MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
A punch of fast air shattered white vapor as the creature broke through the clouds during its descent, then flew at mid-altitude over the last fifty kilometers of ocean. There was no headwind to fight, and the moon reflected brightly across the always-moving details of the water below, allowing for perfect targeting.
Curving its wings, it picked up speed and dipped toward a freighter steaming for the horizon.
* * *
The writing was a child’s, some letters scrawled together in an attempt at script, and the rest printed large and bold, including the date: April 20, 1870, with the “p” backward.
Horst couldn’t help his smile, reading it through for the fifth time, eyes settling proudly on the words that were spelled correctly, and forgiving ones that weren’t.
“Wievielen Malen können Sie das lesen?”
Krieg coughed his question as he reached for the coffeepot on the squat iron stove, then continued in English as guttural as his German: “All the day, you read that thing. You’re not the only grandpa of the world.”
“Her first letter not to St. Nicholas, and she’s trying in English.”
Krieg snorted. “Eine zeitverschwendung,” he said, pouring the last of the belly-wash coffee into a misshapen mug, his name painted on its side.
Horst said, “Your grandson made that thing. I’ve never seen you without it.”
“Yah.” Krieg drank, the wash dribbling as usual. “Because it’s of use.”
He wrung his coffee-soaked beard, then dropped a silver alarm whistle dangling from a chain and a Colt single-action pistol onto the small wooden table next to the stove. He settled on a crew bench, rolls from his hips swallowing most of it.
The bench groaned, but not loud enough to cover the hollow sound of the ocean slapping against the ship’s iron hull. The wave-echo was a constant, but years as sea dogs made Krieg and Horst deaf to it.
A mess boy put out a fresh pot without a word, as Horst slipped his granddaughter’s letter in one pocket, the pistol in the other, and hung the whistle around his neck. Krieg mumbled his standard warning about ducking below the crossbeam before starting up the stairs to the upper deck.
Horst always ducked.
The Broomhilde was the newest ship Horst ever crewed, and for him, taking the deck-watch meant time for admiration, particularly if she was under full steam, like tonight.
He’d gotten the habit of walking stern to bow as an apprentice seaman, stepping beyond the rail’s end to that last bit of rigging; looking down at the waterline, seeing the cutting of the ocean, feeling the vessel’s to and fro.
His hands traced the wood- and steelwork, memorizing every join, instinctively knowing when they were sure. It was Horst’s connection with the ship that allowed him to sense when she was about to pitch; his nerves, stinging needles before an actual crisis.
Moving toward the stern, checking the worthiness of the lifeboat ties, Horst couldn’t improve on Broomhilde. She was exactly as she should be at ten bells, with anchor chains coiled, cargo holds bolted.
He relit his clay pipe, listening to the gear-works heartbeat of the Day, Summers and Company engines. He knew he’d miss that pulse when he packed off. He checked his pocket again for the letter’s comfort, continued to the opposite rail, then stopped, cocking his head.
There was something. Somewhere, in the dark. He listened, nerves taking over. Feeling the sting.
And then—the grinding.
The sound was low and mechanical. That groan of metal-on-metal, twisting before shearing, and rising, louder. Horst looked to the stacks. Their steam billowed, with no ruptures. No breach.
The groan became a steel scream.
He grabbed the brass amplifier crew call, blowing the whistle for the engine room. The scream around him intensified, beating the air, slicing his eardrums with a hot, invisible blade. He clamped his hands over his ears, squinting tight, trying to block something out. Anything.
The noise overwhelmed.
He threw open the hatch to the belowdecks, yelling to Krieg, “Notfall! Alle Mann an Deck!”
Horst made it to the rails, pistol drawn. Crewmen charged the stairs, rushing the deck, pulling on boots and pants, shouting orders that couldn’t be heard over the sound.
Rifles were pulled from the weapons stores, ammunition slammed home. Others grabbed fire axes and sand buckets.
Horst pointed crew to either side of the ship as they brought guns to shoulders, taking aim at a calm sea.
Barrels raked the water’s surface for a target. For anything. The sound, still louder.
Krieg and the Captain were last up the stairs, grabbing Horst by the lapels: it was his deck-watch. What the hell was happening? The metallic noise, the grinding fire, reached its crescendo. Krieg’s glasses shattered.
The Captain’s blood sprayed Horst like a burst of ocean foam as he was yanked high off his feet, a spiny prong jutting through his chest from the back.
The Captain was hurled a hundred feet through the air before rag-dolling, heels twisted against his neck, into the black water. And gone.
Crewmen backed off the rails, some falling to their knees. Horst swore and prayed with the same breath as the huge, manta ray–like creature roared past the ship, its dragon-split tail slashing wild, and gigantic wings blocking out the sky.
Then it circled back.
The men could feel speed and heat. More legs buckled, with just enough time to open fire.
The ray dove for the ship, fins guiding it on a blasting-hot stream of air, skin glistening as if polished steel, with brackish liquid pouring from open wounds around its throat and gill bars.
Its eyes were glowing mazes of color: red colliding with green in the orb, breaking into blinding white that lit up the deck.
Rifles flamed, bullet after bullet sparking off the ray’s underbelly, then ricocheting back to the crew. Slugs lead-punched through chests, dropping the men as if they’d been Gatling-gunned.
They crawled blindly, bloodied and rolling, screaming their last. Others kept shooting, the whip-tail tearing the smokestacks behind them, steel folding in on itself.
Horst dove out of the way as the stacks crashed to the deck, jagged edges chopping through planking to the holds below. Bursts of steam exploded out of the engine room, blowing plates off the hull, filling the air with spinning, hot metal the crew couldn’t escape.
Fire and razors.
Krieg pulled himself to Horst with his arms, his legs gone, begging for something Horst couldn’t hear, but understood. Horst pressed the barrel of the pistol against his mate’s forehead. The sound of the ray turned the shot into a silent flash.
Men ran, pushing past each other for the lifeboats, tumbling into the water. Panic. The fins of the thing smashed through the masts, catapulting them over the side, log-crushing sailors frantically swimming away.
Horst stood defiant at the splintered railing, the ray diving directly out of the moon. He steadied his gun with both hands, focusing on an eye that kaleidoscoped white, orange, red.
The bullet pierced the glowing eye, liquid erupted, with the ray’s head thrashing as if fighting a harpoon.
It collided with what was left of the ship, ripping down the middle, the tail hurling massive hunks of steel, sections of engine, sails, and the bodies of men into the ocean, all drowning together.
The Broomhilde heaved over, an explosion tearing the boiler room, gutting what was left of her. The blast was volcanic from the center cargo hold, black powder and fuel mixing, sending a plume of flame and smoke across the night.
Shockwaves followed, force bending the air, and murdering all sound for hundreds of miles. Finally, there were no more cries for help, or gunfire. Nothing, as the stern’s edge was the last of the ship to be lost.
The ray circled wide, away from the wreckage, but close to the water, then climbed, wounded, toward the moon, before vanishing behind rolling clouds and smoke.
Death had taken less than two minutes. Left was debris, bodies floating, wide streaks of bloody oil on the water’s surface, and a child’s letter, carried across a rolling wake.
Copyright © 2017 by C. Courtney Joyner