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The Swirling Sulu Sea

The swirling sulu sea

Estimated reading time — 27 minutes

Senior Officer Lucas Marquez paced the groaning deck of the San Juan Bautista. Darkness pressed in against the galleon from all four corners of his compass, as the ship rocked gently in the shallow waters of the Sulu Sea. Lucas was alone, save for the occasional moan of a seabird and the infrequent stumbles from below, indicating that one of the groggier members of his crew – which tonight was just about all of them – had plotted an imperfect path through their cabin on an urgent nocturnal reconnaissance of the ship’s primitive latrines. He breathed a sigh of relief that the ship’s officers had their own facilities, marginally more roomy and significantly cleaner than those currently under siege by the rest of the crew, who were paying their dues on the back of a night fuelled by some of the worst rum Lucas had ever had the misfortune of sharing a boat with. Leaning against the ship’s taffrail, he looked down at the water below and inhaled deeply; a familiar, sweet-scented aroma filled his head, a sensation he had chalked up as a mix of the heady smell emanating from vegetation a short distance away on the shoreline and the scent of this strange, unfamiliar sea.

Not for the first time that day, or evening, or even during his ongoing late night amble around the deck, Lucas’ thoughts turned to the work which lay before him and his men in the days ahead. His briefing from his superiors, delivered in a side chamber of the imposing columnated building which served as navy command in Manilla, was more vague than he would usually have liked. He understood that the crux of their mission was to gather intelligence on the geographic and cultural landscapes of the north-western coast of the unnamed island lying just beyond the ship, which continued to sit stubbornly outside the control of the growing Spanish colony in these islands now known to the world as the Philippines. His commanding officer in the city, Salazar de Oñate, had been clear in so far as requesting that Lucas and his men observe and record population patterns along this patchily mapped stretch of coastline, paying particular attention to any discernible signs of attempted influence by competing imperial powers, from foreign foodstuffs to modern weaponry. The briefing had also stipulated that Lucas and his men should, if a viable landing spot could be found, deploy a nimble search party through largely unmapped territory in order to deliver a scouting report on living conditions in the interior, and the potential combat capability of the tribal groups known to be living on the island.

Hearing this second objective, Lucas felt he was in his element. He had successfully led a number of previous expeditions through uncharted landscapes and was comfortable he knew what he was doing. What’s more, he had worked under Salazar’s command for a number of years now and trusted the man deeply; a measured, perceptive and highly experienced veteran of aristocratic stock, ageing yet able to bring his years of experience to bear to help support his junior officers, Salazaar was everything Lucas thought a senior officer should be. If Salazaar thought a mission would help the cause of their glorious empire, Lucas had no further questions. As an aside, while Lucas did not like to think of himself as an indecently ambitious man, his superior had also suggested that a decent haul of intelligence from the mission would prove helpful for a young officer seeking to build their profile.


Which brought Lucas to the third, and by far the most nebulous, objective he had been set by command. He would have gone as far as to say it had barely registered as an order at the time it was delivered. As he was leaving his briefing, one of the senior figures present among the imperial staff, a wispy, gaunt looking man who he understood held a secretive role within the colony’s intelligence networks, spoke for the first time that evening, and asked Lucas to stay for just a minute longer. This man, who Lucas now realised he was unable to name, held Lucas’ gaze for an uncomfortable full five seconds before continuing. “As a final aside, we have received reports of unusual maritime activity in the area. As such, we would be grateful if you could cast and maintain a vigilant, yet discreet, eye around your surroundings. Just from time to time. To most especially include after dark.” Upon hearing Lucas seeking to clarify the request, the man from intelligence responded by telling the officer that he should simply ‘record anything out of the ordinary’ and concluded by asking that he conduct his observations of the sea alone, and without notifying any other members of the crew of his activity. Sensing that there might be a delicate military angle to the request, Lucas understood when to hold fire with further questioning of a superior, choosing instead to give his salutes and take leave. As he left the room, Lucas noticed Salazaar looking unusually uncomfortable and seemingly unable to draw his eyes away from the wispy figure who had issued this third and final request. Given his reputation as a legendary judge of character, the sight of Salazaar’s expression gave Lucas an instinctive flutter of discomfort, but he thought little more of it as his attention was quickly reabsorbed by the hubbub and activity permeating the halls of naval command.

Having set out just a few days later, the journey taken by the San Juan Bautista to the mission’s theatre of action was remarkable only for its lack of the usual unplanned setbacks which so commonly assailed naval activity in these waters. The ship’s crew rejoiced that they were benefiting from what they knew would be the last few days of the dry season, before torrents of steamy water drenched skin to the bone and vortices of dense cloud played havoc with visibility. A crystalline sea shimmered in the bright sunlight, its surface broken only by the ever frequent – but always startling – vaults of flying fish common to these waters. Sighting land just after daybreak on their third day at sea, the crew observed a thin strip of bright white sand, backed-up by dense swathes of greenery stretching unbroken across the flat coastal plain and up into the steep rocky crags which dominated the bulk of the island’s interior. Lucas added a whimsical entry to his diary, observing that his first impressions of the island’s ridge reminded him of the shell of an armadillo. As he wrote, he smiled to himself, recalling the antics undertaken by some of his men on a previous expedition in the Americas, when a real and utterly perplexed armadillo had ended up in the bunk of a crew member with a well-deserved reputation for sharp practice during evening card games.

Their first day along the shoreline was spent conducting fruitful observations of the island’s geography, and Lucas was pleased with the output of his two cartographers, who had been able to fill several gaps and correct a number of long-standing errors which existed in current Spanish maps of the island. The ship’s offshore reconnaissance had revealed few clear signs of human habitation along the immediate coastline, though a brief plume of smoke, spotted by one of his crew rising from the thick mass of greenery beyond, spoke to activity in the interior. Amid the jovial sense of a productive first day, the men aboard the San Juan Bautista sat down that evening to enjoy their provisions in fine spirits, toasting the benevolent weather and speculating with eager curiosity on the activities of the days ahead.

A veil of darkness fell abruptly across the first night of the expedition. Lucas had made plans to lead a handpicked group, selected for their competence in the art of stealth, on an initial reconnaissance of the dense forest which lay beyond the thin strip of sand before them. Whilst their visual reconnaissance of the island had revealed little, previous observational reports made by the small number of ships to pass by this stretch of the island included a number of sightings of nocturnal activity along the shoreline, including hunting parties and small-scale violent clashes between groups primarily armed with a combination of spears and rudimentary palm arrows. Lucas and his men were therefore well attuned to the value of proceeding with caution.

The landing craft slipped silently through the silky waters which separated the Juan Bautista from the shore. Lucas’ men were as still and silent as he had ever seen them, seeming to hold their breath as one, as they travelled deeper into the darkness opening up before them. Looking around, the few members of his crew he was able to see clearly displayed expressionless, stoic faces, though he could sense a smouldering fear spreading beneath the surface. Before long, a sprawling, deserted stretch of sand loomed out of the night and their oarsmen manoeuvred the boat to allow the landing party to disembark in the shallows. Lucas observed an initial hesitancy in the young faces of the crew who were positioned to be first ashore, though he knew all of the men present had served alongside him in equally foreboding landscapes and was heartened to see them begin to file out of the craft with a determined vigour.

Last out of the boat, Lucas joined the small group on the beach and silently gave the signal for his men to proceed in the formation they had rehearsed more times than any of them could count. One of his scouts, a diminutive and wiry man named Jose Ramirez who sported legendary optical prowess and was alleged to have picked out a hostile, camouflaged dwarf in New Granada at 80 paces, led the way. Lucas followed closely behind, flanked by two of his most trusted footmen, with the rest of the party in column, padding softly across the narrow beach towards the immensity of green which marked the boundary of the interior.


Pushing aside thick tropical leaves, half the size of a man and dripping with steaming moisture, the men progressed slowly through the thicket beyond the beach. Cloying, sweet aromas rose up from the lush forest floor and seemed to lodge in the nose, filling the men’s minds with unfamiliar scents which offered none of the calming familiarity so often derived from olfactory union with plants and flowers. A disorientating patchwork of sound assailed the group from all four cardinal directions; while the level-headed soldier in each of them knew the cries and whispers arose from the menagerie of insects and birdlife in the surrounding trees, every man had his own, more sinister, interpretation of the stranger noises. A gentle yet persistent breeze blew through the gaps between the foliage, taking full advantage of the light gear worn by the landing party and forcing a collective shiver. Despite his god-given sensory gifts, even Jose Ramirez could see little of what lay ahead of them as the men pushed on, sticking as best they could to the route which had seemed so simple when it was mapped out as a simple red line on the chart splayed on the deck of the galleon. After ten minutes of stuttering progress, though it felt four times that to most of the group, Jose put a silent hand in the air and came to a dead and complete standstill. Lucas and his two footmen were close enough to see the signal and stopped immediately, with the crew behind quickly following suit.

Jose dropped to a squat in complete silence, in the manner commonly deployed by men trained in the darker arts of stealth warfare. He picked up a simple palmwood arrowhead, which had been found flat on the surface of the dirt, and held it in the air for his commanding officer to view; despite the cloying tension, Lucas couldn’t help thinking to himself that the almost supernatural observational displayed by his scouts would never cease to amaze him. The vision of his crew was clouded by the surrounding darkness, and they were unable to see what had caused their march to stop. He could sense a curtain of unease begin to descend behind him

Weighing up the finding, it was clear to Lucas that he and his men were not the only people
to tread this path through the narrow alleyways of the island’s medina of greenery. He had however anticipated as much from the outset and finding evidence of what was likely a recent, and seemingly unsuccessful, hunting expedition conducted by the residents of this stretch of coast caused him no significant concern. He conferred in painfully hushed whispers with Jose, who reported with a degree of confidence that the esoteric signs he was able to discern from the disruption to the forest floor indicated that the party responsible for the arrowhead had passed directly across their track, heading from south to north, or right to left from the perspective of Lucas’ men. Lucas issued instructions for Jose to lead them on the trail of the unknown hunters and gave reassurance that he and his men would be in a state of readiness for violence if necessary.

Proceeding with pained caution, the group followed Jose through dense arcades of branches and tunnels of leaves taller than any man. They came upon a thin, fast-moving stream, hidden between steaming banks of putrid soil, and winced at the revealing yet unavoidable noises each of them made as they crossed. Passing jumbled, ambiguous piles of wood and rocks, each of them wondered whether they were viewing evidence of human habitation, perhaps with the creators hidden just beyond view in the surrounding gloom, or whether they were committing the cardinal sin of any soldier operating in the dark and falling in thrall to an overactive imagination. After penetrating an especially dense colonnade of palms, the men filed one-by-one into a clearing broadly circular in shape, with a diameter of at least twenty feet. It was immediately obvious that the space they occupied had been cleared out by human hands. The forest floor was peppered with the stumps of felled trees, and the detritus of recent habitation, including numerous broken stone tools and the burnt remains of a fire, was on view for all to see.

A small square stone structure was situated in the centre of the clearing, revealed by the dim moonlight as a roughly hewn, three-tiered pyramid of stone. Its most prominent point stood no higher than the shoulders of the most unremarkable of Lucas’ men, and its width in each direction was roughly equal to the length of a man of average height lying down. Feeling confident now that his company were alone, at least for the time being, Lucas approached the structure and ran his hand along the surface of the closest corner of the structure, which was damp and cold to the touch. Walking slowly around the perimeter, he observed that the surfaces of the upper and lower tiers of stone were smooth and unadulterated. This stood in contrast to that of the middle tier, where shapes had been carved in relief into the face of the stone.

Ceasing his circumambulation in order to inspect the bas reliefs to the fullest extent permitted by the austere light, Lucas was able to discern a decorative frieze, which appeared to cover the full perimeter of the central tier of the structure. The section immediately before him was composed of highly stylised humanoid figures, all depicted in one of two styles. The first grouping were shown holding round plates, overflowing with fruit and palm leaves and lifted high into the air, bringing to mind the act of a religious offering. The second group sent an involuntary shiver down Lucas’ spine. These carvings depicted men and women with contorted faces and exaggerated expressions of pain, staring wide-eyed out of the stone through overlarge eyes.

The officer slowly followed the repeating carvings across the full length of one side of the square, and reached the halfway point of the subsequent perpendicular stone face, where the human figures were replaced by something altogether more terrible. A thin line carved towards the bottom of the stone, crested with angles which formed waves on its surface, formed a simple depiction of the sea. Breaking through the waves, reaching the full height of the middle section of the structure, were a series of appendages. These carvings struck Lucas as loosely resembling the arms of an octopus, with the notable exception of what appeared to be two rows of jagged teeth set into the middle of each limb. But the real savagery was to be found upon a close inspection of the tips of the appendages, which were each shown gripping the figure of a person, lifted high in the air and depicted in the unmistakable throes of agony.

Forgetting his surroundings and unable to shift his gaze from the hideous scene, Lucas began to perceive that the stone appendages had taken on a lifelike motion, appearing to thrash and flail from within the moonlit sea below. A sensation of sudden horror and overwhelming fear washed over him, sharper and more debilitating than anything he had felt in the heat of battle or under enemy questioning. He wrenched his eyes from the carvings and turned to his right, where Luas saw his two footmen race around the corner of the structure, thin rapiers drawn and wearing looks of concern. “We heard your scream, officer. Are you safe?”. Confused by their report of a noise he had no recollection of making, Lucas gathered his thoughts and assured the men he had come to no harm. From the looks on their faces, the evidence to the contrary presented by Lucas’ apparent cry and his subsequent omission of any explanation for the noise clearly left the men feeling unsettled, yet they passed no further comment.

Deciding that there was little to be gained by bringing the attention of his men to the peculiar nautical relief, and holding no strong desire to cast his own gaze back upon the teeth and tentacles rendered in that restless stone, Lucas led the two men back to the main body of their expedition. Jose Ramirez was ready with a scout’s report, and conveyed his summation that there had been no human presence in the clearing, save their own, for at least half a day, and that whoever they had tracked to this place had passed through before that time. Concluding that the picture they had built of the shoreline, coupled with the intelligence they had gleaned on recent activity on the island, represented a fair return on their exertions, Lucas issued orders for the group to return to the San Juan Bautista.

As the group made their way back through the foliage, still with the quiet of the professional soldier, yet now without the halting anxiety of men anticipating a fatal ambush behind every tree, Lucas could sense the unvoiced questions forming in their thoughts. If he did cry out by the stone structure, his footmen would not have been the only two of his comrades to hear; combined with his unexplained tarry around the far side of the stone structure, he had no doubt that many within the group were craving an explanation. Lucas followed Jose Ramirez out of the shadow of the foliage, across the thin strip of beach separating them from the landing craft and glanced up at the patchwork of starlight shimmering above in the now cloudless sky. Lucas knew he had first to digest and make sense of his own experience before offering it up for discussion with even his most trusted comrades.

Lucas woke late the following morning, in-line with protocol for soldiers involved in a late nocturnal expedition. Conducting a tour of both the deck and lower sections of the ship, he made a point of talking to each of the men who had been present with him in the forest clearing, being sure to demonstrate that he remained both sound of mind and ready to lead from the front. Lucas knew the importance of retaining the confidence of his crew; not just in their outward expressions, which all professional soldiers could maintain at sea, but also in their hearts and minds, which were the repository of their reserves of courage and obedience in a time of crisis.

Yet Lucas felt a growing sense of unease within his own heart and mind at the events of the previous evening. The stark fact that his men heard him scream in the darkness, coupled with his lack of any memory of the event, proffered obvious cause for concern. But it was the memory he did retain which bothered him most; the vivid recollection of a multitude of writhing appendages rendered in living stone. He could not lead his mind away from speculating on the provenance of the relief carvings, no matter how he tried to coax and corrall it to cheerier and more practical musings. Lucas’ initial interpretation was that the stonework depicted a form of mythical sea monster, perhaps based on exaggerated accounts of squid or octopus in local folklore. He smiled weakly for the first time that day, as he thought about some of the tall tales of tentacles he had heard from his own men during his naval career. It should be no more unexpected that the local culture, living in such intimate quarters with the sea, would have similar stories. His agitated mind was however unwilling to conclude this mental discussion with such a simple explanation, and raced away in search of hidden meanings and more sinister interpretations. Why were all the human carvings surrounding the stone structure shown making offerings to the creature? Lucas cursed himself for not requesting that an anthropologist join their crew from one of Manila’s burgeoning centres of learning.

Most importantly of all, Lucas obsessed over how and why the stone had appeared to move with such realism. He could not bring himself to accept the easy conclusion that the motion was caused by a trick of the light. He knew there was no optical deception in the world which could have caused the stone to seem to move for so long and from so many angles. He began to mull over an uncomfortable proposition; the possibility that his own sensory perceptions had failed him. Lucas was not so presumptive as to assume the reports he received from his eyes and ears were any more infallible than those he was provided by his men, which were so often distorted by the frailty of all human perception. Yet this was something far more troubling than a blurred sighting or a misheard word. He knew he had to give honest appraisal to the possibility that the workings of his own mind had been set awry in that clearing. Taking a slow, detailed observation of his immediate surroundings on the ship, he was satisfied that his cognitive faculties felt in working order, though he noted wryly that no man was qualified to pass a sentence on his own mental state. But if a flaw in his inner machinery had taken hold of his perceptions last night, Lucas questioned how he could be certain it would not happen again. He concluded that there was no satisfactory answer to be reached from his own internal musings and set out to busy himself among the decks of the ship.

Later that night, a rare streak of moonlight broke through a gap in the swirling cloud and illuminated a stretch of thick black water clawing gently at the flanks of the ship, drawing soft creaks and moans from its wooden frame. These noises aside, the dark space beyond was still and silent. Unable to sleep, Lucas paced slowly across and around the front half of the deck, a sense of unease seeming to rise up from the boat’s bowels and into his quivering gut. He looked out across the jet black canvas surrounding his vessel on all sides and was unable to shake the sensation of a night pregnant with sinister intent. He drew on his officer’s training and no short measure of natural mental fortitude to lead his mind back into a place of calm and sensible judgement, a manoeuvre he realised he was finding increasingly challenging in these beguiling waters.

As Lucas lent against the starboard bulwark and peered into the greenery barely visible beyond the beach through the gloom, a sound echoed across the sea behind him; a short and sudden drop, like a smooth pebble entering the water from a low height. He walked briskly to the opposite side of the boat and conducted the searching visual sweep of an experienced naval hand. While the sea rocked placidly below, as it had done all evening, he was able to register a small, nearby band of concentric circular ripples, moving outwards from a centre point. Lucas observed the ripples until they ceased, held his gaze on their epicentre, and saw no further motion. Mentally chalking the disturbance up to a fish breaking the water’s surface, Lucas returned to the bulwark and continued his vigil of the thick greenery marking the perimeter of the island, a deeper sense of unease nonetheless imposing itself upon his mind.

Within a minute, Lucas heard a repeat of the sound on the sea’s surface, this time closer to him and, to the best of his fraying intuition, from the stretch of water sitting just beyond the ship’s bow. Pacing quickly for a second time, this time to the front of the boat, Lucas scanned the thick dark sheet beneath him and once again saw bands of ripples moving outwards. This time they were much closer; Lucas estimated no more than ten feet from the ship’s wooden hull. As before, there was nothing to observe at their centre, although Lucas was convinced that he was now able to see small disturbances in the water surrounding the ripples, and the only explanation he could offer himself was that they arose from motion under the surface of the water. He watched the ripples expel out into the surrounding stillness, and jumped as he heard the now-familiar sound for a third time, this time to his right in the water below the starboard side of the ship.


Shedding altogether his deeply ingrained officer’s preference for measured movement, Lucas ran to the railing and saw the ripples yet again, now immediately below his line of sight and sliding into the side of the boat. As he leaned over the railing to a distance which would have given his instructors as the naval academy cold sweats, the ship lurched forward into the darkness, with a sharp force seemingly originating under the hull, causing Lucas to lose his footing and cling tightly to the wooden perimeter as he fell to his knees, mercifully landing inward and onto the deck. Disorientated and vividly aware of the ship rocking from the violence of the motion, Lucas put his hands on the deck to steady himself, as footsteps and voices gave notice of a group ascending in haste from the ship’s bowels.

Rushing out of the hatch and onto the deck, one of Lucas’ most trusted footmen, Ramon Buendia, was at the head of the group, and was therefore the first to witness the stark sight of his officer struggling to get to his feet. Ramon ran to the ship’s railing and offered his weight to lean on as Lucas righted himself. Confusion mingled with concern as Ramon registered the rare sight of fear in his superior’s eyes. “What happened, sir?” was the only question he could proffer, but he knew before Lucas answered that this was a mystery which currently remained unsolved. “As of now I am unsure, Ramon, but whatever it was seems to have abated. I am ordering an observation covering the full perimeter of the ship which will last until sunrise, when we can conduct an inspection of the waters surrounding us. My suspicion is that atmospheric conditions triggered a violent disturbance of the currents which surround this island”.

“These are strange seas, officer” came a voice from further out on the deck, which Lucas recognised as that of the ship’s cook, a man predisposed to superstition and jumpy behaviour at the most sterile of times. The officer in him knew he had to quash any sense that the night’s happenings were anything other than readily explained through natural phenomena, and therefore proceeded with delivering a thorough dressing down, which was in a tone sharper and harsher than he would have usually permitted himself. Listening to the unmistakable flash of anger in his officer’s fraying voice, for the first time in their years together, Ramon was struck with a sense that Lucas did not feel entirely in control of their situation, a realisation which was both unfamiliar and unsettling in equal measure. A hollow feeling of foreboding began to take root in the depths of the man’s stomach.

The soldiers took their positions around the perimeter of the ship’s deck and maintained a skittish vigil. The atmosphere had quickly become thick with fear, and the men seemed capable only of exacerbating the worries of their comrades. Every noise from within that cloud of darkness which cocooned the boat triggered jumpy glances and weapons drawn on instinct. The piercing shriek of passing gulls, as familiar to these hardened men of the sea as the bleat of a ewe to a hill farmer, sent shivers down spines and sparked startled backward steps. Sudden and ambiguous movements within the surrounding currents repeatedly drew a rush of men to the edge of the hull, peering sightlessly into the gloom before offering each other convictionless assurances that the culprit was nothing more remarkable than a fish breaking the water’s surface.

At the point in the night when the darkness seemed to have thickened into its most impenetrable state, a sharp cry from the rear of the deck turned all heads. A young footsoldier named Arcadio, assigned with keeping watch across the waters beyond the ship’s stern, was racing across the deck’s wooden planks and contrived to halt his body in front of Lucas, in what appeared to all observers as an uncontrolled frenzy of motion. “I saw it, sir, sliding under the boat!”. “What did you see, Arcadio, tell me calmly and quickly” replied Lucas, looking hard into the youth’s eyes and seeing them dilate in terror. “Green, sir, thick and green, sliding under the boat”. Lucas drew deeply on his diminishing reserves of fortitude and attempted to think, calmly and quickly, through the likely causes of this panicked report. Dugongs, dolphins, crocodiles; all three creatures had been the subject of occasional sightings among his men, and seemed to Lucas to offer the most likely explanation for anything thick and green-looking in the surrounding sea. He put his hands on his subordinates’ shoulders, which were shaking to such a degree that Lucas made a mental note to probe the boy’s constitution more thoroughly at an appropriate time, and asked Arcadio again to describe what he saw, hoping that the brief pause Lucas had injected into their exchange would help the soldier to distil his sighting into a meaningful description. Arcadio’s subsequent report did not leave his officer, or any of those members of the crew who were within earshot, feeling like they had moved onto firmer ground.

“It was a tentacle, sir. Longer than me”. Lucas knew now that the dark and feverish atmosphere was starting to have its way with his crew’s powers of perception. “Come now, Arcadio. Nothing in this sea could grow a tentacle as long as you. Be it an octopus or squid, we can just about fit the largest specimens on our galley plates”. But Arcadio barely seemed to hear him. “Lined with teeth, sir. Two rows. And only the darkest thoughts when I saw it”. This last line was too much for Lucas to stand; sensing the eyes of his men on their exchange, his patience snapped in two. “Steady yourself, Arcadio. We need soldiers who can keep a calm head, maintain sound judgement and deliver clear reports of everything significant they happen to see. Anything less endangers you, me and our ship. Now go below to the sick bay, tell Doctor Garcia you have a fever, and talk to me in the morning”. While Lucas had half a hope that his rebuke would insert some earthliness into his subordinate’s demeanour, Arcadio simply blinked once, walked placidly away and descended through the hatch. Looking up, Lucas sensed a palpable tension pervading the deck and felt the lingering gaze of his crew develop into an almost physical sensation. Silently gesturing the men back to their assigned places, he resumed his own position at the ship’s bow and conducted a long, slow sweep of the motionless sea ahead of him, seeing nothing but a barren stillness as far as the moonlight would permit.

When Lucas eventually returned to his officer’s quarters in the early hours, sleep was an impossibility. Feeling he could lay in rampant restlessness no longer, he began a walk through the lower deck, where a profound and strained stillness permeated the usually boisterous halls and common spaces. Men were scattered here and there, yet not a single voice broke through the silence. Lucas was particularly struck by the sight of abandoned playing cards and wooden chips at the large curved table in the corner of the dining quarters, which had hitherto been home to an unceasing whirl of games since the first hour of their departure from Manilla. The members of the crew Lucas could see were lost in thought and appeared invariably drawn to staring into the middle distance.

Lucas continued through the doorway leading from the dining room into a short corridor, which was flanked on either side by further doors leading to the small, cramped cabins shared by his men. He passed the room he knew was shared by Arcadio and three other junior members of the crew. Having seen each of Arcadio’s roommates sitting alone among the ship’s dining quarters, Lucas expected the young footsoldier to be recuperating in his cabin on the back of his orders to visit the sick bay. Knocking quietly and receiving no response, he applied a gentle pressure to the door and slowly pushed it open. The spartan room was empty, and the bed Lucas recognised as belonging to Arcadio had been made up neatly, in the manner expected of every member of crew at the beginning of a day at sea. This surprised Lucas, as it suggested Arcadio had returned and slept in his cabin since visiting the ship’s medical authorities; and yet there were few other places he could now be without having been seen by Lucas on his route around the ship.

Leaving the small room, Lucas continued his walk to the end of the adjoining corridor, which finished in a dead-end. Finding himself increasingly keen to determine the welfare of his young subordinate, Lucas contemplated his next action and decided he would enquire after Arcadio among the three men who shared his cabin. Leaning against the roughly hewn wooden panels which lined the walls at this end of the lower deck, he noticed the handle of a final and more modest door, which he remembered led down into a narrow storeroom. Being minded to leave no stone unturned, Lucas opened the door and peered through into the half-light of the room beyond, which was devoid of windows. Becoming accustomed to the gloom, his eyes began to take in a substantial shadow, which seemed to float a few feet beyond in the darkness. Lucas recoiled in horror at a sudden and terrible understanding of the scene before him. Arcadio’s body hung suspended from the ceiling, rocking gently in keeping with the motion of the ship.

The officer stood aghast in the small doorway, his feet rooted to the spot while his mind raced uncontrollably through the events of the previous evening. Had Arcadio come straight here when Lucas had ordered him down from the deck? While he had not yet come to know the young man well, Lucas had seen nothing in Arcadio’s character which had given him any inkling that his shipmate was considering taking his own life. While he had the worldliness to acknowledge that the depths of a man’s soul were unknowable, and that even the most seemingly steadfast characters often carried heavy hidden burdens beneath carefully controlled exteriors, he couldn’t help but dwell on the significance of Arcadio’s strange reports of the previous evening. Had he, Lucas, been too dismissive of the youthful soldier?

Feeling the deep, soul-shattering despair that proximity to the loss of young life is so prone to call forth, Lucas sensed his own helplessness. Nothing he could do now would bring the man back; he knew immediately that it would take the rest of his own lifetime to begin to comprehend what had happened on his boat that day. Yet through the darkness, Lucas was still dimly cognisant that he had a pressing responsibility for the safety of the remaining crew of a ship which seemed to be fraying at the edges in more ways than one. He landed on a makeshift plan to summon the ship’s medical officers, and requested that they affect a dignified and discreet removal of the body, in advance of a full burial at sea the following day. Lucas knew that announcing the young man’s death in the immediate climate had the potential to irreparably break their remaining communal morale.


Dusk began to encroach on the fading afternoon light, before snatching the sun out of the sky and bringing about the sudden nightfall which attends to the tropics. Mulling over the events of the preceding two days, Lucas had come to the only decision he could countenance. He was going to order that the ship make an immediate return to Manilla, after which he would communicate the news of Arcadio’s death to his men. He knew that there was nothing in his report which would fully satisfy naval command for the early termination of the mission, but he was certain that this was the call which gave him the best chance of keeping his crew safe. Lucas walked briskly in the direction of the chartroom, with the intention of conveying his orders to the ship’s navigation officer. As he drew close to the door, he felt a violent force impact the San Juan Bautista, and fell hard, shoulder first, into the wall of a corridor.

Steadying himself and climbing to his feet, Lucas perceived another, albeit less savage, blow to the ship, this time seemingly coming from directly underneath the boat. The officer turned and ran back in the direction of the hatch leading onto the ship’s deck. Men rushed out of rooms adjoining the passageway and ran alongside Lucas, who urged calm and ordered all members of the crew to join him above deck in a state of readiness for action. The first group, with Lucas at their head, flung themselves through the hatch and looked out, wide-eyed, at the surrounding sea. While adrenaline coursed through the group, the boat remained unmoved since the second violent blow, while an unsettling stillness seemed to roll in out of the surrounding darkness and hang heavily in the air around them. The sound of ragged breathing pervaded the deck and began to recede into the enveloping silence as the men recovered from the mad dash. Knowing they could not afford to ignore any assailant, natural or otherwise, which was able to rock the San Juan Bautista with the force he had felt just moments prior, Lucas began to issue orders for a second vigil of the surrounding waters, which he expected would last the night.

Taking up positions across both sides of the deck, the atmosphere among the men on the ship was thick with trepidation. A persistent, mocking breeze, so rare in these waters, blew over the railing and irritated their fearful faces. Patches of cloud raced across the sky, causing the surrounding sea to be periodically plunged into almost total darkness, as the light from the moon was extinguished. The silence which enveloped every watching soldier was interrupted only by the heavy, anxious breathing of a nearby comrade. Men twisted and turned in agitation, their torment magnified by the simple fact that they still had no understanding as to what the night had in store.

Then, feeling to the crew like nothing less than an unholy cataclysm, a sudden and violent motion punctured the still night, causing the boat to list wildly, first in a seaward direction before tilting wildly towards land. A sense of unabated terror ran loose on the ship thereafter; men ran wildly across the deck, abandoning their remaining vestiges of rational thought, and Lucas was unable to draw even a passing glance from his junior officers as he shouted in vain above the din of wood on water. Giving in to his own need to understand the fate befalling them, he ran to the ship’s railing and felt his stomach seem to fall through the deck floor. Forming beneath the boat, an enormous whirlpool, at least seventy feet in diameter and growing before Lucas’ eyes, churned the ship like butter.

Any final reserves of willpower had run dry in the past few minutes, and the commanding officer of the San Juan Bautista was only able to stare wide-eyed into the blue maw which had already begun to swallow his ship. As the boat rocked ever more wildly in the swirling water, a cry went up from two men who were leaning over the railing a short distance from Lucas. Following their gaze, he saw what he had begun to expect was inevitable; a thick, green appendage, taller than the highest point on the ship’s mast, had broken the surface of the water and loomed over the deck. Two rows of jagged teeth, which even in that wild moment reminded Lucas of the cruellest knives he had seen in the military archives, sat among pulsating dark flesh. A second arm broke violently through the water, followed by two more, the last of which swept across the stretch of deck directly opposite Lucas, splintering the ship’s railing and knocking three of the youngest members of his crew into the abyssal darkness beyond the San Juan Bautista.

The officer saw another tentacle wrap itself around the mast of his ship and snap the wooden column clean in two, sending a body tumbling from high in the crow’s nest before making a sickening crunch as it hit the decking and disintegrated in a scene from the most visceral of nightmares. He observed a mixture of desperate panic and numb resignation among the crew, some of whom were running wildly across the deck and even jumping overboard into the raging waters in their attempt to escape the savagery, whereas others were simply staring in collective wide-eyed horror at the unearthly vision looming over them. The movements of the creature – Lucas now didn’t know how else to think of it – became more frenzied, as it began to take chunks out of the ship’s hull. Yet more terrible still, he saw men impaled on the long, evil teeth set into the depths of their tormentor’s appendages.

In his final moments, Lucas became aware that one of the creature’s arms had risen high above the centre of the deck. He saw it crash down through the black sky and cleave his ship in two. The bow tilted violently forward, giving Lucas a direct view into the chaos at the centre of the maelstrom at the same moment that he lost his footing. Reaching wildly for any part of the ship to hold on to, he felt his body thrown forward into the chasm of space above the whirlpool. He looked downwards as he fell, and was overwhelmed with the purest distillation of terror as he saw a round, fleshy mouth emerge from the water, lined with three rings of black teeth.

Time and motion seemed to slow, as his wide and wild gaze drank in the horror he was hurtling towards. Lucas was cognisant, somewhere, that these were his final, fleeting moments. The cruel mouth below him stretched to become a wide, yawning maw, and as he looked into the blackness within, Lucas perceived a whirling reel of memories, which he knew with certainty were not his own. Other, equally horrific scenes of impending doom, of bodies on the brink of being torn apart by the same jagged teeth now just a few feet below him, appeared simultaneously before his eyes. A sailor tipped overboard from a boat adorned with Chinese heraldry, the design of which Lucas knew dated to hundreds of years before his time; a naked tribesman, paddling a wooden canoe which was thrown high into the air by a green appendage; a woman, clothed in what appeared to be animal skins, was bound tightly in palm fibres and thrown into a raging sea by three shamans. Lucas shared in each of their terrors, and in his final thoughts, knew he was about to join this lineage of death, stretching back to time immemorial. He closed his eyes, felt his flesh tear apart, and was no more.

Pacing a committee room at the Spanish naval base in Manilla, Salazar de Oñate appeared to be in a heightened state of agitation. The one other man present, a familiar and shadowy presence from colonial intelligence, placidly observed the military commander’s movements from a simple wooden chair, his features bearing no expression at all. Salazar stopped a few feet from the man and placed his hands on the long table which divided the centre of the room. His eyes had taken on a wild and incensed quality, which none at the base had hitherto seen in a man who was widely perceived as the Platonic form of composure. “Ninety days!”, he yelled. “Ninety days since we last established contact with the San Juan. A ship crewed by some of our best men and greatest patriots. Commanded by a leading light of the Spanish Navy. Yet I am obstructed at every turn from taking any action to ascertain the fate of our men and, God willing, bring them home!”. The intelligence officer initially seemed not to hear Salazar’s impassioned outburst, slowly wringing his hands in a way which suggested absentmindedness. Long seconds passed, bathed in tension and silence. Eventually, in a deeply measured voice, seemingly directed to the room at large rather than the only other man in it, he explained that the case would be investigated as part of a classified operation. Continuing to look straight ahead at a blank stretch of wall, the man added that he was unable to share any specifics with Salazar, or authorise any further action at the present time.

Two days later, Salazar de Oñate had begun to make arrangements to return to his familial home among the olive groves which cover the hills of Spain’s Sierras Subbéticas. He had reached a joint decision with navy command that it would be best for all involved if he saw out his final year of service to the Spanish crown in an advisory role back in Europe, before beginning his retirement earlier than expected. Men with a channel into the discussions gossiped that Salazar had, for the first time in his career, permitted himself to display a vivid outburst of anger. Rumours swelled that he had threatened to tender a very public resignation if the empire did not commit to sending an immediate and fully resourced mission to determine the fate of the missing crew of the San Juan Bautista. Still murkier speculation suggested that naval command had, in turn, demanded Salazar’s immediate silence on the matter, with an alleged threat made to the safety of his son, currently serving with distinction in the Americas. Little was heard from him again.

Credit: Ben Daniels-Roberts

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