“We have to go down,” Bennet coughed. “We have to sink the ship. Then we might have a chance.”
“We can’t go down,” one of the other marines jabbered, pulling his SMG out. He gave a brief burst of fire. The creatures that approached seemed only mildly miffed by the hits.
“I don’t see any other option…” Farhill said, her voice trembling. “We’re fish food otherwise… oh god!”
She looked past the three creatures that lumbered down the corridor toward them. She heard what sounded like a human voice, gulping and gasping for air, bones breaking. Then a fourth shuffle. The creatures lolled and she could see a new creature behind, the remnants of Keith’s marine combat jacket falling noiselessly to the floor. Her flashlight caught the final moments of transformation as his skin, pallid and raw, puffed and swelled. Finally, with a slick whack, his scalp fell off, hitting the hard floor.
Through grotesque protuberances, what was left of Keith’s wet eyes met with Golding’s. The four figures shuffled, unsure, taking a first step forward. The young commander pushed back, toward the stairwell, holding a flashlight to the sight before him.
“Quickly,” Bennet hissed, urging the remaining rescuers into the hatch. He pulled a door closed, sealing the companionway into total darkness.
Outside the door, murmurings reverberated through the steel. Then thuds came, hammering on the metalwork. Farhill, the last down the stairs, kept watch on the door. It held, as did the final glance she’d had from Keith as he’d been consumed.
She blinked. The image was imprinted onto her eyelids. Following the group down the stairs, she whipped her hair. Maybe she’d never sleep again.
“Come on!” Golding called, pulling Farhill away from her demons.
The stairwell opened out on the keel of the ship, the coldness of the sea taut in the air. Emergency lights hung high in the maze of pipework and metal plumbing above their heads.
“I wonder,” Bennet began musing. “Where’s Carlow?”
“Who’s that?” Golding asked. “You reckon he might be alive?”
“Depends,” Bennet said, ducking below some of the machinery, running a hand along the cold metal. He stopped. Golding bumped into the engineer. “Flashlight,” Bennet hissed again, reaching with his free hand. Golding gave it over. Bennet ran the light along the pipe. Chipped paint redefected back, until the light reached the limit of Bennet’s reach. The pipe glistened, the worn cream paint taking on an ochre hue.
Golding’s eyes widened. “I’ve seen that before…” he gasped quietly. Beneath his padding, his stomach dropped. It was the same ochre that had plastered the walls of the chart room and the crew quarters.
And it was down here.
A scrabbling noise came from the ceiling. Very close. It moved quickly through the pipework. The flashlights followed it, highlighting a trail of ochre gel obscured by the pipework, glinting fleetingly. The shadow that preceded disappeared with a slap of wet flesh.
“Lights out,” Golding whispered. He nodded his head forward. Bennet looked past the machinery toward bright lights of the engine room that kept on running. Beyond it, emanating from the glow, was the hectoring roar of the diesel engine. Beneath their very feet the metal floor rolled with each rhythmic motion from the sea outside. It hammered against the side of the ship, the plates quivering against their rusty frames.
“It’s getting worse outside,” Bennet mused to himself. A hand met the steel, but quickly withdrew. He turned to the others he was with, his gaze focussing on Golding. “Get to the engine room and we’ll be safe, for now,” Bennet whispered in response.
Bennet stepped forward, slowly. He raised his hands in a cooing gesture, urging the others to proceed slowly. Gingerly he stepped forward, past the bulkhead door into the next compartment. The group took a dozen paces, flashlights out.
The lights of the engine room, and presumed safety for now, beckoned with a warmth tinged with languid fumes.
The four survivors crept forward.
Pipes behind them clanged irregularly, the intestines of the ship quivering throughout the invasion. The echo led forward. The group kept heading aft.
“Keep going…” Golding urged. He muscled past the two marines, coming up behind Farhill. Gingerly he placed a hand on her shoulder. She tensed.
“Don’t do that!” she hissed, startled.
“Sorry,” Golding murmured.
A few paces ahead, Bennet stopped and turned.
“Quiet. Just round here,” he beckoned. “Go with them,” he cooed to Marta. Shivering, she did so. The rescue group filed around. Golding brushed past. The engineer was looking past, into the pipework of the machinery room. The waves echoed in the hollow metal box this deep in the hull. A disc of flashlight beam danced around the pipes.
The shadows were moving again, running from the light.
“It’s too quiet,” Bennet mused aloud. “Too quiet…”
Golding shouldered past. Around the corner he saw the warm, almost welcoming glow of the illuminated engine room, and the growl of rattling machinery. He turned back to Bennet. “Come on.”
The structures and pipes that formed a warren above clanged like old church bells. Bennet turned, lowering the flashlight.
Behind him, just at that moment, a wet thwack hit the floor.
Bennet spun. His flashlight ducked upward, illuminating what was left of a face, poking out from underneath waxy, purple skin
“Carlow?!” the engineer mouthed.
“Nope!” Golding yelled, pulling Bennet backward. The engineer toppled backward in surprise. What was once Carlow sprung forward. With his other arm, Golding heaved the companionway door. The metal door swung serenely, falling into its frame with a deep, hollow clonngggnnng. A latch clicked precisely.
The creature thudded into the barrier, and shrieked, loud enough it seemed to overpower the harsh, constant rhythm of the twin diesel engines that lay like huge, growling beasts set into the very foundation of the hull.
“Make it stop!” Marta, the cook, cried. She held her hands to her ears. Tears streamed down her ruined cheeks. “Please make it stop, it’s awful!”
Golding stood back, catching his breath. The two marines stepped valiantly forward, pulling the circular lock on the door closed. The door trembled against the metal members but held. After a moment the noise stopped, receding away.
Bennet picked himself from the floor. He was bruised from the fall but otherwise unhurt; he rubbed his back, wincing slightly. Marta came over, helping him to his feet.
“Oh, God, they got Carlow…” Bennet moaned. His face went stony with anger. “Goddamn. He was only a young lad.”
“Like the helmsman,” Farhill noted. “Young and inexperienced.”
“That’s right. Cheap, too,” Bennet said, with the trace amount of bitterness in his cadence coming through. “I only hope they didn’t know what was about to hit them.”
“Are we the only survivors?” Marta asked meekly.
Golding strode forward. “That’s the assumption I’m now making. Mr Bennet, I think I’d like to take up your suggestion.”
Bennet looked forward. Golding continued: “Of sinking this ship. None of this,” the young commander gestured around, past the ceiling and walls back into the oblivion outside, “gets to land. None of it.”
“Agreed, Jon” Farhill said, smiling ever so slightly at him. “You did well.”
“Congratulate me later,” Golding cautioned, his nose twisting. He moved over to inspect the engine room. The main engine room was down a flight of metal steps from this balcony that overlooked the space, which was dominated by the two huge engines, two storeys tall. Pipes fed them like arteries and veins, coming in from all over the ship. Bennet paced quickly down. Golding was the next down.
“Stop those engines please, Bennet.”
“Already on it,” Bennet called. Between the engines on the lower floor was a control console festooned with dancing gauges and twinkling lights of red and amber. Bennet’s greasy hand found the master switch. With a click imperceptible to the group still upstairs, it moved to off.
Bennet moved the switch a few more times. Sensing a problem, Golding followed.
“You can stop the engines, yes?” Golding asked, his tone almost patronising.
“Ordinarily, yes. But this ain’t ordinary,” Bennet admitted. “And the engines ain’t stopping.”
Golding turned back to Farhill and the others on the balcony. He simply shrugged.
“Things just got doubly hard.”
The group assembled at the base of the engine room, glimpsing furtively. The two engines either side rumbled on, the pitch of the ship creaking the hull.
Around them, movement clanked around, past the ceiling festooned with pipes and conduits.
Golding, Farhill and the others felt in the way as Bennet bustled around the engine room, twiddling levers and making quick, sporadic movements on the controls. Eventually the commander stopped Bennet with a shove.
“Can this wait, I’m trying to –”
“Trying to what, exactly?” Golding harrumphed loudly over the ever-present din of the engines. “You said the engines can’t be stopped.”
“Yes, but they can’t run on thin air, can they?” Bennet snapped back. “I’m trying to dump what leftover fuel we have.
“And how long is that likely to take?”
Bennet looked around. “Tanks are pretty empty so not long. Fifteen, twenty minutes?”
“Then we leave?” Marta said, breaking away from the group. She held onto Bennet. “We leave after this, go home and everything’ll be better?”
Bennet’s icy gaze cracked just a little. His greasy, dirty hand took one of hers. “I hope so.” However, the ice reformed. His eyes narrowing, Bennet turned around. “Someone’s missing, and we didn’t even notice.”
“What are you ta-” Golding began to say incredulously, but the mental headcount was right. Damon, one of the marines, was missing. “Farhill,” Golding said curtly, “with me. Let’s take a look.”
She joined Golding with a lean canter across the engine room floor. Golding led the way around the machinery. He nudged her. She turned, addressing Eddy, the last marine left standing: “Stay here, protect the civilians. Watch them.”
Eddy nodded in acknowledgement, grasping his gun just slightly more firmly.
Golding stepped forward, around the plant. His nose wrinkled, and he daren’t blink. One hand reached toward his hip, for his holstered weapon. He moved his head to the side, quickly, to beckon Farhill in the narrow space. “What’re you thinking?” he asked her.
“Seriously?” she said, shining her flashlight into the crannies and nooks around the angular engine pieces.
He replied. “Wouldn’t ask otherwise.”
“I think we’re dead. Just a matter of time.”
Golding took a breath. “Thanks. I appreciate your honest assessment.”
Yelping chatter rumbled above. Something was moving, down through the very bowels of the ship. High pitched scraping followed.
Golding stopped, directing his flashlight up. The reinforced ceiling appeared to move, bowing ever so slightly. He traced the movement with a finger until it crossed a bulkhead. The passage stopped. Golding turned. The ship heaved again, this time heavily canting to one side. A sharp metallic scrape came across the floor nearby. Golding and Farhill reacted in unison, as they were trained to, following the sound with their lights.
The scrape came from a hatch behind the engine block, one that was almost imperceptible in the gloom of the machine space.
Farhill went to investigate first but Golding stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “You know the protocol. Me first. Cover me.”
Getting down onto one knee, Golding gingerly reached toward the hatch cover. It was loose on the floor, flapping with the motion of the ship in the heavy seas. He grabbed it with one hand, supporting the weight of his body with the other. He pulled on the hatch. It opened but only slightly. “Can you give me a boost?” he gestured to Farhill. She came over, kneeling herself. “One one,” Golding counted. “Three. Two. One…”
They both heaved, the metal wailing. The hatch resisted, before finally falling back onto the engine room floor with a loud, booming thud.
“What was that?!” Bennet called from the other side of the engine room.
“Stay back,” Golding returned. He glanced down into the open hatch. Something in there glistened. He examined the hatch, the backside of which was also glistening. Golding gestured for a light. Farhill flapped, finding her flashlight. She cast it down onto the hatch cover.
“What is… that?” she said almost noiselessly, gasping. “Wait, what? No, Jon!”
Golding poked a hand toward the backside of the hatch. Viscous threads of gloop started to settle on the open back of the hatch, fronds of bituminous fluid pirouetting against gravity almost in slow-motion. Inside the hatch, a pool of this viscous ooze gurgled, sending a great bubble forming on the surface. It burst, with Golding and Farhill both holding their hands to their faces, blocking out an evil stench.
“That isn’t fuel oil…” Farhill exclaimed, her words muffled behind her gloved hand. “No way…” She saw Golding had frozen. Then she looked at his shoulder, casting her flashlight that way. It… glistened, in a way the synthetic material shouldn’t. Slowly himself, Golding put two fingers gingerly into the large droplet of goo on his shoulder. Pulling his fingers away, the light from the flashlight passed through the fluid.
It was deep ochre, with pieces of something suspended within. The same as the fluid that had coated the chartroom and had followed them around this ship.
Another drop fell, again in what seemed like slow-motion. It hit the surface of the fluid in the hatch, rippling the surface.
Both looked up. Both saw the figure. Both saw it drop into the darkness.
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