Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
The coxswain’s warning was punctuated by the deafening thud of the Zodiac’s hull hammering into an oncoming swell. Although my eyes were locked on the stern of the rapidly approaching cargo ship, I found myself involuntarily reaching for my vest, taking account of all of my equipment for the ninth time since we set off of dry land; spare magazines, flashbangs, knife, radio, sidearm. Obsessive compulsive tendencies satisfied, I nevertheless felt unnervingly vulnerable amidst the angry sea.
“Whose bloody brilliant idea was this again?” I yelled against the howling wind and drone of the Zodiac’s outboards.
The rest of the crew manning the raft remained silent, although the local mercenaries looked to be enjoying my evident trepidation.
“You have to admit they sure as hell won’t expect this,” Mathew shouted back, as he checked the magazine on his rifle.
“That’s because this,” I gestured at the boat as it pitched violently, “is suicide.”
The sky roared its affirmation as a lightning bolt struck close enough to smell ozone. If there was any doubt before, the timing of the outburst confirmed my belief that the sea fully intended to punish me for my impending transgression against
“Shut it,” Ryan barked as the boat pulled up to the starboard quarter of the behemoth, the name A Carat Votive dimly visible amidst pockmarks of rust, courtesy of decades of service. “Ready the hooks. Team one, disembark and head below deck. Sweep the area for the crew; mess hall, sleeping quarters, engine room, even the damn head, everything.”
Mathew nodded to his team of mercenaries as they fired the grappling hooks over the railing of the ship, suspending a makeshift cargo net ladder that began to seem increasingly frail in the face of current weather conditions. Wordlessly, Mathew punched my shoulder with a grin as he dismounted the Zodiac and followed his team up the ladder. The second he disappeared from view at the top the coxswain gunned the boat forward, bringing the remaining team closer to the midship and the bridge, as the mercenaries of team two prepared the modified harpoon guns once more. Moments later I was halfway up the hull of the ship, clinging to the rungs, frantically trying to get away from the rolling ocean. Below, Ryan gave the coxswain the signal and he throttled off, turning the small craft around back towards the mercy of dry land.
I dragged myself over the rail less than gracefully, flopping onto the ship’s deck like a fish out of water. One of the mercenaries gave me a disapproving look as I dragged myself to my feet. Another bolt of lightning illuminated an endless sea of shipping containers as I got my bearings straight. After the nightmare of approaching the ship in the bobbing Zodiac, the relative stability of the cargo ship was a blessing. I heard a grunt behind me, unceremoniously announcing Ryan’s presence on the ship. Ahead, one of the mercenaries was already opening the door that led to the ship’s interior. Light spilled out from the doorway, bathing the ship’s deck with a warm yellow glow and illuminating my drenched boots. The four of us sulked inside the ship’s tower, Ryan quietly closing the door behind us before gesturing towards the steel staircase leading to the bridge.
As we ascended the metal stairs, I was taken aback by how well maintained the interior of the ship was. Despite being an admittedly small sample size, it was immaculate; well lit, no scratches on the walls, not even a scuff mark on any of the stairs. Aside from the veritable puddles we were now leaving behind, there was no sign anyone lived upon this ship at all. Despite the significant presence of rust on its exterior, the ship was in much better shape than the last couple we had visited. I found myself putting the condition of the exterior of the ship down as an intentional deterrent for people like myself. Good, maybe they actually have the cargo. For the first time since this endeavour started, I began to get my hopes up. The weeks of drills, the miserable raft ride, the torrential downpour now oozing back out of my clothes; they might all be worth it in the end. Emboldened by this knowledge, I followed Ryan up towards bridge door. He glanced back briefly, making sure everyone was ready before he threw open the door.
“Well, come on in,” a voice wafted through the open doorway. “Mind the step would you.”
I looked down at the raised step of the door frame as we filtered into the room and spread out, weapons raised and scanning the bridge. It was empty, save for the individual sitting at the helm with his legs kicked up, filling out a rather tattered Mad Libs book.
“Took me a couple months to stop tripping on that every morning,” the man gestured with the book as he reached for the beer on the desk next to him. He took a swig of the midnight black liquid before setting the bottle down and getting back to filling in the blanks with a chuckle. “So what can I help you with?”
If Ryan was puzzled by the man’s nonchalant demeanour, or the lack of officers aboard the bridge, he wasn’t showing it. “Officers and the CO, where are they?” he asked curtly, the barrel of his rifle aimed squarely at the man at the table, as the mercenaries set about the bridge, muting communications and searching for the shipping manifest. With a sigh, the man put down his source of amusement and rose to his feet. Turning towards us, he casually brushed out the creases of his white
uniform before addressing Ryan with a salute.
“Can’t speak for the officers but I’m sure they’re around here somewhere. Captain Anders Niequist of A Carat Votive,” the man beamed as he offered his outstretched hand to Ryan, who glared at it in return. Niequist looked slightly offended as he withdrew his hand, moving to lean back against the helm with his arms crossed. “So what brings you aboard my ship?”
“You know why we’re here,” Ryan barked back, his patience beginning to show signs of wear. He was used to the crews of civilian ships cowering in fear at the sight of loaded firearms pointed in their direction. The officers being below deck was an unfortunate setback but they now fell under the other team’s jurisdiction. He motioned for me to keep an eye on Niequist as he moved towards one of the mercenaries scanning a thick binder with an orange cover, either the manifest or the ship’s log. I brought my rifle to bear on Niequist’s chest, having no intention of shooting him but knowing full well the value of armed deterrence. Niequist himself continued to look unperturbed as the rest of my team went over the contents of the binder, monitoring their progress with arctic blue eyes.
“Looking for anything in particular or just window shopping?” he queried after a few minutes of fruitless searching.
Ryan opened his mouth to respond, presumably with an order to shut him up, but was cut off by a buzz of static followed by Mathew’s voice on the radio.
“…-ind them. Crew nowhere to be seen. Crew quarters empty, mess deck empty, even the bloody bog. Proceeding to engine deck. Keep an eye out up there.”
Ryan advanced on Nyquist and struck him with the butt of his rifle. He took a step back as the captain brought himself to his feet, drops of scarlet from the open wound on his cheek transforming his white uniform into a Rorschach test.
“I’m not going to ask you again. Where is the crew?” the question carried the promise of further violence should the response be unsatisfactory. Nielsen reached beside him for the beer, rinsing blood from his mouth with the stout while considering his response. “I told them to hide in the engine room when we saw you coming,” he shrugged as he put the now empty bottle back on the table. The colour drained from my face as it dawned on me that the other team was now heading towards a room full of prepared, and possibly armed, crewmen, rather than the sleeping or weary crew we expected.
Ryan wasted no time in thumbing the switch on the radio and screaming at the team to hold their position. The radio offered soft static in response.
“Either the storm or the layers of steel are interrupting the signal,” he muttered to himself. “You two head over and warn them, or help them clean up. We’ll hold the bridge.” He turned Niequist around and restrained his wrists with zip ties before seating him back at the helm, sidearm levelled against his head.
Trembling, I motioned for one of the mercenaries to follow me down below
deck, the successfully swallowed bile from the hellish boat trip now bubbling back into my throat. In my nervousness I tripped over the door frame as I exited, drawing a burst of laughter from the restrained captain behind me, earning himself another retaliatory strike from Ryan. Thankfully the mercenary that accompanied me maintained his composure, steadying my nerves somewhat as we quickly descended down the stairs into the bowels of the massive ship. Eventually the sounds of thunder faded and the distant hum of the ship’s engines took its place, the ship’s rolling causing the engines’ notes to oscillate, making them sound more like beating hearts than mechanical beasts of burden. A small strip of stainless steel with engraved lettering announced our arrival at one of the arteries that led to the engine room, me and my partner raising our rifles in unison as we entered the empty hallway. We rushed along the hall, alternating responsibility for checking the doors that lay ajar on either side of the corridor; a storage closet here, a small office there, all devoid of life. Nothing to suggest anyone’s been here at all, I thought as we turned a corner at the end of the hall, following another sign directing us to the core of the ship.
Abruptly the lights cut out. For a couple seconds of panic, me and the mercenary stood in pitch darkness, the throb of the engine deafeningly loud as my ears attempted to compensate for my blindness. Fortunately the mercenary packed better than I had, procuring a small flashlight from his vest, turning it on and handing it to me, clearly insinuating he was more comfortable with me operating a flashlight than a firearm in my current state. Hastily, I slung my rifle over my shoulder, taking the flashlight and removing my sidearm from its holster just as the ship’s emergency lighting kicked in, bathing everything in dim red. Before we managed to get moving again, a speaker somewhere in the hallway crackled to life.
“Check one, two, this thing still work?” it was unmistakably Niequist’s voice, followed by a couple of tapping noises and what sounded like him blowing into a microphone. “This is your captain speaking. Break’s over. We’ve got work to do.”
My first instinct was to run back to the bridge, unable to believe Niequist had somehow managed free himself and incapacitated two of the team. The mercenary clearly considered the same course of action before firmly shaking his head and motioning towards the hallway. The message was clear: too late to go back. The only thing to do was head forward and regroup with the other team. Reluctantly I nodded and began advancing down the hall, clutching the flashlight like a talisman. My partner took two steps behind me before he let loose a piercing scream. I turned around immediately, the beam of the flashlight falling upon the hilt of a boarding axe now firmly buried in the back of the mercenary. Just beyond was the blank face of a man dressed in navy overalls betraying his position as a crewman of this ship. Instinctively I raised my sidearm and fired twice, punching through the man’s torso and deepening the red of the hallway. He emitted a short scream that died alongside him, leaving just the grimacing and foreign swearing emanating from my colleague as he struggled to pry the axe from his back, drawing another yell of pain. His cries of pain tore me away from staring at the sailor’s corpse, and I managed to pull the weapon out before throwing it on the ground with disgust.
He attempted to proceed down the hallway for a few steps before the pain of movement became excruciating. He slumped against the wall and slid to the floor, a bloody smear tailing him down. I made a move to help him back up but he simply waved me away, a look of grim resignation on his face. He readied his weapon and angled his body to face the hall from the direction we had come from, clearly intent on preventing the same fate from befalling me. I expressed my gratitude, although I’m not sure he understood, and began to rush down the hallway towards the engine room, attempting to reach it as soon as humanly possible. The hallway was devoid of any notable landmarks, the monotonous red glow seeming to stretch endlessly forward. Eventually, I heard voices ahead, causing me to slow my pace, carefully trying to mask my footfalls on the steel floor. Sure enough, they were coming from a doorway claiming to lead to the engine room. Seeing no signs of struggle, I carefully crept into the room.
There was no emergency lighting in the engine room, rendering it pitch dark. Holding the flashlight before me, I followed the sound of the voices fighting over the din of the engines. Realizing my flashlight would serve as a lighthouse for anyone within waiting to ambush me, I stopped feet from the doorway. Instead of progressing in, I decided to throw caution to the wind and call out Mathew’s name. Rather than going silent, the voices seemed to get louder, before I heard Mathew yell my name back. Emboldened by the sound of a friendly voice, I moved further into the room, stepping around the first engine. So far so good, I thought as I moved towards the second massive machine. The voices grew louder as I approached, before my foot hit an object on the floor. Freezing in place, I craned my neck downwards, bringing the light to bear on what it was I had stepped on.
It was a vest, not unlike the one I wore, albeit packed in a different manner. As I slowly crouched to pick it up, the voices grew louder and more distinct, now recognizably coming from the corner of the room just beyond the second engine. Clutching the vest in my hands, I now noticed that it held some expended magazines, alongside liberal amounts of blood. With the voices now reaching a crescendo, drowning out even the engines beside me, I took one of the flares out of the vest, unwilling to go any further. Taking a deep breath I lit the flare, illuminating the engine room with what seemed like a small sun. Not seeing the end of the room, I threw it towards the sound of the voices, watching as it hit the floor and rolled towards the corner.
In response, the wall recoiled. What I took to be the wall revealed itself to be merely something enveloping the emergency lights of the engine room. I took a step back as the darkness of the wall ponderously approached the light of the flare, tentatively reaching out for it with shadowy tendrils before voraciously descending upon it and consuming it with the sound of a hundred growls. Without another thought I turned around and broke out in a full sprint for the bridge. Surely whatever waited for me there was preferable to what I was leaving behind. Behind me I heard howling screams causing me to risk a glance back; the contents of the room were spilling into the hall, filling it entirely with disturbing rapidity. Still clutching the meagre flashlight in my hand I noticed the smear on the wall that marked the spot I had left the mercenary. Neither his body nor his assailant’s were visible, however my only reaction at the time was being grateful for having less things to stumble over as I sprinted down the hall.
Rounding the corner we had passed earlier on our way in, I spared a second to gauge the progress of the darkness. I immediately regretted my decision, realizing that the darkness would soon overtake me entirely, long before I could get back to what I now perceived to be the safety of the bridge. The screams behind me nipped at my heels as I fumbled with a flashbang on my vest. Once I had a firm grasp on the small cylinder I tore it out of its pocket, pulled the pin, and dropped it behind be. I firmly grasped my ears as I ran forward, mentally counting the time to detonation. It exploded with the force of a lightning bolt, momentarily painting everything with stark white light. Against my better judgement, I felt compelled to turn around to see the effects my panicked action had. The darkness had stopped in its tracks, now writhing in pain and attempting to put out the embers licking at its corners. Unwilling to let it recover, I primed another flashbang and threw it towards the darkness before bolting the last dozen yards towards the staircase. Behind me I heard a primal roar reverberating down the hall as the grenade detonated. Reaching the end of the hall, I slammed the bulkhead door shut, locking it behind me.
Under no illusion that the door would actually provide me sanctuary, I began ascending the steps, unslinging my rifle and taking off the safety. As I reached deck level I heard voices outside, along with sounds of exertion amidst thousands of heavy raindrops banging against the steel door. Unwilling to engage with more of the crew, I crept past the door we had first entered though and proceeded upstairs to the bridge, praying someone was still alive. The door at the top of the staircase was still open, beckoning me to enter. I obliged, stepping into what can only be described as a bloodbath; gore covered much of the floor and the forward facing windows. The remains of some zip ties and shattered glass could be seen in a particularly thick puddle pooled under the chair we had left the captain in. Nearby, the neck of a broken beer bottle rolled around with the swells of the sea, coming to rest against the door frame with a soft clink. I fought back the urge to vomit as I stepped behind the navigation console to look around for bodies. I had no success in finding any, instead settling my eyes on the open shipping manifesto still lying on the console. Container 308D was frantically circled in blue pen, the sender simply listed as ‘Treasury’ with no further content specifications. They found it, I thought with a degree of relief, desperately rationalizing that my team could have left the captain behind to raid the contents of the container, presumably after some interrogation to get him to reveal the location of the prize. Before I could consider my next course of action, the radio blazed to life with the sound of gunfire and yelling.
“-nyone alive? Two of us left at the stern. Can’t keep them back forever! Come in!” I recognized Mathew’s voice over the sounds of battle.
Frantically I keyed the radio and responded. “I’m on the bridge, but it’s just me. Not sure what happened to Ryan, but one of our guys took an axe from the crew.”
“Good to hear a friendly voice!” Gunfire interrupted him as he yelled for his remaining mercenary to cover him. “There’s something in the engine room, jammed our radios, took out two of my guys-” I heard frantic footfalls and a ricochet. “We got back topside in time to see the crew getting out of a shipping container. They knew we were coming.”
“I know. Their captain didn’t seem surprised by our arrival.”
I heard a yelp of pain on the radio along with some muttered curses before Mathew responded. “The bastard on the speaker? I thought you guys had the bridge locked down!” I opened my mouth to respond but stopped when he continued. “Listen, get on their comms, send out a distress signal and get someone on the line! Either our guy will pick it up on the open channel or another ship will come to aid us. I’ll take prison time over dying on this damn boat!”
“On it.” I gave the room a once over before spotting the communications booth that the mercenary had previously shut down to prevent the crew from radioing for help. The irony of my situation was not lost on me as I booted it back up, grabbing the
plugged in headset.
“This is A Carat Votive. We are in need of urgent assistance. We have a hull leak and we’re taking on water quickly. Anyone there? Respond!” I repeated the message a couple of times to no avail. As I was about to give up hope, a response came over the line.
“This is HMS Ferdinand, we have you on radar. Rerouting to assist. On site in twenty minutes. Over.”
“Copy that,” I couldn’t hide the relief from my voice, desperate to get off of this ship by any means possible.
As I removed the headset from my ear I became aware of soft breathing behind me. As I moved to turn, weapon raised, I felt a balled fist connect with my jaw, knocking me back into the communications console and making me see stars. I fired my rifle blindly, the bullets flying through empty air before nestling themselves in the steel wall. Before my eyes could adjust, rough hands disarmed me and threw me to the ground, cracking my head against the floor and renewing my disorientation. My attacker stepped away from me to pick up the headset.
“Niequist here. Disregard that, we just have some guests that got a hold of the radio.”
I tried to crane my neck off the deck to scream back at the other ship’s operator that Niequist was lying, but was met by his boot heel as he brought it down on my head. Before I lost consciousness I heard the operator’s faint reply.
“Ferdinand copies, good hunting sir.”
I was woken up by rain hitting me face. I started to get up only to realize I was bound, lying outside on the deck. As I gathered my bearings I noticed a dozen men and women in navy overalls dragging what looked like body bags over to the edge of the railing, one of them still visibly writhing from within. Noticing I was now awake, a man in a black raincoat walked over to me.
“Good to see you’re awake.” Niequist spoke with what sounded like sincerity. “Cracked your head real good on the floor. I was worried you wouldn’t wake up.”
I blankly stared at him before my eyes were drawn once more to the railing as the first of the body bags was thrown over by a couple of crewmen. Its disappearance was followed by a splash a couple seconds later. He followed my gaze.
“Sailors like to speak about the sea as though it were a living thing. As though it’s something that can be fought, or seduced with boldness. It’s a bit romantic really,” Niequist paused as another body bag was thrown over the rail. “It’s not too far of the mark.”
“Please just let me go,” I begged, realizing I had no other options.
“I’d like to, believe me I would,” he began, “but that would be in violation of my
contract. You stumbling onto my ship wasn’t just happenstance.”
I looked at him sharply as he shared a knowing smile.
“What? You think you were the first group to hear mumbled rumours in the taverns of a decrepit old ship transporting a container of gold on behalf of foreign investors?” he laughed. “No, but, if it’s any consolation, you likely won’t be the last either. Those rumours only made it ashore because we allowed them to.” He tapped on the container behind him. “308D was it? Let’s have a look.” He unlocked the doors of the container and swung them open before stepping aside to let me see its contents. It was empty. I stared at it in silence for a few moments before the sound of another heavy splash broke my trance.
“Why?” I eventually asked as he lit himself a cigarette and adjusted a brass button on the sleeve of his coat.
“For all intents and purposes, the sea is a living thing,” he took a drag on the cigarette, longingly staring out at the roiling ocean. “The ships that have safely crossed it over the millennia have done so only because it has allowed them to. It could just as easily have torn every one of them asunder. It doesn’t, because then no one would dare set foot in it.” He shot me a grin. “How then would it feed?”
My eyes inadvertently fell back to the deck, becoming transfixed on the moving body bag being lifted by two of the crew. As they hoisted it over the rail, Niequist continued.
“The sea is incredibly influential. How much of civilization directly depended on its co-operability in order to thrive? Fortunately, it can be bargained with.” He began to close the container behind him. “Someone, somewhere in time managed to strike a deal: sacrifice a few, in order to promise safe passage for the many. The benefits of the exchange were great enough for us to prioritize prolonging the partnership.”
As the crew finished their grisly work they turned their attention to me. I started thrashing at my bindings as I realized what was coming. Mercifully, Niequist waved them away.
“That’s where you lot come in.” He smiled as he crouched to get eye level with me, his stare chilling me more than the rain had. “Enough government money has been spent on anti-piracy patrols, and armed escorts for merchant ships. Eventually someone figured ‘hey, why not kill two birds with one stone’, which led to the chartering of this particular ship. We get rid of a few pirates, and we hold up our end of the bargain in the process. Sacrificing innocents is unlikely to go down well, regardless of the benefits. Hand over a few impoverished pirates and society doesn’t even bat an eye.”
The realization dawned on me. “The other ship-”
“They’re aware of our responsibility, and as such they tend to leave us to our own devices.”
“But the thing in the engine room-” As if it was eavesdropping on the conversation a deep bellow came from below the deck. Niequist simply tapped the floor.
“It’s here as an emissary of sorts, makes sure things are running smoothly,” he replied, “No one makes an investment without having someone keeping an eye on it, although it does claim a cut of the take from time to time.”
The crew standing around began growing restless with the prolonged conversation. Niequist took another look at me before standing up and backing away. On cue, a couple crewmen came over and began dragging me towards the edge of the ship. Despite the futility, I clawed at my restraints, yelling at the top of my lungs. Niequist dropped his cigarette, snuffing it out with his heel.
“If it were up to me I’d simply shoot you and throw your corpse overboard, but I’ve been told it likes live bait.” He shouted as he walked away. He turned back as I was pulled to my feet with another grin. “It also loves a fight.”
Suddenly I no longer had ground beneath me, and I plunged towards the hungry sea, distant laughter ringing in my ears.
Credit To – Walrus is Too a Verb