Heavy seas buffeted the small Navy cutter Royal David City, the bow riding up the crests of the swelling seas, pitching to and fro. At the helm a bulky, tall man peered out seaward through a resolute brow.
“How many were aboard?” the City‘s skipper, Jon Golding, asked above the din of the storm outside.
“Crew of twelve according to the manifest,” his XO, Lena Farhill, said with the vestiges of an American accent. “I hope they can hold out.”
Golding didn’t take his hand off the throttle, willing it further. The handle was at the Full position already. He didn’t look away from the angry ocean ahead. “I hope so too. ETA?”
“Twenty minutes,” Farhill reported. She grabbed for a handrail, unexpectedly. Golding’s view shifted quickly in the dark cabin.
“Just the weather,” Farhill gasped slightly.
“If you wanna throw up, outside, please?” Golding ribbed. He smiled to her.
She returned the smile weakly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Good. Reckon you can see to the guys down below? Get prepped. I want to be home drinking my tea before sunrise.”
Farhill steadied herself then headed aft. The Royal David City was a new brand of Royal Navy rescue craft, akin to a small private yacht but outfitted for heavy seas operations. There wasn’t a wave in the English Channel that was thought able to sink her.
But the weather that night seemed determined to try.
Farhill returned a few minutes later to the elevated command post.
“They’re prepping. Look,” she said, approaching the rainswept windows. The wipers were fighting a losing battle against the worst the English weather could muster up. Another unkind winter. “That’s it. It must be.”
“I think you’re right…” Golding hacked. In the distance, beyond the waves stood the sentinel hulk of the Star of Rio. It was festooned in artificial light but seemed oddly lifeless. “Take the wheel,” Golding requested. Farhill stepped into his post. Golding raised a pair of loose-hanging binoculars. He squinted, trying to compensate for the undulation, the constant movement of the deck beneath him in completely unpredictable directions. “She’s under power but there’s no-one at home. Rudder’s doing its own thing.”
“Could be a messy dock,” Farhill hummed.
“We have to attempt it. I’d rather be on dry land, compared to out here.”
Farhill didn’t respond to Golding but reached for a mouthpiece. She spoke clearly into it, past the electrical crackle it produced. “Be ready boys. It could be a bumpy ride.”
The Star of Rio loomed ahead of the much smaller Navy boat. Gingerly, the smaller boat edged closer, coming alongside, though riding the waves up and down the height of the freighter’s grey hull. The Royal David City bobbled on the waves, letting the Star of Rio gradually overtake. From the interior, three figures emerged from the City‘s interior, grabbling with heavy hawser cables. The crew stairway that overhung the stern of the freighter swung wildly.
“Keep it steady, nearly there…” Golding soothed. Farhill concentrated too much to reply. She spun the wheel a few times, quickly flicking the Navy boat.
The three boys at the front of the boat threw their cables, one hitting the jackpot. It pulled tight in the rough squall, the Royal David City bobbing like a toy boat on a turbulent bathtub against the hulk. Metal squealed as the two vessels tussled. Farhill joined the three men on the fo’c’sle, followed last by Golding.
“Ready guys?” she asked above the wind rush.
The three men, clad in wetsuits that covered every inch of their faces, murmured and nodded. Golding grabbed the first step of the ladder. “I’ll go first, we work topside first. Hopefully the crew are…” he started, realising his words were basically inaudible against the noise of the sea. The ladder swayed with each footstep. Persevering with effort, Golding led the team up and emerged onto the main deck of the Star of Rio.
“Is anyone here?!” Farhill yelled, taking her helmet off. Golding followed suit, as did the three wetsuits.
The deck was deserted, bathed in clinical, sterile light cast from lamps around the deck. Looking up, Golding observed the bridge. Not a light on. He squinted, just to be sure. No signs of life. He gesticulated. “Start there and work down.”
“Okay,” Farhill acknowledged. She pulled the three marines with her. They took off their masks, revealing their faces “Stairway this way.”
Keith Harris, one of the marines, wrenched the door open, with some effort in his weathered features. The wind cast invisible hands that wanted to hold the door shut tight.
“Get it open then!” Golding called.
“I’ll help,” Farhill replied, brushing her ruined hair out of her face and tugging at the rusty paint on the handle. The door wobbled as the ship heaved. They tried again. The door moved a little more, snapping back into place with a hollow bang. Third time, this time with all five sets of hands pulling. The door finally gave, snapping against the wall of the deckhouse. The Marines scuttled in, just as the door banged closed behind them.
The howling of the wind was now muted against the superstructure, replaced with the heavy breathing of exertion.
“Flashlights,” Golding huffed. Five discs of weak light illuminated the dark interior of the superstructure. Metal walls entombed the group, and a doorway led to a series of stairs. A good start. Golding beckoned forward. “Come on.”
The discs of light bounded around the stairwell. The ship was continuing to heave in the heavy sea outside. Farhill grabbed the handrail, like before. She paused, dead on the stairs, the rail firmly in her grasp. “Jon, can’t you feel it?”
Golding swung around. “Feel what, Lena?”
“Grab the rail,” she chattered. He did so. Quickly he let go, his face cracking into a firm scowl.
At the top of the stairwell the bridge beckoned. Golding stepped from the narrow stairway into a cluttered space. The others followed, stepping meekly into the dishevelled wheelhouse. Noses wrinkled.
“What is that stench?” Farhill gagged. “I think I’m gonna be…” she started, rushing to outdoors.
“I don’t know,” Golding gasped. He walked purposefully to one of the bridge wing doors, past Farhill, wrenching it open with a wobbly clatter. He stepped out into the breeze outside, the freshness of the salty sea air pulling him from the pallid musk of the bridge. Grabbing the bulwark he looked down. The ship continued to bob in the endless grey sea, endless until, with a squint, Golding saw the faint glittering of lights. Land nearby.
He turned back into the bridge with a cast iron determination, and a look of refusal to allow it to corrode.
“Stop the engines,” Golding said with purpose. One of the men pulled on the brass telegraph, the old bell rasping within. The bell didn’t ring back in acknowledgement. The inner pointer stuck fast at full ahead.
“No answer, sir.”
“Is there a phone? Lena, have a go.” Golding now examined the bridge more carefully. Papers were strewn everywhere, haphazardly. Had there been some struggle? He couldn’t be sure. Pacing along the front wall, where the windows were, he felt the irregular bump under his shoe. Broken glass, and the smell of alcohol.
Golding’s gloved hands poked the pieces of glass. Moonlight refracted on them as if they were icebergs. A pool of fluid surrounded the broken glass. Golding huffed knowingly. Someone enjoyed a drink on a cold autumn night’s crossing. “Any news on that phone, Lena, I’d really like to speak…”
“Nothing Jon,” Farhill said without hesitation, still trying the bridge telephone. It was proving uncooperative. She glanced across, seeing Golding slowly raise from his crouching position. “Jon, are you…”
Golding’s face was as sheet-white as the moon that reflected through the foggy windows.
“Wh… what is… that?” he gasped. She turned to where his trembling arm was pointing.
“I don’t know what you… oh shit.”
Marking the worn paint of the back wall of the bridge were shapes of darkness that formed handprints. Smeary handprints. The darkness was the stain of only one fluid that came to the mind of everyone: blood. The trail led along the wall, Keith following it tentatively.
Flashlights illuminated the spackle, confirming its claret colour. Smears of another, more brown and orange fluid, swished through the blood trail. Eventually a brown wooden door with louvred panels, covered with the viscous substance, punctured the wall. The Chart Room.
Damon, another marine, younger than Keith, approached.
“Open it,” Golding hawked. “Get it open.”
Damon tentatively touched the door. It didn’t rattle, but rather moved slimily. The gel-like substance it was encrusted with wobbled just enough. He rolled his shoulders.
Golding replied without hesitation. “Do it. Get Eddy to help.”
Damon rolled his shoulders. The third marine, Eddy, joined. They both grasped the slimy handle and pulled it open in a swift movement. Something fell out of the Chart Room, with five booming screams accompanying it, landing on the floor with a wet, sick thud. Five flashlights danced wildly before settling on the something.
“The fuck is that?” Farhill coughed. She spoke no further, instead retching violently.
Golding stepped forward, holding off his own gag reflex, though by the convulsions in his chest it was a battle he could lose at any moment. Light glistened off an ochire ooze-like substance that coated the something. Reaching out, he pulled at the dark shape. A limp limb fell from underneath.
“Help me,” Golding coughed. He swallowed hard, keeping the gag reflex at bay just about. Keith stepped over and, with some effort, and a wet, slapping squelching, pulled the something over.
“Dearest Jesus…” Keith coughed. Footsteps behind Golding ran to the open bridge wing. Distantly, vomit fell down the side of the ship with a handful of harsh, taught retches.
Golding stood up. Trembling, he reached for his flashlight, almost forgotten. The disc of light wavered with his hands. The something was the figure of a young man, no more than twenty, doused in scarlet fluid and a wobbling, trembling gel that refracted the meagre light. Golding turned. “Lena, I need you.”
“No way, Jon. What the hell is – ” she jabbered, almost unintelligibly. She ran outside, and retched over the side of the ship again.
“I need you,” Golding repeated, resolutely. “You read the crew manifest. Who’s the youngest aboard?”
Farhill trooped back in, wiping her mouth. She shivered, shocked, but was regaining composure. Keeping her distance, she recounted: “Youngest was the helmsman, he was about twenty-two. Why, you don’t think that’s…”
Golding reached up onto one of the ramshackle consoles and found a slim implement: a pen. With a beckon the marines shone their light on the helmsman’s body.
“He had a hell of a time…” Golding said aloud, to no-one in particular. The pen became a crude probe. The helmsman’s chest was a wrecked mess of torn fabric and blood that seeped out, glittering with wetness.
But the exposed skin was more of interest – every pore of flesh had become swollen and inflated. Blotches of purple and pink ran across stretched skin, showing bones pressing out, about to burst through the flesh. The head was the worst, enveloped almost entirely by the blotchiness, the flesh across the young man’s face spitting open.
Gingerly, Golding probed toward the split, finding the first few millimetres spongy and squishy. A foul smell permeated the space, intensifying with the probing in the split across the unfortunate helmsman’s face. It told Golding to probe no further. He got up. One of the marines went to move the helmsman away from the doorway. Golding barked quickly.
“Don’t touch him. I don’t want any of you to touch him,” Golding barked quickly, tossing the bloody pen away with a flick. He went to take a deep intake of breath, just as what felt like a wave hit the ship. The whole hull rattled with a booming roar. It was no wave, and Golding knew it, deep inside his subconscious. “Let’s move. Find any survivors. I don’t want to be on this ship a second longer than I have to.”
The three marines swept by, into the chart room. Farhill moved over to Golding, standing in the bridge wing doorway. From behind she saw him take big gasps of the fresh sea air from outside. Subtly she placed a hand on his back. The muscles there felt tense and bundled into knots beneath the polyester and webbing.
“Jon, are you…”
“I’ll be fine, like I said, Lena,” he growled, turning back inside.
“We can abandon the mission if you think that’s best.”
“No. We’re here to do a job. Whatever…” he gestured toward the body of the helmsman, “whatever did that, I want to know. And there might still be people alive somewhere on this-“
“Sir! Come quickly!” Damon bellowed. Pushing Farhill gently aside, Golding ran over, past the body and into the chart room. His eyes followed the beading, dancing discs of flashlight illumination.
Farhill clopped across the deck and into the now-crowded room. “What?”
Golding wordlessly flapped a hand toward the lights. Farhill, in the doorway finding the switch, flicked it with a resolute click. A fluorescent light flickered on. She suppressed a yelp.
The room was festooned in irregular gloop, much like that encrusted on the door handle. The goo wobbled, infused with some otherworldly gel. But the wall, where paper charts had been torn from their hangings, leaving torn fronds of paper and wood in their place, was daubed in splotchy, dark orange letters.
SINK THIS SHIP AND SAVE EVERYONE – OR THEY ALL DIE!
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