An excerpt from SAILORS TAKE WARNING
A tale of horror aboard the USS Nimitz
Kate Conrad sat in the back of the stacks and watched thousands of books slide an inch over the edges of their shelves, and then the ship rolled the other way and they slid back. The librarians strung bungee cords to prevent books from falling off and they were working pretty well, but tonight the sea ran rough and every few minutes a book or two, usually a thick hardback, leaped over a rubber cord and tumble to the deck. She walked over and picked up a book that had fallen. As she slid it back into its spot, a librarian wearing black plastic-framed glasses entered the row carrying a box of clattering metal rods.
“I’ve never done this before.” He dropped the box.
“What’s that?” Kate asked.
“Battening down the hatches.” He pulled a rod from the box and fixed it against the books along one of the shelves.
Kate saw right away how he attached the metal rod to little brackets on each shelf and then removed the bungee cord and tossed it into the box.
“Here, I’ll help you,” Kate said as she pulled a rod from the box and snapped it in place, securing another shelf loaded with books.
“All hands on deck,” the librarian said.
“I wish they’d steer out of this storm,” she said.
She braced herself against the bookshelf as the ship began nosing over. Her entire body clenched as the compartment seemed to turn over on its side. Thousands of books slid partway off their shelves—the weight of a million words shoved by a violent ocean, straining against elastic bands. She felt the weight of the entire stack threatening to topple over and crush her if the ship tilted another inch.
“We better get out of here,” the librarian said, as hundreds of books tumbled over the elastic cords and crashed all around, several knocking them on their heads and shoulders.
Right then the alarm bell rang, and the ship pitched back to almost level.
Kate quickly snapped another metal rods in place.
“I wish I could stick around and help,” she told the librarian, “but I have to respond to this alarm.”
“Be safe,” he said.
Kate bounded over books scattered on the floor and headed out of the library. In the passageway, she was surprised to hear for the second night in a row, “SECURITY BREACH IN THE AFT WEAPONS MAGAZINE.”
The ship leaned so far over it caused cabinets and drawers to spew their contents. Fire extinguishers, spanner wrenches, pots and pans and toolboxes—anything not securely stowed—broke loose and rattled about on the deck.
Kate grabbed both railings as the ladder pitched forward and jerked sideways like a rodeo bull. She tightened her grip and hooked one foot under a rung as she recalled stories about sailors on smaller boats attempting to climb down ladders on rough seas, only to be bucked off and thrown to the deck where they suffered a broken wrist or a concussion.
She wondered why they were calling her to the aft magazine again, especially after Jenks had been shot dead there the previous night.
Music and crowd noise came up from the hangar, and she wondered why the MAA hadn’t shut down the party by now, especially after hitting the crowd with pepper spray and the runway collapsed.
A standoff between roughnecks in pirate costumes and MAA with their clubs drawn blocked the main deck passageway.
“Make a hole!” Kate shouted, but nobody stepped aside.
A burly MAA held one reveler in a headlock while another MAA tried to cuff him. Two more MAA had their Tasers drawn, holding the anxious gang at bay.
“Flying Squad,” Kate shouted, “coming through!”
“Move aside,” one of the MAA shouted, waving his Taser.
The fellow in the headlock gave his captor kidney punches and kicked at the woman trying to put the cuffs on him.
As Kate barged into the crowd, she counted a dozen of them and they were dressed more frighteningly than anyone she’d seen earlier at the rally. Several held swords and knives.
An old-timer in officer’s regalia, including a black tricorn hat, a tattered blue jacket with faded gold trim and a full rack of worn-looking medals, stared at her with flared nostrils and lust in his eyes. Another man’s scraggly beard hung from ruddy cheeks; the whites of his eyes set off by heavy black mascara. She pushed through and saw a thick bunch of dreadlocks hanging lopsided from a woman’s head, crawling with silver insects. A length of wire wove through multiple piercings in one guy’s ear and metal tacks poked out through the sides of his nostrils.
“Excuse me,” Kate said as she shoved through arms with elaborate full-sleeve tattoos. Many of the faces sneered at the MAA as if itching for a fight. Nobody on either side was backing down.
A man with dark eyes, deep in wrinkled sockets, his withered cheeks stretched over bulging cheekbones, grabbed Kate and pulled her close. Face to face, his thin gray lips opened over toothless gums. On feculent breath, he whispered, “Have you come to play with the dead crew, missy?”
“Let me go!” she yelled and broke free. The entire gang erupted in laughter. She stumbled backward. A hand groped her ass. She spun away and ran.
She shot a glance over her shoulder just as one of the shirtless derelicts threw a punch at an MAA who fired his Taser. The fool collapsed in a fit. His mates hooted like a bunch of schoolchildren who’d never seen a stun gun.
As she ran, Dutro’s warning about a mutiny on the equator skittered across her mind.
A moment later, she arrived in the galley and saw her Flying Squad mates with painted faces, kooky wigs, pirate hats and plastic swords. A hip-hop hit with a throbbing bass beat pulsed in the hangar above and her worries about the gang scuffling with the MAA dissipated.
O’Malley stood at the center of the team with his reassuring linebacker shoulders and chop-top crewcut. He held a clipboard and shouted, “There’s no problem, nothing like last night. The guard just wanted someone to check the lock on the nuke vault, so we’re standing by.”
Kate took a seat and waited. She thought about how the ship usually rolled fore and aft—up the face of an ocean swell, over the top and down the other side—but not tonight. A growing unease sloshed in her belly. The bright blue deck in the dining area heaved and pitched at an odd angle as the ship slid sideways across an unpredictable swell.
She wanted to run back to the library and meet Terrance and find out what had happened, but a dreadful awareness filled her. Curiosity about everything happening—missing bodies, the rash, warnings of mutiny, seeing Comello, Jenks getting shot, and now for the second night in a row, on the very night the ship arrives on the equator, a security breach called away to the weapons magazine—and it all connected. A sinister energy fired through the synapses in her brain, connecting seemingly unrelated events. Static crackled all around her. Her clothes charged with prickles of electricity like a cheap synthetic blanket just out of the dryer. A tingling sensation crossed her scalp, a low voltage current charging the roots of her hair. The follicles on the back of her neck stood up as if she’d swallowed a hot pepper. She bolted from the chair because she realized that Danny Jenks was dead and his body would certainly be missing from the morgue!
She imagined Jenks’ corpse walking along the main deck passageway, limping, dragging his cast, poop leaking from his diaper. She almost giggled, but no, she thought, and then easily imagined Jenks as a pirate with a sword, running with that gang she’d seen challenging the MAA.
The deck heaved beneath her, and she reached to grab a pipe running along the bulkhead, but as she did, an electric spark shot from the pipe into her fingers.
“What the fuck?” She yanked her hand away!
She had to do something and thought about her boss, but knew Sternz wouldn’t be any help in this situation.
She walked quickly to the hatch and went down the ladder into the weapons handling area looking for Fire Marshall O’Malley.
SAILORS TAKE WARNING is on Amazon in paperback and eBook
Malcolm Torres writes sea stories and nautical novels, but they are not like the books your grandfather read. Mr. Torres does not glorify brave officers and mighty ships. He writes about common sailors, the deckhands, who work hard and travel the world having adventure in foreign ports, romantic affairs and are occasionally involved in criminal activity.