Notes: I began this project in October of 2017 and lost the thread after the first chapter. The project is back on the back burner for now; but I am more entranced by it than ever, as difficult as it has been to tease out. It's a metaphysical adventure-fantasy.
Please ignore any and all grammar issues and the like. I'm sure they are there. There are probably inconsistencies in the story itself; please forgive those as well. The final project almost certainly won't be named Port Story, of course: it's just what I have called it these past three-plus years. I'm sure the actual title will reveal itself to me over time. I'm in no hurry.
Synopsis: The night has come and gone, and Port Hawktried has as well. Sèbastienne, waking, rushes outside to look around, to see what this new reality, which now includes her and everyone in Port Hawktried, looks like. Read on!
The Eighth Shift
The Eighth Shift
It always happened at night. Just like the night when Raleigh Myles slashed Montague Eckbert’s neck, jumped into Eckbert’s dinghy, and fled.
Always a very dark night, just like that night. Just like this night. Moonless and starless. The kind of night that circumscribed the best efforts of Port Hawktried’s street lamps, which seemed to struggle to stay lit. The kind of night that draped itself over the seaside village like a heavy, damp, black woolen blanket.
Heavy fog always came such nights. It didn’t become simply lightless then, but something else entirely. Even indoors, where fires kept a flickering radius of hope alive, the darkness, still with chill and foreboding, crept into corners and kitchens and back bedrooms, alive and dead at the same time, dreadful and menacing.
Children inevitably rose and scampered to their parents’ room and crawled under the covers with them. Dog and cats scratched at doors to get inside, if they weren’t in already. Extra logs were thrown onto fires.
Livestock huddled together. Luckily, they never stampeded. It took a long time before anyone noticed, but on such nights, of which there had been seven, nothing was born—including humans. It was as though the unborn knew what was going on and refused to come into the world.
The next day, however, was remarkable. Everything pregnant that was close to term gave birth—including humans. Which only added to the avalanche of problems the next day inevitably came with.
Those special nights came without warning. There was no discernible pattern to their arrival beyond the normal setting of the sun, no hints, no predictable time period between one and the next. Port Hawktried’s retired professor, Dr. Candela Michi Faust, performed endless calculations and analyses, all inconclusive. Dr. Faust was Sèbastienne’s guardian, mentor, and unquestioned hero.
It was Sèbastienne who first noticed the warning signs this night. Dr. Faust opened the front door and glanced out with her, waited a moment, then shook her head.
“The trouble with those nights, as you well know, Sèbastienne, is that they are very like too many normal ones where nothing happens at all. Back inside with you. Let’s go before we catch our deaths.”
Sèbastienne stepped back to let Dr. Faust back in, who closed the door.
“Could you see the lighthouse?”
Dr. Faust shook her head as she hurried to the fire to stoke it.
Port Hawktried’s lighthouse was just a few miles northwest on Point Tolylogee. It should have been plainly visible. But the lighthouse keeper, Mr. Behrend, was known for being less than sober these days and often didn’t bother lighting it, which, most fortunately for him, hadn’t resulted in any disasters.
“Yet,” grumbled Dr. Faust, poking at the logs. “Yet.”
“Shouldn’t someone go and check on him?” demanded Sèbastienne. “Seriously. One day he’s going to cause a shipwreck! I can’t imagine such a thing!”
“The mayor has spoken to him probably half a dozen times already,” said Dr. Faust with a dismissive wave of her hand. She unbent and wiggled her butt with a contented hum as close to the flames as was wise.
Sèbastienne shook her head. “I just wish I knew how long it has been. If I only knew!”
“And I’ve told you it wouldn’t help if you did know.”
“They may not even be alive anymore ...”
“Or they may very well be, and when we return they will be not a day older!”
“When ...” murmured Sèbastienne. “When may never come.”
Dr. Faust pulled her into a hug. Sèbastienne felt the fire’s warmth against her back.
“No. It may not,” said Dr. Faust, releasing her. “No one knows. There is no sugar-coating that turd. It’s called faith, sweet child.”
“Do you think they’ll even recognize me?”
Dr. Faust chuckled sadly and grasped her hands again and squeezed even harder. “Of course they will!”
“But it’s been ...”
“Yes, yes. Today marks the one thousand forty-fourth since the first Shift. The equivalent of almost three years—our time. We know from the fourth Shift that time for others not in Port Hawktried doesn’t pass at the same rate. But that hardly matters. If I lost my daughter for three years or thirty years or three hundred years, I know I’d recognize her the instant I laid eyes on her. Okay? Okay?”
Sèbastienne blinked tears out of her eyes as she nodded.
“You get this way when nights like this happen. We’ve talked about it. You’re scared. I’m scared. Everyone in this whole damn town is scared! But we have each other. Okay? And I can say one thing that has been a wonderful blessing in all this. Want to know what that is?”
Sèbastienne wiped her eyes. “What?”
Dr. Faust cupped her cheek and smiled with a mix of sadness and tenderness. “I found a daughter too.”
Having experienced many nights like this one since the first a thousand forty-four days ago, most of them false alarms, Sèbastienne yawned (half-fake, half-genuine sleepiness) and went to bed. But not before Dr. Faust made hot chocolate. She put away her studies and joined Sèbastienne in the living room next to the fire, and there they drank in peace.
The night deepened.
She woke to the sound of people talking just outside. Which was unusual, because Dr. Faust lived a good mile east from the village on a hill overlooking it, and had no neighbors.
Someone pounded on the front door.
She rose quickly, put on a robe and slippers, and hurried downstairs. Dr. Faust, grumbling as she too struggled donning a robe, was almost at the door. She opened it as Sèbastienne got to the landing.
“It happened again, Candela,” came a gruff male voice.
Dr. Faust stepped outside, Sèbastienne on her heels.
The male voice belonged to Mr. Strohkirch, who ran the Hawktried Crier, the newspaper. Behind him were two women, one Mrs. Strohkirch, the other his daughter, Kristina. At the sight of Sèbastienne, Kristina, who was her age (sixteen), frowned and looked away. Kristina had no interest in the wider environment, it was obvious, which astonished Sèbastienne. For the wider environment had once again changed. Port Hawktried had Shifted for the eighth time.
As Sèbastienne emerged from Dr. Faust’s shadow and looked around, her jaw slowly dropping, Dr. Faust said, “I can see that, Ivar. It didn’t require that you come all the way up here to tell me, did it?”
“Well, Candela,” grumbled Ivar Strohkirch, “it did, actually, and I’ll tell you why ...”
“Please do. Would you three like to come in...?”
That’s where Sèbastienne lost the conversation. She had wandered around the side of the house as she gazed at Port Hawktried down the hill and its new home surrounding it.
Past the lighthouse—far past it, from the looks of it—were cliffs. Big ones. Sheer ones thousands of feet tall. Dark, looming, and mysterious. They dropped straight into the sea.
They weren’t there yesterday.
The ocean beyond, as usual, seemed normal enough—blue, hazy, and tranquil. She noted that the smell of brine was distinctly stronger as she hurried into the flowered meadow rising beyond Dr. Faust’s home. Dew wet the hem of her nightie and slippers, and the ground was soft, probably from drizzle that came and went with the fog. She summited the meadow a minute later and turned in place, her jaw slackening more and more with each pivot.
The land beyond had a large, lazy river and estuary that flowed around the village. That was yesterday. Now there was nothing but a valley that went on and on until they met the cliffs, which turned into greenish-purple mountains with snowy peaks very far away. What looked like smoke trailed into the sky between one distant mountain and another to the east—? Was that east? It always had been in the previous jumps, she reasoned, so until she learned differently, she’d refer to orientations the same way.
She turned and gazed south. In that direction yesterday was a point of pine like the head of a great green animal that ended at a pleasant band of beach that she visited many times, and which had quiet, private coves to hide in. Now it was another river and a very wide band of beach, and sea stacks, and, inland, ponds. Farther south more sea stacks rose out of salt haze, some of them enormous. They had an ominous feel to them, nestled in the haze as they were.
She turned to face Port Hawktried. It was always the same. So was the immediate land surrounding it, up to and including Dr. Faust’s house and this meadow, and the road leading back to the village. A hundred yards on was where it wasn’t the same. That was where the Border was. Sèbastienne walked towards it.
The Border never varied. It was always just fifty feet from Chet Hardwick’s bait shop at the marina (south), but one didn’t come upon it until almost half a mile past Point Tolylogee (northwest). There was a highway that intersected the village road out east. The highway, which ran at a right angle to the village road, and which ran past Dr. Faust’s home, was another border. It was very strange now. It began and ended abruptly in these other realities, simply beginning out of the fields or forest or, one time, a great mass of boulders, and ending just as abruptly after a quarter mile or so.
Sèbastienne approached it, stepped on it, and crossed it. When she was standing in the field beyond, one she had never set foot in before, she looked west towards the ocean.
It was always there. On the second Shift, there were islands a dozen or so miles offshore. Three of them. Chet and a few others sailed out there over the course of three days (scary, since no one ever knew when the next Shift was coming), when they saw a streamer of smoke rising from the southernmost one. They found Chiumbo Tamboli on the biggest one, a marooned slave who had in the time since become Port Hawktried’s mayor. That world, Mayor Tamboli had told them, was dark and violent and filled with constant war. Sèbastienne was glad when the third Shift came, constantly afraid marauders would find them and kill them.
Mayor Tamboli was the only person anybody from Port Hawktried had ever met from beyond the Border. The village always relocated along completely remote stretches of coastland. The occasional exploratory party was dispatched, but there were never villages nearby, as there were in the original reality, or explorers, or even pirates. Granted, those in the exploratory parties never ventured farther than a few days away out of fear of being left behind. Home was always safer than the possible alternatives, no matter where that home ended up.
Sèbastienne smiled. Mayor Tamboli was a great man, much better than the drunken lout he replaced, who had been traveling when the first Shift occurred. With at most a handful of dissenters—Ivar Strohkirch one of them—Tamboli was a popular and well-respected leader of this village of one hundred forty-four.
Before the first Shift, it was one hundred sixty-nine. Twenty-five people, including Sèbastienne’s parents and little brother, Marq Ives, were left behind. They had all been beyond the Border. Seven children had been born since.
She stood and took in her new environs and wondered if she was getting farther and father away from her family, or if this new reality had brought her and the village closer to them, and to all those left behind.
Dr. Faust, a lifelong friend of her mother’s, had insisted on taking her in. Sèbastienne split time between Dr. Faust’s home and her family home, which was in the village, almost at its center, just across from the fountain, which, from where she stood right now, she could just see. Last night’s fog was lifting and dissipating into the new sky, which, it was obvious, did not have fog last night. Before Port Hawktried showed up.
Why did it happen? It was like Port Hawktried became uncoupled from time with the murder of Montague Eckbert by Raleigh Myles. Or was that just a coincidence?
Dr. Faust was tireless in exploring and documenting possibilities. She interviewed the entire village after each Shift and compiled the data, and ran very sophisticated statistical analyses. She took careful measurements of the air, wind, and humidity. She watched the stars, which sometimes, not always, changed with a Shift. She put various goo-gaws and techno-gadgets of her own making at various points on the Border and collected measurements.
Sèbastienne helped her, and in so doing had learned a great deal: basic calculus, probability, and statistics; how to properly set up experiments and collect data; how to interpret that data and make hypothesis; and how to suggest future studies that might prove fruitful. Above all, and as a result, she learned how to become level-headed and not so controlled by her emotions. That was the greatest gift. Because she desperately missed her family, and these Shifts were genuinely scary. She had grown up a little under Dr. Faust’s steady watch.
She looked around a while longer, marveling and fearing it all, then made her way back to the house. Ivar Strohkirch, wife, and daughter were leaving. Kristina threw a disdainful scowl her way and hurried up to him. Dr. Faust closed the door. She looked awed and worried by something, which instantly worried Sèbastienne.
“What? What is it?”
Dr. Faust shook her head as though to clear cobwebs out of it. “Something amazing has happened.”
“Besides the Shift?”
“Indeed, yes,” murmured Dr. Faust, who absentmindedly turned and made her way to the table where her notes and textbooks lay in a haphazard arrangement. She began thumbing through them.
This was indeed troubling. She’d never seen Dr. Faust so flummoxed before! “Doctor? What is it?”
Her guardian turned and stared at her. “They found Montague Eckbert’s dinghy at the docks. His dinghy ... is at the docks,” she repeated, as though she couldn’t believe it. “But—we’ve never been here before!”