Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#33


Bundle up for this chilling little cold snap, Faithful Fiends! The Supreme Plasmate offers up another one to raise the hackles on your neck! Off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Captain Carruthers encounters more than he bargained for as his tramp steamer steams to the rescue of a shipwreck only to run head-on into...

 

A Menace to Shipping
 

By Jeffrey Blair Latta


THE SAILOR STABBED THE LONG wooden gaff far out over the metal gunwale of the tramp steamer.  He thrust it like a lance, nearly tumbling over into the black fog-shrouded sea.  The hooked metal tip snagged the rope encircling the drifting life-saver, then drew it slowly up and over the side.  One glance and the sailor hollered over his shoulder: "It's the Halifax, Skipper."

Captain Virgil Carruthers stood just before the pilot house, hands folded at his back, steely eyes glinting slits as he strained to see into the dense white soup.  But the effort was wasted.  "Halifax?"  He frowned.  The name wasn't familiar to him.  But then, he wouldn't have expected to recognize it.  Here off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, they were smack dab in the middle of the main shipping lane.

A moment later, another shout came from the port side of the bow.  "More debris, Skipper!  Lots of it just ahead."

"Damn."  It was an hour since the Glooskap had picked up the mayday, but still Carruthers had hoped...

"By the looks of it," the shouting voice continued, "she must have broken up.  I can see doors and pieces of the hull.  It's an awful mess, sir."

"But no bodies?"

"Not yet, sir."

All right, Carruthers thought to himself.  What now?  In this fog we're barely making steerage-way.  Do we continue on and hope to find survivors?  Or do we hold station here and wait for it to lift -- which could take all night?  Come on, man, you're the captain.  Make a decision.  There may be lives at stake.

He heard footsteps approach from behind, the sound oddly crisp in the foggy air.  Donald Bristol, their passenger, stopped at his side, and rubbed hands together against the bitter cold.  When the passenger spoke, his breath swirled whitely.

"Hellish night for something like this.  What do you think happened?"

Carruthers glanced over.  "We won't know that until we find survivors - - or at least until this fog lifts so we can see more."

"What are you going to do, then?  Wait for it to lift?"  Bristol's tone grew sober.  "Any survivors wouldn't last long in that water."

Tightly, Carruthers replied, "I'm all too aware of that, Mr. Bristol."  He turned sharply and called to the pilot house, "Continue ahead -- but slow.  We'll have to watch for debris."  Then to the men at the bow, he instructed, "Keep your eyes open for survivors."

"Aye aye, Skipper."

Glancing at his passenger again, Carruthers noticed Bristol was staring fixedly at the canvas covered heap near the bow, the reason for this voyage, and the reason Bristol was aboard.  And seeing the look in the other man's eyes, the captain felt a crawling chill having nothing to do with the weather.

They had just spent the last week bringing up artifacts from the wreck of the pirate ship Tortuga Galley, sunk in 1718 by a British man-o'-war off the Grand Banks.  The haul had been remarkably plentiful, including a ship's bell, two lanterns, a boarding axe, a binnacle and a swivel-gun, but, alas, no doubloons.  The crew of the Tortuga Galley had died in penury, as so many pirates did.

Now, seeing the look in Bristol's eyes, Carruthers knew only too well what the man was thinking.  All week they had salvaged a ship lost nearly three centuries ago.  As each artifact was raised, streaming coral-white foam, the crew had cheered lustily.  The thought of what it all meant, the deaths which had placed the Tortuga Galley in her watery grave, had no place in their thoughts.  That tragedy had happened so long ago.  But now...now they were face to face with it.  Somewhere out there in the fog drifted the shattered wreck of the Halifax, and with her, the bodies of her crew.  And they would have to bring them home -- every last corpse.

For a time, the Glooskap continued on, moving at a snail's pace, cutting the heavy fog like a thick curtain.  From time to time, a dull thump sounded as a piece of debris nudged the metal hull.  Still there was no sign of the larger wreck, and Carruthers began to wonder if the sailor had been right.  Had the Halifax completely broken up?  But how was that possible?  Though the fog was an inconvenience, the seas themselves were calm enough.  What disaster could possibly have caused so much damage, such total destruction?

As if reading his thoughts, Bristol grimly commented, "I've never seen anything like this.  Seas calm, not a breath of wind -- what could have happened to make the ship break up like that?"

"An explosion in the boiler room," Carruthers ventured, although the answer sounded poor even to his own ears.

Bristol scowled doubtfully.  "The debris doesn't look charred," he  countered.  "If there was an explosion, you'd expect --"

"Skipper -- listen!  There's someone out there!"  It was Lazlo, one of the sailors, his voice an urgent hiss.

Instantly, a tense listening silence settled over the deck.  For a moment, Carruthers could only make out the sullen breathing of waves against the hull, that and the dull thumping of the tramp steamer's engines.  But then -- a voice.  There was no doubt.  From out of the fog, faint with distance, came a hollow, echoing shout.

"Help!  Help!"

Hearing the sound, in an instant, Carruthers underwent a transformation.  No longer was this a grim mission to recover corpses.  There were survivors out there, lost in the fog, clinging to debris in freezing cold water.  They might only have minutes left, and the Glooskap was their only hope.  The skipper's eyes flashed with purpose as he spun and shouted to the pilot house.  "Dead ahead, helmsman.  But slow -- we don't want to run over them in the fog."

He started to face forward again.  But, even as he did so, a strange sound reached his ears.  For a moment, it made him think of a waterfall, the rushing of white waters over a thundering brink.  Then, a scream:

"What in the name of God!"

The deck rocked sharply underfoot and Carruthers nearly fell to his knees, catching himself on a funnel.  Bristol was less agile and sprawled on his face.  Straightening, Carruthers' eyes shot toward the bow.  He gaped in disbelief.

"What the..."

In the dark and foggy sea just beyond the ship's bow, a vast sea-green mountain rose slowly from the waves.  Sheets of glistening water flushed down its huge sloping flanks, the water curdling into a furious snow-white froth.   For a heartbeat, Carruthers thought it must be a whale, even though he had never heard of a green whale.  But a second later, enough of the thing was revealed to put that idea to rest.

There could be no other name for it.  No none at all.

It was a sea monster.  A real honest-to-God sea monster.

Colossal snaky tentacles surged up out of the foamy wash.  Thrashing mightily, each one was as vast as a tree, festooned with horrible suckers.  In their midst, a giant knoll of a head gleamed with running spume, two  impossibly massive eyes staring balefully at them over the bow, a terrible unblinking nightmare.

In an instant, all was pandemonium.  All along the bow, men reeled back screaming in terror, stumbling and falling on the rocking deck.  A claxon sounded, hurling its whooping cry out into the night.  And over all the noise, the screaming and the whooping and the thundering sea, there sounded a weird sustained unearthly shriek -- the roar of the creature itself.

In that moment, with the ship in peril, with a sea monster out of nightmare threatening them all with certain destruction -- Carruthers froze.  He couldn't move.  He could barely breathe.  He just stood there, clinging to the funnel, eyes wide with horror, face chalk white.  Dimly he heard Bristol shouting almost in his ear: "Do something, Captain!  We're going to hit the thing!  For God's sake, do something!"

But he couldn't do anything.  He could only watch as one titanic tentacle after another swept down onto the deck, shattering boards and nearly crushing men beneath their grisly lengths.  And then, the ship was turning, ponderously changing course and coming about, slowly but steadily veering away from the behemoth in its path.

The helmsman, Carruthers thought dazedly, thank God for the helmsman.

Still, the sea monster continued to attack, tentacles lashing murderously, thundering as they beat the deck, the ship slowly passing the beast in a wide curving course.  Then the monster was behind them, a tentacle blasting into kindling the crates on the fantail.

Carruthers dimly sensed when they had completed their turn and were headed back the way they had come.  Still he couldn't move.  Only slowly did he realize that the monster had submerged behind them.  But was it still following them?  Any minute he expected the monster to renew its attack, but it didn't.  They continued on for some time, the deck littered with debris and the huddled forms of trembling, terrified men.

Finally, as if waking from a dream, Carruthers straightened slowly and wiped a shaking hand across his eyes.  Beside him, Bristol was staring sternwards, aghast with disbelief.  "What in God's name was it?" he asked weakly.  "It looked like some giant... octopus!"

The mere word itself was enough to provoke a reaction in the captain.  He shivered suddenly, his hands making rigid fists, biting his lower lip.  Bristol noticed the reaction and regarded the captain in concern.  "Captain Carruthers?  What is it?"

But Carruthers gave no reply...

***
"We're going back."

The captain's statement was greeted with wide-eyed looks of horror.  He was in his cabin with First Mate Bowles, Helmsman Pershing, and Bristol -- the latter attending for whatever input he might be able to provide.  The first two were astonished by Carruthers decision, for which he could hardly blame them.  Bristol, to his credit, kept his amazement to himself.

"You must be kidding," Bowles blurted after a moment.  "Whatever that thing was, it's more than we can handle.  The radio was wrecked in the attack, so we can't even call for help.  We should get to a port and report this to the Coast Guard."

"There are survivors out there."  Carruthers' tone was steady, his course already set.  "We all heard them.  We can't leave them to die."

"With all due respect, Captain," the helmsman said in a slow, careful way, "we saw what that thing did to the Halifax.  It blasted that ship to pieces.  What makes you think the same thing won't happen to us if we go back?"

Carruthers was seated at his desk.  He had taken his Colt .44 out of his sea chest and was busy loading it with bullets from a cardboard package.  He didn't look up when he spoke.

"The creature, whatever it is, has probably left by now.  There wouldn't be any reason for it to stick around."

Bowles shook his head, gesturing with both hands.  "Captain, that thing was a monster, a bloody sea monster!"

Now, finally, Carruthers lifted his eyes.  He fixed on Bowles.  "First Mate, this isn't a debate.  There are lives at stake and we're going back -- that's all there is to it."  He gave that a moment to sink in, then looked at the helmsman.  "Pershing, bring us around."

With a fatalistic shrug, the helmsman nodded, "Yes, sir."

The helmsman and first mate shouldered glumly out into the passageway, closing the door behind and leaving Carruthers alone with Bristol.  For a moment, silence held the cramped cabin, a strange anticipatory hush.  Carruthers pretended not to notice, calmly loading his gun.  Finally, Bristol spoke.

"If that thing attacks us again, that little gun of yours isn't going to help, you know."

Carruthers nodded slowly.  "Probably not, but it's the only weapon we've got on board."

Again, there was silence.  Then Bristol spoke again, but guardedly this time.

"You froze out there," he said.  "I saw it.  When that thing attacked us, you froze."

"I guess I probably did."  Carruthers had finished loading his gun and now set it down on the desk.  He calmly turned to look at Bristol.  "What about it?  Don't you think there was reason enough?  That hellish thing rising up out of the sea?"

Bristol shook his head.  "No.  I don't think that was why you froze.  When I said the thing looked like an octopus, I saw the way you reacted.  It's something about octopuses, isn't it?"

For a moment, Carruthers didn't speak, weighing things in his head.  Finally he nodded: "When I was a boy, I was out paddling in a dory off the Jamaica coast.  I came upon an octopus caught in a net, floating on the surface.  It wasn't just any old octopus, understand, it was giant, nearly eight feet in length, huge.  To a boy, it might as well have been a sea monster.  Still, I thought I was safe enough in my boat and I felt sorry for the beast, so I used my knife to cut it free.  But just as it pulled out of the net, I overbalanced in the dory and fell into the water right smack on top of the thing.  In an instant, I found myself wrapped in its tentacles, fighting to break free.  The tentacles just gripped me all the tighter.  It dragged me under, the tentacles everywhere, the suckers, those horrible suckers...."

He paused sharply, sweat glazing his brow.  He inhaled slowly, trembling, regaining control, then finished with, "I freed myself eventually, but the damage was done -- psychologically, I mean.  So, yes, I suppose you could say I have a problem with octopuses.  You might even say I have a phobia."

Bristol was grim.  "How do you know you won't freeze up again?"

Carruthers gave a thin smile.  "If that monster is still there, my freezing up will be the least of our problems, don't you think?"

He rose from his desk and slipped the Colt under his belt, then buttoned his jacket to hide it.  "Shall we?"  He gestured to the door.

But Bristol hesitated, obviously bothered by something else.  After a space he said, "That creature, that sea monster could have destroyed us as easily as it destroyed the Halifax."  His brow furrowed pensively.  "It had us and it could have crushed us like an egg."

"So?  What's your point?"

"So, why didn't it finish us?  Why did it let us go?"

To that, Carruthers had no answer.

***
Curls of fog drifted over the level deck.  The engines throbbed like the beating of a human heart.  Carruthers stared into the fog beyond the bow, his features pale, Bristol at his side.

"Listen," the passenger breathed.

Carruthers nodded.  Everyone on the deck could hear it now -- a voice, no, several voices, calling in the fog.

"Help!  Help!"

"A little to port," the captain shouted over his shoulder.  Then, under his breath he pleaded, "Hang on.  Just hang on a little longer."

"They're still out there."  Bristol was amazed.  "In this water, they can't last much longer."

"They may be in a lifeboat," Carruthers pointed out.  Then he hollered, "Keep shouting!  We're coming for you!"

"Help!  Help!"

And then the creature attacked.

If anything, it was even more sudden this time.  One moment, all was calm.  The next, the ocean seemed simply to explode just beyond the ship's bow.  A cascade of glistening wash tumbled onto the deck, drenching the men and draining away through the scuppers.  And then, like a magician unveiled in a cloud of smoke, the behemoth stood revealed, a vast cyclopean forest of thick writhing tentacles surrounding a colossal head with two great staring eyes.

For a terrible moment, Carruthers felt himself freeze again.  His pulse raced and his breath caught in his throat as he found himself transported back, back through time.  Again he felt the horrible tentacles wrap around his struggling body, the loathsome suckers, felt the terror, the panic as he thrashed to escape.  For a second, he couldn't move.  But then, a voice shouted: "Captain, do something!"

Bristol's cry awoke him with a jolt.  He dragged the Colt from his belt and started firing at the monster even as he shouted to the helmsman: "Bring us about, helmsman! Get us the hell out of here!"

Much as the helmsman must have wanted to retreat long before this, Pershing had had his orders and remained steady on course.  Now though, no doubt with relief, he brought the ship about, the engines straining to the limit.  White froth boiled in the ship's wake as the screw furiously churned the sea behind.

Glooskap fought gamely to break free from the tentacles which slithered like serpents over her deck and superstructure, but, for a moment, Carruthers thought they wouldn't make it.  The strain seemed too much, the powerful grip of the suckered tentacles imprisoning the tramp steamer in an implacable embrace.  Black smoke poured in torrents from the two stacks and bellowed curses drifted up from below decks.  The boards shuddered underfoot.  But then, slowly one by one, the tentacles slithered off the deck, dropping into the sea with great glittering splashes, like depth charges exploding.  As the last fell away, the steamer sprang forward, freed at last, bolting like a stallion released from a corral.

A few moments later, when Carruthers felt certain the monster had again given up the chase, he lowered his .44 and called out to Pershing: "Stop all engines."

***
"Skipper, we're taking on water."

The first mate's voice was tight with concern and, Carruthers thought, a hint of anger.

"How bad is it?"

"Nothing the pumps can't handle, but we can't stand another run-in with that sea monster.  The hull will give, for certain."

Carruthers nodded pensively, the overhead light in his cabin painting shifting shadows under his brows.  Again, the first mate, the helmsman and Bristol had gathered to discuss options.  Options?  Inside, Carruthers laughed bleakly at his own helplessness.  What options?

"We have to get to a port, sir."  The first mate was firm.  "There's no way we can get to those survivors, not with that damn sea beast attacking us every time we try."

Mention of that, of the monster, triggered a sudden question from Bristol.

"But why did it let us go?"  Eyes shifted, fixing on him quizzically.  He raised a hand and clenched it in a fist.  "That monster could have crushed this ship easily, but it didn't.  Two times that thing has let us escape."  The hand opened.  "Why?"

Silence greeted the question, and, after a moment, he supplied his own response.

"It's trying to keep us from reaching the survivors, that's why.  It's guarding them like a watchdog, attacking us only when we get too close, then letting us go when we back off.  Don't you see -- that's the only explanation that fits."

Carruthers was doubtful.  "But why would it do that?  It's just an oct...an animal."  He scowled at his own inability to say the word.  Terror, panic lurked too close beneath his thoughts, waiting, just waiting...  "You're suggesting that thing is acting with some sort of... purpose?"

"I don't know.  All I know is what I see."

Bowles interjected tightly: "But what are your orders, Skipper?  Shall we head for port?"

Carruthers frowned, scratching a cheek with his thumb.  "What we need is a weapon, some way to scare that sea monster off while we rescue the survivors of the Halifax.  If only we had a harpoon gun..."

Bowles was fast losing his patience.  "Well, we don't have a harpoon gun, sir.  The only weapon on board is that gun of yours and we've already seen how much good that did."

Carruthers shot a look at his first mate, taking the hidden meaning in his words.  It was not the gun alone which had proven useless...

More conciliatory, the helmsman stepped in.  "Honestly, sir, this ship can't face another tussle with that thing.  Whether it's trying to keep us from the survivors or not, all I know is, if it gets its tentacles on us one more time we'll go down, there's no doubt of that.  And in three hundred years, it'll be us they'll be salvaging off the Grand Banks, instead of a pirate ship."

Carruthers finally nodded, conceding defeat.  "All right," he said.  "There's nothing more we can do for them.  We'll have to get help in..."

He froze in midspeech.  Then, slowly, an exultant grin curled his lips.  His eyes began to sparkle.  He whirled on the others and slapped the startled helmsman on the shoulder.

"Pershing, you're a genius!"
 

Part 2: Conclusion





 
 

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A Menace to Shipping is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)