by Joshua Allen

(Originally published in Static Movement)

Howard could no longer steady his hands; another ailment age had given him. His fingers shook as he tied a new fly to the end of his nearly invisible line. He knew neither line nor fly existed, but that didn't steady his hands. He wished the prickly feeling on the bottoms of his feet were grass. When he used to go fishing for actual fish, he would occasionally lie down in the grass face down, placing his cheek against their cool blades, and dream of his wife Sara--back when he used to get drunk on her laughter and gulp down her body with his eyes and hands whenever she'd been close. He cast his line up into the churning stream. In his visualization, there was a piece of orange yarn tied to the line: a strike indicator. He gave the line a little flip as the orange fleck traveled up, over, and then into the multidimensional skein in front of him. The skein churned and weaved, several strands flowing through the twisted, shimmering blue ball, but none of it actually moving in the three solid dimensions of space, nothing going up or down or out. If you looked just right at it, none of it moved at all.

He thought about Sara as he watched the fleck of orange convolute in the skein and come out unharmed. He had dreamed of her over and over again in the last sleep. "The old guy got it? I don't see how. This isn't like fishing." Jersar Staten, their effervescent new captain, picked his teeth just to the periphery of Howard's field of vision. He wanted to act, Howard could tell, but there was nothing for him to do now but watch. "He's got his methods. Howard's the best." Clare always believed in him. He needed that strength. She reminded him the most of Sara. "He's got to be a hundred and seventy." Clare's voice was small. "He's much older than that." He rolled the line in a loop that looked like a bell from the side and circle if you looked straight down it, like one of those PVC ornaments that people used to hang on their balconies that would seem to be a jagged piece of nothing with one breeze, and then reveal itself as a six-pointed star in the next. "Zip a little and then settle," he gave the line a little flip to straighten its approach, "you must settle," Howard whispered to his fly. "You must sink, you must swim, you must dance." "What's he saying, Clare?" "His readings are normal, Jersar." "That's not what I asked." "You must hurt." The indicator paused for a split second. "You must hurt." The skein released a bubble that broke off, shimmering, and disappeared in a wipe like a scene in a movie--a universe had

been born. "You must hurt. You must hurt..." Howard hesitated, the words stinging even before they were real. "...the one you love." The indicator dipped out of sight. Howard held the line steady with his right hand and heaved the rod up and back with his left hand. His wrist flared in pain, but he could afford to ignore it. The line went taught, wriggled, jerked back three times in quick succession, and then went limp. A rock--a thick patch of hyperdimensional space--had seized his lure, nothing more. Howard let the slipstream flowing out of the skein pull his line down and took a few steps closer to the slipstream, letting his line trail off to his left. He planted his feet, lifted the tip of the rod and let the drag of force against his line bend his rod back. Then he lifted it all at once and shot his fly forward, his seven-foot rod acting like a kid's slingshot. * * * "You're going fishing again?" Sara pulled her head up from her pillow. Another episode of hers. Howard wiped his brow, though it was dry. "Get some rest. I'll be back before you get supper on." "Howard, I feel sick. My head won't stop aching." Twenty years of marriage and her head always ached. At first, it had been her way of ensuring her doctor would keep feeding her pain pills. Then it had been a way to keep their son, Michael, at a distance. Her head pounded whenever she didn't want to do something,

whenever life became inconvenient, whenever a decision needed tending to. Even the doctors tried to tell her. "I'll catch you a big trout." He backhanded her shoulder, playfully. She said nothing until he was almost out the door. Then he heard her say, "This one's different. Not like the other times." Howard paused at the door, considering. Then he picked up his hat and placed it low on his head. Some of us have to enjoy life. * * * Howard tied a new lure on, an almost gaudy conglomeration of feathers and dyed rabbit fur he had constructed himself in the slow hours, many many years ago, out of pure intuition. It didn't really exist, he knew that somehow each strand of rabbit fur and the way it poked through the thread wrapped around it were parameters to a navigation equation, but he'd never been able to see it well as scribbly curves and numbers, only as feathers, hooks, lines and rod. Howard heard a gull, but then realized it was a scream coming over the com unit. Clare snapped it off with a twist of her wrist. The fish needed to be caught. They were hurting in the deepest bowels of the spaceship, which was gut shot and stranded in this wasted, empty universe by Iridians. Howard pushed all that away, though the echo of his children, the people of this ship, still bounced in his skull, finding each center of peace he tried to establish and annihilating it.

Howard stepped to his left, letting the green line flow out. He straddled the slipstream, a real-enough visual representation of energy flowing out of the skein. He found an angle he liked. It gave him a view of a bend just on the edge of the tangled blue ball, where a small still eddy had formed. Reality was a tricky fish. She liked to hide in calms at the edge of the chaos. He had enough room now for a full cast. He whipped his line up. It trailed behind him, unrolling, flowing backward. He tipped the rod forward with perfect timing, loading the thin tip with potential energy. "I don't like him straddling that slipstream, Clare. How are his readings?" "He'll be fine." "We can't afford to lose him. I don't like this. Is our computer back on line?" "Dead, Jersar. Or don't you understand what that means?" His indicator passed the eddy, paused, and then dipped. Howard pulled line and rod up and back. The line jerked in rapid succession, a vibration, another rock--no, now it coursed up and to the right, into the heart of the skein. She was hooked. Reality was making a run for deeper waters. * * * All day long she called his cell phone, and he ignored her. God help him. He stood on that bank, looking for the slick red flash of the trout, and he ignored her.

When he got home, her head was shaved, though he never understood why. She held a piece of paper. "I went to the doctor, did you get my messages?" He shook his head. She handed the paper to him. He expected it to be a doctor's order or a petition for divorce, but that's not what it was. "I'm sorry I never loved you the right way." Howard looked up from the paper, into Sara's eyes. "What is this?" "Tell Michael, too. I'm sorry I wasn't the right mother for him." Howard wiped his lips, though they were dry. * * * The ship lunged, not forward or backward or to either side, but real-ward, toward home. The Iridians had stranded the ship in a void between hyperspace and reality with no operating navigation computer except this primitive construct Howard had developed years and years ago--it was akin to leaving a man in the desert with no water. Harold was going to get them home. "He's got something." Clare clapped. "Let's see what before we start the homecoming dance." The line went taught and the reel buzzed. He let the green strand zip through his hands. Once it unstrung a few dozen yards, he used his thumb and forefinger as a brake to slow the line down to a stop. "You must feel, you must rip, you must tear, you must lay down

your head in the cool cold water and let it burn, you must burn, you must..." Then he palmed the reel and brought the line in. Really, he was dragging the ship toward the skein, toward home, but he felt like a fish was coming toward him, a big one. The difference, of course, was that this fish had no jaw, no bony lip for a hook to catch on, only a complicated set of parameters that were so very slippery. Howard's lips trembled. Saying the next words was too hard. He wouldn't be able to say them; he wouldn't be able to reel the fish in. The universe ran out, and he couldn't move. He was hung. He choked on the words he was trying to force out. He had to say them, but his voice only croaked. "You must..." He pulled the rod up, reeling as the fish fought to the side then retreated back the other way. "You must...hold!" The first word, not even the hardest and yet to say it felt like giving birth. "The dead! Child! In your hands!" The fish went up. Real fish didn't have that option, but universes weren't fish, not really. Howard lost his balance. The shaking in the hands had migrated to his chest, which fluttered as though a bird was trying to break out of his skin. "You must cry." "How's it looking, Jersar?" Clare sounded giddy, as usual. "String variables stable, hydrogen levels within acceptable limits...I think he's got it." * * *

Howard set the words he couldn't figure out down on the table. "What is this, Sara?" "Do you love fishing more than me?" "Absolutely." He told her. When she didn't smile, he batted her arm. She leaned back as though repulsed by him suddenly. He wanted to grab her, hold her, make sure she still loved him. That night, he broke every fishing pole he owned while she watched, wordless. He snapped them each into fourths, the fiberglass poles splitting like wet sticks. * * * "You must die, you must die, you must set your heart in his chest." Howard flailed once, but if he lost his grip now... Howard was helpless to stop his foot from disappearing into the slipstream. The fish tugged, then ran toward him. The ship around him shimmered and faded. "We're shifting. We're in the green. Realspace and home coming up on scope." Jersar was giddy. He reminded Howard of Michael and of himself at that age. He was naive, despite all his experience flying. The universe hesitated and Howard reeled frantically. He begged to no one, as his left leg now faded into nothing up to the hip. "You must stop, you must stop, you must stop." The universe fled away, now, on the loose line. In another second, it would break free. "You must find a way to stop screaming." "What's happening to him, Clare?"

"I don't know. I think he's fallen into the slipstream. His leg is off the chart." "But it's still connected to him. Somewhere, right? It's still there?" If she answered, Howard didn't hear. The swirling reached his chest, covering him in the cold ice of emptiness, but still he reeled. His hands were a blur. The waters came up over his neck, the river pulling him toward nowhere. He felt his hands still turning. "You must float you must sink." He heard voices like distant birds calling mates. "I'm running the seeker program, Jersar." "Not yet, Clare. We're moving realward, the universe is coalescing. One more minute." "He'll be gone in thirty seconds." "Event horizon in thirty seconds. Our momentum will carry us through. Thirty seconds!" Howard had no choice. He pulled his rod in close to his body, risking losing it in the current, and kept his hands working, but it was like working the hands of a clock from the next planet over. He opened his eyes, forgetting when he'd shut them, and saw blue all around him. There was no oxygen. This stream of universes couldn't understand oxygen. * * * "It's a poem, Howard." He stared blankly at the paper.

"I thought it might help you catch a fish, some day." "Sara..." And then, like a blink in time, she was gone, taken by cancer. Then Michael was taken by the crash. Then Howard boarded a giant ship bound nowhere. He lived on, despite himself. His genes were strong and they used him to make the crew and the lives he helped, but mostly they let him sleep in cold storage. They would wake him and tell him how brilliant he was and beg him for help. He could see himself and he could see Michael in their faces, but he could never see Sara. She wasn't a part of his genes, so she never came to be. And so he helped them because they were him, little hims and little Michaels everywhere, and only the poem, strange like a chant, was left of her. * * * It wasn't so bad. He would be annihilated, but his atoms would live on, dispersed through the universe. He would be a part of stars, and planets and lives of beings he couldn't comprehend. He would see none of it, because seeing would be irrelevant, but he would be all of it, everywhere. Entropy would spread him and give him to the stars if he just breathed in the shimmering blue and let it go. Sara would be out there, somewhere. Waiting in little bits and together they could be fathers and mothers and daughters and pain and hurt and the fish and the fish. Howard pulled his arms in closer, thought the operation no longer had the same logic. He the fish caught the end of the line,

but the line held. He'd reeled fast enough, and now he reeled harder. Somewhere, his genetic son Jersar would be watching the final parameters turn into cubes and complete the last equations. "And do all this a thousand times. And then you will catch the slick, hidden fish." Then the line snapped. All was lost. Arms wrapped his chest and heaved him upward. They weren't really arms, but the seeker program reassembling him not backward or upward, but realward. He felt failure on his chest, like a slab of marble crushing him. He gasped for air. Clare appeared in his vision, looking so much like Sara, but only to him. Sara's eyes were softer, her hair lighter, the curve of her saw slanted up just a few degrees more. But Clare is all he has. "I couldn't do it." His voice sounded like a croaking frog, like a fish gulping for water. "How did he hold on, Clare. I thought he'd been atomized." She ignored Jersar and smoothed Howard's hair back. "You did do it, Howard. We're home. The rescue ship is almost here. You saved us, the whole ship. A million lives. Rest now. We'll let you rest." He shook his head. "No more resting, Clare. No more cold. Let me live on." "Howard, no. We need you." Jersar stood, but was frozen, as though unsure whether to carry Howard back to the deep freeze or just return to the bridge. "What you did..." "I'll teach you. You could do it," Howard said.

"You'll teach me that mantra you were saying?" Clare's eyes brightened. Howard pushed himself up into a sit. It felt good to feel his muscles working, even though they shook violently. His time was short and everything that was life felt worth feeling. "No, that's just for me. But there are other poems, Clare. "Help an old man up."


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