Chapter 1: INTO THE VOID
THE FATHER AWOKE one lonely, sleepy Sunday afternoon lying on a sofa, recalling the wonder of his dream. No words could express it, nor would he try. Yet the dream belonged to the son, and he must give it to him.
That young innocent at a nearby table stopped drawing and listened to his enthusiastic father, who proposed an adventure extraordinary. The father urged it until the son too believed they could do it. Yes—so what if they’d never gone out on the ocean? Why not take a little boat out there, just the two of them, and go after the big one?
Jubilant as schoolboys, all that week they planned it and talked it up, this father and son. Saturday they drove to the rental yard and chose a two-man aluminum boat, mounted on a trailer and powered by an eighty-horse Mercury outboard. This they bolted to their Bronco four-by-four, then drove away beneath a gray, discouraging November sky, oblivious to all discouragement. They found again the perfect spot they’d already scouted, a secluded, placid, beginner’s cove on the Sonoma coast. They maneuvered the boat awkwardly off the trailer and into the surf, and so launched their frail craft onto this fringe of the mighty Pacific Ocean.
Yet four hours later they were still without a bite as the diminished waves of the cove rocked them gently, pleasantly fifty yards from shore. Firmly anchored, they kept their wool jackets zipped to the collar against the cold, for the Sun at midday was still only midway up the sky, and showed itself only as a disc dimly seen through impenetrable overcast. Father and son faced each other, but had spoken little the last hour. The boy wore no hat and his brown hair curled over ears and collar. Stubbornly, he wouldn’t be the one to say let’s give up and go home; though he’d begun glancing at his father recently, that he might hear him speak the welcome words.
However, the father seemed content to stare out into that infinite ocean, where nothing but swells and a few seagulls moved, his pole up and the line tugging shoreward, forgotten, the gold spinner out there spinning for nothing. He wore a Giants baseball cap. Only two months before, father and son had fished both for the first time ever off a pier at a Monterey wharf with Uncle Jay. The boy had enjoyed it so much, and that had pleased his father so much, that the two had gone fishing nearly every weekend since. But they were still as novice and unlucky as any fishermen could be.
Then, as if faraway worlds suddenly called to them, the dense, obscuring overcast parted, revealing suddenly the hitherto hidden Sun: flashing brilliantly upon them in their boat. “I’ll be,” said his father, squinting into the unexpected blaze of light. “What a difference that makes—huh? Think this means our luck’ll change?”
The boy remained silent, not wanting to encourage any optimism.
His father understood the silence. He smiled and said, “Or maybe not. Here—you take this caster a while. That hole in the sky just might stay open a bit. I think I’ll just sit back here and enjoy some of that beautiful Sun—probably won’t last long.” He reeled in the spinner and handed the pole to his son. Then he reclined against a cushion he’d set against the outboard and tilted back his cap bill to let the welcome sunshine warm his face.
The son reeled in his own line and laid that pole in the boat. He preferred the caster. He heaved out a long one and slowly retrieved it. Then several times again. But he saw it was still the same bad luck, so he settled back and let the spinner hold taut in the shoreward swells, the poletip slightly bowed, gently quivering.
The father opened one eye and saw his son disengaged from the moment. He pushed up his cap bill and opened the other eye. “Hey—I really like all your drawings yesterday from anatomy class. What’s your friend Martin think of you drawing all those beautiful, shapely women?”
The son laughed. “He’s jealous! He said he’d love to trade places.” Then he became more serious. “But that’s a joke. He actually has dates. I’ve never had one.” He laughed again, though this time it pained him.
The father almost equally; who said, “You’re nuts—you could have one tomorrow if you wanted. Look at you.”
The son frowned. “No, Dad, it’s not like that. Girls aren’t interested in me.”
“Well maybe not the girls at the art college—you’re barely sixteen—but I know the girls at Tam High must like you.”
“They still see me as the fat kid. Nothing’s changed.”
The father shook his head, dubious. “That’s nuts, you lost fifty-five pounds, you look like a model. I can’t believe the kids at school even recognize you now.”
“Well they do. And I feel like the same guy, that’s the main thing. I just don’t have any confidence when I see a girl I like. I get all stupid and can’t talk to her.”
The father paused; he knew too well this was true. “Well, Kirk said that would happen. I mean, that you’d change physically first. Then it would take a little while for you to catch up to that psychologically. And you will. But I hope you can appreciate what a transformation you’ve already done on yourself.”
No pride was in the son’s voice. “Kirk did it to me. You did it.”
“No! You did it! All I did was prod a little. Kirk gave you a workout, told you what to eat, what not to eat. But you had to do the work, and it was a heckuva lot of work, and you did it. You did it. Don’t ever forget that. Or underestimate it.”
The son looked away to the dreary sky, letting the silence hang between them; till finally he said, “Let’s change the subject—OK?”
“Fine with me,” his father said cheerfully. “Tell me about your new character.”
This roused a smile. “Oh yea. I told you the other day I found this old Submariner comic. It was drawn by my favorite artist, John Byrne.”
“Sure I remember you showing me Byrne. But Submariner’s way older than that. I read him when I was a kid. So John Byrne’s drawing him now, huh?”
“Yeah, and I really like the way he does all the underwater stuff.” The boy unsettled himself from the hollow of the bow, leaning toward the father: for the first time that day his shadow lay in the boat between them. “Well anyway, I’ve been thinking about a character of my own like that, and I’ve been trying out a few things.” He reached with one hand into the backpack lying between his silver Nikes and he withdrew a drawing pad of Bristol. He found the page he wanted and held it up so only he could look at it; approved; then held it up for his father to see: a sleek, muscled superhero speeding serenely through the depths of ocean, arms outspread, silver-masked, shoulder fins extended, hands webbed, a silver body suit so tight it could have been skin. A smiling dolphin swam as serenely beside him.
The father showed delight. “Very nice. What’s his name?”
“Aquaman.” But the son frowned. “It’s not very original, but, like they say, it’s a work in progress.” The boy took back the drawing and reinserted it in his backpack, reset that again between his Nikes; then continued. “He’s not really right yet. He should be as cool as Submariner, but different—you know?” His father nodded that he did know. “Submariner has a really great origin. He was a prince in Atlantis, but he got kicked out and went away to fight the bad guys, and he teamed up with some other superheroes. But he’s different—sometimes he’s heroic, and sometimes he goes nuts and destroys stuff and fights against the good guys. He’s pretty neat.”
Agreeable as only a parent can be, the father said, “I can see that.” And then again the father’s eyes drifted to the far immense distances.
But his son pursued him. “What I really need, Dad, is a good story for my character. You know—an origin, and some really cool adventures. I’ve thought a lot about it. I come up with a lot of ideas, but when I tell them to Martin he says I’m just rehashing stories I read in other comics. And he’s right, I never come up with anything really original. I need some help. Professional help.”
His father seemed to be considering this. He pulled the cap bill down to cover his eyes. “Well, Son, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never been much good at original stories either. All my writing’s historical, or personal.”
“Yea, but you’ve done a lot of it. You’ve written novels.”
Hidden by the cap bill, his father smiled bleakly. “Yea, for all the good it did me.” Then he truly smiled as he uncovered his eyes, blinking at the Sun, pretending optimism. “So you think I’d be a good collaborator—huh?”
The boy leaned forward, wanting this, saying, “Well, why not? You told me yourself that you’ve had to make up some characters. And stories.”
His father smiled more. “Well I suppose I have. But making up a story for a superhero’s something else again. I imagine that would take...well...a lot of imagination. Not my strong point. And what do I know anyway about what goes on in the ocean?”
But the boy wouldn’t accept that. He shook his head, even as he grinned. “We could find out what goes on in the ocean. We can do it, Dad—come on, let’s make a comic together. Write me a story.”
A shudder of release passed through the father and he let his fingers slip from his grip on the gunwales into his lap. He sat forward, pushing the cap bill high again. The boy’s enthusiasm lightened him; he savored it, thought perhaps it might even rouse him from a great long lethargy.
But it could not. “Maybe a few years ago, Son. I’m just not in writing shape anymore—you know what I mean?”
The boy studied him. “I know. You mean you haven’t written in a few years. So what?”
The father laughed, with little pleasure. “Well it’s not that easy to get started again. I feel kinda worn out.”
“I don’t believe you. The rejections wore you out. And maybe something else wore you out too. But you always liked the writing, I know you did. That was always when you were happiest. It’s sad, I don’t see that side of you anymore.”
The father began feebly, “Well....” But he had little energy for rebuttal. “There’s more to it than you realize.”
Unconvinced, the boy smiled brighter than before; he had energy enough for both of them. “Or maybe not. I know you, I see you all the time. In fact, that’s our problem—we’re like a coupla old duffs who sit around home and don’t see much of anybody but each other.” Then he grinned devilishly and said, “So why don’t you date—huh? Talk about me being shy!”
The father’s face showed mock outrage. “Date? I’m a little old for dating, young man. And not interested, if you really want to know.”
“Hah! You’re not even fifty, Dad. And I’ve seen you with Karen Carter, I know you like her.”
Truly shocked, the father blurted: “Hey there!”
The boy struggled not to laugh, but said, “OK, I won’t press you. But if I can admit I’m in a shell and I’m trying to get out—so can you. Anyway, it’s the same shell. We both climbed in it when we lost Mom. I got fat and hated everyone. You stopped writing and became a hermit. We’re both hermits. Still. But I’m coming back. Thanks to Kirk. And thanks to you. Why can’t it be your turn now?”
The memory of their shared misery and consolation threatened the father again. There had been enough of that. He tried to shut it down. “So you think inventing you a story would get me out of this shell you think I’m in?”
The son glowed. “Maybe. Maybe not. But it would be fun—no matter what.”
The father searched his son’s bright face with tired eyes. “You think it’s not too late for me—huh?” He felt the boy’s light penetrate him. “Well maybe. I’ll think about it. If you don’t make me date Karen Carter.”
The boy continued to hold him to it. “Come on, let’s do it! It’ll be fun! A great underwater adventure. Created by you and me.”
His father smiled, feeling his son’s light filling him. He leaned back, his eyes closed. He felt again the precious Sun on his face. “OK, OK, I’m thinking about it. The old dog might learn new tricks. But it won’t be easy. And all this story would be underwater? All of it?”
Energized, the boy again took up his casting pole. “Yeah, all underwater. And whatever ideas you come up with, I can sketch out little thumbnails and story boards, like they do in the big time. It’ll be fun. Then we’ll sell it to Marvel Comics.”
The boy cast again. The lure penetrated water and drifted, and he began retrieving it. But suddenly he felt a hard pull on the line. Then line slackened.
Breathless, he stared at the limp line, his heart beating fast. Was that something? Or not? He waited, watching the line, thinking perhaps he had snagged. Then another strong pull bent the poletip, the chrome reel biting his knuckles. He braced his feet, leaned back, straining the pole. His father bolted upright, reaching forward as if to take the pole: also careful maintaining balance in the boat.
“No!” the boy yelled, eyes wide and wild with the thrill of it. “Let me try! I can hardly turn the handle!” The pole bowed still more, tip quivering.
The boy glanced only long enough to see his father wild-eyed too, remembering that this was his first big fish as well. His father shouted again. “Yeah—well don’t let it pull you in! If it pulls too hard—let go for godsake!”
But this was his, this was what he’d dreamed about. He struggled with all his energy against the mighty fish. His leg cramped and he wanted to shift his weight, but he didn’t dare, for fear of losing it. He could barely control the pole as the line swept back and forth near the boat. Sometimes he wound a few turns; but then the next moment he could not; or he cried out, helpless, as the line spun away furiously.
Still he battled, and the fish battled; until finally the fish wearied and could fight no more, but merely resisted stubbornly, twenty feet from the boat. His father with a gloved hand grabbed filament a foot from the poletip and pulled to gain slack; but even pulling together they only slowly retrieved line. Till at last they drew the fish beside the boat; then must pull harder to bring it out of water.
Both gasped: seeing a three-feet long, silver and blue-black steelhead emerge from ocean, pink glistening along its side, powerful tail thrashing. The boy reached down to grasp the spinner in the fish lip and he alone hauled the big fish into the boat, onto his lap.
The father sat forward, pushing back his Giants cap, astounded. “My God! That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” Speechless, the boy stared at his prize: so alive in his lap, brilliant colors gleaming, tail thumping now without panic, feathered gills fluttering in vain. So courageously dying, the boy thought. A beautiful thing I’m killing.
Then he perceived something else, though the how of it was beyond his understanding: something inside this fish throbbing-throbbing. He knew it was no heartbeat—no—something else, something somehow part of this incredible moment...a wonder of wonders. And though he knew he was staring into the incomprehensible, he also profoundly understood that he could not kill this fish.
Carefully he removed the treble hook from the fish lip, his own heart still pounding. His eyes never moved from this dying creature as he said to his father, “I wanna throw him back,” and as quickly as he spoke he heaved the steelhead over the side.
His father yelled, “Omygod—NO!” and he lurched forward, reaching for the prize that was even then falling into water.
This sudden, desperate movement tipped the frail craft radically, throwing them both off balance, well before the boy could grab the gunwales: his feet slipping away behind him, pitching the boy forward, so that his forehead struck the bow as he fell overboard into ocean. The father toppled face down, cracking his skull loudly on the seat boards, slumping there unconscious.
Stunned and disoriented, the boy sank several feet under water, struggling to hold his breath, feeling waves, turbulence above him: when suddenly he saw before him the steelhead he had only moments before thrown overboard.
In that instant that should have been his death, besieged by terror and panic, eye to eye with the steelhead, the boy perceived in an instant of perfect clarity and wonder their positions now bizarrely reversed: the fish alive and himself about to die. Even as he sensed again the throbbing-throbbing inside the fish that he knew was not its heartbeat and that he would forever after know was the essence of the wonder of all that wonder that was suddenly upon them all.
Terror and panic seized him. Desperate for air, the boy opened his mouth to suck in the fatal swallow of water that would burst his lungs. Yet in that same moment a convulsion passed through the steelhead: face to face: and the boy saw from within dark folds of steelhead mouth: a pearlescent jewel of another world and another time emerge glistening white and iridescent: glowing: throbbing-throbbing: unearthly power passing serenely toward him: mouth to mouth: wonder of wonders: heat and power of the brilliant jewel glowing on his lips, hotter on his tongue: throbbing-throbbing: into his throat and lodging high in his chest: then suddenly accelerating its pulsebeat to explosion!
White light blinded him. Power of suns erupting quaked through him, dissolving body and mind, consuming his cry for mercy unheard.
He expected to die. Yet he wasn’t dying, for his consciousness perceived it all—bone and muscle, blood and skin, senses, organs, brain all burning in the white electric fire. Not dying, something else. Disintegration. Reintegration. His old being destroyed. A new being arising from this power raging through him.
His clothes split and fell away.
Beyond pain. Bones wrenched to new shapes: spine elongating, legbones fusing and retracting into hip sockets as feet flared into broad flukes at the spinetip. Arms withdrew into body, hands webbing into flippers at the shoulders. Forehead flattened and facebones reformed a long thick jawbone. Pale skin fattened and darkened gray, stretching silky and taut over expanding, distorting, elongating muscles. Dorsal fin ruptured erect from his spine.
Swelling in his forehead pulsed with sounds never heard before, in high frequencies unimagined. In the crown of his head an airhole emerged, and instantly he craved air. He rose to the surface, he knew not how, and gasped air into his lungs: bringing into him new life and new being. Then he sank beneath the surface again, returned to a world of chaos and terror.
He knew not what he was, nor what had consumed him. He would scream, but no sound was possible. Even the water around him still swirled and bubbled with the chaos of it all. Panic again choked him. He couldn’t breathe. His flippers in his new madness he thought still to be arms and he beat them frantically, regaining the surface. There he felt his new air flap open and suck breath three times, then close. Then he, neither alive nor dead, sank again.
Weakened to exhaustion, he felt even so a wild energy pulsing through him that seemed the lifeforce of this something so terrible inside him. All his attention was within, mad to know what had happened, terrified to know.
He opened his eyes only when he must, and he saw then ghostly bluegreen depths folding into eerier darknesses below, all of it terrible, without as well as within. He closed his eyes again, not wanting to see more, refusing to believe this impossible madness, shivering and helpless against the terror that raged inside him.
Numb, confused, struggling to keep alive, he drifted lifelessly out the cove and into deeper ocean, breathing awkwardly in panic whenever his lungs burned. Understanding nothing. Until at last even his terror and panic were exhausted, and quieted; and finally only the many bewildering sounds of the sea filled his awareness. Chaotic, nightmare sounds.
But soon—for what else could he do?—he surrendered to the nightmare, drifting, barely alive, bobbing like cork in water. Lost. Fever burning in his brain. And one question he sounded, and re-sounded: What’s happening? What? What?
Eventually he sensed something near him. He opened his strange eyes. Not sure if he was dreaming what he saw, or if, in the distortion of undulating green water, he saw a mirage of the sea: but there were three gray dolphins hovering at the surface, a few body-lengths in front of him, flukes hanging, rippled light through water casting lightwebs over their bodies.
They were looking at him.