Ship of the Damned

James F. David

Forge Books

BREAKOUT
 
 
Six months earlier
Bemidji, Minnesota, February 3, 1:12 a.m.
 
Half frozen and shoes soaked through, Bobby Wilson climbed over a snowbank to a sidewalk someone had shoveled clean. Wearing white bell-bottoms, no hat or gloves, and a stolen coat too small to zip, he was under-dressed for the subfreezing conditions and hugged himself, shivering violently. Bobby muttered as he walked, cussing himself for not finding someone to escape with.
“What were you thinking, Bobby boy?” he said out loud. “You should have waited for someone.”
He could have gone searching for shipmates to escape with, but doors to the outside world were rare and had a way of disappearing just as suddenly as they appeared. When he stumbled across a way to get home he took the chance.
“Okay, so you had to risk it, Bobby boy, but at least you should have thought about weather,” he told himself.
There wasn’t any weather where Bobby had come from; no seasons, not even night and day. It had been so long since he had felt hot or cold, he’d forgotten how miserable weather could make you. Rubbing his arms vigorously, he walked faster, his joints stiff from his long trek through the frozen night. His legs responded sluggishly, his feet and toes numb. Snow started to fall again, the flakes catching on his eyelashes, melting and blurring his vision.
Coming to a skating rink, he paused. The windows were dark, the doors locked. He peered over the fence at the outside rink, remembering his childhood.
“You were a pretty good skater in your day, Bobby boy,” he muttered. Bobby being just twenty years old, his “day” was only a few years ago, right before he joined the Navy to fight the Nazis and the Japs. He’d played a lot of sports then, baseball having been his favorite. The baseball thought set off a chain reaction of memories: playing stickball in the street; hitting a game-winning double in high school; and watching the Brooklyn Dodgers with his father, holding a Red Hot in one hand and an orange Nehi in the other.
Bobby looked up, trying to see through the swirling snowflakes to the gray clouds that delivered them. He had seen the clouds when he first emerged, and it had been intoxicating, transfixing him to that spot in the woods. It had been so long since he’d seen clouds or sky, or anything celestial. Like a blind man given his sight through surgery, Bobby had seen the clouds above him again as if for the first time.
Bobby shivered violently, his teeth chattering. He was freezing to death and needed to warm himself, but it was risky. If anyone saw what he could do, they might call the police, or the others the Professor had warned them about. The houses bordering the skating rink were dark, except for an occasional porch light. He decided to risk it. Closing his eyes, he held his hands out, palms facing each other, and thought about a campfire—a big one like at boy scout camp when he was ten. The air between Bobby’s hands warmed as he concentrated on the image of that great log fire. There were memories of singing, too—silly camp songs—but he ignored those, focussing his mind on the fire, feeling the heat on his face just as he had that night so many years ago. Opening his eyes he saw there was a ball of light between his hands, radiating warm air. Now spreading his hands wide he watched the ball expand, enveloping him in the warm glow. The snow on his head melted into cold water that ran down onto his face and into his collar, triggering more shivering. A few seconds later the shaking subsided and he felt better. After three more warmings, Bobby felt something new—he was hungry. He hadn’t felt hunger in years, and now thought of the hot dog again.
“Lots of mustard,” he said. “So much mustard you can hardly see the dog. That’s the way Bobby boy likes them.”
The warming temporarily chased the cold away, but it also melted the snow into his clothes, and soon the cold seeped into his body again. He had to keep moving. There were lights in the distance, probably from a business district, and he trudged on, keeping on the sidewalks, thanking the home owners who had shoveled their paths clear, cursing those who hadn’t.
“Thank you, Mr. Jones,” he said to the sleeping owner of a yellow house. “Thank you, Mrs. Harris,” he said to the imagined resident of the house next door. Then, climbing through the thick snow in front of the next home, he said, “Too cheap to give the kid next door six bits to shovel your walk, Mr. Smith?”
There was a car in “Mr. Smith’s” driveway and Bobby stopped again, staring. Cars were so different here—now—and he had trouble passing them without gawking like a tourist. This one was as sleek as a torpedo, with a long sloping windshield and more glass than three of his Studebakers put together. So smooth was the exterior, it was hard to tell where the steel stopped and the glass began. Brushing the snow from the side he read “Taurus” written in chrome and thought it a funny name for such a spectacular machine. Bobby had heard that cars had changed, and he knew there were other marvels too—airplanes without propellers which carried hundreds of people, rockets that could fly to the moon, and machines that could do math as fast as lighting. He wanted to see all that too, but mostly he wanted to drive one of these cars. Mr. Smith’s Taurus was built like a race car; he just knew it had to fly down the open highway. He shivered again, the chill seeping deeper. Reluctantly he moved on.
Three more blocks of talking to himself and he came to a school. It would have a phone, he knew, but he would have to break in to get to it and that could bring the police, or the others. He walked on to the bright glow of city center, but there were no phone booths and that puzzled him. In the cities that he knew there were phone booths on every other corner. A car passed and he resisted gawking, turning to the wall instead, hiding his face. Another block, and another car crossed behind him. He walked faster now, worried they would find him. He didn’t know who to trust in this world anymore, not after what had been done to him and the others.
“No, Bobby boy, you don’t trust no one you ain’t related to,” he said.
Another block, and he saw a big building labeled “Kroger.” He turned toward it, searching the parking lot—no phone booth. He went to the glass front of the great building, walking its length, looking inside. It was a grocery store; he was amazed at the vast stock. When he reached the entrance at one end he found a phone mounted on the outside of the building. There was no booth and he wondered briefly about the lack of privacy. He picked up the receiver, then stopped—there was no dial, just squares with letters and numbers. There was a slot in the bottom of the phone and instructions telling him to put a card in the slot. He was confused by the instructions, but comforted by the familiar coin slot at the top. Then he saw that a call cost twenty-five cents.
“Two-bits? I want to make a call, not buy the company.”
He fished a quarter out of his pocket with a frozen hand. Studying the squares, he pushed the one marked “o” “oper.” Car lights crawled across the wall toward him just as he heard an operator’s voice on the line.
“I want to call Chicago, Illinois. Person-to-person to Mrs. Lucy Wilson,” Bobby said.
A black car came slowly along the front of the Kroger. Dropping the receiver, he backed to the edge of the building and into a snow pile shoveled from the store entrance. The car stopped and two men got out, wearing beige overcoats and stocking caps but no gloves. When they saw the dangling receiver their hands were in their coats and out with guns in the blink of an eye. Bobby shrank back, indecisive: fight or run? He peeked again; they were walking toward his hiding place, the car following. The Kroger had a small roof overhang that created a trough in the thick snow along the wall of the building. He ran through the trough, feet crunching the frozen snow. Suddenly, a bullet whined off the wall, passing just over his right shoulder. He jumped left but the snow was deep and he fell face first. Another bullet passed over his head, smacking into something in the distance. He looked ahead—the car was there now, disgorging two men, flashlights probing the darkness. Rolling over, he turned on the two men behind him, pictured the scout camp fire in his mind and focussed his special ability on the lead man. The man’s overcoat burst into flame.
Panicking, the burning man ran, fanning the flames with every step. The second man dove sideways, firing blindly. One bullet smashed a window in the black car; the men near the car took cover behind it. Cursing, one ordered the others to hold their fire. Focussing inward, Bobby let the power flow, heat currents swirling around him, melting the snow and then turning it to steam. The snow hissed as it changed from solid to gas. Pushing outward, he sent fog in all directions. Running toward the street, he tumbled over the snow cleared from the sidewalk then threw himself over the mound on the other side into the street. The fog he’d created was dissipating, and he could see the car again, the men emerging from behind it, searching for him with their flashlights. He lay in the street, shivering with fear and cold, concentrating—thinking of his childhood and the coal—fired furnace in the basement of his home.
“Stoke up that fire, Bobby boy,” he said softly.
The fire in his mind roared to life, flames hungrily consuming the coal. In his mind he opened the grate exposing the red-hot core. Using that image, he stood and sent a fireball streaking toward the car. A side window imploded, the interior of the car bursting into flame, the men near it fleeing for their lives. As the fireball lit up the block, they spotted him and sent bullets whining past his head. He ducked too late; a slug buried itself in his shoulder. Left arm useless now, legs nearly frozen, he struggled to his feet, pushing in all directions with his mind, snow vaporizing all around him.
Under cover of the steam, Bobby stumbled across the street to one of the houses and climbed the steps to a screened porch. The storm door was unlocked and he crawled in. There was a porch swing and two chairs, but nothing else. His shoulder was soaked in blood now, and he was weakening. Voices sounded outside. Risking a peek, he pulled himself just high enough to see through the screen. They were in the street searching with flashlights. He looked both ways and saw there were lights in other houses now. Down the block a door opened and a man in a bathrobe came out looking at the burning car.
Bobby looked again at the front door behind him. There were no lights—the house might be empty. He crawled to the door and twisted the handle, pushing. It was locked. Then he heard the thumping of feet and a dog at the other side, barking. Turning, he smashed the far end of the porch with a fireball, then ran hunched over as bullets ripped through the screens, perforating the front wall of the house and shattering the picture window. Diving through the still burning hole, he landed in the snow, slipping twice as he tried to stand. Then he ran between the houses toward the backyard. There was a separate garage in the back of the house and he ran for it.
When he was nearly to the garage, bullets ripped through Bobby’s legs, severing muscle and tendon. He went down hard; his face was buried in the snow, his legs were useless. He rolled, striking out wildly with his power until someone screamed. More bullets whizzed past and then his guts were on fire—he was shot again. Fire, he thought, and struck out; the garage wall burst into flame. Then a bullet pierced his neck, tearing through his carotid artery. He was bleeding profusely, turning the snow pink, then a vivid red. Bobby clutched at his neck, trying in vain to stem the blood flow.
“It’s not fair,” he said, his voice liquid from blood seeping into his voice box. “I didn’t do nothing.”
Men were approaching, guns drawn. He reached into his mind for his power, but it was gone and his vision was going as well. He could barely distinguish the men who had killed him. He lay on his back, perfectly still, eyes open, knowing they were holding their fire because they thought he was already dead. Playing possum he stared into the darkness, snow swirling down to his face. He wanted to see the clouds one more time, but could see only a few feet away. Instead, he thought of the car in Mr. Smith’s driveway and pictured himself behind the wheel, driving flat out on the highway. Movement next to him brought him back.
“I never got to drive a car,” Bobby said suddenly, startling the men around him.
Then a bullet pierced his skull, exploding out the other side. Bobby Wilson’s last thought was of the sleek car with the strange name, “Taurus.”
An hour later, a black van pulled up at the Kroger. A man in an overcoat got out and pried open the change box of the phone, spilling out the contents. By flashlight he pushed the coins around until he found the only one without a copper center. Holding the coin close to the beam of light he read the date: 1940. Turning off the flashlight, he dropped the coin into his pocket and climbed back into the van.
 
Copyright © 2000 by James F. David