and familiarity.
I couldn't stay here any longer. I felt sick to my stomach. But I couldn't just get up and leave. I had to have some sort of excuse. What could I use? A tug on my sleeve startled me out of my train of thought. "What? Oh, I'm sorry. When you get to be my age, your mind tends to wander." I said it in as neutral a tone as I could. "You were saying?"
"I was saying, sir, that none of these mere dinghies will do! I want something larger! I want more masts! More sails!" He left the room for a moment. "You can bring it in, Jenkins." He stepped back into the room, followed by two men carrying a rather large painting of the clipper ship Cutty Sark. "That is what I want. Father said I could have whatever I wanted, and I want that."
She was probably one of the best clipper ships ever built. But for a private yacht? Intolerably uneconomical. But to top that, the young upstart continued. "This is only the start. I want a few changes, like..." Over the next sixty minutes he awkwardly used terms he clearly didn't understand, and talked to me like he was the shipwright and I was the client.
It was intolerable, and gave me the excuse I needed to get up and leave. I started to roll up the plans. "Mr. Wadsworth, I'll be frank. If I do as you ask it would be akin to putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. She would break in two as she was being framed. You have no understanding of how things work. You also treat me like you would your dog. Worse, even." I stood up. "I thank you for your interest in me and my work, but you'll just have to ask somebody else. I can refer you to Harland and Wolff if you wish. I've a friend or two there."
His expression turned dark and stubborn. "Father said you'd build a boat for me. So you're going to build a boat for me." He looked like a little spoiled brat, even though he was eighteen.
I turned to leave. "I've signed no agreement, Mr. Wadsworth. You cannot force me to do something I do not wish to." I walked over towards the door. Fenton looked like he was about to throw a temper tantrum. "Good day."
It didn't at all surprise me that once I left the house, I could still her him yelling like a child as far as halfway down the quarter-mile long driveway to the road. Oddly, I felt nothing but pity for him.
I would always remember my fifties as the happiest time of my life, despite that one incident with Fenton Wadsworth. Not that nothing bad ever happened in that time, but the good well outweighed the bad.
Two years after the incident I was deep at work in my study when my maid interrupted. "There's a Darius Orcan at the door to see you, sir?"
I looked up from my work. "Who? Oh... I've heard of him. Let him in."
The manner of the man was a vast difference over Fenton's, even though he was about three times as wealthy. He wore casual clothing that didn't make him look too different from the average man on the street, nor did he carry himself with the haughty airs of the rich. He had slick, black hair and was graying at the temples, and a dark complexion for an Englishman. Perhaps he had a bit of Indian in him? He extended his hand. "Michael Bates I assume?"
"I don't know of any other one-armed shipwrights in the business, so that has to be me." I smiled. "What can I do for you, sir?"
As it turned out he had quite a job for me. "I want you to design a floating school for me. It'll have to be at least a windjammer, I imagine. Perhaps we can discuss the details over lunch?" He phrased the question in hopeful manner, not like a command. I accepted.
Over the next two years, over about two dozen dinners and lunches, Darius and I worked out the design and detail of what became as much a passion of mine as his. The worry that the process sometimes created eventually turned my hair completely white. But then, I'd been going gray since my thirties, anyway.
The keel for the hull that still bore only a number. She was Hull #1899Ac, where the number was the year, and the letters were a simple sequence. Darius hadn't decided on a name, though he continually said that one would come to him.
As was my custom when a new ship of mine was being built I could often be found at the Yard, walking around and around where she was arising from her keelplates. Even I was impressed as I saw her take shape. I couldn't wait until she would take to her element, her masts would be installed, her sails unfurled, and she would sail off towards the horizon.
The night before the launch Darius and I decided to go to the café where he and I had spent so much time in our discussions that eventually resulted in the new ship's birth. Those thoughts brought up the one subject that was still bothering me. "What are you going to name her, Darius? It's getting rather late to not have made a decision."
He leaned back in his chair, twirling the handlebar mustache that he'd grown. He stared at the glass in front of him that had the name of the inn and café. "I think it's a foregone conclusion that here is only one name possible, Michael. Considering where we've spent all our time." He held up the glass in toast, something I mirrored. "To the good ship SS Sothesby!"
Gwynedd, Wales. March 1, 1912.
I awoke with the distinct feeling like I had been drunk the night before. That in itself felt wrong. But it was nothing compared to the images that still floated in my head.
Images of a pair of long, white-feathered wings in place of arms. The fact that I had both arms was rather telling that it'd been nothing but a dream. When I looked forward what greeted my vision was a long yellow beak. I could feel the wind through my tail feathers. Webbed feet tucked up against my body. Skimming effortlessly above the waves with others of my kind. Seagulls.
A vague image of surprising one of the Disciples-in-training. A young man by the name of Webster. A very nervous type. I'd followed him into the backyard to see if he was looking in the shed, and the next moment I was in the sky, flying!
I'd been given a warning about the Disciples of Gull. They were often very jumpy and had too many Abilities activated too soon. One of those Abilities seemed to be the ability so transform others... Not that I cared as I scanned for food along the ground. Any food.
There was no sense of having a human mind. And thus no way to tell how long I was a seagull. At least, not until this morning. I looked at the calendar on my desk. Almost a full year! I pulled myself out of bed, aching all over. Then there was a knock on the door. I walked carefully down the stairs and opened it to see Bottle standing before me. And he wasn't smiling. "Glad to see you up and around, Michael. Did you have a nice holiday?"
His eyes seemed to bore into my mind. "Holiday?" A vision of vacationing in the southern France with some friends suddenly replaced the one of skimming above the Sea. I blinked. "Ah. Yes. It was quite relaxing. Thank you so very much for helping me sail across the Channel in the Seawind. I'm not as young as I used to be." The trip to France was my last voyage on that trusty boat. I was too old, and so was she.
My department at Cetacan now had merely three people. And none of them had the talent to be my successor. We were the last of the sail specialists at the Company. We knew there would be no other after us. For when I retired the department would be dissolved.
Progress. I hated it.
Three weeks after my arrival home there was a knock on my door. It was rather late in the evening. So I expected it to be one of my friends; instead it was a man holding a letter. "Telegram, sir. Sign here, please?" I signed the paper and took the letter inside. I was reading it in the Study before I thought to see who it was from. Thought he subject of the letter was very painful, I was compelled to read:
From: The Law Offices of Herbert and Shuster. St. Louis, MI. To: Michael D. Bates. Gwynedd, Wales.
Regret to inform you of the death of Alex O'Malley on April 20 1902 stop Come to St.Louis by April 20 1903 or farm will be sold stop Please reply end
I stared at the telegram for hours and hours, not eating, not moving. A light bulb above me burned out with a pop and a shower of glass. I didn't notice. The decision I made was inevitable, though. There was only one choice to make. I heard the front door open and close quietly, and heard a rustle of cloth. I looked up to see Bottle's serious-yet-smiling face. There was an unasked question in his expression. I sighed deeply. "I'm going home, Bottle. I have to." Then I realized something. There was only one way to reach home in time to beat the statute of limitations. "And I need you to help me book passage on a steamer."
The dolphin-man merely nodded.
After a bit more correspondence I found out some more details. Alex O'Malley was a cousin of mine who undoubtedly would've been thrilled to inherit the farm. He'd been my only other family, however. I was the only one left in my line.
Two days later my friend returned with the ticket. I was to leave on April 3 on the White Star Line ship H. M. S. Baltic. "She's a good, reliable ship, my friend. She'll get you there in good enough time. Things have changed in fifty years. Perhaps you'll even change your opinion about them, if you just listen."
Then the worst thing in my life since Henry had died happened. The Sothesby ran aground in the strait and was barely saved from being sunk. Darius was angry. "I'm going to have that harbor pilot fired! How he got that job I'll never know." He gave me a hopeful look. "How long until she's repaired?"
I looked at the damage report prepared by one of the dry dock Yard Supervisors. "At least a month, judging by this. But I'm afraid I'm not going to be here to supervise."
"Oh?" He looked genuinely surprised. "Why, may I ask?"
"A family matter. I'm going back home for a while to put some affairs in order. And when I come back, I'm retiring." I sighed and rolled up the plans. "The Age of Sail is over, Darius. I don't see why I should continue if one windjammer in three years is built here, which has been the norm for the past decade."
"When are you going?"
"The Baltic is scheduled to leave Southampton on the ninth. I should be back in Missouri within two weeks."
"Ah..." he said, speechless. "I wish you luck, then. I'm going to New York on the Adriatic, myself."
I nodded my thanks. And the waiting began.
I arrived in Southampton on the boat train, only to learn that the Baltic's voyage had been cancelled. "How am I supposed to get to New York?!" I growled at the bear-Echoed ticket handler.
"Simple, sir. We'll just transfer you to the Titanic. She's a new ship, and the most luxurious afloat. Surely you've heard of her."
I had, actually. I'd read the articles in Shipbuilder about how she was declared to be "unsinkable". That flew in the face of Nature, I thought. "When does the next ship leave for New York?" If there was any ship other than Titanic I would take her. It was hard enough for me to take a steamer in the first place.
"The next ship doesn't leave until about five days from now. Coal strike, you understand. We needed to appropriate the coal from other steamers in order to get the fuel the Titanic needed."
Five days! I didn't have that much time. "Give me a second class ticket."
The ship was everything he said it would be. Large. God was it huge! It smelled of new paint and carpet. I was greeted by the purser's smiling face (underneath I saw an Echo of a green parrot), and helped to my cabin as if I couldn't remember what it said on my ticket. I hated being treated like an old man. My mind was just as sharp as any youngster's.
My cabin was D-62, right next to the second class dining saloon. So it was very easy for me to take food back to my stateroom at mealtimes. And I never had to go far to the head, either. When I first stepped aboard I'd found my room quickly and hadn't left it since. I tried to forget the fact of where I was.
Until the day when we'd left Queenstown I remained there. Nearly in tears from the almost physical pain this was putting me through. Every Echo I saw seemed to have some element of Brendan in it, just for setting foot on the ship. His face appeared to me behind several of the pets brought aboard by passengers. In the animal faces of those I saw in the saloon.
Why was I doing this? Having to deal with the fiftieth anniversary of Henry's death was hard enough without my surrogate father's ghost turning up at every corner. So I stayed in my room. Away from people, waiting for the ship to pull into New York.
I spent my time looking over the damage report from the Yard Supervisors about the Sothesby. The damage was more extensive than I had thought, and it would take a long time to get the right parts. When I wasn't doing that I was tossing and turning in my bed, unable to find a place in the new mattress that wasn't stiff as a board. My stateroom was in the stern of the ship behind the huge reciprocating engines. The past day and half were nearly sleepless from the all-pervading sound of the huge steam engines below my feet. I enjoyed the comparative silence while the ship was at anchor off of Queenstown.
I was once again concentrating on the plans of the Sotheby, pondering how best to fix the tear in the hull plating, when I heard and felt the engines start up again. I tried to go back to my work, but there was something in the thrum of the engines that prevented me from doing so. A quality that astounded me, and shook me down to my core of being.
Impossible! No steamer could feel that way! Brendan wouldn't have it! And yet...
I had to know. I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper as I left my stateroom for the first time in hours, heading towards where the sounds of the engines got louder. I found the crew passages very easily, moving past members of the crew who let me pass without a word. I barely noticed them in my purposeful march into the bowels of the ship.
There are no words to describe that feeling of first discovery. Like the Actaeon had fifty years before, this ship of dreams filled an empty place in my soul that I'd never known was there. Tears filled my eyes and an incredible, exultant music filled my world.
With automatic efficiency I put my vellum down on a cool pipe and started to sketch what I saw. Time passed. By the time a tap on my shoulder interrupted me I had almost half of the engine completed. I looked back to see the face of a black-haired man wearing a suit. In one hand he carried a rolled up bundle of plans. He saw what I was doing and smiled. "So you're a shipbuilder, are you?" He had an Irish accent. "I can tell by the look on your face. I'm Thomas Andrews." He extended his right hand, then balked when he saw I didn't have a hand to return on that side.
I confidently reached out and shook his other hand. I'd ceased being offended long ago about my "disability." "Michael Bates of Cetacan, Inc.. Happy to meet you, Mr. Andrews." We could barely hear each other over the music of the engines, but neither of us noticed. "You designed her, I take it?"
The man smiled and put on modest airs. "I had a large part of it, sir. But not all." My sketch had fallen to the floor. He picked it up for me. "You did this without a straightedge?"
Now it as my turn to be modest. "When one gets as old as I am, one learns a few tricks. I'll teach you, if you like."
"I think I'd like that."
He and I became good friends. He gave me a tour of the ship from prow to stern, showing me more than any crewmember would ever know. I spent my copious free time in my stateroom drawing my first real steamer design. She was much smaller than Titanic, but then she had to be. The Company didn't have the facilities to build something nearly so large. Andrews knew that we were no competition for Harland and Wolff, so was amazingly open about his own knowledge.
On the morning of the fourteenth Andrews came to my door. I'd worked all night and had finally gotten the rough hull lines done. "Come in," I said absently, giving all of my attention to my work. I was especially proud of the bow. When a ship cuts through the water there is a space where a vacuum forms just behind the immediate bow. I knew this while testing models of my own designs in a tank back home, but had never been able to think of a solution.
Until last night.
I'd settled into bed, taking time to look at an interesting pendant I'd been given by a young woman from third class. She had been very insistent for some reason. The pendant was of a stylized orca, not unlike an Indian from the Pacific Northwest might make. When I'd put it on I'd felt a rush of sudden dizziness. I'd gone to bed not too long after.
The details of the dream I had were lost to me, but for one thing. Music. A song of welcome such as no human had ever heard before. And yet, the part that recognized it wasn't human.
When I awoke, I had the solution.
When Andrews walked in I managed to pull myself away from my work. I stepped back from the table and explained what I had done. He listened to me carefully, nodding. "If you're right, than this could save many tons of coal as well as speed up the passage. Can I ask why you're sharing this with me? I do work for a rival company."
Andrews was an odd man in many ways. He had no Echo, for instance. I could only surmise that he was one of those "New Souls" that Bottle had told me about. I'd noticed quite a few of them among humans. Bottle had told me once that as more humans are born, more souls come in to fill out the numbers. An interesting number of these people were among First Class, as well as those with human Echoes.
I looked at the design and sighed. "I could drop dead tomorrow and nobody would know about this, my friend. I want somebody else to know just in case. I'm not a young man any more. Though how I'm going to explain this to my boss is going to be interesting."
Andrews got up to leave. "You're welcome back in the engine room if you wish. I was able to get Captain Smith to grant you permission. Perhaps you'll find more inspiration."
I took that advice.
I was fast asleep at my desk when a shudder awoke me. The sound and rumble of the engines going full reverse startled me into wakefulness. I was getting out of my chair when I felt a second shudder that sent a ripple of chill up my spine.
Something suddenly felt... wrong.
I left my stateroom to find a steward. Somebody who could tell me what was going on. But nobody seemed to know. "We've probably dropped a propeller blade, sir. We might be delayed a day getting to New York, but not much longer." Three stewards told me this before my own doubts finally pushed me to go find Andrews.
What I found I will never forget. Swirling waters on the lower decks, near the forward part of Third Class. A location where the ship would surely sink to the bottom. Dazed by the sight I started to wander back upward. Third Class was in a horrible mess. There were stewards pounding on doors, often resulting in misunderstandings when the person behind those doors didn't speak English.
In Second Class it was more of a knocking on doors. I became more conscious once I reached my room, and sat down in my chair to think of what to do next.
There weren't enough lifeboats. Sixteen normal plus four collapsibles weren't enough for over 2,200 people! That realization hit me like being hit on the head with a shovel. At least seven hundred people were going to die.
A pounding on my door broke me out of my sad contemplation. A steward walked in and took down some lifebelts from the closet. "Please put this on and come out to the Boat Deck, sir. It's only a precaution," he said. I glared at him until the fake smile left his face. "I suggest you find your way onto a lifeboat, sir."
I was putting on the lifejacket when I a sudden realization hit me. I was an old man, now. I had no family to go home to. Everybody I ever cared for was dead or immortal (in Bottle's case). I'd done more in life than I ever thought was possible. What reason did I have to continue it?
I went up to the boat deck as the steward told me, and found it crowded and noisy. I started to look for a quiet place to sit and wait for the end to come. I found it in the First Class Smoking Room. I wasn't alone in that room. There was one who played solitaire, one who read the bible, others who just looked around at the detailing in the wood paneling. Waiting for the end.
I started to feel numb. Not numb in body, but in spirit. Numb with the certainty that I was going to die, and there was nothing that I could do about it. My whole world contracted to just myself, the couch I was sitting on, and the ever-increasing tilt of the deck.
The band was playing ragtime. I listened as they played one of my favorite songs. A hauntingly familiar voice somehow penetrated my attention to the band. "So, even after all you've learned in the past fifty years, you're still afraid." I turned around to see...
After a moment of pure shock, I realized that it wasn't him. It wasn't an Echo that I saw, but a young man in his early twenties. His face merely resembled my surrogate father's features to such a degree that it'd set my heart pounding. What made me answer that question I would find out much sooner than I would have thought. "Afraid?" I said, incredulous. "How can you even ask that?"
The young man sat down next to me on the couch. "Sheer unmitigated gall, I guess." He sighed and gave me a rueful look. "I've been full of that since I was born." The ship seemed to moan in pain as water filled her bow. We both had to lean on the sofa to make ourselves level. "But you are afraid, aren't you?"
"Back at Shiloh I was so sure of myself. So damned sure I wouldn't get a bullet in the gut like so many thousands of others did in that blasted war. Even..." my throat tightened suddenly, and I had to swallow. "Even after Henry got blown to bits.
"Even being in the middle of a battle it wasn't a sure thing I was going to die."
The young man nodded sadly. Except he didn't look quite so young any more. In his eyes was reflected the visions of a million battles in a million different places. For a moment he looked old, wizened, regretful. It was only a flicker, but it wasn't an Echo, either. "I've seen it all before. Too many times."
I didn't doubt it for an instant.
The ship creaked rather loudly all of a sudden. The numbness turned into genuine panicking fear. I felt like a small child again, afraid of monsters in the dark. "Why did it have to be him instead of me?"
He held me in his arms in a fatherly way, except my father had never given me thins kind of comfort. "Even after all you've seen, you're still afraid of it?"
I knew that he was right. Even after all the Echoes I had seen, the people I had met, the knowing that ever after death a new life awaits, I was still so afraid of what might come after that final heartbeat might be the true End.
I felt like a ship being dashed into the rocks again and again! I saw Henry's face every time I closed my eyes. Racking sobs flowed through me. I was shaken to break me out of it, but nothing seemed to work. The man who looked like Brendan let me sit there for what seemed like forever. Then his voice took on a tone that dug deep into my soul. "That's enough, Michael. Stop it." But I didn't want to. "STOP IT!!!"
Silence, but for the increasing creak of the Titanic. He continued. "Endings. Death is not an ending. It never has been, nor ever will be. You know that. Why won't you admit it to yourself?"
I just stared at him. He was right, after all. I realized that it wasn't actually death I was afraid of.
I was afraid I would forget Henry. The thought of that I couldn't bear.
"Let him go, Michael. Would he want you to live in pain all your life? I think not."
It was an almost-physical snap inside of me. My heart skipped a beat and I nearly passed out.
It still hurt. But it was the kind of pain of a wound that has freshly healed, leaving only an ugly scar where it had once been.
There was something about this person. In his presence, there was a certain feeling of familiarity. More than just looking like Brendan. More than... something. There were no words for it. He gave me a serious look. "I want you to do me one last favor before the end." The ship was staring to list alarmingly. The bow was taking a plunge, lights flickering on and off. He pointed towards a familiar figure standing in front of a fireplace. "Take him and yourself off this ship."
"Why? Death is death, no matter where you meet it." I looked closer at the man who stood, looking at the painting mounted above the fireplace. He was familiar. "Thomas?" I said. He didn't respond, just stood there as if a statue of himself. I turned to face my benefactor, the young man who had brought me out of my own stupor, but he was gone. Vanished as if by magic.
I didn't have time to ponder what had just happened. Titanic was starting to feel the pull of thousands of tons of water in her bow. I walked up and shook Thomas. "Wake up, man." He didn't respond. It was starting to become difficult to stay on my feet. "Come on!" He still didn't respond.
I pulled him by the shirt collar with little resistance, trying to make it to the door. The deck was becoming increasingly tilted, the groan of straining metal growing louder and louder.
Then the lights went out, leaving both of us in darkness. I heard glass shattering as the strain on the ship started to bend and distort the Smoking Room. Even in the darkness I could the ceiling start to break up, the sound of cracking wood filled my world. I thrust my friend and I towards the door.
From deep inside the ship came a sound that was disturbingly like a woman screaming in pain and terror! The soul of a grand ship in her death. Andrews and I slid down the deck outside into the Sea. The cold was like a thousand knives being driven into one's body. The snapping sound grew into a thunderous roar, joining the screams of terror from the passengers clinging to the stern.
I struggled to get the both of us way from the ship, but to no avail. The whole Sea seemed to be vibrating with the whine of bending metal. Finally, no longer to stay in one piece due to the thousands of tons of water in the bow, Titanic broke in half!
The wave as the stern fell back into the water pushed Andrews and I away, by sheer luck neither of us was hit by the flying debris.
Like some of the broken, splintered paneling from the smoking room.
My attention was once more pulled to the Titanic's stern. She was vertical against the stars, blotting out most of them with her huge bulk. Then, down she went.
Minutes later, with hardly more than a gurgle, Titanic slid gracefully under the waters of the North Atlantic.
With the ship gone, the cold and darkness seeped into me. I heard the cries of over a thousand people at least, screaming and yelling for help. The Sea had us in her freezing arms. I could feel the warmth seeping out of me at an alarming rate. Andrews groaned. I managed to shove him onto the debris, then hung on myself. He moaned and sobbed in the darkness.
Numbness was spreading throughout my limbs. My teeth clattered together in a violent shiver. My leg muscles joined in the dance and for a while I was nothing but a mass of rattling bones. The cold deepened. Andrews stopped groaning. There was ice forming on my eyebrows. The stars glowed brightly down upon us, more brightly than I had ever seen in my entire life.
My eyelids grew heavy, there was only the fatigue. All was numb. I was nothing but a mind floating in the arms of the Sea. So this is how you want me, it it? I thought to her, my lips twitched for a moment in an almost-smile. Perhaps it's not a bad thing after all to die in your arms.
There was only the waiting, now. I became acutely conscious of my own heartbeat. Thumthump..... Thumpthump......... Thumpthump. It was becoming slower, weaker. The cries had died down around me.
Thumpthump....... Thumpthump......... Thumpthump.........
It wouldn't be long now. What was next for me, I wondered? Perhaps a bird, like the sparrows that had a nest outside my bedroom window. I'd love to have that sweet voice of theirs.
Thumpthump........... Thumpthump.............. Thump...thump...............
Perhaps a fish, like a tuna. Able... to move through the water with expert movements of... caudal fin. The greyhounds of.... the Sea.
Or... perhaps.... a horse. Maybe....
Thump..... thump.... Thump.... Pause.
My heart did not stop. It merely paused during the final beat. I felt a tingle throughout my body, centered on my chest, where I felt a warmness from within starting to grow. I floated, lifeless, motionless. In a horrible agony of wondering what was keeping me from dying; from finally passing into that place between lifetimes. Was this Hell? Time passed at a glacial pace.
With nothing better to do, I waited.
The warmth from within didn't cease, but grew stronger. There was a barrier within me that was being melted away until there was nothing but a thin sheet of ice.
And then, out of nowhere, the voice came... "AWAKEN, MY ADOPTED CHILDREN. IT IS TIME!"
The voice caused a surge of warmth from inside. Deep inside. So deep that in the last moments before my thoughts themselves began to change, I recognized where it came from.
It wasn't physical heat that I felt. This warmth came from the Soul.
The ice instantly shattered into a myriad of melting pieces, absorbed into my mind. A part of my soul buried and sleeping for eons was awakening from a long slumber. It surged up out from the Depths of Mind like a geyser, forceful, dramatic, beautiful. My humanity joined with this new sense of Being, becoming one with it.
This body suddenly felt... wrong. It must change! The instant the thought occurred to me my eyes snapped open. I was surrounded by a blue glow that tingled all over my too small body. I took a deep, shuddering breath that cleared the last of the cold from my person. I was ready.
I single mental push outward was all it took. My clothing dissolved away under the pressure of my soul. My body gained mass, became smooth-skinned, countershaded in black and white. A tall dorsal fin grew on my back. My right stump grew directly into a flipper, while my left fused and grew. My legs shrunk away into nothing while a tail erupted from the end of my spine, tipped with the flukes of my kind.
My humanity had not vanished, it had merely been added to. I still remembered Andrews, Henry, Bottle, all of the people I'd known in my entire life. I saw my mother, smiling at some gift I'd given her when I was a little boy. The hardened expression of the regiment's sergeant changing to horror, his scream of pain at the fact of the bullet wound in his chest. The sneer of Fenton Farnsworth as I refused to do what he told me. The astonished look on Bottle's face the time I told him about the Echoes. The smile of a satisfied customer as I presented her new schooner to her. The only on-the-lips kiss by a woman I'd ever had.
Other memories had bubbled to the surface to join those. The first stroke of my flukes, and the first breath of air. Doing playful breaches above the waves with my siblings in the pod.
The day I'd chosen my own name! Mi-call!
The warm nuzzle of my mate as I watched her give birth to my own sons and daughters. The ache of bones as my age started to work against me.
My final breath, as my life expired under the care of my great grandson.
But I wasn't dead. I had merely been reborn dozens of times, into bodies so different that they didn't make any sense, if seen side by side. In one life, I was a frog, who ate a fly... Then I was a fly, who was eaten by a frog.
If that wasn't Nature's sense of irony, I didn't know what was.
A sudden thrashing in the water next to me finally broke me out of my self-reflective mood. I wasn't the only one transformed! A short squirt of sound reflected back to me the outlines of hundreds of other whales! What was going on?
The new me and the old me had yet to come to any kind of settlement about who was in control. Was my name "Michael" or "Mi-Call?" What was a "human", anyway?
In my confusion another orca came and started to try to calm the panicking one I knew had a name like "A-Drew" or something. He was a good friend of mine, so I helped the other whale calm him.
Eventually, it took a third who must have been one of Orca's Disciples! A-Drew calmed down immediately, and I turned my attention to the one who had first come to help.
A sudden physical shock rippled though me as I felt that I KNEW this person! I knew him! It hit me so hard, I forgot my own name, but curiously, other things remained clear. The Disciple turned to me. "I want to thank you, sir. You seem to be getting used to things rather quickly."
I replied, calmly. "I'll panic later, I think. I kept myself calm though the whole sinking. I'm not about to start now. I just wish I could remember my name..."
The answer seemed to haunt him as much as it did me. "Your name is Michael Bates. You're from Rock Falls, Missouri. Born on May 21, 1843."
Mid-Atlantic, April 16, 1912
Full circle. Where all stories eventually lead. An ending is merely a new beginning. A new story waiting to be told.
As Michael told me his, we supported Thomas Andrews on our backs, taking turns when we had to breath. Hundreds of orcas surrounded us, talking incessantly. The largest Gathering I'd ever been to! We both felt the a lift to our spirits, though at times Michael's story was a bit dark.
But then, so was mine, wasn't it?
Andrews never recovered from his depression. He died during the night on the sixteenth. Darius called it "Broken Soul Syndrome". When the soul is broken, loses its will to live, the body soon follows. "When he's reborn, what'll happen to him?"
"Nobody really knows, not even the Guardians." He looked at the body of the Titanic's designer. "Let him go, you two. It's just a shell, now."
Michael and I sent a single click of agreement to him, and let the body of Thomas Andrews drift down to join his ship.
Orca appeared beside us moments later. "What has happened to you two over the years is beyond any kind of rational explanation." He looked at myself. "But there is a problem of sorts."
I let a few bubbles out of my blowhole. "Oh? What?"
"Mother has placed a silly restriction on how many Disciples a single Guardian can take. In my case it's thirty. All positions are filled."
I didn't even need to think about it. "In that case, Orca, I..."
"Don't make any hasty decisions, Henry." The voice that interrupted me came from nowhere. "I think I have a solution that will work for all of us."
The voice was coming from the surface. We saw a medium-sized schooner that hadn't been there before. Michael gasped, no mean feat for a whale. "That's one of mine! I designed it for a woman named Andrea Winthrop about twenty years ago! She kissed me!" My brother seemed embarrassed by that admission.
I spyhopped to look to see who was talking. The man standing on deck looked rather nondescript, but for his relative youth. He was clean-shaven and had a very haunted look in his eyes. A rope ladder was dropped over the side.
Michael paused. "I know that voice! I spoke to him on the ship before she went down! Who is that?"
"It's my brother, Ape. The Guardian of primates," Orca replied. "You're looking much better now, brother. Much more dignified," he said to the man on the boat.
He blushed. "Well... thanks. But I didn't come here to chitchat. We need to talk. All of us, up here." He looked in Michael's direction. My brother vanished from the water, and reappeared on deck. Michael now looked exactly the way he did the day we'd left to join the army!
I changed to human form and climbed up the ladder as fast as I could. Lana joined me by my side, having finally completed her duties with the new belugas. I hugged her, gave her a kiss on the cheek. I loved her very much, and it pained me to have to tell her that I was giving up my Discipleship. My brother was at least as important to me as she, it'd been a very hard decision.
Darius was looking at us with a sad expression on his face. He sighed and turned to look in the direction we'd come, back towards the sight of the disaster. Orca spoke to him for a moment in a voice too quiet for me to hear. My fellow Disciple dove back into the water. Orca motioned for Ape and I to join him forward, which I did. Orca gave Ape a puzzled look. "What did you have in mind, brother?" he said.
The Guardian of humans looked in my direction. "I know what you're thinking, and it's completely unnecessary." He looked at Orca. "Remember our talk aboard the Titanic? About me taking on Disciples of my own?" He looked at Michael. "Well, you're it."
I was amazed that after all that'd happened to him, that my brother was even capable of feeling more shock. Being suddenly young again looked to be startling enough. "Me? Why me?" He blinked, staring at the boat that we were on. "And where did you get this? I'm sure Andrea would never have parted with her willingly. The Prometheus was her only dream!"
Ape nodded knowingly. The next instant he was enveloped in a golden light that reminded me a lot of the color of fields of wheat ready for harvest. His body flowed into new curves, hair growing long and changing from straight brown to wavy blonde. Standing before us was a very beautiful woman of maybe thirty years old. She smiled. It took me a moment to realize this person was still Ape. "Andrea loves what you've done for her, Michael. Because as you can see, she's me."
My brother's reply was rather like an automaton. "I can see that very much, now..." Pause. "You're a very good kisser, you know."
Ape laughed girlishly. "I'm glad you think so. I've had a few eons to practice." She changed back into a he. "But as you might remember, Andrea didn't take very much seriously."
Michael nodded. "I remember. She acted very much like a child. It caused me no end of frustration. But she was respectful, at least."
The young Guardian nodded sadly. "Until not too long ago I was like that. Then Mother decided to teach me a lesson. Not the first time she's done so, let me assure you. But this time...
"This time I've learned my lesson." His expression was resolute. He turned to Michael again. "So you see, my son, I need you," he said gravely. There were tears in his eyes. "Badly. I've been so neglectful over the centuries that my own Children have forgotten me. I fear that if I don't take things in hand within the next century or so Mother will just cause another ice age and I'll have to start over."
I watched my brother carefully. He went over to the lee rail and gazed out upon the ocean. The rolling swells came out of the west, lapping up against the sides of the schooner with a slurping sound. He turned back towards Ape. "If it means that my brother and I won't ever be separated again, then why not?"
Quincy, Massachusetts. July 11, 1986
"She's your ship, Mike. You take her out."
Darius was perhaps in the best mood I'd ever seen him in. The Titanic had been found the year before, and with it, the chance of rescuing somebody very special to him who was imprisoned in the wreck. Just how that happened he still hadn't told me.
After the "death" of Darius Orcan, his ship had been bought and sold many times. Though she'd always been owned by the same person (Darius under different names), the Sothesby never stayed in one place for very long. Then in 1960, when the rust and in her hull had become too great, she'd been retired to become a floating museum. I'd spent the last decade or so overseeing her refitting. She was now in better condition then when she'd first been built.
I'd been very busy myself over the years. Ape had many, many Tasks for me. True to their words, Henry and I were never separated. I watched Lana give birth to their children over and over again.
And once, about twenty years ago, I watched my twin sister Henrietta give birth to a (cetacean) child of her own, her husband Lando looking on.
Not like I hadn't been female a couple times myself, anyway. Ape had required that I live at least a decade as the opposite sex. Just my luck that I chose the 1950s to do it in.
I gleefully burned all my bras in the sixties.
I looked at my brother, who was up with the rest of the crew, unfurling the sails. We'd been towed out to a point in Boston Harbor where it was possible to sail without bumping into things. That done, Henry moved expertly down the ratlins and back to stand next to me.
I rested my hands on the wheel of the ship. Watching the sails carefully so I wouldn't strain her masts.
The sails billowed with the wind, and the Sothesby came alive.