Become a Fan
By Bradley W Jarvis
Monday, August 13, 2007
Rated "G" by the Author.
A cruise ship mysteriously disintegrates. (Also the first chapter of a novel in progress.)
Chris Johnson could taste the rancid water that surrounded him as he kicked furiously for the surface. Above him were islands of flickering orange light cutting through the murky darkness. He could hear eerie metallic sounds, punctuated by a random percussion that he could practically feel against his entire body.
He emerged into a scene from hell, where the air itself seemed to be burning and was almost as unbreathable as the water. Fighting back a gagging reflex even as he gasped for oxygen, Chris wiped his brown hair out of his eyes and saw several corpses bobbing around him. The metallic sounds were replaced by a loud hissing that seemed to come from all directions. He struggled to keep his head above water, and looked desperately for any object he could climb on to.
His eyes burning from the oily stew splashing into them, Chris spotted in the distance what looked like a man standing on the water. Occasionally illuminated by flames from burning debris, the man was moving a pole back and forth, probing ahead and to the sides.
“Hey,” Chris shouted while trying to keep the water out of his mouth. “Over here!” Not sure whether he could be heard above the steam, he yelled several more times before the man seemed to notice him.
“Wait,” the man shouted back, and Chris noticed he was not walking on the water, but rather standing on a piece of flotsam barely as long as he was tall, using the pole as an oar. When he was within several feet, the man crouched to a seated position and held out the pole toward Chris.
“Grab this,” he said, and Chris reached for it. Chris could now see that the object was more of an oar than a pole, and it was slick to the touch. The man pulled on the oar and their distance closed.
It took several minutes for Chris to maneuver himself onto the debris without tipping both of them into the water. It was almost like a tiny raft, shaped like part of a wing on its side with one tip protruding barely above the surface. He had no idea what it had been; all he cared about was that it floated.
Between the exertion and the stinging air, Chris could barely speak as he sat coughing and trying to catch a breath. His rescuer, however, had no such problem. As if he were welcoming Chris into his home, he turned to Chris and said, close to his ear, “Nice to have you aboard. I’m Pete Gardner.”
Chris sized up the other man. While Chris was thin, of average height, and not in very good shape for a man in his early forties, Pete was a few years younger, a bit taller and clearly spent a lot of time either working outdoors or in the gym. Chris would have considered him a formidable adversary, except that with a face framed by an easy grin and long black hair, Pete gave the impression of an ex-hippie who had worshipped peace most of his life.
“It looks like we’re the only ones who made it,” Pete said when Chris had recovered. “The ship’s gone.”
That couldn’t be, Chris thought. There were over two thousand people on the Ocean Pride. It was night, and maybe they just couldn’t see them. The other man shook his head, like he was reading Chris’s mind. “I’ve been hunting for about an hour now,” Pete said. “No one else except you.”
Chris had been trapped during most of that hour in a nearly watertight compartment that somehow survived. Surely there were others. He couldn’t be that lucky. Then he realized with a start that Pete had been poking bodies earlier, checking to see if they were alive.
“My name is Chris Johnson,” he said, finding his voice and some composure. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Pete answered, and started scanning the horizon. “Maybe between the two of us we can figure it out. But right now we have bigger problems. We need to find a boat.”
“Lifeboat, if we can find one that isn’t damaged. Every thing else I’ve seen is either burning or useless.” And more of it was sinking.
“Okay,” Chris agreed. “How far out have you gone?”
“I don’t know, maybe fifty yards. There’s a surprising amount of debris, and it’s hard to move around, even on something this small. And I was looking for other people. Looks like now I’ve caught my limit.”
Great, Chris thought. Fishing jokes. “So we need to look farther.”
Pete stared into space for a moment. “No, it’s more about position then distance.” He started to stand up. “Do you remember where you were when you heard the blast?”
“Why does it matter?” Chris asked. “The compartment I was in could have drifted in an hour.”
“We need to know what side of the ship we’re on now. I’ve pretty much covered the port side. I think we’re somewhere starboard and a bit aft.”
“I’m not sure… I was below, but that sounds about right,” Chris said.
Pete began maneuvering them with the beam. “We need to go off to our left,” he said.
Chris realized with horror that they were headed toward the most wreckage. “But you’re going the other direction!”
“First we need some more propulsion,” Pete explained, peering through fire.
Pete described what he was looking for: an oar like the one he was using. It took several minutes for them to find one. It was floating near a twisted form that looked like it had only recently been a lifeboat. Chris took the oar, and moving faster with both of them pushing the water, careful not to tip over, they headed for the area Pete said was the best place to look.
When they were near the edge of the debris field, they stopped and scanned the horizon. “If we’re lucky,” Pete noted, “we should be able to see something on the open water.” Beyond the dancing bright yellow reflections and the acrid black smoke, the sea looked dark and calm. Nothing stood out.
“Let’s go out a little further,” Chris suggested. They moved forward for a few minutes and stopped again.
They almost missed it. Off to their left, beyond where the bow of the ship should have been, something less than half the size of a full Moon glowed dim yellow. “That’s got to be one,” Pete shouted, pointing at the apparition.
Chris strained his tired, dirty eyes, and glimpsed it too. “I just hope it’s not something else on fire,” he said.
As tired as they were, it would take them nearly an hour to cover the distance to their one hope for survival. The ocean remained calm, which they were both extremely grateful for, and as they drew closer, they saw that the object was in fact a lifeboat, and it wasn’t burning.
Soon they were able to breathe clean air and hold a normal conversation without speaking directly into each other’s ears. While they paddled, Pete revisited the question of why the ship went down.
“Just before the ship went down I was looking at the stars,” Pete said, “and then this hot blast of air literally pushed me into the sea. It was accompanied by the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. In fact, when I regained consciousness, I was totally deaf for several minutes.
“When I got my bearings, half the ship was gone and the rest was on fire. It was all I could do to stay afloat and watch. By more luck than I deserved, I avoided being hit by parts of the ship falling around me. Obviously there was an explosion of some kind, coming from the rear of the ship. And none of the fire suppression equipment was working.”
“That’s impossible, isn’t it?” Chris asked. “They’ve got sprinklers in every room, and besides, the ship’s practically fireproof.”
“Obviously not,” Pete said, barely under his breath. “What do you remember?” he asked Chris.
“I was at the Retro,” he said, referring to one of the ship’s five small lounges that surrounded the largest one, “and I was walking by one of those tiny closets when I was thrown into it, knocked unconscious. When I came to, the door was closed and I was on what felt like a mattress. Water was starting to leak in, so I figured my chances were better outside.”
They paddled in silence for a while. Chris realized that they could have just as easily died in their respective situations.
“Those electrical problems were sure weird,” Chris observed.
“Yeah, they sure were,” Pete said.
For several weeks, the ship had been adrift and communications had been down. Only the emergency and backup generators worked, providing electricity for the essentials but little else. Lately there had been intermittent power outages in random parts of the ship. The crew had been unable to pinpoint the source of the problem.
“I can’t help but wonder if that had something to do with the explosion,” Pete mused.
Chris flinched. After a few moments, he asked “You’re not part of the crew, are you?”
“No,” Pete replied. “I’m just a passenger on a business trip.”
“Me, too,” Chris said. “What do you do?”
“I’m an environmental consultant. I was evaluating the ship’s new waste processing system.”
Chris knew it! The guy had to be a scientist or engineer or something. “I guess there’s a lot to clean up now,” Chris observed wryly. “I’m in financial services myself. My company was having a management retreat.”
They paused to rest, neither daring to sit down. Their objective hadn’t drifted much. They could still make it.
“So now we know which sides we were on.” Chris’s statement hung in the air between them.
“There didn’t have to be sides,” Pete stated flatly. “We could have worked together.” Chris heard the unspoken challenge: If they had worked together, maybe the others might still be alive.
“You people wanted to sit and starve,” Chris retorted. “On a luxury ship! We had a good time for the last few weeks, and that counts for a lot. If you had your way, we’d have been miserable all that time.”
“It made sense to conserve.” Pete was adamant. “We didn’t know what happened, and we couldn’t move after they shut down the engines.”
“Move safely, you mean.” Chris spat. “The captain was way too cautious for his own good. Moving anywhere is better than not moving at all. We knew help was on the way.” He cocked his head toward the sinking embers. “Looks like they won’t have any trouble finding us now. They can probably see the wreckage from space.”
“Satellites could have found the ship long before this.” Pete shook his head. “Someone would have gotten to us in the first week if they were able to. The weather sure wasn’t slowing them down.” The weather was almost too good. Like now, the sky had been clear and the sea calm since they left port.
“Sometimes you just have to have a little faith,” Chris said. “They’ll be here soon.”
“Well, it won’t matter, unless we can get to that lifeboat soon.” Pete started paddling again, while his head swiveled, scanning the sky.
“What are you looking for?” Chris asked.
“Missing stars, or what could be worse: one that’s moving.”
Chris had been right about Pete. He was both a scientist and an engineer, but his area of expertise was much greater than environmental engineering. His training and experience matched his interests: eclectic to the extreme. He was as adept at social science and psychology as at ecology and astrophysics. This was why he chose to work as a consultant rather than as a specialist committed to a specific role in a company. For every activity he was specifically hired to do, Pete conducted his own research on something he was personally interested in.
On this trip, when not taking effluent samples, inspecting hardware, or testing software from the ship’s waste management system, Pete was studying the interactions among the crew and passengers to try to understand the social dynamics of a small city at sea. Each night, he would upload his results through a satellite Internet connection to a computer at his home, where his wife Anne would analyze some of it and send the appropriate reports to their client while holding on to the rest for Pete to evaluate when he got home.
Pete learned far more than he ever expected as the result of an event that occurred nearly one week into the cruise. As he and Chris paddled in silence, Pete reflected on the event and its aftermath, and worried once more why, after a month of not getting reports from him, Anne had been unable to send help.
It was nearly one o’clock in the afternoon, after traveling some 250 miles from port in Hawaii, that the crew lost control of the ship. They had just turned toward the northwest when a bright light like a second sun appeared to the north-northwest, lasting for little more than a second. Pete had been on deck looking in that general direction, and immediately recognized it as one of two things: a nuclear blast or a meteor exploding. Either way, he knew what to expect.
Jogging toward the bridge, Pete reviewed the options. If it was a meteor, odds were that no one would notice anything. Most meteors were comet fragments, barely the size of sand grains, but occasionally a slightly larger asteroid or comet would get close enough to incinerate in the atmosphere with the explosive energy of a small nuke. The larger the object, the higher the chance that something would reach the ground, and that the air blast would produce an EMP – electromagnetic pulse – that would interfere with electronics to a degree depending on the intensity of the blast. If it was low enough, the explosion would generate a blast wave, which, depending on distance, could cause significant destruction. Each year, an object would explode with an average energy of one kiloton somewhere in the world, usually over an ocean. A nuclear weapon would have similar effects, along with a hefty dose of damaging radiation. Given that testing of nukes was still frowned on by most of the world, Pete was willing to bet that a small asteroid was the source, and from the altitude above the horizon, he didn’t expect a blast wave.
When he reached the bridge, the place was in a state of managed chaos. It sounded like the worst had happened. Picking though the clipped jargon flying back and forth, Pete surmised that navigation and long range communications were out, and that at least one of the diesel-electric generators wasn’t responding to commands.
Ten years older than Pete, the blonde, blue-eyed captain looked like he was in his twenties, and moved around the bridge with the alacrity of a teenager. Pete had a hard time keeping up as he tried to get the captain’s attention.
The two of them had worked together, and Captain Hendricks respected Pete’s judgment, but he clearly had little time for him now. “Bob, I think I know what’s happened,” Pete said when there was a break in the action.
“Yeah, my ship’s gone nuts,” Hendricks told him, then barked an order across the room.
“Look, I saw an explosion a couple of minutes ago.” Pete explained. “It may have fried some of your electronics.”
The captain turned on him with a hard gaze. “Are you saying I can’t trust my gear?”
“Some, maybe most of it,” Pete replied.
“How sure are you?” Hendricks asked, searching Pete’s face for a hint of doubt.
“Pretty sure, if your problems started at 12:52.” Pete showed the captain his watch, whose digital display hadn’t changed since he’d seen the light. The clock on the bridge showed the same time.
“Alright,” the captain said after a moment and turned to the crew. “Everyone,” he nearly shouted across the room. “Here’s what we’re going to do. First, we’re going to shut down the generators, manually if we have to, all except the emergency generator. Next, we’re going to try to get the backup on line, electricity only.”
Turning to Pete, he asked. “What can we count on still working?”
“Anything below the waterline,” Pete said, “if it’s not connected to something above.” That didn’t leave much, Pete suspected. These days, almost everything was controlled by electronic chips, very few of which had ever been shielded against electromagnetic pulses of any type, much less of the magnitude this one may have been. Metal in the ship’s hull and various compartments might provide some shielding, but water presently provided the best protection, and most of the ship was above water.
It took several hours for the crew to stop the four generators that were providing propulsion. They needed to stop the ship since they couldn’t control its direction. This would also save fuel, since they didn’t know how long it would take for rescue or repair.
The emergency generator seemed to be running without a problem, and it appeared initially that the backup generator had emerged unscathed. The biggest problem was with the control electronics, which couldn’t be trusted.
With Pete’s help, the crew jerry-rigged the controls, testing components as best they could and replacing damaged ones with good ones scavenged from other systems. It was a long and laborious process, but eventually most functionality was restored. They were able to keep electricity flowing from the two generators, but they were still dead in the water. They weren’t even able to drop anchor.
The passengers meanwhile had become anxious. Everything from lights to environmental control systems like heat and air conditioning were sporadically malfunctioning throughout the ship. Over time, most people found their way outside. Pete recalled seeing groups form in various places, occasionally corralling a crew member into the center of a circle where the poor engineer or steward was relentlessly grilled by several people at once. For the first week, he was too busy helping with the electrical problems to focus on the social dynamics unfolding around him, but in retrospect he knew he should have grasped what was happening, and anticipated its consequences.
By the time electricity was restored, factions among the passengers had already begun to form. Loosely speaking, one faction, whom Pete internally referred to as the Optimists, believed that rescue was imminent. In their view, it was quite appropriate to act as if nothing had gone wrong, and it was the crew’s responsibility to make sure they could do that. Members of the other faction, the Pessimists, weren’t willing to take rescue for granted; they felt resources (mainly food and fuel) should be conserved, with a certain amount set aside for contingencies and attracting the attention of potential rescuers.
It took less than a week after that for the factions to become clearly defined, aided by the captain’s efforts to limit power to what he considered “non-essential” parts of the ship. The Optimists were outraged, and passenger confrontations with the captain and technical members of the crew grew in number and intensity. The Pessimists, Pete among them, were inclined to defer to the captain’s judgment, and voluntarily cut back on eating and leisure activities that required electricity.
The factions began to confront each other before another week went by. Some Pessimists were angry that Optimists weren’t curbing their appetites, and felt their future threatened. During one such confrontation, an irritated elderly man began turning off the lights to the ship’s bars and restaurants, and was followed by an angry mob of half-drunk partygoers who chased him from the ship’s largest restaurant. In an act of final defiance, the man entered a maintenance closet and, pulling wires, accidentally shut down power to half the ship. Pete was called in to help fix the problem, since he had creatively rerouted some of the control circuits through that particular closet, which he thought was reasonably shielded from another EMP.
Pete swore, shattering the silence.
“What?” Chris asked, startled.
“That compartment you were in,” Pete said. “Where exactly was it?”
“Right next door to the Retro Lounge on C-Deck.”
Pete stopped paddling. They could swim to the lifeboat from here if they had to. Turning to Chris, he asked “Did you do anything else in there? Are you sure you were just thrown inside?”
Chris kept paddling, not saying anything. His hesitation confirmed Pete’s deepest fears.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?” Pete shouted.
After the repairs, random electrical problems began appearing around the ship again. Pete had checked and double-checked his work, but found nothing to explain them. Right up until the disaster, he had been on a personal mission to sort out what was going on.
“Some lights weren’t working,” Chris finally replied. “I… I tried to turn them back on.”
There were switches in the maintenance closet, but none of them controlled the lights.
“That door was locked. How did you get in?”
“One of the mates was a little drunk. He gave me the key,” Chris explained. “You don’t think I caused the… explosion, do you?”
Pete studied the man’s face. He was in anguish. “I honestly don’t know,” Pete said quietly. But they both knew that the coincidence was just too great.
When they were close enough, they climbed into the lifeboat. Miraculously, everything seemed to be intact. In addition to two new oars, they had enough food and water for a week if they stretched it, first aid equipment, and most important: an engine. Pete sighed with relief. They had made it.
Chris acted like he wasn’t quite so sure. He held his breath, just as Pete flipped the starter switch.
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!
|Reviewed by Karla Dorman, The StormSpinner
|I echo Karen: NICE. Not the type of story to read just before disembarking LOL Effectively, chillingly penned: look forward to more.
(((HUGS))) and love, Karla.
|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|NICE. If I ever go on a cruise, I'll think of this chiller diller of a story. Thanks a LOT, bub! LOL Very well done, though; bravo! :)|