Friday, April 15, 2016

Short Story: Eleven Forty

Since today is the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and since it's one of my favourite historical subjects, I decided to share this short story I wrote when I was at university. It's about the only story I've ever written that involves time travel, and I wrote it as a creative writing project after watching a bit too much Doctor Who. Anyway, I haven't touched the story in over a year, but here it is. Someday I plan on making it longer, more detailed, and such, but this will do for now. 




Eleven Forty


The weather was cold. According to some of the crew, the temperature was just above the freezing point, and I couldn’t argue with that. Out in the middle of the ocean, where one couldn’t tell which way was which through the vast expanse of blue water and sky, I almost unconsciously trust the men who control the inner workings of the great steamship Titanic.

I had been on many ships since I was a young boy. My first voyage was on the venerable City of New York before the new century, with my family leaving England for Canada. Now I was on what had to be the epitome of luxury: everywhere you looked, intricate wood paneling and carefully sculpted glass lighting glowed and shimmered, making the interior of much of the ship seem like pure gold.

If my wife Elsie were here, she would have loved to see it all. But she was with child back in Winnipeg, and wasn’t able to join me when I was asked to go back to the Old World on business two months ago. Elsie would have seen all the sights and purchased trunks of trinkets and the most modern fashions while I was in meetings, but then we would watch a show in London or take a driving trip up north to meet with old relatives, and we both would have a joyous time.

Very few people were on the boat deck at this time, due to the cold and the approaching dinner hour. I had been invited to dinner in the Ritz Restaurant, but that wasn’t until 7 PM tonight. Until then, I had the entire deck to walk up and down, admiring how the setting sun of orange and purples contrasted with the ocean and the dark, starlit sky.

I must have been distracted as the last bit of light from the sun was extinguished for the day, for I accidently bumped into a man as I passed the first batch of lifeboats safely nestled on the boat deck.

“Excuse me,” I instinctively replied as I turned around, adjusting my homburg to ensure it wouldn’t fly off. Speaking to the man who I had ran into turn made him turn his head and nod to me. He took a couple more steps before stopping and spinning on his heel.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, with a faint smile, walking back toward me.

“I’m sorry, do I know you?” I asked. I looked him over, and while at first he seemed like any number of my fellow travellers, something appeared rather off about him. He was wearing a suit, but the cut was different enough to appear foreign. His brown hair wasn’t well combed, and he wasn’t wearing or carrying any hat that I could see. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time any man or woman, in England, America or Canada, would walk outdoors without a hat, so that was vexing to me.

“Maybe not, but I’ve heard a lot about you,” the stranger said, shaking my hand. “So tell me, what do you think about the Titanic?” he asked.

“Well, not as fast as the German or Cunard liners, but beautiful all the same,” I said. “First time I’ve ever had a cabin with a private washroom, too.”

He smiled and snickered, as if I told a funny joke. “Oh, that won’t be a problem soon enough. Every cabin would have their own washroom.”

“Every one? Even in steerage?” I asked.

“Of course, with hot and cold running water, a bath and shower and everything!” he remarked. “Everyone would even get a telephone and a televi-” he trailed off, as if realizing he was telling a secret to someone not in the know.

“Televi?” I asked, though I was just as startled at everything else he said. Why would anyone want to invest that amount of money to ensure the steerage, third class passengers have luxuries that not even every wealthy businessman or royals in Europe didn’t have?

He just shrugged off my question. “Let me tell you, this trip you are on is, quite likely, one of the most important you will have ever been on,” he said with a smirk. “You should come watch what happens at 11:40 PM tonight.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but he only smiled again.

“You will see history unfold. Events and things that shouldn’t happen will happen tonight, and I want you to see it yourself.” He began backing away, before turning around and walking to the Marconi telegraph office. “You’ll thank me for it!”

“Thank you for what?” I asked, but he had already opened the door to the telegraph room and stepped inside.

I wanted to follow him, but before I could, I heard the ships bell being rung.

Ding ding! Ding ding! Ding ding!

Having been on ships long enough, I recognized the bells as signaling the current time on the crew’s watch. I couldn’t remember the exact number of bells that would be rung, so I pulled out my pocket watch and silently cursed myself as I realized it now said 7 PM. I rushed along the boat deck to get to the Aft Grand Staircase, to take me down to the Ritz, or À La Carte Restaurant.

Dinner passed, as always, with a scrumptious meal and pleasant, if very insubstantial, conversation. A few tables away, a Philadelphia railway magnate and his wife were hosting a party for Captain E. J. Smith. The grandfatherly seaman deserved it, in my opinion; a long and successful career without a major shipwreck was about to be capped off by sailing the glorious Titanic on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to New York and then back to Southampton. This dinner was just the way for a rich couple to praise him, but I couldn’t begrudge them that honour.

After dinner, as per shipboard custom, all the men would retire to the Smoking Room just one flight of stairs above, while the women would either go to the lounge, one of the many reception rooms, or go to their cabins. Elsie would have enjoyed chatting and gossiping with the women of the Titanic, I was sure.

As stimulating as the conversations in the Smoking Room could become once one had some whisky and no requirement to modulate language for the womenfolk, I eventually decided that I should go outside for an evening stroll. That was one thing about the Titanic that I could go on about, how much walking you could do. It was, according to the clock perched on the fireplace mantle I walked past to leave, almost half past 11. Had I been back at home, I would either be dozing at my desk or already curled in bed with Elsie.

The time also reminded me of the mysterious conversation I had with the stranger earlier today. He was both condescending and rude, as if he knew something that no one else did, and played coy with revealing it. He may also have believed he was smarter than everyone else on the boat, though I don’t buy it.

But it was still intriguing what he was talking about, how destiny and events were malleable, possible to change. I wasn’t one of those blokes in the Raj or elsewhere in the Empire who believed that your life was already set out, and no matter what you do, you cannot escape it. But it just felt wrong that history could be rewritten, if the stranger was correct. History was a linear progression of cause and effect; progress from the past to the present and eventually into the future. If those causes and effects could be changed, then was history a linear progression, or just an accident?

I really didn’t want to find the answer to that question right now. Stepping out onto the Promenade deck that wrapped around this part of the ship was a shock to the system, and one that, no matter how long you lived in Canada, one could never get used to. It was almost spring and maybe the snow in Winnipeg would be melted in the near future, but there was always the possibility of a blizzard this late into the season.

I pulled my jacket higher, turning up the collars of my dinner coat to try to cover my neck, and I walked forward to the bow.

Very few people were out at this time of night. A couple of young lovers walked by, either newlyweds or love struck hopefuls, walked beside, speaking quietly to each other and chortling at the joke only the two of them would know. I nodded to them as I walked by, but they either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

I continued down the deck, past the lounge that had its lights turned off, the First Class Staircase that was crowned by the splendid glass dome, and the few cabins placed for yet more wealthy persons to travel in comfort and luxury.

I leaned up against the railing at the front, feeling the cold wind rushing past my face, hearing the splash and roar of water forced aside by the knife of the bow cutting through the water. Just above where I stood, I could hear the stomp of shoes against the deck as an officer or a crewmember paced through the bridge, giving some order or course correction that I couldn’t hear through the sound of wind and waves.

Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my pocket watch, and saw the hands pointing at 11:35. I slipped it back into my pocket and stared ahead, but there was nothing but the dark sky, the darker ocean, and a million dazzling stars that reminded me of looking out the window at a snowfall when I was little.

I continued standing and watching where the ship was going, looking around but not seeing anything. It was harder than I thought, as the cold wind made it hard to look forward for too long, and standing in one spot for a period of time made it both uncomfortable and cold very quickly. Looking at the blackness, it was hard to believe that the North Atlantic was the most traveled body of water in the world when you could see nothing but black and a few shimmering stars.

Ding ding ding! A frantic chime of the ship’s bell rang out, startling me from my thoughts. A telephone rang upstairs, and a moment later a flurry of footsteps could be hear, along with a few shouts, muffled by the cold breeze and the wood decking. I whipped my heard forward, and gasped at the sight in front of the Titanic: A large black shape sat menacingly in front of the ship and to the starboard, and towered in the distance like a towering peak in the Rocky Mountains.

As I watched, the Titanic began to slowly, excruciating turn to the left, but it was soon clear that the Titanic was not going to hit the iceberg, but casually ambling around it. I let go of my breath, which I didn’t know I was holding until that moment.

That was rather exciting, I thought. Not that an iceberg would have done much to the Titanic had we ran into it.

I glanced at my pocket watch again, and now it was reading 11:40 on the dot. I was surprised that only five minutes or so had taken place since I came here, as it felt like an hour had in the moment the iceberg was first seen and now passed behind us.

As I began to turn around, I saw the stranger excitedly running toward me. I stopped, and he slid to a halt in front of me.

“Did you see that?” he exclaimed, nearly shouting in my face. “Did you see?”

“Yes, I did. The ship missed an iceberg. Exciting for a moment, but not exactly momentous.”

He smugly grinned then. “I did it.”

“What?” I asked, confused. Was he steering the ship or something?

“I gave a message to the first officer from the telegraph room, one that pointed out where icebergs were, and he must have changed course.” The stranger was so proud of himself.

“Well, that’s good,” I said, now confused and slightly uncomfortable around this man. I hoped he would notice and let me go off and maybe go to my cabin now.

“You should be glad,” he said, that smug grin still etched into his face, before he finally turned around. “Now you can go back home to Winnipeg without a worry in the world.”

Now I was even more puzzled, as I was sure I never told him where I was from, but maybe I had when we first met, and my sleep deprived mind was playing tricks on me. I went down the stairs to C- Deck, to where my cabin was. As I walked down the carpeted hallway, I could hear the deep, solid thump of the engines as I continued walking aft to where my cabin was. Strangely, I don’t remember a single person in the hallways, crew or passengers. Shouldn’t someone be up at this point?

I stopped before I reached my room. I fumbled for the key to my room, but instead I grabbed my pocket watch. I looked at it, and was stunned to see it was still 11:40. It was still doing that half-tick sound, so I tried to wind it up, but the fob refused to turn as I did the familiar motion, as if it was as wound up as much as it possibly could go. I also tried to move the hands, but even though that mechanism moved freely, the hands themselves wouldn’t shift from their spot.

Confused, I walked back down the hallway. Under my feet, the throb of the engines could still be felt, but otherwise the corridor was dead silent. I walked down the white paneled and plush carpeted hallways until I reached the Grand Staircase. Once again, not a single person could be seen.

I took the stairs up, and once I was on the A-Deck landing, I could see that the clock there hadn’t budged either since I saw it a while ago.

By now I was confused. How could this be happening? Wasn’t time still moving forward? Did all the clocks decide to stop working at once?

Bracing for the cold, I walked back onto the Boat Deck. The weather was still freezing cold, and a breeze whistled through the guide wires and railings on the ship. On that breeze, I could hear a soft ding ding ding! I hurried forward, just in time to hear the officer in command give an order. I stopped at the railing that separated the First-class Promenade from the Officer’s deck, and listened closely.

“Damn it! That must be the sixth one we dodged tonight,” someone said. “And they all looked alike to, didn’t they?”

“Should we inform the Captain?” another voice asked.

There was a pause. “Maybe. It might be for the best that we slow down or stop for the night.”

“But what would White Star say?” a third voice asked, chiming in.

“Would they have a broken ship or a slightly delayed schedule? I would think…”

Ding ding ding!
“Hard a starboard!” the officer in charge barked. “And get the captain, I have no idea what to do now.”

There have been multiple icebergs? I was surprised and now very worried. What were the chances that one of them might hit the Titanic? And, perhaps, more importantly, would we be able to emerge unscathed if we did hit one?

“Can I help you?” someone called out to me as I was about to walk away. I turned around again to see an officer looking out of the Bridge at me.

“I was just wondering what was going on. Peculiar things are happening, aren’t they?”

The officer thought about it. “Yes, I would say so. Lots of ice, right now. Also all the clocks seem to be stuck at 11:40.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed that with my pocket watch, too.”

The officer walked up to me. “Have you seen anything strange this evening?”

I was about to reply negatively when I thought about the stranger. “There was a gentleman I met earlier who said he gave a message to the bridge about an iceberg.”

“Oh yes, I remember him. He seemed very anxious and queer to me,” the officer said. “But the message he gave me said there was ice directly ahead of us, so I adjusted our course. Doesn’t seem to mean that we have avoided them though.” As if to underline that statement, the crow’s nest bell tolled three more times.

The officer turned around. “I should go get the Captain. But could you please stay nearby? We may need to talk to you.”

I nodded, and the officer dashed into the nearby doorway. I waited for a few minutes, in the cold wind, shuffling and rubbing my hands together. I looked over the side, and found it hard to see much past the brilliant lighting of the Titanic. I could make out a few twinkling stars, but still no moon. The water itself was perfectly flat, like a sheet of ice that my fellow Winnipeggers would play hockey on.

I looked back to the bridge, where I saw the recognizable image of Captain Smith, with his neatly trimmed white beard and deep voice, talking with a couple of the officers, but too quiet for me to hear. The officer that had gotten me earlier now pointed in my direction, and they all turned to me. I stiffened, and the three White Star Line crewmen all walked toward me.

“Good evening,” Captain Smith said, as he got close to me. “I understand that you have been around to see some strange happenings this night.”

I explained to him about the stranger, what he said, and then what had happened since that point. He listened calmly as I spoke, and he didn’t speak for a while after I finished.

“Something is off about all this. We have to find this man and find out what he has done,” Captain Smith ordered.

“You mean this man?” a gruff American accented voice asked, making all of us look.

There stood three men: two large, tall men in black suits, flanking and holding on to the disheveled and nervous stranger I met earlier.

“Who are you gentlemen?” Captain Smith asked.

“We are, you could say, police officers,” one of them said. “But I cannot say where or why.”

“But then why do you have this young man?

The stranger broke free from the men’s grip and turned to me. “The Titanic was supposed to have hit an iceberg, sink, and kill a lot of people. I was trying to stop that.”

“Wait, sink?” one of the officers asked. “But, it can’t sink.”

“Well, it does. I was trying to stop that.”

“But you can’t change history,” one of the men that the stranger had broken free from said. “Major events cannot be rewritten.”

“Of course they can! We can travel through the multiverse, so in order for those worlds to work, a major event must have changed to allow them to be created,” the stranger said.

“But the multiverse maintains itself, without human interference,” the other man said, very cross.

“I’m guessing you have managed to avoid hitting an iceberg quite a few times now, right?” one the men asked, turning to the captain.

“Well, yes,” Captain Smith said. “It was almost like clockwork when the next one appeared.”

“The multiverse is trying to sink the Titanic. This boat needs to sink,” the man replied.

“Why the hell does it have to?” I asked. “Can’t we just go on to New York?”

The man was getting very angry now. “Look, 1,513 people need to drown tonight, and this ship needs to sink as well. History, the multiverse, depends on it.”

“What if we refuse to let it sink?” one of the officer’s said. “We can get…”

“No! You do not understand! The multiverse will see this ship sunk somehow,” the second of the big men said.

“What do you mean?” I interupted. “What is this multiverse you talk about?”

“It’s different timelines, universes based on a slight difference from each other, usually based on a historical event, like what if this or that event didn’t happen.” The other imposing man said. “The Roman Empire not falling, Napoleon winning Trafalgar, that sort of thing. But people, especially those traveling through time and space, cannot interfere with those timelines.”

“Then why did you do it?” I asked the stranger. “You made sure this ship wouldn’t hit the iceberg. Why?”

The stranger just shook his head, clearly in shock. “I… I didn’t think it would cause this much trouble.” He finally sat up. “I just wanted to see the Titanic reach New York, and maybe…”

“Tear a hole in all of reality?” the second man shot back. “You sonnuva…”

Captain Smith stepped between them. “Alright, all of you be quiet,” he ordered, making the three strangers stop. “How do we stop this?”

“Make the Titanic hit the iceberg,” said the first black-suited man. “Until that happens, you will have icebergs thrown in front of you until this ship sink. If you don’t, the multiverse may begin getting desperate.”

Captain Smith looked at the three men, realizing that they were dead serious and not trying to play a joke on him. “Gentlemen, if you could come with me to my cabin to discuss this issue.”

The two big men roughly manhandled the stranger with them as they went to talk to the Captain. The two officers and myself stood quietly, finally telling each other our names. The First Officer was named Murdoch, while the Second Officer was Charles Lightoller, but we were too nervous to tell each other much more than that. After a few moments, Captain Smith came out of the Officer’s Quarters, glum and depressed.

“When the next iceberg comes, you have to hit it,” he said to Murdoch.

“What?” everyone asked in shock.

“But, sir…” Lightoller interceded.

“That is my order,” the captain said, his air of authority and confidence long gone. He then walked off the deck back to his quarters with his head low in resignation.

Ding Ding Ding! This time the bells sounded more mournful than vigilant; maybe the crow’s nest lookouts were as resigned as the rest of the crew. The quartermaster at the wheel didn’t turn the wheel as far as he could have. I watched in agonizing slowness as the Titanic came closer and closer to the mountain of Greenland ice, my hand gripping around the watch in my pocket.

Moments later the iceberg slid past, a low grinding, scrapping sound could be heard far below, and massive chunks of ice crashed to the forward well deck.

As suddenly as it happened, it was over.

“It’s done,” the first man said quietly. First Officer Murdoch, the officer on duty, could only nod.

“And now many people will die this night,” he said, looking at his hands. The expression on his face reminded me of someone who could see the blood of hundreds of innocents on his hands. I couldn’t blame him, even if it was supposed to happen for history to continue.

One of the temporal policemen pulled out handcuffs and snapped them over the Stranger’s wrist, and began to lead him out of the bridge. I followed after.

“Excuse me,” I asked, before the three men were too far away. “May I ask a question to the man that caused all this trouble?”

The two men looked at each, other but shrugged. “Fine, but make it quick.”

I looked at the young man, his messy hair hanging down over his downtrodden eyes. “Why did you want to save the Titanic?”

“My great grandfather was on the ship, and died before my grandmother was born. I wanted to see if I could save the ship, maybe meet my grandfather.” He looked up with a faint smile. “I’m glad to have at least done that.”

I blinked, and watched as the two men pushed a button on their fancy wrist devices, and they flickered out of sight, as if they had never been there.

I stood there in silence for a moment, before a massive, loud, deep piercing screech filled the air. I looked up to see white steam billowing from the funnels, and it was clear that the boilers were venting steam to prevent the cold water from touching the boilers and exploding.

I pulled out my pocket watch, and watched as the hands had finally moved, the clockwork inside ticking away. It was now reading 12:05 PM.

In two hours and fifteen minutes, I, along with 1,513 other men, women and children from all walks of life, breeding, class and status, would be fighting for their lives in the ice-cold water as 705 survivors looked on in half full lifeboats, too few to save even half of those on board. The great ship, at one point called unsinkable, foundered, split in half in the dark, moonless night, and sunk beneath the North Atlantic like a fabled monster of pride and vanity, vanquished from this earth by humility: Icarus flying to close to the sun.

The last few minutes of my life were spent trying to stay afloat, even as the cold descended on me. The enormous cacophony of noise of which I was just one part filled the ocean around me. Then it started to fade. I lost my energy to yell, even to mumble. Then I closed my eyes, imagining my wife, our unborn daughter… that stranger.

1 comment: