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Today's Story by Douglas J Lane

Her lifeboat had been beside the one May was seated in, lowered from the ship only ten minutes before.

The Sinking Tomb

The great ship groaned. It was tilting fore and listing to port, the creak of its young hull joined with the spitting hiss of signal rockets fired from its upper deck, a death-cry in the stillness. An occasional shudder issued from the ship’s depths, the lower decks now fully engorged with water, gripped by the cold, greedy hands of the North Atlantic.

The failing vessel’s passengers milled with purpose on the deck in the chill night air, but the men and women were oddly restrained. There were no rueful musings on alleged unsinkability, no bartering for miracles with the empty heavens, none of the chaos commiserate with pending demise. There was commotion, certainly — it was a loud and distressed crowd, but with a strange order about them. The disruptions were scatter-shot: a stray scream, a bark of orders from the ship’s officers, or the occasional coward trying to fight his way in front of the women and children.

Jacques Futrelle took in the scene. A journalist and writer folded within the news, he felt an odd annoyance that he was never going to be able to set this surreal evening down on paper. Titanic, felled by an iceberg. He wanted a byline, not to be listed with the casualties.

He waved to his wife, May. She was finally quiet aboard the collapsable lifeboat, waiting only for it to be filled and lowered. Soon, he thought. He did nothing to upset the portrait of confidence with which he’d gotten her seated, the reassurances that he would be on his own boat and right behind her into the Atlantic. She was no fool. She could see how his life would end. Yet he could read in her expression a need for the lie from his lips, some hope against her certainty that she was going to survive while he would never leave the ship.

He needed only keep the facade in place until he was beyond her sight. But the sea was no match for the tears on her cheeks, and the sight of them cut him more deeply than the sight of the ordered mob on the deck, jockeying for a way to cheat the ghoulish lottery into which the iceberg had cast them all.

“Futrelle,” a voice said. Futrelle turned his attention from May and found John Jacob Astor IV beside him. Futrelle had crossed paths with the man several times during the voyage, had heard his tales of invention, of real estate deals in Manhattan, of his service in Cuba. Astor was ten years Futrelle’s senior, only 47, and already one of the wealthiest men on the planet. It was hard to not picture him as a massive silver dollar in a top hat. Perhaps as a result of his experiences, Astor carried himself well in disaster. In his suit, hat, topcoat and gloves, he might have been passing on his way to the opera. But there was a touch of frost in the man’s meticulously groomed mustache, and a resignation in his eyes. He held an open cigarette case out to Futrelle. The silver tray glinted in the lights of the deck. “Join me.”

“Colonel. Thank you.” Futrelle’s chilly fingers fumbled at extracting one of rolls of tobacco. When Futrelle had it in hand, Astor struck a match. He lighted Futrelle’s cigarette first and then his own. He closed the case with a crocodile snap. Futrelle watched Astor deposit it into the pocket of the topcoat.

The long drag on the cigarette warmed Futrelle inside. He turned back to May and smiled at her, reinforcing the great lie. “I watched your bride’s departure,” he told Astor. Her lifeboat had been beside the one May was seated in, lowered from the ship only ten minutes before.

“It was less dignified than I would have liked,” Astor said. Madeline Astor had wailed and begged and pleaded with her husband to join her in the lifeboat, to not leave her, to not send her down to the sea alone. Four times, he’d stepped aboard the small vessel, still in its davits, in an attempt to settle her. Astor, with great reluctance, finally asked permission of the officer in charge to accompany her. To his credit, when the officer turned him away, Astor did not do as some might expect the wealthy to do, did not offer to buy his way back to her side. He accepted his fate as a gentleman. He soothed his wife’s anguish, and the boat was lowered.

“She’s a young woman and a new bride, in a terrible circumstance,” Futrelle said. “Love is a natural balm to fear.”

“Your wife seemed reluctant as well,” Astor said.

The crew began to lower the lifeboat carrying May. Futrelle nodded a reassurance to her. “I thought at first I would have to knock her out and dump her aboard like a sack of oats.”

They smoked in silence as the crew worked on loading the next boat. Then Astor said, “You know, I’ve occasioned to read a number of your tales.  Enjoyable diversions.”

“Oh, well. Thank you, Colonel.” Futrelle’s view of his wife was obstructed by the ship’s rail and bulkhead. Despite Astor’s companionship, Futrelle felt a profound and sudden aloneness. “You are most gracious.” He took another long drag on his cigarette. “I wouldn’t have taken a man in your position as a reader of such amusements.”

“Stories fill the narrow spaces left by business and travel,” he said. “And sometimes, man needs a diversion.”

“Indeed.” Futrelle watched two crewmen fight back a younger man determined to push his way to one of the remaining lifeboats. The larger of the sailors hit the man open handed. The young man fell to the deck eyes open and unseeing, stunned.

“Tell me, Futrelle,” Astor said, “how do you think your man would work his way out of this predicament?”

Futrelle stared at Astor. “Excuse me. My man?”

“The logician. Van Dusen, the Thinking Machine. How would he apply his vast store of logic to an escape from Titanic?“

Futrelle was silent. He’d given little thought on this voyage to Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, the fiercely logical scientist and problem-solver, the character at the heart of so much of Futrelle’s fiction. He’d been working on other things. He’d recently finished writing a novel around a criminal named The Hawk, the character still flitting around the edges of his imagination. Futrelle enjoyed writing Van Dusen, putting him over a barrel and then figuring both of their ways out of the scrape, but —

What did he matter at a time like this?

“This is beyond the purview of Van Dusen,” Futrelle said. “It might be a better question for Harry Houdini.”

There was a rumble from deep within the ship. A door in the bulkhead nearby opened and two men with soot covering their blank expressions stepped on deck. They appeared to walk without purpose, two geese meandering toward the aft of the great ship.

“A diversion, good sir,” Astor said. “It will pass the time.” He paused. “Please.”

Futrelle looked from the dirty crewmen to Astor. If Astor felt fear, it was locked away as well as any of the commodities in which he traded. And yet, Futrelle thought, in the millionaire’s eyes he saw a yearning for something to hold onto, not unlike the one in May’s. Whatever had separated them when they had boarded in Southampton — privilege, experience, wealth — had steamed away in the chill night. They were, as the late Stephen Crane had once described it, all together in the open boat.

“All right, then,” Futrelle said, and slipped into Van Dusen’s skin. “The ship is not unlike a cell, with the added peril of gradual submersion in freezing water. The most logical opportunity would have been to make one’s way from the ship to the iceberg. While frigid, it is far easier to survive several hours in the night air in heavy clothing, clinging to an island of ice until rescue, than to be consumed by the unrelenting cold and wet weight of the sea.”

“But the iceberg is gone,” Astor said. “Passed in the night.”

“Indeed. We did not run aground, but merely struck the thing a glancing blow,” Futrelle said. “Only the most prescient aboard might have availed themselves of the opportunity to transfer to the more seaworthy vessel.” Futrelle watched the crewmen filling the first of the final two lifeboats. Their pace had quickened. “In this situation, the physical world demonstrates certain truths. Paramount among them is this: a ship made of iron will sink like a stone under the correct conditions.”

“We bear witness to such.” Astor waved a hand towards the bow, closer now to the ocean’s surface. Ash from the tip of his cigarette fluttered through the air.

“However, much of the vessel is still constructed of the nautical mainstay of centuries: wood. As evidenced by the lifeboats, the mandate for survival is that one need only remain out of the frigid water. Afloat.”

“A raft,” Astor said.

“Precisely. Not unlike something young Huckleberry Finn and his slave friend Jim might have lashed together. Logs, rope, some pitch to hold it fast. It need not be sturdy enough to sail from Queenstown to New York. It need only support a man for several hours in calm waters, until rescue arrives — the key to survival being to buy several more hours afloat.” The list of the ship was growing more noticeable, but Futrelle felt compelled to conclude the thought. “If, at the time of the collision, one was to reject the notion that the White Star Line had made sufficient plans for disaster, and take his fate into his own hands, there would have been plentiful time to manufacture a craft of moderate seaworthiness. The dining tables could have been transformed into a flotilla of such craft with the manpower available.” He looked at Astor and managed a smile. “You might even have traded the ‘Colonel’ for ‘Commodore’.”

Astor returned the smile. He looked into the night sky. “I wrote a novel once. Did you know? A fanciful thing, a journey among the stars. Going back to a boy, I have always found the stars a comfort, even on those nights when my fortunes have soured or tragedy has stricken my family or myself.” He looked back at Futrelle. His smile faded. “Tonight, they are high and brilliant, and as devoid of comfort as the darkness between them.”

“I’m sorry I can offer you nothing else by way of hope, Colonel,” Futrelle said. “Nature seems to have provided a predicament that even the esteemed Thinking Machine would have had difficulty escaping.”

“Not at all. In fact, just now you bested the stars at their game.” Astor’s expression grew hearty, determined. It was the look of a military man aware that his next battle was against Death itself, and his being unarmed only made it more sporting. He shook Futrelle’s hand. “Godspeed, Futrelle.”

Futrelle gave a nod. “Colonel Astor.”

Astor walked along the slanted deck, making his way forward towards the bridge and the relentless churn of the Atlantic that was consuming the ship. Futrelle watched him go. Then Futrelle stepped to the rail, took a last puff of the cigarette, and flicked the spent roll over the side. He scanned the retreating lifeboats for a final glimpse of his beloved May.


By day, Douglas J Lane is a marketing project manager. By night, his work has appeared Tales of the Unanticipated, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and in anthologies including Machine of Death, Resistance Front and Seasons In The Abyss. He makes his home in Houston, TX and his at his cyber-villa,www.douglasjlane.com.


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