Hollowed Memories, chapter 8, part 6

April 12, 2015

The voyage was growing unpleasant.  Yarec endured the ribbing of the crew and his intensifying seasickness, which he did everything he could to conceal.  The worst of both came on the same day.  He spent the whole afternoon making repairs to the main cargo crane, while the deck was pitching left and right underneath hm.  He only managed to eat a few bites of supper, then headed back to his bunk.  But when he laid down, there was a huge, unpleasant-sounding squelch and rotten marine stench.  Yarec jumped up and pulled back the blanket.  Underneath lay the slimy corpse of a jellyfish, more than meter across..  It was missing most of its tentacles, and it must have already been dead when it was fished out of the water.  Outside the cabin door, Yarec heard drunken snickering.  He ignored it and cleaned up his bed as best he could, dumping the heap of invertebrate flesh back into the warm tropical waters.

They were only about two days short of Yarec’s destination when the ship’s power went out.  It started with a fire in the engine room.  Shortly after supper, the crew cabins were jolted by an alarm.  It made a high-pitched screaming hiss, before cutting out as abruptly as it began, as a conflagration spreading in the engine room disabled the electricity.   There was almost complete darkness below decks.  Yarec and the others caught the dirty scent of burning oil, and they scrambled down toward the bottom of the ship in search of the source.  The ship’s engineer led the way, with a flashlight he had pulled down off an emergency bracket.  The flashlight provided the only light they had.  The ship’s emergency batteries were moribund.

Descending the first flight of stairs from the galley, they could see the coiled shadows of the smoke.  They streamed upward like rivulets of oil.  Yarec could feel the heat too.  It was coming from the engine room, another level down, but the engineer stopped at the first landing.  The others, perched behind him on the narrow staircase, followed the flashlight beam down.  The lower reaches of the stairwell were submerged in smoke, churning out of the unseen doorway of the engine room.  With so little light, it was hard to be sure, but Yarec thought he could see the clouds swell significantly in just the few seconds he was watching.

Yarec slit a piece off the hem of his shirt.  He stretched the fabric across his face, covering his mouth and nose.  I wish I had some goggles to protect my eyes.  The engineer, Rolandson, had put on his own improvised mask, and the rest of the men tried to follow suit.  Someone in the back had found another flashlight, brighter.  Under the two smokey beams, the group proceeded cautiously downward.  Yarec kept one hand close to his face, sheltering his eyes from the smoke much as he might have sheltered them from the sun.  He reached the lower landing and squinted toward the source of the billows.  Strangely, standing there in the midst of the smoke as it curled forth from the arched doorway of the engine room, the blackness seemed less absolute.  Yarec could see flickers of fire through the half-open door, outlining the blocky shapes of the generator cabinets.

Rolandson hesitated, then plunged through the doorway into the heart of the black cloud.  Up to that moment, there had been a terrified hush over the crew.  A few whispered instructions had been all the group needed as they headed down to investigate.  Now the engineer started hollering orders, and there was a din of boots against the metal decking.  Yarec found himself shunted to the back of the group.  More trusted crewmen piled after Rolandson into the cramped confines of the engine room.  However, the men remaining outside were still left with plenty to do.  Captain Andersen, emerged from his cabin where he had been dozing, appeared above them at the top of the stairs, shouting orders of his own.  The captain handed out more flashlights, and the crew rushed off on various secondary errands.

Yarec was assigned to check the freshwater system.  The pump controls were located in a narrow closet below the galley.  Yarec flashed his small light over the gauges.  The indicator lights were dead, but the analog pressure gauge was still pointing to its usual healthy value.  Yarec looked lower.  The temperature reading looked fine.  The water from the taps in the galley was always warmer than it should have been, but it quenched the thirst of hot, tired seamen.  Below the instruments was an exposed segment of glass-walled pipe, so the freshwater running through the system could be inspected visually.  It looked as clear as ever, although it would have been hard to spot a subtle discoloration in the limited light.

Yarec watched the tube carefully, but there was nothing to see.  The water inside was still and invisible.  He could smell more smoke coming up from the engines, and he heard footsteps echoing along the decks.  Down below, somebody was coughing orders, the words interspersed between whooshes of fire extinguisher foam.  Elsewhere on the ship, there was a sense of panic, but by the pump controls nothing was moving.  Yarec was about to go find Captain Andersen again, to be assigned another probably equally pointless task.  He reached for the handle of the closet door, fumbling in the darkness.

As his light danced carelessly over the instruments, Yarec thought he saw something move.  It was a pale streak, like a thing line of bubbles running along the glass inspection tube.  Yarec focused his light on the tube again, but the movement did not repeat itself.  Cautiously, he scanned up and down the instrument panel, looking for anything else he might have missed.  When he reached the pressure gauge at the top of the array, he stopped.  The thin red needle had crept a few notches downward.

It might mean nothing.  The system had lost a small amount of pressure, but that kind of behavior was no surprise when the pumps were not operating.  It was just something he ought to report, so they knew to have somebody else check again later—once the ship’s primary problem had been addressed.

The closet door closed with an awkward clang.  Yarec turned, and his flashlight beam felt out the route back to the galley.  If he had been aboard a few weeks longer, Yarec probably could have made the trip in complete darkness.  Just an occasional touch with his hand, identifying corners and joiner doors, would have guided around any obstacles between where he was and where he needed to go.  He already knew there were two left turns, then fourteen steps up to the hall outside the galley.  However, he had not quite mastered the distances.  It was surprising, actually, that he was taking so long to memorize the floorplan below decks.  He would have expected to have the whole thing mapped out perfectly in his head after only a couple of days.  This time, it seemed to be requiring an unusual amount of rote practice to learn all the areas.  Perhaps the fits of seasickness were distracting him.

The galley was lit up with an old-fashioned methane-burning lantern.  The gas knob was turned down low, to conserve the fuel, and the lantern’s white light left long shadows lurking behind the chairs and table.  When Yarec got back, some of the other crewmen were just sitting down, waiting.  The fire was almost out, but until the crew had a fuller assessment of the damage, there was no point wasting effort on busywork.  Yarec grabbed a chair beside the dishwasher and joined the others in silence.

Rolandson and his assistants got the flames extinguished, but the engine room was a smokey, wet mess.  Captain Andersen ambled back up the the galley and heard all the crew’s reports.  Yarec told the captain about the activity in the water line and the falling pressure, and Andersen showed immediate concern.  He called the assistant engineer up to have a look, and the man reported back quickly, confirming what Yarec had seen.

In fact, the situation had grown significantly worse.  The pressure gauge was still falling.  There must have been a leak somewhere, but there was no way they were going to find it with the power out.  The captain and senior crew conferred briefly and then returned to the bottom deck, hoping to get the power back on before anything else went wrong.

Then it was only a short while before the potable water gave out.  The crew had scrounged up enough battery-powered lighting to make getting around below deck straightforward, but they were hot and thirsty.  To drink they had only a couple jugs of stale water—the last drips collected from the tap—alongside several casks of ethanol.  The sailors, parched and becalmed, emptied the hydro quickly—far too quickly—then started with the alcohol.

The crewmen were not joyous drunks.  They grew surly and spiteful.  Yarec sensed bloodshot eyes trained on him as he got up and paced the galley.  He was the outsider, new on this voyage.  He had been responsible for checking the water system.  At first, some of the men averted their gazes when Yarec reached the end of the linoleum and turned around to face them.  However, as the long minutes passed, there was no let-up in the disorderly banging coming from the engine room below.  The crewmen left stranded in the galley seemed to twitch with the noises, and their leering eyes darkened.

One of the regular crewmen started playing with his knife.  With an ominously casual left-handed flip, he bounced the blade open; the small spring that was supposed to hold it closed in the owner’s pocket had been worn out of shape, broken, or removed.  The galley mate ran his fat calloused thumb along the knife’s undulating edge, then flicked the weapon closed again.

Open.  Closed.  Open.  The blade, lovingly polished to a mirror-like sheen, moved back and forth.  Yarec continued his pacing, and his plodding footsteps seemed to match the light snick of the cook’s knife.

“Gonna get some air,” Yarec said and headed out into the hall.  As soon as he passed around a corner, he heard someone else’s footsteps back in the galley.  Yarec heard three quick steps; then they were drowned out by another barrage of activity from the engine room.

Damn.  Yarec never panicked, but if he ever felt that a situation had turned against him, he would try to get out quick.  The crew did not like him.  They blamed him.  Meanwhile, darkness, booze, and thirst were making them stupid.  The ocean was warm, and the coastline had been in sight at nightfall, before the engines had died.  Time to go.

He darted to the door of his cabin.  His essential gear was waiting at his berth, in a waterproof micro-woven zipper bag he had bought before the ship put out to sea.  Yarec whipped it up onto his back, then loped back to the stairs.  He ascended to the deck.  The lights from the bridge were dead, and only a scrawny bit of moon, crisscrossed as it was by wispy bands of cloud, illuminated the scene.

Below deck, he had become acclimated to the ship’s constant pitching, which was more intense now that they were adrift.  But standing on deck, exposed to the sky, the rocking was too obvious to ignore.  The cranes and communications masts looked this ghostly swaying trees, silhouetted against the dim clouds.  Yarec looked down over the taffrail.  The water was just chaotic darkness.  He could smell the salt and hear the loud sloshing of the waves against the hull, but his leap from the rail was still a leap into the unknown.

He hit the water, and for a moment it felt cold.  His skin was sensitive, but it quickly adapted.  The tropical air had been replaced by tropical water.  He was not going to get hypothermia swimming here.  He just had to find his way to land, in the dark.

Yarec had taken a compass reading and noted the position of the moon before he jumped.  That was all he had to navigate with; it would have to be enough.  What Yarec could see of the horizon, as he treaded water a hundred meters from the hull of the Threepenny Queen, looked equally black in all directions.  He picked out the direction that ought to be east and started paddling, with all the tastes of the tropical sea splashing against his face.

It seemed like the last time he had had a really arduous swim was escaping from the biological weapons refinery in Sankirk.  The water was warmer here, and even muscle fibers that had to stretch unnaturally around pieces of armored endoskeleton were not in danger of cramping up.  However, the ocean was still choppy, and he seemed to get a mouthful of dirty water every time he came up for a breath.  It tasted like salt, vinegar, and raw shrimp.  Yarec started keeping count of how many times he had breathed, as a way of judging how far he had made it, but he lost count somewhere in the low thousands.

He was too tired to keep track of his progress.  He was no longer even sure that he was headed in the right direction.  It was difficult to maintain a fixed heading with no way to make corrections if his orientation began to drift.  The only things that ever passed close enough to be seen were more jellyfish, but they did not sting him.  As if sensing that Yarec was too large and tough to be a suitable prey, the just let him sweep past.  Yarec wondered, as if he were lost in a fantastical dream, whether the cloning practitioners could have made him immune to the jellies’ venom.  Then he choked on another sickening mouthful of water and tried to paddle faster.

Over time, his stroke, which had begun as a proper crawl, was deteriorating in the direction of a dog paddle.  Whenever he noticed the decay, he tried to correct it, but he was just getting too tired.  Then his clawing fingers scraped against a sandy bed.  He paddled harder.  Then he dug his knuckles into the sandbar and pulled himself forward.  The high waves were cresting and breaking around him, and he realized that everything smelled different.  There were wood and other smells in the air.

Yarec lurched up the bank and collapsed on his side.  The waves were still splashing over his legs, but his head was free, and he could breathe uninterrupted.  Training reminded him to look around, gauge whether his location was safe.  Now that he was out of the water, he had the time to see everything around him.  In the minimal gray light, Yarec could see the damp sand by the waterline and dry dunes farther inland.  Scrubby bushes, with long green leaves and a few withered old flowers grew in clumps.  After Yarec had lain there, panting and exposed, for several minutes, he pulled himself up and crawled under the nearest bush.  As soon as he was reasonably confident that his shoes were curled up out of sight, he let his eyes fall closed, and he was asleep.

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