Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
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Shell Beach

by Dan L. Hollifield

A Mare Inebrium Story

”When someone is driven by a need so intense that their soul cries out for healing, and justice, the universe tends to listen. And that can be very dangerous for us poor sods who might just happen to get in the way…” -- Merlin Ambrosius, 733AD

It had been a quiet night at the Mare Inebrium—operative words: “had been.” The bar wasn’t crowded, it was well after midnight—not long before dawn, after all. Max was off doing inventory in the bar’s storage warehouse level in sub-basement two. Kazsh-ak had gone home hours ago, His niece Kazshthe’annie had been with him, understudy for his position as the D’rrish Ambassador to other species, learning how the old D’rrish interacted with other species. She has learned a few of his skills as a storyteller, too. She’s inherited his gift of gab, as well as his capacity for drink, so when the old bug actually retires, she ought to be knowledgeable enough to serve her people well. Bobby Blue the robot and Larrye were acting bartenders in Max’s absence. I’d come by for a quiet drink or ten just because it was so quiet. I rarely get a chance to relax in my job as Ambassador for the Immortals and Chief Justice for the entire planet… Being the Reever of the Immortals has never been an easy job. But it’s hereditary, so I try and do my father and grandfathers proud. But I digress…

I’m sitting there at the bar drinking Dinkomet diluted with enough soda water so that I got all the taste but only 10% of the intoxicating effects, when I noticed the dark-haired human pop out of the damned inconvenient nexus of potential realities the Mare Inebrium engenders by its very existence. He wasn’t exactly disturbing the peace, but he was disturbing a few of the 75-or-so customers who only wanted an uneventful night to drink themselves into whatever level of stupor it took for them to cope with their individual circumstances. He wandered from table to table, evidentially asking a single question, then moving on. I sighed, then activated a channel to my Staff of Office for a translation of his question.

“Do you know the way to Shell Beach? I want to go to Shell Beach. I need to go to Shell Beach…” I understood him to ask. Did I mention how much I HATE the Nexus Of Potential Realities? Never fails to generate mountains of paperwork. I damn well hate paperwork.

Larrye,” I said. “That guy is going to need a very stiff drink. Dial him up a triple Scotch, on my tab,” I added. “Bobby Blue, perhaps you should send a waiter or waitress over to invite him to have a seat at the bar.”

“Input noted,” said Bobby Blue. “Staff alerted.”

“Triple Scotch, dash of soda, three small ice cubes,” said Larrye. “I’ll have it ready when he gets here.”

“Thanks, boys,” I said. I could see Bruce the bouncer headed towards the dark-haired human, then whisper to him. The man nodded, then began to make his way through the scant crowd towards the bar. I put on my least-threatening aspect as the human slowly approached. It’s one of my talents. I can project a somewhat less-dangerous appearance when being two meters tall and able to rip a sabertooth tiger in half with my bare hands is somewhat slightly socially unacceptable. It’s just pheromones, really. You smell harmless, they perceive you as harmless. Of course, the reverse is also true. It’s a species thing. We immortals can do it, if we paid attention in school. I paid attention in school.

The human slowly walked up and I turned to offer him the bar stool next to me. Larrye put the Scotch and soda down in front of the human as he sat down on the stool I’d offered. Larrye then wordlessly walked away to see to another customer at the bar. Max has taught the boy well.

“You’re lost.” I said. ”Or so I heard you say. I’m the local Chief of Police. You look like you could use a drink. And maybe a friend, too. I bought you a drink. You’re trying to find Shell Beach?”

“I used to go there on vacations,” he said. “Back when I was a kid. My family always had a good time there… Or at least, that’s what I remember. I have a memento book, but I can’t find the way back…”

Have I mentioned that I hate metaphysical trans-substantiation even more than I hate the Nexus? I don’t mind people having a purpose, but when that purpose forces them to cross world-lines and time streams, that gets right up my embuggerance threshold. But if this guy was a criminal, I’d be willing to eat my metaphorical hat.

“The trains don’t seem to go there anymore,” he said. “My name’s John, by the way,” he added.

“Call me Reever,” I said. “It’d take me twenty minutes to tell you my real name in my language, and you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it anyway. So, John, you need to get to Shell Beach?”

“Yeah, Shell Beach—I need to get to Shell Beach.” John said. “It’s really important.”

“Sounds like it,” I said. “I’ll help however I can. Tell me about Shell Beach.”

“That’s the place over in the Elbow, isn’t it?” said Larrye as he walked back up. “On the outside of the city wall? Over on the East Side?”

I frowned, then returned my attention to John.

“I’m not sure,” said John. “It’s outside the city, but I never learned the direction. East sounds right. I remember the sunrises over the ocean… The trains don’t run there any more…” John sipped his drink, smiled slightly, and added “this is pretty good.”

“Um—yeah. We’ve been having some trouble with the uh, trains, for a while now,” I said.

“I remember now,” said John. “Why I need to get to Shell Beach, I mean. It’s where I first met my wife. We’re suppose to meet there for our anniversary. When she gets off from work. She’s a singer at a bar—can’t remember the name of the place.”

“Must be around here, somewhere,” said Bobby Blue. “All the best bars are.”

“There’s a tune, in my head,” said John.

“Something your wife sings?” I asked. “While she’s working?”

“That must be it,” John replied. “Can’t quite remember… Getting closer though. I need to go.”

“All right, John,” I said. “Finish your drink and I’ll get us a car. I’ll get you to Shell Beach in time to meet your wife.”

“Thank you,” he said. “You’re going to Shell Beach too?”

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” I replied as I paged a vehicle to meet us outside. I hoped that this was going to work. I believed I knew what John needed—where he needed to go. I hoped I was right as we stood to go out to the street. John didn’t even look at the city as we reached the sidewalk and a transport pod settled down to meet us. He didn’t seem to notice that there wasn’t a driver when we got in. I typed a quick set of coordinates into the input keypad—street-level, 2200 block, East side, right up against the city walls--where the Upper-Southeast and Lower-East walls met. I knew there were waves crashing against the bottom of the low cliff face there, on the outside of the walls, but I had a feeling. I hoped I was right. It felt right. Our pod lifted up to the 500-foot level of traffic as soon as I finished giving it the destination. We went North for a hundred blocks or so, then East towards the edge of the city.

“Tell me about Shell Beach, John,” I said as we flew onwards.

“Not much to tell, really,” he said as he neglected to notice we were airborne and in the middle of other flying traffic. The buildings flew past. “The sand is kind of creamy-white, not yellow, and there are seashells everywhere you walk. There’s a pier, near the amusement park. My Uncle runs one of the rides in the park. The Funhouse Ride. I saw him just a few days ago—or was it yesterday? I used to fish off the pier. Never caught much, though. When I was a kid, I’d pick up seashells and take them home to show my parents. There was a park bench near the pier. That’s where I met my wife for the first time. You could see the whole beach from there. At night the whole thing was lit up. Looked like the whole beach was part of the amusement park. If you got there before the sunrise, you could see the whole thing, like something from out of a movie. The ocean would turn red, off on the horizon, then the sun would begin to peek up over the water, and the whole world turned to gold. The clouds would light up. The fog from the sea would get brighter and brighter and then begin to burn off—until you could see forever. And the stars at night, they went on forever, too…”

“Sounds wonderful,” I said. “We should be there soon. We’ll have to unlock the door to go outside. But that’s all right—I have the key.”

“Why won’t the trains go there anymore?” John asked.

“I’ve got a feeling that they’ll start going there again,” I replied. “I’ll have a quiet word with the stationmaster about changing the routes back the way they were.” We landed. Getting out, John and I faced a dimly-lit, practically dark, dead-end alley. We got out of the pod and walked towards where I knew there needed to be a door. It had to be there. John needed it to be there, so I was sure it wouldn’t be long before we found it. At the end of the alley there was a recess in the wall—just about doorway-sized. As we got closer, I could just make out the shape of a set of double doors, set, sealed, into the shadowed recess.

“I can feel the tune,” John said. “It’s stronger now. I can smell the ocean—what time is it?”

“Almost dawn,” I said. The only thing I could smell was an alley—trash that needed to be taken away, stale urine and impatience, blood dried and never cleaned away from some long-ago crime, stale grease from some nearby restaurant…

“What if the door is locked?” John asked.

“I can open it, locked or not,” I replied. “There ought to be a light over the doors,” I added. “And a sign. And one of these buildings ought to be a parking tower, for people wanting to go to the beach.”

“There used to be,” John replied. “The doors were always open, and the parking lot was over there,” he added as he waved vaguely over towards the buildings to our left. “The train station was over there, too. Are you sure you can unlock the door?”

“I’m sure,” I said as we reached the doors. I could see them clearly now. I reached out and pushed one open. I could hear the waves crashing against the seawall I knew was a hundred feet below us. The sun was just beginning to rise in the distance. John walked like a blind man, up to the guard rail keeping us from falling over the cliff, gripped it with both hands, and stared into the slowly-rising sun. “I’m home,” he said in a whisper. “Shell Beach—I made it. I’m home. I can feel the tune…”

There was a barely-perceptible rush of sound, and the world expanded before us as the sun peeked up over the horizon. Cream-colored sands now stretched outward towards the sun’s rays. A pier now stood away from the beach, pointed directly at the sunrise. I could see the amusement park John remembered from his childhood. It looked cleaner and brighter than any amusement park I’d ever seen. Seabirds shrieked their greetings to the new day. The waves crashing along the changed shoreline took on a new note. As the light grew brighter, I could see a nearby park bench, and a dark-haired woman sitting there as if patiently waiting.

“That must be your wife,” I said to John.

“Yes, she waited. How can I ever thank you enough?”

“Just doing my job,” I said. “No thanks necessary. Go celebrate your anniversary. Shouldn’t keep her waiting any longer,” I added, nodding my head in the direction of the pretty girl on the bench. “I’ll see what I can do about the lights and signs, and the trains, too. Go. Be happy. You’re home.”

John smiled at me, as if he actually understood what he’d just done—or was just happy to finally be home again. Then he turned away and walked towards his wife and the bench where she sat. I turned and walked back towards the alley. The doors were gone. They’d been replaced by a clean, brick archway. The sign was just where he said it should be. There was a subway station and a parking garage where the dilapidated old building once stood. Everything was clean, well lit, and some sort of happy-sounding music played quietly in the background. I walked to the transport pod, got in, and told it to take me back to the Mare Inebrium. I felt like I’d earned a drink for this night’s work. Max had finished his inventory and was just starting another workday in the bar as I walked back in. I told him my story. He didn’t want to believe it.

“We never had a beach next to the city,” said Max. “Not ever…”

“No, we didn’t. But we do now,” I said. “I guess we needed it. John needed it badly enough to create it from his memories.”

“You took a huge risk, cousin,” Max said. “I suppose he’ll wind up upstairs from now on, in the Pantheon. That kind of power could be dangerous—out here in the normal world.”

“I seriously doubt he’ll ever leave the beach,” I said. “He’s home now. He’s got everything he wants, everything he needs. He’ll live out the rest of his life there. Just the way he wanted to back—wherever it was he came here from.”

“Suppose he doesn’t?” Max asked. “What if he decides to change something else in the city? Or somewhere else on the planet?”

“If he becomes dangerous, I’ll ask Polios to send that android, Maxwell, after him. When Maxwell comes into the bar, here, even the Gods, upstairs, get quiet—or go elsewhere. ‘Til then, I’ll keep an eye on him, myself. After all, I have a few officers who’d love to be assigned to beach duty. It’s part of the city now. It’ll have to be patrolled.”

“I could think of worse assignments,” said Max.


2019 Dan L. Hollifield

Bio: Dan L. Hollifield has been the Senior Editor and Publisher of Aphelion Webzine since its inception in 1997. His short story collection "Tales From The Mare Inebrium" was nominated for the J.W. Campbell Award upon its release in 2014. His early online work has appeared in several, now defunct, websites such as Dragon's Lair, Steel Caves, Titanzine, and The Writer's Workshop. One of his steampunk short stories, "Her Magesty's Gift" appears in the POD collection "Flash Of Aphelion," and "The Dark Side of Diablo Canyon" appears in Horrified Press' collection "Steam-Powered Dream Engines." He regularly attends the Chattanooga TN convention LibertyCon and recently became the Literary Track Director for the Atlanta GA convention AnachroCon. He is currently 61 years old, married to his beloved Lindsey Burt-Hollifield, and lives in the howling wastelands of Northeast Georgia, USA, outside of Athens GA. They have seven children between their serial marriages and more grandchildren and great-grandchildren than modern mathematics is able to enumerate. They also are owned by a multitude of cats, and one very spoiled dog...

E-mail: Dan L. Hollifield

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