New Neighbors: Free Fiction for Fyretober, Day 1
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: New Neighbors.
by Carol Scott
Originally published in Trans Lunar Injection #61
Blackheart Hal stood nearly knee-deep in the ocean bottom and stared up through the depths. “Storming up there. It’s going to take one down.”
Blake looked up as well. It was impossible for normal eyes to see through that much water even in daylight, but their type were hardly normal. Still… “I don’t see it. How to can you tell?”
Hal looked down to the ocean floor and pointed to the north. “Pete always knows, and he’s coming as fast as he can cut through the muck.”
Blake looked down as well, and he laughed. Pegleg Pete, his crewmates had called the man way back then, and somehow he still had the peg sticking out from the old bones of his knee as he worked off his death here in the Voyagers’ Graveyard. Pete did always seem to know, and was drawn to every shipwreck as it fell. He was convinced that somehow, someway, if you got hit by a sinking wreck, that would give you release. No one else down there had ever heard that, but Pete was certain.
Pete practically sped through the muck, all things considered. The silt was so high, you couldn’t really see his peg; but he still wore the yellow shirt and scraps of brown dungarees he had worn when his ship had gone down. That was generally the only way you could tell the skeletons apart down in the graveyard: what they wore when they died, or what they added from salvage after.
There was a lot that didn’t make sense about death to Blake. It wasn’t at all what he had expected. It made no sense that all these corpses down there by the shoals just kept on living – well, not living, but being. Was this true of the dead everywhere? Or is it something special to this piece of ocean floor? Some of the dead had elaborate theories, stories of Heaven or Hell or Vodun or darker things. Blake had been a churchgoing man back in Yorkshire, but he had never been particularly clear on what he believed would happen when he was gone. Maybe if he paid more attention, he wouldn’t have taken up piracy, and he wouldn’t be down there.
Then he shrugged to himself. By now, near two hundred years later, he would be just as dead somewhere else. This was as good a death as any, and he was used to the company. He could tolerate most of them.
Pete trudged up. “You see them? Where are they coming down?”
All three looked up for signs of falling debris. Not that Blake cared. Even if Pete was right, Blake wasn’t sure he wanted release, whatever that meant. If this was the end of the line, he sit it out down here. But if there was something coming after, he wasn’t sure if it would be better, or if he had earned worse.
The three were still looking up when suddenly Blake heard voices behind him. (And no, he never did figure out how the dead spoke underwater, but that seemed the smallest of the mysteries down there.) The first voice he heard was a quiet, thin contralto. “Devon, where are we? How are…”
The three dead turned just in time to see a young woman and a man of similar age walking through the silt. They were going through the usual routine. The newly dead didn’t understand, and usually didn’t accept their fate. (Pete never really had, he had just… twisted it to fit what he believed.) These two still had their flesh on them, of course. If they were careful at shooing away the crabs and fishes, they might stay fleshed for a dozen years or more; but that only delayed the inevitable.
The woman was pale, with large blue eyes and a floating cloud of red hair. She was slender and unblemished in a way that probably meant she was wealthy. Or at least it would have in Blake’s day. Maybe the world up there was cleaner now.
The man looked similarly fit, with blonde hair that waved in the currents and a muscular build that gave Blake just a twinge of envy. Once hehad had a shape like that. Now he was naught but bones.
The man gripped her shoulders and said, “I don’t think this is good news, Marie. And you know, too.”
“No, Devon. Don’t even think that.” She shook her head, and her long hair swirled around the two of them, wrapping them both. The hair usually came off the dead first, and hers wouldn’t last long. She would tangle it up, and it would get torn out.
Blake walked toward them, pulling his bony feet from the muck with every step. “But he’s right, madame. And you know it. There’s no sense in trying to break it to you gently, not down here under hundreds of feet of ocean yet talking as if we were in air. Were all dead here. And you are, too.”
“No!” She put her hands to her mouth and gasped.
“Did you feel that?” Blake asked. “Come on, give a good blow on your hands. Do you feel anything?”
“We are all dead, and we are all of stranded here for who knows how long. Hal, how long has it been for you?”
Hal had joined the group. “Blake, you know that’s an impossible question. We simply tell the count of days down here. Nor months, years, decades… The best we can do is calculate from the things that fall down here, when we can find a date. The ship’s logs, and… the people. Madame, what year is it up topside?”
The woman didn’t answer, but the man – Devon – disentangled himself from her hair and said, “2023.”
Hal whistled, a trick that Blake could barely do when he had been a breather. He had never managed it now that he was dead. Hal ticked off on his bony fingers. “Seventeen hundred… eighteen hundred… nineteen hundred… That’s three centuries and… eighty-four years.”
Blake nodded. “Hal has been down here the longest, nearly four centuries, and he shows no signs of escaping.”
Hal shook his head. “Not the longest. Those Indians were already down here when I sank, but I do not know for how long. They keep to themselves, and I do not speak their language.”
The woman – Marie – clawed her hair out of her face, some strands pulling off in her fingers already. “Stop it! Just… Just stop it! I don’t know what this trick is, but I want it stopped.” Then after a pause, she added, “Or I’m dreaming… Yes, I’m dreaming…”
Then Pete came up from behind her, put a bony hand on her shoulder, and she screamed. Unfazed, Pete asked, “Which way did you come? Has your ship falling yet?”
Marie pulled away from Pete and clung to Devon. “Make this nightmare go away!”
Blake nodded. “Some of the dead do think it’s just a nightmare. After they calm down, and it doesn’t get any worse, they settle for just a dream. That might… Thay might be easiest on them, and maybe on you. They just lie down in the silt, and pretend to sleep.”
“Or maybe they really sleep,” Hal added. “It is hard to tell without waking them, and that would be rude.”
Blake couldn’t contain a burst of laughter. “Blackheart Hal, Scourge of the Sea Lanes, worrying about being rude? How many men, women, and children did you send to the cold depths of the seas?”
Hal spread his skeletal hands wide. “What can I say? Four hundred years changes a man.”
“See?” Pete said, trudging forward to confront Brad and Hal. “I was right! This is… This is our own private Purgatory, where we have to unlearn our bad habits, learn the error of her ways. If even Hal can break his sinful habits, there has to be a chance for me! I was never a pirate, I was crew on a ship you sank!” He pointed a thin white finger at Blake.
“That doesn’t mean you were free of sin,” Blake answered. “You just had less than us.”
“That’s right! And so soon, any day now, the Lord in his mercy will grant me release! He sends the ships to offer his hand to us if we will just take it. He reaches down cloaked as debris, to take us up to heaven. But we have to have faith and pure hearts.”
“You certainly have both, as far as I can tell,” Blake answered. He hooked his thumb back the way that Marie and Devon had come. “Some of the ship may still be descending. Go take a chance.”
Pete did not need to be told twice. He started trudging as fast as his wooden leg would let him through the muck to the south. “Is he right?” Devon asked.
“He…” Marie took a long pause. “I don’t know! If I believe he’s right, then I have to believe… we’re…”
Blake didn’t look directly at her. Empty eye sockets would not be comforting to her, not yet. She would get used to them soon. He tried to sound comforting. “You are. We are. But it’s not…” He chuckled. “It’s not the end of the world, just the end of that world for you.” He pointed up topside. “There are worse things. You don’t have to worry about what to eat, what to wear, anything like that. You don’t have to worry about kings or lords or bosses or captains telling you what to do. You find your own things to do. Maybe scavenging some of the wrecks, pick up a hobby. John Wills has been making sculpture with relics he finds.”
Marie stared almost into Blake’s face. “Forever?”
“For as long as it is,” Blake answered. I’ve worked harder under worse conditions. Sometimes I miss a bit of ale or a good tin of soup, but that’s only memory. We get to keep those. In the meantime, it’s not a hard life. Or death, I should say.”
Devon said, “This is… This is so much to… I’ve lost everything. Everyone!”
Marie looked at him, and Blake could see that she had started to realize her situation. “We have lost them, Devon, but it was just our time. Now… We have to start this… this existence…”
Blake nodded to himself. They would call it death eventually, but there was time for that. Time for everything. “Let me introduce you to your new neighbors.”