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Authors: Tim Curran

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Horror

Dead Sea

BOOK: Dead Sea
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Dedicated to the memory of William Hope Hodgson

PROLOGUE

DEVIL OF THE DEEP

 
1

T
HREE DAYS, THEN.

Three days adrift in that fetid cage of fog.

Fog that stank like a wind blown from the throat of a corpse.

Just Styles in the little dinghy, alone. Not a man anymore, not really, just something silent and waxen and waiting. Something small and existential, something crushed and discarded, flaking and decaying and dissolving. And, yes, something that was afraid to look into the fog and something that was afraid to listen, because if you listened there were sounds out there. Awful, terrible sounds that-

But Styles was not listening because he was alone and there was nothing in the fog and he had to remember that.

The reality of his shipwreck and exile into that stillborn sea was this: no food, no water, no hope of the same. Just that silent becalmed sea and the mist and his throat swollen and red from screaming, screaming for help and knowing there was none to be had.

Yes, Styles was alone like a man lost on Mars or one that had fallen shrieking into some ebon pit beyond the edges of the universe and he was frightened. Frightened of just about everything. Just him and his mother’s silver crucifix at his throat. The both of them, then, stretched out in the dinghy, listening for the sounds of sails or oars or a ship’s bell and never hearing them.

Never hearing anything but the fog.

Because if you had nothing to listen to but the papery rustle of your own heartbeat and the scratching of air in your lungs, then you would start listening to the fog like Styles was. And you would realize, soon enough, that the fog was not dead, not really, it was a living, dividing flux of organic material. And if you listened very closely you could hear the blood rushing in its veins and the hum of its nerve endings, a distant rushing sound like respiration. The sound of the fog breathing.

Yes, the fog and always the fog.

A sucking gray mist that stank of rotting seaweed and dead things on beaches, moving and shifting and enclosing. A mildewed, moist shroud that was equal parts corpse gas, teleplasm, and suspended slime. It was thick and coveting, claustrophobic and suffocating.

Styles’ first day in it he was amazed by its contours and density. The second day he hated its fullness, its completeness, the way tendrils of it drifted over the dinghy and sought him out. And the third day? The third day it simply scared him. Because he was hearing things in it. The sounds of pelagic nightmares that called it home. The things that were waiting for him to fall overboard, things with yellow eyes and tentacles and sawblade teeth, malignancies and monsters.

And he kept telling himself:
Don’t think about that, don’t think about any of that business because it’s all in your head … imagination, that’s all.

And that was sensible, but it didn’t hold water because he was alone and all he had for company was his mind and it liked playing tricks on him, nasty tricks. It told him that it honestly didn’t matter if he thought about those things, because they were thinking about
him.
That was insane, but then his mind turned dark and asked if he couldn’t feel them out there, those black and demented horrors in the fog, thinking about him and concentrating on him and he had to admit that, yes, God yes, he could. He really could. And he had been feeling something out there from the moment the ship went down and he scrambled shivering and mindless into the dinghy.

But what?

What could possibly be out there?

He didn’t know, but he knew that they were out there, unspeakable things melting and oozing into the mist, crawling, grinning abominations with hollow moons for eyes, contaminated things and diseased things with bone pits for minds. Things whose breath stank of graveyards and tombs, things with lamprey-mouths that sought to suck away his air and his blood and his mind. Things which reached out with hooked, fleshless fingers.

Shut your mind down, shut it right down or they will hear you thinking and if they hear you thinking they will find you.

Styles concentrated, reduced his thoughts to a pinprick of light, something weak and insubstantial. His mind pulled into itself and collapsed into the cellar of his psyche and he kept it there, hiding it away from what was in the fog, what was calling his name and whispering obscenities into his ears.

So when he saw the ship, he doubted its reality.

He blinked and demanded that it dissipate, but it refused. It edged in closer, a high brigantine made of mist and ether and ghostly-white ectoplasm. A shade, a shadow, a ghost ship. That was all. Yet … he could hear it, hear its deadness. The fore and aft sails hung limp at the mainmast. The high shrouds and rigging drooped and swayed, tendrils of fog climbing them like snakes. The foremast and jibs were creaking like timbers in a haunted house.

Still, Styles did not believe in it.

Even when the men called to him from the foredeck and put a boat down, he did not believe. Not until they rowed over to him and touched him with damp, chilled hands.

And then he screamed.

2

Styles did not remember much of his rescue.

Only that there were hands on him and voices speaking, but he couldn’t seem to hear them or understand them when he did. They sounded like a foreign language even though he knew they were not. But he was feverish and his teeth were chattering, his limbs leaden and rubbery and he could hear his voice saying things in a high, whining tone about people in the fog and voices in the fog, eyeless faces and cold, white fingers. The mate told him the name of the ship and the name of the captain, but Styles could make no sense of it.

Awake, then asleep. Awake, then asleep.

That was Styles’ life for several days. Sometimes he awoke to find his eyes wide open and staring at shadows in the corners of the cabin, the peculiar way certain angles met and mated, breeding right angles that turned back into themselves and did not exist. Other times he dreamed about things in the fog, immense things that were not man or beast, but grotesque cosmic wraiths like sentient monoliths and pestilent shadows that crawled from one world to the next.

In his moments of clarity, the captain’s wife would come and feed him hot beef broth with a wooden spoon. Sometimes she would sing to him and talk in low, muted tones of places far away and unreachable. Styles was certain that more than once he heard the reedy, melancholy tones of a harmonium from somewhere in the ship. The mate looked in on him at times, asking questions about where Styles had come from and the name of his ship and how they had come to be trapped in the fog. The mate liked to talk about the fog and Styles was certain that the fog frightened him, that maybe he, too, thought it was a living thing. Something vast and hungry.

One night, the mate came in with a lit candle in his hand. The light thrown by it flickered and jumped and that was because the mate’s hand was shaking so badly. He had a pistol and he put it under the blankets with Styles. “Be careful now, sir, yes be careful. There’s only ten of us now … the others are gone … gone into the fog … soon, soon I’ll be gone, too. The fog calls out my name, tells me to come to it, tells me how it will be when the end comes … how I’ll scream and scream …”

When Styles woke briefly the next day, he could hear a great activity above deck. The sound of hammering and sawing, footsteps rushing about and frantic voices shouting. Perhaps, perhaps the fog had blown clear and there was a wind. Styles hoped for this but did not believe it.

For in the dead of night, he heard screaming and a great, hollow booming sound. And a hissing, breathing sibilance blowing over the ship. He thought he heard a sound of buzzing, too.

But he was never sure what was real and what was imagination.

All things considered, that was for the best.

3

Styles woke and knew, but did not know.

He fell out of bed, sweating and shaking, his head filled with some crackling static. He was nauseated and weak, but still he made it up to deck and leaned there, against the bulkhead, staring out into that ashen mist.

The ship felt empty.

Abandoned.

Just some immense and empty coffin, creaking and groaning, the fog settling over it like a morbid growth of fungi, dripping off the yards and masts and bowsprit in ribbons.

Styles called out, but his voice echoed off into nothingness.

Alone again.

Alone on a derelict in this haunted sea.

His heart racing and his head spinning, he made it to the main cabin … saw immediately that the windows had been boarded-over as if the ship were under attack. But the door was not bolted. Inside, all looked to be in order … charts and tools, furniture and clothing. Styles stumbled from the mate’s cabin to the captain’s cabin and they both looked as if their owners had just stepped out for a pipe.

He made it back to the door and heard sounds coming from the fog … voices whispering and muttering and chanting. Yes, not coming from the ship, but off in the fog itself as if a boarding party was nearing. But those voices … they were not right. They were flat and hissing and artificial like recordings, scratching and repetitive.

Styles told himself they were not real.

He turned away from them, leaning there in the cabin doorway, knowing that whatever had taken off the crew of the ship was now coming for him. But he would not turn, not look, did not want to look whatever it was in the face. But it was coming, coming on now with a sound of rustling and footsteps and fingernails scraping wood.

Then he did turn, a scream venting itself from his lips.

There was nothing.

There was no one.

Yet, he could hear them whispering like spirits. Hear the sound of their bare feet slapping, the rustle of their clothing. And then out in the fog, there was a cold light. A glowing, thrumming luminosity like some malefic eye watching him through the mist.

Styles threw himself through the door, slammed it shut and bolted it, waiting, waiting, feeling it coming now with a heat and a cold electricity that was hot and acrid and stinking. Outside the door and boarded windows, Styles could see that the decks had gone phosphorescent, that some blinding and burning illumination had consumed the ship now. He heard a high, shrill whining sound and whatever was out there was crawling through him with fire and ice and acid, coming under the door and straight through the walls in a mist of flesh and intent and malevolence.

He screamed once.

Once as it fell over him, moved through him, sorting through his brain with hot needles and knives and gnawing at his thoughts with diamond teeth. He felt his mind boil and loosen, run out his eyes and ears in a cold, smoking sap as the flesh that housed it fell to ash and his bones rattled dryly in a smoking heap on the deck.

Then there was only silence.

Maybe Styles could not remember the name of the ship, but history would. For she would drift back out of the fog and men would remember her name.

The
Mary Celeste.

PART ONE

INTO THE MIST

1

A
LTHOUGH GEORGE RYAN HAD never been aboard ship before, never anything more radical than a rowboat in an inland lake, he knew there was something he didn’t like about the
Mara Corday.
Had he been a sailor, maybe he would’ve said she didn’t feel right. But he wasn’t a sailor. He’d never even been in the Navy or the Merchant Service. He’d spent three years in the Army, very landlocked, as an enlisted man in an engineer battalion. The closest he’d ever gotten to the ocean was a six-week stint at Edwards in California when they’d repaved runways. On the weekends, he and a few of the others would drive out to Ventura for a few days of sun, surf, and women. But that was it.

So this was his first time at sea.

And money or no goddamn money, he’d decided it would be his last.

They’d sailed at six in the morning, some twelve hours before, and at first, George had strutted about the decks like an experienced salt. It was nothing, he kept telling the green faces of his co-workers, all of whom had succumbed to seasickness almost immediately. None of them, save for Saks, had ever been out in deep water before. The rolling seas and the violent pitch of the ship hadn’t really affected George at that point. Sure, he had trouble walking the spar deck without pitching every which way (much to the amusement of the ship’s crew who all seemed to be studies in balance and control), but beyond that, everything was okay. All the worrying and fretting he’d done was for nothing.

He wasn’t going to get sick like the others. He was going to take it like Saks. He was a tough guy, too, he’d show ‘em all right.

Saks had told them all in Norfolk the night before they’d sailed that they were going to be miserable the first day out. “Well, you listen to me, girlies. The sea’ll turn you into babies. You pussies’ll be crying for your mommies when we lose land and you start puking your guts out.”

BOOK: Dead Sea
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