This is a story I’d initially planned to release for Halloween 2019. A major inspiration for the story was one of my favourite novels – The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham!
by Richard Holliday
You may also read this story in PDF format here
Like they always did in the sleety, late-autumn rain, the bridge windows of the Star of Rio rattled against their salt-encrusted frames.
Behind them, the dim glow of instruments. The rattle from the action of the waves permeated throughout the entire structure of the ship. Three men stood silently, surrounded by gloom, watching the gentle but constant roll of the grey waves across an even greyer sky.
“Course?” the first man grunted, the words emerging from a bushy beard. The stripes on his jacket denoted him as Captain. The second man, younger and neater, made a few paces.
“Course is correct, Captain Madigan,” the other man, James Bliss, peeped. “Everything’s running fine.”
“If only your words were true, Mr Bliss,” Madigan mulled. “We’re two days behind. And you know, by God’s almighty, what that means.”
Bliss nodded. “The weather’s been terrible. But not unseasonable.”
Madigan grunted. One hand came off the wheel. Bliss watched the hand. Was it headed for the cloudy glass with a trickle of clear brown liquid balanced on the windowsill? This time they weren’t. The binoculars moved up to his eyes almost automatically. Madigan barked. “Get hold of Bennet. I want more speed.”
Bliss walked a pace forward, past the instrumentation, astride the wooden ship’s wheel. “He’ll not be happy, you know.”
Madigan looked to Bliss, whose eyes moved for a second. Madigan’s hand encircled the glass. “Yes. I know. But more speed is God’s will to get us out of this wretched squall,” the captain rumbled, pulling the glass to his lips at last.
Turning on his heels, Bliss rolled his eyes. He knew not to respond, not when the captain was in one of his… moods. The Bakelite phone felt weightless in Bliss’s hand.
“Yeah?” came a voice on the other end, speckled with distortion. The phone was aging, like the Star herself. “What does he want?”
“More speed. What’s our current?” Bliss murmured. He pulled the handset away from his ear.
“Is he mad?!” Bennet, the chief engineer, shouted. The words squawked from the receiver, across the bridge. The mate tried not to react, but Captain Madigan did, with a glowering glare. “There’s no speed to give. Come on, James,” Bennet implored. “You know what the old girl can do and can’t do. Fifteen knots is the most I can magic out of the hat down here.”
“Do what you can,” Bliss said insincerely, replacing the handset without another word.
“What can I expect?” Madigan grunted.
“Two more knots,” Bliss lied fluently. “If the weather calms down.”
The bowels of the Star of Rio reverberated with a steady thrum of mechanism. The thrum rocked through every beam and plate that made up the hull. Cocooned amongst a warren of pipes, cables and walkways, the chief engineer, Alex Bennet, wiped his brow of the dirty beads of sweat that accumulated there.
The phone from the bridge had just fallen with a clatter of plastic onto its cradle. They’d might as well be twenty miles away, up there, Bennet thought aloud. Getting up from his worn chair he examined the gauges. The starboard engine was registering zero revolutions. But the din on his right was no illusion; the engine was thudding away with some labour in the next compartment. With a fleeting look of concern, he tapped the gauge. The needle didn’t move. “Not now…” he sighed with resignation and tapped it more resolutely. The needle bounced. The position it bounced around was nothing impressive.
Ducking beneath a pipe he’d often banged his head on, Bennet walked slowly though, mindful of the lazy roll of the Star. He filed down a flight of metal stairs between two great hulks of machinery – the two old ladies, as he called them. Bette and Bertha. The junior engineer, Carlow, standing with his clipboard, acknowledged his superior with a knowing nod. The rest of the engine room was deserted of life. Four other engineers and mechanics slept in worn beds up top. Bennet’s face spoke so his mouth needn’t bother.
“I’m going to quarters,” Bennet hummed, just audibly above the steady din of the two old ladies against their mounts. The Star gave a low, lingering roll. A moan accompanied it, a low, metallic groan of effort. Maybe pain. Both men grabbed instinctively for a pipe to steady them. It was a learned behaviour – the Star liked to roll, but it was always harmless.
She rarely moaned though.
“Bridge not happy?” Carlow, surmised. Bennet’s eyes rolled as heavily as the ship did.
“When are they ever? Do what you can to get an extra two-fifty out of them. Wake them up a bit more if you can.”
Carlow shrugged, and at that Bennet turned to head forward. Both men knew that an ‘extra two-fifty’ was fanciful. Duty called.
“We’re still having trouble with the glowplugs,” Carlow reported. Bennet hummed, nonplussed.
“Another for the list of repairs that’ll get rejected due to cost. Engine’s still firing.” Bennet saw that Carlow had more to say. “Go on, I’ve got a mo.”
Carlow led him beside the machinery to a tiny space that was shrouded in darkness. He waved a powerful, dirty beam of light. Patches on the pipe shone out like blue band aids on a cook’s hands. Bennet gave the work a quick inspection.
“Bit unorthodox, nothing you did here is standard,” he admitted, “or strictly legal. but it’ll hold. If not, I’d definitely call this a hostile working environment.” Bennet met the young man’s face. “Fuel vapour in the engine room. But we’re close to home, they can’t ignore that.”
“I’d hope not,” Carlow replied meekly.
“In the morning then.” Bennet excused himself.
Bennet went through to the end of the compartment toward a spiral staircase that punctured the maze of metal pipes and conduits toward the crew quarters. The light at this end of the compartment hung lazily from its fitting, the metal shade tapping on the pipes around it. It hadn’t had a bulb in it for months, the gloom from the other light aft casting murky shadows on the bulkhead. Grabbing the handrail, Bennet trudged up resolutely. It was a bad night on the Star, but all across since leaving port had been bad nights.
The spiral staircase from the engine room opened onto a tight landing. A sparsely lit corridor led two ways: forward, through the cargo hold to the inspection chamber in the bow; or aft toward the stairway to the crew quarters. Bennet paused momentarily, not knowing why.
He felt a shiver. The forward hold was ice-cold from refrigeration. The door hung lazily open, the misty interior beckoning with some unnatural persuasive force.
Forward, he thought he saw a flicker of… something.
“Hello?!” he called, but the roar that followed pushed him to the metal floor. The front of the ship seemed to lift up completely from the surface of the sea, or so it felt, with the roar of the storm winds coming down the passageway, filling Bennet’s ears. “What the hell?! Bennet yelled in surprise, but there was no wind blowing, but the engineer was thrown hard to the floor and backward, sliding on the worn lino.
What he didn’t see in the depths of the Star of Rio‘s belly was the massive flash of electric blue light in the sky, almost directly above the aging freighter.
Broken glass tinkled with the hefty roll of the ship.
“Bliss? Bliss!” Captain Madigan yelled irritably, on the cusp of panic. “I can’t see!”
Bliss picked himself up from the floor of the bridge. He wiped his eyes, feeling wetness. His vision, fuzzy, blurred and indistinct, slowly came back around.
“I’m here, sir!” Bliss replied. “Can you see now?”
“Just about. What in God’s dear name was that?”
“I don’t know,” Bliss hummed. He got up and saw to the helmsman, who was propping himself up against the wheel. Bliss dusted the young man down before turning to Madigan. “Solar flare?”
“At this time of night?” Madigan countered. The captain approached the bridge window, peering outward. The foredeck was damp with rain. Glancing up, Madigan looked into the sky. It was like nothing had happened. “Can’t be.”
“Is there any damage?” Bliss said, joining the captain.
“No, I can’t see. Call Bennet, I want the ship sounded. That was quite a wave.”
“If it was a wave…” hummed Bliss.
Bennet glanced down the dark corridor in front of him. With another roll, the door fell open. Taking a furtive step forward, he repeated his inquiry, shouting loudly now. “Is anyone down there? Are you all right? Is anyone hurt?”
No response. The lights at the far end of the passage fizzled, though they always did that, big wave or not.
Bennet walked uneasily further. The metal walls of the corridor, lined with hefty doors that were latched shut with inch-thick bars of metal, banged and boomed. Rhythmically. Quietly at first, but with each step the thuds got steadily, slowly, louder.
His head darted. But the darkness concealed its own mysteries. Metal banged some more. Something was happening, deep below Bennet’s feet. The banging seemed to rise up, to envelop him. Bennet’s hand reached a railing, holding tight, despite the cold.
He stopped, a third of the way down the passageway. The booms now came from behind, approaching him. Bennet felt his blood fall from his veins. Almost wanting to scream, his lungs belied the impulse and diverted the oxygen to his legs. The gloom of the lights became total with a spark of strange energy.
That was enough for Bennet. He looked around. Something seemed to be sliding up the passageway, toward him. The passageway was filling with the irregular shapes of something the engineer couldn’t identify.
Running back aft, Bennet crossed into the corridor and looked, panic-stricken, for a mere moment. Turning, he pulled on the door to the corridor and pulled it. The door, almost asleep, didn’t want to move. The otherworldly hammering from the corridor became louder, filling the man’s ears. Then came the rending of metal, a wailing shriek that ran like electric current down Bennet’s spine.
He glanced around the door as flashes of vestigial light illuminated the passageway he’d just run from. Irregular things, shapes, filled the split-seconds of clarity. And with each passing moment the shapes in the dark moved, assuming different forms. Bigger. The booms against the walls became wet slaps on the worn lino.
Behind Bennet, from the pool of light from the upper decks, Bliss emerged. The passageway was completely dim, his flashlight providing the only juddering column of light. His face fell into confusion, seeing Bennet pulling on the companionway door with all his might.
“What’s going on down here?” Bliss called above the racket.
“Bliss!” Bennet yelled, almost animalistically. “Get this door closed! Help!”
Glancing quickly, Bliss saw the shapes. “Are those…”
“CLOSE THE DOOR!”
The two men quickly heaved, pushing the bulkhead door into its closed position with a thump. The corridor was silent in a moment, the door pulling the breath from both men’s lungs. Both falling to the floor, Bliss and Bennet panted.
“Did you see…” the officer asked?
“I don’t want to know what the hell that…” Bennet replied, trailing off.
“What?” Bliss barked. Then he felt it. They’d had their backs to the door, but now they felt the warm ooze come from around the metal panel. Scooting back and standing, they saw the entire circumference of the door seemed to be almost bleeding in the bulkhead a dark, viscous substance.
“Oh. My. God.” Bliss breathed, his eyes agape in horror. He looked to Bennet, the fear cracked across his face as it must’ve been across Bliss’. Both men turned, knowing instinctively what they must do. Looking up to the light of the crew stairwell, they ran for it, closing every door behind them they could.
This is the freighter Star of Rio… we’re just off the coast of England… please… please help… there’s… things on the ship… I don’t know how they… they’re coming! We don’t… not much time! Please God, if there’s any… help!
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