Authors: Manel Loureiro
The officer kept his thoughts to himself as they approached a wide open door.
“Do you think this door made that noise earlier?” asked Duff nervously.
“Maybe,” answered Stepanek as he slowly swung the door back and forth, causing the hinges to squeak. “Or maybe it was the wind.”
“It would seem so,” said O’Leary, hardly convinced.
The three men crossed the threshold and ventured into the
but not without one last dubious look back at the mist that covered the horizon.
The interior was completely dark, but apart from that, there was nothing out of the ordinary. They were in a long corridor, lined with wood panels, the floor layered with plush red carpet that muffled their footsteps. They stayed close together. The only light came from their lanterns, glimmering off the copper molding that framed the doors and the lamps in the ceiling.
The hallway led to an even longer one that was studded on both sides with doors. Every few feet they stopped to call out a loud greeting, but there was not the slightest movement within the ship’s interior.
A great set of oak double doors ended the second hallway. After a slight hesitation, O’Leary placed his hand on the doorknob. He was convinced he felt
. But it was just an ordinary doorknob, cold and unassuming.
He threw open the two doors, and for a brief moment, they were breathless. They found themselves in a huge oval-shaped room decorated much more luxuriously than the corridors. It was very large, much bigger than any compartment on the
Pass of Ballaster
In the middle of the room stood an enormous staircase that split into two, as it ascended upward out of their view. The balustrades lining the staircase were crafted from thick sections of oak that formed scrollwork, which merged into handrails made of a darker grain. The white marble steps gleamed in the lantern light; the inscription on each stair alternated between “
” and “KDF.”
O’Leary noticed that each handrail began with an eagle, wings spread wide and a laurel wreath in its talons. The center of each wreath held a swastika that extended down to the floor.
Swastikas appeared almost obsessively throughout the hall, including along a trim that ran around the entire length of the ceiling, featuring the profile of the eagles, each grasping the Reich’s most recognizable symbol. Most English and North American passenger liners had a timepiece or a classical statue surrounded by plump little cherubs at the head of the stairs. Not this ship. Instead, there were two flags: the red flag of the Reich with a swastika at the center and a similar blue one with the arms of the swastika formed by beams of sunlight that surrounded a cog with “KDF” underneath.
“Where are we, sir?”
“I believe this is the main lobby of the ship.” He pointed his lantern upward, causing the crystal chandelier above to sparkle with infinite tiny reflections of light. “If I’m right, we can get to the main hall from here as well as access the bridge.”
“And those flags?” asked Duff innocently.
“It’s a German ship, you half-wit,” Stepanek said, pushing him. “Don’t you read the news? That’s the Nazi flag. They’ve been waving it about with no end in sight for some years now. Sometimes it seems that’s all they know how to do. Protest and wave that fucking flag.”
“Let’s not lose track of time,” said O’Leary. “We have a lot to do.”
They climbed the staircase quickly, paying no attention to the paintings on the wall. Reaching the upper landing, they found crystal doors that led to the main dining hall. When they entered, they were struck by a smell.
“What’s that smell? Lamb?” said O’Leary.
“I think so,” answered Stepanek, “and sausage if I’m not mistaken.”
“Look at this, sir.” Duff’s voice could barely be heard.
He passed his lantern over one of the round tables located next to the door.
The table was luxuriously set for twelve diners. The crystal glasses and plates were engraved with small eagles on one side and “KDF” on the other. The napkins, red and blue, were folded elegantly. An enormous fruit bowl, filled with apples and oranges, artistically arranged, was in the center of the table. The lantern light sparkled off the finely polished silverware that was waiting for nonexistent diners.
Next to the glasses, small ceramic saucers each held a bread roll. O’Leary picked up one of the rolls and squeezed the pliable crust with his fingers, releasing a mouthwatering aroma.
“It’s still fresh,” he murmured with amazement. “It couldn’t have been made more than an hour ago.”
He could not tear his eyes from the table. The plates were spotless, and there was an enormous tray of meat waiting for someone to work up the nerve to dig in. One of the glasses was half-filled with red wine. O’Leary would have bet anything that he could see lipstick on the rim of the glass.
He paced around the rest of the dining room without realizing he still had the bread roll in his hand. There were at least some twenty or thirty other tables all set in the exact same manner. Some of the tables even had plates with leftover food, the chairs drawn back as if there had been a few early-bird diners who were forced to leave unexpectedly.
“We should have brought a weapon,” muttered Duff.
“Shut up,” said Stepanek.
The mood was silent and spooky. A few roasted piglets on trays smiled sardonically, as if they were keeping a secret from these three newcomers. A block of ice was slowly melting in a champagne bucket that held three bottles of Riesling.
O’Leary grabbed a bottle and held it up. “This bottle couldn’t have been sitting here more than two hours. I don’t understand any of this.”
“Where is everyone, sir?” asked Duff aloud.
The same question had gone through all three of their minds since the moment they walked in.
“I have no idea,” murmured O’Leary. “Obviously, they aren’t here anymore.”
“The ship is quite large. Maybe they’re in their cabins,” guessed Duff.
“Or maybe they’ve taken refuge in the storage compartments,” added Stepanek as he ran his fingers over a roll of bread with an indescribable look on his face.
“Why the hell would they take refuge in storage?” O’Leary passed his light across the room. The band’s instruments sat waiting for musicians to belt out some ragtime. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
The senior officer’s mind was racing. Twenty minutes had already passed since they departed the
Pass of Ballaster
, and it occurred to him that the rest of the crew had no idea where they were and what they were seeing. It had been a mistake for the captain to send them here. The
was too vast to be explored by only three exhausted men. He looked at the two sailors. They seemed to be no more than one screech away from shitting their shorts.
“We need to split up. I know that doesn’t appeal to you, and it might seem like a bad idea, but it’s all we can do.” O’Leary turned to the younger sailor and tried to sound more persuasive. “Duff, go back down the hallway and head toward the bow of the ship. Signal our ship to throw us a guide cable, so we can tow the
. Now move! Go!”
The boy ran out of the room with a relieved expression. Anything was better than being stuck in this room. At least by the bow he would be in sight of the
, even if that meant breaking his arms trying to tug the heavy tow cable.
“Stepanek, find the engine room. After we secure the ship, we’ll need power and electricity.”
“True. Without an engine it would be like towing a fucking iceberg,” grunted the Croat.
“Find the engine room and memorize the route. I don’t want our engine specialist aboard this ship any longer than necessary. I promise when we get to port, I’ll buy you a pint of the finest beer you’ve ever had in your life.”
Stepanek blinked a few times and exhaled. With the cold resignation that comes from years at sea, the weathered sailor tried to wrap his head around venturing into the dark bowels of an abandoned ship.
“Where will you go, sir?”
“To the bridge. I’d like to make sure the helm isn’t stuck, or everything else will be useless. Let’s go. Time’s short.”
O’Leary parted company from Stepanek by patting him on the back. Compelled by a sudden impulse, he turned around and muttered, “Be careful.”
But O’Leary never found out if the sailor heard his words.
Taking a deep breath, he returned to the lounge that was decorated with eagles. Before becoming first officer of the
Pass of Ballaster
, O’Leary had served as a petty officer on many ships, including a yearlong stint in 1925 aboard the
, a transatlantic vessel of the Nelson Line with service to South America. If the
had the same layout as those luxury cruisers, then there had to be a staircase on that floor leading directly up to the bridge.
After five minutes of searching he found it. It was a metal door concealed by an oak laminate coating that covered the walls in back of the dance floor. He would have completely missed it had it not been for the visible wear on the carpet caused by the door being opened and closed. The door led to a service stairwell without any of the adornments that had decorated the spaces intended for passenger use. It was a quick route for communication between the bridge and the dance and dining halls. When the
’s captain got bored of wining and dining the sweaty women who sat with him during gala dinners, he could duck out by fabricating a story that he was needed on the bridge. In the case of an actual emergency, this would also be the quickest way of getting to the bridge.
O’Leary’s footsteps echoed metallically as he climbed several flights of stairs. Finally, he came to a landing with a set of doors. A placard reading
hung from one. O’Leary’s basic German was enough for him to guess that this was the radio room.
Some gracious officer had tacked to the door an illustration of a technician fixing a radio with his hand inside the apparatus and all of his hair standing on end.
Without hesitating, he turned the doorknob and found himself on the bridge. Unlike the stairwell, the bridge was tenuously lit. O’Leary first thought Stepanek had somehow found a way of restoring power before he realized the light was being provided by two reflectors mounted on the
Pass of Ballaster
He approached the window to the side of the helm and looked toward the bow where he could see the diminutive form of Duff. The sailor stood next to the mouth of the anchor and was sweating profusely as he tugged at the esparto rope, which was tied to the much thicker towing cable. Usually this was a job for three or four men, and the poor devil was stuck doing it all himself. But he didn’t seem too unhappy. From the
Pass of Ballaster
, which had moved within half a cable’s distance, Captain McBride continued to signal orders.
Suddenly, O’Leary felt very alone on the
’s bridge. Nobody could see him, and an irrational fear struck him that his ship would take off and leave him in the middle of the ocean on this illogical floating castle. His heart skipped a beat.
The officer closed his eyes and tried to calm down. He was letting panic get the better of him. He looked around and saw that the bridge was impeccable. There was no sign of human life. He walked toward the navigation table, where the nautical map showed the ship’s course. Evidently, the
had left the Port of Hamburg only five days prior. Sitting atop the map was a grease pencil used to mark the ship’s course. O’Leary held it between his fingers and scrutinized it. It was recently sharpened. Someone had sharpened it
making the last mark.
Out of the silence, a scream resonated with such force that O’Leary momentarily felt like his blood had stopped pumping. It was a violent shriek that rose up and down in intensity as if coming from a tortured animal. Then, a moment of silence, long enough for O’Leary to doubt whether or not he had simply imagined it. But as quickly as it stopped, the noise started up again, clear as before. It was an inhuman screech, one that reverberated exquisitely with a million distinct degrees of pain, like shards of glass being pressed into the palm. The voice was familiar.
As O’Leary ran off the bridge, the light from his lantern created mad shadows in the room’s corners. Just before crossing the doorway, he saw the ship’s logbook to the side of the command post. He grabbed it on the fly, and although one part of his brain told him the log should have been in the captain’s quarters, he clutched it tight and went down the metal steps two at a time, sending pounding echoes throughout the stairwell.
Stepanek’s screams rose and fell as if he were a badly tuned radio losing its reception. Each time O’Leary stopped to catch his breath he listened closely, trying to detect where the cries were coming from. He crossed the banquet room in the dark and shouted Stepanek’s name. The shrieking continued as if he couldn’t hear O’Leary. Or wasn’t capable of responding.
O’Leary found the opening of the stairwell leading down to the engine room and wavered. The darkness flooding that section of the ship seemed to possess its own density, like some sort of thick gel choking the air. He considered turning around and going back to the
Pass of Ballaster
for backup. But when Stepanek’s cry scaled two octaves, O’Leary ran on with renewed vigor. Still holding the ship’s log in one hand as if it were an improvised shield and his lantern in the other, he descended several flights, catching his breath at each landing.
Having lost count of the number of stairs, he arrived at an area that split off in three directions. Trembling, he thought he could see a bit of yellow lantern light at the end of one corridor. O’Leary made his way toward the light and felt as if the air around him were growing hotter, thicker. The space crackled with electricity. He spotted Stepanek collapsed on the ground, curled into a ball, with his back to him. As he moved closer, the unmistakable scent of urine stung his nostrils.