SAILORS TAKE WARNING
Nautical Fiction by Malcolm Torres ©
PART 4 of 5
The aircraft carrier Nimitz steams toward the equator where her crew of 5,000 women and men will hold an ancient hazing ritual, but something is wrong aboard the ship.
Bodies have turned up missing from the morgue and several jets have been sabotaged on the flight deck.
Can Corpsman Kate Conrad and deckhand Terrance McDaniels figure out what’s wrong before the ship crosses the Golden Line? Even if they do, will their superior officers listen to them and prevent a disaster at sea?
* * *
A new part will be posted weekly in August and September 2016. Check back to read Sailors Take Warning here on the blog, or if you would like a free eBook or paperback of Sailors Take Warning in exchange for an honest review on Amazon, send the author your contact info. Your info will never be shared and you will not be spammed.
* * *
PART IV: CROSSING THE LINE
CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT – Day 9
Captain Brandt looked at the certificate hanging on the wall behind his desk. There were no degrees or awards; only this certificate in a wooden frame. Across the top, King Neptune rode the surface of the sea in a chariot pulled by dolphins. Bright orange fish with black stripes, like Bengal Tigers, leaped in the chariot’s wake. A jumble of seahorses, mermaids and skeletons in sailor caps and knotted neckerchiefs drifted in the margins. Along the sandy bottom, rotten timbers rose from a shipwreck. Davy Jones stood with a boot atop a treasure chest overflowing with gold coins, his elbow propped on one knee and his chin on his fist. Mermaids and sharks swam all about.
Brandt read the certificate in a low whisper. “Let it be known to all Shellbacks, worthy mariners, sailors, plank owners and to all seamen from all nations, and let it be known to every lowly landlubber, scalawag, pollywog, urchin, vermin and to every denizen of the sea, that Samuel Brandt has crossed the equator and has been duly initiated into the Royal Order of The Deep and thus has the title of Trusty Shellback bestowed upon him by Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main.
Brandt grabbed a pen and a yellow sticky note from his desk drawer. He looked at Jones and made a list: tricorn hat, black wig, sword, old-fashioned officer’s jacket, tattered pants. He noticed Jones wore no ranks. “That’s strange,” Brandt whispered, “I thought he was a captain.”
Brandt left his office and walked briskly along the main deck. Men and women stepped out of his way. A few addressed him with sharp calls of, “Good morning, sir.”
He ignored them, kept his eyes straight ahead. He turned outboard and went through a door, into the administrative office.
“Attention on deck!” someone shouted when he entered.
Clerks and petty officers sprang to their feet.
“At ease,” Brandt growled. He strode around desks crowded with three-ring binders, stacks of paper and computer terminals. He went back into a hive of neck-high cubicles and found Nikki Thompson sitting at her desk curling dumbbells.
“Good morning,” Brandt said.
She ignored him until he started coming around behind her desk. Then she dropped her dumbbells, stood up and raised her hands in a protective stance. “Keep your distance, asshole,” she whispered.
He stuck his note on her screen. “It’s a Davy Jones costume,” he said.
“Certainly not for you,” she quipped.
“I’m one of the highest ranking Shellbacks on board.”
“Just because you say it doesn’t make it true,” she said.
“Put the items on that list in my office, wog, and maybe I’ll put in a good word for you with King Neptune.”
CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE – Day 10
They shot Jenks full of sedatives and carried him back to the brig. A plaster cast encased his entire right leg. They put him in a straightjacket, moved a cot into his cell and strapped him down. His eyeballs rolled, he mumbled and yelled and wiggled his fingers and toes.
They put an adult diaper on him, because the straight jacket prevented him from using the toilet.
He emerged from the sedative-induced spell to find a guy sitting on the side of his bunk.
“Who are you?” Jenks mumbled.
“I’m Stanley Comello.” His visitor smiled with little-kid enthusiasm.
“You stink, dude.”
“I don’t smell nothing,” Comello replied.
“Like sweat and old jizz.” Jenks was sick of this visitor already.
“You gotta join us,” Comello said.
“The dead crew?” Jenks groaned.
“You don’t join—you’re gonna drown.”
“Tell Satan I’m ready to see him now.” Jenks spat at Comello.
“You shouldn’t a done that.” Comello wiped his eye and started cracking his knuckles.
“Guard!” Jenks felt vulnerable. “I need a pain killer!”
“Don’t you think this is a little strange?” Comello asked, no longer smiling.
“Hey, the dead crew is all good,” Jenks said. “I just want to meet the devil before I sign up, ok?”
“You don’t get it.”
“I just want to meet the man himself,” Jenks shot back.
Comello slapped a hand over Jenks’ mouth, and Jenks tried to inhale but all he got was grimy sweat off Comello’s palm.
“If you join us, I’ll let you breath,” Comello said.
Jenks’ Adam’s apple bobbed urgently and his eyelids fluttered. He nodded yes, and Comello lifted his hand.
“You gonna join?” glee in Comello’s voice.
“I know you,” Jenks gasped. “They said I took you from the morgue.”
“That’s right,” Comello said.
“Well, what are you doing here?” Jenks stalled. “What’s with your shirt, why’s it ripped like that?”
“Somebody cut it,” Comello glanced at the twine he’d used to sew the rip on the front of his shirt.
“So, how’d you die, anyway?”
“It was an accident,” Comello said, running his fingers along a straightjacket strap.
“Prove you’re dead,” Jenks demanded.
“Sure.” Comello stood up and opened the door.
A log of shit slid from Jenks’ asshole when he saw Grady Dutro walk in—little round puncture wounds speckling his neck and chest.
“Guard!” Jenks screamed. “I need a pill! My leg really fucking hurts!”
“You’ve had it wrong this whole time,” Grady said, as he slapped a hand over Jenks’ mouth. His skin was creepy green. His eyes sunk in their sockets and his lips were cracked. “It ain’t about God and the devil, like you said.”
Even with Grady’s fingers pinching his nose, Jenks smelled something horrible and realized it was the Hershey Kiss in his own adult diaper.
Crimson-red blood seeped from Grady’s wounds and trickled along his clammy skin. It dripped on the white straightjacket. He grabbed Jenks’ forehead with his free hand and held him so he could look in his eyes while suffocating him, but Jenks opened his mouth and bit the pad of meat below Grady Dutro’s thumb.
“You fucker!” Dutro tried to pull away.
Jenks tasted blood.
“Let me go,” Dutro shouted.
Even in a straightjacket, Jenks mused, I own this fool.
Dutro pulled but couldn’t break Jenks’ grip.
“Let him go!” Comello punched Jenks in the nose.
Dutro pressed a boot against Jenks’ throat, grabbed his wrist with his free hand and pulled as hard as he could.
Blood splattered across Jenks’ cheeks and Dutro screamed as the meat on the palm of his hand ripped away between Jenks’ teeth.
“You’re my bitch, E-darg,” Jenks howled.
Dutro punched Jenks in the nose.
“You are my little bitch!”
* * *
Through the peephole, the guard saw blood around the prisoner’s mouth. Cautiously, he unlocked the door and stepped in.
Bruises rose around Jenks’ eyes. Indecipherable growls spewed from his mouth.
“What’s going on in here?” the guard demanded, drawing his club and looking around suspiciously. The stink of rotten fish and feces struck his sinuses. He noticed a bloody wad on the floor and stooped over to poke it with his club. “What the hell, Jenks? Did you bite off the tip of your tongue?”
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CHAPTER FORTY – Day 10
The metal door banged open and Darnell Ratcomb stumbled into the examination room. Tears ran down his cheeks as if someone had rubbed a freshly cut onion in his eyes.
“What the hell?” Kate asked. Darnell collapsed, and she caught him under the arms. Corpsman Gutierrez helped lift him onto an examination table. Scabs covered the backs of his arms.
“Put on gloves and a mask,” Gutierrez said. “This looks contagious.”
Darnell laid back, delirious, his breathing haggard. Kate went straight to the sink and scrubbed her hands and arms.
Commander Sternz entered and put on gloves. She grabbed Darnell’s wrist and lifted. She studied the red welts and scaly scabs on the backs of his arms under a bright light. Then she unbuttoned the front of his shirt to reveal the rash spread across his tattooed chest.
“Do you know Danny Jenks?” she asked and saw a flicker of recognition in his eyes.
“Never heard of—” Darnell wheezed.
“Do you know Grady Dutro?” she pressed a fingertip into a tattoo on his chest—a goat’s head in a pentagram over the word DAMMED.
“Never heard of him either.” Darnell closed his bloodshot eyes. “I don’t feel right.”
“Quarantine this man.” Sternz stormed toward the door. “I want everything in this room sterilized, and both of you shower with BacteroDerm.”
* * *
Sternz slowed as she drew closer to the morgue. For the first time since helping send Jenks to the brig, she wondered if Grady Dutro’s body was still in there.
Dread swirled in her stomach as she glanced at the black painted floor and stepped over to the shiny metal drawers. She pulled a handle and felt the latch open, but instantly she could tell the drawer was too light on its metal rollers. And she was sure this was the drawer they’d put him in.
She slammed the drawer and pulled another open.
Click. Empty. Ice water filled her veins.
Click. Empty! Red rage blanked her mind.
Click! Every drawer was empty!
Suddenly she knew that nobody had stolen bodies from the morgue. She knew they had vanished on their own, but her military bearing and medical training shut down that nonsense.
Her anger turned to suspicion.
“Is Ratcomb the ringleader?” she wondered aloud. “Is Jenks his underling? Do they have help from inside my own department?” She exited the morgue, certain they’d convicted Jenks under the faulty premise that he was working alone.
* * *
Skin cells taken from Ratcomb and Jenks looked red hot. Sternz feared a contagion. Thousands of rash-covered, fever-ravaged sailors would descend on the medical department if she didn’t take action. She grabbed the phone but paused before dialing. Jumping Brandt and going directly to Fox meant trouble, but she wanted to avoid Brandt. She knew if she went to Brandt first, a perverted version of her message, at best, would get to Fox. She punched in his extension.
“This is Commander Sternz. I must speak with Captain Fox.” She waited for him to come on the line. “Several members of the crew are infected with tropical bacteria,” she said. “It’s contagious, causes a rash, red eyes and fever. I must dispense BacteroDerm soap to you and your staff . . . yes, the entire crew must shower with it . . . I know we’ve begun the cloaking exercise . . . Total radio silence . . . Absolutely, Captain—”
A woman came on the line. “He’ll see you ten minutes.”
CHAPTER FORTY-ONE – Day 10
Terrance awoke in a chair in the library with his legs stretched out and his head leaned back on the wall. Through the steel above, jets rumbled as they launched off the flight deck. The afternoon sorties taking off made him feel left out, because his jet was down in the hangar getting a new engine installed.
He stood up and walked through the stacks, across the reading room and past the circulation desk. The door crashed open and an oddly familiar looking guy entered the library. A glance revealed crusty ooze around his eyes. A pungent fishy stench wafted off him.
Terrance shoved past, walked along the passageway and took two steps down a ladder before charging back to the library.
Greasy mechanics were a common site around the ship, but the grease and the fishy stink on this guy filled the reading room. Terrance walked over and spun the paperback book carousel, pretending to browse the mysteries and thrillers but he couldn’t take his eyes off this kid. A dazed look hovered around his face, as if he were in numb shock after a horrible accident. Terrance noticed something unusual about his turtleneck, and he inched around the carousel to get a closer look. He didn’t understand why the fabric was oddly bunched. He squinted and could see that it was sewn from collar to waist with twine.
Terrance wondered why anyone would sew a ripped jersey when he could just toss it and get a new one.
A strange sensation prickled through his brain. Synapses fired in an unfamiliar sequence as it occurred to him that this fellow was dead. He told himself it couldn’t be. It made no sense. But how could he ignore the fact that the dead guy he’d seen in the picture at Jenks’ court martial was standing several feet away from him.
I can’t be him, Terrance argued with himself. But it is him. It looks like him.
The guy missing from the morgue.
Jets rumbled overhead. Terrance had to get back to the line shack. He was supposed to help his mates launch and recover aircraft.
Through his dirty brown sleeves, Comello scratched the back of one arm and then the other.
Terrance decided to ask his name, but when Comello saw Terrance coming towards him, he bolted out of the library.
Terrance followed and saw him go through a watertight door at the end of the passageway. The door slammed and the wheel at its center spun and latched.
Terrance tried to turn the wheel but it wouldn’t budge. A jet fired its engines on the catapult overhead. He waited a moment then turned the wheel with all his strength. The door opened. Terrance leaped into the catwalk and realized this was a restricted area; he’d walked right past a sign on the inside of the door warning him not to proceed during flight operations. He saw an A-6 Prowler rocketing at 150 miles per hour—twin engines hurtling the aircraft at full power—directly at him on the steam-powered catapult. The shuttle reached the end of its track, and a tremendous CLANG rang right through Terrance’s chest. As the bomber took off from the deck, its tires whizzed bye, mere inches from Terrance’s face. His ears rang as if someone had fired a shotgun next to his head.
A man in a green vest ran toward Terrance waving and shouting. Terrance knew he would be in trouble if the man caught him, but he took the time to glance along the catwalk in both directions. Comello was gone. Terrance grabbed the railing, leaned over and looked down. Had Comello jumped over the side? Terrance scanned the ocean. Something caught his eye. Close by the side of the ship, 80 feet below; something black and orange in the water. A fish? Garbage thrown overboard? It flicked and darted into the murky darkness. Was it a fish? He wasn’t sure. Maybe sunlight playing on the water.
The catapult operator charged toward him, leaping a coiled fuel hose and yelling, “You’re gonna get yourself killed!”
Terrance hurried through the door, ran past the library and scrambled down ladders to the hangar.
* * *
“Stanley Comello,” Terrance whispered as he weaved his way between the support equipment, his ears still ringing. He remembered the photo passed around at Jenks’ trial. Comello looked like a 15-year-old kid with smiling chubby cheeks.
“It can’t be Comello. He’s dead!” Terrance climbed ladders from the hangar to the line shack. Kate’s going to flip out when I tell her.
As he heaved a set of chains onto his shoulders, he remembered Jenks talking crazy about dead guys taking over on the equator. “Jenks is nuts,” he whispered as he stepped into the catwalk, “and Comello is dead.”
From the deckedge speaker a voice boomed, “STAND BY TO LAND AIRCRAFT. FIRST AIRCRAFT AT ONE MILE.”
Terrance inhaled salty air mingled with smoky jet exhaust. Leaning against the railing, he gazed down at the sea churning past. It made no sense. That guy, whoever he was, stank like rotten fish. He looked like Frankenstein. His eyes dripped watery goop. His ripped jersey—sewn with twine. And how did he vanish from the catwalk? Terrance gazed at the immense ocean; whitecaps dancing for miles and miles. He wondered how gravity could hold all that water in place. Why didn’t it peel off the surface of the earth in one big curling wave and flow into outer space?
And that’s when he saw orange and black in the water by the side of the ship again. Was it sunlight, he wondered, or the swish of a fish’s tail?
CHAPTER FORTY-TWO – Day 10
Sternz sat on a cushioned wingback chair in Captain Fox’s private stateroom. An oil painting of an old battle ship hung on the wood paneled wall behind his small desk. Dark Berber carpet covered the floor. It was the only carpet on the ship.
Fox had his marine guards stand at ease while she explained how to wash with BacteroDerm, and when they had no questions, he posted them in the passageway outside. Fox sat on the edge of his desk and looked at Sternz with raised eyebrows. “You used the word epidemic, commander.”
“It’s a bit more than that, sir. Allow me to explain.”
“Very well,” Fox said without emotion.
“Daniel Jenks has a terrible rash covering his torso, bloodshot eyes and a fever. This morning several people came to sick call with similar symptoms, but an hour ago, when a man named Darnell Ratcomb staggered into sickbay, overcome by the same symptoms, I realized we could have an epidemic on our hands.” She paused for a moment.
“You said there was something else.”
“Ratcomb has the same tattoo as Jenks and Dutro,” Sternz continued, “a pentagram and the word dammed, a symbol for Satanism. I became concerned that those three and possibly others are involved in devil worship and stealing—” Sternz almost said bodies, but chose her words carefully. “I believe they worked together to take Stanley Comello’s body from the morgue.”
“Interesting,” Fox put his hand to his chin and thought for a few seconds. “Can we discuss the possible epidemic?”
“Every person aboard must shower with BacteroDerm soap,” Sternz replied. “Those who exhibit fever and rash must be quarantined.”
“Will anyone need to be flown off the ship?”
“If we have more than a couple hundred quarantined, yes,” Sternz said, knowing Fox wanted to keep the ship cloaked.
“I’ll have someone from logistics contact you to develop a contingency plan. In the meantime, do whatever it takes to stamp out these bacteria,” Fox said. “Now what about these devil worshipers?”
“Well,” Sternz paused, concerned about how to word it.
“Speak your mind,” Fox said.
“At his court martial Jenks said a dead crew would cause trouble on the equator,” Sternz willed herself to relax. “And Dutro muttered something about a dead crew.”
“What do you make of it?” Fox asked.
“There’s a gang planning trouble on the equator.”
“Commander, how many times have you crossed the equator?” Fox asked.
“Once as a wog and twice as a Shellback, so I’m aware of the hype among the crew as we near the equator. However, I am concerned about gang activity. Security could be an issue when we cross the line.” Now, after voicing her suspicions, she saw the humor in it. Chuckling, she said, “I know this must sound crazy—devil worshipping sailors mutiny on the equator.”
“It does sound like a rumor one expects to hear in the enlisted galley,” Fox said.
Sternz worried that she was being an alarmist; first by jumping Brandt in the chain of command and now by wasting Fox’s time with her speculations.
“I’ve heard plenty of these tales,” Fox said, surprising her. “Many from outstanding officers like you.”
“Years ago as a lieutenant,” he said with a nostalgic tone, “I set sail out of Norfolk, on a troop transporter with eight-hundred young marines, all wogs, aboard. They put out the word that they would refuse to pass on their hands and knees before King Neptune if the ship crossed the equator, and we had less than a hundred Shellbacks to challenge them. As we neared the equator, those brazen wogs took over the galley. They banged on pots and pans. They went marauding about the ship. We were on the verge of a riot. I was standing beside the wardroom table when several senior officers tried to convince the captain to call the whole thing off. But he was an old Shellback—cool as ice. ‘Lowly wogs will not run this ship,’ he said firmly. ‘We will cross the line and every wog will be whipped for insubordination.’ And that was that, so with great trepidation, we Shellbacks divided into gangs, and we dressed like pirates, and we each got a length of fire hose to whip the pollywogs, and we charged into their living quarters and the galley where they were holed up.”
Fox glanced around with a dramatic air as if making sure no one was eavesdropping on his secret. “When we showed the courage to face those unruly wogs, all of a sudden there were Shellbacks among us who I’d never seen before, savage pirates with scruffy beards and red eyes and liquor on their breaths.”
“Really?” Sternz asked, hardly able to believe he was telling such a tall tale.
“Yes, and I’m convinced they were true members of the Royal Order of the Deep, come from the brine of the sea to ensure those wogs got the whipping they deserved.” Fox had a gleam in his eye. He chuckled. “What do you make of that, Sternz?”
She wanted to bring him back to the present. There were bodies missing from the morgue, a murdered sailor, a psychopath in the brig, a widening ring of Satanists and a contagious rash. She wanted him to take extra security measures, but he was full of reverie and sea stories.
CHAPTER FORTY-THREE – Day 10
Kate ran a finger along the spines of books and read their titles. She knit her brows and pretended she couldn’t find the book she was looking for. She walked out of one aisle and entered the next.
According to their hook-up plan, he would wink and she’d wink back. Without a word, they’d leave the library and take separate routes to medical station 12. But Terrance didn’t wink. He walked directly at her. She squeezed to one side between the shelves. He clutched her arm and whispered, “You’re not gonna believe what happened.”
“Tell me when we get there,” she whispered and walked hastily out of the stacks.
A few minutes later, in medical station 12, she flicked on the lights. After a moment, he undogged the door from outside and stepped in.
“You’re not supposed to talk,” she complained.
“It turns me on when we meet without talking,” she said.
He pulled her close. “You’re not gonna believe who I saw.”
“Who?” She pushed away.
“In the library,” he insisted.
“Then it was his evil twin.”
“Cut the crap, Terrance.”
“He looked exactly like Comello.”
“You saw a dead man in the library?”
“Yes and he was stinky and creepy.”
“Are you stressed out?” She turned around and leaned back on his chest, “I am.”
He massaged her shoulders. “What’s got you stressed?” he asked, realizing she’d switched the conversation.
“Comello and Dutro died in front of me. Duh. And now we’re fighting a rash,” she said. “And I have to visit Jenks in the brig every other day.”
“Oh, baby,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
“And I’m worried about crossing the equator.”
He sat on one of the liferaft drums, still stowed in the medical station because deck department welders hadn’t gotten around to installing them outside in the flight deck catwalk yet. She stood between his knees, and he rubbed out the tension in her neck and shoulders. “Just make sure you have a pair of kneepads,” he said.
“Kneepads?” She tilted her head as he worked on a tight spot.
“You’ll be on your hands and knees all day.”
“It’s all in fun, right?”
“Every Shellback gets a two-foot length of fire hose,” he said, “so you’ll be getting spanked all day.”
She spun around and put her hands on his thick neck, playfully choking him. “Tell me what’s going to happen!”
Her eyes made him forgot what they were talking about. He leaned in to kiss her.
“Stop!” She throttled him playfully. “What’s going to happen on the equator?”
“I can’t tell you,” he blurted.
“Because, you’re a wog.”
“Tell me.” She choked him harder.
“Okay, okay.” He pulled her hands away, spun her around, continued massaging. “They’ll wake you up early and put shaving cream and shampoo all over you. And that’s when you better put your kneepads on.”
“I know that part,” she said impatiently. “Tell me what’s really going to happen?”
“A doctor’s gonna rinse your mouth with an enema bag full of vinegar and green food coloring.”
“You’ll have to kiss the fat baby’s belly and then you’ll have to—“
“Wait, wait. Hold on,” she stopped him. “The fat baby?”
“They’ll have several really fat people sitting around shirtless with buckets of slop between their legs, and you have to crawl up and they’ll take a handful of slop and smear it all over their belly, and they’ll grab you by your ears and mash your face against their belly.”
“Then they’ll make you kiss King Neptune’s feet.
“I’m not kissing anybody’s feet,” she declared.
“Yeah, you will, and you’ll kiss the feet of the guys in his harem.”
“Guys in a harem?” she asked, confused.
“They’re in drag.”
“I will not kiss a cross dresser’s feet!”
“If you don’t, a bull-dyke will whip your ass.”
“Stop lying,” she said.
“The night before, they’ll pack the hangar with thousands of Shellbacks all dressed like pirates and mermaids, and a bunch of wogs on the runway in drag like they’re in a beauty pageant.”
“Are you making this up?”
“No,” he assured her. “The male wogs who win the pageant will be in Neptune’s harem.”
“Seriously?” She turned to face him.
“It’s all in fun,” he said, admiring her eyes again, “just remember your kneepads.”
This time when he leaned in to kiss her, she kissed him back.
* * *
After they put their clothes back on, they sat atop the liferaft drums, face to face, with their knees together. The overhead fluorescents were off, and a small battle lantern cast their shadows in its eerie red glow.
“You should see Jenks,” Kate whispered with genuine loathing. “Horrible tattoos and a rash, he mutters about the devil and—”
“The dead crew,” Terrance said.
“How’d you know?” she asked.
“He said some nonsense about his friends starting trouble on the equator.”
“Dutro said the same thing,” Kate said. “He was dead, or almost dead, but he said the dead crew would mutiny on the equator.”
“Did you cut Comello’s jersey off like this?” Terrance made a scissor motion from his neck to his waist.
“Yeah, exactly like that, why?”
“The Comello-looking guy,” Terrance said, “was wearing a ripped jersey like that, but it was sewn with a piece of string.”
They fell silent, dumbstruck by the weirdness of it.
“Maybe someone helped Jenks steal Comello’s body,” Kate said.
“Yeah, and they did voodoo on him!” Terrance giggled. “And now he’s like a zombie.”
“What if the bodies missing from the morgue are the dead crew and they’re gonna mutiny on the equator?”
“Nice,” he said. “Zombie sailors mutiny on the equator!”
They laughed an unsettled sort of laugh.
“Jenks broke his leg,” Kate said, “and now he’s in a straightjacket.”
“How’d he break his leg?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “And he bit off the tip of his tongue.”
“Bit the tip off his tongue?”
“He’s a lost soul,” Kate said, “like the most insane bad-guy you could ever imagine.”
CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR – Day 11
The guard tightened the straightjacket while Jenks stared at the ceiling where a tigerfish squeezed through the ventilation duct without making a sound. Jenks twitched against the straps; worry darkened his bruised eyes.
“How you feeling, Jenks?”
The tigerfish swam in slow, menacing circles. Jenks wondered if the guard could see the shadows the big fish made when it swam in front of the light.
“I said, how you feeling, Jenks?” The guard asked again.
Jenks stared so intently past him the guard looked up but didn’t see anything.
“Oh, fuck you then, Jenks.” The guard walked out and slammed the door.
* * *
As soon as the door shut, keys jangled outside and it opened again. Lieutenant Jones stepped in. He wore a tuxedo with a sword in a scabbard on his belt. He scratched furiously at his elbow.
“Ask that bitch doctor for her special soap,” Jenks said. “It cools the itch.”
The tigerfish circled in front of the light, throwing shadows across Jenks’ face.
“This is your last chance.” Jones crossed his arms. “If you join the dead crew, you won’t have to die when this ship goes down.”
The big fish slid to a stop and hovered above Jenks’ face. Its yellow eyes blinked slowly over large emotionless pupils. Its mouth opened and closed, showing off crooked, bony teeth.
“What do you want?” Jenks blubbered as fear got the best of him.
“For you to join the dead crew,” Jones said earnestly. “Your knowledge of newfangled weapons is exactly what we need.”
“I’ll join, I promise,” Jenks stammered as the fish fluttered its wispy side fins, sliding closer to his face, “I’ll do whatever you want, right after you introduce me to Satan!”
“Christ on a crutch!” Jones shook his head. “You still don’t understand.”
“I just want to meet the devil,” Jenks whined. “He’s the leader of the dead crew, right?”
“No,” Jones mocked in a whiny voice, “he’s not the leader of the dead crew.”
The fish’s tail drifted upward and its face pointed straight down. Its fleshy lips pressed against Jenks’ face. Its side fins fluttered and its gills undulated. It gulped Jenks’ face and most of his head into its mouth. It gulped again and this time Jenks’ head rose off the pillow and his neck bent forward. The fish torqued its body and swished its tail and drove itself down while sucking in Jenks’ entire head. It swam backwards, tugging Jenks’ upper body off the bed. It gulped a third time and sealed its thick rubbery lips around his shoulders. The restraining straps stretched to their limit as the fish pulled Jenks neck at a painful angle.
His screams were stifled. His bound arms and legs thrashed what little they could.
The tigerfish bit down hard, driving its sharp teeth through the soft parts of Jenks’ neck.
* * *
Sunbeams shined through the warm blue water and sparkled on seashells strewn across the white sandy bottom. Jenks wondered if he was dreaming about the time he and Ratcomb went snorkeling in Hanauma Bay on Oahu. He looked toward the surface and saw that he was deep under water, which was weird because he wasn’t wearing scuba gear, not even a snorkel, and he had no urge to breathe. He kicked his feet, reached out his arms and pulled through the water with ease. Gliding by below, a glossy pearl rested on a pillow of pink meat inside a gigantic clamshell. He swam with a school of silver fish in a barely perceptible current.
He skimmed above kelp swaying like green kites blowing on a breeze. A delicate creature slithered through the green strands below. Long blonde hair flowed over slender white shoulders. Curious, Jenks swam down into the slippery tangle.
“Wait for me,” his words unintelligible.
He glimpsed her again, deeper.
“Who are you?” He kicked and tried to catch her.
Darkness filled the depths and he turned this way and that, realizing he’d lost her. Strands of kelp tangled around his arms. He craned his neck, looking for the surface, but long undulating tubers and slippery green leaves, shifting on the currents, blocked his view.
Then she appeared behind him, grabbing his shoulders.
He turned to face her, captivated by her brilliant red lips and blue eyes shimmering in the liquid light. Thick, wavy blonde hair floated buoyantly in the water all around her radiant face.
Hugging him around the shoulders, she pulled him close, and crushed her breasts against him. Her magic blue eyes and the promise of kissing her stole his attention. His face flushed with desire. She pressed her flat, hard belly against him. His erection swelled urgently, like a wet dream quickly climbing to a climax. He knew he’d never get the drawstring on his trunks unknotted in time, so he held her close, looked into her eyes and surrendered to a brief cataclysm of delight.
Tumbling over the crest of a wave, they rolled in the turbulent water with white foam spurting all about. Coarse sand and broken seashells churned in the shallows. He coughed on a salty mouthful. It stung inside his nose. He glimpsed a sandy beach and palm trees as another wave broke over them. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders. The undertow tried tugging her back out to sea, but he scooped her in his arms and trudged toward shore with waves crashing over them.
Silver flashed beneath the surf.
His fingertips pressed against interlocking scales embedded like armored snakeskin on her ass, and he screamed as he dropped her in the knee-deep surf. He leaped away but stopped and marveled at her.
Half woman—half fish.
Thick ropes of blond hair framed her face and cascaded down in tangled wet curls over her dainty shoulders. Her delicate arms folded across her chest. Tapered fingers with pearly-white nails barely concealed her voluptuous bosom. Under the water, she had a woman’s wide hips, but from just below her navel silver scales, thick and tough and speckled aquamarine and silver, covered her down to the tip of her long serpent tail.
He couldn’t tear himself away.
Her eyes cast a longing gaze at him and her mouth turned down in a pout, hurt by his reaction to her body. Her tail slithered and curled beneath her and her torso rose out of the surf. As she moved closer, her hands reached tentatively and gently touched his hips. She slid close, pressed her cheek against his belly, and gazed up at him.
A big wave crashed and sent them tumbling.
* * *
He awoke on his back in a puddle on the floor. Disappointment twisted his guts. At a glance, he recognized his jail cell and was startled to see the straightjacket straps hanging loose over the sides of the mattress. His hair was soaked and salt burned the back of his mouth. Confusion turned to a tangled mess of guilty pleasure at the sight of her writhing out from under his bunk, and sliding snake-like across the deck toward him.
“Danny Jenks,” her voice a chime inside a glass sphere. A silver stud sparkled on the tip of her tongue. “I hope,” she giggled, “I don’t get you in trouble.”
He crab crawled away, dragging his cast, but his back hit the bulkhead and she kept coming.
“We’ll get along fine, Danny.” A mysterious chime rang in her voice, like crystal champagne flutes touching in a toast. Her silvery tail coiled silently, and then in one slithery motion she slid close to him. Her fragrant breath filled his nostrils.
His quivering hand touched her scaly hip and jerked away. He flinched and banged his head on the steel wall. Angry, he shoved her, but his fingers tangled in her wet hair and her big breasts filled his hands.
Their eyes met—his wide, hers a teasing gleam.
Her bosom, overflowing his hands, made stress and doubt fall away. Something full of potential swelled and trembled inside him.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“How old are you?”
“How did you get to be a mermaid?”
Her tail slithered between his legs, the wet fin on the end fanning out and flapping against his back.
“A long time ago we sailed on a clipper from Singapore to Australia,” Naomi said, “we were going to live in Sydney, but pirates attacked.” Her blue eyes mesmerized him. “My husband fought gallantly, but that gang of brutes beat him down.” She combed her hair back with long tapered fingers. “They tied me up in the captain’s bedchamber,” she whispered, “and you can’t imagine what those lusty buccaneers did to me, Danny.”
He watched for the silver stud in her tongue, wondering how it would feel if she French kissed him.
“When they were finished they tossed me over the side.” She feigned fear. “Sharks nuzzled me with their snouts, trying to decide where to bite first. The water boiled with their thrashing tails. I cried out for the pirates to take me back on board, but they sailed away. I thought I’d be devoured, but I said prayers I used to know and the mermaids rescued me.”
As he lay in this creature’s arms, Jenks reconsidered his notions about God and the devil locked in combat.
“Beneath the waves there’s a world of natural wonders,” Naomi told him. “A realm of pirates and sailors drowned at sea. There’s scuba divers who ran out of air and swimmers who lost their way, drowned surfers and children swept from the beach.” Naomi’s blue eyes opened wide, and the stud clicked on her teeth when she spoke. “And creatures, Danny, glorious and horrible creatures in Neptune’s realm under the waves.”
He closed his eyes, puckered his lips and leaned in, but she turned her cheek to him and giggled.
He felt embarrassed but didn’t care because he wanted to be a fool for her. She had freed him from the straightjacket and he knew she could free him from this cell too.
Sure, he could comprehend pirates and dead sailors, fish striped like tigers and Naomi with her scaly tail and curly hair. If the devil is aboard this ship, he reasoned, why haven’t I seen him? A fiery hell suddenly seemed a lot less appealing than realms beneath the waves.
She made him give up on the devil and rituals and hell. It didn’t matter that she had a tail. He leaned in to kiss her again.
She arched her back, and pressed her boobs against him.
“You’re a lusty buccaneer too, Danny Jenks,” she said, wiggling her tail and turning her head, allowing him to kiss her cheek. “What will it take to get you to join the dead crew?”
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CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE – Day 11
Over Sternz’s shoulder, Kate read the Jenks’ observation logbook.
0100: Prisoner shouted: “The dead crew has a plan for me but I won’t join until I meet the devil.”
0300: He’s humping the air and calling for Naomi.
0500: Whispering and seems like he ain’t alone in there.
0700: When I tightened the straps, he smiled and told me Naomi took care of his boner.
0900: Jenks said: “It’s a powerful weapon and you want to short circuit the arming sequence?”
Sternz entered Jenks’ cell and found the straps loose. She studied the serene smile on his face. A musky odor rose from moist spots around the edges of his diaper. She said to the guards, “Shackle him in the passageway,” and told Kate, “Prepare a sponge bath. He’s filthy.”
Jenks remained docile while they unstrapped him, lifted him off the cot and chained him in the passageway.
Kate snipped off his paper coveralls with surgical scissors. BacteroDerm had reduced his rash, now only discolored blotches on the backs of his arms and legs. She held her breath while removing his loaded diaper.
Sternz put a finger under Jenks’ chin and studied his face. Bruised purple rings surrounded his eyes. She looked at the stubble on his jaw, examined his teeth and looked in his eyes. Something rodent-like lurked in the angles of his skull. She wondered what had taken the fight out of him.
After Kate sponged his back and legs, taking care not to get his cast wet, their eyes met and some weird energy flowed on his gaze into her.
“Who have you been talking to?” Sternz asked.
The guard’s ears perked up.
Jenks sighed as if ending a long contemplation.
“Who is Naomi?” Sternz asked casually, not wanting to agitate him. She wondered if he would trust her.
Kate ran the warm, wet sponge across Jenks’ back, over his tattoos.
* * *
After so many months at sea, Kate barely noticed the ship constantly rising and falling on ocean swells. But the water in the wash bucket tipped so far it almost overflowed. The angle made no sense, until she thought about it, because she could feel her legs tensing against the deck’s angle as the ship climbed a steep swell. The water in the bucket slowly sloshed from one side to the other, and the muscles in her feet and ankles adjusted as the ship rolled over the top of another wave’s crest.
“Who have you been talking to?” Sternz asked again.
A chain attached to Jenks’ handcuffs looped through a ring on the bulkhead. This allowed his hands to flop down across his chest. His gaze changed from an empty stare to vague amusement.
“Naomi,” he answered in a tranquil voice. “She’s gonna take me with her, after—” Jenks giggled.
Sternz wondered what it had to do with the log entry about arming a powerful weapon. “Who’s Naomi?” Sternz asked.
“She’s a mermai—” Jenks stopped. His hands went to her neck, his thumbs squeezing tight on her throat.
The guard had his back turned.
Kate grabbed his wrist and pulled. “Let her go,” she shouted.
The guard got his club out and whacked Jenks on the back a few times but he wouldn’t let go.
Sternz clutched at his wrists.
The guard put his club across Jenks throat and yanked back with both hands.
Jenks kept his fingers clamped tight.
Another guard jammed his keys into the lock in the cage door at the end of the passageway. He threw the door open, ran over and pummeled Jenks’ face with his black wooden baton.
Jenks sustained several solid blows on his forehead and across his cheek before he raised his hands to protect himself.
Two more guards arrived. They unchained him from the hoop on the bulkhead, threw him on his cot and began strapping him into the straightjacket.
Kate put a hand on Sternz’s shoulder and noticed a splatter of blood on the floor. There was a tooth, roots and all.
CHAPTER FORTY-SIX – Day 11
Terrance McDaniels knocked on Commander Aronson’s door. When it opened, Aronson stood there in boxers with shaving cream on his jaw and upper lip. The man had a wide, hairless chest and sloped shoulders. He had skinny legs and knobby knees. His feet were enormous, with toes scrunched on top of each other. Terrance smirked at the ducks on Aronson’s boxers.
“I’m not doing business with you anymore,” Aronson whispered, before Terrance could say anything.
“Actually, sir, I need to talk to you about Jenks. I don’t think he was working alone. A friend of mine in the medical department says there’s more than one body missing from the morgue.” Words dashed from Terrance’s mouth like track runners bolting at the bang of a starting gun.
“I’m late for a meeting with the air group commander.” Aronson started closing the door.
Terrance panicked and started ranting. “Jenks couldn’t steal a body by himself and another thing is how they heaped all those convictions on him.”
Aronson put his authoritative stare on Terrance, but it didn’t work because he looked goofy in duck-print boxers and shaving cream.
“I need to talk to you,” Terrance said.
A female captain in pressed khakis walked by and grinned at Aronson. After she passed, he stuck his head out and looked quickly up and down the passageway.
“Get in here.” He yanked Terrance into the stateroom by the arm. He went back to shaving in the mirror above the tiny sink. His pressed khakis laid out across the bunk. A bottle of BacteroDerm sat on the shelf above the sink.
Aronson thought maybe Terrance needed consoling after seeing Jenks convicted, but decided to hell with the father-son soft talk. Jenks murdered a shipmate and stuffed him in a laundry sack, for crying out loud.
“Sir, I’ve been thinking—”
Terrance realized that Aronson was not going to take him seriously. The guy in duck print boxers, Terrance reminded himself, earns a paycheck dropping bombs on people. Just because he bought a few packs of cigarettes, doesn’t mean he’s my friend.
As Terrance watched Aronson rinse and dry his face, and slap on aftershave, he felt the ship climbing a steep swell. Without thinking about it, Terrance put a hand on the bulkhead.
Aronson lifted a leg to put on his pants, lost his balance and sat down hard on the corner of his bunk to avoid falling on his ass. He put on his shoes and thought about how he was going to drop Terrance McDaniels’ petty concerns like a rock to the bottom of the ocean. He tied his laces in tight, conclusive little bows.
“Sir, I thought—” Terrance attempted.
“Bear with me,” Aronson cut him off and pulled a T-shirt over his head.
“I’m worried about this trouble with Jenks,” Terrance said.
Aronson had narrowly escaped the career-killing red ink in his fitness report over this mess with Jenks. Besides, he reminded himself, this case has so many captain-sized knots tied around it a congressional subcommittee won’t be able to untangle it. As he slipped on his shirt, he decided that McDaniels would be gone in less than a minute.
“You see,” Terrance said, mistaking Aronson’s silence for permission to speak, “my friend in the medical department said several bodies were missing from the morgue. And that means—”
“McDaniels, if you didn’t understand the legalese at your friend’s court martial—”
“He’s not my friend,” Terrance snapped.
“He’s a dangerous criminal,” Aronson growled, then more calmly, “He got caught and prosecuted and now he’s in the slammer for life.”
“He wasn’t working alone,” Terrance said.
Aronson buttoned his shirt, tucked it in and fastened his pants. While buckling his belt, he thought about how he was going to explain another fodded engine to the air group commander.
Aronson opened the door, ushered Terrance out. “Appreciate the concern, McDaniels,” he said. “If inputs are needed, I’ll be sure to consult you.” He closed the door and jiggled the knob to ensure it locked.
“Sir, you don’t understand.”
Though only an inch taller, Aronson stared down at Terrance with cold superiority in his eyes. No longer comical in boxers and shaving cream, Aronson, now in full uniform, projected an attitude bristling with annoyance. “On the contrary, McDaniels, I understand the situation perfectly. You seem confused, and I suspect the exposure to these grisly events has caused you to manifest a debilitating amount of stress. I’m even questioning your ability to work in the hazardous environment on the flight deck.”
“This is not interfering with my work.”
“So, everything is fine then?”
Stunned at the threat of being sent to work in the galley or the laundry, Terrance replied, “Yes, sir. Everything’s fine.”
“I’m glad I could help you solve your little problem.” Aronson turned sharply and walked away.
The ship descended into a deep trough on the rough ocean, and Terrance put a hand on the bulkhead to steady himself. The slapdown made him want to catch some fresh air, so he went to the hangar and stood near one of the aircraft elevators.
A hot, sticky breeze blasted across the ocean’s rolling surface. It slapped his face and burned his lungs. On the horizon, orange and black clouds brewed up a storm. Curtains of rain poured down and lightning crackled across the bruised sky.
CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN – Day 11
Jenks lay on his bunk pretending to thrash against the straps. He grunted and groaned to make it look good, but under his breath he mumbled, “Come on, guard. Come in here and die.”
The guard unlocked the cell door and stepped in. He glanced at Jenks and his brow wrinkled, perplexed. A quizzical look twisted the guard’s face. He bent over to get a look at the straps and realized something was amiss.
Jenks’ arm shot up, his hand clutching a metal bunk leg. It sounded like bowling balls clunking together. The guard stumbled and Jenks delivered two more hard whacks on the man’s skull.
Blood flowed across the deck.
Jenks hobbled from the cell with the guard’s key ring jangling in his hand.
* * *
The bell stopped ringing, a squeal of feedback and then a computer-generated female voice announced: “AWAY THE MARINE SECURITY TASK FORCE. AWAY THE FLYING SQUAD. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. SECURITY BREACH, AFT WEAPONS MAGAZINE.”
Kate Conrad shouted at people to get out of her way. She accelerated easily, running downhill as the ship rose on the face of a steeply pitching sea. Near the aft weapons magazine the ship rolled under her feet and descended the wave’s steep back, causing her to slow as she began running up hill.
In the main galley, she found the squad gathered around Fire Marshall O’Malley. He stood at the center of the team and took control of the situation. “There’s a security breach in the mag’ below us,” he said.
Kate, jacked on adrenaline, found his handsome mug and buff shoulders reassuring.
“Stand by,” he ordered. “I’ll keep you posted.”
Kate took a seat at one of the tables and waited. Her body shifted forward and back every few seconds as the ship tossed on big ocean swells. They’d entered a storm, and she wanted to go out on a weatherdeck to see the waves for herself.
She glanced at a hatch in the deck leading down to the magazine. There were vaults down there where they stored bombs, rockets, missiles and nuclear weapons.
To Kate’s surprise, she saw Commander Sternz talking to O’Malley. Then Sternz went down the hatch into the magazine. Kate wondered why Sternz was on scene. If there’s a medical emergency, she thought, I should be down there too.
She waited, impatiently.
A few minutes later, Sternz climbed up through the hatch.
Kate walked over.
Worried lines crossed Sternz’s brow, and a dazed look betrayed her normally stoic demeanor. She clutched Kate’s arm. “Jenks escaped from the brig,” she whispered.
Their eyes met but didn’t connect, and Kate saw a rattled woman—not her commander.
Sternz trembled and her eyes flitting about, unable to focus. “He tried to break into the nuclear weapon’s vault,” she said as if trying to understand it herself.
Right then a marine emerged from the hatch pulling a stretcher laden with a body under a white sheet.
“They shot him,” Sternz stammered. “He’s dead.”
Stunned, Kate grabbed the stretcher and helped carry Jenks to the morgue.
* * *
“I need to talk to you, ma’am.”
Sternz took Kate into her office. “What is it?” Sternz collapsed in the chair behind her desk.
Kate said, “Bodies are missing from the morgue and I think it has something to do with Jenks and Dutro and Ratcomb.”
Sternz kept coming back to the same conclusion herself, and she guessed it was obvious to Conrad, who had been close to the situation.
Thinking she might finally get some answers, Kate said, “The rash and the missing bodies are linked to these guys, but with Jenks in the brig, Dutro dead and Ratcomb quarantined, it doesn’t make sense. Like, how did Jenks break his leg? How did he get out of a straightjacket and escape from the brig?”
Sternz came out from behind her desk and put a hand on Kate’s shoulder. “There’s an investigation underway.”
Sternz snapped back to her cold self, assuming a rigid posture, eyes sharp. “You seem stressed,” she said.
“Grogan, Burns and Comello are missing,” Kate said, “and now Jenks is dead. I just want to know what’s going on.”
“What’s going on,” Sternz mimicked Kate, “is an investigation. That’s what’s going on.”
“There’s a rumor Jenks stole bodies from the morgue,” Kate raised her voice.
“Maybe he wasn’t working alone,” Sternz said, wondering if Conrad knew Dutro’s body was gone. She leaned in close and spoke with cool confidentiality. “You’re a good worker, Conrad. I hope you’re not implicated in any of this.”
Kate’s jaw dropped in surprise.
“I’m sure there’ll be more convictions,” Sternz said.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” Kate said.
“You’re close to the circumstances,” Sternz said.
Kate saw some weird machinery clicking and whirring behind Sternz’s brow, but couldn’t understand it.
“Let’s just say you’re a person of interest.”
This perverted logic made Kate want to back out of Sternz’s office as quickly as possible. “I’m just worried about the bad things going on.”
“I understand you don’t like what I have to say.” Sternz opened the door.
“I haven’t done anything wrong.” Kate walked out.
“I’ll always have an open door policy,” Sternz said as she shut the door in Kate’s face.
CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT – Day 12
Before women served aboard battleships, equator-crossing ceremonies had degenerated into half-day hazing rituals—something along the lines of a brutal fraternity initiation—followed by a steak and lobster lunch and afternoon naps.
Costumes became more outrageous as larger numbers of women crossed the line. Yards of colorful fabric, buckets of sequins and boxes of cheap crazy-colored wigs were stowed away before ships left stateside. Lady Shellbacks took on greater responsibilities for festivity planning. And when the gay and transgender sailors started serving openly in the Navy, the sexual aspects of the event came completely out of the closet. Crossing the line transformed into a Mardi Gras costume party with an ancient-mariner theme.
* * *
All afternoon aircraft handlers cleared most of the jets off the hangar, moved them to the flight deck and fastened them down with extra chains. This created a wide-open space in the hangar for the beauty contest.
That evening, strong winds whipped up high seas, and rogue waves crashed against the ship. A big comber splashed water into the hangar and several boatswains with squeegees and mops were sent to clean things up. In a big puddle, sloshing across the hangar, they found a curious orange fish with black stripes. It was slimy and ferocious with sharp snapping teeth.
Captain Fox ordered all exterior doors shut to prevent waves from washing anyone over the side.
That night, all the Shellbacks crammed into the hangar to hoot and holler and watch contestants vie for a spot in King Neptune’s harem.
* * *
A mashup of classic rock anthems, disco beats and bravado rap blasted from amplifiers stacked on both sides of the center stage. Androgynous beings, girliemen and bullywomen, strutted on the beauty pageant runway, while thousands of excited men and women, dressed like pirates, mermaids, sea hags, serpents and sharks, all gyrated to the music while hooting and whistling. Quite a few sailors put a black patch over one eye. From many a sleeve poked a metal hook. It was impossible to distinguish who was who because the costumes and make-up obliterated the structure normally imposed by uniforms. On the equator, nobody wore uniforms; there were only Shellbacks and pollywogs.
Many women had their legs wrapped in tight sequined green stockings, tailored to look like a mermaid. They wore strands of kelp and seaweed woven into their hair, and barrettes adorned with seashells and starfish. Many men wore cut off shorts or outrageous baggy pants, skintight shirts with the collars and sleeves cut off. Glittery makeup designs, fake scars, drawn-on beards and mustaches, outrageous amounts of eyeliner and brilliant colored lips flashed through the crowd. Everyone, it seemed, sported wild tattoos, some real and some fake, decorating exposed skin with skulls, hearts punctured with arrows, battleships blasting cannons, sea creatures and pirates—lots of pirates. Many revelers waved swords and trident forks, craftily fashioned from strips of wood, cardboard and aluminum foil. The raving crowd pulsated to the musical beats blasting through the hangar.
All at once, a roar erupted as a pretty man wearing a bikini came strutting down the runway. He wore a wig fashioned from a new white mop. Lusty whistles and catcalls erupted from the crowd. His bikini top stretched over two missile nose cones. As he spun at the end of the runway, the full length of his cock sprang loose from his bikini bottom. The crowd went crazy. He flashed a piece of cardboard with, “Neptune’s Girl” printed on it. While strutting back he made a clumsy attempt to tuck his junk back in. He flipped the cardboard over and flashed the message on the other side: “Vote for Me!”
* * *
Master at arms patrolled the throng’s perimeter, occasionally pulled sailors out and told them to calm down. A rowdy bunch of snipes from the deck division, reeking of alcohol and weed, started a fistfight and were herded below for Breathalyzer tests and urinalysis.
* * *
Terrance had crossed the equator on an earlier cruise aboard the Nimitz, so he’d seen this mayhem before. Kate, on the other hand, couldn’t believe her eyes.
Thousands of men and women, usually hard working and alienated from each other, had completely cut loose. After months at sea they needed to blow off steam. The silos between their departments and the barriers between their ranks vanished under an explosion of costumes, make up, loud music and sexual hijinks. A conga line snaked its way through the crowd. Mosh pits formed spontaneously, with people crashing into each other. Dirty dancing couples bumped and groped. Every few minutes, someone leaped onto the runway, dove off and surfed away on the crowd.
Kate wanted to join the fun, but she and Terrance had something important to do. If they were going to see Stanley Comello, they’d agreed, it would be here at the pageant.
* * *
The sight of so many people dressed in costumes, dancing and whooping it up, made Terrance remember when he had crossed the line. He’d been in awe of the pirates, mermaids, sea-creatures, and especially the gender-bending cross-dressers. On this night—the night before they officially crossed the equator—everyone would have fun, but tomorrow when they crossed the line, things were going to get scary. Shellbacks would be paddling pollywogs with wet lengths of fire hose, and rubbing handfuls of rotten food in every lowly wog’s hair. Wogs would be forced to climb into a tub of putrid garbage and roll around, and then they’d be sprayed off with a fire hose. But tonight Terrance looked at the crowd with a dash of relief, because he’d been through it and survived. But, even though he was a Shellback, with every right to enjoy the pageant, a drop of fear poisoned his belly. So many wildly dressed people crammed into the hangar—it was too outrageous, he feared.
“Some of these people look like they just swam up from a shipwreck,” he told Kate.
“I had no idea there’d be costumes like this,” she said, wide-eyed, as a pack of sailors walked by with bulldog masks tight on their faces.
Many of the merry makers had hair too long and too thick. Water dripped off their ragged, outdated uniforms, accumulating in puddles around them. The dog-faced sailors barked and growled and ran about nipping at their mates as if they really were dogs, finally let off their leashes.
Ripping guitar riffs and sonic bass beats roared through the hangar and hoots and hollers and hand clapping rose from the crowd. On the runway, a line of men in women’s nightgowns, panties, bras, makeshift wigs and high heels strutted along. Their hairy chests and legs, and their awkward gaits betraying their gender.
At evenly spaced intervals along the runway, women wearing knee-high black leather boots, shorty-shorts and tight tank tops were posted as bodyguards and bouncers. Their greased muscles, slicked back hair and black phallic batons lent a threatening authenticity to their militant-lesbian look. A steady roar of approval rose from the crowd, where many clapped their hands above their heads in unison with a party rock anthem blasting from a stack of amplifiers.
“Look!” Terrance said to Kate. “Is that him?”
“Where?” She peered into the sea of waving arms.
“It’s Comello,” he shouted, grabbing her arm, pulling her through the mob.
Kate caught a distinct whiff of booze and turned her head just in time to look into the wide-open mouth of a howling dude who hadn’t shaved in several days. She pushed through the gyrating crowd, the unreality of the situation unfolding around her.
“He was right here,” Terrance shouted, “still wearing that ripped jersey.”
“It’s too crowded,” Kate said. “Let me get on your shoulders.”
He kneeled down and she climbed on.
“Do you see him?” He wobbled about trying not to topple over.
Suddenly, a body builder in an elaborately feathered Indian headdress, bright green baggy basketball shorts and combat boots crashed through the crowd with a mermaid hoisted across his brawny shoulders.
A hand clutching a wooden sword shot up from the crowd and delivered several hard spanks on the mermaid’s ass, and others wielding swords and tridents joined in.
The mermaid shrieked and kicked her tail.
“I see him,” Kate shouted and spun excitedly to one side, yanking Terrance’s head around just as the mermaid kicked Kate in the ribs and sent her tumbling backwards.
Through the crowd, Terrance caught a glimpse of those baby-fat cheeks.
Kate reeled hard and Terrance stumbled and sent her falling backwards off his shoulders. Hands rose from the crowd and caught her, but Terrance got shoved after stepping on someone’s foot, and Kate went down into a tangle of bodies.
The mermaid on the Indian chief’s shoulders kicked a pirate in the back of the head, knocking his glasses off. Then the mermaid kicked some chick in the face so hard her nose bled.
A muscular dude in mirrored Ray-Bans, a dollar-store black wig, and an overstuffed silver Speedo, decided he’d had enough of the kicking mermaid, so he grabbed her tail with both hands and began yanking this way and that.
An unsuspecting sailor caught an elbow in the jaw.
A poorly aimed punch hit a bystander in the neck.
Kate landed on her back and someone stepped on her arm. She screamed.
Terrance shoved people out of the way and pulled her to her feet. “If we get split up,” he said, “meet in the library.”
The MAA weighed into the melee swinging batons and cracking sailors across their backs. A shot of pepper spray stunned the riotous bunch. Several sailors took defensive stances and threw punches at anyone who came near. People stumbled, got trampled by those fleeing the pepper-spray. Attempting to escape the crush, individuals climbed onto the runway. Several baton-wielding dykes beat them back while others pulled people from danger. Within minutes, too many were standing on the runway and the structure collapsed with a CRACK and a BANG.
A hip-hop hit with a monster bass beat blasted from the stack of amplifiers as the riot spread.
Stanley Comello ran and Terrance chased him.
CHAPTER FORTY-NINE – Day 12
Captain Fox laid the wig, with a white beard attached at the sideburns, over his wingback chair. A white robe hung on a hook on the back of the stateroom’s door, and his trident, fashioned from a broomstick, a wire hanger and tin foil, leaned in the corner. He placed the crown, made by a metal smith in one of the ship’s machine shops, atop his head, and studied himself in the mirror. Staring back, he saw a pale comparison of the real King Neptune. Of course, he’d never seen the Ruler of the Raging Main, but he’d imagined him many times. When he observed a storm-tossed sea or relaxed during a rare moment while gazing at the ocean, Fox had conjured, in his seafaring imagination, visions of Neptunus Rex. He envisioned a supreme being, part immovable coral reef and part crashing tsunami—nature’s wrath incarnate. There in the mirror, he saw only himself with a tin ornament atop his head. “Doesn’t capture the power,” he whispered, somehow sure Neptune’s brow shined with an awesome light.
He called the command center.
“Fox here, give me a report.”
“We’re cloaked three-sixty,” the watch officer answered. “A Chinese sub inside eighty miles, picked it up twenty minutes ago.”
“How did we handle it?”
“The first time it pinged us, we projected a small diesel engine fishing boat.”
“Good,” Fox said.
“We’ve been fading ourselves off their sonar to the southwest. There’s lots of surface static, rain started two hours ago, lightning fifteen minutes ago, seas are averaging thirty-five feet.”
“How’s the sub behaving?”
“Bearing northwest at twenty-two knots, two-hundred meters down.”
“Any lightening hit us?”
“Six strikes on the flat panel array,” the watch reported. “We might be generating this storm with our own static.”
“Has anyone gone aloft to take a direct reading?”
“Bradmore has a team up there now.”
“Here’s what I want done. Are you ready to take orders?”
“Whether it’s our static pulling down this lightning or not, I want the mirage projector on at all times. If we shut it off, the Hayward might locate us. Electrical storms level off at about eight strikes an hour and that won’t cause any problems. We can take fifteen. Notify me immediately if we exceed ten an hour for two consecutive hours. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“Yes. I want meteorology to provide a detailed report to the command center every fifteen minutes. We need to know if it’s our static pulling down this heavy weather or a typhoon starting to blow.”
“Very well, sir.”
He hung up.
Beneath his feet, the ship rolled on long, powerful swells. Their erratic spacing concerned him. He set the crown on the chair with the rest of his costume. He shut off the lights, climbed into his bunk and fell asleep.
With a whistling snore blowing from his nose, Captain Fox slept heavily and dreamed.
* * *
In a big oval mirror with an ornate golden frame, Fox examined his reflection and felt amorous toward the regal being looking back at him. With great satisfaction, he realized he truly was King Neptune. A dazzling gold crown, sparkling with brilliant jewels, encircled his massive brow. A full head of flowing white hair cascaded down in looping curls over his bare, broad shoulders. Bushy side burns covered his cheeks, and a thick white beard jutted from his chin. From his forehead down across his handsome nose and cheeks to his bulging shoulders and his muscled chest, his skin shone with a radiant brown tan. Deep furrows across his forehead and crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes gave him a mature but slightly dangerous look. Even with this favorable self-impression, Fox had a vague suspicion that there was a flaw in his new and invigorated visage. So, he examined his reflection in the mirror closely and searched for something that wasn’t quite right. His crown and hair were certainly masculine and dignified. The bridge of his nose formed a decisive line down the center of his handsome face. His trimmed white mustache curled perfectly above his moist red lips, and when he smiled, the shine off his gleaming teeth rivaled the brilliance radiating from the crown atop his head. He turned his oversized cranium on his powerful neck and caught glimpses of his chiseled profile. He stepped close to the mirror and studied his reflection, but he couldn’t figure out what was wrong. And then the weirdness of it startled him as he noticed, with ill unease, that he could see his wiry white brows, his eyelids and their delicate lashes, but he could not see his own eyes. He blinked several times and rubbed his eyes with his blunt fingers, and all the while, wondered why the eyes in his reflection were invisible.
Then, to Fox’s surprise, the man in the mirror reached through the ornate golden frame, and his massive hand grabbed Fox’s shoulder in a crushing grip. It shook him violently, and shouted, “Wake up!”
Fox blinked and squinted and rubbed his eyes with his fists as he had upon waking from dreams as a child. Grains of sharp crystal sand had crusted in the corners of his eyes while he slept and they scratched his eyelids as he rubbed them away.
He was back in his stateroom aboard the Nimitz, or at least he thought that’s where he was.
An old man, wearing an immaculate starched white jacket with a high collar, sat ramrod straight in the wingback chair beside Fox’s bed. Five gold stars shined on the old man’s shoulder boards. Crushed pearls and colorful gems sparkled on a crown sitting atop his silver-gray hair. The old man reached over and clamped one of his massive hands tight on Fox’s shoulder and shook him violently.
“Captain Fox,” the old man shouted.
“What do you want?” Fox asked, his voice a barely audible squeak.
“I am Neptunus Rex,” the man’s voice boomed like thunder rumbling across the sky.
Fox tussled against the sheets, coiled like ropes around him. The harder he fought, it seemed, the tighter his arms became bound in the evil bed linens.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Fox demanded, looking at his visitor whose face shone with a pearly white brilliance.
Water gurgled up through his mattress, soaking the backs of his legs and his sheets and blankets and spilling over the sides of his bed and flooding the compartment. He watched his pillow float away as a flood rose rapidly around him.
Disoriented, Fox watched Neptune grow and swell. Agog, Fox got lost in the rough texture of Neptune’s hair and the expanse of his face. He imagined himself as a microbe without a soul, a thing with no intelligence, dumbstruck in the face of a supernatural being. His stateroom melted away, and he was up to his neck in water, treading with his arms and legs, pumping his limbs, struggling to stay afloat. Neptune loomed over him, a bare-chested giant rising out of the water. Bolts of lightning cracked across the darkness and black-bottomed clouds swirled over Neptune’s massive head. In the pores of his skin, Fox saw trilobites scurrying on ragged claws across the floor of a silent sea. Thunder rumbled from Neptune’s throat and foaming white waves crashed through his teeth. Saltwater splashed over Fox’s head and dragged him down to the sunless depths where sharks circled menacingly in the murk.
Fox pumped his arms and legs and swam for the surface where he treaded water desperately trying to catch a breath. Salt stung his eyes. He salivated uncontrollably. Moonlight glowed from an obscure angle, illuminating the water for miles around. The Nimitz was gone. A swift current, like a raging river, pulled him along. For a while, he swam against the powerful current, but fear crept into his guts as he gradually realized he could not escape. After a while, overcome by exhaustion, he eked out a doggy paddle with his shivering hands.
Like a toy boat, alone in the ocean, he swept along in the dim gray glow with only the crashing waves and a hush of wind in the night sky. Gradually the angle of the water increased, and little by little, it drew him onto the face of a racing wave. Up he went, rising on a colossal tsunami, higher and higher on the wave’s treacherous face.
The wind rose to a roaring crescendo as he neared the foaming apex. It banged him about with the crashing clamor of a freight train. A scream drowned in his throat under mouthfuls of foamy saltwater.
Fox’s legs tumbled over his head and his arms flailed; his hands unable to grasp anything. Water churned all around, tossing him to the crest of the wave and then over the top, where he plummeted as if he’d jumped off a tall building. He flew through space, between a black maw about to swallow him and tons of angry water set to crash on top of him. One coherent thought filled his mind when he saw the rocks, black and jagged. He knew they’d been beaten by waves and pulled by powerful tides, but hadn’t budged since the beginning of time.
A second before impact, Captain Fox died of fright. And the great wave of seawater, with its salty abrasive scrubbing power, washed away every molecule of his being, and no stain remained where he became invisible.
“In accordance with ancient tradition,” Neptune said, “I relieve you of your command. I will navigate this ship across the equator and preside at the initiation of all your lowly pollywogs. Now, sleep like a sailor drowned at sea, Mr. Fox. Sleep soundly.”
CHAPTER FIFTY – Day 12
Brandt laid out the Davy Jones costume on the chair in his stateroom. He studied his fake sword, old-style tricorn hat, ruffled shirt, old-fashioned officer’s jacket and black wig. Nikki had done a reasonably good job gathering his costume. He stripped down to socks and boxers to go to sleep but decided to put on the costume to see how it looked. The scraggly wig looked fake, but he put on the tricorn hat over it and saw a glimmer of seafaring ferocity in his reflection. Maybe it was his tattoos, or the ruffled shirt, and the way a few clumps of the wig hung around his scowling face below the jutting, bent brim of the hat. Was there some ancient mariner energy there? Either way, he hoped it was enough to pull this off. I’m certainly not going through wog day on my hands and knees, he decided for the thousandth time. He stripped off the costume and laid each piece across the back of his chair. He set his alarm for 0430, climbed into his bunk, rolled over and fell asleep.
Later, he awoke in the dark with a wet hand shaking his shoulder. “Who’s there?” he demanded.
“You’ve arrived on the equator, wog,” a raspy voice in the darkness.
Brandt fumbled for the light and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the brightness.
He swung his legs out and his feet splashed in a cold puddle. “What the hell is this?”
He unlocked the door and looked down the empty passageway. Bumping dance music echoed up the ladder from the celebration in the hangar. The ship strained as she rolled over a rough sea. He slammed the door and locked it. As he pressed the speed dial button for the administration office, he put the phone to his ear and glanced at the glowing red numbers on his digital clock. 11:33.
“This is Captain Brandt. Who was sent to wake me?”
“Hold the line, Captain.” Brandt heard music coming through the phone even louder than he’d heard it in the passageway outside his stateroom. “Anyone send a wakeup call to Brandt?”
“Not me,” someone said.
“Hell no,” came another reply.
“Nobody from here, sir.”
Feeling foolish, Brandt changed the subject. “Sounds like a party’s going on.”
“The music, sir?”
“Yes, quite a ruckus,” he said. “It’s twenty-three-thirty; it should have been over by now.”
“Too much fun at the beauty pageant, I guess it got a little carried away.”
Brandt called the medical department but nobody answered. He called the bridge and damage control central trying to find out who woke him. As he talked to people in different locations around the ship, he heard loud music and carrying on in the background. All reported no wakeup call sent for him.
He lit a cigarette and sat on the edge of his bunk wondering who was playing tricks. He tapped a bare foot on the wet deck and knew he wasn’t dreaming. There’d been someone in his stateroom. How else had the water gotten there? His anger swelled as the ship rose sharply. He knew they were onto him. Panic frittered along the dark edge of his mind. “They know I’m a wog.” He exhaled smoke.
He called the MAA and told the woman who answered the phone, “That damn party is spreading all over the ship.”
“Well, sir, there were more spectators than we expected, but we’re trying to shut it down now.”
The right thing to do was to broadcast an announcement declaring the party over, ordering everyone not on duty back to their living quarters. But he tapped his foot on the wet floor and hesitated, because he suspected there was a group of officers out there, probably right around the corner at the end of the passageway. He imagined them snickering and preparing to burst into his stateroom to begin initiating him any minute.
We’re on the equator, he reminded himself.
Shellbacks have taken over!
“I’m fucked sideways,” he muttered.
“Excuse me?” the MAA asked.
“Shut down the party,” Brandt snapped. “If it’s not under control in thirty minutes, call me. I’ll make a shipwide announcement and put a stop to all this grab-ass.”
Brandt snuffed his cigarette, climbed into his bunk, shut off the light and rolled over.
“I said get up, wog,” a voice in the dark demanded, and a cold wet hand shook his shoulder. “You’ve reached the line!”
Dumbfounded, he fumbled for the light, and there was Lieutenant Jones, sitting in his chair. Jones wore an outrageous orange, crushed-velvet tuxedo with black piping on the pant legs.
“You son of bitch!” Brandt stood up and put a hand on Jones’ shoulder. Water dripped from Jones’ thick, black hair. Brandt said, “You’re soaked and you’re getting my costume wet.”
Rowdy shouting erupted in the passageway.
Jones leaped over and unlocked the door.
Brandt pounced on his back, shouting, “No you don’t!”
But it was too late. The door burst open and a gang of wildly attired Shellbacks and drunken buccaneers poured in. They knocked Brandt down, but he jumped up and fought back. He jabbed a man in the eye, and punched a woman in the mouth, but a pair of strong arms wrapped around his chest. Too many hands to fight grabbed his arms and legs. Hands choked him around the neck, wrestled him down and pinned him to the deck. Someone pressed a knee in the small of his back. Another son of a bitch twisted his ears. A sudden kick to the ribs knocked the air from his lungs. They wound a thick rope tightly around his chest and arms. Handcuffs closed on his wrists behind his back. A hand smacked his face and a woman with a cockney accent, said, “Won’t lash out like that again will you, Davy Jones?”
“Davey Jones,” a voice mocked.
Roaring laughter filled the compartment.
A fat man sat on Brandt’s back, pinning him helplessly, preventing him from catching his breath. Sharp pain radiated where he’d taken a kick in the ribs.
In the scuffle, Brandt’s underpants had twisted around sideways, giving him a painful wedgie.
Hatred boiled in his belly. He’d line them up at captain’s mast and sentence them to brig time on bread and water. But something wasn’t right. The unreality of the situation forced him to stifle his anger and reevaluate.
Brandt forced himself to calm down and examine these hoodlums. Their clothing all mismatched articles of mariner garb from a multitude of navies. They spoke languages with accents he couldn’t understand. A rough looking bitch caught his eye and he wondered at the sight of her greasy black hair under a filthy wool cap. And there was a tanned, shirtless boy with dark hair and almond eyes. Brandt knew there were no kids aboard the ship. And there was a woman with a beard and tattoos on her face! A stooped old man with brown spots covering his tissue-paper skin held a long sword that made Brandt think of an old-time weapon—a cutlass or a rapier— whatever the hell that was. A short guy with missing teeth and rolls of fat stretching his tattered shirt, had bandoleers full of bullets crisscrossing his chest and pistols hanging in holsters at his hips.
Brandt struggled to make sense of it. Were these pirates? Actual fucking pirates! Were they taking over the ship? How did they get aboard? Is Jones the ringleader? As Brandt grappled with the notion of Jones leading a mutiny, he licked his lips and tasted his own blood, triggering another wave of rage.
“I’ll get revenge on you bastards,” he howled.
Another boot kicked his ribs. His vision flickered.
* * *
Coming out of the blackness, Brandt leaped to his feet and lunged for the door, intent on crashing through to the passageway, but a stocky woman in tattered pants and a leather vest cracked him on the back of the head with a sock full of coins. His vision blackened as he collapsed again.
Awhile later, when he regained consciousness, he discovered the brawny woman scowling at him, her arms crossed defensively on her chest. His vision focused, and he saw two pistols, one tattooed on each of her forearms.
Brandt leaped to his feet and tried to head butt Jones. But before connecting, he went down under a flurry of punches. His nose bled. Bruises bloomed around his eyes.
* * *
Jones stepped to the center of the crowded compartment, resplendent in his orange crushed-velvet jacket with tails and narrow lapels over a ruffled, white shirt and matching orange pants. He wore white silk socks and black leather shoes with shiny silver buckles. A jewel-handled dagger stuck from the black leather belt at his waist. He spoke in long flourishing sentences and used exaggerated, almost comical, gestures, as he ordered the others about. He called two men and three women and swore them into a jury. They sat side by side on Brandt’s bunk and forced Brandt to lie beneath their feet. A woman with red, gold and green reggae beads braided into her dreads removed a scroll from inside her vest and handed it to Jones.
He broke the wax seal and unrolled it. He read aloud, “The Royal Order of the Deep hereby charges Samuel Brandt of the USS Nimitz with crimes against the Realm.” Jones cleared his throat. “Impersonation of a Shellback, when in fact you are a lowly wog.” The crowd hissed. Jones rolled the parchment down. “You plotted to impersonate me, the most Honorable Davy Jones, during this equator crossing ceremony.” The crowd grumbled. Someone threw the Davy Jones costume in Brandt’s face. “And,” Jones continued, “you are charged with disparaging the reputation of many hearty shellbacks.”
“You’ll pay for this,” Brandt shouted.
“This man is guilty,” a member of the jury declared as she reached down and socked Brandt in the ear.
“How do you plead?” Jones asked.
“I admit nothing,” Brandt shouted.
Another kick in the ribs so hard he coughed blood into the back of his mouth.
CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE – Day 12
Inside a wire-mesh cage at the bottom of a ladder, beneath the galley, a marine stood watch. Behind her in three massive vaults everything from bullets to 1500-pound bunker busters, air to air missiles and nuclear weapons were stored. Everything in the ship’s world-ending arsenal sat strapped in neat rows on metal racks behind locked doors.
Music boomed from the cavernous hangar two decks above. It echoed through ladderwells and passageways and grated on the ears of the marine guard standing in her wire mesh cage. At the top of the ladder a few feet in front of her, sailors ran wild in the galley, laughing and yelling.
Tonight the ship tossed so hard on the pitching sea, the guard checked to make sure the brake levers on the forklifts were set. She walked across the checkered tiles, past two elevator shafts, closed off by retractable grates. She walked along the row of stainless steel vault doors, each with a dial the size of a tea saucer embedded in its center. Around each dial’s face, numbers etched from zero to 99. Each door a slab of steel, ten feet high, six feet wide, and six inches thick, a precision-made machine on hydraulic hinges. Inside the vaults, strapped to storage racks, hundreds of rockets, bombs and missiles rested in climate-controlled darkness.
She glanced at the dial on the first door and noted that it pointed to the zero position, as it should. She checked the gauge on the Halon fire-suppression system next to the door and it showed a full charge. She’d learned in training that Halon gas extinguishes a fire by neutralizing oxygen without damaging electrical equipment, which makes it the perfect firefighting agent for weapon storage areas; the downside was that anyone inside a compartment filled with Halon suffocated to death.
She paused at the last door in the row. Her eyes lingered on the yellow and black nuclear symbol, and she wondered what would happen if one of the weapons in there went off. She imagined the entire ship melting under a mushroom cloud. What kind of gadget is inside a nuclear bomb, she wondered. She’d seen nukes many times. They were sleek white tubes, five or six feet long, a pointy nose and fins like a shark’s tail on the end. They didn’t look any different from other rockets and missiles, but she’d seen enough safety training videos to know they were different.
Then she noticed the dial on the nuclear vault pointing to the number one, and her hand went to the butt of her pistol. She quickly scanned the area as her mind flashed back to the previous night. She glanced down at the bloodstained yellow tiles. Two marines, scrubbing with hot soapy water and bristle brushes, had been unable to remove the stain. Ten tiles, she counted, had to be scraped off the deck and replaced.
She moved the dial on the vault door one click. “There,” she said, aligning the etched arrow with the zero perfectly.
* * *
A hundred times, she’d stood watch at this station, the only entrance to the weapon’s vault, and never had an unauthorized person come down the ladder from above.
But last night was different, she told herself as she replayed the memory in her head.
She’d been walking exactly where she walked now when he came down the ladder, sliding on his backside because of the big cast on his leg. He wore paper coveralls. Red welts and tattoos all over his arms. He had two black eyes and he waved a metal pipe over his head as he charged.
“Stop!” she shouted, but he kept coming.
She stepped back and drew her pistol.
“Stop or I’ll shoot,” she shouted, wondering where this lunatic had come from.
He swung the pipe.
He hobbled to the nuclear vault and turned the dial.
“Put your hands above your head!” she ordered.
He ignored her.
If he knows the combination, she realized, he’d be inside the vault in seconds. She shoved him away, tried to make eye contact, but he swung the pipe again. She imagined him inside the vault banging on the nukes.
“Put your hands over your head,” she yelled again, “or I will shoot you.”
He ignored her, continued spinning the dial in one direction then back in the other as if he knew the combo. She didn’t know it but knew it had four numbers. If this lunatic knows it, she figured, he’ll have that door open in a second.
“Step back and put your hands up!” She took aim.
He kept spinning.
She pulled the trigger.
The bullet entered his torso a few inches below his left armpit and spun him around.
She was amazed when he didn’t collapse.
He stepped toward her and she shot him again, through the middle of the chest.
Her ears rang and the acrid odor of spent gunpowder burned her nostrils. And then the strangest thing happened. He looked at the hole in his chest and looked at her and he smiled, as if he was grateful to her. Then he collapsed and she ran to sound the alarm.
* * *
“Crazy shit,” she told herself.
She wrote an entry in the logbook: “2330: ALL SECURE.”
The ship lurched steeply, rising on a powerful swell, and she heard a faint pop and a muffled screech. She ran to the nearest vault door, pressed her ear to it and listened as the ship rose and fell with increasing intensity. But the vault remained silent.
The music coming from the hangar two decks above was getting louder as the night wore on, and now people were in the galley, directly above, laughing and roughhousing. She walked to the base of the ladder and shouted, “Move your rowdy nonsense away from my magazine!”
Stepping back into her guard station, feeling cocky, she mumbled, “Shit, I might shoot somebody, like I did last night.”
She wondered how that kid Jenks escaped from the brig. She’d stood countless watches but never had a reason to draw her weapon, never mind actually shoot someone until last night.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, she checked the vaults and Halon gauges again.
“Strange,” she squinted at the dial on the nuke vault, where the etched arrow pointed to the number seven. “I put it on zero,” she whispered, wondering if the ship’s swaying had moved it. Never seen it move like that, she thought, but the ship never swayed this hard before either.
Her palm went to the butt of her pistol as she turned slowly, expecting to see a silent intruder.
But, nobody was there.
Unsure of what to do, she decided not to call away another security breach. She spun the dial back to zero, felt it click with mechanical precision on each digit. While walking back to her guard station, she realized with an unpleasant certainty, that the swaying of the ship hadn’t caused the dial to move.
What had, she wondered as she wrote “2345: ALL SECURE” in the logbook.
* * *
At midnight, the dial pointed to 11.
She ran to the guard station and picked up the phone. “Something strange is going on,” she told the watch. “The dial on the nuclear weapons vault keeps moving off the zero, but nobody is down here except me.”
“Are you reporting a security breach?” the watch asked.
“This magazine needs to be inspected.”
“To initiate an inspection,” the watch explained, “I gotta sound the alarm.”
“I hate to cry wolf,” she said, “but there’s something fishy going on down here.” She imagined the mayhem she’d create by calling a security breach in the middle of the festivities on the hangar. “Yeah,” she said, “go ahead and sound the alarm.”
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CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO – Day 12
Terrance McDaniels chased the Comello lookalike up ladders and forward through a passageway where he found himself in the middle of a gang of rowdy Shellbacks pounding their fists on stateroom doors and stamping the deck with their heavy boots.
Recklessly, Terrance chased the gang around a corner and almost ran up their backs. One man turned around and froze Terrance with a glittering stare. A gray-black beard sprouted so thickly from the man’s face, Terrance saw only a pair of bloodshot eyes leering at him from a mass of facial hair.
Terrance lowered his stance and prepared to defend himself.
The man’s scruffy scowl softened as he pressed a bottle into Terrance’s gut. Without hesitation, Terrance snatched it and guzzled what tasted like spiced rum. The heat of it made the inside of his cheeks sweat. “Thanks, shipmate,” Terrance said as he handed it back.
The man chugged again and shoved it back at him. “This’ll be a great trial, mate?” The man’s rotten breath came over brown stubs that had once been teeth.
“It sure will.” Terrance took another swig. He hadn’t had a drink in months, since the Philippines, so the concoction went straight to his head, making him woozy.
A door opened and Terrance followed the crowd into a stateroom.
* * *
At first, he couldn’t see through the mob of men and women jammed into the tiny space. Their old-time hats and greasy wet hair above surly faces seemed to fill his eyes. What did I just drink, he wondered, as he caught a glimpse of Lieutenant Jones in a ridiculous orange suit, reading from a rolled-up parchment.
“Wow,” Terrance whispered when he saw Captain Brandt, beaten down and bound with a thick, old rope.
Another swig from the bottle brought on a rush that sloshed from side to side in his skull. He leaned into the crowd as the ship dropped beneath them like a roller coaster car.
Each time the pirate pushed the jug into his gut; Terrance swigged more and worried less. He joined in laughing as they ridiculed Captain Brandt. He wondered if he’d really seen Comello in the crowded hangar, and who were these hoodlums—most of them soaking wet and stinking like dead fish, carrying swords and knives and drinking liquor. Wondering if he should run to the MAA and raise an alarm, he decided that would be a mistake, especially now with alcohol on his breath.
Right then a bell rang an urgent call throughout the ship. A squeal of feedback, and then a calm computer-generated female voice announced “AWAY THE MARINE SECURITY TASK FORCE. AWAY THE FLYING SQUAD. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. SECURITY BREACH, AFT WEAPONS MAGAZINE.”
* * *
Kate lost Terrance in the ruckus so she ran to the library.
She 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.
* * *
The nuclear weapons vault swung open just as Kate stepped alongside O’Malley and the Marine security task force. Inside the vault, overhead fluorescents illuminated row upon row of sleek bombs strapped on metal racks. As O’Malley and the marines entered, Kate glanced at the nuclear hazard symbol on the door and followed them in.
The others moved ahead, but Kate stopped and looked at one of the bombs—a glossy white cylinder about five feet long with a pointy nose and a blunt finned tail. It was as big around as a volleyball. She reached out to touch the weapon but jumped back as a tiny spark of static zipped from the bomb and jolted her hand. The whole ship, she realized, was charging with static. The situation had a surreal aura because even down here in this high security area, she heard the rowdy shouts of a crazed crowd singing along with the strumming and thumping of a classic rock hit. Why hadn’t someone shut down that party?
A loud BANG and the SCREECH of bending metal.
Kate whipped around, expecting to see a bulkhead busted open and seawater pouring in.
She ran through the aisles, following the sound of a man screaming. She turned a corner and came to a storage rack that had toppled over. A missile had slid out and was rolling loose, clattering on the deck. A marine lay beneath the twisted metal.
“Get this off me,” he shouted.
O’Malley, Kate and another marine grabbed the rack and lifted. With awkward footing on the pitching deck, they could only lift the heavy rack an inch. Kate let go and the others held, as she dragged the marine clear.
“This shit didn’t come loose on its own!” one of the marines hollered and waved his pistol in the air. “I’ll shoot the son of a bitch who’s in here!”
“Put that gun away,” O’Malley shouted, and told Kate, “Get a stretcher!” He pointed at the injured marine, who was lifting his pant leg to show them a broken shard of white shinbone.
“I’ll be God dammed!” The marine continued waving his pistol. “There’s someone in here!”
“Holster that pistol and secure these weapons!” O’Malley put a hand on the marine’s shoulder.
“What’s gonna break loose next?” the marine ignored O’Malley.
“I said, holster that weapon, marine!” A red glow seethed on O’Malley’s perspiring face. “If you’re concerned someone is loose in here, we’ll seal this vault and fill it with Halon gas.”
CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE – Day 13
A stout man with a square face and a trimmed beard accused Brandt of licking urine drippings off toilet seats and collecting pubic hairs from shower drains. A skinny old man in a flattened skipper’s cap swore he saw Brandt prancing around in women’s undergarments. A boy, no older than 12, told the court in a precocious sing-song that Brandt always sat down like a girl to make pee and he always neglected to wipe himself after squeezing out a turd. The bearded woman came before the court and, with a straight face, charged Brandt with pulling the sheets over his own head and inhaling deeply after farting in bed.
They looted Brandt’s closet and drawers, tossed his clothing and toiletries about.
A chubby pirate with a hairy back had everyone hooting as he danced around modeling Brandt’s cock-thong. His fat rolls jiggled as he leaped and pirouetted for show.
Brandt insisted that he was obligated to respond to the security breach alarm, but waves of raucous jeering shouted him down. Refusing to yield, Brandt continued to harangue them until someone found the ball gag in his bondage toy chest. Upon seeing the restraint, Jones ordered it affixed to Brandt’s mouth. Renewed waves of laughter broke from the crowd as Brandt struggled helplessly against the bearded woman attaching the apparatus to his face.
The surly pirates crammed into the stateroom smoked and drank, cursed and made threats. Brandt slouched in a heap, under the weight of so many cold stares.
“Now that you’ve heard the evidence against you,” Jones asked, “do you have anything to say in self-defense?”
The compartment went quiet, except for the wheezing of an old timer. A barefoot, shirtless kid in bellbottoms grabbed the straps on Brandt’s mask and asked, “Should I remove it?”
An argument erupted between those who objected and others who wanted to hear what Brandt had to say.
Terrance stared in disbelief at the shirtless kid who stood poised to remove the gag. Red pockmarks speckled his face, neck and chest; some scabbed over but many oozed blood and trickled puss across his gray-blue skin. Dutro, Terrance thought as he studied the deathly face. Trying to clear the drunken confusion swirling in his mind, Terrance blinked hard several times and shook his head. Is my mind playing tracks on me, he wondered. Either that or Dutro has joined the dead crew!
The door banged open and a marine burst in. Someone shouted, “He’s got a gun!”
A tussle ensued and the marine’s pistol went off.
Everyone froze as the BANG and the odor of burnt gunpowder filled the tiny space.
Terrance looked at the pistol in the marine’s hand, its barrel smoking, and followed where it pointed. To his utter amazement, he saw a smoking hole on the right breast of Jones’ tuxedo jacket.
Jones looked at the hole, fluttered his hand to dissipate the smoke. An impatient look twisted his face as he growled, “Please subdue this man!”
The entire crowd piled onto the marine, and beat him down with reckless violence.
Terrance ended up half-buried beneath a tangle of arms and legs where he heard, punctuating the riotous shouts, the pistol pop off two more rounds. Truly afraid for the first time since entering the compartment, his liquor-soggy brain considered leaving, but before he could decide, the crowd bound the marine and forced him to sit beside Brandt. The trail continued.
Dutro, or his look-alike, tore the gag from Brandt’s mouth and a hush fell over the crowd. He stretched his jaw and leered at the kangaroo court. He considered admitting the truth—that he was a wog—but knew that confessing anything to these tyrants would only worsen his situation. When Brandt refused to speak, Jones ordered him gagged again, and Brandt fought helplessly as they forced the ball into his mouth and fastened the Velcro straps.
“The prosecution calls another witness,” Jones announced.
A young man in a filthy brown jersey, ripped from collar to hem and hastily sewn with a length of twine, stepped to the middle of the compartment. A smile spread his chubby cheeks.
Jones asked, “Are you a Shellback?”
“You bet I am,” the kid said with mischievous enthusiasm.
“Har-be-gar!” an old salt shouted, “there’s a Trusty Shellback!”
Terrance looked on, amazed.
CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR – Day 13
“Fractured right femur,” Kate hastily told the doctor on duty, as they set the marine on an examination table.
She ran to the morgue and punched in the combo on the ten-key pad. Once inside, she flicked on the lights.
Click. She yanked the first drawer open. Cold air washed over her. “Empty!” she mumbled, and slammed it shut.
Click. She pulled the next handle. “Empty!” She slammed it shut.
Click. She jumped back, a shriek of fear stuck in her throat.
Jenks’ cast lay there in one piece.
She considered confronting Sternz and then thought about getting a scalpel and going into the quarantine ward. She’d press it to Darnell Ratcomb’s throat and demand he tell her the truth about Jenks, the truth about bodies missing from the morgue and the truth about the dead crew. Instead, she ran to the library.
Passageways normally lit were dark. She passed a compartment where sailors were down on their hands and knees, and enraged Shellbacks were whipping and stomping them without mercy. Screams of pain and crazed peals of laughter, like the inside of a Halloween haunted house, echoed along the cramped metal passageways. Kate watched in disbelief as six inches of water came sloshing directly at her along the main deck passageway. It flowed over her boots and splashed onto her pants. She figured it came from an open spigot, a clogged sink or an overflowing toilet—probably all of the above.
She climbed ladders, ran along a short passage and burst into the library. Entire shelves had fallen over, books strewn across the floor. She found Terrance dozing in a chair at the back of what was left of the stacks.
“Where have you been?” Kate shook him and caught a whiff of his breath. “You’re drunk!”
“You won’t believe it,” he slurred.
* * *
On the way to medical station 12, they couldn’t walk in a straight line for more than a few steps. The ship lurched this way and that, rising then sliding sideways and down, forcing them to clutch fixtures and pipes, anything fast to the ship.
They heeled so hard Terrance thought it might keep right on going and roll all the way over. A fire extinguisher crashed across the deck in front of them. Terrence couldn’t believe the mayhem breaking loose.
Clearly, a lunatic had a hand on the ship’s wheel.
It sounded like an elephant trumpeting below decks. A tremendous SCREECH of steel plates under pressure as the ship twisted and rolled on the insane sea.
They crashed through the door into their little hideaway, and Terrance went straight to one of the metal liferaft drums. He slapped his hand on top and said, “I’m jumping over the side.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Kate said. “You won’t believe what I saw!”
“Jenks is missing, but his cast is still there, it’s whole, like his body vanished and left it behind.”
“I believe it,” Terrance said, unimpressed after what he’d seen. He wrapped his arms around one of the drums. With a grunt, he lifted and took an awkward step just as the ship started another steep roll over. Stumbling through the door, Terrance dropped the drum in the passageway. It crashed and rolled toward the door leading outside onto the catwalk. The lid popped off and they saw the bright yellow raft rolled up inside.
“I’m jumping,” he declared.
“We have to tell someone,” Kate implored.
“I told Aronson but he didn’t want to hear it.”
“If we jump we’ll be committing desertion!” Kate said.
Terrance turned the drum upside down and shook it. A tightly rolled cylinder of heavy-duty, yellow rubber, with a black rope coiled around it, slid out.
Kate grabbed Terrance’s arm and spun him around.
He dropped the drum with a clatter and buried his face in her hair. “Let’s go for a swim!” he said, his breath reeking of rum.
“That’s desertion!” she objected.
“Jenks is missing from the morgue,” he said, “and who do you think’s in the magazine?”
“I’m not deserting!”
“It’s the dead crew!” he shouted. “Jenks has joined them, and they’re putting Brandt on trial and they’re in the nuclear weapons magazine!” He threw the door open and a torrent of rain blasted in. He grabbed the raft and lugged it onto the catwalk.
“They’re taking control of the ship,” he yelled above the roar of rain splattering on steel.
Lightning cracked across the black sky, illuminating watery valleys and steep, foam-topped waves. A thunderclap silenced the howling wind and crashing rain.
“Stop!” she screamed.
“He knows how to arm a nuke,” Terrance said, his face soaked, his voice intense with alarm, “and he’s in that magazine!”
The ship lurched suddenly and tossed her out through the hatch and into his arms. He dropped the raft and caught her.
Rain soaked them to the skin.
The tortured elephant trumpeted again—the sound of the ship in agony as her keel twisted under impossible pressure.
“Are you jumping?” he asked.
“No!” Kate looked away.
The ship came about level and started to heel over the other way. Kate turned to leave and Terrance gently grabbed her arm. Their eyes met.
“You know who the dead crew are don’t you?” he asked.
“I do.” She turned her back on him.
“I’m jumping,” he said, feeling alone in the world.
She walked away.
“I’m gonna jump,” he shouted after her.
She vanished down a ladder.
“I’m jumping—” he shouted less forcefully, and then whispered, “—soon.”
* * *
Clambering down impossible ladder angles, making her way back to the magazine, Kate heard screams echoing from below.
When she reached the main deck, she made her way aft, like a pinball, bouncing from one side of the wide passageway to the other. Six inches of water sloshed fore and aft and side-to-side.
A pack of marauding pirates ran at her. A barking dog made her ears perk up. She wondered how they could possibly have a dog with them. She stepped to one side as they charged past, waving fire-hose whips over their heads. It was a huge crowd—30 or 40 outrageously dressed and foul smelling men and women running mad—herding a pack of a hundred pollywogs along on their hands and knees. A riot of screaming and shouting, barking and banging on the bulkheads as the gang clambered past.
A burly woman with tangled black hair and dark blue teardrops tattooed at the corners of her eyes pinned an evil stare on Kate. She grabbed Kate’s shirt and yanked hard enough to rip the fabric.
Kate pulled away.
The woman held tight.
Two men in scary-real dog masks crowded behind her, twitching their heads from side to side, keeping a lookout.
The liquor-stink on the woman’s breath almost made Kate wretch. The woman’s eyes rolled around as she struggled to focus on Kate’s face.
“You look like a wog to me, pretty girl!”
“Let me go!” Kate demanded.
“Down on your knees!” The wench pulled a curved knife from her belt and poked it in Kate’s belly, backing her against the bulkhead.
“This ship is on the line, wog!” the woman screeched. Spittle flew off her lips and spattered on Kate’s face.
Kate lunged aside but the woman brought the blade to her throat.
“You want to die right now?” she slurred.
One of the dog-faced men cracked Kate across the face with his length of fire hose. “On the deck, wog!” he snarled.
Kate slowly bent her knees, but the other dogman lashed her across the other side of her face. “Move it, wog,” he shouted.
Tears burst from her eyes as she joined the herd of crawling wogs. The second her knees touched the hard steel, she remembered Terrance telling her to get kneepads.
At the first opportunity, she jumped to her feet and ran.
“Get back here,” the woman screamed.
Kate ran into a ladderwell and sprang to the top in three bounds. In the hangar, she scrambled around jets and support equipment. She crouched, cowering behind a wooden crate in the shadows, and considered running back to join Terrance on his leap into the sea.
* * *
Rain fell with the ferocity of a waterfall splattering on black rocks. Soaked to the skin, high in the catwalk, Terrance coiled the black rope around the raft. He knelt on the pitching metal grate and considered the red handle, embossed with the words PULL TO INFLATE, poking from the rolled layers of yellow rubber. He considered pulling it and leaping overboard. He saw himself hitting the surface and plunging under. He’d have to swim after the raft and, if he could find it, pull himself aboard.
He simply couldn’t imagine floating away alone.
“Damn it Kate!” he lamented as rain dribbled off his nose.
He crammed the raft behind a fuel pipe and went into the medical station to wait for her to return.
He sat on the deck and tried to figure out how he was going to get himself and the raft down to the water, 80-feet below, and somehow inflate it and climb in.
The problem teased his drunken brain.
He wondered what would happen if he inflated it and threw it over and tried to swim after it, but it was too easy to imagine the wind sweeping it away across the waves.
He considered clutching it in both arms until he hit the water, but imagined it smashing his chin and breaking his neck.
Stumped again, he thought about lugging the raft to the fantail and jumping off from there, but he worried about the MAA busting him or having it snatched away by pirates.
Rum-buzzed, he struggled to focus. He hoped Kate would return soon. The ship swayed hard, angled so steeply he slumped onto his back. He considered tying the rope through his belt loops, but his thoughts flickered and he dozed off.
* * *
Underwater, he clutched the rope with both hands and could see the rolled-up raft down there dragging him like an anchor toward the bottom. It made no sense because he knew the raft would float, but there it was dragging him into turbid darkness. His lungs ached, and he knew he had to yank that red handle. He pulled the rope hand over hand. If he didn’t reach that handle soon he’d be out of breath and he’d drown, so he pulled with all his might. Water rushed past him but he held tight to the rope and pulled and there it was, the red handle sticking from that rolled-up plug of rubber. With a strenuous effort, he grabbed it and tugged but nothing happened.
He tugged but still nothing, so he yanked his hardest!
And the raft started swelling and unrolling as air filled it.
“Kate!” he hollered as the raft shot past him and started pulling him toward the surface. “Kate,” his words gargling under water, “I figured it out! I figured it out!”
* * *
O’Malley stared at the Halon gauge and said, “As soon as the gas is cleared out, we’re reentering that mag’.”
Kate stumbled down the ladder into the weapon’s area. Ragged and out of breath, she wondered if anyone here knew that chaos had taken over the ship. She stood behind O’Malley and listened as he spoke into a telephone.
“If you can’t locate Fox, then get Brandt on the line!” O’Malley said impatiently. He could extinguish fires, stop flooding, control all manner of catastrophic accidents and prevent the ship from sinking, but when it came to getting proper clearance, he couldn’t tolerate bureaucracy. “What do you mean you can’t locate Brandt?” his voice charged with frustration. He lowered the receiver and yelled, “Is Captain Brandt here?” He pointed at a boatswain standing nearby, and said, “See if Captain Brandt is up in the galley. On the double!” O’Malley spoke into the phone again. “I’ll get back to you.” He hung up. “Where the hell are the captains of this ship?”
“I’ve gotta talk to you,” Kate said.
“Looks like you got in a fistfight, Conrad,” he said.
A sailor wearing a silver firefighting suit walked over, pulled off an oxygen mask and said, “All the Halon gas is pumped out and we’re ready to go back in.”
“I gotta talk to you, O’Malley,” Kate said.
“Stand by, Conrad,” he replied.
Kate followed O’Malley and the marines into the nuclear weapons vault. They walked back between the rows of sleek weapons strapped on metal racks.
“Oh my God,” someone shouted, “get over here!”
They zigzagged through the racks, deep into the vault.
“Sweet Jesus,” a marine muttered.
“What devil’s work is this?” O’Malley blurted.
Kate peeked around O’Malley and saw one of the nukes in a flashlight’s beam. An access panel on the side was pried open and a bundle of colored wires, several cut, dangled there.
“Whoever did this is dead from breathing Halon!” O’Malley said grimly. He shouted, “Search under these weapons for a dead body. And get an explosives expert down here RIGHT NOW to make sure this thing doesn’t blow up!”
Kate ran out of the magazine thinking about what she’d seen in the logbook after a guard heard Jenks say something about short-circuiting a powerful weapon.
CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE – Day 13
Trueblood lay across a kiddie-playground seesaw with his back against the steel pole that connected the seats. It teetered upward, tossing his smiling face high into a brilliant blue sky. Branches heavy with summer-green leaves filled his eyes, as the swaying contraption held him aloft for a long moment.
Below somewhere, kids squealed with delight as they ran wild on the playground. A dog barked somewhere far away.
Predictably, the seesaw pitched down and his head sank while his legs rose in the air. The big smile stretched his lips even as he worried about rolling completely ass over teakettle.
Slowly at first and then all at once it pitched the other way and his head shot into the sky again.
Each time he teetered, he waited for the jolt of the seesaw hitting the ground, but it never came. So, he rode up and down, steeper and deeper—the entire crazy contraption squealing and straining, like steel bending under terrific pressure.
Unexpectedly it tossed him sideways into a steep pitch, and an overpowering sensation made him hold on.
Snapping awake with one hand pressed against the bunk above him, Trueblood clutched a handful of blanket.
“Hit him again,” a wet snarl outside the flimsy curtain.
Bare-knuckles punched flesh over bones.
“Get your paws off me,” someone demanded. “I’m a Shellback!”
Boots scuffled and hands grappled, tearing fabric in a desperate struggle.
Shocked awake, Trueblood realized that only his thin blue curtain separated him from the riot going on in the Stinger living compartment.
The ship leaned over hard and someone slammed up against his bunk, an elbow poked between the curtain panels.
He glanced at his clock. 4:05.
A whip cracked on flesh.
“Oww, you fucker!”
Snarling. Growling. A dog barked.
He figured the ship had arrived on the equator, and the Stinger Shellbacks, too impatient to wait, had begun initiating wogs.
Trueblood’s eyes popped open. He smiled and thought—a dog bark!
And another bark and this time a snarl.
He’d never seen a dog onboard but there were levels he’d never been to down below. Maybe the MAA had drug-sniffing dogs.
His bunk tipped so hard the thin mattress slid forward. He’d never been on seas this rough. He wanted to go out in the catwalk and feel the gale on his face. He’d grab the railing and watch the rolling combers, bigger than foothills, pitching the sea into whitecaps. He imagined foam, like frilly lace on the water, and realized it might be too dangerous to initiate the wogs with the seas rolling so high. The risk of someone washing overboard would be too great. He figured they’d postpone wog day until the storm passed.
He moved a hand to the edge of his curtain, about to peek out, but two hands grabbed his arm and yanked him bodily out of his bunk. He sprawled headfirst into a scramble of men already on their hands and knees like pigs in a crowded pen.
“I’m a Shellback!” Trueblood leaped to his feet ready to fight, but felt vulnerable in plaid boxers and white ankle socks.
He stared in shock, unable to comprehend the stranger’s face. Protruding snout and grotesque skin flaps dangled around its cheeks. Trueblood’s mind flashed on a bulldog his uncle had when he was a kid. He remembered how docile it was when he slid his finger into the saliva-wet folds hanging sloppily around its mouth. This stranger had that same bulldog’s face with beady, black eyes and a saggy snout. The nasty mouth, full of sharp, crooked teeth.
He glanced around and saw dogmen everywhere. A gang of them, throwing punches, whipping Stingers, barking, snarling. The living compartment was under siege.
Dogmen. Trueblood struggled to comprehend this waking nightmare.
The sudden lash of a belt on his bare back made him look quickly behind, where he saw another dogman, its face a sagging mess. It growled viciously—snapping teeth inside a wet, pink mouth.
A sucker-punch in the gut doubled Trueblood over.
Panic and trouble rang in his mind. Wog day wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was all in fun. No one was supposed to get hurt.
Another whip-crack across his back, and the dogman behind him snarled, “Down on the deck!”
Another punch in the gut forced him to his hands and knees, down among the Stingers already beaten into submission.
Trueblood turned to get a look at these villains, but a strap lashed the side of his face. “Keep your head down!”
A welt rose on his cheek. Tears welled in his eyes.
“Who are these guys?” someone asked.
“I don’t know,” fear quaking in the reply.
The ship’s constant rolling brought the green slime of seasickness creeping up from his stomach. Were these just some rowdy sailors, he wondered, wearing masks and raising hell. He spit, trying to get the seasick taste out of his mouth.
He risked another lash when he glanced at them, trying to figure out how he could fight back.
Too many to count, they were all over the compartment, in the cubicles and along the narrow center passageway. Some whipped the men already down. Small gangs went from bunk to bunk pulling men out, whipping and punching them mercilessly. They wore identical black wool jackets, gray pants and black boots. Each held a thick, black strap. They bounded about the compartment, beating down anyone who protested. Their voices, a garbled mix of barks and growls. Their only utterance: “Down on the deck!”
He stole a glance at the door, estimated it was four strides and made up his mind. Lowering his head, he paid close attention to the ship’s rocking motion, waiting until he felt it leaning at an angle that would give him a downhill run.
Trueblood jumped up, planted a foot squarely on the back of the man ahead of him and lunged toward the door.
A whip lashed his shoulders.
A dogman lunged and wrapped an arm around his waist, but he punched its slobbering snout.
It yelped and released him.
With a burst of confidence, he grabbed the doorknob and heard a rallying cry behind him. As he bolted from the compartment, he glanced back and saw that his bravery had triggered a revolt.
Men were jumping to their feet and fighting back.
He took two steps towards the Stinger ready room, thinking he’d alert the officers, but the ship pitched hard over, slamming him against the bulkhead. He stumbled. His knees crashed on the steel. Pain jolted through his legs.
The door behind him banged open and two dogmen tumbled into the passageway. One cracked a whip on his back. The other pounced on him. He punched the beast’s soft snout and it recoiled, howling.
He ran forward but saw more dogmen coming at him, so he dashed through a door.
“Shit!” he said. “I’m trapped!”
He ran to the back of the compartment and slipped into a stall and latched the door. He lowered the toilet seat and stepped onto it. He squatted, attempting to hide.
He grabbed the shit-paper roller and braced himself against the wall. Looking down, he noticed the water in the bowl tilting past 45-degrees.
CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX – Day 13
“Wake up, Terrance!” Kate shook his shoulder.
Bursting from darkness, inhaling a huge breath, he came awake.
Joy filled his heart when he saw her.
“I figured it out,” he blurted.
“Figured out what?”
He kissed her and grabbed her hand.
Outside, rain soaked their hair and clothes again. The ship’s superstructure, bristling with antennas and tall metal towers, blinked in silhouette each time a lightning bolt zigzagged across the sky. Wind shrieked and thunder boomed in their ears. Far below, the ocean growled like a hungry beast.
Terrance uncoiled the rope from around the rolled-up raft. The high-tech material felt tough enough to withstand a shark bite. He fed the rope through two of Kate’s belt loops, and then through two of his own before tying it off around his waist.
They climbed over the railing and clung there timidly. He grabbed the rail with one hand and wrapped his free arm around the raft. Kate clutched a handful of his jersey in one hand and the rail in the other.
They couldn’t see the water, but they could hear it churning far below.
Crooked bolts of lightning zigzagged across the sky. In an instant, they rejoined and struck the Nimitz’s superstructure, sending white sparks showering across the bridge windows.
The flash illuminated rain pouring from black clouds and typhoon winds ripping the tops off tumultuous waves.
“Do you feel it?” she shouted, as a shock sparked into her hand.
“Yes,” he replied. “Jump on three.”
“I’m ready!” she tried to sound confident.
“One, two, three.”
Wracked with doubt, he closed his eyes and took a half step into the howling darkness.
She let go and stepped into the void, clutching his sleeve for all her life.
Half way down, a swirling deluge all about them, and the massive ship passing at their backs, he let go of the raft. A second later, it slapped the surface and they plunged underneath.
* * *
The water’s warmth surprised Kate, but the sound of the ship slicing through the night-sea close beside her, sent her kicking for the surface.
When Terrance saw the hull’s black shadow slide over, he panicked and clawed his way back up to the air.
She gasped a huge breath and coughed on the salt burning the back of her throat. In horror, she saw the raft bobbing on the water close to the side of the ship.
He looked up at the big opening of the hangar bay sliding past and regretted his decision to jump overboard. He felt like a tiny fleck of life with a ton of water crushing his chest and a mile-deep ocean tugging at his boots. He wished with all his heart he could be standing up there looking down and not in the water failing in a fool’s attempt to swim.
“Pull the rope,” she shouted, but the ship forged ahead like a steel plow, pushing tons of water into a curling white wave over their heads.
She screamed and he froze in fear as the foamy spume, driving ahead of the Nimitz’s steep side, crashed over their heads.
The ship slammed into them with ruthless power, crushing them mercilessly under the airless water. Their fingers scraped the slimy, barnacle-covered underbelly. They held their breaths in the turbulent darkness and knew they were about to die. Dead ahead the gigantic propellers were slicing the water with the malicious precision of industrial food processors.
She scraped along under the hull and her fingernails broke as she scratched the barnacle covered steel. The term keelhauled occurred to her. She recalled the ship had four 20-foot-wide bronze propellers and two 55-ton rudders. Fear of certain death seized her as one of the big props came into view.
Terrance flailed about, grabbing for Kate, certain the prop would maul them into bloody chunks.
She dug her fingers into the slime on the hull. A primal scream erupted from her throat. Her fingertips bleeding as they scratched the impenetrable keel. And then her back banged against a contour in the hull, and she bounced off, realizing it was the housing for one of the propeller shafts.
A rush of water pushed him out and he veered off and whisked by. The prop passed mere inches in front of his face. A power-tool WHIRRRRR of metal blades slicing water sizzled in his ears.
She grabbed for him as the big propeller passed. She blinked and saw the blades spinning off a frenzy of bubbles. And they passed on one side of the prop and the raft passed on the other.
Before they could experience even a moment of relief, the rope yanked hard at their hips. They banged together. And the full thrust of the ship drove ahead, pulling them with incredible force.
The rope tangled around the propeller.
A swirling wash of bubbles knocked them together. Kate grabbed for a place to hold on but caught nothing. Terrance saw the prop spinning in front of him, pulling them closer and threatening to chop them to bits with each rotation.
Suddenly the rope snapped, and they WHOOSHED through the gray murk, past the rudder.
They popped up in the wake, gasping inside a slather of sea foam that covered them and filled their mouths.
Terrance grabbed the rope and pulled but it came too easily. He looked around and hoped the prop hadn’t shredded the raft to flotsam.
“There,” Kate shouted, pointing.
They swam furiously, but the rope tied between their belt loops made it almost impossible.
“Work together,” she shouted.
They toiled against one another in the tossing sea, and they finally got their hands on it. Terrance scrambled over the twisted rubber and found the red handle. He pulled it and the raft began to inflate.
Kate grabbed a lug handle and turned just in time to see the Nimitz floating away down a mountainside of water. “Look,” she yelled, but the ship vanished behind the holograph.
They clung to the raft as a malicious wind ripped the tops off rabid waves and slapped them in the face with sizzling foam. They pulled themselves in and bounced around as it rode the choppy swells. Inflated ribs covered the oval floor, big enough for ten people. Supply pouches attached inside, along with life jackets, which they pulled on and buckled. The raft almost capsized each time it lurched over a steep swell. Kate tied a bit of rope from her vest to a handle on the side of the raft. Terrance did the same.
Rain poured down and lightning ripped the sky.
“Did you see the ship disappear?”
“No,” he replied.
They clambered to their knees and held on. She gripping one side and him the other.
“See anything?” he shouted.
Water blasted their faces like a shower.
“Look at that,” he shouted.
She scrambled over and saw lightning bolts a short way off. “The Nimitz is inside an electrical storm,” she said.
A wave tossed the raft onto its surging crest. It sent them tumbling over and flipping upside down. They flew through the air and splashed into the sea. Tons of foaming water crashed on their backs, and drove them down into the airless depths.
They popped up, tangled in the ropes as another wave poured water atop their heads.
The raft was upside down and attempts to right it were futile. They held on and fought to keep their heads up. Gusts of wind smacked their faces. Each wave climbed higher and curled over steeper. The wind ripped so much water off the tops of the waves they couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the surface of the sea began.
* * *
The dunking went on for hours, but they clung to the raft and rode out the storm, fighting delirious exhaustion all night.
Towards dawn, the low black clouds turned a dreary gray. The storm blew itself out as wind and rain settled in a prevailing direction. They managed to climb into the raft and bail out most of the water. Horrible seasickness had them vomiting until their stomachs were empty, and then for hours they shivered as they sat with their backs against the sides of the raft, their arms outstretched, clinging to the handles. All the while, their eyes wide open as wind whipped their faces, clutched by fear that the next rolling mountain would flip the raft and toss them back in the water.
“A ship,” Kate shouted.
Terrance saw only gray haze.
She pointed, but the wave collapsed, dropping them into a wet valley between the rollers.
The next wave tossed them up and he saw it. “The Nimitz,” he shouted.
“No, it’s a cargo ship.”
He could barely distinguish, through the spray, a red and black line of paint on the big ship’s keel. He realized he’d been mistaken. It wasn’t the Nimitz.
A moment later, another wave tossed them up, and they saw far off on the horizon, a sleek white pleasure cruise ship with lights, like camera flashes popping in the sky all around it.
They dropped into the rinse cycle between the swells before another comber lifted them toward the gray sky. They saw the Nimitz far off, under a pyramid of flickering colored lights. And they knew it had been the Nimitz all along, and what they’d seen earlier was the malfunctioning cloaking system.
Awhile later, they saw the Nimitz for the last time. Far off near the horizon, it rode low in the water, rolling on her side as waves washed over her, seeming to pull her into the depths.
CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN – Day 13
The metal door banged open.
Dogmen entered, sniffing.
“He’s in here,” one growled.
Nothing made sense. What the fuck is going on? Trueblood’s thoughts scrambled. Am I dreaming? He spun the roll of shit paper on its spindle and tore off several squares. His feet cramped from standing on the toilet seat. He considered his chances against dogmen armed with leather straps, when all he had was a few squares of shit paper. I’m not dreaming, he realized as he crumpled the paper and tossed it into the bowl. He looked down at the small, white octagonal tiles with black grout lines between them and saw a dogman’s boot.
It grabbed the top of the door and shook it hard.
Trueblood watched the latch jiggle and hoped it would hold.
The PA system crackled and a voice boomed, “STAND BY FOR AN ANNOUNCEMENT FROM KING NEPTUNE.”
The dogmen outside the stall howled with delight as a long shriek of feedback climbed higher and higher to a painful, ear-spitting decibel. Sparks flew from speakers throughout the ship. Then a woman’s hysterical squeals of laughter echoed everywhere. In anguished gasps, she tried to catch her breath. Her laughter and crying went on for so long, Trueblood knew she was being tortured by tickling. Trueblood imagined the woman on the ship’s bridge, pissing herself as she shrieked in agitation. Some sick fuck was holding the microphone to her mouth while several others tickled her. “Stop,” she pleaded and laughed uncontrollably. “Stop! I beg you!” Unable to catch her breath, in a peal of hilarious agony. “Please, stop! PLEEEEEESE!”
A hard smack across the woman’s mouth and a gruff, “Shut up, wench!”
She cried in shock.
Outside the stall, the dogmen howled for joy at the sound of her being beaten.
Then a man hacked and cleared a hawker from his throat.
“THIS IS KING NEPTUNE,” His Majesty’s deep voice boomed with authority. “MY DEAD CREW AND I CAME ABOARD THIS VESSEL DURING THE NIGHT AND WE FORCEFULLY RELIEVED CAPTAIN FOX OF HIS COMMAND! WE HAVE TAKEN OVER THIS SHIP’S HELM AND HOISTED OUR JOLLY ROGER ON THE MAST! WE ARE NOW STEAMING EAST TO WEST ALONG THE GOLDEN LINE.”
The dogmen outside the stall barked with delight. Shouts and riotous cheers echoed through the ladderwells and along passageways. They echoed from the ship’s loudspeaker system, as the mutinous gang on the bridge rallied behind their leader. A chill shivered down Trueblood’s spine, and the skin on the backs of his arms and legs turned to gooseflesh.
“I AM SORELY OFFENDED,” Neptune continued, “BY YOUR FOOLISH CAPTAIN’S DECISION TO STEER THIS SHIP, WITH ITS FEEBLE INVISIBILITY SHIELD, AND A CREW OF DETESTABLE FILTHY POLLYWOGS, INTO MY FORBIDDEN DOMAIN!” Neptune’s voice rose with his tyrannical rant. “AS THE COMMANDER OF THE OCEANS, I DECREE THAT ALL SHELLBACKS AND ALL POLLYWOGS ABOARD THIS SHIP WILL BE BROUGHT TO THE BRINY DEEPS AND MADE TO JOIN MY DEAD CREW IN OUR REALM BENEATH THE WAVES.”
A bang and a squeal of feedback, as if he’d slammed down the microphone, ended Neptune’s announcement.
Then deep belly laughs of a pirate who’d snatched the microphone. He laughed brazenly, causing a cold shadow of fear to pass through the heart of every soul aboard the Nimitz.
The dogmen outside Trueblood’s stall began howling mournfully. Their primal growls, long and troublesome, warned of impending doom.
* * *
From down deep in the bowels of the ship, a dreadful HUM vibrated upward through all the interconnected steel plates and pipes. The torturous screech of bending metal scraped at Trueblood’s ears. Thin blue sparks, like neon threads, crackled in the air around him. Water in the toilet under his feet bubbled and vaporized. Steam rose around his ankles. A loud CRACK filled him with an appalling sense of loss. The stall’s shiny stainless steel walls shook.
The stall rose like an elevator racing toward the top of a skyscraper. A gust of air burst in under the stall and his ears popped. The entire compartment hurtled straight up at tremendous speed. Looking down he saw orange firelight shine through the grout-lines between the tiles. The porcelain commode cracked and crumbled away, and Trueblood clung to the toilet seat with both hands. Scorching heat sent horrific pain raking across his skin. His boxers and ankle sox disintegrated into dust and dissolved on his liquefying skin. The stall door swung outward, broke off its hinges and flew away.
Looking down, Trueblood saw fighter jets, and burning bodies and the ship’s superstructure all tumbling away inside a tower of fire that pushed him high into the sky. For miles around, the ocean spread toward the horizon, but directly below, he saw the Nimitz, her outer skin bent like a smashed pop can, her keel broken, her interior spaces breached by the sea, and she was dissolving inside a white-hot light that made him think of a Hubble telescope photo that showed the birth of star.
His finger bones clung to the toilet seat as he flew toward heaven. In his final moment, Trueblood wondered if there was a story like this in the Bible and if there wasn’t, well, there would be someday.
CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT – Day 13
Immaculate white light flashed across the sky.
A shockwave rumbled through the air.
Tremors shook the depths of the sea.
A loud BANG cracked the heavens.
A column of fire pushed a mushroom cloud of smoke upward and burned a mile-wide hole through the gray clouds, opening a portal into a blue sky full of sunlight. A tremendous gust of hot wind flattened the waves. A crackling fireball radiated outward, vaporizing every raindrop for miles around.
Kneeling in the raft, Kate watched the tower of fire and smoke rise into the sky and saw a disturbance rippling through the air, quickly coming closer. A wall of white-hot light flashed past her. It burned the tip of her nose, and her cheeks. Crackling around her ears and against her scalp, it started burning her skin in earnest, like fire. “I’m going under,” she said and jumped from the raft.
Underwater, she felt a rumble, like an earthquake vibrating through the depths. The phrase God’s hammer popped into her mind, and she knew Jenks did it.
He blew up the ship!
She unclipped the life jacket and let herself sink. She exhaled and watched the bubbles rising from her mouth toward the steaming surface as she sank further below.
In the same instant, Terrance saw the entire ocean dent itself into a deep, wide bowl. A giant ripple radiated outward on the water. It lifted the raft high into the air, as if he were suddenly in the cheap seats on the rim of an impossibly large stadium. And down there, miles away on the fifty-yard line, a nuclear explosion, exactly like he’d seen in so many Navy training videos.
Tiny blue sparks crackled from squiggly lines etched on the air inches before his eyes. He knew they were molecules breaking apart, leaving trails of microscopic fire. They flickered and penetrated down into the water. Whatever had come out of that bomb was tearing at the fabric of reality. He wondered if he ever had kids would they look like mutants. He thought the water might shield him from the radiation, but it trembled all around as if about to boil. Images of lesions and hair falling out in clumps flashed through his mind.
But a more pressing matter occurred to him. What would happen in a few seconds when the water flowed back to its natural shape, which wasn’t a ten-mile wide stadium? He hoped it wouldn’t suck him down any closer to the main event, a ten-megaton white-hot arc-welder’s torch vaporizing the Nimitz and a billion gallons of salt water. It spewed a column of smoke into the blue circle of sky where the storm had been.
Someone will be in a world of trouble when the Pentagon finds out about this, Terrance mused, as he unclipped his life jacket and dove from the raft. He swam down as far as he could and held his breath until his lungs ached.
A minute later, he surfaced to catch a breath and saw an orange ring radiating across the sky. He looked around for Kate, and called her name, but didn’t see her, so he plunged under again. When his breath ran out, he swam for the surface and saw the raft.
“Terrance! Terrance,” Kate called.
“I’m here,” he shouted.
Her face appeared above him.
“Get in the raft!” She helped pull him in.
A hot wind buffeted all around, and a metallic ashy taste filled their mouths.
She had a supply pouch open, and he quickly sorted out a set of tent poles and an odd shaped sheet of metallic fabric.
They snapped the poles together and fitted them into pockets sewn around the sides.
A billowing black cloud of radioactive water vapor and dust, from what had been the Nimitz, stretched away toward the horizon. Air currents seemed to be carrying the main bulk of it away, but a dirty orange ring of burnt air circled the entire scene high over their heads.
They dragged the fabric across the tent poles, pulled it this way and that to make it fit. They flipped the fabric over thinking it was upside down, and then flipped it over again when they realized they’d had it right the first time. Several elastic bands stretched to secure the dome in place, and a chunky Ziploc zipper sealed them inside a bubble-like enclosure.
Kate dug into another supply pouch sewn inside the raft. She pulled out a laminated card and read it. Then she rummaged in the package again, pulled out a yellow plastic bag with a radiation symbol on it and said, “We need to strip and put our contaminated clothes in here.” She tossed the bag at Terrance who unlaced his boots, yanked them off and tossed them in. Their wet clothes quickly followed.
“Now we need to rub this all over our skin,” she said, as she tossed him a tube of medicine.
He squeezed a big gob of white cream into Kate’s hand. It smelled like mouthwash. She smeared it on her neck and arms. Terrance did the same. And they helped each other rub it on. They wiped off with gauze from the first aid kit and tossed the used wads into the radioactive waste bag.
Kate grabbed a pair of scissors and told Terrance, “Go ahead, clip it.” She tossed her head back and let her hair hang down.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m not taking any chances.”
He grabbed big chunks of her hair and clipped them off, tossing them into the bag.
Even with her blonde locks cut at odd angles and white cream unevenly smeared over her face, he thought she looked beautiful.
It impressed him that she kept her head and took control of the situation, even in a nuclear blast. God, he hoped they could make it work when all this was over.
Kate made Terrance swallow several pills.
“What are these?” he asked.
“Prevents your thyroid from absorbing radioactivity.”
They wrapped themselves in shiny silver blankets and leaned back on the sides of the raft.
* * *
Now the sea ran calm, murmuring against the raft. The dome tent glowed with daylight, shading them from the scorching rays.
“Somebody was in the nuclear magazine messing with a bomb,” Kate said as she dug around in one of the pouches.
“Jenks?” he asked.
“Probably.” She twisted the top off a water bottle and took a sip.
“Did you get a shock from anything on the ship?” she asked.
“I felt static.”
“Well, I got a shock off a pipe in the galley and from a metal rack with one of the bombs on it.”
“You know we’re screwed,” Terrance said.
“Because nobody is gonna believe us!”
“Our only choice is to tell the truth,” Kate said, and took a long swallow of water.
“Yup, when we reached the equator,” Terrance said, “dead people started a mutiny.”
“Nobody will believe it,” Kate said.
“We’ll say Jenks stole Comello’s body from the morgue and he murdered Dutro and he escaped from the brig,” Terrance rambled. “Then he broke into the magazine and blew up the ship!”
“But Jenks was dead,” Kate objected.
“Then how do you explain his cast in the morgue drawer?”
* * *
In Kate’s nightmare, black waves the size of buildings crashed on top of her head. Salty water smacked her face and filled her mouth. She clawed helplessly, trying not to drown in the roiling trough between the waves, and then the surging sea tossed her high into the rain-filled night where the wind exploded in her ears and howled at cyclone strength. Lightening cracked across the sky and for a second she could see the wind ripping the white tops off the waves.
A flash appeared on the horizon, and a BOOM blotted out the storm. A massive column of fire rose into the sky. And the wave collapsed, sucking her down into the cauldron.
The dream repeated with slight variations. But every time, she nearly drowned, an explosion split the sky, a fireball burned a hole in the clouds and she choked on water that tasted like sulfur.
In the raft, Kate rolled from her back to her side and onto her back again as she wrestled with the nightmare.
Waves tossed her into the air, just in time to see the brilliant flash. An explosion cracked the stormy sky. In the wind, she heard sailors calling out for help. She ran down the main deck passageway.
In her sleep, she mumbled, “Gangway! Flying Squad!”
Her thrashing woke him.
He shook her gently.
Something barked and snarled from deep in the ocean.
A bright flash and a tremendous explosion.
A clanging bell and a machinelike female voice calling her name as she tried to run.
A squeal of feedback cut the darkness.
A red glow burned her eyes.
An amplified voice boomed across the waves, “Ahoy, in the liferaft!”
“What’s that?” Terrance leaped to his knees.
“Ahoy, in the liferaft!” the voice booming again.
“Are we being rescued?” Kate mumbled still half asleep.
Terrance opened the top of the raft and popped his head out. Shielding his eyes from a white search light, he saw a motorized whaleboat bumping against the raft.
Kate popped her head out too.
A sailor in a chemical warfare suit pointed a shotgun at them. Another held a bullhorn. Another pointed a pistol.
“What ship are you from?” a muffled voice demanded from behind one of the bubble facemasks.
“The Nimitz,” Kate shouted.
“How many are you?”
“Two,” Terrance said.
“Climb aboard then.”
Kate tried to climb with one arm while holding the space blanket around her naked body. She banged her shin on the side of the boat and slipped, almost fell in the water.
To hell with modesty, she thought as she crumpled the blanket, threw it into the boat and climbed with hands grabbing and pulling her aboard.
Terrance did the same.
The boat’s engine filled the air with burnt diesel fumes.
Kate grabbed her space blanket and covered herself as best she could. She and Terrance sat on a bench in the bow of the boat, but had to move to the back, because their rescuers where dragging their raft aboard and stabbing it with knives. They kept stabbing until all the air came out and then they rolled it and stuffed it into a yellow plastic bag emblazoned with a red radiation hazard symbol. But the raft was too big to fit in one bag, so they unrolled it and slashed it with their knives. The raft filled four radiation waste bags sealed with elaborate folds and zip ties. Kate noticed the bags were yellow and see through, which made sense, because as a first responder, she’d want to know at a glance what was inside.
The boat’s pilot told everyone to hold on as he pushed the throttle forward. The bow rose out of the water and they motored fast through the darkness.
A ship materialized out of the night; satellite dishes spinning atop the USS Hayward.
* * *
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SAILORS TAKE WARNING
By Malcolm Torres ©
Copyright 2014 by MT Press
All Rights Reserved
Available in eBook and print at all major book and eBook retailers
This book is intended for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or reproduced or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please send them a link to this post, or purchase a copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the author’s hard work.
Sailors Take Warning by Malcolm Torres is a work of nautical fiction. Any resemblance to real people or actual events is purely coincidental. The narrator assumes responsibility for tampering with anything that does not match the reader’s version of reality.