Please don’t let us end up on some uncharted island. The only thing I know how to make with a coconut is a bowl. Please let there be coconuts if we do find an island. Coconuts and mangoes and big fat chickens.
Jane chewed on her ration of bread and gave a pitying smile to the naïve girl who had written those words only a week before. They were her words, written in her notebook. It was meant to have been her research notebook, but had become her journal after research gave way to a higher priority, survival.
She sat in the main cabin aboard the oceanographic research vessel the Midnight. Seven days prior, Jane had come aboard Midnight full of apprehension and excitement. She hadn’t decided which of the sciences she fancied best. She wasn’t the kind to go on adventures, though she’d always wanted to. But she was in college. She figured it was time to challenge herself, find out if she could really do all the things she’d always wanted to do. The ship was only going out in fairly calm waters to do a bit of hydrographic surveying. Two days. One night aboard the ship. Jane had never been on a ship much less slept aboard one. And she had never swum in the ocean.
She’d been worried about the usual things, getting ill from not having her “sea legs,” getting caught in a storm, getting attacked by pirates. Practical things.
Getting caught up in a strange anomaly and getting lost at sea before the ship had even entered international waters had not been on Jane’s list of worries.
Neither had finding a derelict ship floating in the midst of an ominous fog bank that rolled in just that morning.
With the fog below, the clouds above, and only the light of some gas lanterns, it was dark as early evening, even though it was only noon. There were fishing lines out at the back of the ship. But they hadn’t caught much. There didn’t seem to be anything to catch out wherever they were.
The skies were clear and bright on the day the Midnight embarked. The checks of the ship and the crew went smoothly. The research team, led by Jane’s advisor, Professor Banks, got all their special instrumentation aboard smoothly. The only snag in our plans was that one of the research assistants was a little late. He’s probably wishing he’d been just a bit later. The ship would have left without him. With him crew and passengers numbered an even dozen. Seven members of the ship’s crew. Five members of the research team.
A sudden afternoon rain fell on the day they embarked. There was no storm, no overwhelming waves. They hadn’t realized anything was wrong or that they were off course until the instruments began to fail. Since they’d gotten lost, a gloom of gray clouds had hung over them. They had no way to navigate. On the seventh morning of their drifting, the fog rolled in and within that fog, a crewman sighted the shape of something big ahead.
The pilot steered the Midnight toward the derelict. The controls were working for the moment and the pilot was being careful to steer the ship in such a way that if the controls failed again, the Midnight would drift slowly past the derelict and not straight into it. But the power might flicker and fail at any time.
The locator beacon on the bottom of the ship’s hull was either not working at all, or doing the same thing the other instruments were doing, flickering on and off. Even if someone found where the Midnight was when the beacon was on, they likely lost the trail when it turned off. It was also possible the signal wasn’t getting through at all. The mechanical and electrical instruments were merely being unreliable. But all computers, phones, navigation systems, or anything that needed a satellite connection failed to connect altogether.
“Look at that.” Professor Banks pointed as they approached. “Those marks on the side of the ship. That must be her name.”
“Anyone recognize the language?” the captain asked.
No one did. Jane squinted her eyes and tried to make out the swooping and circular characters. There was nothing familiar about them to her either. And she knew a rare language or two.
“Looks old-timey,” the first mate said. Her name was Dia. “Do you really think we’ll find any food and water onboard?”
The captain gazed at the ship. “The only other ships we’ve come across are wrecks. It’s worth a try.”
“They might have taken everything with them,” Dia said. “I don’t see any lifeboats. If they abandoned ship, and if they had time, they would have taken as many provisions with them as they could.”
“And if there’s anything left, it might be rotted,” another crewman said.
Jane peered at the ship and threw out an open question. “Can you tell how old it is?”
“Looks old-fashioned, but it’s not necessarily old. It could be a style choice,” Dia said.
“I don’t see a lot of rust,” Jane said. “It doesn’t look like it’s too eaten away by the salt.”
The captain ordered the pilot to keep a bit of distance from the derelict. The Midnight had two dinghies. He ordered a small crew to take one of the dinghies, go over to the derelict ship, and determine if the ship was structurally sound. If so, he would send a larger party over to search for and scavenge any necessities they could find. Aside from food and water, they had run out of some basic first aid supplies. All the antibiotics were now gone, treating a crewman who had contracted infection on a wounded foot soon after they embarked.
The captain and first mate had a brief ethical discussion about what to do if survivors were found. They would offer help and ask for help, in hopes that the people and resources of the two ships together could get everyone involved out of danger.
Jane approached the captain as he watched the first party head toward the derelict ship.
“Captain, I’m not much use around here right now. If the derelict is safe enough for a larger party, I’d like to volunteer to go over and help search.”
“Out of the question,” Professor Banks said before the captain could respond. Jane was the youngest person aboard the Midnight. The only undergraduate student. The professor had been taking extra care to watch over her, offering her some of his rations of food and water, making sure none of the crew had any threatening intentions toward her. He didn’t know that Jane herself had vetted the crew before she boarded. She already knew they were good men and women. And despite her youth and lack of any skills that would have come in handy during such a situation, she was as determined to make sure that nothing happen to the crew or research team as the captain himself was.
The captain looked at Jane. “You’ve signed a waiver, haven’t you?”
“In that case, permission granted.”
After the dinghy returned, the team reported to the captain. The first team of four crewman had done a preliminary check of all decks, but the derelict was so huge, they were confident that their yelling wouldn’t be heard by anyone who might have been at the opposite ends of the entryways at which they stopped. And they didn’t have time to run down every hallway and corridor. They had gone down to the lowest decks, where the ship’s engine and cargo holds were. Those areas were sealed because of flooding from what they could see through one porthole. Even if they could unseal the areas, it was too dark to search unless they had diving suits and a lot more lighting. That was disappointing news, considering the cargo hold was one of the places they’d hoped to find some needed supplies. But none of the other decks appeared to be flooded, so there was still hope of finding something valuable.
The larger party of eight would all go over in one dinghy, then split into two teams, who would search the decks. One team would search the even decks, and the other would search the odds.
The captain wanted to reserve the second dinghy for an emergency, unless the larger party found something worth hauling over to the Midnight.
The air on the top deck of the derelict smelled no different from that of the Midnight. But as the teams opened doors and went deeper into the ship, the air smelled stale and dusty. Jane’s team consisted of Dia, Professor Banks, and the attractive crewman named Lucas, whom Jane had been pretending not to notice and couldn’t help but to notice, even during their current crisis.
But Jane had no need to worry that Lucas would distract her from the search. The true distraction came from the ship itself. The first deck that Jane’s team searched had little by way of food, water, or medicine. But it was full of art and knowledge. There were paintings hung on along the corridors. Oils and watercolors of people, scenes of adventures on the high seas, paintings of a ship that looked much like the derelict, and probably was. There were captions, but Jane could not read them. They couldn’t get into some of the rooms and chambers because of collapsed entryways or too much debris from fixtures that had come loose. The chambers they were able to get into each looked like some kind of laboratory or study. There was a room full of maps and old-fashioned navigation equipment. There was a chamber that looked like a scriptorium. It was scattered with parchment and spilled ink. Then there was the library. Some had fallen from the shelves, but the library being on a ship, most of the books had been secured. Jane marveled at a tome she randomly picked up and flipped through. It looked like an illuminated manuscript. The papers were still in excellent condition, preserved somehow from the damage of the sea air. The entire deck must have been engineered to preserve and protect the knowledge that was being generated and gathered there.
“This too is a vessel of exploration and research,” Professor Banks said. “If this deck is any indication.”
“It’s beautiful,” Dia said. “Even abandoned like this. But we didn’t come here looking for beauty.” She stood by the library door and inclined her head. “We need to move on.”
Dia’s walkie talkie suddenly crackled. The walkies too were working only intermittently. So it had been agreed that the teams would rendezvous at designated areas every hour, even if they found something useful.
The crewman leading the second team reported that they had found the kitchen and pantries. The bad news was that they were all but emptied out. There were some husks that were once fresh vegetables. Some rock-like objects that must have once been loaves of hard bread. They did find some barrels of what seemed to be water. But no food.
Jane wanted to stay and explore the library, the entire deck, but she was hungry. It had been a full day since she’d eaten anything. And she was thirsty. She hoped the other team had found one barrel for each person.
Both teams were carrying portable instruments to measure atmospheric pressure, radiation, a small selection of dangerous chemical or biological particles. Jane was responsible for her team’s instrument, with the professor’s guidance. It indicated some low levels of radiation, which seemed to come and go as they moved about the ship. The levels were higher than expected, but still not dangerous. And while they were all curious about that as well, they had no time or reason to investigate, so long as the readings didn’t change. Jane’s team moved on and kept searching.
Dia was in the lead and when she opened the door to the next chamber, she gasped. Jane and the others gathered around her. The floor of the chamber was empty. It was empty because everything that was in the chamber was floating a few feet above the ground. Two chairs, a large mahogany table, some books and scrolls, and a sheet or blankets. The blanket shifted slightly, probably disturbed by the opening of the door.
Dia handed the lantern she was holding to Lucas. She took one step into the room and gasped again. Her leg was raised in the air.
“I can’t put it down,” she said. She took off her coat and held onto one arm while Lucas held onto the other.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t,” Professor Banks said, eyeing the room with a frown. “As you said, we don’t have time for beauty. I say we don’t have time for curiosity either.”
“It’ll just take a moment,” Dia said, as she stepped completely into the room and floated right up. She immediately asked for Lucas to pull her out. He had no difficulty doing so, giving the coat a yank and bringing the first mate crashing down to the ground in a heap.
The professor bent down toward her. “Did you find any necessities?”
Dia smiled. “Sorry, Professor. You’re right. Let’s move on.”
As they continued on, Dia reported the room of floating objects to the other team’s lead. He reported to her that they had found something just as unusual. They had found an entire hallway with echoes that bounced about strangely, sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming. It scared them until they realized what was going on and that the voices they were hearing were their own. They had found what appeared to be crew and passengers quarters on their deck. One of the passengers’ quarters contained a chest filled with gold coins and precious stones wrapped in velvet. The team decided to let the treasure be, just in case it was cursed. Just in cast it was the reason for whatever happened on the ship. The other team did however find some hidden snacks in the crew quarters. They were gathering what they could.
“That’s good,” Dia said. “We shouldn’t take anything we don’t need.”
Jane’s team was heading to the rendezvous point, having found nothing they needed, when they heard a distress call over the walkie. Someone was yelling. It was hard to make out what they were saying. Dia started to run even as she tried to raise them again. The walkie went silent. The other team wasn’t at the rendezvous point, so Dia traced their path backward from their starting point and found them at the foot of the stairs leading up from the deck they’d been searching.
The team’s leader was on the ground. He was spattered in blood and was staring up, struggling to take short breathes. Another had her hand pressed to his stomach. She seemed unhurt. But the other two members of the team were also down, one with a gash in his leg, the other likely with a broken arm from the way he was holding it against his body.
“Something came out of the dark and attacked us,” the crewman with the broken arm said. “I didn’t see much. It came from behind just before we started climbing. We heard something like…it could have been a bear, but I swear it passed through me and then it swatted me.”
“He’s right,” the crewman with the gash in his leg said. “It was passing through us…sometimes, and…then it was solid. So…solid.” He shook his head. “And fast.”
Aside from the blood spattered on the clothes and bodies of the crew, there was no blood anywhere else. The hallway, the walls. They should have been spattered too.
Dia knelt before the man lying on the ground, Rolly. “We can’t move him like this,” she said. She smiled down at him. “We need to stop the bleeding, or the majority of it anyway, before we move you. We can patch you up when we get to Midnight.” She pointed to the crewman with the hurt leg. “Same goes for you.”
Jane didn’t know how to help while the others tended to the injured. All she could do was hold flashlights up and hand people things. They were trying to work fast. Everyone wanted to get the hell off the ship now that there was something threatening aboard. A bear would have been frightening enough, but no one—even those who were absent during the attack—believed it was a bear.
The ever-protective professor told Jane to stay close, keep an eye out, and warn them if something strange happened. Jane did her best to keep watch. She moved her gaze from point to point, landing on the team last, and then moving on. On one such round, she saw something at the end of the long hallway. Jane’s gaze froze on the figure.
It was glowing a whitish-blue, a small figure, a child, a young girl. She merely stood at the end of the hallway.
Without looking away from the girl, Jane called out to the professor. By the time he was by her side and looking down the hallway, the girl had vanished. He put a hand on her shoulder and told her to let him know if she saw the girl again. Again, the girl appeared, this time offering her hand out and waving it back as if beckoning Jane, who shook her head. She wasn’t going to be lured away like some idiot coed in a slasher film. She told the professor and the first mate. They both joined her and they both missed seeing the girl as she vanished again. Jane described the apparition.
“Doesn’t sound like what attacked them,” Dia said, “but whatever she—or it—is, we are not tangling with any more ghosts or monsters or whatever other horrors this ship has to offer. As soon as Rolly is secure and the others are bandaged up enough to walk, we are hightailing it out of here.”
“We need a stretcher for him,” one of the crewman said. “The rest of us can walk, but…”
Dia took a breath. “Right, we’re on the crew quarters level. We might get lucky and find a cot. If not, a mattress will do if it’s small enough. Even just blankets if we don’t find anything else.”
Jane, the professor, and the first mate searched the nearby rooms for a cot or anything with a sturdy frame that they could use to carry Rolly. Jane saw the ghostly little girl appear before a door far down the hallway. She called out to the other searchers and pointed out the girl. But the girl vanished again before they could see her. Jane searched the room and found a cot.
“She led me to this room,” she told the others. “She seems to be trying to help us.”
“Nevertheless, I want nothing more to do with her or this ship,” the first mate said.
They carefully loaded Rolly onto the cot. He was having trouble staying conscious now. They started moving up to the top deck as quickly as they could. From below decks, Jane heard sounds of banging and shuffling. She thought she heard a voice, conducted through the piping. A deep, guttural voice uttering what sounded like a single word.
It was cold on the ship, but Jane was sweating. Her heart was pounding so fiercely, she was afraid it would burst and she too would have to be carried out of there. She kept swallowing. There was something trying to come out of her throat. Probably a scream.
They passed the pantry and kitchens. At the landing of each stairs, the crew halted to carefully carry Rolly up first. That was when the girl reappeared. She was close now, close enough for Jane to see her knee-length straight hair. It was dark and her eyes were dark. She beckoned to Jane. But she vanished if anyone else tried to look at her.
“I think she wants us to check the pantry,” Jane said.
“It’s been checked,” Dia said. “And we’re not stopping. Rolly is dead if we do.”
“We’ll all die if we don’t stop for just a moment. We found water, but not enough food. The pantry is right there. I can do a quick check. She’ll lead me, like she did with the cot. And I can catch up. I’m not injured.”
Jane was sure that the first mate would deny her request and push on, but Dia knew that Jane was right. Their team had found nothing useful. And the other team had only found a handful of snacks. Not enough to last twelve people for who knows how much longer they would be drifting.
Dia ordered the others to go on and not hesitate if they reached the dinghy before she and Jane returned. Professor Banks looked stricken, but said nothing. No one but Jane had seen the ghostly girl, but after the other strange things they had experienced, no one doubted her. If it wasn’t for the ship’s other inhabitant, Jane would have stayed and tried to talk to the girl. Jane thought the child must have been a passenger. She must have died on the ship. If the lore about ghosts was true, she must have had some unfinished business.
What kind of unfinished business can a child have? Jane wondered.
She and Dia entered the kitchen and continued into the pantry. The ghost appeared.
Dia stepped in front of Jane and held out the knife she kept by her side. By that gesture, Jane took it that the girl was no longer shy about showing herself to others or at least to one other. Now that they were following, she didn’t beckon either. She merely walked, leading them in further.
Dia whispered to Jane. “What if she’s leading us into a trap?”
Jane feared the same. The earlier helpfulness could have been a ruse. For all they knew, the creature that attacked the crew and the little girl were one and the same. But they were desperate and so they followed. The ghostly girl led them to a hidden cubby that the team had missed on the first search. The cubby felt cold inside, like a freezer, and it contained stacks of paper packages. Jane opened a package and saw that it was food. Frozen fish, meat, and vegetables. Jane and the first mate gather up the packages and filled the duffels they had brought. Jane glanced about for the girl, but the ghost had once again vanished.
Jane heard the sound of shuffling and she froze. The ghostly girl didn’t make any noise when she moved and appeared. The shuffling must have been someone or something else. The ghostly girl reappeared, her expression fearful as she held up her hands and gestured for them to stay down and stay where they were. Jane and the first mate hid in an empty cupboard. They heard something stalk into and through the pantry. Something that sounded big. And the big something was dragging an object across the floor. It made a heavy scraping sound. Then Jane heard voices, voices that sounded like echoes, coming from a chamber above. The monstrosity in the pantry made a grunting noise that seemed to have some intelligence to it. It moved away, dragging and scraping, and it climbed up.
That wasn’t exactly a good thing. They needed to go up as well. Jane hoped that their helper would reappear and guide them, but after several moments, their walkie crackled and then died again. The team was probably afraid of what must have happened to them. Dia told Jane they had no choice but to go up after the monstrosity and just hope that it had moved on to some other part of the ship and wasn’t waiting for them at the top of some stairs.
Dia ordered Jane to drop the duffel and run if she said to run. Jane nodded her understanding. They snuck up slowly and reluctantly toward the sounds of shuffling and scraping. The frozen packets became unbearably heavy. Jane’s back and legs burned. She needed to rest. The first mate saw this and shook her head. She asked Jane to give her the duffel, but Jane took a breath and started up the stairs behind the first mate. She glanced up and caught the startled expression on the first mate’s face, but before she could turn around, Dia grabbed her, hauled her up so she was now in the lead, and pushed her. Jane scrambled up the steps as fast as she could and dashed out onto the top deck. She expected to hear the sounds of something chasing them, but she didn’t hear a thing. Only her own heavy breathing.
They found one crewman waiting for them on deck. He had sent the first dinghy ahead already. They had to get Rolly back aboard so the doctor could work on stabilizing him. The crewman had stayed behind to help Dia and Jane. He’d shot up a flare to signal the captain to send the second dinghy. It was already on its way.
Jane watched the entryway from where they’d come. She wouldn’t turn her back on it, even as they sailed away in the dinghy.
“It’s here,” Dia said. “You go down first.”
Jane still stared at the entryway. “What did you see?”
“Later,” Dia said. “Get your duffel and get down into the dinghy. No more delays.”
As if to emphasize her words, Jane heard a crashing from below decks.
They made it off the derelict ship. All was silent. As they returned to the Midnight, the first mate had her hand to her mouth. She eyed the duffels with suspicion. They were so very hungry. They couldn’t afford to not eat whatever was in the packets. But Jane wondered if there was something horrible in those packages, and if that’s what the first mate saw. She thought about the stories of cannibalism in survival situations. She thought about what that creature might have been that had attacked and stalked them, and if there was some meat of a similar creature in the packets.
By the next morning, they had lost sight of the derelict ship. The captain had ordered the pilot to use whatever power he had and moved the Midnight as far away as possible, just in case whatever was on the derelict ship tried to make its way over. The crewman were needed for the operation of the ship, so the researchers volunteered to keep watch over the waters.
Jane was unharmed and unable to sleep, so she volunteered for the first watch. She swept her flashlight across the waters below. Near the end of the watch, the first mate approached.
Jane raised her eyebrows. Everyone had asked after Rolly, but the captain forbade anyone from seeing him, save the ship’s doctor and first mate. It was Dia’s job to let everyone know what was going on.
“He’s still unconscious. The doc says he can’t make any predictions but everyone knows Rolly needs a real hospital and a team. He needs surgery. But I was afraid he wouldn’t even make it through the night.” She smiled. “I have hope.”
“If he needs blood, I’m O-positive.”
Dia nodded. “Thank you. We’ll keep that in mind.”
“What about the food and water we found?”
“I’ve spoken to the captain, about making sure we test the food and water before anyone eats it. It’s safe, I think.” Dia hesitated. “For you and maybe the others. But not for me.
Jane frowned. “What do you mean?”
“What I saw just before we made our last dash up to the deck, it was the girl. The ghost or whatever she was. She appeared. She pointed to you and made the gesture of eating, you know…” She bunched up the fingers of her right hand and bounced the fingers against her lips. “Then she nodded. Then she pointed to me, made the same gesture, and shook her head. Then she kind of jerked her shoulders, as if a chill had gone up her spine, or something had startled her, and she threw out her hands like she was telling me to go.”
Jane wondered what that meant. It didn’t have to mean anything ominous. There were those in the world who could consume foods that others couldn’t. People had intolerances and allergies. It was normal. But how the ghost knew the food and drink was safe for Jane or unsafe for Dia did not make sense. Dia might have misinterpreted what she saw. In any case, they would have no choice but to eat and drink what they had found soon enough. Now that they were out of the sight of the derelict, Jane’s thoughts bounced between concern for Rolly, desire for a good meal, and curiosity about the derelict and its two inhabitants.
“Do you think she was the ship?” Jane asked. “Like, the spirit of the ship?”
Dia shook her head and shrugged. “Then what was that beast or monster? The ship’s dark side?”
“Before the attack,” Jane said, remembering the library, “the ship seemed eerie in some ways, but also wonderful. All that stuff we saw on our deck. Part of me wanted to stay aboard and explore and fix her up. But part of me felt this constant dread and wanted to run away.”
The first mate nodded. “I felt the same way. Like she was a good ship once. A grand ship, an important ship. Something happened on that ship. Something very wrong.”
They had left some locator beacons aboard the derelict. The first party had left them. It was meant to be a way to find the ship again, to do a proper salvage. But after the second party returned, the captain said the beacons should be used to warn people away.
“Maybe we should leave her be,” he had said. “Maybe she’s all that’s containing all the unearthly things aboard.”
But Jane knew that if the ship could be found again, if the beacons’ signals got through, someone would go and explore the ship.
No one ate the food or drank the water they had gathered from the derelict. Not yet. The captain told them they could if they wanted to. They still had scarce provisions left. And they had gathered fresh water from some rain and mist they’d encountered. Jane was curious. If what the first mate said was true, and if what the ghost said was true, then she was the one person on the crew whom they knew could safety consume the food and drink. But even she was cautious. She volunteered to eat and drink first. And she was followed by two other volunteer food-tasters. If they survived, the captain would take that to mean the food and drink were safe.
They didn’t have to find out. Even as they were cooking the food, a day after their encounter with the derelict, the ship long out of sight, the Midnight’s instruments began to stay on more reliably, until they all returned to normal. The night sky cleared and the stars shown in the expected positions.
That gave the Midnight’s crew and passengers hope enough, but when the ship’s communications began to buzz and beep, there was such tremendous relief that most of the crew and research team wept and laughed.
In less than a day, they were rescued. They had water and food. They were offered a tow and even though the Midnight was now fully operational, the captain wasn’t too proud to accept the offer.
The waiting friends and family at the harbor were almost as worn and weary as the crew and passengers of the Midnight. Jane’s family were among them. They had been through ordeals before. So their faces were a bit more stoic than most. And when she told them that she had a tale to tell them, they were as intrigued as they were relieved to have her back safe and sound.
Jane was tired and still weak from days without proper food, water, and sleep. And weary from the adventure on the derelict ship. Even still her curiosity had remained. She had a bottle full of water in her bag. It was the water from the derelict ship. When she was rested, she planned to drink it and see what would happen.
And when she was rested, she had to find that derelict ship again. She had to know its name. Its history. She had to solve its mystery. She had to find out what danger was aboard and protect herself and others from it. She had to find out if the ship had caused whatever unnatural condition the Midnight had gotten caught up in.
Above all, she had to repay her debt to the ghostly girl.
Jane had started her journey with the aim of deciding if the science of the sea would engage her. And while it did, another field called out to her with far more intensity. A field that would help her follow her newfound mission. The science of the strange.
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel