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Authors: Manel Loureiro

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BOOK: The Last Passenger
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Stepanek shook his head, troubled. Something just didn’t feel right about it all.

He turned toward Duff to make sure he was holding on to the railing of the nest. Then, he picked up the phone to test the line.

It worked. The tone was faint but constant.

With his free hand he shook the base of the antenna to make sure it was properly attached. Everything was in order.

But something wasn’t right. It took him a minute to realize what was wrong.

Silence.

All sounds had ceased. Neither the rumbling of the engines nor the crash of the waves against the hull of the ship could be heard.

It was like being in a coffin.

“I’m cold,” said Duff in a low voice, shivering. A moment later he added, as if embarrassed, “And scared.”

“Shut up.” A feeling of urgency slowly crept across Stepanek. He felt as if his skin were crawling, and not just from the cold.
Something
was out there.

“Purgatory must be a lot like this,” mused Duff, becoming restless. He had the binoculars in his hands, looking nowhere in particular. Despite saying he was cold, he was sweating.

Stepanek looked him over again and considered a reply. But at that very moment he seemed to spot something out of the corner of his eye. He turned to his right, then left. “Did you see that?” he asked Duff.

“See what?”

Then, they saw it. Or, rather, they guessed at it. Suddenly, it appeared in front of the bow of the
Pass of Ballaster
as if it had been waiting all along for the coal ship to pass by. It was a black shadow, enormous, elongated, and it swooped toward the vessel at full speed.

“Shit!” yelled Stepanek.

The sailor grabbed the phone and hit Duff, who had almost been turned catatonic by the colossal shadow.

“We’re gonna crash!” he howled into the speaker. “Iceberg straight ahead! Veer away, quick! Steer clear!”

For a few unending moments the
Pass of Ballaster
stayed its course, seemingly immutable, heading straight for that shadow crossing its path. Then, slowly, very slowly, several things started to happen. The mast began to tremble, shaken by the vibrations from the ship’s engines firing to change course. The faint sound of the roaring engines reached them as the bow of the ship began to slowly veer, little by little, away from the black patch that was growing larger by the second.

It’s too slow,
Stepanek thought to himself as he watched the shadow.
We’re going to crash.

“Keep turning,” he shouted into the phone. His voice had turned into a stifled wheezing. “Keep turning all the way, or by God, we’re going to die.”

If the
Pass of Ballaster
had been any larger or had been going any faster, a turnaround with such short notice would have been impossible. The small vessel, however, responded, and foot by foot, inch by inch, it began to skirt the obstacle, which was now that much closer.

We’re going to make it. Just maybe we’re going to make it.
Stepanek’s mind was racing as the mass continued to grow larger. It was the biggest iceberg he had ever seen, at least twice as high as the ship’s tallest point, and much, much wider. The fog had covered it up like a shroud, but its dimensions could be surmised from the light cast by the lanterns on the bow.

Finally, with the sluggishness of a waking cat, the front of the ship pointed toward the abysmal blackness of the night, avoiding disaster by no more than thirty feet.

“We just missed it,” he shouted, slapping Duff on the back. “That goddamned iceberg was nearly the death of us all! By God, that was a mighty close call.”

“Tell them to shut down the engines,” replied Duff, wearing a glassy expression. His voice was strangely calm. He wasn’t looking at Stepanek but instead behind him.

“What? What on earth are you talking about?”

“Tell them to shut down the engines,” repeated Duff hoarsely. He sounded like he had a pound of cotton in his throat.

“Why do you want them to shut down the engines?” Stepanek asked. He felt his enthusiasm begin to wane and turn into something akin to panic. He knew he should turn around and look at what Duff saw. But he didn’t want to.

“It’s not an iceberg,” came Duff’s response, his eyes glued to the horizon.

Feeling as if everything was suddenly in slow motion, Stepanek turned around without letting go of the telephone gripped in his hand. Then, he opened his eyes wide and began to pray under his breath in Croatian, something he had not done since he was a child.

Floating, silent, shadowy, less than seventy feet away, the bow of an enormous ship rose out of the water, several times larger than the
Ballaster
. It was stopped dead on the water, completely immobile and without a single light.

Above the anchor, several feet overhead, the ship’s name could be seen.

Valkyrie.

II

For the next ten minutes chaos reigned aboard the
Pass of Ballaster
. The crew rushed around from place to place, while Captain McBride and the first mate howled orders in three different languages. It took them nearly twenty minutes to completely halt the progress of the old coal ship. Meanwhile, the helmsman, trying not to drift too far from the
Valkyrie
, had his hands full zigzagging toward that great shadow without getting too close—that great shadow, which could only be sensed behind the dense mist. In the end McBride himself took control of the vessel, carefully approaching the enormous and silent floating mass.

“Mr. O’Leary, have you been able to make contact with the ship?” McBride asked his second-in-command.

“No, Captain,” replied O’Leary, flustered. “The radio is still dead. Berni
e . . .
I mea
n . . .
Mr. Cornwell, says we may have blown a vacuum tube. He’s still working on it.”

McBride nodded without taking his eyes off the fog. In the last twelve hours they had taken the radio apart three times and put it back together again without finding a single blown tube. He knew that couldn’t really be the problem, but they had to try it anyway.

The situation was disconcerting. The ship sat completely motionless with no lights and no signs of life on board. It just didn’t make sense.

“Mr. O’Leary, take the signal lamp and try to make contact with the
Valkyrie
. Identify us, and ask them if they’re having some sort of problem or if they need any assistance.”

O’Leary assented and went up on deck accompanied by a deckhand who would act as the signalman. Each stationed himself behind the lamp, but the light would not turn on. From where he stood, the captain could hear their hurried whispers.

“What’s going on, Mr. O’Leary? Are you waiting for a goddamn invitation to turn on the lamp?” McBride noticed his voice was more tense than usual.

“No, Captain,” came the officer’s troubled response. “There must be an electrical problem. They were supposed to have it fixed in port, but the electricians said it would need an alternator that—” Suddenly, O’Leary realized he was jabbering and shut up.

McBride looked at him with a severe expression and kept himself to one question. “Can you fix it before we drift and crash into that ship?”

“Of course, sir. It will only take three minutes.”

“Then, do so at once, goddammit,” grumbled the captain, taking out a handkerchief and wiping sweat from his forehead.

If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with the distance between the two ships—which was decreasing every second—he would have noticed that he was no longer shivering. Several of the crewmen had taken off their raincoats and were now in shirtsleeves. The frost on the portholes began to melt rapidly, making little trails that dripped down to the deck.

But nobody took notice. Everyone was focused on the enormous hull of the
Valkyrie
. It had been growing larger for some time now, taking up more and more of the horizon and dwarfing the
Pass of Ballaster
.

It’s big. Very big,
thought the captain. At least twenty thousand tons. But I don’t understand what it’s doing here. Or why nobody responds.

His gaze fell on the mast rig to see what flag it was flying. If the yellow banner was out indicating “Quarantine on Board,” it would be imperative for the
Pass of Ballaster
to get as far away from there as possible, as quickly as its engines could carry it. But there was no such banner.

The
Valkyrie
floated lazily like a sleeping whale as the two ships drifted closer and closer. Just then the powerful signal light came to life with a bright flash, and they pointed it toward the ocean liner’s hull.

“Finally,” the captain snarled.

Flashes of white light bounced around in the fog, making everything seem that much more surreal. Each time the lamp flashed to life, millions of droplets danced in its beam of light, swirling madly as if confused. Meanwhile, the
Valkyrie
shimmered, practically within arm’s reach, dark and wet like the skin of a sea monster.

Chik-chik-chik.
The signal lamp blinked endlessly, each flash illuminating the
Valkyrie
’s hull, like a lightning storm.

Five lengthy minutes later, McBride shook his head.

“That’s enough, Mr. O’Leary. They aren’t going to respond.”

“Should we try the bullhorn?” asked the first officer without taking his eyes from the ocean liner. “We’re close enough.”

“We might as well try everything,” the captain grunted, wiping his brow.

A chunk of ice came loose from the rim of the porthole and crashed to the deck with a splash. The sudden rise in temperature had caused water to drip from everything.

The first officer picked up the brass bullhorn. He tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry, so he cleared his throat and licked his lips.

First, he tried in English. No response. He looked to the captain, nervous, but the captain gave no sign. He was absorbed by the
Valkyrie
, pensive. A few minutes later he tried again, this time in poor German. Still nothing.

It’s like talking to a tomb,
thought McBride with a shudder. Because that is what the ocean liner seemed to be—an enormous, silent, and wet coffin.

“Let’s send out a raft,” he declared with a sigh. “You and two men. I believe we’ve got a long cable in hold number three. There must be a grappling hook somewhere in the anchor room. Get up on that ship, and find out what the hell is going on.”

“Yes, sir.”

O’Leary turned on his heel, and his gaze fell on Duff and Stepanek, who had just come down from the lookout. Their weatherproof jackets were wide open, and both were sweating as if they had just finished running a marathon.

“Sir, the heat up there is hellish,” Stepanek complained. “Not even in the middle of August—”

“I know, Stepanek,” O’Leary interrupted. “Nothing is normal tonight. Come with me, you two. We’re going to do a bit of sightseeing.”

Duff was about to say something, but the Croat quietly stepped on his foot.

As they strode quickly carrying a huge roll of cable following the first officer, Duff managed to give Stepanek a fiery look. In his eyes, just one question:
“Why us again?”

III

With the help of the stern-side davit, they lowered the
Pass of Ballaster
’s only raft down to the water. The sea was as glassy as a mirror—not the slightest imperfection could be seen on the pitch-black water. It looked like the heart of a slumbering lake.

Stepanek grabbed one oar, Duff the other. O’Leary took up the helm.

With a few powerful strokes the boat broke away from the
Pass of Ballaster
and began slowly approaching the ocean liner. Each time the oars plunged into the water, ripples shimmered across the surface, and the echo of each splash reverberated ominously between the two ships. Their only light was from the sodium lamps they had taken from the vessel.

“Maybe there was a fire on board or something,” panted Duff between strokes. “The passengers and crew would have abandoned the ship, leaving it to drift.”

“Can’t be,” murmured O’Leary. “All of the lifeboats are hanging from their supports, at least the ones on this side. If they’ve abandoned ship, it wasn’t by lifeboat.”

“I don’t smell smoke,” added Stepanek. “Plus, it doesn’t seem damaged at all. I’d bet anything that damned ship doesn’t even have a crack in the hull.”

“Quiet!” ordered O’Leary. “We’re getting close.”

The raft was a few yards away from the
Valkyrie
. They were close enough to see the seams where the steel hull had been soldered and painted jet black. O’Leary tilted his head back and looked up toward the bulwark lost in the shadows, several feet above. After a quick mental calculation, he was discouraged to realize he would need to be much stronger to throw the grappling hook that high.

“Let’s go around,” he said. “It might be easier to get up on the other side.”

The boat advanced slowly around the hull of the
Valkyrie
until reaching the bow.

“I can’t see a fucking thing,” grunted Stepanek. “Should we use the floodlight, sir?”

O’Leary nodded. He suddenly felt vulnerable. To one side was the mass of a ship, abandoned by all appearances. To the other, the immensity of the sea, wrapped in a thick layer of fog. Confined to their small wooden raft, he became aware of just how fragile he and his men were.

They began to track the floodlight over the side of the
Valkyrie
as they continued to row slowly. O’Leary’s hopes faded as they approached the stern and saw the ship’s bulwark was at least fifty feet high, definitely out of reach.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to get up from here.” He turned to his crew and thought out loud. “If we go back to the
Ballaster
and bring her close enough, maybe we could launch the grappling hook from our bow.”

Suddenly, a loud crack, like paper being ripped, and an intense pounding sounded above them. Then, a thunderous clang crashed against the hull of the
Valkyrie
, right above their heads. Pieces of broken planks and torn canvas began to rain down all around them.

“Fuck, we’re gonna be crushed!” yelled Duff in a panic.

“Shut up and steady the floodlight, you idiot!” shouted O’Leary, trying to balance the raft, which wouldn’t stop rocking.

Something huge fell next to them and sent an icy splash of cold water up and over the side, leaving the sailors completely soaked.

The floodlight swung with a life of its own, sketching strange arabesques across the metallic skin of the
Valkyrie
. Gradually, the shower of objects ceased and the raft steadied.

“Are you guys all right?” O’Leary asked, unable to see his men, who were obscured by a dark shadow. “Answer me, goddammit!”

A pair of scared voices replied, wavering. It was no wonder. O’Leary himself had a knot lodged in his throat.

“What the hell was that?” he murmured. He pointed the floodlight toward his men and cursed.

A smashed lifeboat hung a few feet above them. Having come loose from its support, the boat had shattered against the
Valkyrie
’s hull. Now it was barely hanging by one end.

“Shit! Look at the pulley wheel. It’s given out,” remarked Duff from the back, relieved. “That was close! We could have been crushed like ants.”

“You’ll always remember this as the day you were nearly flattened by a pulley that gave way,” answered O’Leary without taking his eyes off the dangling lifeboat.
Unless someone sabotaged it,
he thought. He had no idea why this had occurred to him, but it triggered a flash of acid in his stomach. He wouldn’t swear it, but he was fairly certain he had heard something just before the lifeboat came loose.

They maneuvered until they were able to hook the grapple on the bottom end of the broken lifeboat. With one end tightly secured, O’Leary turned to his men.

“Who’s coming with me?”

The two exchanged glances. Neither moved.

“What if we all go up, sir?” came Duff’s voice, almost pleading. “It’s a very large vessel.”

“Plus, I don’t want to be left alone on this damned raft while you two walk around up there, sir,” added Stepanek.

“All right,” O’Leary conceded. “Secure the raft before we go up. If it goes adrift, the old man will have our heads, especially mine.”

In less than a minute the officer and the two sailors secured the raft and began to crawl up the wreckage of the lifeboat. O’Leary tried to control his breath while he climbed. He stretched out his arm and grabbed the bulwark to climb aboard.

Then, several things happened at once.

First, O’Leary felt cold again, but this was a bitter cold that charged into his veins, cutting his breath short. The metal of the rail was so frigid that he had to suppress a yell of pain.

Second, the silence. Nothing could be heard aboard that mammoth ship.

Third, the overwhelming sensation he was being watched.

The three mariners clustered together on board the
Valkyrie
, unsure what to do next.

“Let’s go to the bow and then to the bridge,” said the first officer, trying to control his voice. “If there’s nobody aboard, then we’ll toss our cable over to the
Ballaster
and tow her to port. Rescuing a ship like this should make for a tidy sum!”

As they explored the deck, using their lanterns to light the way, O’Leary was overcome by a wave of excitement. Until now it hadn’t occurred to him that the ship might be deserted. International maritime law dictated that a third party had the right to rescue any goods abandoned at sea. The abandoned ship’s owner would have to fork over an enormous premium to recover the property.

“Did you hear that?” asked Stepanek suddenly, wrenching the senior officer from his reverie.

O’Leary pricked up his ears but could not detect anything unusual.

“What am I supposed to be listening for? I don’t hear anything.”

It took O’Leary a moment to catch on—he couldn’t hear anything at all besides their footsteps. Neither the creak of metal nor the clang of a skylight closing. Not even a gust of wind whistling across a sail.

Nothing.

It’s almost as if the entire ship is holding its breath.
The idea, like a snake, slithered into O’Leary’s thoughts.
We are being watched.

“Quit fooling around,” he whispered, unaware he had lowered his voice. “Let’s work our way to the bridge and finish this as quickly as we can.”

The
Valkyrie
’s deck was lost in the darkness. Their lantern barely illuminated the few feet in front of them while the mist flickered in its light. As they walked, O’Leary took note of the lifeboat pulleys with an expert eye. Since the
Titanic
disaster some twenty-seven years earlier, every passenger liner in the world was required to be equipped with enough vessels to seat every passenger and crew member. The
Valkyrie
was much smaller than the
Titanic
, but even so, the number of lifeboats was unbelievable. Not a single one was missing.

They appeared to be fastened securely with weatherproof covers stretched across each one. There were no signs they had ever been moved. O’Leary would have wagered his life savings that the only boat not secured was the wrecked one, which dangled from the side of the ship some fifty yards back, without which they never would have been able to climb aboard.

A metallic thumping a few feet ahead broke the silence. The off-kilter click-clack started loud and became quieter. The three men seized up, not moving a muscle.

“Hello?” shouted O’Leary in a voice less firm than he intended. “Anyone there? Hello? Who’s there?”

They heard a frenzied rustling and a raspy sound of something sliding around, but nothing more moved in the darkness.

“Zdravo Marijo, milosti puna, Gospodin s tobom, blagoslovljena ti medu ženam
a . . .

Stepanek prayed under his breath for the second time that evening as his eyes tried to penetrate the darkness.

“All right, that’s enough.” O’Leary suddenly felt very irritated. Not only was he shivering and exhausted, but he also found himself aboard an unknown ship with some twisted bastard who wanted to play a game of ghost. It was too much for one night.

“I am First Officer O’Leary of the British liner
Pass of Ballaster
,” he shouted. “Whoever you are, there’s nothing to fear. We are here!”

Nothing happened. No response.

Until they heard a whispering behind them.

Weeee’re heeeere!

Stepanek turned around so fast that he bumped into a frazzled Duff, and the two of them stumbled into O’Leary. Before they knew it, all three were on the ground, a pile of arms and legs.

“Who’s there? Who’s fucking there? Who?” Stepanek’s lantern spun around as he tried to get up.

“Let’s get out of here! Let’s get the hell out of here!” Duff’s voice was hysterical.

“Shut up, you idiots,” roared O’Leary, replacing his hat. He was so nervous he spat as he spoke. “We’re not going anywhere! Got it?” His bloodshot eyes studied his sailors fidgeting like nervous schoolchildren. “What do you want to do? Return to the ship, and tell the captain we’ve just escaped from a bunch of ghosts? He’d dress us down and send us back. Now act like men. We just need to get up to the command bridge and find out if the ship is empty. If she is, we can throw a cable back to the
Ballaster
and tow her to port.” Here, he changed his tone of voice, trying to be persuasive. “As soon as we’re finished, we can go back to the
Ballaster
and get the hell out of this fog. Then, we can forget this ever happened until we get back to Bristol. Is that clear?”

The two sailors, accustomed to maritime discipline, agreed with more doubt than faith in their eyes.

“But that voice,” said Duff.

“That was just an echo, idiot,” replied O’Leary. “Some acoustic effect must have made it sound like it came from behind us. Probably the fog, or a thousand other things. I studied it at the academy, years ago.”

Duff and Stepanek nodded again, somewhat more calm. But as they continued walking, O’Leary didn’t exactly feel at peace. He knew his reasoning had been a tremendous lie, and that there was no explanation for such an acoustic phenomenon. Plus, there was one other small detail.

O’Leary was certain the voice of the echo had not been his own.

BOOK: The Last Passenger
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