“Brewer, what’s the status?” I ask as I walk onto my bridge.
The third mate looks up from the charts he is reviewing. “Skipper, we are a little behind schedule.”
God he looks young. It seems like they get younger and younger every year. He is fresh faced and barely out of school. His tight cropped haircut only serves to confirm how green he really is.
“May I ask what a ‘little’ behind schedule is?”
The kid blanches. “Ma-ma’am, we are running about an hour behind,” he manages to stammer out. At least he has enough good sense to be afraid.
“And why, Mr. Brewer, are we running an hour behind?” I growl.
“Some of the longshoreman didn’t show up. There was some trouble in port last-”
“Mr. Brewer. We were not in port last night. We were working long hard hours, navigating a minefield of pleasure boats and play toys to bring in our precious cargo. I do not care about what happened in port. Now tell me, what are we doing about this unacceptable delay?”
“We sent Mier and Reichert down to the pier to help handle lines and load supplies,” a deep voice answers smoothly from behind. “We are refueled. The last car is being loaded and secured now. The pilot and tugs have been notified that we will be casting off in ninety minutes.”
I turn around to see my bos’n, Kyle Woods, grinning through his graying beard. “Thank you Mr. Woods, but I do believe that is a question that Mr. Brewer should be more than capable of answering for himself. He is the Officer of the Deck, is he not?”
Woods ignores my question and shoves by me to the kid. “Brewer, go get the Skippa’ a cup of coffee before she rips your head off and sends you to sleep with the fishes.”
“Thanks, Boats,” Brewer mutters as he sprints off, glad to be doing a task he knows he can handle.
The stocky bos’n crosses the bridge and stands in front of the massive windows that afford the best possible view of the ship below and the surrounding harbor. “You should cut the kid some slack. We both know he’s green, but he’s smart. If ya’ give him half a chance, he’s gonna do good.”
I join him. It’s a beautiful morning. The sun is just peaking over the eastern shore of the harbor and paints the sky with vibrant hues of red and orange. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning. It’s hard to imagine that a view so spectacular and striking is used to predict ominous events. The sea is like glass. The morning calm in the small seaport is disrupted only by a few small fishing boats headed out to the shoals and one lonely tanker that has just arrived at the terminal. It is a perfect moment. It is a quiet moment of peace before the real work begins. But only a moment.
I sigh. “I only asked a few simple questions. If he can’t answer a few questions, how is he ever going to be able to respond in a real crisis?”
“Heather, I mean this in the nicest possible way, but questions from you before you’ve had your coffee . . . that is a real crisis.”
I laugh and punch him playfully on the shoulder. “Alright Boats, I’m gonna head to the galley and get some chow before we get this show on the road. You want anything?”
“A jelly donut?”
“Sure thing,” I say and turn to leave. “Oh and one more thing, Brewer said there was trouble in port last night?”
“Nothing serious, Skip. Just a couple bar fights. Just the usual ruckus you get when you have too many mariners in one spot and not enough women.”
I laugh again and head for the mess hall, leaving my bridge in capable hands.
I am Captain Heather Flint and I am the master of the MV Valiant. She is a 605 foot, roll-on/roll-off vessel that transports cars; trucks; tractors; or anything else with wheels, to ports around the globe. I am honored to say that I have been her skipper for the last five years. I take my charge seriously. I know my ship and her operations. I know her crew and they know me. I run on schedule and under budget. But most importantly, in the time that I have been in command, we have not had a single injury or accident and I aim to keep it that way.
My thoughts are shattered as my phone rings. I had been just about ready to hit the rack. It was a long exhausting day. Getting the ship out of port and into open water is always high stress and takes its toll. This had better not be another minke sighting.
“What?” I answer brusquely.
“Ma’am, there has been an injury.” It’s Brewer. He sounds uncomfortable, but he usually sounds uncomfortable when he’s talking to me.
“Mr. Brewer, what kind of injury warrants rousing the Captain in her stateroom at this late hour?” My safety record means a lot to me, but not this much.
“Ma’am . . . there . . . it’s . . .”
“Spit it out already,” I order.
“Mier attacked Jimenez. They are working on detaining Mier now, but the Doc says he doesn’t think Jimenez is going to make it.”
What? Make it? What is this kid talking about? I was expecting to hear that someone fell down a ladder-way or hit their head on a low overhead. He must have heard wrong.
“What are you talking about? What happened?”
“Ma’am, I don’t know a whole lot myself. The Doc just called up here and said that there had been a fight and there were some pretty serious injuries. He strongly encouraged me to get you out of bed for this one. I’ve sent the cadet down to the infirmary to get you a full report.”
“Alright, if the Doc wants me out of bed . . . I’m out of bed. I’ll be right up.” I hang up and begin dressing. I skip the company whites and shoulder boards and opt for my coveralls. Before I head to the bridge, I pick up my phone and dial the infirmary. No answer. The Doc must be busy.
The cadet curses as she runs down the passageway. They all look the same. No matter which way she turns, it all looks the same and none of it looks familiar, just one gray passageway after another. She is hopelessly lost.
The cadet is on loan for the summer from one of the academies. She has only been aboard a week. She doesn’t even have a name yet. She is just “the cadet.” This is her first real order and she is screwing it up. Up the ladder-way, through the hatch, down the passageway, turn to port . . . no turn to starboard. She strains to remember anything from her ship tour just a few days earlier. In her rush she trips over the raised threshold of a hatch. She cries out in pain and frustration as she lands hard on the deck.
At the sound of shuffling footsteps she is relieved at the prospect of a crew member being able to show her the way to the infirmary. But, all relief drains from her face as she looks up at her savior. His gray coveralls have been ripped open. No his stomach has been ripped open and his entrails protrude, dripping viscera on the deck. Black veins pulsate under the gray paper thin skin on his face. His eyes are cloudy and lifeless. His orange shock of hair has bloody patches where clumps of it have been ripped out.
Before she can scream, he is upon her. His iron fingers plunge easily into her soft flesh. He bites her throat and rips it open wide. She bleeds out quickly, slicking the deck with gore. He rips open her stomach and begins to root for her prized organs: the liver . . . the heart . . . the lungs. As he eats, his victim begins to stir.
“Where the hell is that damn cadet?” I roar as I drive my fist into the steel bulkhead. My knuckles explode with blood and pain shoots through my arm. I know immediately that I have broken it, both my hand and my composure.
“She probably got lost. She’s only been aboard for a week or so. I should have gone myself,” Brewer says as he grabs the med kit from the nav station.
I manage a grunt. All hell has broken loose. At least one man is dead and there have been other reports of attacks and violence from throughout the ship. The Doc has been unreachable since I arrived. And on top of all that, the bos’n just called and told me not to leave the bridge under any circumstances and then hung up.
I am the Captain of this vessel! I am her master. I give the orders. I do not take them. It is entirely unacceptable for my most trusted sailor to fail to give me a proper status report and then condemn me to be a prisoner on my own bridge!
The bos’n uses all of his strength to swing the fire ax up and over his head. As the razor sharp wedge descends, it glances off Reichert’s skull and slices through his shoulder like butter and lodges in some mass of cartilage and bone. What seems would be a debilitating blow, does nothing to dissuade Reichert as he continues to snap his jaws and lunge for Woods. He is kept at bay only by the sturdy fortitude of both the ax handle and the bos’n.
“Brotha’, you gotta snap out of it, because I’ll chop you to pieces if I have to,” Woods says as he jerks the ax free.
Reichert responds to his to new found freedom with another furious attack. Before he can get close, the bos’n drives the blunt end of the ax head into his face. There is a crack as bone breaks under the force of the heavy implement. Reichert falls to the deck and continues to writhe in an attempt to get to the bos’n. He has been slowed, but not stopped. The bos’n finishes the job. He brings the fire ax cleanly down on the man’s neck, severing his head, and ending the life of one of his crew.
Bos’n Kyle Woods quickly rushes away from the grisly scene, as moans echo throughout the narrow passageways of the MV Valiant.
Throughout the ship, screams can be heard as the violence spreads. Some crew members are spared; shredded beyond all recognition in a feeding frenzy. Most experience a torturous death of being eaten alive, only to then rise in search of their own victims. The decks are awash with blood and innards. Water tight doors, which could have been salvation, are flung open carelessly as the crew tries to escape from bowls of hell. At least one man jumps overboard, more than two hundred miles from any hope of rescue or survival.
I am huddled in a corner of the bridge when the bos’n comes crashing through the hatch. He is covered head to toe in blood and carries a fire ax in the same condition. He dogs the hatch once he is through and exclaims that they are too stupid to operate them. Whatever that means.
He is jabbering away. He’s been on the deck plates. He’s seen our men. They have gone mad. They are dying. We have to do something. They are killing and being killed. He himself killed Reichert. It was self-defense. He had to do it. We have to do something.
I hear Brewer begin to speak. “Boats, the 1st Mate is a confirmed casualty. The 2nd is trapped in his stateroom. The chief engineer and a wiper have secured the engine room and are awaiting orders. All other officers and unlicensed crew are unaccounted for. As the ranking officer, I have the deck. I have just received word that we are under strict quarantine and are not attempt to dock the vessel . . . anywhere.”
I am huddled in the corner.