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Seeking the Great Current

Matthew Cropley is a playwright, fantasy writer, interactive game writer, and reviewer. His short fiction has been published in Dimension6 and Sword and Sorcery Magazine, and his debut stage work, Linger, which he also directed, premiered at the 2017 Adelaide Fringe Festival to positive critical and commercial acclaim. His next play, Shivered, will be performed in the 2018 Adelaide Fringe Festival. He also writes and reviews for Grimdark Magazine and bestfantasybooks.com. He has recently received three Honorable Mentions in the international Writers of the Future Contest. Matthew is the Program Coordinator for Writers SA and is writing his third novel. Further information about his work can be found at matthewjcropley.wordpress.com.

Sean Williams is an award-winning, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of over forty novels and one hundred and twenty short stories. As well as his original fiction for adults, young adults and children, he has worked in universes created by other people, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who. His latest release is Have Sword, Will Travel, the first book in a new middle-grade series co-written with Garth Nix. He lives in Adelaide with his wife and family and a pet plastic fish. More info at seanwilliams.com.

"You're going the wrong way!" The ghost of the dead girl stamps the boat's deck.
With long, measured strokes, the morguist pulls the oars, taking solace in the gentle splash sparkle of the moonlit ocean. An S-shaped-hook in brass, pointed at the tip, swings like a pendulum from a thong around his neck. He breathes deeply of the salty air, ignoring the sickly-sweet scent of rot and the ache of his aging muscles.
Another dead girl, a long time ago, lies heavily on his thoughts.
The ghost of this dead girl refuses to look at her body. But then, of course, she does look. They always do. It's stiff and curled in on itself, eyes open, staring up at the moon. Her face is blank and pale, her rough-woven shift stained black. A shell necklace is knotted in her hair. Blue veins, darker than the unfinished tattoos around her ears, extend from the bite mark in her neck down to her collarbone.
"You have to take me home," the girl insists, her hollow voice echoing across the water. "I must be shriven in order to rejoin the Great Current or... oh! Why aren't you listening to me?"
He peers up at her from under his sealskin hood. The lamp sways on its hook and its orange glow makes him squint.
"Be patient," he croaks.
The dead girl clutches at an oar, hoping to break his implacable stroke, but though she strains with all her ethereal might, the oar sweeps on unhindered.
She stumbles to her knees and finds herself momentarily staring across inky water back the way they have come. There, her island home of Batua forms a dark blotch on the horizon. Tiny orange lights twinkle across the ocean around the bay. The lamps of the fishing fleet, flickering through spritsails, furled for the night.
Part of her stretches thinner with every tug on his oars.
"If you don't take me back," she whispers, "I'll be stuck like this forever."
"True enough," he says, angling the boat towards the gap between two small jungle islets several boat-lengths ahead.
"Don't you care?" The translucent shade of the dead girl on the deck leaps back to her feet. "Mother will be wondering why I'm not back. She'll be worried sick. She needs to know what happened to me--"
"Don't tell me what she needs, girl," he growls, low and deep.
"But who are you?" she asks, her voice reaching a frantic high-note. "You spirit me away in your boat, you refuse to tell me anything, you're not one of us or you would never--"
A hoot erupts from the night, and a rotten mango passes through the girl, exploding against the deck in a shower of sickly-sweet muck. The girl turns in shock. They're passing between the two jungle islets. On branches of a palm tree hanging over the water sits another ghost. Only vaguely human, features worn smooth by time, it hoots at her with words crude but almost recognizable. Time makes them stronger, even as it robs them of who they were.
More ghosts emerge from the trees to throw fruit, dirt, branches at their newest brethren. Their cries form an enraged clamor.
"Row faster!" the girl screams. A branch hits her corpse, twisting its arm, and she tries to shield it, but the next missile passes through her too and gouges a bloody furrow into the skin of what was once her face.
A clump of dirt hits the morguist's oilskin cloak and slides away.
"I've never seen ghosts so strong. They must be ancient," the girl says as the boat leaves the islets and their rowdy denizens behind. She stands, shaken, eyes wide and pale. "I don't want to become like that. Please, take me back to Batua to be shriven. At least drop me on a fishing boat or something."
"After? After what?"
The man points to the girl's corpse, now covered in a web of blue veins that glistens wetly against moonlight pale skin.
The girl gags.
"I was... I was collecting cockles for dinner on the West Shore.... Something small, like a bug, came out of the shifting sand. It bit me."
"Ghargun larva."
"What's a ghargun larva?"
The man cocks his head, listening to the lapping of the seawater against the hull.
"You'll see soon enough."
"Why won't you just tell me?"
He pulls on the left oar, changing course slightly.
"When a ghargun spawns," he says, "the larvae swim out to look for fish. What a larva can't find in the water, it'll look for on land, and since your folk have fished too much around these parts, well.... You were unlucky, and I'm sorry it happened to you, but it ain't the ghargun's fault. Just doin' what's natural."
The man draws in the oars and rises, rolling his shoulders to work out the stiffness of the rowing and the weight he's been carrying for so long.
Then he stands and moves to the body.
Under the skin, the distended veins, shapes move and shift.
The girl screams, stumbling backwards onto the deck.
"What is that?" the dead girl screeches.
"Baby ghargun," he says as he lifts the body into his arms with a grunt. It shifts wetly as the skin stretches and contorts, a dozen tiny shapes trying to break through.
"Kill them!" the girl yells.
The man drops the corpse overboard. As it hits the water it bursts, skin tearing like the thinnest rice paper. Tiny shapes stream out, shiny carapaces catching the moonlight as they thrash in the water. A chorus of high-pitched clicking sounds out above their fevered splashing.
The girl stares overboard, her mouth open in revulsion and horror. Her body floats facedown, torn open, ravaged by the creatures that bred, fed, and grew inside her. "Are you drowning them? Is that why you wouldn't take me home? Get my body back, quickly! It's not too late!"
The man holds a hand up to her. "Wait."
The boat tips as a thump reverberates through its hull. The girl stumbles, but the man just sways with the movement.
Three deep clicks like blocks of coral rapping against one another vibrate through the ocean.
The morguist unships one of the oars and taps three times on the bottom of the hull.
Question. Reply.
A gigantic mass surfaces next to the boat, raising up a wave that streams off the man's oilskin cloak and passes entirely through the girl's ethereal body. The boat rocks but does not tip. Heavily segmented, five times as big as a hut, the creature's carapace catches the moonlight in gleaming waves.
The clicking, both high and low, intensifies as tendrils streak out from beneath the water to caress the baby ghargun, drawing them close.
The girl watches, shocked and awed into silence.
"Their mother," supplies the morguist.
The huge creature rolls in the water to regard the man with a multi-faceted eye as big as the boat. They stare at each other for a moment that seems long for the man but, he suspects, short for the ghargun, and then it hisses up a salty spray and descends into the deeps with its babies in tow.
In seconds, all that's left behind are ripples and the girl's empty body floating facedown in the water, bobbing slowly.
The old bitterness twists in his gut. He fights it down, taking the cold hook from around his throat and using it to reach for the corpse.
"Careful with that!"
The dead girl hugs herself as he fishes her body out of the water.
"You understand now?"
"The thing that bit me.... Why would you help them?"
The man sighs and leans on his hook. "If the babies you were hosting hatched back on Batua, the mother would've followed their call, sure as the sun rises. That's happened before, a long time ago. It's not gonna happen again."
He sets the dripping corpse-hook firmly back in place around his neck. The girl opens her mouth as if to talk, and then closes it, brow furrowed.
The morguist returns to his seat and begins rowing once more, this time back towards Batua.
"I'll take you home now, so your body will be properly taken care of. You'll be shriven and pass on from this world into the Great Current," he says. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
The girl frowns and then nods.
He looks out at the endless waters, knowing she doesn't consider herself lucky. There are worse fates.
She sits beside her corpse, trying not to look at it as the hoots of ancient, nameless ghosts echo across the water.
They row home together, a speck on the surface of the deep, dark sea. Toward the twinkling lights, where a mother waits.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 2nd, 2018

Author Comments

We met during a workshop on collaboration at Writers SA, where Matt was the workshop assistant and Sean the presenter. After leaving the participants to work on developing collaborative stories, we decided to do the activity too, just for fun. The story we brainstormed actually ended up seeming rather good, so we decided to write it up properly. After sketching a plan together, Matt wrote the first draft, Sean tore it to shreds, Matt ripped Sean's version to shreds, and thus it went intermittently over the course of a year. The result, which neither of us can tear apart any further, is "Seeking the Great Current."

The process of collaboration is interesting in that a new voice emerges, distinct from the style of both contributors, and after a dozen redrafts it's impossible to know who wrote what. This is a particularly interesting process for a combined team of a well-established and an emerging author. The experience forces both writers to break their habits and create a work completely different from their usual fare. "Seeking the Great Current" is a story that looks at death, and the cycles of life, from a perspective that diverges from the seemingly horrific images presented. Writing it was a great deal of fun, and fulfilling, for both of us.

- Matthew Cropley & Sean Williams
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