Happy Monday, everyone!
6/9/2020 edit: now available as a podcast production by Nocturnal Transmissions. Click here!
It was an overwhelming weighted vote towards a story about a shipwreck washing ashore (near 100% in its favour across Twitter and Facebook.) Thanks everyone who took part and voted, I really appreciate you all showing such an interest in my writing.
I can only assume I have a lot of thalassophiles following me, all things considered… Well, I am here to give you what you want! So, without further ado, here is your story about a shipwreck that washes ashore. Let me know what you think in the comments below! And always, sharing is caring!
That Which The Ocean Gives and Takes Away
Newfoundland wasn’t a stranger to the whimsical nature of the sea. The inhabitants of the island province had grown accustomed to the ocean’s fickle nature, giving and taking in turn. But on the morning of August 3rd, the ocean gave back something strange indeed. The day before had been normal, no storm or wind gales, no disturbances of any kind. Yet, when dawn splashed across the horizon, the residents of the small community of Saint Mary’s found a shipwreck on the gray expanse of Saint La Haye Beach.
It was a rusted husk, hung with ropes of seaweed and studded with thousands of large barnacles and cold-water coral patches. Its hull had sliced through the beach and the hulking metal behemoth was canted to its starboard side, as the waves pounded its port side. It had been identified by the partial lettering on its hull as the HMS Drake, a frigate which had sunk in the 1920s.
The shipwreck, like the ocean that had brought it back, also took what it wanted. Since it had arrived in Saint Mary’s, teams of experts – police, scientists, doctors – had gone inside but only a few ever returned. When they did, the survivors babbled about voices and living things inside the hull. When asked about the missing members of their teams, they could give no real answers. Only that they had chosen to stay behind.
After that, the Canadian government tried to maintain a quarantine around the frigate. Any attempts to move it were futile, nothing seemed strong enough to pull it from its place in the sand. And despite their best efforts, civilians were managing to sneak past the barricades to satisfy their morbid curiosity about the “haunted” ship.
More went missing than ever came back out again.
Two months later, the Drake had claimed over forty lives. Officials decided that one more team would be sent in to try and discover any survivors and to plant explosives. If the ship couldn’t be moved then it would be destroyed.
The final team – appropriately named the Omega Team – consisted of four soldiers, an American representative from the CDC, a biologist, and a virologist.
Jean was that virologist. She was a Newfoundland native, though she had lived in Ottawa for the last three decades. She had accepted this mission not as an excuse to visit her remaining family but as an escape. Only grief and painful memories waited for her back home.
Newfoundland, much like the ocean that surrounds it, is always ready to accept what was once its own. While her parents had passed years before, her extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins were waiting. She had no doubt that they had heard what had happened. It had made the news, her face and his had been put on the cover of every newspaper for a week after it had happened. But her family wasn’t the type to ask, wasn’t the type to rock the boat with unpleasant topics. Instead, every aunt sought to fill the void that grief always leaves with food, lots and lots of food, too much food. The uncles talked only of fishing, of the weather, of the Drake.
It didn’t erase her pain but it helped smooth the edges. Jean was glad that they allowed her to be silent, to rest, to think of nothing for the three days she stayed with them in Saint John’s before she was required to meet the rest of the team in Saint Mary’s.
Now Jean stood on the gray beach with the others, strangers to her, and stared up at the gray and green-spackled hull of the Drake. She wondered for the first time if this wasn’t some passive suicide attempt. Enter the haunted ship and let fate decide.
The soldiers were talking but she couldn’t seem to concentrate on what they were saying, couldn’t even recall their names.
The Drake was haggard. Holes had been eaten away in the hull, letting in the pathetic drizzle that fell from steel skies.
Each member was outfitted in a hazmat suit. Jean had the notion that the disappearances and strange accounts from survivors could be caused by some kind of deep-sea virus that the human body had no defense for.
Now, standing there on that beach, Jean felt a cold, thrill of fear. It was too late to back out now, or at least, Jean’s pride wouldn’t allow her to, so she followed the others as they made their way down the beach to where the frigate sat, sunk in the sand.
A fluorescent orange rope ladder was hanging from one of the larger holes in the hull. Jean tried to remember the blueprints she’d been sent but nothing came to mind. One by one, the team ascended and entered the Drake. The soldiers had heavy packs, in which sat the explosives that were to be set throughout the ship in order to guarantee its second death. Jean carried a small messenger bag which held everything she needed to take whatever samples she deemed were necessary.
Jean was the last one up the ladder. The wind was picking up and the rope ladder fluttered out beneath her, clattering against the hull. She was grateful to reach the top where a soldier waited with a lowered hand to help her aboard. Inside, the ship was dark but for the dim light falling through the various holes in the hull and the bright lights from the flashlights each team member carried.
Jean suffered a strong wave of vertigo as she tried to adjust to the tilt of the floor and the walls that pressed in on them all. Ropes of algae, seaweed garlands decorated the hall. It was the veins that had captured everyone’s attention. The interior hull, the stairs, the walls were all covered in a pale, fleshy veins that glowed with some interior phosphorescence.
The soldiers were unnerved, though they tried to hide it. It was obvious in their stiffened stances and the way they clutched their guns. None of the reports had mentioned the veins. Jean knelt by the one closest to her and laid a hand on it. It was warm. Pleasantly so. She could feel it through her suit even. It also seemed to hum beneath her hand. She thought of taking a sample but the mental image of dragging a scalpel across the surface made her feel bad… like a criminal.
So, instead, she stood. She thought she could hear the humming in her head. The others were talking but it sounded like their voices were diluted, as though underwater. Jean looked around. They had entered the ship where the crew’s quarters were housed. All the doors to the cabins were open, inviting. Jean watched the others as they spread out and each entered a room. It was not natural but it also seemed so normal.
Jean looked down the hall and, through the hanging debris, a door caught her eye. As she stared it seemed to be pulling her in. She took a step before realizing it.
A scream rent through the thick air and there was a soldier racing past her. He flung himself through the hole and out of the ship to the cold beach below. Jean gripped the cold jagged edges of the hull and peered down. Crimson sands and a body marked where he had landed and lay still.
A part of her told her to go back down the ladder. To escape.
Instead, Jean turned. None of the others had stepped out of the rooms they had entered. She could have gone to see what they were doing but a primal part of her understood that it would be sacrilegious to do so. Whatever was happening was beyond her control, beyond any of their controls.
So, she obeyed and went to the room that was meant for her.
Inside, Jean found a stranger. The room was small and contained only a soggy cot. The walls and floor were thick with veins and these ran across the man’s body, puncturing his skin, diving deep inside.
Instantly, Jean felt a clear rush of revulsion. Whatever was infesting this ship was a virus, a parasite. The veins throbbed, the man stirred a bit, and she saw his lips curl into a smile.
He was alive.
It was feeding on him.
She turned, she meant to scream, meant to run.
Jean waited, she turned back. One vein had detached from the wall and wavered in the air like a rattlesnake dancing to the song of a snake charmer’s flute.
“What are you?”
If Jean should have felt strange speaking to a swaying tendril of flesh, she didn’t. She felt numb and alert at the same time but, most of all, did not feel in danger at all.
A hermit crab finding a suitable shell and crawling inside. The glistening flank of a giant squid. Alien, strange stars. The crushing depths of the sea. A shadowed hulk at the bottom – the Drake. The heavy weight of alien intelligence. A desire, a hunger, a need.
From another room down the hall, Jean heard weeping. It started off violent, passionate, then quelled, quieted, and ended in a sigh.
“You’re eating him.”
Around her the organism shivered. The appendage in front of her seemed to bow a bit.
The man enters, a local dressed in plaid and jeans. An offer made, hesitance, then he lays on the bed. The veins slide off the wall, wreath him in warmth. He sleeps. He smiles.
Around her the rotting ship was quiet. Jean could not hear the others, could not know whether they were still onboard or had gone the way of the soldier.
Feeling of hunger, desperation, a plea.
“They’re going to destroy the ship. We brought bombs and when we fail to return, they’ll send more… or just bomb you from above.”
Jean didn’t know why she was telling the thing all this information, she couldn’t even know if it understood her.
Images of people lying in the rooms, all asleep and covered in the organism’s flesh. Peace. Mutual survival.
“I won’t. I don’t know how you convinced them to lie down for you, but I won’t.”
An image of Jean lying down, at peace, happy. Massive albino limbs stretching out, great claws digging deep into the sand, pulling the shipwreck back out into the depths to rest once more.
Jean shook her head.
Hidden in the deep sea among the blind fish and chilled currents. A fleshy mass protruding: the head of the thing that lived within. Skin splits, opens: a mouth, a deafening call. A response from the stars. Salvation.
Jean felt tired, so tired. She left the room and went down the hall, checking for the others. She found them in their rooms. All had laid down for the being and its veins threaded with theirs. In the room with one of the soldiers, Jean thought about taking his bag and planting the explosives herself, then she shook her head and returned to the hole in the hull where the ladder hung.
“Why should I? Why should I give myself to you?”
The feeling of their very first kiss on their very first date. Henry standing in his tuxedo at the alter. The sound of his laughter. Henry standing in their green kitchen, cooking eggs.
“Don’t! Don’t you dare!”
The pain was sharper than whatever atmospheric influence the creature managed to control. Jean stepped onto the edge, the toes of her boots hanging over, the waves pounding the sand beneath. The soldier, she saw, had managed to pull himself a few meters up the beach.
Jean going to the room and lying down. The organism’s probing tongues pierce her skin. A moment of pain. Henry waiting for her with open arms. A second chance. A second chance.
Her vision blurred. Without thinking she pulled the helmet from her head and wiped at her face. It didn’t matter after all. There was no virus on the ship. The creature hadn’t forced anyone to do anything. It had just offered something that was near impossible to refuse.
Henry laughing as he threw a snowball at her. Her teaching him how to ski. A warm night spent by the fireplace with big mugs of beer.
An offer of a second chance with no sad ending. No tears. No heartbreak. No murder by the hands of a cruel man high on drugs on the streets of Ottawa. An offer. An offer in exchange for her life to feed its survival.
She trembled on the edge. Jean tried to remember her life as it was. The entity helped her see it so clearly.
Pain. Working at a sterile lab, white on gray on white, underappreciated. Returning to an empty house. A void aching inside. A missing piece.
She looked over her shoulder where the open door still beckoned. She tried to imagine what life would be like, living in a coma until death, living a lie.
Henry waiting, arms open, warmth, a life without pain – guaranteed to be without pain. Manufactured, but perfect. False, but satisfactory.
She closed her eyes against the threatening tears. Was it weak to surrender? Jean turned and went back to her room, unzipping her hazmat suit as she did so. It was warm there. At first, she had assumed that lying on the floor would be uncomfortable, but the flesh of the organism that covered it was soft, warm, yielding. Its probes detached from the walls and hovered over her body waiting.
Jean closed her eyes and nodded.
The pain was brief. A fatigue like none other stole over her and Jean slipped away.
When she opened her eyes next, she forgot all about the Drake, the organism, the life she had left.
“Wakey wakey,” Henry said, leaning over her on his elbow.
He touched the tip of her nose with a kiss as soft as butterfly wings. Jean smiled and wrapped her arms around his neck, bringing him down for a deeper embrace.
The soldier in the sand was noticed three hours after the Omega Team failed to return. He was in shock from various broken bones and blood loss from his fall, shrieking about an offer made by a tempting devil that sheathed the ship in its sour temptations. Authorities waited an additional two hours for the others, but no other survivors exited the Drake so the final order was given that the following day, the ship was to be bombed from above.
This plan was never executed for the next watery dawn saw the beach barren. The ocean had received back what it had given. The Drake was gone. And with it, all the missing souls aboard.