by M. Bennardo
Both steam engines of the Mackay-Bennett roared as the heavy grapple clattered from her bow into the cold, rough waters of the north Atlantic. The first lengths of cable unspooled from the huge drum on the deck, seaman straining alongside the winch to keep the line from twisting or tangling as the ship rocked unevenly in the weather.
Watching from the bridge, first mate Lyle Leonard stuffed his hands into his coat pockets and turned with a nod to the captain. "We've got her this time, sir."
Captain Conway merely gripped his pipe between his teeth and tugged on the end of his silver beard, not venturing more than a noncommittal grunt.
Down plunged the grapple deep into the ocean's abyss, the morning wearing away as the great spool of cable slowly diminished in diameter, engines roaring the whole while. Sixteen hundred fathoms in all--almost ten thousand feet--would be paid out before the grapple struck bottom, not counting the slack. And then would come the weary hours of the dredge, the stokers shoveling coal in earnest as the two screws of the Mackay-Bennett pulsed rhythmically astern, dragging the grapple slowly and tediously along the ocean floor.
Lesser officers exchanged watches as the dirty afternoon threatened to turn to evening, but still the captain stood motionless on the bridge--and Leonard dared do nothing else but stand next to him.
The only change in Captain Conway's bearing was the intensity with which his jaw ground against the stem of his pipe, whenever his eye flicked back to the chronometer. But still the grapple dragged free behind the ship, not hooking on anything more substantial than the occasional rock or submarine ridge.
"Come on now," whispered Conway to himself. Leonard knew that the captain was watching his bonus dwindle smaller and smaller with each tick of the chronometer. "Catch hold, you son of a bitch."
Six hours after dropping the grapple, a bell sounded and the foreman signaled to the bridge, waving his yellow sou'wester over his grizzled head. "We've got her at last, sir!"
Captain Conway clapped his hands together and let out a sigh of relief, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. "Very good, Mister Snoak! Cut her and bring her up. I'd like both halves tested before sundown." Then, turning to Leonard, he added peevishly, "Still here then? I suppose if you're to be mate, you ought to be down there as well. But don't get in Snoak's way."
Leonard, with his oilskin hooks half-fastened and his sou'wester clutched in hand, leapt out of the bridge door and charged down the stairs to the deck--running face first into a whipping gale that stung his cheeks and clouded his eyes with flying spray. Ah, but to be in action finally!
Leonard had been feeling more out of place than usual that afternoon, as the captain had insisted on supervising every detail of the dredge himself, making the first mate's presence utterly superfluous. But neither had he dared go below--though he had no doubt that Conway would have preferred if he had. His uncle and the other directors of the Transatlantic Cable Corporation were expecting his report on the efficiency of the repair and maintenance crew.
That expectation put Leonard in a tough place. After being selected as auditor, he had asked the board of directors to place him on the Mackay-Bennett not just as an observer, but as first mate, thinking that an active role would put him in closer touch with the men. But it was also a source of barely disguised resentment-- the captain and crew considered him a nuisance at best, and a spy at worst, and he found himself often dropped from the chain of command.
But every day that the cable was down for maintenance cost the investors thousands of dollars in lost profits. And even the most effective crew had its own inefficiencies and peccadilloes. An outsider like Leonard might have just the right perspective to suggest a few highly profitable corrections, if only he could win the trust of the men...
Leonard jumped down the last few steps to the deck and landed with a bang on his soles. But just as he did so, the engines backed and whined, the sea aft turning to froth and the ship shuddering as it came to a stop.
Then all at once the slick deck seemed to be sliding out from beneath Leonard's shoes, whipped away like a magician's tablecloth. He pitched down hard onto his backside at the bottom of the steps, the wind knocked out of his lungs and the hat knocked off his head.
"Your hat, sir."
Leonard snatched the sou'wester from the seaman who offered it, scrambling quickly to his feet. A quick glance up to the bridge revealed Captain Conway looking down on him in disgust.
"Thank you," Leonard said to the seaman, trying to keep his cheeks from flaming and his voice from sounding out of breath. Too late, he realized the effort was birthing a small headache between his eyebrows--a headache that he knew could only lead to an upset stomach in this weather. "Update, Snoak?" he barked, more to have something to say than anything else.
With the screws no longer turning, the Mackay-Bennett was resting uneasily on the waves, lifting and falling with sickening slackness on each swell as the men worked at the winch. It was a foul day with an ugly brown ocean--wind and currents piling the water into dirty whitecaps that slapped the side of the ship. It was by far the worst sea that Leonard had seen yet.
"Half a moment, sir," answered Snoak laconically from across the deck. "If the wait is no inconvenience to you."
That was insolence--but perhaps it was earned. Leonard knew that Snoak knew his job better than anybody. Twenty-five years earlier, the man had been in the crew that had laid the 1866 cable--the first to successfully transmit across the ocean. Since then, he had roved the seas between the Canadian Maritimes and Ireland, repairing and maintaining similar cables for a series of competing corporations. By all rights, Snoak ought to have been first mate--not Leonard.
"Hold that winch until the line is cut!" roared Snoak at some hapless seaman. Leonard only gripped the starboard rail, working his way toward the bow with his face in the wind, hoping the cold spray would settle his now-swirling stomach as he tried to watch the operation in progress.
The telegraph cable had to be raised the full sixteen hundred fathoms from the ocean floor. If it wasn't cut first, it would snap like a frayed thread before it was hauled halfway up. That was why the grapple was fitted with a cutting tool to sever the cable on the floor before raising--making it a great deal easier to find the second half again later.
As Leonard drew abreast of the winch, Snoak turned to him and tipped his hat ironically. "She's cut now, sir."
"Very good, Snoak," said Leonard, feeling ridiculous and redundant as he met Snoak's hard grey eyes with his own. "Draw up the grapple then."
Snoak gave the signal and the engines roared once more, the winch now working in reverse. But the sight of the rotating drum soon set Leonard's stomach and brain spinning as well, and so he turned back to the horizon, clinging hard to the railing as he tried to breathe evenly.
Standing thus, he thought he heard Snoak mutter something behind his back. He certainly heard several other men break into muffled guffaws. But Leonard only closed his eyes, and counted slowly to himself. At last, after twenty minutes or more, the winch stopped whirling and slowed to a crawl. Leonard turned back to the bow and watched carefully as the grapple neared the surface.
Slowly, the shank of the grapple broke through the waves, the telegraph cable trailing after it, a monstrous line fully four inches in diameter, water pouring off the tarred gutta percha covering, the sheared ends of the twisted bundles of copper and steel showing brightly in the air.
Leonard swallowed his nausea and pushed forward, peering over the bow. His first surprise was the condition of the cable itself--the covering was shredded almost everywhere, the gutta percha in tatters and the jute frayed, as if chewed and worried by a great cat along its length.
"Is that ordinary?" Leonard knitted his brows. It seemed no wonder that a cable so abused should fail as regularly as this one did.
"Only when the beasties below are hungry, sir," answered one of the seamen.
Leonard's eye darted among the men. Was that a joke, or did sea creatures really chew the line? Some of the men were laughing again, and Leonard's face hardened. He was on the verge of reminding them sharply of his rank when suddenly he saw something else that stopped his mouth.
"What was that?"
"What was what, sir?"
It had been something pink and startling on the trailing cable, but it had disappeared again just as suddenly with a splash back into the ocean. Leonard's eyes scanned the spot, but all he could see now was a quickly receding coral-colored splotch about the size of a sack of flour vanishing under the rolling waves. Soon, even that was lost entirely in the brown-green murk of the sea.
"I thought I saw--" But then, Leonard shook his head. "Never mind--carry on, Snoak."
Despite the damage to the cable covering, the first half recovered proved to be the good half. After the electrician tested the resistance and confirmed that the line was sound all the way back to Nova Scotia, the men tagged it to a buoy and left it to bob on the waves until they had found and repaired the fault in the other half.
The second half was right where they'd left it on the ocean floor, so it only needed a bit of correcting for the ship's drift to dredge that up as well. Even so, a gloomy dusk was gathering as they neared the end of the operation, the sea rolling and sparse rain spitting through the superstructure. Leonard shivered in his oilskins, pools of sweat turning icy under his armpits and neck.
As the evening grew darker, Leonard ordered the arc lights of the Mackay-Bennett pointed over the bow. By the time the grapple shank once again rose from the waves, all traces of the sunset were lost from the horizon and total blackness enfolded everything.
Remembering the pink thing he had seen last time, Leonard kept a close watch on the spot where the cable broke the water. He ought to have been watching Snoak and the others at the winch and the sheaves, but he needed to know if he'd really seen what he had thought--
And there, under the whining arc lights, Leonard saw it again--the spot of pink, but this time much more clearly. It broke the surface, clinging to the cable, a glistening shell of overlapping rows of plates, a multitude of clawed legs, a couple of nightmarish antennae protruding under its shining silver eyes.
"Hold that winch!" called Leonard. Snoak looked up at him in amazement at the order, but Leonard only surged forward and pointed over the bow. "Down there, Snoak. What's that godawful thing?"
Snoak pushed his way next to Leonard and made a face. "An ugly cuss, sir." He reached down a boathook and began to lean over the bow. "Never seen the like before. I'll just brush him back home--though he looks dead already, still as he is."
Leonard put out his hand. "No, he's transfixed by the lights. Pull the cable up slowly--I want to catch him and see what he is."
The men were all clustering around now, talking and chaffing in low tones. No one seemed to know what the thing was, but neither did anybody seem too surprised to see it. Snoak simply looked doubtful and then shrugged at Leonard's suggestion to capture the specimen.
"Aye aye, sir," he said. "You'll want Bellows to help--fancies himself a marine biologist."
Bellows was called, a seaman hardly older than Leonard himself. As the winch was run as slowly as possible, Leonard leaned over the sheaves and attempted to pluck the creature from the cable before it went over the top of the wheel.
"Got him," called Leonard, grasping hold of the shell. He meant to hold on no matter what the thing did--whether it kicked or wriggled or bit him. And sure enough, the shell bent under his hands, as though the thing were trying to curl up into itself, its legs waggling and fighting horribly all the while.
But its struggles were weak and Leonard had no difficulty lifting it up from the cable to the ship. The thing proved to be about three feet long, and heavy, its shell rougher than Leonard had expected. He passed it quickly to the gaping Bellows and turned back to the sheaves. "There are a few more still coming up..." In a short moment, he plucked a second and a third, and then--feeling suddenly squeamish and sick--stepped away from the bows and shook himself out with a shudder. "You may brush the rest of them off, Snoak."
Bellows was trying to corral the three things on the deck. The first one simply lay still, but the other two were a little livelier, dragging themselves awkwardly, their clawed legs clicking and scraping on the deck as they sought some dark, wet corner to curl up in. All three of them were the same sickly pink, the same huge size, and the same ugly shape.
"They must weigh thirty pounds!" panted Leonard, rubbing his aching arms.
"They're giant isopods, sir," said Bellows as he held up the already-still one in his hands and examined its underside in the ship lights. "But I've never heard of one this large before. The ones I've read about are half this size, or less."
"A woodlouse, sir, on a gigantic plan. Deep sea scavengers. Animals get spectacularly big down there--and spectacularly ugly too." Bellows looked at the specimen in his hands. "They seem a little dazed by the lights."
Leonard bent down and regarded one of the isopods on the deck, staring down into its silver compound eyes. Was it dazzled--or dying? Were the lights in those eyes dimming forever in the open air of the surface? Or did the thing always look that stupid and insect-like?
"Lord, he's big," said Bellows with a whistle. His face was flushed and excited. "It might be a new species, sir! With your permission, I'd like to dissect one, and try to preserve the other two intact."
But before Leonard could answer, there came a cry from the bow. "There's your fault!" called Snoak. They'd been hauling in the telegraph cable the whole while, searching for the damaged section, but now the winch stopped again.
Leonard rushed to the bow, embarrassed at having been mooning over a couple of bugs when he ought to have been minding the cable. Peering down now, he saw a ragged gash in the cable covering showing in the arc lights, frayed ends of copper and steel wire twisting out chaotically in every direction. Practically the whole thing had been ripped through, the cable held together by little more than scraps of gutta percha.
Leonard gaped, but stopped short of asking again whether cables ordinarily severed like that. It didn't seem likely--a four-inch cable of braided copper and steel fraying and breaking like old yarn! There couldn't be many things besides the electrician's shears that could cut it all the way through.
"By God, it can't be them bugs that did it?" asked one of the seamen. From the amazement in the man's voice, it appeared that he didn't consider the situation typical either.
"Of course not," snapped Leonard. But then he turned to Bellows. "Could it?"
Bellows shook his head. "I don't see how, sir. Big as they are, they couldn't do more than chew through the covering with those mandibles."
"All right," said Leonard, a little distractedly. He'd suddenly had an idea--an idea that didn't have anything to do with the telegraph cable. But it seemed that he'd earned a little respect by spotting those pink creatures, and he was wondering if he could extend the success a little longer, and possibly even generate some goodwill with the crew--
But first, the job at hand. Leonard turned to the electrician, who had been waiting on deck since the grapple broke water. "Can you get it spliced by morning?"
"Aye, sir, I think so. If we can get lights, and the sea doesn't get much rougher."
"Very good then. Direct the arc lights wherever you need them." Perhaps there was still a chance to save the captain's bonus as well! Those extra hundred dollars could go a long way toward warming Captain Conway's demeanor--
But as Leonard turned toward the bridge to make his report, he felt Bellows's hand on his arm. "Begging your pardon, sir... But as to the isopods--"
Leonard smiled indulgently. "Take two of them for your pickle jars, Bellows." He pointed at the only one still dragging itself slowly around the deck. He decided to act on his idea immediately. "But give that monster to the cook with my compliments. We'll have thirty pounds of lobster in the mess tonight!"
The isopod made a sensation at dinner. The cook had preferred to handle the creature as little as possible and so had steamed it whole, laying it on a rack in a makeshift steam cooker fashioned from two washbasins. After an hour, the thing had turned bright red on the outside and the cook brought it out--dropping the scalding hot washpan onto the table in front of Leonard with a loud bang.
"He's cooked on the outside anyway, sir," said the cook with a shudder. "Though I can't vouch for the innards." Here a great bowl of melted butter and an assortment of knives, cleavers, and mallets clattered down at Leonard's elbows. "I thought you might want the honors."
Leonard eyed the isopod, his face flushing from the waves of hot steam that rose from the pan along with a faint smell of shellfish. Around him, the other men peered over curiously from their tables, laughing among themselves. Leonard felt himself getting uncomfortably hot and lightheaded, suddenly glad that Captain Conway and the second mate were taking their coffee on the bridge.
"Eyes bigger than your stomach, sir?" called Snoak from across the mess. A chorus of hard laughs followed.
"We'll all share," answered Leonard. His mouth was dry and his stomach seemed full of acid. The ship was still pitching on the heavy seas. He'd managed to keep his stomach under control all day, but being cooped up in the mess--with the light from the swinging Swan lamps flashing in his eyes and pools of grey water sloshing in the bottom of the washbasin under the isopod--was starting to feel like the final straw.
"Not me, sir," replied Snoak. "The end of a boathook is about as close as I want to get to any of those beasties."
"Thank you for your opinion, Mister Snoak." Leonard picked up the largest knife and prodded at the overlapping plates that ran in bands across the back of the monster. The color change during cooking had brought out a number of imperfections in the shell that he hadn't noticed earlier--thin, spidery lines and spots that looked as distinctive as the markings of a tiger or giraffe now that they were shown in sharp relief. "That just leaves more for the rest of us."
Leonard was by no means as unconcerned and as aloof as he tried to make himself sound. He felt his headache returning with a vengeance, and all he wanted really was some bread and butter and very hot coffee, followed by a night of miserable moaning in his bunk.
Curse this dirty weather!
But he had ordered the isopod cooked and he couldn't very well leave without tasting it. If only Bellows hadn't compared the damn thing to a woodlouse! That was all Leonard could see now--a woodlouse as big as a suckling pig ready for the carving. Its broad curved back rose up before him, half curled over on itself, with pairs of nasty clawed legs lining the whole length underneath and the antennae forced back like rams' horns.
And the eyes and mouth--here Leonard shuddered and diverted his attention. It had a face like something horrid viewed in a microscope, but blown up to monstrous size.
"Well, fellows," said Leonard weakly. "Who's joining me?"
Then, pressing the point of the knife into the shell, Leonard began sawing down, cutting through the carapace. It was as tough as boiled leather, and the smell of shellfish grew intense and unpleasant, a cloud of steam rising from the cut. Suddenly, the carapace split straight across three or four plates, leaving a great hole gaping in the isopod's back.
Leonard held his breath and turned his eyes away as he reached inside and widened the hole with his hands, separating the carapace with a juicy crunching sound. As the shell split open, the white meat inside rose up in mounds of stringy flesh and a great quantity of liquid drained out in a great gush into the washbasin, turning from sickly yellow to a dark green as it flowed.
"Bile," murmured Leonard, his head spinning and ears buzzing and his face red and puckered from the heat. "Perfectly normal in shellfish. Nothing to fret about--"
Though, in truth, Leonard hated the sight of bile, even in lobsters. He remembered it from his boyhood--his uncle lustily dismantling a lobster on his plate, inky green rivulets running down his chin as he chomped and chewed on the flesh, pulling pink planks of shattered carapace out from his mouth as he swallowed down--
Leonard half gagged, and then, before he could change his mind, he plucked out a morsel of the flesh from the hole in the back, a fist-sized gobbet that was white on top and translucent underneath. After ducking it carelessly in the butter, he stuffed the whole handful into his mouth and chewed.
The first taste was butter--sweet and salty and sickeningly oily in his dry mouth. Then came the flesh itself, with that same indifferent shellfish flavor that the steam had smelled of. But the texture was worst of all, a mealy, crumbling mass that just fell apart between his teeth and clotted his cheeks and throat, warm and suffocating and cloying.
Half-choking, Leonard stood and plucked a tin cup of coffee from the table and swallowed greedily, forcing the flesh down his throat and at last throwing the cup back down on the table.
"Now to keep it down," murmured Snoak to another man.
"Good God," gasped Leonard. The floor of the mess seemed to be doing somersaults under his feet. And before he knew it, Leonard was staggering out the door and down the passage, crawling into his bunk and breathing in great gasping gulps as he clenched his stomach tight.
Leonard woke to a roaring pulse that left both of his eardrums quivering.
In the ringing silence that followed, his eyes darted around the still-dark cabin. His heart beat rapidly and his sheets were damp with sweat. Outside the porthole, it was fully black. The ship pitched heavily on the waves, but silently. Totally noiseless except--
The roaring pulse came again. It was almost like the turning of the screws, but too slow. And too quiet. The sound didn't shudder through the superstructure. Instead, it seemed to pour through Leonard's own head, washing up over his ears in a rising crescendo, and then disappearing again as quickly as it had come.
It was like a white wave of sound filling and draining a tide pool before the rise of the high tide.
Leonard groaned as he sat up in the bunk. Every muscle ached, as though he'd been lifting and carrying crates of cannon shot all day. And he was parched--his throat cracked, his tongue stuck to his gums. Haltingly, he stood and made his way across the cabin to the water jug by the washbasin.
Leonard drank deep at the cool earthy lip of the jug, swallowing great gulps as rivers of water ran down his chin to his chest. He drank until the jug was empty and his belly ached, but still he wanted more. He dragged his sleeve across his lips, another pulse of sound rushing over him, leaving him in a fit of shivers.
Leonard shuffled slowly back toward his bunk. The water hadn't stopped his head from spinning or his stomach from tying itself in knots. He stood a moment with his head leaning against the cool metal of the bedstead, breathing shallowly through his mouth as he tried to will his body to fall into rhythm with the movement of the ship.
Up on the swell, and down into the trough. Up on the swell, and down into the trough. Leonard fixed his eyes downward, trying to make out the cabin floor in the murky darkness, imagining it in motion underneath him like a child's see-saw. Up, down. Up, down.
But that pulse wouldn't let him. It swept over him on a different frequency, shattering his concentration, worrying his feverish mind. He couldn't get in synchronicity with the ship. He couldn't do it. And he wouldn't stop feeling sick until he did.
Leonard breathed deep again. The more his eyes adjusted to the lightless cabin, the sicker he seemed to feel. Even the deck itself seemed to be crawling before his eyes. Not just heaving up and down, but moving quite apart from the motion of the ship.
A bead of sweat rolled down from the hair around Leonard's temples and dropped onto his cheek, and his fingers gripped tighter around the bed frame.
Almost involuntarily, his eyes followed the movement of the floor. The crawling. Not up and down, as the waves moved, but somehow back and forth. No--not back and forth. Just forth. The floor somehow inching forward from under the cabin door, along the gap between the bunks and the washbasin, and up under Leonard's very eyes--
Suddenly, Leonard's blood froze. It wasn't the floor moving, but something on the floor. Something in a long unbroken column as wide as the door frame... And not just the floor! The bed frame crawled too.
Leonard snatched his hand away from the bunks and stepped back. Everything was moving now--floor, bedstead, door, ceiling, washbasin... Good God, even the second mate himself, who lay in the upper bunk with his eyes shut! The never-ending wave rippled over the blankets that wrapped his body, swarming his hand and forearm and elbow, up to his shoulder and neck, across his face, over his tender eyes, inside his mouth and nose--
A hundred, a thousand, a billion, countless tiny whitish pinkish flat isopods, a billion little woodlice covering everything, covering even--
Leonard scratched furiously at his arms and legs, suddenly feeling oppressed by hundreds of the things--silent, colorless, weightless, orderly, marching, ceaseless, undeterred, leaving behind only the faintest creeping, crawling sensation on the skin--
Leonard turned abruptly and flung open the door of the cabin, lurching out into the corridor. The floor there was carpeted with a seething layer of isopods, pouring through the corridor and under the doors of every other cabin in the ship.
But Leonard had only one thought in his feverish mind--to get outside. To get outside, and to clean himself off--to jump into the ocean, if necessary! He scrambled up the steps at the end of the corridor, up to the level of the main deck, and he flung open the door.
Light. Bright, searing light. The intense brightness of the arc lights practically dropped Leonard to his knees. Still, he crawled forward on the deck, out into the almost-physical assault of the lights, a roaring wall of white obstructing his way, trying to push him back down below, back down with all those nasty crawling creeping things, like hundreds of cold diamond points flung roughly against his face and arms and chest--!
But Leonard staggered on, like a man fighting his way through a blizzard, winning at last a handhold on the ship's outer rail.
Here, the deck heaved visibly, the Mackay-Bennett still rolling slackly on the ocean's swells, the pilot in the bridge fighting to keep her nose turned into the weather without the benefit of forward motion to steady her.
Leonard looked about the deck in a half panic. He was bareheaded and he wasn't wearing any oilskins, his pajamas instantly soaked by the flying spray as it spattered through the bright blue halo of the arc lights. But Leonard didn't need his eyes to know where to go next. Instead, he hauled himself forward by the handrail, moving hand-over-hand toward the ship's bow.
Underfoot, Leonard could still see waves of the white things sweeping across the deck. There were countless of them piled up along every raised edge of the superstructure, legs pinwheeling, antennae switching through the air.
But lines of them still--armies, hordes--marching down below decks, hopping down the stairs and down to the corridor that led to the sleeping cabins and mess. By the time Leonard reached the winch, he was wading ankle-deep in drifts of the things, and more were pelting him every second, borne up by the wind and blown hard against him.
But then he saw the line--the cable still trailing from the winch down over the sheaves on the bow, down into the black midnight waters of the north Atlantic: The tether on which the ship still bobbed, the long thin link from the deck down into the darkness of the ocean depths--the single cord that tied the Mackay-Bennett, and Leonard himself, to the silver-eyed, many-legged, white-pink perversions that surged across the ocean bed at a depth of sixteen hundred fathoms.
And as that cable swept through the water, alternating between tension and slackness as the ship rose and fell, its movement through the water matched perfectly with the roaring pulse that Leonard kept hearing in his head— the pulse that had woken him from feverish sleep; the pulse of a million tiny claws tapping and tearing the dancing tightrope--
"Sir! Sir!" called a voice suddenly through it all. The electrician, from somewhere behind Leonard. "Stop, sir!"
"I'm coming, lad!" answered Leonard, as he surged through the swirling, blowing wall of light, each isopod striking his already numbed skin like a dagger blow.
And Leonard wrested the shears from under a snowy pile up from the deck, surprised at their coldness and heaviness, but struggling forward all the same.
"No, sir, no!" called the electrician again--this time quite close. But the shears swung shut with a spring-loaded clap and the cable suddenly leaped into the air above the sheaves, a flurry of isopods--or was it snow?--exploding into the air as the cable end whipped and straightened like a snake preparing to strike, before curling in on itself and smacking heavily back into the sea and sinking along with its crawling, cursed burden back below the surface again.
"What have you done, sir?" wailed the electrician, slapping the shears out of Leonard's hands. The electrician's face was pale, his eyes gleaming, as he gripped the collar of Leonard's pajamas and shook him like a madman.
"Saved us," answered Leonard, as he suddenly felt a sharp coldness close in all around him. But the isopods, thank God, were all gone--turned harmlessly into snowflakes, blown down over the deck by the freezing wind.
"Saved us," whispered Leonard again, the same snowflakes weighing down his eyelids, pulling darkness down over his mind--
Leonard stood miserably alone, huddled by the railing amidships below the stairs leading up to the bridge. If he turned around and looked up, he could just see the dark face of Captain Conway behind the glare on the bridge windows, grinding his pipe stem heavily between his teeth as he surveyed the dredging operations taking place once more at the bow.
They were looking for the cable that Leonard had cut the night before. The cable that had already once been on deck, and which had already once been repaired by the electrician.
The cable that had not, as Leonard had since realized, conducted thousands of horrible deep sea creatures up to the surface and into the Mackay-Bennett, to overwhelm and savage her helpless crew in their sleep. But which had delivered up the giant isopod which, when served half-cooked for dinner, could excite vivid fever dreams that carried the urgency of reality.
"Good morning, sir."
The soft voice came from behind Leonard's elbow, and he turned to find Bellows touching the brim of his sou'wester. Several big wet snowflakes were already hanging from his eyelashes. "No need for titles or salutes with me anymore, Bellows."
How easy the words fell out of his mouth! Before the voyage, Leonard had been afraid that a mere observer would have been treated like a passenger or a piece of cargo--to be shoved around the deck and ordered below and kept out of all the interesting operations. But how easy it seemed now to wave off a salute, to glare back at Captain Conway in the bridge, even to shoulder his way onto the deck where he was certainly no longer welcome at all--
Bah! Why had he ever worried about gaining the trust and approval of the crew? He would never see these men again! Leonard was sure now that a cold, business-like, meddling air would have gotten him much farther--and saved him no end of personal embarrassment.
"Yes, I'm sorry." Bellows shuffled uneasily on the deck. "Is it true that you're to be put off in Plymouth?"
Leonard's brow darkened. After his nightmare episode the night before, Conway had barred him from the bridge and anyplace within five yards of a seaman at work. So far, Leonard had decided not to test what would happen if he violated the cordon. But to be set off the ship altogether? Conway might be the captain, but he was still an employee as well! There would be words about that later. But Bellows need not know all that.
"The captain and I have discussed the possibility."
"Yes, well--" Bellows hesitated.
From up on the bow, Leonard could hear Snoak's curses drifting on the cold wind. Everyone on the ship was in a foul mood today. The weather had turned dirtier overnight as the snow blew in, and of course Leonard's waking fever-dream had wrecked an almost-finished job and any hopes of collecting a bonus.
Now, they seemed to be running the engines back and forth, the screws twisting forward and backward, as though the dredge had become hung up on something underwater. The deck shuddered and twisted under Leonard's feet and he craned his neck to see what was happening. His only hope to divert total disaster and keep his job at the company was to come back with some practicable suggestions on improving the repair operations. And so, sick as he was, he was out there in the cold and wind to see what he could see, now preparing to have a knock-down argument with Conway about his continuing on the boat; and yet Bellows kept hemming and hawing like a stuttering schoolboy in his ear--
"Dammit, man. Get to the point already!"
Bellows blushed and found his voice. "I wanted to ask you to take the two preserved isopod specimens to London. I have an address for one of the naturalists at the Royal Museum..."
Leonard shivered and gripped the railing tight. "Ugh, I never want to see another one of those damned creatures again." Even standing out in the snow gave him the creeps now, each flake that touched his skin reminding him of his horrible dream.
"They really are extraordinary, though." Leonard turned irritably to look in the man's face. Bellows looked very serious--and very ridiculous--the snow clinging to half his face as he pressed his point on. "I'm positive they must be some new species."
"Are they really as important as that?"
Bellows nodded. "I checked my books, and all the isopods described so far have seven pairs of legs. These have only six, which means either they belong to an entirely unknown classification, or--"
The Mackay-Bennett's engines roared again, and the winch whined, the bow suddenly plunging toward the water, a wave crashing over the railing on the bow, soaking the front half of the ship and sending a frothy sheet of the sea sloshing up even around Leonard's boots amidships.
"What the devil...?" muttered Leonard, watching the water drain back to the ocean as the ship slowly rose back on its keel again.
From up on the bow, Snoak roared a command, and engines stopped suddenly. The ship floated for a moment, silent and still, pushed by the waves. And Bellows's words suddenly dropped into place in Leonard's mind. The isopods were some entirely unknown classification, or...
"Or what?" asked Leonard suddenly. He had a cold feeling in his stomach.
"Or..." said Bellows, his face white. But he got no further, as the ship suddenly surged forward again, the bow dragged even lower, the railings dipping underwater as the deck tilted down. Leonard and Bellows both grabbed the railing quickly, barely able to keep their feet. As they hung on, the ship surged forward yet again, seemingly forcing its way through the sea like a plow in the earth.
"Either they're a new classification," said Leonard, finishing the thought himself, "or they're immature juveniles of some even more monstrous species. That's what you were going to say?"
Bellows nodded, his eyes screwed shut, his hands clamped around the railing. "They looked newly hatched," he whispered. "No barnacles on their carapaces at all."
Leonard whipped his eyes back to the bow of the ship. The sheaves were well underwater now, and waves were crashing hard up through the superstructure. He could make out the figures of Snoak and the rest of the crew clinging to whatever they could get their hands around. Under the waterline, he knew, compartments must be flooding with water. If they didn't cut the cable soon...
"How big would these adults grow?"
Bellows didn't say anything, just shaking his head. But Snoak was moving now, thank God. He had the shears in his hands and was fighting his way towards the sheaves... Leonard hooked his arm around the railing, waiting for the snapping of the line, the release of tension...
But instead, another limb curled up around the railing as well--a vast pink tube, as thick around as an oak tree, the claw on the end slicing clear through the steel walls of the bridge with a terrible screeching sound of rending metal and popping rivets. It closed heavily down around the side of the ship, crushing the railing and buckling the deck irresistibly, heeling the ship over on its side.
The cable, of course, would have snapped long ago on its own. Even those braided cords of steel and copper could never have hauled a two-thousand ton ship underwater. The thing itself was pulling them down now.
Two more legs curled around the side of the ship, rolling it heavily and wholly over. Leonard watched in fascinated horror as the top of the smokestack behind the bridge rotated against the cloudy sky and then toppled, guidelines snapping and whipping around the deck, the huge stack rolling suddenly into the sea and taking the whole of the rest of the ship with them.
As Leonard sputtered up from the cold Atlantic waters, his face bobbing into the trough of some great wave, he thought he saw off to one side a growing shield of water bubbling up, wine-colored and curved, two antennae of unimaginable size hovering over top as the serrated ridge of the back broke the surface of the green water. The sea suddenly dissolved into countless rivulets as a new mass appeared in the air— the unmistakable overlapping plates of the carapace, the great multi-faceted expanse of the dead silver eyes, and the ravenous grinding parts of the primitive mouth, frothing through the sea after the struggling, screaming crew—
Then the waves closed mercifully over his head again, and he was dragged down into the dark below.
Kakitso, fiction, Issue 19, June 1, 2012
Desert of Trees, fiction, Issue 21, December 1, 2012
Transatlantic, fiction, Issue 31, June 1, 2015
M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Asimov's Science Fiction, Shimmer, Lightspeed Magazine and others. He is also editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies. The second volume of the series, This Is How You Die, will be available from Grand Central Publishing in July 2013. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
His website is, http://www.mbennardo.com
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