The whole sky flashed, a searing electric blaze, fading to the blue-brown of the horizon. Lightning here did funny things to a man’s vision. The clouds were patchy, silver gray, like the plains of an airless moon.
Masters checked the zippers on his wetsuit, snugged the goggles down over his eyes, and waded into the surf. The water was cold. He’d have to make the repair fast and get out.
This was his first real job since the last episode. He’d been turned down by half a dozen companies before he decided in desperation to change his name and doctor his resume. Not that he felt bad about the deception. At least, not most of the time. After all, didn’t people usually do the opposite of what he did–claim skills and experience they didn’t have, in order to get jobs they were not qualified for? But he’d been told he was overqualified enough times to know it was code for “untrustworthy.” So he did what he had to, in order to survive. It was evolution at work. Natural selection. Not that it had been easy, even so. The first three employers he applied to
checked his references and invited him to go away, without bothering to be polite. Not that he blamed them. That was how things worked.
But Undersea Power Corporation was a budget operation from start to finish. Sooner or they might check up on him, and he’d have to hit the road again. Especially if he screwed up an assignment. He wasn’t worried about that. He was good at what he did.
The wave generator was a hundred and fifty yards out. A surprisingly simple internal mechanism converted the mostly- lateral motion of the waves to rotary motion that turned a generator. The anchor cable fed electricity back to the terminal high on the cliff behind him. Dozens of other generators were strategically placed along the shore in places where they could collect maximum energy without being impossibly hard to reach for maintenance.
She stood ankle-deep in the surf when he turned from the generator. At first he thought she wore a flesh-colored wetsuit. As he came closer he saw that, beneath short dark hair, curiously streaked with red and gold, she wore only a few strands of seaweed, strategically-placed. Her eyes were also flecked with gold and red, around green irises, cheeks flushed pink in the cold wind. Her lips curved, dark red bows parted slightly as if about to speak or smile.
“You look cold,” she said.
Masters shivered. He’d forgotten how frigid the water was. He opened his mouth, but the memory flooded back before he could ask, “And you are not cold?”
He smelled smoke. It must be the lingering cobwebs of dream. He shook his head, sat up, struggled to recall where he was. The room was dark. He fumbled for his watch. The luminous dial showed four minutes after three.
He remembered, then. The tiny apartment was all he could afford in the new city since his last episode. Rumor had it there were jobs here.
Awake, he still smelled smoke. It was stronger now, the harsh, cutting stench of electricity and burning carpet, painted walls in flame, and the dry tinder of old furniture instantly alight. He heard the roar of flames in the hallway outside the door.
He almost touched the door knob, then tried to recall what people were supposed to do in these cases. Stay and wait for help, because there was no escape through the hall? He ran to the window, stumbling over the room’s only chair in the darkness. Pushing aside the curtain, he stared at the silent, half-empty parking lot. No sirens, no flashing lights. Nothing moved. He was on the fourth floor, the rusty death-trap fire-escape fallen away long ago.
He turned away from the window, pulled the blanket from the end of the bed, and wrapped his hand. The heat of the knob scorched his hand through the cloth, but he wrenched it open anyway, ready to mask his nose and mouth with the blanket and run. Too late, he recalled the blanket should be wet.
The hallway was dark and quiet. The EXIT sign flickered and buzzed at the end by the stairs.
He went back in the room, back to the window, saw the fire trucks and ambulances, their furious lights strobing the darkness into a hideous, psychedelic nightmare. Flameless smoke choked him, and he fell on the bed, gasping for breath.
Dawn broke at last. In the the tiny bathroom, he ran water over the burned hand and found disinfectant and bandages to wrap the blisters. The medicine stung and throbbed where torn skin had already cracked and leaked.
The building supervisor’s office off the corner of the lobby said he would be in by eight. He arrived at a quarter after. His name was Hensley. They’d met when Masters rented the apartment. Masters waited, sitting in the chair by the dusty window while Hensley unlocked the door, turned on lights, and sat in the creaking chair. The man turned when Master’s shadow blocked the light from the hall and cast a shadow on the opposite wall.
“Mr. Hensley,” Masters began. He took a deep breath, as if he would have to hold it for a long time, and then exhaled. “Mr. Hensley, this building is not safe.”
Hensley stared at him. “Why do you say that?”
“There’s no fire escape.”
“Sure there is. They’re called stairs. Front and back.”
“You know what I mean. And the wiring is ancient–when was the last time an electrician looked at anything in this building?”
“What, you thought you were getting a suite at the Taj Mahal for what you pay here?” Hensley’s face twisted in a crooked grin. “I don’t live here. It’s not my building. Just a job. But the boss gave me strict orders–no troublemakers. You want to hit the streets, or you want to keep your big ideas to yourself?”
“I’m only warning you. I have to. When–if–if there’s a fire, many people will die.”
So of course, after the fire, nine days later, the super had told the detectives, and the arson inspector, and the reporter, and anyone else who would listen. Masters was questioned by the police, but the inspector concluded faulty wiring had caused the fire. Eleven people died, four of them children, and there was talk of criminal negligence on the part of Hensley and the building owner. By then, only reporters wanted to talk to Masters. Headlines ran along the lines of “Psychic’s Warning Unheeded! Deadly Inferno! Dozens Die Needlessly!” or even more sensational language.
It had happened before, time and again, the vision, the attempt to warn, to explain, the disaster followed by suspicion, by questions he could not answer. So he’d left that city, all cities, and come here to this lonely, rocky outcrop where sky and land and water thrashed through their eternal love triangle, settling nothing, solving everything.
The next day, the warning light on the panel flickered for the same generator. Masters suited up, strapped the tool vest across his chest, and started to the water.
He saw her when he was still far away, as he walked down the long zig-zag path from the top of the cliff to the narrow beach. Still as a length of salt-bleached driftwood, she waited.
“You look cold,” she said.
“How do I know you are real?” he asked.
“Don’t I look real? Or feel real?” She put her hand on his shoulder, then raised it to touch his face. Her fingers were pale, silver skin around blue nails, curiously warm.
“Yes, but . . .”
They stood with the surf booming around them, its roar echoing off the cliffs, the tang of salt filling his nose and lungs.
“But I see things sometimes. See things, hear them. Like you. It doesn’t mean you’re real.”
“Don’t they become real? You see the future.”
How do you know that? But all could do was nod. Nod, and turn, and swim for the generator. The water closed around him like a womb.
The company let him live in the tin building near the transformers, sheltered from the wind, in a basin two hundred yards wide, half a mile from the cliff’s edge. In heavy rains, water coursed across the plain in rocky streams and sluiced down through tunnels under the last few hundred feet to the ocean. The rumble of streams and the drumming on the roof and the sighing of the distant surf made Masters think of Homer, of ancient chanted poems about wooden boats on the Aegean sea.
He scooped coffee into the pot, poured in water, letting it mix with the grounds and settle, and lit the gas burner. While the coffee came to a boil, the room filling with the rich, earthy scent, he sat on his bunk and put on dry socks. How did she know abut him, how he saw things that, sooner or later, turned out to be real? Was she real now, or part of a vision? He knew the answer, the way he knew the smell of coffee and salty ocean air, an instinct old as consciousness. The visions were always dream-like, surreal, but more intense, nightmarish. She was no nightmare. Fay and mesmerizing, but he did not fear her. His rational mind told him he should be afraid. He had hallucinated, or something very bizarre had happened. But he could not convince himself to feel fear. People died this way, when they stopped being afraid of dangerous things.
This time she was on shore when he came out of the water. Somehow she had started a fire with the wet driftwood, sheltered from wind by boulders on two sides, the cliff on the third side. Bright flames sent clouds of steam into the low sky. A blue-lightning haze flickered like St. Elmo’s fire where smoke rose over the cliff.
Ruby coals hissed on wet sand around the fire. She stared at the burning wood, mesmerized. “It’s so beautiful. We have nothing like it. Some of the corals make these colors, but they do not move or sing this way.”
She took his hands and the seaweed fell away from her shoulders, breasts, hips. They danced around the fire.
“We live for thousands of years,” she said, later. They sat near the dying fire. She spread kelp and Irish moss on small rocks around the fire. Soon it was seared and crisp as bacon. The taste was salty and pleasantly bitter.
“Our children, if they are female, join the coven,” she said. “Or rather, the coven raises them, and ours is the only life they ever know. Or want.”
“Ever? No girl-child has ever chosen to live on land?”
“Oh, once or twice. They almost always come home. We do not force them to stay, if that’s what you mean.
“The boy children come ashore and live human lives, never knowing or remembering where they came from. Usually. Some of the male children have–abilities. This makes it hard for them to live among humans. Sooner or later, the ocean calls them back.”
“Who cares for them? The boys, I mean?”
“Humans, who agree to love the child and forget where he came from. Oxygen-breathers are marvelously adept at believing stories they invent.”
“There are no men in your . . . coven?”
“Very few. Only ones who belong. Most were boy children who were determined to come home. As I said, some of our boy children have qualities that make life among oxygen- breathers difficult. Or impossible.”
“Who makes that decision, about who belongs–you or the men?”
She did not hear the question, or she ignored it. “One or two extraordinary oxygen-breathers–male and female–have also joined us.”
“You call humans oxygen-breathers–but you seem to breathe air well enough.”
“My sisters and I are more adaptable than humans. When we are not in the water, we breathe what they call carbon dioxide. It is not natural for us, and it stinks of their machines, worse every year. But we manage.”
“Carbon dioxide–that’s what plants take from the atmosphere.”
She smiled. “We all come from the same mother.” Masters shivered, not from the cold wind, not from fear. Not quite.
“Tell me about the boys. The odd ones, who find it hard to adapt.”
“Mostly, the boys are like ordinary oxygen-breathers. They find our way of life . . . unsuitable. Or impossible even to imagine. But certain boys–they leave us, and wander for a time, and then come home. When they become young men, or young men on the verge of middle age, tired of running, they are drawn back.”
“Drawn back how? Mental telepathy, fortune-tellers? Or emails from mysterious strangers?”
“I’m told it’s more like compulsion. Compulsion, and fatigue. They grow tired of trying to live where they are not understood or wanted.”
“And you let them come back? Who decides if they belong?”
“Usually, it is a mutual understanding. Or so I have been told. As I said, we live for thousands of years. Males are rarely needed. I’ve known only a few.”
“What if a male is needed and none shows up?”
“One is always found. The boys who left us are most easily called back.”
“Who calls them?”
“The mother, of course.” Again, the little smile he thought should frighten him. “Now and then, extraordinary human men may be called. Genetic diversity is essential, of course.” She looked in his eyes, smiling fully now, the far away, green-blue look in her eyes that made him think of warm sand on the Aegean archipelago.
“I still don’t understand what you mean. Called? Are you talking about an actual sound, or a feeling . . . ?”
But she was standing, and then running toward the water, her short, dark, red-gold streaked hair bobbing in the wind.
He followed, slowly, and when the sea lifted him, he started to swim. Somewhere far out, he could hear her siren call. It came from under the waves. He took a deep breath, and dove.
David Rogers’ poems, stories, and articles have appeared in various print and electronic publications, including The Comstock Review, Atlanta Review, Sky and Telescope, and Astronomy magazine. He is the author of two novels, D.B. Cooper is Dead: A Solomon Starr Adventure and Thor’s Hammer, and a fantasy novella, Return of the Exile, each available from Amazon. More of his work can be read at https://davidrogersbooks.wordpress.com/.