I first saw the island at sunset. It had been a fair day, cloudless and blue with a light but steady wind. Now and then sea birds wheeled over the mast or darted into the waves: gulls and terns, kestrels and petrels, sometimes in small flocks but more often alone, their high, wild cries running in my blood like the sweep of the wind and the whispering lap of the bluegreen water. Once, shortly after dawn, I thought I saw an albatross far aloft in the fathomless, pearl-lustered sky. That brought me comfort, though I hadn't known till then that I needed it, for an albatross ahead is an omen of fair winds and following seas. And, that bodes only well for any enterprise.
Now the sun was setting astern and some fifteen degrees to starboard, for I meant to make for the largest of the Falibar islands, not to go to Splangliborn as I'd told Morrow. Not yet, at least. I had business on Falibana, more pressing business than Morrow's, and a good deal prettier. I'd told him I'd be leaving on the Twenty-second, which was true; but, I hadn't bothered to tell him I'd be leaving from Falibana. That was none of his concern.
"The Twenty-second," Morrow had exclaimed, his round, fat face growing red. "But, that's not for three weeks!"
I shrugged, masking my amusement with polite blandness. "If you can't wait, of course…" I made as if to rise from the over soft, red plush armchair in front of the grain merchant's unnecessarily broad and highly polished mahogany desk.
His face grew redder and his pudgy hands twisted together nervously, but not so that I couldn't see them trembling. "Now, Shepherd, you're the best man I know, the - the best man."
"The best sailor, and the best judge of horseflesh, you mean; other than that, quite beneath your exalted notice," I thought wryly. But, I relaxed and pretended to pay attention to his querulous floundering. He wasn't evil, merely silly and a little pathetic, and I'd never more than half considered cheating him in all the years I'd known him. But, it didn't bother me at all to make him wait till I'd seen Jocelyn. We didn't get to see each other very often, and Splangliborn would be there when I got there.
Morrow was still spluttering. "So, I mean, Shepherd, my dear fellow, if you say you can't leave for three weeks, Well, of course I'll wait. I'll just have too, won't I?"
There seemed to be something desperate in his babbling, and I looked hard at him with a sudden stirring of concern. Was the genial fool really worried that I wouldn't do his job? Really worried, after all these years? So, unwillingly and yet wanting to calm him I said, careful to keep my tone indifferent, "I have a little job in the Falibars, man, that's all." I permitted myself a slight, reassuring smile. "It won't interfere with your business; it just means that I can't start for Splangliborn at once."
Morrow's face cleared like clouds lifting to reveal an untroubled sky. "Ah," he sighed, relief and satisfaction in the long syllable. "Well then, if that's all it is, that's all right." He rose and extended his hand.
Rising as well, I gripped it. "Do you have a bottle of brandy in your desk, Morrow?"
He started slightly and gave me a quizzical look. "Yes. Why?"
"I think you'd better have a nip. You look as if you could use it." Then, I'd turned and walked out.
So, I'd started. And now, the evening of my second day out from Raklebad, I was within thirty-six hours or so of Falibana. And that's when I saw the island that I knew wasn't there.
I was standing at the tiller, letting my mind wander forward to Jocelyn's welcome, for the Silver Star (Jocelyn had named her - graceful, fanciful, bright-eyed Jocelyn) was as light to the hand as a Namoranian, and she sped over the bluegreen sea as surely as one of those spirits of speed and power in horse form sped across the yellow-green planes, seeming to know her way instinctively to port as they knew theirs to paddock. After a time, I came out of my musings, still smiling wistfully. All around me was the whispering copper and bronze evening. I sighed and, pulling myself together, looked ahead. And as I looked, across the rippling, softly sighing expanse of copper and bronze to where, beyond all eyes but those of love and hope my Jocelyn waited, I saw a star.
I stepped back, blinded for a moment and bewildered for I knew the charts better than I knew anything, even Jocelyn's loving smile. Nor was this the first time, or the fiftieth, I'd made the Raklebad-Falibana run. And I knew there was nothing between Raklebad and Falibana in a straight line but sea. And yet, directly in front of me, no more than five miles away, the blue-gray bulk of a rocky island rose between me and the horizon. The suddenly freshening breeze bellying the sail above me, the Silver Star swept onward toward the golden star twinkling and flashing ahead like a beacon, drawing me towards itself and what lay beyond on that unknown island.
Dizzy and nauseous, with disorientation, I fumbled for the telescope. The Trinity be praised, the Star was as modern and well-equipped a craft as plied the seas. My telescope would tell me something about this mirage, if mirage it was. Then I'd go below and set all my sensors to work on it. Focusing the telescope I could see clearly that this western coast rose out of the sea like a great wall, cliffs and crags dark against the darkening eastern sky, with no harbor for any living thing but birds. And, now I saw them, and heard their chorusing cries as they swooped and wheeled, returning to their resting places amid the rocks and whatever rough plants could cling to them. And, that glinting, glittering golden star that had shone out for a time and then faded was a waterfall; a rushing, foaming cataract that fell fully two hundred fathoms to the sea.
As I leant on the bow rail, trying to fit the evidence of my eyes into my knowledge and fighting the sick, empty feeling the mismatch caused, the wind shifted. Automatically I started moving about the Star, tacking, adjusting the sail, accommodating the craft to the wind. The tasks being automated, it was a short time before I returned to the bow. And then I heard, faint but awesome across the distance, the great roaring and booming of the falls. And I thought of the tales I had heard, deliciously shivering in the nursery firelight, of the mermen who call with their echoing, mournful horns, and the living things, great as castles, that live in the depths beyond all soundings and call to one another in the lonely nights. Listening to that strange, rushing roar, never changing beneath the cries of the sea birds, I felt a sudden strange loneliness I had never known before on the wide, wild, silent sea but only in the impersonal press and bustle of city streets.
I had to tack while still far out from the shore, or the maelstrom at the foot of the falls would have finished me. With a sigh, I took in the sail and started the engine. It was a pity to spoil the romance of the summer evening with such a modern, impersonal sound.; but, I didn't want to take any chances. Cruising along northward, I gazed up at the scoured stone, rising like a fortress wall sheer out of the sea, save only for that mighty river rushing down forever through nothingness to crash and echo as its clear, crystalline waters found their turbulent rest. I knew the golden evening light would linger for two or three hours, so I was not troubled but curious as the Star approached the place where the rock began curving eastward. The island lay about one hundred miles south to north (port to starboard as I approached it), with the waterfall some thirty miles south from the northern coast.
Once I was sure of having put sufficient space between the Star and the infall of the cataract, I put In cautiously until I was skimming along right under that towering wall, taking soundings every few minutes. Those mountains of rock might well have outliers, shoals and reefs where the Star would founder, so my sea sense told me. And yet, somehow it felt right to keep under those looming, sheltering cliffs. Though I stayed about half a mile offshore, my short, ten fathom line never cane close to touching the sandy, seemingly level bottom, several hundred feet below me over which the Star's shadow skimmed amid dancing golden lights. I could see that through the gilded waves, now almost as clear as window glass as the water of this sea always is just offshore., yet my sea sense revolted. So close to shore, how could the bottom be as distant as a hundred miles from anywhere?
After rounding the gentle curve of the island where the rock began running eastward, I cut the engine and hoisted sail once more. The all but silent motion of a sail driven craft seemed more fitting than the sputter and hum of an engine that the vast wall of rock reflected like a megaphone out past the Star into the empty ocean. With a brisk breeze once more at my back, I ran along the coast in the gradually paling golden evening, until the cliffs had diminished to gentle hills, sliced shear down with a great knife, and I could glimpse now and then a dim green interior. I measured eighty-seven and a half miles till, now softly rolling and wooded, the land turned again. On this eastern coast, the land and water were shadowed, the last of the sunset light blocked by the western heights. The eastern sky was already dark enough for the first stars to appear. I felt my way along this gentler coast looking for a creek or inlet.
Full dark had fallen, and I had reluctantly lit my lamps and was beginning to despair of finding any way into this strange island when, at last, within about ten miles of the southeastern extremity of the land I found what I was looking for. With a suddenness that made me exclaim in surprise and relief, a harbor mouth opened off the port bow. Being close in, I wondered at not having felt the crosscurrents, but turning the searchlight into the harbor, I saw the water as still and glassy as a pond, and decided to trust once more to that strange sense that had led me to steer close to the cliffs.
I brought the Star around, starlight shimmering in her arcing wake, and with the engine purring, for the wind had dropped, I entered that Godsend of a harbor. I trained the searchlight on the nearer shore, off the port bow, and about a hundred yards in saw a creek, the water black under overhanging willows. "Trust to luck one more time," I murmured, and pulling perhaps seventy-five feet up the little watercourse, dropped anchor in no more than two and a half fathom. After securing the tiller and prowling about the Star to be sure all was in order, I stood in the sternsheets and looked back towards the starsheened water of the harbor, breathing in the calm land air, and wondering mightily where I was. Then, with one last glance around, I went below to eat a long delayed meal, and then I climbed into my bunk, promising myself sleepily that in the morning I would explore this strange and wonderful island.
In the morning, however, I regretfully decided to forego exploration. I really did need to get to Falibana, and Jocelyn. I had no means of communicating with her. The Falibars were a designated techno-free zone, one of the few desirable living places on Nova Britannia to have that mixed blessing thanks to a far-sighted and strong-willed governor of the last century. So, like the rest of the inhabitants of her island paradise, Jocelyn had no telecom equipment other than the primitive telephone whose clumsy wiring was already familiar, and which the governor aforesaid considered adequate for her people's needs. They also had an ancient audio-video broadcast system; but, of course, that was only for inter-island contact. It was totally inadequate to handle modern ship-to-shore communications.
I looked at the compact satellite array next to the Star's nav console, and wished not for the first time that Jocelyn would let me give her a sata-mini-ceiver. But, she wouldn't. Personal telecom equipment was not absolutely banned in the Falibars, but Jocelyn didn't like bending too many rules or stretching too many points. Her PCR (Personal Care Robot) already pushed up against the outer limit of the acceptable Use Clause; though, the very next clause defined and made exceptions for medical need. No one had ever or would ever dispute that her medical need was real. Still, she was sensitive about it and strove all the more to observe the anti-tecno laws and regulations.
So, I couldn't call her on the sata-mini-ceiver. And, I thought as I prepared to pull out of the creek, what would I tell her if I could? "Hi love, it's me. I'm running a few hours late. Spent last night on an island that isn't there. But don't worry. Everything's shipshape. I'll see you tomorrow night at the latest." Sure! And she'd ask me how much of Morrow's brandy I'd liberated. No, it was probably just as well. But, I had to get out of here, away from this impossible and enchanted island, and on my way.
I chugged quietly out of the creek into the early sunlight of the harbor. And, my heart sank. There, waiting for me, was a lovely little sloop. The semaphores rippling in the soft breeze read, "Welcome and heave to." I brought the Star along side -- what else could I do? -- and read the name painted in neat white lettering around her bow, The Black Moon. She was black herself, and as trim a vessel as I ever saw''''; And, I'd seen a fair number of sailing craft in my time.
The man who leant over the side, hand held out in token of peace, and called, "Come, my friend. Follow me. We can have some breakfast and a yarn on the beach before you go," was as trim and dashing as his craft. Bemused, I signed my understanding and acquiescence, and twenty minutes later was mooring the Star alongside The Black Moon. "Have you a dinghy or anything of that sort?" the stranger, my host I supposed he was, called to me cheerfully.
"No," I called back. In truth, I had been eyeing the shallows with little relish. An early morning swim was a fine thing, in its right time and place. But, I didn't care to appear before this man, gallant gentleman though he might be, on whose land and water I was trespassing, in close imitation of a water rat. He seemed to understand. "Come across to the Moon, then," he said, throwing me the end of a very modern looking grap-pass, "And we can go ashore together in my little bathtub of a motor shuttle."
Shrugging, I secured my end of the seemingly gossamer light grap-pass, jerked the tabs to inflate the tubing and erect the small support stanchions, and walked across ten feet or more of open water to the other boat.
"Greetings," my host said, extending his hand as I stepped from the suspended passage. "Welcome to Marooner's Haven. I am Brontë Sinclair, proprietor of this little bit of Heaven here on Nova Britannia."
I shook hands, feeling his grip firm and assured but not overbearing. And, I looked into the dark eyes that had been the stuff of young girls' dreams of adventure, and boys' too, for more than fifteen years. Yes, I had heard of Brontë Sinclair, and now I knew why this island didn't show on my charts. What I didn't know was how I had gotten here, or why.
"Charlie Shepherd," I said, smiling in my turn. "En route from Raklebad to Falibana. If I'd been much later, I'd have crashed right into that western wall of yours, or gone down in the infall of the cataract."
The outlaw's grin became mischievous, sparkling in his intelligent eyes and making him look far younger than his thirty-five years. "Now, Charlie," he said easily, leading me across the deck to where a rope ladder hung down the side to a compact little shore skimmer, "I wouldn't have let that happen. Do you want to get in first, or second. She's much more stable than she looks. She's never capsized on me yet, no matter how rough the seas."
I eyed the little boat. Close though not uncomfortable quarters for two men. Shore skimmers were designed for children; so, they were small and light, but the closest thing to indestructible and unsinkable that Man had ever devised. Their seats were well padded with springy, not squishy, water-repellant foam. These were cobalt blue. They had large, simple, brightly colored controls, and a large display screen that could be set to show, individually or in combination, various readouts. The nav console of this shore skimmer was larger and more complex than was usual on these tiny craft, and I suspected she had a lot of specialized and very interesting features.
"Had one of those when I was a kid," I said slowly, remembering that the seats opened to provide storage space. Inevitably, pets and even the occasional younger sibling got stowed away in these compartments. The design even took this into consideration. The front of each seat, rather than being a solid piece, was a fine grillwork through which air passed freely. And tiny fans and low power lights came on when, the lid being closed, sensors detected a warm, breathing creature inside.
I remembered checking out with my friend Tommy what we thought was a miraculous safety feature. We were pouring over my manual, Tommy had lost his, when we came across something we'd never noticed before. "If the Shore Skimmer begins to experience difficulty or if the 'passengers' in these compartments become distressed, the front will open allowing them to be removed safely." We fought all the way down to the river over which of us would be the distressed passenger. Finally, reluctantly, I agreed that as the boat's owner, I was the captain and so could not also be a passenger. In the boat, I started up and set the engine to idle. Then, I helped Tommy into the rear compartment and closed him in. "OK?" I asked. "Lights on and everything?" In the daylight, I couldn't see the dim glow of the compartment lights.
"Yep! Everything's ship shape, Skipper," Tommy's muffled voice replied. I scrambled forward and eased the skimmer out into the slow current of the broad, brown river. "I'm gonna be distressed now," Tommy called. I answered and, tapping the autopilot button, turned around to watch. After a moment's silence, Tommy began to cough and thrash around. I knew it was a fake cough, but the sensors in the compartment didn't. I watched, bug eyed and gaping, as the front of the compartment slid down into the deck and a goggling Tommy crawled out and onto the seat. We stared at each other. "Wow!!!" we both said at last.
I hadn't thought of that in thirty years. Tommy was a bank manager now, with a kind if slightly boisterous wife who had been a nude dancer in her youth, and two loving, high-spirited children, a girl and a smaller boy. I never got up the nerve to ask how he, Mr. Straight Laced Propriety, had met an ex nude dancer. He couldn't have found a warmer, more sensible wife, though, or a better, more loving mother for his children.
I started, and realized that Sinclair was watching me with quiet amusement. "Sorry," I said, feeling foolish. "I was just thinking of something a friend and I did when we were eight or nine."
"What did you do?" Sinclair asked, looking interested.
I was taken aback. "Well, we found out by experiment that the front of the compartments under the seats," I pointed, "really do open if the, uh, passenger becomes distressed. He pretended to have a coughing fit, and the front slid away into the floor. Scared the shit out of both of us, really, I think. But we acquired a new respect for our shore skimmers, I can tell you."
Sinclair laughed. "Marvelous little boats, shore skimmers. So, you had one too?"
I looked at him in puzzlement. "Didn't everybody?"
"You'd be surprised," he said in a tone that might have been sardonic or even angry. I only thought of that later, though. At the moment, my habitual observantness was not in the best of trim.
"Yes," I said, looking down again at the boat, scarcely more than a toy, lying on the smooth blue water. "I had one; though she didn't have nearly so much electronics gear as this one looks to be carrying. Good steady boats for kids, shore skimmers. Sure, I'll get in first."
Sinclair watched me to my seat, then followed. The idling, almost inaudible engine surged. "Anyway, Charlie, as I was saying," Sinclair continued, turning comfortably in his seat as the boat moved in a leisurely way towards a small wooden pier. "I wouldn't have let you go down." That boyish grin was back, and it seemed totally unselfconscious. He wasn't putting on an act; he really meant what he said. Or else he was the greatest actor of our time. "I don't get many visitors, as you can perhaps understand." His lips twisted in what looked to me like regret. "I certainly wouldn't want to lose a man of your caliber."
The spell snapped. I snorted. He was having me on for some purpose of his own.
Sinclair laid a hand on my knee. "No," he said, the fun gone from his manner. "I'm not making fun of you." An alarm chime sounded, and he turned his attention back to the boat. Leaping to the pier, he tied up and called to me. "Just shut her down for me, would you, Charlie?" Then he turned his back and walked away towards the beach.
I sat still. Everything he had done signaled that he trusted me. Maybe I ought to trust him. At least hear what he had to say. I found the large, half green, half red toggle switch, just the same as on my shore skimmer, and flicked it to off. I knew even without looking at the display, that he'd performed the simple, pre-switch-off routine. Then I followed him along the dock and onto the soft, warm sand.