“Quick!” Golding barked, falling backwards a couple of feet from his prone position. He reached for his weapon, dangling on a strap around his body. It found his hand, and his hand found the trigger.
The gunfire’s dakka-dakka-dakka roared, echoing in the claustrophobic space. Flashes of light erupted from Golding’s weapon, and then Farhill’s, strobing the area as the literally fell backwards. Sharp explosions from the guns were followed by the metallic clang of ricochets but also the wet, deep thud of impacts with flesh. Following those wet, fleshy impacts were the sprays of the viscous, thick gloop from underneath the rotted, distended flesh.
After a few seconds that felt like eternities, both Golding and Farhill fell backwards from the darkness into the uneven gloom of the engine room.
Following them into that gloom was the figure that had dropped from the catenary above. The remains of a uniform peeked through where the flesh had begun to turn waxy, stretched and distended.
“Shit,” Bennet yelped, “that’s the Captain!”
“What happened to Damon?!” Farhill yelped.Golding gasped first. The figure lumbered forward, out of the gloom of the machine space, revealing itself. It was tall, built firmly, unlike the handful of others they’d encountered. This one was bulkier, wider, with what looked like muscles bulging with what amounted to a pulse. The tattered remnants of the captain’s uniform hung off them. A leathery, withered limb raided above its head.
From its maw it dropped what was left of Damon.
“Get back!” Farhill squealed. She grabbed Golding’s splayed arms, dragging him forward. With a wsssh of air, the limb batted the deck, coming down with a resolute thud that made the floor plates quiver. The limb raised, leaving a dent in the panel.
Golding wrenched himself up. His pistol came out with a whip of his hand. His arm trembled with the rush of adrenalin. The firearm quivered too. A gloved finger shivered in the trigger guard. Golding squeezed. The bullet hit the figure square in the shoulder, the round sending shards of waxy, hard flesh followed by trails of putrid, pus-like ooze that was once blood.
The teetering figure emerged into the engine room proper, wrenching at fittings to gain purchase on its lumbering, drunk-like gait. Trendrils under the hardened flesh rippled, the flesh squeaking with strain. Under the claw-like hands the metal pipes buckled and bowed, crumpling like soggy cardboard tubes.
White eyes focussed on those claws. Golding knew that one grip and he was toast. He looked back, over his shoulder. The other survivors huddled against the corner of the room against the bulkhead. Steam and gas erupted from the crumpled pipes behind the creature that loomed forward.
He aimed for another shot, taking a deep breath. The injured limb rose again, tearing pipes in its unheavenly grip. The captain’s head, now grossly deformed and shedding its once-human appearance with every lumbering step into the engine room’s sterile lighting. The maw opened, as if to yell…
“Christ almighty…” Bennet gasped, glancing at the approaching figure as it tore its way into the light. He held Marta close, feeling her heat on his skin. “Don’t worry,” he soothed. “It’ll all be over soon.”
“Please god…” the terrified woman sobbed gently into Bennet’s flank, her eyes clenched tight, as if not to see the horror that came closer with every reverberation.
Golding continued back, lining up his shot.
“For god’s sake,” Farhill yelled, “hurry up and shoot the fucking thing!”
“A little help!” Golding barked, coughing in some of the acrid fumes and vapours that were filling the engine room from ruined pipework. Swallowing, he brought the pistol to his face. His breath held. The pistol clapped hard, his hand pivoting with the recoil. In front, the grotesque figure fell backwards, just catching itself in the explosion of ooze from the hole in its chest. It trembled, not quite falling,
Fragments of waxy, hard, corrupted flesh were held together with the gelatinous ooze, but the plates of organic exoskeleton moved loose with every fumbling footstep. The gaping maw that comprised a mouth fell open, a deafening, whining squeal exulting from the orifice. The limbs grabbed at the pipework that almost caged the beast in, pulling at the metal as if it were soggy paper. The inhuman exultations were now joined by a cacophony of rending, tearing metal and hissing vapour.
“Oh please, let it take me quickly…” Marta sobbed, her gentle wails no match for the noise that filled every space of the engine room that seemed destined to become a coffin.
“Shh, almost there,” Bennet sighed, closing his eyes. He didn’t want to see the moment come.
The figure lumbered forward, pouncing. Golding tried to turn but tripped as the hull made a sickening lurch. The monster fell atop of him. Golding struggled against the mass of the monster, the stench of its corrupted body, now devoid of all its previous humanity. He felt the claw-like hands dig into his armoured shoulders. The pain soared from each claw like firebursts. With a renewed sense of triumph the beast stood, pulling Golding with it. Golding’s face clenched, feeling the bone in his shoulders compressing. Soon would come the sickening crack as the brittle bone gave in to this alien strength.
The monster exulted once more, acrid breath flying into Golding’s face. The smell of raw corruption, of something that should never have existed but did so, invaded his nostrils. Deep down in his belly he felt the contents curdle. He closed his eyes, resigning himself to failure…
Bennet’s head bolted up toward that sharp noise.
For a split moment the only sound was the rushing of gas from ruined pipes. Then a wet thwack as lumps of gory, corrupted flesh hit the deck, the walls and the ceiling. Then a firmer, sounder thud.
Golding opened his eyes. He turned. Farhill stood a couple of feet behind him, pistol still raised. She lowered it slowly, walking forward toward the monstrous being. It fell backwards, back into the engine space from where it had emerged.
“What the…” she began, examining the fetid ruins of the mutated body. She kicked the limp body with her boot. It gave a sick, thick squelch. Her foot retreated, pulling a trail of viscous ooze with it. Her face lit up with disgust and contempt.
The brief moment of reflective silence was shattered by a heaving wallop against the very structure of the hull, the pounding from below and around louder than it ever had been.
The rumble came closer than it ever had before, right beneath the engine room. The flashlights followed the sound intensely, toward the murky ooze under the hatch. The metal puffed up, deforming right in front of their transfixed eyes.
The hatch wobbled, then burst with a crash.
Instinctively, everyone fell back into the light.
From the ruined core of the hatch an slimy, cylindrical tentacle, two feet wide, writhed, flapping wildly with pulsating motions against the heavy machinery that contained the space. Deep beneath, and in the forward part of the ship, a heavy squeal emanated, reverberating down to the engine room. Through the hatch. The tentacle, glistening, found the body of the Captain and dragged it with a great scream through the ruined hatch into the belly of whatever lurked at the front of the ship.
The whole space rocked with irregular, massive motions. “I think we’d better move!” Bennet barked between hoarse coughs. Farhill and Golding, collecting themselves, turned in the smoky atmosphere. The engineer was already peeling up a narrow, tubular steel ladder, behind Marta and Eddy, whose hulking form made a crude human shield.
“What about sinking the ship?” Golding cried out, coughing too.
“All we need is a spark,” Bennet called back, pointing toward a jury-rigged set of pipes splayed open around the main engine. Golding’s eyes followed, confused. “The compartment’s filling with fuel fumes. All it needs is a spark…”
Farhill met Golding’s confused gaze. The thought made a circuit around her mind. Then she looked back up. “How long have we got?”
“Ten minutes until the engine tries to restart. The glowplugs will blow the fumes, and with it the bottom of the ship out,” Bennet explained coolly. “So, if you two don’t mind, shall we get the hell off this ship?”
Wordlessly, Farhill and Golding agreed, scampering to the ladder. Another low, looming boom erupted deep below. Air rushed past the group on the ladder, forcing its way up, followed by lapping ripples of rushing water.
“We’re near the end…” Bennet grimaced, looking up.
“Don’t look!” Farhill barked. The sound of splashes came from below. Then the ethereal jabbering of the corrupted creatures. Their footsteps in the puddle of seawater stopped. Farhill didn’t need to look – she could sense their beady gaze. Another sudden exultation of jabbering followed by the manic splashing of crazed footsteps confirmed that they’d been spotted. Like the others, she climbed, through the hatch and hefted it shut. It hit the dimly lit deck with a hefty clang.
“Which way?” Golding asked, gathering his breath with exertion.
“No time for that,” Bennet said. He strode around a corner of the corridor. There was a door with a grimy, round porthole. Bennet looked through it, then turned. “Main deck. Where’d you say your ship was?”
The rest of the group followed Bennet’s words, joining him at the doorway.
Golding rasped. “We cast alongside on the starboard stern, there was a stairwell.”
Bennet looked at his wristwatch. “Okay. Once we’re through that door, it’s plain sailing.” He smiled. No-one else did. “Sorry.” He took a hand to the handle. His face contorted with effort but the handle didn’t move.
“Are you kidding me?!” Golding gasped with exasperation. “Let’s all have a go…”
He joined Bennet and gripped onto the crusty handle, feeling the loose paint slide off in his hand. It moved slightly, a sharp scaping noise reverberating down the passageway.
“Almost, nearly…” both men exerted. The metal handle wailed and squealed, as if in agony itself. Golding and Bennet took a deep breath of festering air. They nodded at each other, as if to mentally count down. Three, two, one…
The handle finally relented and, with a crash, the door was caught by a stiff gust and blew onto the deck, the hinges shearing clean off.
Bennet gestured to Golding. “After you, please.” Golding didn’t hesitate, stepping forth onto the outer deck.
“How much time left?” Golding called over the unabating wind. “Bennet?”
“Four minutes or so,” the engineer replied. Then he glanced forward. “Oh, good lord.”
“What’s the score?” Farhill trilled, proceeding to the railing. Her mouth, like Bennet’s, fell agape. “Shit. Christ.”
In the hazy sky, against the backdrop of an angry, restless sea, the group saw the entire foredeck of the Star of Rio had been perforated and punctured by sprouting bodies – tentacles, among other shapeless growths – that glistened and writhed, like a massive animal trying to escape its metal bounds. Metal decking was torn around the wriggling limbs that reached out, as if to pull the carcass of the cargo ship aground, to escape onto land.
Deep in the ruined belly of the ship came mighty wails, shrieks from another world. The metal rippled some more, turning white with fatigue as it moved rhythmically under the strain.
The survivors – the last humans on the ship – were transfixed, even as the waves beat the ship into a twisted hulk more and more. The metal heaved and groaned, almost in agony itself.
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