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The void churned and swelled, reaching up to pull them down into frigid darkness, clamoring to embrace them, every one. A cold womb inviting them to return to the lightless source of all life, and die, each man alone in its black silence.
The sea battered the ship, waves crashing against the hull as the ship’s master tried to quarter—turning the vessel into the waves to lessen their impact. While he struggled at the helm, the crew scrambled to get into their gear. The men grabbed sledgehammers and baseball bats, rushing to the aid of their fellow deckhands like a medieval army mustering to stand against the cavalry that would break them, line and bone. Noah wrestled with his waterproof gear, trying to pull on his pants and jacket, jamming hands into clumsy gloves that would combat frostbite for only so long. The ship pitched and Noah lurched in the passageway, trying not to lose his footing, trying not to be thrown to the deck before he was even out in the storm. He shoved his foot into a boot, staggering away from his locker as gravity and momentum conspired to bash his skull against the bulkhead. He careened into the wall, feeling a pop and a blossom of pain in his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and shoved himself away; he had to get on the cargo deck with the others. He couldn’t be defeated before he even got outside.
A pair of deckhands pushed past him, pulling him off balance, slowing his forward momentum. “Out of the way, Cabot!” one shouted. Although the second man had a clear path behind his mate, he shoved at Noah also, cursing him for his idleness. Noah fell in behind the men and ran for the door. He ran to make his stand against the storm.
On the cargo deck, he couldn’t tell the difference between the sea horizon and the night sky. Driving wind and rain competed with swells that crashed on the deck. The only break in the blackness was the foam on top of the water and ice building up on the ship, illuminated by the spotlights above him on the forecastle. Water erupted over the sides of the vessel, freezing a new layer to the coat of ice building up as fast as the men could bash away at it. Normally, it would be too dangerous to send men out in weather like this, but the ship was beginning to list, and if more ice built up, it could become top-heavy and roll over. Then, instead of the possibility of some men dying in the storm, they would all die in the sea.
He whipped his head from side to side, taking in what the other deckhands were doing, trying to find a place to lend a hand. An angry voice commanded him to get moving. The bosun, Serge Boucher, loomed over him, his words ripped away by the wind and crashing waves.
“What?” cried Noah.
Serge shoved an orange sledgehammer in his hands, leaned forward, and screamed, “Get aft! Break the ice off the windward side!” He grabbed Noah with a hand the size of a polar bear paw and shoved him away from the bulkhead out onto the free cargo deck. Noah slid and scrambled over the icy surface, struggling to avoid slamming into cargo boxes and shipping crates. The Arctic Promise was headed in a bearing for the northeast Chukchi Sea, carrying supplies for the OrbitOil drilling platform Niflheim. The voyage would have been hard under normal circumstances without a hurricane-force storm threatening to capsize their ship.
Noah regained his footing and struggled between containers as he headed for the catwalk along the high gunwale above the deck. He climbed onto the narrow walkway while a wave crashed against the ship, blinding him, choking him, and almost throwing him back over the rail to the cargo deck below. Maybe he wouldn’t drown, but would die of a broken neck instead. He swung his hammer. The impact shuddered up his arms, almost making him drop the tool overboard. He held on, and steeling himself, took another swing. And another. And again until the ice began to shatter and fall away, back into the sea.
Another wave crested the ship and he was blind and battered. It pushed and pulled at him. He hung on to the rail as tightly as he could until the wave was gone, and he swung his hammer in defiance of it. As if he could drive the storm away with the force of his rage. He wouldn’t allow it to take him. Not while he stood, hammer in hand, ready to fight.
Behind him, a cry rose above the gale. A collective panic sounded that made him more fearful than any choking blast of ice water had already done. He turned to look in time to see the steel cable holding crate six snap and unwind. It whipped wildly, slicing above two of his mates, Henry and Theo, barely sparing them their heads. It lashed back and sparked against the rail to his left. He held up his hands to shield himself from its assault. A wave struck him, pushing him forward into the rail and then snatching his feet out from under him. He fell, head banging on the grate. The only stars in the night were the ones behind his eyes. He felt a hot stinging in his cheek before it went cold and numb again. In his muted ears, he could hear Serge bellowing above the storm. “Secure that shit now!”
Noah’s eyes stung and his wet eyelashes stuck together with ice. He peeled them open with soaked, gloved fingers and got to his feet. He couldn’t help the men below. He could only watch as the crewmen struggled to defend their lives against both the storm and the cargo they’d been charged to deliver. But then, he couldn’t watch; he had his own job to do. Break the ice off the windward side. He’d been banished to the very edge of their floating world and he knew that if he was lost over it, the crew would not mourn him. When the sea calmed and they reached the Niflheim, the ship’s master would write reports and inform the company of another soul lost at sea, before finally finding a good night’s sleep. Insurance claims would be made and liability waivers and releases filed before the payout. Noah’s death would result in money moving from one pocket to another, and hopefully some finding its way to his daughter. He was worth more dead than alive to most people he knew, but not to her.
He swung his hammer, bashing at the inevitability of water and ice. He struck until the metal rail was clear and moved up the line, lashing out at the storm, his arms burning with fatigue. Behind him rose up a screech and a howl. He hazarded a glance over his shoulder to see the massive loosened shipping container slide toward a deckhand—yellow rain slicker dull and distant in the maelstrom until it was gone behind the gray behemoth. More hands. They couldn’t secure the freight and it wouldn’t matter how much ice he defeated if the other men on the deck were crushed. They needed more hands.
He ran for the ladder at the end of the catwalk and climbed down. Rounding the secured cargo, he found the men working to resecure the loose container, straining against winch and chain, wind and rain. Ahead of him, Felix lay on his back, his face red with blood that alternately flowed and washed away. Two men with their hoods up struggled to pull him away from the container. Noah ran to lend a hand.
“What the fuck are you doing off the catwalk?” Serge shouted.
“I don’t give a shit what you think!” Serge grabbed Felix’s wrist and pulled the man’s arm over his shoulders, physically ejecting the other crewman trying to help the deckhand up. He lifted the wounded sailor, spinning him around and away from the others coming to his aid. Felix grimaced with pain, but didn’t complain. “Cabot! Here, now!” Serge said.
Noah slipped under Felix’s free arm and wrapped an arm around his waist. Serge dropped Felix’s other arm and snatched Noah’s hammer from his hand. The deckboss towered over him, looking like a furious thunder god, ready to strike him down. Instead of crushing him, he shoved the sledge at another deckhand. The man ran to assault the ice buildup on the port side gunwales without being told. Serge nodded and turned a withering look back to Noah, silently expressing his expectations of how a deckhand should step. As Noah’s grandfather used to say, If I tell you to jump, you ask “how high” on the way up.
“Get him inside,” Serge said. “Get him to Mickle.” He grabbed Noah’s coat and jerked him forward. Noah struggled to maintain hold of the injured man. “Do this one thing without fucking it up, Cabot. Do it now; do it right! Do not let me see you out here again or it won’t be the storm that sends you overboard.”
Over the PA, the master warned the crew, “We’re headed into a big one! Hold on!”
The ship felt like it hit ground. Forward motion seemed to stop all at once, and then the bow rose with the swell, leaving them looking straight down into the seawater rushing over the stern. Noah grabbed blindly for a handhold. They were riding low, the ice buildup on the superstructure bringing them down. The sea rose above them on both sides as though the master had parted the wave. But if William Brewster was Moses, the men aft had Ramses’ last view before the parted sea collapsed in on itself. Noah gripped a chain with one hand and Felix with his other. Unable to do anything else, he held fast and screamed in terror at the deluge that fell on them from either side as gravity resumed.
Salt water filled his mouth, nose, and eyes. And then his lungs. It froze him inside and out, running through the gaps in his hood into his gear, filling his boots and his gloves. If he didn’t drown, frostbite was guaranteed. He spit water, gasping for painfully cold, but welcome, air. The ship leveled out. For a brief moment, he stood on a calm, horizontal surface staring at a mountain of a man instead of a wall of water. Serge stood in front of him, unmoved, staring ahead steely-eyed and fixed like the giant statue of the fisherman in Noah’s hometown, Gloucester. The world was right for a second. And then it went right back to hell.
“Get inside,” Serge shouted. Noah shoved off the crate, across the slick surface, holding on to Felix as the wounded man hobbled along beside him. If he complained or protested, Noah couldn’t hear him. By the time they reached the bulkhead door, Brewster had steered them directly into another monster. They went vertical. Then it fell out from beneath them and crashed to the surface of the water. Noah and Felix were thrown through the door, slamming into the deck. Felix landed on top of him, howling with pain for the first time. Noah’s breath was gone; his twisted back ached from the twin impacts as he tried to squirm out from under the injured man.
“Jesus Christ, Cabot!” He felt Felix being lifted away, but no hands returned to help pick him up from the floor. He got to his feet and glanced through the door at the men he’d left behind. “Cabot!” the third officer, Chris Holden, yelled. “What the hell are you looking at? Give me a hand here!” He refocused his attention on Felix and slipped back under the man’s arm, assisting him to the first deck and their meager sick bay.
* * *
The hospital compartment of the ship was a narrow room with a rolling examination table, a pair of bunks built into the wall opposite a sink, a short counter, and a supply closet. Most of the ship was close quarters, but the hospital—built with the intention of being used rarely, if ever—exemplified the term. Noah helped Holden lift Felix onto the exam table. Felix lay down while Holden grabbed the autodial phone handset from the wall and hailed the wheelhouse. “Pereira’s injured. We need Mickle, A.S.A.P.” He hung up and turned to Noah. “What happened?”
“A cable broke and a bulk container came loose. It hit him hard.”
“You think? Where the hell were you?”
“I was breaking ice off the gunwales.”
Holden’s eyes narrowed and he gave Noah a withering stare before he turned his attention to the wounded man, wiping blood from his face, searching for the wound. “Where are you hurt, Felix?”
Felix gritted his teeth and said, “Ribs hurt. Hard to breathe.”
A moment later, the ship’s medical officer appeared in the doorway. Second Officer Sean Mickle shoved past Noah to attend to Felix, asking him more questions while he helped the man out of his weather gear. Felix answered his questions haltingly. He was in pain and short of breath. Lifting his arms looked like agony. “I’m going to give you some tramadol for the pain, okay?” Mickle told him. Felix nodded.
Holden looked at Noah hovering in the doorway and shook his head. “What? Are you waiting for a prize? Shove away. Get back to your cabin.”
“Yeah, your cabin. Get out of here.”
Noah didn’t wait around for Holden to repeat the order. If he did, he knew it would come with twice the force and profanity, as well as an added watch shift. He stalked out of the sick bay, headed from First Deck five levels down to his one-man room on D-Deck. The ship was operating with a small company of sixteen men instead of its full complement. Most were quartered on B- and C-Decks nearer the galley and the day rooms. Noah’s cabin was as far below as he could be without setting up a cot between the shaft generators.
He climbed down, careful to hang on to the rails of the steep ladder as the vessel continued to struggle against the waves outside, pitching and falling in the violent sea. If he fell and cracked his skull open, there was no one around to take him back to the sick bay. Again, he doubted it would be a problem for anyone but him.
As he descended, the normal oil and machine smells of the ship grew denser, more acrid. Reaching the D-Deck landing, he opened the door and found the passageway hazy with choking white smoke, creeping out from under the door to the instrument room. Noah grabbed a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall next to a red axe and ran for the door. Yanking it open, he released a noxious cloud of smoke and was driven back. Tearing off his soaked cap, he pressed it over his nose and mouth before diving into the room. Through the haze and stinging eyes he could see one instrument rack orange with flame, not white like the others. He dropped his hat and tried to pull the pin on the powder extinguisher. The zip tie securing the pin so it wouldn’t accidentally come loose during shipment hadn’t been removed. He couldn’t do a thing with the goddamned zip tie on.
Noah bit at his glove, yanking it off. He spit the glove on the floor, cursing as he fumbled at his hip. He couldn’t reach his pocket knife through his wet weather gear. “Fucking hell!” He fought at the tie with his teeth. After a few moments of painful gnawing, it finally came free. He pulled the pin, kicking at the cover panel on the front of the burning instrument rack, trying to open it. It didn’t budge, and he kicked twice more until the cover shuddered and fell away. The hot metal bounced off his arm, sizzling against the wet rubber. Noah desperately needed a breath. Though much of the smoke had billowed out of the compartment into the passageway, the air was still thick and toxic. He struggled not to choke as he aimed the extinguisher at the base of the electrical blaze and squeezed the trigger. The dry powder stream arced out of the nozzle and the output of smoke and chemical stench doubled. He worried that the single can wouldn’t be enough. If he could get the blaze under control, however, he could run and fetch another. Water suppression wasn’t an option in the instrument room. He’d short out all of the systems on board the vessel, primary and redundant alike. The orange light diminished, however. He continued to spray down the instrument rack until the can was empty and he felt satisfied the fire was smothered.
Sweating and half blind, he wanted to strip off his clothes and wash out his burning eyes. He had to call the wheelhouse to let them know about the fire. Staggering into the passageway, another lurch of the ship sent him sprawling. He banged his head against a valve and bright blooms appeared behind his eyes. And then he saw nothing.
Copyright © 2016 by Tom Doherty Associates