Jack L. Chalker
Jack Chalker began publishing fiction in 1976, after earning notoriety as editor of the small press fantasy magazine Mirage and as publisher at Mirage Press. His first novel, A Jungle of Stars, is a science-fiction tale of alien entities in conflict who fight through human surrogates. With his second novel, Midnight at the Well of Souls, the first novel in the Well World quintet, he began his well-known blending of science fiction and otherworld fantasy. The novels in many of his multivolume series—Soul Rider (Spirits of Flux and Anchor, Empires of Flux and Anchor, Master of Flux and Anchor, The Birth of Flux and Anchor, Children of Flux and Anchor) and Rings of the Master (Lords of the Middle Dark, Pirates of the Thunder, Warriors of the Storm, Masks of the Martyrs)—are renowned for their adventures of human characters on quests in worlds under the control of capricious and unpredictable forces. He is the author of the alternate world fantasy And the Devil Will Drag You Under, the short-fiction collection Dance Band on theTitanic, and the monumental reference guide The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Critical and Bibliographic History.
Jack L. Chalker
THE GIRL WAS committing suicide again on the lower afterdeck. They’d told me I’d get used to it, but after four times I could still only pretend to ignore it, pretend that I didn’t hear the body go over, hear the splash, and the scream as she was sucked into the screws. It was all too brief and becoming all too familiar.
When the scream was cut short, as it always was, I continued walking forward, toward the bow. I would be needed there to guide the spotlight with which the Captain would have to spot the buoys to get us all safely into Southport harbor.
It was a clear night; once at the bow I could see the stars in all their glory, too numerous to count, or spot familiar constellations. It’s a sight that’s known and loved by all those who follow the sea, and it had a special meaning for we, who manned the Orcas, for the stars were immutable, the one unchanging part of our universe.
I checked the lines, the winch, and ties in the chained-off portion of the bow, then notified the Captain by walkie-talkie that all was ready. He gave me “Very well,” and told me that we’d be on the mark in five minutes. This gave me a few moments to relax, adjust my vision to the darkness, and look around.
The bow is an eerie place at night for all its beauty; there is an unreality about a large ferryboat in the dark. Between where I stood on station and the bridge superstructure towering above me there was a broad area always crowded with people in warm weather. The bridge—dominating the aft field of vision, a ghostly, unlit gray-white monolith, reflecting the moonlight with an almost unreal cast and glow. A silent, spinning radar mast on top, and the funnel, end-on, in back of the bridge, with its wing supports and mast giving it a futuristic cast, only made the scene more alien, more awesome.
I glanced around at the people on the deck. Not as many as usual, but then it was very late, and there was a chill in the air. I saw a few familiar faces, and there was some lateral shift in focus on a number of them, indicating that I was seeing at least three levels of reality that night.
Now, that last is kind of hard to explain. I’m not sure whether I understand it, either, but I well remember when I applied for this job, and the explanations I got then.
Working deck on a ferryboat is a funny place for a former English teacher, anyway. But, while I’d been, I like to think, a good teacher, I was in constant fights with the administration over their lax discipline, stuffed-shirt attitudes toward teaching and teachers, and their general incompetence. The educational system isn’t made for mavericks; it’s designed to make everyone conform to bureaucratic ideals which the teacher is supposed to exemplify. One argument too many, I guess, and there I was, an unemployed teacher in a time when there are too many teachers. So I drifted. I’d lost my parents years before and there were no other close relatives, so I had no responsibilities. I’d always loved ferryboats—raised on them, loved them with the same passion some folks like trains and trolley cars and such—and when I discovered an unskilled job opening on the old Delaware ferry I took it. The fact that I was an ex-teacher actually helped; ferry companies like to hire people who relate well to the general public. After all, deck duty is hectic when the ferry’s docking or docked, but for the rest of the time you just sort of stand there, and every tourist and traveler in the world wants to talk. If you aren’t willing to talk back and enjoy it, forget ferryboats.
And I met Joanna. I’m not sure if we were in love—maybe I was, but I’m pretty sure Joanna wasn’t capable of loving anyone. Like all the other men in her life, I was just convenient. For a while things went smoothly—I had a job I liked, and we shared the rent. She had a little daughter she doted on, father unknown, and little Harmony and I hit it off, too. We all gave each other what each needed.
It lasted a little more than a year.
In the space of three weeks my neat, comfortable, complacent world came apart: First she threw that damned party while I was working, and a cigarette or something was left, and the apartment burned. The fire department managed to get Joanna out—but little Harmony had been asleep in a far room and they never got to her through the smoke.
I tried to comfort her, tried to console her, but I guess I was too full of my own life, my own self-importance in her reality, that I just didn’t see the signs. A couple of weeks after the fire she’d seemed to brighten up, act more like her normal self.
And, one evening, while I worked on the boat, she hanged herself.
Just a week later that damned bridge-tunnel put the ferry out of business, too. I’d known it was coming, of course, but I’d made few plans beyond the closing—I’d figured I could live off Joanna for a while and we’d make our decisions together.
Now here I was alone, friendless, jobless, and feeling guilty as hell. I seriously thought about ending it all myself about then, maybe going down to the old ferryboat and blowing it and me to hell in one symbolic act of togetherness. But, then, just when I’d sunk to such depths, I got this nice, official-looking envelope in the mail from something called the Bluewater Corporation, Southport, Maine. Just a funny logo, some blue water with an odd, misty-looking shape of a ship in it.
“Dear Mr. Dalton,” the letter read. “We have just learned of the closing of the Delaware service, and we are in need of some experienced ferry people. After reviewing your qualifications, we believe that you might fit nicely into our operation, which, we guarantee, will not be put out of business by bridge or tunnel. If this prospect interests you, please come to Southport terminal at your earliest convenience for a final interview. Looking forward to seeing you soon, I remain, sincerely yours, Herbert V. Penobscot, Personnel Manager, Bluewater Corp.”
I just stood there staring at the thing for I don’t know how long. A ferry job! That alone should have excited me, yet I wondered about it, particularly that line about “reviewing my qualifications” and “final interview.” Funny terms. I could see why they’d look for experienced people, and all ferry folk knew when a line was closed and would naturally look for their own replacements there, but—why me? I hadn’t applied to them, hadn’t even heard of them or their line—or, for that matter, of Southport, Maine, either. Obviously they had some way of preselecting their people—very odd for this kind of a business.
I scrounged up an old atlas and tried to find it. The letterhead said “Southport—St. Michael—The Island,” but I could find nothing about any such place in the atlas or almanac. If the letterhead hadn’t looked so convincing, I’d have sworn somebody was putting me on. As it was, I had nothing else to do, and it beat drinking myself to death, so I hitchhiked up.
It wasn’t easy finding Southport, I’ll tell you. Even people in nearby towns had never heard of it. The whole town was about a dozen houses, a seedy ten-unit motel, a hot dog stand, and a very small ferry terminal with a standard but surprisingly large ferry ramp and parking area.
I couldn’t believe the place warranted a ferry when I saw it; you had to go about sixty miles into the middle of nowhere on a road the highway department had deliberately engineered to miss some of the world’s prettiest scenery, and had last paved sometime before World War II, just to get there.
There was a light on in the terminal, so I went in. A grayhaired man, about fifty, was in the ticket office, and I went over and introduced myself. He looked me over carefully, and I knew I didn’t present a very good appearance.
“Sit down, Mr. Dalton,” he offered in a tone that was friendly but businesslike. “My name’s McNeil. I’ve been expecting you. This really won’t take long, but the final interview includes a couple of strange questions. If you don’t want to answer any of them, feel free, but I must ask them nonetheless. Will you go along with me?”
I nodded and he fired away. It was the damndest job interview I’d ever had. He barely touched on my knowledge of ferries except to ask whether it mattered to me that the Orcas was a single-bridge, twin-screw affair, not a double-ender like I’d been used to. It still loaded on one end and unloaded on the other, though, through a raisable bow, and a ferry was a ferry to me and I told him so.
Most of the questions were of a personal nature, my family and friends, my attitudes, and some were downright too personal.
“Have you ever contemplated or attempted suicide?” he asked me in the same tone he’d use to ask if you brushed your teeth in the morning.
I jumped. “What’s that have to do with anything?” I snapped. After all this I was beginning to see why the job was still open.
“Just answer the question,” he responded, sounding almost embarrassed. “I told you I had to ask them all.”
Well, I couldn’t figure out what this was all about, but I finally decided, what the hell, I had nothing to lose and it was a beautiful spot to work.
“Yes,” I told him. “Thought about it, anyway.” And I told him why. He just nodded thoughtfully, jotted something on a preprinted form, and continued. His next question was worse.
“Do you now believe in ghosts, devils, and/or demonic forces?” he asked in that same routine tone.
I couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “You mean the ship’s haunted?”
He didn’t smile back. “Just answer the question, please.”
“No,” I responded. “I’m not very religious.”
Now there was a wisp of a smile there. “And suppose, with your hard-nosed rationalism, you ran into one? Or a whole bunch of them?” He leaned forward, smile gone. “Even an entire shipload of them?”
It was impossible to take this seriously. “What kind of ghosts?” I asked him. “Chain rattlers? White sheets? Foul fiends spouting hateful gibberish?”
He shook his head negatively. “No, ordinary people, for the most part. Dressed a little odd, perhaps; talking a little odd, perhaps, but not really very odd at all. Nice folks, typical passengers.”
Cars were coming in now, and I glanced out the window at them. Ordinary-looking cars, ordinary-looking people—campers, a couple of tractor-trailer rigs, like that. Lining up. A U.S. customs man came from the direction of the motel and started talking to some of them.
“They don’t look like ghosts to me,” I told McNeil.
He sighed. “Look, Mr. Dalton, I know you’re an educated man. I have to go out and start selling fares now. She’ll be in in about forty minutes, and we’ve only got a twenty-minute layover. When she’s in and loading, go aboard. Look her over. You’ll have free rein of the ship. Take the complete round trip, all stops. It’s about four hours over, twenty minutes in, and a little slower back. Don’t get off the ship, though. Keep an open mind. If you’re the one for the Orcas, and I think you are, we’ll finish our talk when you get back.” He got up, took out a cash drawer and receipt load, and went to the door, then turned back to me. “I hope you’re the one,” he said wearily. “I’ve interviewed over three hundred people and I’m getting sick of it.”
We shook hands on that cryptic remark and I wandered around while he manned his little booth and processed the cars, campers, and trucks. A young woman came over from one of the houses and handled the few people who didn’t have cars, although how they ever got to Southport I was at a loss to know.
The amount of business was nothing short of incredible. St. Michael was in Nova Scotia, it seemed, and there were the big runs by CN from a couple of places and the Swedish one out of Portland to compete for any business. The fares were reasonable but not cheap enough to drive this far out of the way for—and to get to Southport you had to drive far out of your way.
I found a general marine atlas of the Fundy region in McNeil’s office and looked at it. Southport made it, but just barely. No designation of it as a ferry terminal, though, and no funny broken line showing a route.
For the life of me I couldn’t find a St. Michael, Nova Scotia—nor a St. Clement’s Island, either—the midstop that the schedule said it made.
There were an awful lot of cars and trucks out there now—it looked like rush hour in Manhattan. Where had all those people come from?
And then there was the blast of a great air horn and I rushed out for my first view of the Orcas—and I was stunned.
That ship, I remembered thinking, has no right to be here. Not here, not on this run.
It was huge—all gleaming white, looking brand-new, more like a cruise ship than a ferryboat. I counted three upper decks, and, as I watched, a loud clanging bell sounded electrically on her and her enormous bow lifted, revealing a grooved raising ramp, something like the bow of an old LST. It docked with very little trouble, revealing space for well over a hundred cars and trucks, with small side ramps for a second level available if needed. I learned later that it was 396 feet long—longer than a football field by a third!—and could take over two hundred major vehicles and twelve hundred passengers.
It was close to sundown on a weekday, but they loaded more than fifty vehicles, including a dozen campers, and eight big trucks. Where had they all come from, I wondered again. And why?
I walked on with the passengers, still in something of a daze, and went up top. The lounges were spacious and comfortable, the seats all padded and reclining. There was a large cafeteria, a newsstand, and a very nice bar at the stern of passenger deck 2. The next deck had another lounge section and a number of staterooms up front, while the top level had the bridge, crew’s quarters, and a solarium.
It was fancy; and, after it backed out, lowered its bow, and started pouring it on after clearing the harbor lights, the fastest damned thing I could remember, too. Except for the slight swaying and the rhythmic thrumming of the twin diesels you hardly knew you were moving. It was obviously using enormous stabilizers.
The sun was setting and I walked through the ship, just looking and relaxing. As darkness fell and the shoreline receded into nothingness, I started noticing some very odd things, as I’d been warned.
First of all, there seemed to be a whole lot more people on board than I’d remembered loading, and there certainly hadn’t been any number staying on from the last run. They all looked real and solid enough, and very ordinary, but there was something decidedly weird about them, too.
Many seemed to be totally unaware of each other’s existence, for one thing. Some seemed to shimmer occasionally, others were a little blurred or indistinct to my eyes no matter how I rubbed them.
And, once in a while, they’d walk through each other.
Yes, I’m serious. One big fellow in a flowered aloha shirt and brown pants carrying a tray of soft drinks from the cafeteria to his wife and three kids in the lounge didn’t seem to notice this woman in a white tee shirt and jeans walking right into him, nor did she seem aware of him, either.
And they met, and I braced for the collision and spilled drinks—and it didn’t happen. They walked right through each other, just as if they didn’t exist, and continued obliviously on. Not one drop of soda was spilled, not one spot of mustard was splotched.
There were other things, too. Most of the people were dressed normally for summer, but occasionally I’d see people in fairly heavy coats and jackets. Some of the fashions were different, too—some people were overdressed in old-fashioned styles, others wildly underdressed, a couple of the women frankly wearing nothing but the bottoms of string bikinis and a see-through short cape of some kind.
I know I couldn’t take my eyes off them for a while, until I got the message that they knew they were being stared at and didn’t particularly like it. But they were generally ignored by the others.
There were strange accents, too. Not just the expected Maine twang and Canadian accents, or even just the French Canadian accents—those were normal. But there were some really odd ones, ones where I picked out only a few words, which sounded like English, French, Spanish, and Nordic languages all intermixed and often with weird results.
And men with pigtails and long, braided hair, and women with shaved heads or, occasionally, beards.
It was weird.
Frankly, it scared me a little, and I found the purser and introduced myself.
The officer, a good-looking young man named Gifford Hanley, a Canadian from his speech, seemed delighted that I’d seen all this and not the least bit disturbed.
“Well, well, well!” he almost beamed. “Maybe we’ve found our new man at last, eh? Not bloody soon enough, either! We’ve been working short-handed for too long and it’s getting to the others.”
He took me up to the bridge—one of the most modern I’d ever seen—and introduced me to the captain and helmsman. They all asked me what I thought of the Orcas and how I liked the sea, and none of them would answer my questions on the unusual passengers.
Well, there was a St. Clement’s Island. A big one, too, from the looks of it, and a fair amount of traffic getting off and wanting on. Some of the vehicles that got on were odd, too; many of the cars looked unfamiliar in design, the trucks also odd, and there were even several horse-drawn wagons!
The island had that same quality as some of the passengers, too. It never seemed to be quite in focus just beyond the ferry terminal, and lights seemed to shift, so that where I thought there were houses or a motel suddenly they were somewhere else, of a different intensity. I was willing to swear that the motel had two stories; later it seemed over on the left, and four stories high, then further back, still later, with a single story.
Even the lighthouse as we sped out of the harbor changed; one time it looked very tall with a house at its base; then, suddenly, it was short and tubby, then an automated light that seemed to be out in the water with no sign of an island.
This continued for most of the trip. St. Michael looked like a carbon copy of Southport, the passengers and vehicles as bizarre—and numerous—and there seemed to be a lot of customs men in different uniforms dashing about, totally ignoring some vehicles while processing others.
The trip back was equally strange. The newsstand contained some books and magazines that were odd to say the least, and papers with strange names and stranger headlines.
This time there were even Indians aboard, speaking odd tongues. Some looked straight out of The Last of the Mohicans, complete with wild haircut, others dressed from little to heavy, despite the fact that it was July and very warm and humid.
And, just before we were to make the red and green channel markers and turn into Southport, I saw the girl die for the first time.
She was dressed in red tee shirt, yellow shorts, and sandals; she had long brown hair, was rather short and stocky, and wore oversized granny glasses.
I wasn’t paying much attention, really, just watching her looking over the side at the wake, when, before I could even cry out, she suddenly climbed up on the rail and plunged in, very near the stern.
I screamed, and heard her body hit the water and then heard her howl of terror as she dropped close enough so that the propwash caught her, sucked her under, and cut her to pieces.
Several people on the afterdeck looked at me quizzically, but only one or two seemed to realize that a woman had just died.
There was little I could do, but I ran back to Hanley, breathless.
He just nodded sadly.
“Take it easy, man,” he said gently. “She’s dead, and there’s no use going back for the body. Believe me, we know. It won’t be there.”
I was shocked, badly upset. “How do you know that?” I snapped.
“Because we did it every time the last four times she killed herself and we never found the body then, either,” he replied sadly.
I had my mouth open, ready to retort, to say something, but he got up, put on his officer’s hat and coat, and said, “Excuse me. I have to supervise the unloading,” and walked out.
As soon as I got off the ship it was like some sort of dreamy fog had lifted from me. Everything looked suddenly bright and clear, and the people and vehicles looked normal. I made my way to the small ferry terminal building.
When they’d loaded and the ship was gone again, I waited for McNeil to return to his office. It looked much the same really, but a few things seemed different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something odd—like the paneling had been rosewood before, and was now walnut. Small things, but nagging ones.
McNeil came back after seeing the ship clear. It ran almost constantly, according to the schedule.
I glanced out the window as he approached and noticed uniformed customs men checking out the debarked vehicles. They seemed to have different uniforms than I’d remembered.
Then the ticket agent entered the office and I got another shock. He had a beard.
No, it was the same man, all right. No question about it. But the man I’d talked to less than nine hours before had been clean-shaven.
I turned to where the navigation atlas lay, just where I’d put it, still open to the Southport page.
It showed a ferry line from Southport to a rather substantial St. Clement’s Island now. But nothing to Nova Scotia.
I turned to the bearded McNeil, who was watching me with mild amusement in his eyes.
“What the hell is going on here?” I demanded.
He went over and sat down in his swivel chair. “Want the job?” he asked. “It’s yours if you do.”
I couldn’t believe his attitude. “I want an explanation, damn it!” I fumed.
He chuckled. “I told you I’d give you one if you wanted. Now, you’ll have to bear with me, since I’m only repeating what the Company tells me, and I’m not sure I have it all clear myself.”
I sat down in the other chair. “Go ahead,” I told him.
He sighed. “Well, let’s start off by saying that there’s been a Bluewater corporation ferry on this run since the mid-1800s—steam packet at first, of course. The Orcas is the eleventh ship in the service, put on a year and a half ago.”
He reached over, grabbed a cigarette, lit it, and continued.
“Well, anyway, it was a normal operation until about 1910 or so. That’s when they started noticing that their counts were off, that there seemed to be more passengers than the manifests called for, different freight, and all that. As it continued, the crews started noticing more and more of the kind of stuff you saw, and things got crazy for them, too. Southport was a big fishing and lobstering town then—nobody does that any more, the whole economy’s the ferry.
“Well, anyway, one time this crewman goes crazy, says the woman in his house isn’t his wife. A few days later another comes home to find that he has four kids—and he was only married a week before. And so on.”
I felt my skin starting to crawl slightly.
“So, they send some big shots up. The men are absolutely nuts, but they believe what they claim. Soon everybody who works the ship is spooked, and this can’t be dismissed. The experts go for a ride and can’t find anything wrong, but now two of the crewmen claim that it is their wife, or their kid, or somesuch. Got to be a pain, though, getting crewmen. We finally had to center on loners—people without family, friends, or close personal ties. It kept getting worse each trip. Had a hell of a time keeping men for a while, and that’s why it’s so hard to recruit new ones.”
“You mean the trip drives them crazy?” I asked unbelievingly.
He chuckled. “Oh, no. You’re sane. It’s the rest of ’em. That’s the problem. And it gets worse and worse each season. But the trip’s extremely profitable. So we try to match the crew to the ship and hope they’ll accept it. If they do it’s one of the best damned ferry jobs there is.”
“But what causes it?” I managed. “I mean—I saw people dressed outlandishly. I saw other people walk through each other! I even saw a girl commit suicide, and nobody seemed to notice!”
McNeil’s face turned grim. “So that’s happened again. Too bad. Maybe someday there’ll be some chance to save her.”
“Look,” I said, exasperated. “There must be some explanation for all this. There has to be!”
The ticket agent shrugged and stubbed out his cigarette.
“Well, some of the company experts studied it. They say nobody can tell for sure, but the best explanation is that there are a lot of different worlds—different Earths, you might say—all existing one on top of the other, but you can’t see any one except the one you’re in. Don’t ask me how that’s possible or how they came up with it, it just is, that’s all. Well, they say that in some worlds folks don’t exist at all, and in others they are different places or doing different things—like getting married to somebody else or somesuch. In some, Canada’s still British, in some she’s a republic, in others she’s a fragmented batch of countries, and in one or two she’s part of the U.S. Each one of these places has a different history.”
“And this one boat serves them all?” I responded, not accepting a word of that cazy story. “How is that possible?”
McNeil shrugged again. “Who knows? Hell, I don’t even understand why that little light goes on in here when I flip the switch. Do most people? I just sell tickets and lower the ramp. I’ll tell you the Company’s version, that’s all. They say that there’s a crack—maybe one of many, maybe the only one. The ship’s route just happens to parallel that crack, and this allows you to go between the worlds. Not one ship, of course—twenty or more, one for each world. But, as long as they keep the same schedule, they overlap—and can cross into one or more of the others. If you’re on the ship in all those worlds, then you cross, too. Anyone coexisting with the ship in multiple worlds can see and hear not only the one he’s in but the ones nearest him, too. People perception’s a little harder the farther removed the world you’re in is from theirs.”
“And you believe this?” I asked him, still disbelieving.
“Who knows? Got to believe something or you’ll go nuts,” he replied pragmatically. “Look, did you get to St. Michael this trip?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Looked pretty much like this place.”
He pointed to the navigation atlas. “Try and find it. You won’t. Take a drive up through New Brunswick and around to the other side. It doesn’t exist. In this world, the Orcas goes from here to St. Clement’s Island and back again. I understand from some of the crew that sometimes Southport doesn’t exist, sometimes the Island doesn’t, and so forth. And there are so many countries involved I don’t even count.”
I shook my head, refusing to accept all this. And yet, it made a crazy kind of sense. These people didn’t see each other because they were in different worlds. The girl committed suicide five times because she did it in five different worlds—or was it five different girls? It also explained the outlandish dress, the strange mixture of vehicles, people, accents.
“But how come the crew sees people from many worlds and the passengers don’t?” I asked him.
McNeil sighed. “That’s the other problem. We have to find people who would be up here, working on the Orcas, in every world we service. More people’s lives parallel than you’d think. The passengers—well, they generally don’t exist on a particular run except once. The very few who do still don’t take the trip in every world we service. I guess once or twice it’s happened that we’ve had a passenger cross over, but, if so, we’ve never heard of it.”
“And how come I’m here in so many worlds?” I asked him.
McNeil smiled. “You were recruited, of course. The Corporation has a tremendous, intensive recruiting effort involving ferry lines and crewmembers. When they spot one, like you, in just the right circumstance in all worlds, they recruit you—all of you. An even worse job than you’d think, since every season one or two new Bluewater Corporations put identical ferries on this run, or shift routes and overlap with ours. Then we have to make sure the present crew can serve them, too, by recruiting your twin on those worlds.”
Suddenly I reached over, grabbed his beard, and yanked.
“Ouch! Damn it!” he cried and shoved my hand away.
“I—I’m sorry—I—” I stammered.
He shook his head and grinned. “That’s all right, son. You’re about the seventh person to do that to me in the last five years. I guess there are a lot of varieties of me, too.”
I thought about all that traffic. “Do others know of this?” I asked him. “I mean, is there some sort of hidden commerce between the worlds on this ferry?”
He grinned. “I’m not supposed to answer that one,” he said carefully. “But, what the hell. Yes, I think—no, I know there is. After all, the shift of people and ships is constant. You move one notch each trip if all of you take the voyage. Sometimes up, sometimes down. If that’s true, and if they can recruit a crew that fits the requirements, why not truck drivers? A hell of a lot of truck traffic through here year ’round, you know. No reduced winter service. And some of the rigs are really kinda strange-looking.” He sighed. “I only know this—in a couple of hours I’ll start selling fares again, and I’ll sell a half dozen or so to St. Michael—and there is no St. Michael. It isn’t even listed on my schedule or maps. I doubt if the Corporation’s actually the trader, more the middleman in the deal. But they sure as hell don’t make their millions off fares alone.”
It was odd the way I was accepting it. Somehow, it seemed to make sense, crazy as it was.
“What’s to keep me from using this knowledge somehow?” I asked him. “Maybe bring my own team of experts up?”
“Feel free,” McNeil answered. “Unless they overlap they’ll get a nice, normal ferry ride. And if you can make a profit, go ahead, as long as it doesn’t interfere with Bluewater’s cash flow. The Orcas cost the company over twenty-four million reals and they want it back.”
“Twenty-four million what?” I shot back.
“Reals,” he replied, taking a bill from his wallet. I looked at it. It was printed in red, and had a picture of someone very ugly labeled “Prince Juan XVI” and an official seal from the “Bank of New Lisboa.” I handed it back.
“What country are we in?” I asked uneasily.
“Portugal,” he replied casually. “Portuguese America, actually, although only nominally. So many of us Yankees have come in you don’t even have to speak Portuguese any more. They even print the local bills in Anglish, now.”
Yes, that’s what he said. Anglish.
“It’s the best ferryboat job in the world, though,” McNeil continued. “For someone without ties, that is. You’ll meet more different kinds of people from more cultures than you can ever imagine. Three runs on, three off—in as many as twenty-four different variations of these towns, all unique. And a month off in winter to see a little of a different world each time. Never mind whether you buy the explanation—you’ve seen the results, you know what I say is true. Want the job?”
“I’ll give it a try,” I told him, fascinated. I wasn’t sure if I did buy the explanation, but I certainly had something strange and fascinating here.
“Okay, there’s twenty reals advance,” McNeil said, handing me a purple bill from the cash box. “Get some dinner if you didn’t eat on the ship and get a good night’s sleep at the motel—the Company owns it so there’s no charge—and be ready to go aboard at four tomorrow afternoon.”
I got up to leave.
“Oh, and Mr. Dalton,” he added, and I turned to face him.
“If, while on shore, you fall for a pretty lass, decide to settle down, then do it—but don’t go back on that ship again! Quit. If you don’t she’s going to be greeted by a stranger, and you might never find her again.”
“I’ll remember,” I assured him.
THE JOB WAS EVERYTHING McNeil promised and more. The scenery was spectacular, the people an ever-changing, fascinating group. Even the crew changed slightly—a little shorter sometimes, a little fatter or thinner, beards and mustaches came and went with astonishing rapidity, and accents varied enormously. It didn’t matter; you soon adjusted to it as a matter of course, and all shipboard experiences were in common, anyway.
It was like a tight family after a while, really. And there were women in the crew, too, ranging from their twenties to their early fifties, not only in food and bar service but as deckhands and the like as well. Occasionally this was a little unsettling, since, in two or three cases out of 116, they were men in one world, women in another. You got used to even that. It was probably more unsettling for them; they were distinct people, and they didn’t change sex. The personalities and personal histories tended to parallel, regardless, though, with only a few minor differences.
And the passengers! Some were really amazing. Even seasons were different for some of them, which explained the clothing variations. Certainly what constituted fashion and moral behavior was wildly different, as different as what they ate and the places they came from.
And yet, oddly, people were people. They laughed, and cried, and ate and drank and told jokes—some rather strange, I’ll admit—and snapped pictures and all the other things people did. They came from places where the Vikings settled Nova Scotia (called Vinland, naturally), where Nova Scotia was French, or Spanish, or Portuguese, or very, very English. Even one in which Nova Scotia had been settled by Lord Baltimore and called Avalon.
Maine was as wild or wilder. There were two Indian nations running it, the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Portugal, and lots of variations, some of which I never have gotten straight. There was also a temporal difference sometimes—some people were rather futuristic, with gadgets I couldn’t even understand. One truck I loaded was powered by some sort of solar power and carried a cargo of food service robots. Some others were behind—still mainly horses, or oldtime cars and trucks. I am not certain even now if they were running at different speeds from us or whether some inventions had simply been made in some worlds and not in others.
And, McNeil was right. Every new summer season added at least one more. The boat was occasionally so crowded to our crew eyes that we had trouble making our way from one end of the ship to the other. Watching staterooms unload was also wild—it looked occasionally like the circus clown act, where 50 clowns get out of a Volkswagen.
And there was some sort of trade between the worlds. It was quickly clear that Bluewater Corporation was behind most of it, and that this was what made the line so profitable.
And, just once, there was a horrible, searing pain that hit the entire crew, and a modern world we didn’t meet any more after that, and a particular variation of the crew we never saw again. And the last newspapers from that world had told of a coming war.
There was also a small crew turnover, of course. Some went on vacation and never returned, some returned but would not reboard the ship. The Company was understanding, and it usually meant some extra work for a few weeks until they found someone new and could arrange for them to come on.
THE STARS WERE FADING a little now, and I shined the spot over to the red marker for the Captain. He acknowledged seeing it, and made his turn in, the lights of Southport coming into view and masking the stars a bit.
I went through the motions mechanically, raising the bow when the Captain hit the mark, letting go the bow lines, checking the clearances, and the like. I was thinking about the girl.
We knew that people’s lives in the main did parallel from world to world. Seven times now she’d come aboard, seven times she’d looked at the white wake, and seven times she’d jumped to her death.
Maybe it was the temporal dislocation, maybe she just reached the same point at different stages, but she was always there and she always jumped.
I’d been working the Orcas three years, had some strange experiences, and generally pleasurable ones. For the first time I had a job I liked, a family of sorts in the crew, and an ever-changing assortment of people and places for a threepoint ferry run. In that time we’d lost one world and gained by our figures three others. That was 26 variants.
Did that girl exist in all 26? I wondered. Would we be subjected to that sadness 19 more times? Or more, as we picked up new worlds?
Oh, I’d tried to find her before she jumped in the past, yes. But she hadn’t been consistent, except for the place she chose. We did three runs a day, two crews, so it was six a day more or less. She did it at different seasons, in different years, dressed differently.
You couldn’t cover them all.
Not even all the realities of the crew of all worlds, although I knew that we were essentially the same people on all of them and that I—the other me’s—were also looking.
I don’t even know why I was so fixated, except that I’d been to that point once myself, and I’d discovered that you could go on, living with emotional scars, and find a new life.
I didn’t even know what I’d say and do if I did see her early. I only knew that, if I did, she damned well wasn’t going to go over the stern that trip.
In the meantime, my search for her when I could paid other dividends. I prevented a couple of children from going over through childish play, as well as a drunk, and spotted several health problems as I surveyed the people. One turned out to be a woman in advanced labor, and the first mate and I delivered our first child—our first, but the Orcas’ nineteenth. We helped a lot of people, really, with a lot of different matters.
They were all just spectres, of course; they got on the boat often without us seeing them, and they disembarked for all time the same way. There were some regulars, but they were few. And, for them, we were a ghost crew, there to help and to serve.
But, then, isn’t that the way you think of anybody in a service occupation? Firemen are firemen, not individuals; so are waiters, cops, street sweepers, and all the rest. Categories, not people.
We sailed from Point A to Point C stopping at B, and it was our whole life.
And then, one day in July of last year, I spotted her.
She was just coming on board at St. Clement’s—that’s possibly why I hadn’t noticed her before. We backed into St. Clement’s, and I was on the bow lines. But we were short, having just lost a deckhand to a nice-looking fellow in the English colony of Annapolis Royal, and it was my turn to do some double duty. So, there I was, routing traffic on the ship when I saw this little rounded station wagon go by and saw her in it.
I still almost missed her; I hadn’t expected her to be with another person, another woman, and we were loading the Vinland existence, so in July they were more accurately in a state of undress than anything else, but I spotted her all the same. Jackie Carliner, one of the barmaids and a pretty good artist, had sketched her from the one time she’d seen the girl and we’d made copies for everyone.
Even so, I had my loading duties to finish first—there was no one else. But, as soon as we were underway and I’d raised the stern ramp, I made my way topside and to the lower stern deck. I took my walkie-talkie off the belt clip and called the Captain.
“Sir, this is Dalton,” I called. “I’ve seen our suicide girl.”
“So what else is new?” grumbled the Captain. “You know policy on that by now.”
“But, sir!” I protested. “I mean still alive. Still on board. It’s barely sundown, and we’re a good half hour from the point yet.”
He saw what I meant. “Very well,” he said crisply. “But you know we’re short-handed. I’ll put Caldwell on the bow station this time, but you better get some results or I’ll give you so much detail you won’t have time to meddle in other people’s affairs.”
I sighed. Running a ship like this one hardened most people. I wondered if the Captain, with twenty years on the run, ever understood why I cared enough to try and stop this girl I didn’t know from going in.
Did I know, for that matter?
As I looked around at the people going by, I thought about it. I’d thought about it a great deal before.
Why did I care about these faceless people? People from so many different worlds and cultures that they might as well have been from another planet. People who cared not at all about me, who saw me as an object, a cipher, a service, like those robots I mentioned. They didn’t care about me. IfI were perched on that rail and a crowd was around, most of them would probably yell “Jump!”
Most of the crew, too, cared only about each other, to a degree, and about the Orcas, our rock of sanity. I thought of that world gone in some atomic fire. What was the measure of an anonymous human being’s worth?
I thought of Joanna and Harmony. With pity, yes, but I realized now that Joanna, at least, had been a vampire. She’d needed me, needed a rock to steady herself, to unburden herself to, to brag to. Someone steady and understanding, someone whose manner and character suggested that solidity. She’d never really even considered that I might have my own problems, that her promiscuity and lifestyle might be hurting me. Not that she was trying to hurt me—she just never considered me.
Like those people going by now. If they stub their toe, or have a question, or slip, or the boat sinks, they need me. Until then, I’m just a faceless automaton to them.
Ready to serve them, to care about them, if they needed somebody.
And that was why I was out here in the surprising chill, out on the stern with my neck stuck out a mile, trying to prevent a suicide I knew would happen, knew because I’d seen it three times before.
I was needed.
That was the measure of a human being’s true worth, I felt sure. Not how many people ministered to your needs, but how many people you could help.
That girl—she had been brutalized, somehow, by society. Now I was to provide some counterbalance.
It was the surety of this duty that had kept me from blowing myself up with the old Delaware ferry, or jumping off that stern rail myself.
I glanced uneasily around and looked ahead. There was Shipshead light, tall and proud this time in the darkness, the way I liked it. I thought I could almost make out the marker buoys already. I started to get nervous.
I was certain that she’d jump. It’d happened every time before that we’d known. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, in this existence she won’t.
I had no more than gotten the thought through my head when she came around the corner of the deck housing and stood in the starboard corner, looking down.
She certainly looked different this time. Her long hair was blond, not dark, and braided in large pigtails that drooped almost to her waist. She wore only the string bikini and transparent cape the Vinlanders liked in summer, and she had several gold rings on each arm, welded loosely there, I knew, and a marriage ring around her neck.
That was interesting, I thought. She looked so young, so despairing, that I’d never once thought of her as married.
Her friend, as thin and underdeveloped as she was stout, was with her. The friend had darker hair and had it twisted high atop her head. She wore no marriage ring.
I eased slowly over, but not sneakily. Like I said, nobody notices the crewman of a vessel; he’s just a part of it.
“Luok, are yo sooure yu don’ vant to halve a drink or zumpin?” the friend asked in that curious accent the Vinlanders had developed through cultural pollution by the dominant English and French.
“Naye, I yust vant to smell da zee-zpray,” the girl replied. “Go on. I vill be alonk before ze zhip iz docking.”
The friend was hesitant; I could see it in her manner. But I could also see she would go, partly because she was chilly, partly because she felt she had to show some trust to her friend.
She walked off. I looked busy checking the stairway supports to the second deck, and she paid me no mind whatsoever.
There were a few others on deck, but most had gone forward to see us come in, and the couple dressed completely in black sitting there on the bench was invisible to the girl as she was to them. She peered down at the black water and started to edge more to the starboard side engine wake, then a little past, almost to the center. Her upper torso didn’t move, but I saw a bare, dirty foot go up on the lower rail.
I walked casually over. She heard me, and turned slightly to see if it was anyone she needed to be bothered with.
I went up to her and stood beside her, looking out at the water.
“Don’t do it,” I said softly, not looking directly at her. “It’s too damned selfish a way to go.”
She gave a small gasp and turned to look at me in wonder.
“How—how didt yu—?” she managed.
“I’m an old hand at suicides,” I told her, that was no lie. Joanna, then almost me, then this woman seven other times.
“I vouldn’t really haff—” she began, but I cut her off.
“Yes, you would. You know it and I know it. The only thing you know and I don’t is why.”
We were inside Shipshead light now. If I could keep her talking just a few more minutes we’d clear the channel markers and slow for the turn and docking. The turn and the slowdown would make it impossible for her to be caught in the propwash, and, I felt, the cycle would be broken, at least for her.
“Vy du yu care?” she asked, turning again to look at the dark sea, only slightly illuminated by the rapidly receding light.
“Well, partly because it’s my ship, and I don’t like things like that to happen on my ship,” I told her. “Partly because I’ve been there myself, and I know how brutal a suicide is.”
She looked at me strangely. “Dat’s a fonny t’ing tu zay,” she responded. “Jost vun qvick jomp and pszzt! All ofer.”
“You’re wrong,” I said. “Besides, why would anyone so young want to end it?”
She had a dreamy quality to her face and voice. She was starting to blur, and I was worried that I might somehow translate into a different world-level as we neared shore.
“My ’usbahnd,” she responded. “Goldier vas hiss name.” She fingered the marriage ring around her neck. “Zo yong, so ’andzum.” She turned her head quickly and looked up at me. “Do yu know vat it iz to be fat and ugly und ’alf bloind and haff ze best uv all men zuddenly pay attenzion to yu, vant to marry yu?”
I admitted I didn’t, but didn’t mention my own experiences.
“What happened? He leave you?” I asked.
There were tears in her eyes. “Ya, in a vay, ya. Goldier he jomped out a tventy-story building, he did. Und itz my own fault, yu know. I shud haff been dere. Or, maybe I didn’t giff him vat he needed. I dunno.”
“Then you of all people know how brutal suicide really is,” I retorted. “Look at what it did to you. You have friends, like your friend here. They care. It will hurt them as your husband’s hurt you. This woman with you—she’ll carry guilt for leaving you alone the whole rest of her life.” She was shaking now, not really from the chill, and I put my arm around her. Where the hell were those marker lights?
“Do you see how cruel it is? What suicide does to others? It leaves a legacy of guilt, much of it false guilt but no less real for that. And you might be needed by somebody else, sometime, to help them. Somebody else might die because you weren’t there.”
She looked up at me, then seemed to dissolve, collapse into a crescendo of tears, and sat down on the deck. I looked up and saw the red and green markers astern, felt the engines slow, felt the Orcas turn.
“Ghetta!” The voice was a piercing scream in the night. I looked around and saw her friend running to us after coming down the stairway. Anxiety and concern were on her stricken face, and there were tears in her eyes. She bent down to the still sobbing girl. “I shuld neffer haff left yu!” she sobbed, and hugged the girl tightly.
I sighed. The Orcas was making its dock approach now, the ringing of bells said that Caldwell had managed to raise the bow without crashing us into the dock.
“My Gott!” the friend swore, then looked up at me. “Yu stopped her? How can I effer? . . .”
But they both already had that ethereal, unnatural double image about them, both fading into a world different from mine.
“Just remember that there’s a million Ghettas out there,” I told them both softly. “And you can make them or break them.”
I turned and walked away as I heard the satisfying thump and felt the slight jerk of the ferry fitting into the slip. I stopped and glanced back at the stern but I could see no one. Nobody was there.
Who were the ghosts? I mused. Those women, or the crew of the Orcas? How many times did hundreds of people from different worlds coexist on this ship without ever knowing it?
How many times did people in the same world coexist without noticing each other, or caring about each other, for that matter?
“Mr. Dalton!” snapped a voice in my walkie-talkie.
“Sir?” I responded.
“Well?” the Captain asked expectantly.
“No screams this time, Captain,” I told him, satisfaction in my voice. “One young woman will live.”
There was a long pause and, for a moment, I thought he might actually be human. Then he snapped, “There’s eighty-six assorted vehicles still waiting to be off-loaded, and might I remind you we’re short-handed and on a strict schedule?”
I sighed and broke into a trot. Business was business, and I had a whole world to throw out of the car deck so I could run another one in.