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I will tell you a story now, about a ship adrift…

We should have turned as soon as we saw that the ship was drifting. Sending in a report to the Coast Guard and then setting out over the horizon would have discharged our obligation. The Captain didn’t want to do that though; he wanted to be a Good Samaritan, and render what aid and assistance we could. Unanimously, we agreed.

We were fools.

The lobster grounds off Newfoundland are populous enough that it’s not particularly uncommon for us to spot another ship at sea, though more often than not we’d just steam past at a closest remove of several miles, perhaps saying hi via radio if the hull looked familiar. Every hour at sea has its price in maintenance and fatigue, and there’s no profit in deviating off course for a bit of a chat.

The ocean was uncommonly calm that morning, and the sun was just high enough to make the fog glow when the ship came into sight. It startled us all when it appeared through the haze, just off the starboard bow. We wouldn’t normally turn to meet another ship, but it makes a difference when the ship in question is a huge wooden thing, like something out a movie, with torn sails luffing in the scant breeze. The decision was sealed when we got close enough to see that the great splintered holes punched through the hull in places.

We acted like we had never seen a horror movie, like we’d never heard a sea story of a ghost ship.

Jim Tellerson was our captain. He was a good man, honest, devoted to his ship and crew. The sea was his calling, and he loved nothing better than to make his living working it. To him, it didn’t matter that this was an unexplained anachronism with what looked suspiciously like cannon damage; it was a ship clearly in distress, and that was enough. As we came around the stern, we saw worn gold lettering bearing the name of this mystery ship: Dîme à Poséidon.

The Prospector’s Sieve, our ship, was no coastal fisher. It was designed to house and hold up to fifteen people for a period of months, as well as keeping several tons of lobster alive for the same period. Compared to the Dime, it was small. The wooden warship was half again as long as the Sieve, its deck was half a story higher than ours, and its three masts towered above us. The smell of tar enveloped it, and it creaked softly in the swells.

As we tied up alongside, the captain laid out the detail. Troy, Marc, and Eric could stay asleep; they’d just come off their shift and this wasn’t important enough to get them up. Steve and I would stay aboard the Sieve and make sure that everything stayed in order. Lucy and Matt would work on some way of moving injured people aboard our ship; Lucy had been a paramedic before she decided she’d rather work at sea, and he didn’t think we were likely to find a smiling crew of healthy sailors when we got on board. John, Lee, Alex, and he himself would explore the ship and try to render aid as best seemed necessary once they had figured out what was going on. Nobody would explore alone; no pair would get more than shouting distance from another.

They say that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. If we had been thinking in those terms, maybe things would have worked out differently.

What I remember best about that ship was the silence. It wasn’t at all silent in the literal sense; you could easily hear the wood creaking, the wind riffling in the sails, the water lapping around the hull. It was absent, though, of all the sounds you’d expect of something inhabited by humans: voices, activity, breath. It was the same in the visual, the tactile, the olfactory senses; the ship itself registered exactly as one would expect, except for the utter absence of any indication that any life had ever touched it before us. I’m getting ahead of myself though; I didn’t discover any of that until I was aboard. The silence, the all-encompassing synaesthetic metaphorical silence, is what I wanted to mention. Of course we hollered aboard, tried to contact them with radio and megaphone before we tied up and invited ourselves on board. It didn’t do us any good, though. There was no response.

The boarding party discovered in seconds that there was nobody on the main deck of the ship, and had confirmed within minutes that the poop deck and forecastle were also abandoned. I heard, via conversational relay through Matt, that it was a mess up there: there were long scratches and bullet holes; charred spots in the deck, and standing rigging nearly severed with deep gashes. The captain’s group found a hatch and started exploring the interior; there was nothing else for them to do.

Lucy, Matt said, had gone with the captain’s party when they went inside, as her skills were more likely to be of use there than tending him. There was nothing else to do, so he and I spent a while cannibalizing the sail lockers there for rope and rigging. An hour or so passed while we constructed a stretcher of sailcloth and oars, and a means to sling that stretcher under a pulley running on a taut line between the two ships. It was an interesting task, completed under orders, and Matt and I have always gotten along. We stood, and congratulated ourselves for a job well done.

Only then did we consider it alarming that we had heard nothing from the captain’s party in all this time.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll just take a look inside, ask them what they’re up to all this time.”

Steve, barely 22 years old and full of curiosity, couldn’t bear to be left behind. He would never intentionally endanger anyone or anything, but he knew as well as I that he was still on the Sieve with me because he was an untested hand and that I was there to watch over him. He begged to accompany Matt, saying that it was surely safer to explore a potentially dangerous area in pairs and that it would be safer for both of them were he to go.

Of all the things that I could have done then, I chose the worst: I let them go. Steve got to test ride our stretcher pulley system, which worked fine, to the approval of all. Then they were invisible behind the high curve of the hull. Maybe I heard the hatch open, and thump gently into its frame. Maybe it was the generalized noise of the hull.

Seconds dragged like minutes; minutes dragged like hours. I knew, in my most paranoid of hearts, that I had made the wrong decision and I should never have let them go. I knew, in my most logical of minds, that it was ridiculous to worry like that and that there was almost certainly some good, non-fatal reason why everyone who had stepped aboard that ship had vanished belowdecks without further communication. Doing nothing and just waiting to see what happens is only rarely a bad decision, but when it is, it tends to be the worst possible thing. I waited, feigning calm despite the absence of an observer, until my sense of duty abruptly defected: instead of following orders, it now advocated finding out what had happened to everyone.

That process turned out to take about half an hour.

Midmorning of a bright blue day, the fog long since lifted from a gentle sea, I went to wake up the night shift to explain that we were the only people whose safety I was sure of.

My briefing to them was hurried, scattered; I don’t have the captain’s gift of speaking precisely, concisely, immediately. I got the point across, at least; the rest of the crew was on the Dime, somewhere, and they I haven’t heard a breath from them since they went belowdecks. None of them were happy to be woken up halfway through their sleep shift, but they agreed that this was urgent. Our colleagues, companions, and friends were strangely uncommunicative. Our ship was tied securely in place. The four of us climbed onto the Dime, found the door, and entered.

They say that insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. They don’t know the meaning of insanity.

The door opened into the quarterdeck: a big open area lined on the sides with cannon. Between the cannon were tables, and above both of those hung long fabric bundles that Eric laughed to identify as hammocks. The small-arms scarring so prominent on the main deck was much less in evidence here. Instead, there were four great splintered convexities along the interior of the port wall, and one hole where a cannon shot had broken entirely through. Light streamed through, a brilliant spotlight making it hard to adjust my eyes to the surrounding gloom.

Down the stairs we went, to the gun deck. Had the gunports been open, had the ceiling stood higher, it might have been a light and airy place. Instead, it was a low cavernous area configured exactly as the quarterdeck had been. There was damage and disorder as though the ship was in some great battle, but it all seemed sterile, constructed. We walked together toward the bow, though we could see no indication that anyone else had gone that way. We walked, hunched to clear the ceiling, checking every cannon berth on the way forward for any sign of our friends. We walked, Marc in front chatting quietly with Troy behind him, with myself and Eric following. We walked, and saw no trace of anything recently amiss, and reached the front.

Marc, always with his eyes on the next goal, glanced over the galley there and turned around. Troy was rummaging around as though to find some clue among the cookpots. I got there, and was surprised at the quaver in Marc’s voice, at his question: “Where’s Eric?”

What of the rest of the exploration, you wonder. Did the three of us panic as our numbers were whittled inexorably down? In what order did we visit the holds and compartments of the ship, and what did we find in them? How did I escape to tell you this story?

I would tell you all of those things, but panic is an ugly thing, and I don’t like to examine those memories closely. When I do, when I am forced to, I am plagued for weeks with nightmares of that time, and what I discovered. Any stories I could tell anyway would be half lies anyway, interpolated reconstructions of fragments of memory jumbled in no particular order. You’d hear the story, and think my estimation that only half was falsehood overly generous. I don’t like to believe it myself–but I was there. I can’t escape from the things that I know.

People have known the half-truths of the matter for ages anyway. Sea monsters are the oldest supervillains the world has known. The great Kraken, the great Cthulhu slumbering endlessly in the deep; those stories got only one thing wrong, really. For reasons I can’t begin to imagine, they identified the evil as being a squid.

The monster which slept underneath the sea has small, beady, stalked eyes. It has long feelers, and a great tail to sweep it from danger. It has many claws; mighty ones for aggression and dexterous ones on its rows of feet. Its children have, for all of human history, graced our dinner plates; the red-boiled cockroach of the sea.

When finally the great beast awoke, it watched, and it learned the situation. It noted how we let down clever traps from the surface, to be pulled up once the prey was inside. It saw the detritus of our warring littering its home, and it saw a point of comparison. It saw, and it thought, and it built. Really, if you can look at the situation from its point of view, the solution might even be called elegant.

All it had to do was invert the situation.

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2 Comments

Comment by "Rourke" Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 2.0.0.14 Subscribed to comments via email
2008-05-11 16:52:16

Not exactly a story for my taste, but well-written and cleverly succinct (you worked within your limit and used just enough exposition). But seriously… a giant lobster?! Too surreal, imho.

Comment by coriolinus Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 2.0.0.14
2008-05-11 19:58:14

But seriously… a giant lobster?!

Yeah, it’s not exactly great, but I was writing this without any plan or organization whatsoever. I was up to six paragraphs from the end, wondering how to conclude the story without turning it into a novel, how I was going to fit it into the genre of magical realism, and the giant lobster thing seemed to work if only because a bunch of detail I had included before for flavor suddenly turned into foreshadowing.

 
 

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