Ferryman's Reprieve

By Kate Bachus

Everyone has a story; everyone's got their whys and howcomes. By the time they get to where I am, they give up on the "didn't do it," though.


Now and again a ferry will try to bribe me or deal me, and the best stories will come from them. Abraham, they say, because my name is printed on my yellow institution jumper so everyone knows it; Abraham, here's how it is. I got a friend who's waiting for me on station 5K12, and this friend has got him a card what opens up a big stashbox in a public stash. In that box there's sixty and ten com-gee booster modules or maybe it's a pile of lifter T-boards or maybe it's even a stack of dirty old cash, piled as high as that cleft on your chin, Abraham, and I swear it's true . . . and they'll give me my share if only I'll turn this bucket and drive them somewhere else.

Anywhere else, but to there. Anywhere but to Home.

Sometimes I sit there up in the cockpocket, wedged in the space that's just for the one man working the controls, and I think about how all those stashes and boxes and lockers got all a man could want in the world, ownerless and waiting for a meeting will never come. I know they're all there, just for the having, if all these ferries are telling the truth. But nothing at all is for free or easy, and I'm near enough to Home without going and making it a sure thing, taking more of what doesn't belong to me and never did. Still, it's an idea to get me by, between the now and then.

One thing the ferry never asks me is my own story to tell. Because they're all headed Home now, and I'll go back to the Main without them, and they think what this ferrying is for me, is just for passing worktime.

They think I'll sign myself out on the bricks, on down the line, mostly because they're going Home and what it feels like is that you're the only person in the world who's got to go there. I've seen enough ferries to know.

But that's not the truth of it; when they told me it was drive the ferry or ride it, I chose to drive the rest of my life out. What else did they expect me to do?

Back and forth, two of us go one way, one of us comes back. That's always the way it is, and will always be, or they'll take away my bucket and my worktime for life and I'll be the next one needing a ferry Home.

I let the ferries tell their stories. I could slide up that steel partition, two fingers thick, and have nothing but silence and cold stars around me, not know I had a ferry but for the blink of light means door open, door close. But understand me, now, that's all the voice I hear on any day. The voice of that ferry, telling his stories on his way Home.

And glad as I am to hear it of him, he's gladder to tell it to me, for certain.

I'm the last who'll hear him. Last man he'll speak to. Because—and it's a cruel joke we all make—we all know ain't nobody Home.

So they tell me about their trove or their stash or their schemes or their old lady. I listen to it all, about how rich they're going to be, or the smell of her hair. Abraham, they say, I can't do this; you got to help me.

I say nothing because there's nothing to say. So they tell me more stories, all the way Home.


Then time comes a ferry who isn't like the others. He sits back in the chainbox and is silent most all the way. Silent, so after a time—hours or more—I get curious. I unwedge from the cockpocket and turn myself round.

Abraham, I think. Abraham.

It's like looking in a mirror.

Only looking in a mirror some twenty years ago, before the first time I went up. Got my jet black hair, got my dull gray eyes, got a cleft near cut his chin in half. He's looking right at me, though 'til I light up the forward, the glass only goes one way.

I don't put the light on, for I don't like the look of him. Rustler, a wolf. Always the bone.

"So," he says, and his gray eyes don't come off me. "What are you in for?"

Then sits, quiet, like he expects me to tell.

We sit for a long time like that. Neither of us moving, me in the dark behind the glass until I can't stand it no more.

"I killed a woman," I say, though that's not all the whole of it. And though I've never asked it, I ask him, "you?"

He looks past my shoulder, I swear past the glass and me and into the night altogether. Out down the dark in front of us to where Home lies, quiet and still.

"I built something I shouldn't have," he says, like it were an answer.

I think I'd rather the screaming and crying and bargaining than this, truth to tell.

"Do you know what it's like?" he asks, and "No," I say, though I got no idea what he means and I'm sure I don't want to.

But he goes on, low and quiet, still looking past me all the while.

"It's just a white hall, when the door opens," he says. "And you walk out off the ship through it. If you don't get off the ship, a telescoping plate moves forward from the ship's interior hull to push you."

I can't think what he means, until in a moment I realize he means the bucket, the bucket door, and what all lies beyond it. How he knows, I can't think of it, but he's talking about Home.

"You walk down the hall," he says, and now I'm half-reached for the button to close up the shield, wanting to hear not a thing of this, know not a thing of this, but half afraid he won't continue. Thinking to myself, how is it he knows, and still he goes on, and I listen.

"You walk down the hall, and you have to keep walking, because a partition drops down and moves up along the hall behind you, at a rate of a meter every ten seconds."

I think though I don't want to think, on the hall, the white of it, on the wall following behind a body. The ferry's gaze comes back to my hand as though he sees how it's hovering there by the button, all frozen.

"There's nowhere to go. Nowhere to go but forward," he says. "When you get to the end of the hall, you're in a room with a speaker. It comes on when you stand in there, and tells you to take off your jumpsuit. It doesn't matter if you do or don't, but if you do, a light shows you where to drop it."

"That's enough," I say, and it's a wonder took me this long to say it.

He stops, looks back where I am, and goes quiet.

"I killed a woman was dear to my heart," I say. "I knew it was a mistake when I done it. But I was a three snap case then—crazy as fuck—and those were bad times. I did more things, worse things than that."

"You killed your wife."

"I killed her and some others." I think back, to the night it all happened. Finding out about Eileen, about how she went along with Torrick and Porterman. Finding about how they'd taken me, screwed me the three of them for six years of trouble and all our stash. "I was always a criminal, did my time for that, did a long time for that. But never been a murderer, 'til I got out and they told me what happened. It was a crazy bad thing, what I did then. That I regret. All of 'em; I regret."

"Is that why they gave you worktime for life?"

He's looking right at me, and I know why it matters to him. I know, though he has no idea I'd know. I know that it matters so I answer him honest. I owe him that, I suppose.

"They needed a ferryman, and couldn't be no officer. No officer nor guard comes out of Main to Home. That's the way it's done," I said, though he already seemed to know it.

"But why you?" he presses me. "Out of all the others?"

Looking for some idea I might be worth saving, maybe. That I ain't deserved the sentence I'd been gave. Christ, Abraham, I wanted to believe it too. But I look him in the eye, with an eye that he couldn't see. "Just was my number that come up, was all."

He sits back then, sits back in the chainbox. Like he's lost something wanted, and I've seen that look enough to know. "You can't go down the suit hole. It's too small," he tells me. "When the jumpsuit's gone the hole closes and then the room goes to blue light. The speaker asks for your last words or your confession. Whatever you say is recorded. It's all kept there in a databank, which can be accessed by remote.

"There is exactly ten seconds after you stop speaking," he says, "to collect yourself—"

"No," I say, too loud and sudden, "you tell me. You tell me what you're in for."

He looks up right at me. "I've been telling you," he says, "all this time."

I turn, and now can see it, the white blocks and rings that Home is. Circling the Main, with just one dock for leaving a ferry and after it was built, no one but ferries ever going there again.

I looked back at this ferry, who sat quiet in the chainbox. I thought about all the ferries, begging me and bribing me and telling me their stories all their ride.

I listen because I got no one else to talk to, and because it came to me that that's my sentence. My time to do, my work, what I traded for a life.

"How'd you get your sentence?" I ask him, for I realize by then I been asking the wrong question.

He nods then, like he understands. "I killed a man," he says. "A crooked judge; got my time from his brother."

That sounds like a story I know. Right in its own way, familiar.

"We all got our own idea of justice," I say. "I thought to kill Eileen, she deserved it. For deceiving me and getting on with Torrick, with my own half brother, for all the stash they took and selling me down, and their cons.

"Might have deserved it, but the truth is I still miss her. Lying bitch she was, but still grabbed her piece of my heart." That is the truth, or close as I could find him.

"She had a son," he tells me, so quiet I almost couldn't hear it.

"I know," I say. Always thought it was Torrick's; comes out I was wrong. "So you tell me: why'd you make it?" I say.

"So no honest man's hands would do murderer's work," he answers me.

Then we're both quiet for some long time.


Almost come up to the Home ferrydock, when I cut the com what hollers back to the Main. Almost Home when I turn the light on, and let my ferry have a see.

Almost Home when I ask him how it's done, the unchain from the inside. How to open the partition to the cockpocket, ferry to ferryman. For if anyone's to know it's him, and that's almost a joke, if you think on it plain.

I stood in front of three judges, coming through down the line. I stood in front of those judges, one for Torrick and one for Porterman and one for Eileen, but it has nothing on standing there, him in front of me, and looking on those gray eyes.

"Here's how it'll be," I say, and in the end he sees my reason, though I'm not much of a man to argue. We all got our way of clinging to life, and closer we get to Home more we want it, all the same.

We trade suits, orange for yellow. Abraham for Abraham.

No words to say between us, for the stories and their telling are all done.

I think on Eileen, and I think on Abraham. I think on what he made, here.


When the bucket door opens I see a long white hall in front of me, just like my son said.


Kate Bachus's fiction includes "Miss Parker Down the Bung" and "Echo, Sonar" in Strange Horizons, and short erotic fiction in Best S/M Erotica 2 and Best Women's Erotica 2002, as well as other magazines and anthologies. She lives in the woods of Massachusetts with her wife and two kids, and plays far too much ice hockey. To contact her, send her email at kate.bachus@yahoo.com.