“Everythin’ stable, cap’n. We’re a wee bit deeper ‘an we should be, but she’ll hold jus’ fine,” the engineer’s voice said through the radio.
“Many thanks, Buchanan.”
Despite the reassuring tone of his mechanic, the loud creaking noises coming from the hull of his ship were still worrisome to Captain Winston Grey. Neptune’s Chariot was not originally made to get to such depths. His men were quite handy and their modifications had made her much more than she was designed to be, but…
“By jove, are these noises unnerving!”
“She doesn’ like bein’ ‘ere, cap’n. We’re too deep for ‘er likin’,” his helmsman said, shaking his balding head.
“I suppose we’ll have to give her a bit of an upgrade next time we go to shore,” Grey said with a smirk.
“Course, cap’n. Me and Buck’ve go’ some fine ideas for the engine, and the radar… oh, and for the armamen’ too. If we jus’ look ‘ard enough, I’m plenty sure we can find some of those new torpedoes from Nobles & Aberdeen. I’ve ‘eard Badger’s got a shipmen’ of ‘em back in London. I’ would be nice to go back to the burrows for a few days, wouldn’ i’ be, cap’n? What I wouldn’ give for a good Boddingtons. Been a while since I las’ laid eyes on the wife and the lad. Matter o’ fact I s’pose I should maybe say ‘lads’, now, considerin’…”
“Yes, indeed,” Grey said dismissively as he emptied his pipe in an ashtray. “However, may we please focus on the matter at hand for now, Atkinson.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n. You know ‘ow I get when I talk abou’ ‘ome.”
“Yes. And when you’re nervous too…”
The Chariot was still creaking and squealing in protest as they kept going deeper and deeper still. Only the sturdiest mining vessels could have followed them so deep into the Cayman Trough.
Had they looked through one of the few portholes, they would have seen nothing but a few little lights, dim and sad, amidst an ocean of darkness, like will-o-wisps in the black nights of the Dark Ages. For in that moment, surely they felt as the commoners of eons past had felt in the shadowy forests of the world: unwelcome, alone, insignificant, and yet emboldened by the call of the unknown, fascinated by the mystery unraveling, entranced by the abyss.
But, as Captain Grey liked to quote: “As one gazes into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into him.”
And gaze back it did through thousands of lidless eyes, blind and cold. For even as they were cloaked by the inky waters, invisible to the sight of man except for those sad little lights, the denizens of the deep were everywhere around them. Again, the hull whined.
“Let’s bring back some good ore for our trouble. Anything around us, Simpson?” His radar operator did not answer. “Simpson?”
He turned around to look at the American.
“There’s somethin’ alright, cap’n, good ore too, I think. But…”
“But?” Grey said, impatient.
“Somethin’ else. Large. Twenty degrees to starboard. Movin’ toward us.”
“American, or British?”
“Ain’t no ship I know of, cap’n,” the radar operator answered, dumbfounded.
Everyone on the bridge remained silent for a few seconds.
“Maintain our bearing, Atkinson,” Grey said as he hastily walked out of the room with a radio in hand.
The captain strode through his ship confidently despite the copper pipes and wires crisscrossing on the floor. He knew his vessel like no one else, and he could have been running with his eyes closed. When he got to the front porthole, he shoved his pipe in his pocket, opened the reinforced hatch and turned on the front spotlights before looking through the steel lined glass. It took little time for his eyes to get accustomed to the darkness outside
“Where is it, Simpson?”
The radio crackled: “Pretty much dead ahead, cap’n. Six hundred yards.”
He peered through the vast, eyes peeled. Right under his nose, there was something moving through the black waters. He did not know exactly what he was looking for until he saw it: in the distance, a swath of darkness was making its way to them.
“Atkinson,” he said calmly in his radio, “divert course. Ten degrees portside. Slowly.”
He felt the vessel making a slow turn to his left, and in the same moment, the thing entered the range of the spotlights.
It was the tides made flesh, a living embodiment of the indomitable ocean. It had the tail, and the lined belly of a great whale, and four long fins on both sides. Countless weird fishes, mollusks, barnacles, and algae covered its underside. It was six times the size of the Chariot at the very least: an awesome force of nature lazily wandering the boundless depths. The captain had read about cetacea maxima. He had heard of colossal creatures roaming the deep, but it was the first time he laid eyes on such a gargantuan beast. As he gazed in amazement, Grey was reminded of a passage of the Bible about Leviathan:
Upon earth there is not his like, who is made to be fearless. He looketh at all high things; he is king over all the proud beasts.
“Extraordinary,” he whispered.
The creature seemed not to even notice his vessel as it approached, but he did not want to risk upsetting it in any way.
“Alright, maintain our current bearing.”
He closed the hatch and turned off the spotlights before sprinting back to the bridge. He could feel the entire ship rumbling as they were getting closer to it.
“We’re going to get some turbulence, Atkinson. Stay alert,” he said as he burst into the control room.
They could all feel vibrations running through the vessel, and a low humming noise filled their ears as they passed the giant. They had all heard whales singing in the last years, but this was so much more powerful as to be eerily ominous.
“Steady, Atkinson,” Grey said as he put a hand on his helmsman’s shoulder. “Good man.”
The vibrations were getting worse, and the ship was shaking as if she was going to fall apart. Behind him, pipes burst and a sheaf of sparks flew around him. Horrible creaking sounds came from the hull, and for a second, the captain feared that his ship might simply break in two.
The radio crackled: “Cap’n, we’re gonna lose hull integrity.”
He signaled his helmsman to go upward. “We’re not through the worst of it yet,” he said, radio in hand. “Everyone, brace yourselves.”
Without asking any questions, his men fastened their security harnesses and grabbed the nearest handles, except for Atkinson, who kept his hands on the helm. The vibrations were slowly weakening as the creature was nearly finished passing them by. Grey sat on an emergency seat and fastened his security belt, and a few seconds later, the entire ship was rocked. The world had just been toppled down a cliff, and everything was falling and tumbling. Everything was spinning. They were like ragdolls strapped to the wheel of a chariot. He could feel his innards churning as black dots popped in his vision. He closed his eyes and muttered a prayer. The scream of metal rang in his ears as pipes blew up and plates bent and buckled. Then came the atrocious sound of hissing water.
As the spinning slowed, he tried to stand up, only to fall down limply, barely managing not to hurt his head. He lay on the floor for a moment as he heard Simpson vomiting noisily. When he felt more confident, he clumsily got to his feet and saw that there a small leak from which ice-cold water poured inside his vessel.
“Buchanan,” he called in his radio. “What’s the situation in the engine room?”
The radio crackled and popped, but he could not hear his mechanic’s voice. Still tipsy, he got to the back of the ship as fast as he could, stumbling at every step, on every pipe, and every doorway, and every hatch. The world seemed to move slowly, as in a dream. There was smoke coming from the engine room, thick grey smoke. He dreaded what he would find there, and he did not know if he had the strength to face it. As he entered the engine room, he saw that there was also a leak there, with already close to half an inch of water covering the floor, and the engines were clattering in a frightening ruckus.
“Buchanan!” He called out desperately. “Buck?”
Besides the clanging of the engines, and the gushing of the ocean pouring inside his ship, he could hear nothing.
“Buck!” He cried one last time before falling to one knee.
Smoke was still billowing from the engine, and…
“What? What did you think the bloody situation would be in the bloody engine room… cap’n?”
Grey’s eyes went wide. “Buchanan! You’re alive, you Taffy bastard! How is everyone here?”
“Oh! Quite peachy, thank you. Just a few wee holes ta plug, and the engine nearly blew us all ta kingdom come, but that’s nothin’ ta worry about,” Buck said as he gestured to the surrounding damage. “Now, will you please get off yer prissy arse and help the lads fix yer ship, cap’n?”
Grey sprang to his feet. “I’ll get a blowtorch to the bridge. We have a leak there, too.”
“Well, that is bloody surprising!”
Without another word, the captain picked up a blowtorch and a gas tank, and headed straight for the bridge, where Simpson, Atkinson, and Fitzmoore, his communications officer, were already hard at work trying to plug the leak with emergency tools.
“Buchanan is alive and well,” Grey said as he arrived. “Let’s save the ship, now. Atkinson, get her to the surface.”
“Already on i’, cap’n, but she’s movin’ real sluggish like. It’ll take a lo’ outta ‘er.”
“Yes, I gathered that much.”
And so with cloth, and foam, and steel plates, and blowtorch, they all endeavored to restore the integrity of the hull as much as humanly possible. When the leak was under control, Fitzmoore dropped what she was doing without a word and leapt to her console.
“Hey! What’s the matter, Fitz,” Simpson shouted.
She didn’t answer. She was focused on adjusting the vessel’s long range radio receiver. Grey nodded at Simpson to help him finish the job of patching the ship, and when no more water was leaking inside the Chariot, he went to his communications officer.
“What seems to be the problem, Fitzmoore?”
She glanced at him with her young bright blue eyes. “Americans, cap’n. They keep hailin’ us, and askin’ if we’re in need of assistance.”
“We sure are,” Simpson said with strange mix enthusiasm and exasperation.
“Wait,” Grey said as he raised two fingers.
“Cap’n?” Fitzmoore inquired.
“I’m not sure I trust those damned Yankees… No offense, Simpson.”
Simpson rolled his eyes and grumbled. “None taken, I guess, cap’n.”
Grey stroked his salt and pepper beard and brought his radio to his lips. “Buchanan, do you think she can get to London?”
The radio crackled and popped before Buck made himself heard. “By herself?”
“Cause if we try, she won’t stay in on piece, and then we’ll drown and die… and then she won’t get there anyway, so I s’pose no, and then no.”
Grey sighed and rubbed his eyes. For the last few years, he had managed to avoid asking anyone for help, particularly anyone who was not a subject of King George. “Fitzmoore, let me talk to the Yankees.”
His communications officer gave him her headset and the transmitter. “Their ship’s called the Virginia Outrider and the name o’ their cap’n’s Whitman.”
“Thank you, Fitzmoore,” Grey said as he took the transmitter in hand. “This is captain Winston Grey, from Neptune’s Chariot.”
“Waylon Whitman of the Outrider, here,” they heard through the white noise of the receiver. “What can I do you for, cap’n Grey?”
“Well, to be honest, we might be in need of a ride.”
“That bad, huh? What happened?”
“A long story, captain. I would hardly know where to begin.”
There was a long pause before they heard from Whitman again. “Why not at the beginnin’?”
Grey had a movement of exasperation and looked at his radar operator. Simpson shrugged.
He sighed and brought the transmitter to his lips. “Here, there be dragons…”
(c) Jean-Philippe Savoie