I stood atop the deck of Tranquility, leaning against the rail, feeling the wind against my face. The black stone was like glass, smooth beneath my hand. Somehow blacker than black, thousands of runic scripts were inlaid beneath the glassy surface. Tracing a line, I could not feel any abrasion. I could feel it sucking in ether. Building as we moved.
The ship cut through the ocean’s waters, translucent wings open and catching wind. It did not sail very fast, but it didn’t need to. We needed energy before we could take off. The Finder Ship could fly through the air or in the vacuum of space, yet to leave one planet for the space between universes, the vessel required salt water. Whoever crafted them was a genius, but why salt water?
These ships are rare. Before yesterday, I’d never seen one. And now this one would take me home. Suck it, Ferryman. I don’t even need your boat. Crossing the River Styx had only been a few days ago, but it felt like an eternity.
Just as my mind leapt down the Why-the-fuck-did-you-fall-for-this-shit Rabbit Hole, a voice spoke from behind me.
“The view will be quite different in a few moments.”
I turned to see Captain Arianya standing in the middle of the ship. She looked more human than many races I’d met in the last few days, but a silver glint shone in her pale skin. She wore a crimson vest, sleeveless, showing off her fit arms. Her hair was a metallic white, which caught the light giving it a luminescent sheen. She wore scimitars at either hip, both covered in runes. They resonated with magic, perhaps as powerful as the sentient blade I carried. Often, awakened weapons come in pairs. This ship was likely the most valuable thing in the multiverse, which would make sense that the Baron—as she preferred to be called—would want to protect it.
“Almost ready then?” I asked.
“Aye.” Captain Arianya’s steps were lithe and graceful as she approached. She looked at the water and then to me. “And you might wish to sit for this next part.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“There is no overboard where we are going. And though your screams will not be heard, the expressions I have seen from others suggest, the death is not a pleasant one.”
“Right,” I said, moving to a row of seats bolted to the deck. There were actual seat belts. I did not hesitate to strap in.
The captain smirked at me. “She said you were a clever one.”
“Just a healthy respect for the many ways in which the hostile multiverse wants me dead and of which I am completely ignorant.”
“Well-said. Hold on. This will not take long.”
She unsheathed her blades and sliced to the sides in a single, fluid motion, holding them parallel to the deck. I could feel a hum beneath me. After a heartbeat, the air filled with static electricity. The hairs on my arms and head rose. Chills went down my spine.
The translucent wings bowed upward, coming together above. Energy conjoined at that point, visible without ether. Streams flowed off in bent lines, akin to images of an electromagnetic field. I found myself gripping the chair. Anticipating what would come next.
And I still was not ready for it.
Mach-1000 happened. My body slammed into the chair as if a giant had stepped on me. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t breathe. Gritting my teeth, I just waited. And waited.
Torrents of ether and wyther came in a steady barrage of raw power. I dared not touch any of it. I was helpless. I imagined Captain Arianya being ripped from the deck, thrown to hades or wherever-the-fuck. Surely, something had gone wrong. No one could withstand this—
And just like that, it was over.
My heart thundered in my chest. Sweat poured down my face into my eyes. I breathed as though I’d run a half-marathon in 2 minutes.
The ship floated atop white waters, surface frozen but still bent like a wave in motion. I could see other layers in the distance. Purple dots speckled a black canvas above.
Captain Arianya stood where she had before it all started, holding her swords out but aimed forward. The wings still surrounded us. I could feel a shield in place.
“Is it like that every time?” I asked, still catching my breath.
“Aye. Exhilarating, no?”
“Sure.” I grunted. “But I can’t believe you take refugees through that. How can the young and old survive it?”
“Below deck,” she said with a shit-eating grin. “The cabins are protected from the etherstorm. Most sleep right through it.”
I only stared.
“You should have seen your face. As if you were trying to work out a monster shit and terrified at what might come out. But I have seen worse. You did not cry. I hate the weepers.”
I was beginning to suspect the chairs were here for the captain’s amusement. I, however, was far from amused.
“How long until we get to Earth?”
“Everyone asks this ridiculous question. Time is a relative construct. Impossible to answer this. On Earth, a second is measured as 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the state-change between two infinitesimally thin levels of the ground state of an atom of cesium-133. Yet, a period is length of time. In short, you humans measure time as the passing of time. Perhaps one of the most complex ways to quantify observable experience in the multiverse, but still an imperfect tool for capturing the entropic decay of all matter. Don’t you think?”
“So,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster, “why do you work alone? Your factoids are so delightful. I mean, it seems like the troops would be flocking to your ship to soak up your vast wisdom. And thanks for answering the question, by the way. Very useful.”
She sighed as if I was an epic disappointment. “It will be approximately 14 March of the year 2020 when we arrive to your Earth. We left Atlantis on the 17th day of Gamelion. Satisfied?”
“That is useful, yes. But no, that was not my question. I just want to know how long I will be on this vessel, relative to the way time passes here. Do I have time for a nap? Or should I just stroll about the deck?”
“It will feel like a few hours. If you nap below, I can wake you when we arrive.”
I left the captain to her steering and went to the cabin she’d shown me upon boarding, and I plopped on the bed.
And I could not sleep.
I felt guilt at my sharp tongue aimed at the captain. Moreso, I felt shame at deceiving the Baron. I planned to help her if or when I could, but I might never make it back to Atlantis. And my oath to Theseus might cause me to betray her. Of course, to get to that point, I would need to survive my duties on my own gods damned planet.
After an hour of restless discomfort, I climbed off the bed and made my way back to the deck. The white waters moved now, like they had on the Ferryman’s boat.
“We are in your universe,” Captain Arianya said without turning to look at me. “Not much further.”
“Sorry about before. I have a lot on my mind.”
She only grunted.
“How long have you been a captain?” I cringed the moment the question was out. I’d asked another question about time.
But she only said, “Long enough.”
Right, I was a simple bumpkin now. Stupid little earthling can’t converse about time but is obviously obsessed with it.
Sighing, I walked back over to the rail and resumed my leaning from before. For miles around, there was only white sheets of calm waters, reverberating with our passing vessel. Again, I was reminded of bad CG effects.
In the distance, I noticed a dark speck, moving closer by the second. After a minute, I could make out the smallest of vessels with a single occupant.
“Hey look,” I said, “another ship. It’s small.”
Without lowering her swords, she came to where I stood. Her lips tightened. “You might wish to sit again. We must make haste.”
“This part of Fae is claimed by an ancient power. The Ferryman does not like others sailing his waters. Our last tussle ended in a draw, but all my passengers were slain. I would strap in.”
“Wait. What do you mean—”
I swallowed my question as the ship lurched upward. I fell. On hands and knees, I scrambled back toward the row of seats. Before I could get there, the deck heaved to the side. I lost traction and rolled. The rail stopped me from pitching over.
“Fuck!” I said, elegantly.
This time, I pulled in ether and cast a spell, increasing my balance and strength. I ran on all fours to the seats and clung to them. The ship lurched and swayed as I strapped myself in. I glanced over my shoulder to the door leading below deck. It was a few short feet but felt like miles away.
Whether I wanted it or not, I was in for another ride.
The Ferryman was not far behind us. Maybe 2-3 kilometers (a mile or more). His little boat was airborne, hauling ass. Waves rose up behind his wake which grew impossibly high and continued to rise as they projected forward at blinding speed.
Our Finder Ship lurched to the side again. A wall of white whooshed by without a sound, vanishing as quickly as it had come.
“What the fuck?” I wanted to know.
“Hang on,” she said, offering no explanation.
I could no longer see the Ferryman’s boat. Instead, there was a dozen bends in the white sheet of rippling water. All growing.
Until several vanished.
My stomach heaved. I thought I’d swallowed my tongue. Nope. That was vomit stuck in my throat. My vision waned. When I came to, we were flying perpendicular to the Ferryman’s ship. He changed direction, but the waves didn’t. More grew as he sped along behind us. More flashes of white came and went.
I clung to my chair. Covered in vomit. But I did not cry. I might have let out a few churlish screams, but there was no gods damned tears.
Finally, I saw a blue sphere ahead, floating above the waters. As we flew toward it, the globe expanded from fist-sized to larger than a car. It grew exponentially by the second. Needles rippled over the surface, like 3D pin art toys. As we neared, I could make out the shape of Europe. Then it looked like Pangea. Then North America. Back to a single landmass.
The Finder Ship plunged into the globe.
Once more, an etherstorm slammed into the vessel. Not that I saw it with my eyes closed, but I recognized the feeling of a giant playing smash the little man.
Several heartbeats later, it all stopped.
Clear skies loomed above. I could smell the spring air. Blue oceans lapped against the ship. The taste of salt lingered in the air.
I let go of the arms of the chair. My fingers hurt from gripping them so long.
“Where’s the Ferryman?”
“He will not follow us here.”
“How do you know?”
“His rules. He will not break them.”
I nodded. That made sense. I used my cloak to wipe sweat from my brow and unbuckled. I stood on shaky legs and came to stand beside the captain.
She gave me a contented smile. “Exhilarating, no?”
“Anyone ever tell you that you’re bat-shit crazy?”
She turned her head to the side. “Bat-shit? I do not understand this idiom.”
I frowned. “Never mind. Thanks for not getting me killed.”
She shrugged. “Not all journeys across Fae are this smooth. Next time, you should come more prepared.”
“Smooth?” I shuddered at the thought. “And what do you mean next time?”
“Of course,” she said. “I will be waiting in neighboring universes until you are ready to return to Atlantis.”
“How will I contact you?”
She pulled a black disc from her pocket and handed it to me. It filled my palm. I could not make out any runes but felt the magic.
“Throw it in a body of salt water,” she said, seeing my confusion. “I will find you.”
She stared at me for a few seconds, expectantly.
“What?” I asked.
“We are here.” She made a shooing gesture. “Off with you.”
“This is the middle of the ocean. I don’t even know which ocean.”
She rolled her eyes. “You humans have no nature sense. Your home is a few miles that way. I’d rather not be seen by any of the earthlings.”
“Right then,” I said, pulling in ether. “See you when I see you.”
My Superman pose was lost on the captain, but I did it anyway and leapt upward, flying from the Finder Ship with a quick word.
I flew west, as she’d indicated, eager to see my home.
The cool, morning air felt good on my face. As I neared the landmass, I saw the Florida keys in the distance. I flew north, high enough that I would like a bird if anyone glanced up. I made it as far as Tampa and stopped at a petrol (gas) station outside the city.
It was empty.
Inside, the attendant wore a medical mask over his face. His beard protruded from the bottom. He stood straighter as I came to the counter, eyes widening.
“No service without a mask,” he said, backing away. After speaking Atlantian for the last few days, the English threw me as much as the words.
“What?” I asked, not caring how ignorant I appeared.
“Get the fuck out,” he said, pointing at the door. “Don’t come back without a mask!”
I held my hands up and edged backward. “I’m going. But, what day is it?”
“Saturday, now fucking leave!”
“I’m leaving. Jesus.”
I left, wondering what in hades had the guy all hot and bothered. I moved around to the back of the store and flew up, following the interstate to the next convenient store and got similar results.
Continuing up the road, I found a rural store and watched it under a veil. People came and went, only a few wearing masks. I became invisible around the backside near the toilets.
Inside the store smelled like stale cigarettes. The old lady at the counter didn’t bother to look up as I entered. She continued trying to fill in the boxes on her crossword puzzle.
I strolled to the news stand and could only stare. It was 14 March 2020. I’d lost half a year. But that wasn’t the worst part. The headlines felt like something I’d see in a Stephen King novel. I couldn’t believe it.
President Declares Virus Pandemic a National Emergency
The Virus and the Ailing Markets
Faith in the Time of Corona
Mass Gatherings to be Banned
Normal Life on Hold
Police Get Powers to Detain Virus Victims
“What the fuck?” I asked.
The lady looked up and gave me the stank eye. In a no-nonsense tone, she said, “Language, son.”
“Sorry, I … just, what happened? What’s this virus?”
“Don’t watch the news much do you?”
“I’ve been, uh … no I don’t. What’s happening?”
“Attack from China, some say. They manufactured this bio-virus-weapon. People dying. Or so they say. All a democratic hoax, probably. It’s election year. But they can’t tell me how to run my shop. If Jesus wants me dead, no little piece of cloth mask’s gonna stop him from calling me home.”
The virus. Victoria hadn’t been lying about that. Fuck. It was already happening. Why wasn’t the Collective doing anything to stop it?
“Thanks,” I said and left.
Rather than return to Tallahassee, I flew back toward Tampa and searched until I felt the ley line. It ran along the Florida Botanical Gardens. Gathering a shell around me, I hopped in and rode toward the Bermuda nexus.
And hopped the Atlantic ley toward Ireland and the Isle of Man. I need to speak to Bodhi Caderyn and find out what the hell is going on. He would know what to do.
I came out at the usual spot and followed the ley to Port Erin, finally reaching the invisible island above the city. The Celtic Collective was my safe haven, an implacable fortress that had stood unconquered for millennia.
So, I can’t say why I felt the impulse to hide. I cast a veil over me and stood still.
And that is what saved me.