This story is part of The Infinite Bard,
a community storytelling project from members of
The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.
Search #TheInfiniteBard on social media
& bookmark https://theinfinitebard.wordpress.com/for a free story every couple of weeks!
‘To Take The Water Down And Go To Sleep’
by Frazer Lee
“The tank is a safe space in which to heal your psyche, Mr. Roberts.”
Roberts looked at the gunmetal grey cylinder, and frowned.
“It doesn’t look all that safe to me.”
“Senz-dep is state-of-the-art, I assure you,” the white-coated doctor boasted. “Admittedly, we had a few acoustic issues with the second-gen, but this is the third. You’ll feel like you’re floating in space— without the inconvenience of actual space tourism.”
“Not to mention the expense.”
The white-coat just smiled. Whatever his clients had paid, Roberts guessed it might equal the price of a return ticket to the outer atmosphere.
“Your profile is not uncommon. You are at mid-life. Even high-functioning staff have a blip on their record somewhere, and the mid-to-late forties are the usual co-ordinates.”
“A mid-life crisis barely accounts for the shakes, does it? For the insomnia and the night sweats? For the recurring…dreams.” Roberts shuddered. It felt cold in the lab.
“That’s all this is—a blip. Your employers wish you to continue unabated. To go back into the…corporate world and close those deals.”
Roberts felt movement at his side and looked down to see his hand shaking again. His limb felt distant, adrift somehow. He reached across with his other hand and gripped his wrist, ever tighter until the shakes subsided.
“One step at a time,” the white-coat said, making a quick note of something on his tablet. “If you’d like to remove your robe, we’ll help you into the tank.”
Roberts had to peel his hand away from his wrist, he was gripping it so tightly. The sensation returned to his palm then spread out, pins and needles pricking his flesh all the way to his fingertips.
He tried not to tremble when they helped him up the metal steps.
From his vantage point atop the metal walkway, he felt as though he was looking at an aspect of some black ocean through an observation window. He jolted, recalling the last time he had looked down at the sea. Nausea swam over him, making a clammy jelly of his body. His knees gave way and he reached out for the handrail. The white-coats caught him, shouldering his body weight. “I…I don’t like the look of the water.”
“It looks cold.”
“It’s not. I assure you it is calibrated to the ideal temperature for relaxation.”
Roberts found the prospect to be less than relaxing. He shivered again, uncontrollably now.
“Easy breaths now, Mr. Roberts. In through the nose, and out through the mouth.” The breathing helped balance his equilibrium, though he still felt sick to his core. “Ready now?”
He wasn’t. But neither was he going to give the white-coats any excuses to patronize him further.
The water was lukewarm and pleasant as he stepped inside. His attendants instructed him to stand still for a few moments while they attached little suckers to his skin at strategic points on his forehead, upper body, and chest. The suckers were anchored to wires, which would data mine his body while he was in the tank. They felt invasive—almost as though they would be probing his physique for weaknesses.
The lid closed. Roberts watched the white-coats’ faces disappear behind the tank’s outer shell. He focused on the little glass observation porthole set into the lid just a couple of feet above his face. Then that too went dark as the white-coats activated the electronic window-tint. He lay in now total darkness and listened to his breath. All other sounds were absent, so each inhalation and exhalation had the volume and intensity of an oncoming freight train. He blinked, and the afterimage of the little observation window made a halo of light flicker before his eyes.
He breathed. And, drifting into darkness, he felt his body descend.
Opening his eyes he saw that he was back at the porthole in his cabin aboard the Serendipity.
Raw emotion washed over him, burning hot and freezing cold; then back again. He was trembling, and knew now that exact moment was when the shakes had really set in. He could see the moonlit ocean through the porthole, could smell the brine and the rum in the plastic cup on the sill beside him. His face was wet with sweat, and from the tears that would not stop coming. His chest ached from the mere act of breathing and his mouth was dry from longing for the taste of her. He remembered reaching for the drink, and how he fumbled, knocking it over. It splashed against the occasional table beneath the porthole.
Cursing, he stumbled to the en suite and turned on the lamp. It flickered momentarily before bathing the black-and-white tiled space in sickly yellow light. He caught sight of his clammy reflection in the mirror and quickly looked away, unable to make eye contact with himself. He crossed to the sink and opened the faucet labeled Salt-Cold. He ran his finger under the salt water, thinking all the while about how the pumps below decks would be bringing the water up from the ocean beneath.
He vomited then.
Barely able to close the faucet, he staggered backward into the cabin and slumped onto the bed.
Closing his eyes he heard the deafening roar of the ship’s foghorn, blasting through his skull like—
Roberts opened his eyes in the dark and heard the thunder of his flailing limbs. Numb, he could not even feel the impact of his hands and feet against the extremities of the isolation tank. He could only hear it.
There was a hiss, and the sound of muffled, panicked voices. Rubber-gloved hands were around him, lifting him from his dark cradle and out into the artificial light. It was like being ripped from the womb.
The Serendipity was vast—more like a floating town than a mere ocean liner. Navigating its labyrinthine corridors and decks would test the orienting skills of even the most experienced traveler. Roberts had once again found himself deciphering one of the wall-mounted schematics when he became aware of another lost soul, standing beside him.
“Third time I checked this thing, and I’m still lost.”
Her voice was warm, with that effortless East Coast delivery. A country girl who had become a city woman. He made eye contact and found her smiling at him. Her eyes were bright blue, her pale face framed by wisps of scissor-cut hair. Her dress was on-trend but with an edge that was all her own.
“Where were you headed? Maybe we can work it out together?”
“Nearest bar. I’m parched.”
“Me too. Now we simply have to work it out.” She laughed. A shrill, honest sound.
Roberts leaned closer to the map, tracing his index finger of his right hand along the corridor marked YOU ARE HERE.
“I think this stairwell will save us doubling back to the main one.” He tried to sound like he knew what he was talking about. He hoped he did. “There’s a deck bar two floors up. I think.” “If you’re right, I’ll get you a drink,” she said.
He held out his hand. “Andy Roberts,” he said.
She shook his hand. Her skin was soft and slightly cold to the touch. Poor circulation, maybe she was a smoker. A good grip, though. She had strong shoulders and a posture that anchored them to her center of gravity.
“Shall we walk?”
He nodded and let her take the lead.
“I enjoyed your keynote today.”
“Really? What was there to enjoy?”
Now she sounded defensive. Deliberately abrasive.
“Your statement about the hierarchy of belief, for example.”
“Thank you. I was very nervous.”
“Well, it didn’t show. The way you spoke about your father was very moving. You could feel it in the room.”
“I think that was just the rocking motion of the ship. But it’s very kind of you to say.”
“I think your father would be justifiably proud of you.”
“I hope you’re right.”
She lowered her gaze. Roberts knew her father’s suicide had hit her hard. He blinked away an image from the press report of Professor Guthrie—face down in his swimming pool. The tabloids had had a field day with that one—“Climate Change Professor Drowns Himself.”
“You made it personal,” he ventured. “The demonizing of your father by the press, the anguish you suffered after his death. I had no idea about the social media abuse. The…threats. And the way the funding was pulled when the news corporations took issue. That beggared belief.”
“It did.” She sighed. “Our glorious leaders just want us to scurry away. Like rats!” She laughed, bitterly. She mock-whispered, “If this was the RMS Titanic, I think all the climate change deniers would be below decks.”
“But so long as experts like you keep speaking out…”
She kissed her teeth. “The truth is an iceberg, Mr Roberts. A vast bloody iceberg that we are expending all our energy to circumvent.”
“But we’re just going ’round in circles?”
“Exactly.” Her expression softened a little. “You get it, at least.”
“Time to get back into the tank, Mr. Roberts.”
He found it easier to face the black water this time. A sense of expectant calm washed over him as he lowered his body into the lukewarm fluid and lay back. The silhouettes of the attendants moved darkly across his field of vision, becoming indistinct through the viewing window as they sealed the door above him. He regulated his breathing, just as he had been instructed, and closed his eyes.
Floating, and still, he drifted through the dark.
A light breeze blew across the deck as the ship churned on through the ocean. Only the hardiest of smokers had braved the elements. Roberts saw some of their faces, lit by the spectral glow of ecigarettes or the condensed torchlight of cigars and traditional cigarettes. His nostrils caught the scent of something more herbal, and probably illegal, before it drifted away.
Isla returned with their drinks, offering his glass to him with a lopsided smile. He sniffed at the mojito, luxuriating in the playful collision of citrus scent and the salt-rimmed glass.
“To finding the bar,” she said, raising her glass.
“To finding each other,” he replied.
She laughed. That glorious, unguarded sound. How formal she had been at her keynote earlier—the audience hanging on her every word. Her laugh demonstrated how desperately she must be to cut loose after all the ceremony of the conference.
“You’re bold. I’ll give you that.”
“I’m sorry if…”
“Oh no. I like it. You’re stiff, as well as bold. But a couple of these babies should loosen you up a bit.”
She stared at him, daring him with those wicked-blue eyes. He stared back. She clinked her glass against his, and he began to raise his drink to his lips. Without taking her eyes off his, she reached out with her free hand and grabbed his wrist to stop him from taking a drink. She leaned closer to him and licked the salt from the rim of his glass. Making appreciative noises, she licked her lips, then took a gulp of her own drink. Only then did she release his wrist from her grip. He looked at her, open-mouthed, and she laughed again.
Roberts sipped his drink, his lips on the exact same spot from which she had licked the salt. The icecold tang of the mojito slid across his throat, quenching the fire that had taken hold of him. She watched him from the darkness, amused, and drained the rest of her drink. He was still working on his, but she went inside to get another anyway. Roberts crossed to the guardrail, carrying his drink. He felt a shudder of vertigo as he looked down at the waves, lapping at the black hull of the ship as it cut through the water. The sea was choppy, and as the water hit the sides of the vessel a few stories below, it plumed frothy white and kicked up spray. He let the droplets hit his face, enjoying their cool touch. A few drops coated his lips with their fine spray and he licked at them. More salt before another sip of triple sec and lime. He closed his eyes and turned, putting his back to the guardrail. Listening to the sea, and the deep throb of the ship’s engines, he threw back his head and finished his drink. When he opened his eyes, Isla was standing before him. She wore a look of drunken dismay.
“Bastard bloody bartender says I’ve had enough.”
“Maybe you have?”
“Maybe I fucking haven’t,” she retorted. “Looks like it’s your round after all.”
He sighed. No point in arguing. She clearly wanted oblivion, and who was he to deny her?
She swatted at him as he passed, her fingers curling into the lapel of his jacket. He stopped, and felt her lurch against him. The warmth of her breath hit his neck—a heatwave of sensation in miniature. She blinked at him and pressed her lips to his. Biting his lower lip, she pulled away momentarily, then kissed him hard, and deep. He reciprocated, his hands finding her waist and pulling her closer to him. She tousled his hair with her fingertips as they explored one another for the first time. Then, she slid slowly away from him.
“Thirsty work,” she said, staggering back a little with the slight movement of the vessel.
He led her to a vacant table away from the guardrail.
“Take a seat while I get you another,” he said.
“Oooh, what a gentleman,” she chuckled.
He was about to reply when she smacked him hard on the ass.
“Not too much of one, I hope,” she drawled after him as he headed for the bar.
Roberts cleared his throat and straightened his shirt, amused at the way he felt like an underage drinker trying to appear less inebriated than he was. Those days were long over. But he was having fun playing the part.
The barman nodded his welcome as Roberts approached the bar.
“What can I get you?”
“Two mojitos,” Roberts replied.
Leaning across the bar, Roberts spoke quietly, almost conspiratorially. “If you could mix one of them with less booze, that’d be great.”
The barman paused, then nodded once more, this time with a knowing twinkle in his eye.
Taking the drinks outside, Roberts held the weaker one in his right hand so he wouldn’t forget which was which. Approaching the table, he saw that Isla was no longer there. Glancing across the deck, he saw that the other patrons had gone too. Perhaps she had got talking to someone else and they had retreated inside, away from the rising wind. He was about to do the same when he glimpsed a figure, just visible beyond a column-like ventilation funnel.
Roberts followed the curve of the guardrail around to the other side of the funnel, and found Isla. He took a moment, admiring the feline curve of her body beneath her dress, then approached her— holding out the drink in his right hand. She took it, gratefully, and had a sip. Her look of pleasure turned to one of confusion.
“Is yours okay?”
He made a show of taking a drink from his glass and nodded. “Sure is.”
“Hmmm.” She took his glass and swapped it with her own. “Bastard,” she said, and Roberts felt sure he had been rumbled. But she went on, cursing about the barman, and he knew he was off the hook after all.
“If the bar staff is incapable of mixing drinks, then I will,” she proclaimed.
Roberts saw that she was already pouring some of her drink overboard. She then added a large slosh of his stronger drink to her own. She took another sip and smacked her lips.
“Better,” she said. “Where were we? Oh yeah, we were kissing!”
Her riotous laughter was infectious, and Roberts laughed along with her.
He stood, and she swayed, talking and laughing until their glasses were empty again. Roberts placed his tumbler on the table and turned to look at the sea. It was a black curtain, shimmering dark as it reflected the stars above. The air was cool and accentuated the effects of the alcohol as it chilled his face. Looking at the point where the stars met the sea, Roberts wondered how many people had gazed at the same dark vista over the centuries. The water rolled and churned; an ever-moving black skin coating the unfathomable entity of the ocean. He felt isolated and insignificant in the midst of such vastness. The engine throbbed on, its funerary drone echoing his melancholia. He turned to Isla for succor—to partake of her effervescent warmth in the unrelenting cold of the sea air.
But she was gone.
“Who is Isla?”
Roberts glanced down at the white-coat from the stairwell that led to the tank. He realized he didn’t like the man’s eyes. They were oddly lifeless.
“Why do you ask?”
The white-coat grinned. Roberts didn’t much like his face either.
“We heard you mention the name a few times during your last session. Ambient mics picked it up, that’s all.”
Roberts had heard them laughing from inside the tank, unaware, or uncaring, that he could still hear them. He’d heard how they’d taken to calling the Senz-dep tank a “flirtation tank.” Sarcastic bastards— they thought themselves so clever. He had obviously mentioned more than Isla’s name while he was under. Well, he wasn’t going to give them the pleasure.
“I’ll let you know if I remember,” Roberts said.
The white-coat nodded and made a note on his tablet.
“You look eager to be back in the water, Mr. Roberts.”
Roberts hesitated, and realized he already had one foot poised at the entrance to the tank.
“Good,” the man continued, “that shows real progress. We practically had to carry you in there last week.”
“I’m beginning to feel…better,” Roberts said.
“Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?” the white-coat said.
Roberts noticed that the man was staring at his arm. He looked down and saw he was trembling again. He reached out and leaned against the cool metal of the tank for support. He longed to be back in the water, and the quiet dark.
“Another. Get me another.”
“I think the barkeep was right. Maybe you have had enough. Come on, I’ll walk you to your cabin.”
“Ah, ah. You just want to take advantage of me.”
“Want? Yes. Intend to? No.”
“Oh, I forgot, you’re a gentleman. Infuriating gentleman.” She laughed at her own joke. “I might just take advantage of you, you know. But you have to get me another drink first.” Roberts sighed, with a smile. “Sweet oblivion, huh?” She just smiled back at him, licking her lips.
The barman was wearing his game face. “I’m sorry, sir, we’re closing up here.”
“Can I get a couple of drinks to take back to…our cabin?”
The barman’s eyes twinkled again. He appeared reluctant, then saw the cash that Roberts had surreptitiously dropped on the bar.
“I’ll have to pour them into plastic cups. House rules.”
“Understood,” Roberts replied. “I’ll just go get her.”
The drinks would be the lure to get Isla away from the bar so the staff could close up for the night.
He pushed open the heavy glass door that led out to the sun deck. He had to use both hands to open it against the force of the buffeting wind. He felt the wind whip across his face, cold and salty with spray, as he made his way across the deck. It was deserted. He moved around the side of the ventilation funnel, but Isla wasn’t there. He called her name—twice, because the first time the wind ripped the word from his lips. Moving around the deck to where the farthest tables and chairs were situated, Roberts saw movement.
Walking closer, he heard the clanking of a metal rivet against a flagpole and realized the movement he had seen was the shadow of a flag that was flapping in the wind.
“Did you see her come back this way?”
The barman shrugged. “Nope. No one came through here.”
“Maybe while you were clearing up?”
“Maybe. I had to grab some fresh ice for your takeouts. Did you check the restrooms?” Restrooms. That must be it.
“Hey, do you still want to take your drinks? I have to lock up.”
Roberts picked up the nightcaps and left the bar, following the slight curve of the corridor that led to the ladies’ room. He couldn’t knock with his hands full, so he tapped with the toe of his shoe against the door. Nothing. He was thinking about poking his head through the door, when a woman pulled it open. He startled and spilled some of the drink on his cuffs.
The woman’s apologetic look quickly turned to one of suspicion, to see him loitering outside the ladies’ bathroom. She was wearing a maid’s uniform—collar unbuttoned. She was clearly off duty.
“Oh, no harm done. Say, I think my friend went inside. She didn’t feel so good. Could you—would you mind checking on her for me?”
“Didn’t see anyone else in there.” That suspicion was still there, written in her glance. Then she sighed. “Okay, I’ll check.”
She returned moments later. “All the stalls are unoccupied. You sure she was in here?” Roberts nodded.
“Well, I hope you find her,” the woman replied, sounding like she really didn’t.
Roberts took a sip from one of the drinks.
I hope I find her.
He looked at the other, the ice melting from the warmth of his hand.
I never will.
He held up the plastic cup and stared through its depths at the floor.
His shadow spilled across the carpet like blood from a wound and he lurched toward it, tumbling farther in until it enveloped him. The ship tilted, and he with it. He let go of both drinks, expecting to hear them clatter against the floor, or the wall. Breathless moments passed, in darkness and in silence.
Instead of the splashing of spilled drinks, he heard the crash of a wave and felt ice cold water sucking him down and through its tumult. He spun, nausea gripping at his throat, and the intensity of his downward spiral made him feel as though he was at the center of a tornado. A howl escaped his throat, the futile eye of an implacable hurricane. Then, the black world upended, and he felt a wall of water at his back. The echo of his howl hung in the close air around him. He tried to move, but his body felt oddly heavy and numb. As he writhed in the water, he came to a realization. He was back inside the tank, but upside down. The water was holding him aloft, and he was gazing down at the little viewing hatch.
Even now, the hatch was descending, elevator-car-like, far below. He watched it in disbelief, as it became no more than a pinprick of muddy light at the extreme of his visual spectrum. And between it and his unblinking eyes was a fathomless void of cold, thick blackness. The sheer, incredible volume of distance almost stopped his heart. The total perspective of it made his mind spin and his ears ring. And in that awesome void, Roberts felt something shift. Something massive. It was as if a wall was flexing, unlocking, and slowly uncoiling itself in the dark fathoms beneath him. The vibration of its movement hummed through every fiber of his body—a dark song from which there was no shelter, no escape.
The voice was a depth charge, shattering his psyche.
Come deeper, now.
Roberts felt the water at his back pushing him farther down. He tried to resist, but the enormous pressure on his spine was unyielding.
What is Jesus?
Roberts’ mind raced. If only he could find the words, he might keep hold of the last fragile shred of his sanity.
“A story, I guess,” he gasped. “He died for our sins.” All of them? the voice boomed. There are so many.
The behemoth breathed then—a sound like children dying—and uncoiled some more. Roberts felt it beneath him, closer and heavier than ever. It was so immense that he couldn’t even begin to make out its surface shape. But it gave off an aura of terrible loneliness and despair. Roberts felt warmth at his groin as his bladder emptied itself. A fog of tears clouded his eyes. Overwhelming melancholy entered and filled him. He blinked, a reflex action to help him see better through the fog, and he saw his own outline in the black before him. The shape had a sheen, and he realized he was looking into a huge, single black eye. Its curved surface looked onyx-hard, and as it drew nearer still, the effect was like looking into a vast scrying mirror.
He saw himself then, on the sun deck, that night on the ship—with Isla. He saw her pupils widen as she realized who he was. What he was. She looked accepting of him—almost welcoming.
So it’s to be you then, her eyes seemed to say.
—as though she wanted to die. To be reunited with her dead father in the deep. Face down in the water.
He saw himself take her head in his hands and snap her neck in a single, swift, practiced movement. Just as he had done before, many times. The act had taken only a fraction of time, and in its execution, he had snuffed out all that Isla had left. To live, to laugh, to love. And to change the world. Roberts’ clients could not risk that. They had so much to lose.
He watched himself upending her body with practiced efficiency. Saw how easily he tipped her over the guardrail and into the ocean. He watched himself lean over the rail, and saw the white froth that was her grave marker. As the ship churned on, it dissipated and faded from view. Roberts saw himself straighten his clothing as he took a few breaths.
He had chosen the perfect spot for the hit.
The funnel, and its shadow, obscured him from view both on the sun deck and the walkway above. Any potential witnesses had long since abandoned ship for their warmer quarters belowdecks, but it was wise to make sure—there were still staff around. Roberts had known the barkeep would have his back turned while he fetched some fresh ice—precisely the reason why he had requested some, well aware that the buckets had been emptied at last orders.
His charade with the staff member at the ladies’ bathroom was the final curtain on his evening’s performance. If and when security personnel asked any questions, it would be made clear that Isla’s handsome and mysterious drinking partner had been anxiously searching for her. The barman would back this up. And Isla’s fragile mental state coupled with excess alcohol would no doubt be enough to result in an open verdict of probable suicide—or at least death by misadventure. Case closed, encrypted bank transfer executed, and job done.
His clients would be satisfied. They would pack him off on a long vacation, somewhere hot and languid. Until the phone rang again and he was called to his next assignment.
He felt movement at his side and looked down to see his hand tremble, for the first time. The uncontrollable muscle spasms heralded the beginning of a sickness that would creep in to devour his sanity and his soul. And the trembling now worsened, making a danse macabre of his nerve endings.
He felt the mirror eye on him again, and Roberts snapped back into the tank. The unbearable pressure was still at his back, and the dark leviathan uncoiled before him. He heard a series of clicks from deep within its monolithic body—as loud and urgent as a bullet belt discharging in a Gatling gun.
He tried to swallow, but his throat was ash. The giant thing laughed then—the sound of a world ending and a new, drowned world just beginning.
Willing his limbs to move, Roberts managed to free his throbbing forearm from the wall of pressure.
He tapped on the side of the tank, then hammered at it with his fist.
But no one was listening.
© copyright Frazer Lee, all rights reserved
This story is part of The Infinite Bard,
a community storytelling project from members of
The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.
Search #TheInfiniteBard on social media
& bookmark https://theinfinitebard.wordpress.com/
for a free story every couple of weeks!