by Dennis Mombauer
Dennis Mombauer, born 1984, grew up along the Rhine and today lives and works in Cologne. He writes short stories and novels in German and English and is co-publisher and editor of a German magazine for experimental fiction, “Die Novelle — Zeitschrift für Experimentelles.” Current or upcoming English publications in Plasma Frequency, Geminid Press’ Night Lights anthology, Nebula Rift, New Realm and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.
– I –
Lyre music played softly in the distance, and Franshisma had the impression of waking up into a pleasant dream: there was a thick carpet beneath her feet, and the air had just the right temperature to make her feel comfortable despite her wet clothes.
Wet clothes … Franshisma looked down at herself, saw a puddle darkening the brown carpet and realized that she wasn’t asleep. Why was she wet? What kind of place was this?
Regularly spaced ceiling lamps provided a steady illumination, and rows of identical numbered doors stretched into the distance in both directions. There was a wooden railing on one side, and as Franshisma touched the marble-grey walls, she felt the coldness of metal underneath the paint.
There was nothing betraying the nature of this place, at least nothing Franshisma could readily see. Her phone seemed to be gone, as were all her other belongings, her wallet, keys, even the lighter she still carried around from her smoking days.
She tried the handle of a door and almost flinched as it opened without resistance. The room behind it was kept in the same color scheme as the corridor, all quiet shades of brown and grey. It looked very much like a hotel room, the bed made and untouched, the table decorated with a flower vase, one wall covered by murals of fish and other aquatic creatures.
Franshisma slowly walked around, ran her hand over a dresser, switched the lights off and on again, still wondering where she might be. Then, she reached the far end of the room and drew aside the curtains, revealing a round window — and suddenly, she remembered.
Lightning split the sky in a rapid succession of forked lines, and for a moment, the men and women in the yellow lifeboat could see something huge rising up in the distance, just before the rain and darkness rushed down again.
Every one of them was on their own, drifting through the storm in a vessel so tiny it got lost between the waves, holding on tightly to not be washed away into almost certain death.
The storm still raged outside the porthole, beyond the metal hull of the ship, the hammering rain barely audible through the thick glass. For a moment, Franshisma thought she saw something small and bright out there, just before it was swallowed by the crushing darkness of the waves; but it might have been nothing more than her imagination.
The ship had to be huge for the sea to be so far below her, and even though it was plowing through a heavy storm, Franshisma could feel no heaving, no rolling, no up and down.
As she exited the cabin, she looked left, then right — and was hit by shock, invisible foam waves flooding through her mind as she saw someone standing there, just a few doors away. It was a woman, and she appeared to be just as lost as Franshisma: her make-up was smeared, her dark hair tangled like seaweed, as if she had been running through heavy rain — but there was no trace of wetness, even her clothes seemed to have dried up completely.
“Hello …?” Franshisma hated the weak, doubtful sound of her voice, so she called out to the woman again, much firmer: “Hello.”
“Hello.” The woman approached without reservation. “You were on the plane, right?” She smiled and reached out a hand. “I’m Emolia.” Her handshake was reassuring, and Franshisma would have liked to hold onto it for a little longer. “Do you remember how we got here? After the crash, I mean?”
Impressions of thunder and turbulence flashed before Franshisma’s eyes, of static electricity dancing over the wings outside the cabin windows.
There were screams and chaos as the plane plummeted toward the roiling ocean … the smell of the pilot’s burnt flesh, the panicked beeping of the instruments, the respiratory masks coming down.
Another puzzle piece of Franshisma’s memory … the plane had been in mid-flight, en route to Bali, well above the pacific. It was a vacation she had desperately needed, and since no one had been able to accompany her, she had anticipated it as a complete break from everything: her work, her friends, her private life.
She remembered the check-in at the airport terminal, the plane climbing above the clouds, the sun rising over an endless expanse of white. She had tried to sleep and finally dozed off – but after that, the events were still a confusion of disjointed images, of the falling plane, the waves, the lightning … and an immense ship towering out of the ocean.
“I think we are on a cruise ship, probably a big one … just look at all these rooms and corridors. Back there, a sign said that this was deck six … but I don’t know how many decks there are. We should find someone else, I think.”
“Yes …,” Emolia’s suggestion made sense, but this situation didn’t: Why was no one here? If this was a cruise ship, it should be full of people — or at the very least, their traces. The ship’s condition was so pristine as if no passenger or crew member had ever set foot on it, an untouched wilderness of earthy carpets and spotless walls. Franshisma saw no stains, no signs of wear and tear, no luggage, no litter, not even used towels in the bathrooms.
“Where is everyone? The ship can’t be empty when it’s out at sea, can it?” Emolia looked around before she summoned a smile to her lips: “Maybe this is a test trip, and there is only the crew onboard? Maybe we should try to reach the bridge?”
Franshisma nodded, and while the two of them walked, they talked about their lives, if only to drown out the haunting background of the lyre music. The woman had a similar job as Franshisma — and with her forthcoming attitude, her soft voice, the way she listened, she actually reminded Franshisma of herself in social settings.
“There, look!” They turned a corner and reached a lobby area, with an unmanned reception desk, elevator shafts and a staircase with white lights. Fake Corinthian columns with elaborate capitals protruded from the walls, and some kind of mosaic god with a trident was embedded into the floor.
Emolia immediately rifled through the orderly arranged papers and prospects on the desk, diving into an investigation the way Franshisma dove into the sea of conversations at a party.
“If we go this way,” Emolia pointed along a random corridor, “we will come to the central area of the ship, something called the ‘Agora’. This whole thing seems to have a sort of ‘Ancient Greece’ theme … see, there is a Dionysian Theatre, an Acropolis, even the hydropark has an ‘Oracle Grotto’.”
“What about this ‘Agora’ area, what does it contain?”
“Let’s find out, shall we? Come on, this is a little bit exciting.”
Emolia’s energy and constant chatting provided a less disturbing ambience than the ship’s lyre music, but it started to turn into an irritation itself. Her voice came in waves that rolled on against Franshisma’s patience, ebbing away just before she got annoyed, then trying to continue the conversation after a pause.
“Shouldn’t we rather head up to the bridge?” Franshisma looked at the elevators with their dully shimmering doors, then back at Emolia.
“Come one, there must be people at the Agora, and it isn’t far from here. We just have to talk to people, and they will help us out. Who knows if we can get access to the bridge — but this is definitely a passenger area.”
They moved through the ship and down a wide flight of stairs, which led them one deck lower and directly toward their destination.
The Agora was enormous, with a high glass ceiling lit up by dozens of artificial lights. The storm-ravaged sky was visible as a dark circle in its center, and when lightning crossed the clouds in crackling flashes, all the lamps flickered and went dead for a heartbeat.
The room itself was a round plaza, with a wide promenade extending left and right, and several smaller corridors on the opposite side, leading back into the ship. The promenade seemed to be several hundred feet long, but it was shrouded in grey twilight, with only a few electrical fires turned on, just enough to make out silhouettes and vague outlines.
Franshisma and Emolia slowly stepped into the open, treading over imitated stone slabs and passing the food vendors and restaurants along the outer walls. The space under the glass dome was a mock-ancient ruin of weathered sculptures and pillars, very much like the postcard image of an Aegean archaeological site.
“If this wasn’t so spooky, it would be really nice for a vacation, don’t you think? This is an impressive ship.”
Emolia’s words echoed back from the vast dome and made Franshisma shiver, even though they had been spoken softly. Newspaper pages rustled like birds in a forest, driven by a sudden gust of wind — but as big as this plaza was, it was still a completely enclosed space, well protected from the elements outside.
“Let’s leave.” It was uncomfortable standing here, not knowing if someone was watching them from the darkened stores or out of a shadowy entrance. Franshisma didn’t wait for Emolia’s response, but instead moved toward the other side, quickly crossing the central area of the promenade.
There was a gourmet restaurant right next to the exit, and Franshisma looked through the windows and open kitchen doors, getting a glimpse of long countertops and empty sinks while they passed by. Emolia was telling her about some office party or another, but Franshisma didn’t listen while she took in the familiar monotony of corridors and numbered cabin doors.
Without warning, the ship’s speaker system came to live in a burst of grey noise, like a radio tuned to no station. There was a high-pitched buzzing, followed by hissing static, only a few seconds long, but more than enough to make Franshisma’s heart pound faster.
“Did you catch anything?”
Emolia shook her head, but her eyes never left the nearest speaker: “No, just noise — but this has to mean that we are not alone here, doesn’t it?”
– II –
The longer they walked, the more the corridors seemed to transform, increasingly showing signs of deterioration and disrepair. Franshisma felt as if she was leaving a model apartment and finding out that the neighborhood around it had gone bad, that the windows had been smeared with dirt, the doorways covered in garbage, the streets claimed by green weeds.
“This is odd.” Franshisma spoke to her companion without looking, too occupied by the rapid change of the environment. Every step this side of the Agora seemed to remove her further from the unspoiled cabins on the outer hull, to lead her into the rusted heart of this place. “Why isn’t the whole ship in the same condition? Emolia?”
Long, creaking sounds vibrated through the air like distorted whale songs, the audible aching of strained metal. Everything appeared to slightly tilt now, as if the ship was lying half-erected on the ocean floor, its weight constantly shifting.
“Emolia?” Even before Franshisma turned around, she already sensed that Emolia was gone, as suddenly as she had appeared. Franshisma was alone, and in both directions, the cruise ship’s clean, empty corridors had changed into the decrepit hulk of a wreck that had sunk a long time ago.
“Emolia!” The air was damp and rotten, making Franshisma gag with every breath. Where there had been spotless walls before, rust now crept down the metal in ugly streaks, and the wetness had turned the carpet into a rotting and molded undergrowth.
How was this possible? Franshisma walked a few steps, and her feet splashed through the puddles and rivulets that now covered the ground, occasionally rippled by water dripping from above. Shadows obscured large sections of the corridor, and the few functional lamps flickered and sprayed sparks.
“Emolia!” Franshisma’s shouting travelled along the green-tinged corridor and around the next junction, but she didn’t get a response.
There were footsteps in the distance, as if someone was wading through the swollen carpet, and Franshisma kept still and listened, getting a sense of the rhythms and background noises of the ship. There was definitely something moving, something as big as her … another human being.
“Emolia?” Franshisma’s first instinct was to hide, to open one of the algae-overgrown doors or run back toward the Agora — but she reminded herself that she was looking for someone, that as annoying as Emolia had started to get, she was still better than being alone here.
“Who is there? Hello?!”
It wasn’t Emolia, but a man of about Franshisma’s age, who appeared at the junction and immediately sized her up, not in a sexual way, but like a carpenter might size up a piece of wood.
“It’s a cruise ship! Hey! Here we are!” A man tried to stand up and tumbled as another wave made the yellow lifeboat almost keel over. “We have to get there, now!”
Lightning illuminated the sea, and they could all see what the man had pointed at, an enormous structure towering into the darkened sky, like a mountain of metal and brightly lit windows, almost a thousand feet in length, with a course that would take it directly toward them.
“You were on the flight with me.” The man had lean, muscular forearms, and his rolled-up sleeves made him look like someone used to taking charge. “I remember you from the lifeboat.”
“You were the one who told us to swim, weren’t you? Do you know that we’re on a cruise ship?”
“Oh, yes, and not just any cruise ship: this is the ‘Oceanic Harmony’. It was quite the story three years ago, when it vanished just before its maiden voyage, with over three hundred crew members aboard. It was one of the biggest cruise ships ever built, and its loss nearly bankrupted the line.”
“Really? How do you know this?”
“I’m an industrial architect, such things interest me. I haven’t seen any labeling yet, but this has to be the Oceanic Harmony, one hundred percent – there are no other lost and abandoned cruise ships, certainly not of this size.”
“So this is a ghost ship?”
“As far as you believe in such things.” The man stood arms akimbo and looked around. “It definitely seems like a ship that has drifted on the open sea for years. I’m Grin Gelborg, by the way.”
“Franshisma. Do you remember how we got here?”
His brow furrowed, and that alone answered her question. “Not exactly. We must have climbed up, I guess, but when I came to me, I was nowhere near a window.” He shrugged. “Regardless, we are here now, and we should get moving. Maybe the equipment on the bridge is still functional, so we can send a distress signal.”
Franshisma had worked with men like him before, men who seemed to naturally gravitate toward a leadership role, staying friendly only as long as others behaved subordinately and followed their commands. Her office was full of those types, with their quips and remarks that were always mechanical tools to build up dominance — and she knew this was the route to success, the name of the game.
“There are elevators where I came from, just on the other side of the ship’s central area. I was with a woman, we had tried to reach the Agora, then crossed it …”
“Why? What did you expect to be there, other than some shops and decoration? Did you want to buy souvenirs? The bridge is where we need to go — come on.”
They turned back in the direction Franshisma had come from, and at first glance, Franshisma thought they had taken a wrong turn — but as she recognized more and more structural elements, it became disturbingly clear that the Agora had changed.
It reminded her more of a grotto now, with slimy algae creeping up the fake pillars in virescent veins, glistening with wetness like a monsoon forest. Newspaper pages drifted in the dirty streams across the floor like real vegetation, and there was the sound of dripping water everywhere, as if the darkened glass ceiling was about to crack under the ocean’s weight.
“This is all wrong …”
“Listen.” Grin Gelborg put a hand on Franshisma’s shoulder. “Everything here is rotten and decrepit, because this ship has been left unattended at sea for three years — but we have to keep going. Sometimes, what you need is action, to do something, not just talk about your feelings.” He turned away from her, but before he could make a step, there was another noise, one that promised peril.
It was a distant banging of metal on metal that travelled along the pipes and mold-infested walls, like mismatched machinery parts grinding against each other. The sound came and stopped, came and stopped, from three alternating directions — and every time, it got a little closer.
“Shht.” Grin put a finger to his lips and stood slightly crouched, as if he was trying to imitate a primitive hunter. “Follow me.”
He began to sneak around the puddles, and Franshisma went after him wordlessly, employing the polite smile she had cultivated at work, combined with a calmness that didn’t betray her true emotions.
They crossed the Agora and moved in the direction that Franshisma originally came from, but the incessant banging closed in on them, blocked their way, funneled them into another corridor.
It was like the war drums hunting down a movie adventurer through lush jungles, and Franshisma felt sweat slickening her neck, her heart hammering, her breath going faster. This was not the sound of work being done, which she had heard often enough at construction sites — it was the sound of something malevolent circling them, something that used those noises either as intimidation or some form of pack communication.
“Where are we going?”
“Away from them.” The man hissed angrily and turned another corner, entering a lounge area with battered, avocado-colored armchairs, which Franshisma didn’t remember from her way to the Agora.
“But they are herding us somewhere, don’t you see? Maybe we should stay here, maybe we should wait for them …” Franshisma’s voice lacked the confidence necessary to convince someone, because all her instincts screamed at her to run, reared up in her mind and almost shuffled off the rational part.
“Alright.” The man straightened himself and looked around, then walked toward a glass-enclosed fire extinguisher. “We can stop and make a stand here.”
As he broke the glass, the clank resounded through the corridors, and the banging stopped for longer than usual, as if its initiators were listening, pausing, hesitating, before they continued their hunt again.
“What are you doing? Are we just waiting for them to come? This is a terrible plan, we should at least—”
“Shht!” Grin flashed an angry look at her, and Franshisma decided that this was enough, that she was tired of his condescending arrogance.
“Don’t think—” She raised her finger and met his stare, just to see his eyes turning, reacting to another sound nearby.
Something rushed out of the corridor, and Franshisma could glimpse scrawny limbs and something like a dangling trunk before the fire extinguisher went off. The entity vanished in an explosion of pale fog, transforming into a vaguely humanoid, vaguely monstrous shape, thrashing and struggling, with a misshapen skull, giant insect eyes, naked skin and something metal in its claws.
Franshisma felt her shoulder bump into the rusted wall, and realized that she had unconsciously moved back while staring. The creature’s outlines seemed to bleed out of the amorphous cloud that Grin continually sprayed at it, retreating back into the corridor, but not clearly enough to feel safe again.
Franshisma fought down her panic, tried to focus on something — and couldn’t find Grin anymore. She was alone amidst the derelict corridors, abandoned by the man and his fire extinguisher, surrounded by inhuman beasts.
She didn’t dare to shout for him and turned round and round instead, looking for anything, anyone, any sign of movement. A noise swelled up, but it was not the metal banging of the creatures — it was another activation of the ship’s speakers, an unintelligible cacophony of interference.
– III –
What was happening? Franshisma searched for Grin Gelborg, listened for his voice and footsteps, or those of the faceless creatures.
The banging on the walls had stopped, but there was something else in the distance, a series of beats and clattering, fading out and beginning anew after a couple of seconds, each time increasing in volume, as if an immense machinery was starting up.
“Emolia! Grin? Anyone!” Franshisma blindly ran along a corridor while the strange engine noises swelled up around her. Everything was fluctuating: the ubiquitous rust discolored to a shade of dried blood, the puddles evaporated and filled the hallways with steam, the algae withered and peeled from the walls.
There was no sign of the creatures, no sign of Emolia or Grin, no sign of any other living organism — but Franshisma kept running and didn’t slow down.
The ship’s illumination shifted, and the machine-driven clamor in the distance kept getting louder, making it difficult to concentrate, to think straight, to really access the situation –
The floor unexpectedly gave way under Franshisma’s feet, and she was flying down a staircase, crashing hard into a flesh-warm wall. She stumbled to the side, lost her balance again and found herself rushing down another flight of stairs with too much speed.
She landed on the floor with her hands first in an explosion of bright red, and two needles of pain drilled through her wrists. The carpet seemed to stick to her, tried to hold her down and pull her closer to the ground, but she scrambled, fought herself into an upright position again.
The ship’s hallways loomed up like the nave of a cathedral, higher and more pointedly than before, and in parts, Franshisma could see lights flickering behind crevices, as if the walls were interspersed by a smoldering fire.
Where was she? Franshisma listened for sounds, but heard only a layered orchestra of noises, the muffled base stomping of large pistons, an array of hissing steam and turbines, louder solos of high-pitched clanking, of rotating gears and burning fuel.
The whole ship was working, filled by invisible motion that heated up the walls and air, purging it of all signs of rot, as if it were being brought back up from the bottom of the sea … or dragged deeper down.
With no reference points, Franshisma just walked straight ahead, letting her aching wrists hang down and carefully watching for any sign of danger. The hallway merged into a smaller tunnel, an airlock sealed with erythraean curtains that led her into the upper ranks of a theatre.
A contracted flower of drapes and panels spread out over the ceiling like some arachnoid nightmare, and empty rows of seats descended toward a darkened stage below. The whole room seemed to be easily capable of containing a thousand or more people, an audience greater than many city theatres of which Franshisma had seen the plans.
The stairs leading down between the rows were illuminated in hushed carmine, analogous to the white lighting Franshisma had seen in the lobby long ago, before she even reached the Agora. She looked around and noticed something down on the stage, at its very corner: a woman, huddled together, face buried between her knees.
“Emolia?” Franshisma’s whisper faltered before the overwhelming silence of the theatre and the noises from outside, and she slowly made her way down the stairs. The woman looked vaguely like Emolia, but there was no way to be sure, not from the distance while she was crouched like this.
“Emolia, is this you?” Franshisma reached the ground floor — the theatre had to span several decks in height — and climbed up to the stage.
As she stepped closer to the huddled figure, it became clear that it was not Emolia, but someone of roughly equal stature, with hair as dark and tangled as Emolia’s, or also Franshisma’s own.
“You there, can you hear me? Are you awake?” Franshisma approached, but held a safe distance, uncertain what to do — until the woman slowly raised her head.
The water splashing over them was freezing cold, and the people inside the yellow lifeboat could only hold on as they helplessly bopped up and down with the roaring waves.
“Maybe we should stay here, not try anything stupid … we will never make it to the ship.” The voice came from the back of the boat, where several people tightly clasped the railing, and it was hardly loud enough to be heard amidst the chaos of the raging thunderstorm.
The cruise ship steadily steered toward them, and in the glaring brightness of yet another lightning, long ropes with lifebelts were visible at its side.
“We should wait in the boat, try to survive the storm and wait for someone to rescue us.”
“Go away.” The woman looked terrible, her eyes shadowed by tired skin and full of broken blood vessels. Her voice was hoarse, as if she hadn’t spoken in a long time, and Franshisma strained to understand her.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“My name is Apathema … and I’m doing nothing, I’m just hiding, sitting here, waiting for it all to be over. I can’t go anywhere, because they are around me on every side … only this place is safe, I can’t go anywhere else, not out there, please don’t make me.”
“Who are ‘they’? Have you seen the creatures? What are you talking about?”
“I just want to be left alone …” The woman’s whimpering was pitiful, and it reminded Franshisma of a cat she once had, who fell sick and had to be put to sleep. “Everything shifts, everything is offset … the ship changes in circles, but I’m stranded here, with the noise everywhere, with these fiends working all around me on their infernal machines. Why do they do it? I don’t know, I just want them to stop, to leave me alone.”
“You don’t have to be alone.” Franshisma offered her hand to the woman, but she just stared at it with glassy eyes. “We can reach the bridge together and call for help. Come one, get up.”
For a moment, something like a shooting star seemed to trail through the woman’s red-streaked iris, but it extinguished as quickly as it had flared up. “You are like everyone else, just afraid of getting lost … there is no help, no way off this ship … it just goes on and on, until we finally go down with it. The ship is you, and you are the ship. Don’t you think I’ve tried to escape?”
Apathema slumped down, withdrawing back into herself just as Franshisma did after a hard day at work, when she came home in the darkness and wanted nothing more than to be given some peace.
“What exactly have you tried? Let’s think together, do this methodically.”
“There is only one method here, and it’s the ship’s method, the Oceanic Dissonance. It is an endless cycle of repetition, coming around and around again, like being reborn into one life after the other, unable to hold on. You are alone, you are stalked by fiends, you are surrounded by the fiends’ machines, and then alone again … and every time, you are different, not yourself.”
As Apathema’s words ebbed away, Franshisma realized what her subconscious had been trying to tell her for a while, a change in the rhythm of the ship’s sounds: a banging of metal against metal had started to close in, from the theatre’s entrances as well as from behind the stage.
“There they are … you have brought them here, you and your infernal noise. Go away, so I can retreat into myself again …”
“Shut up! Let me think for a moment, or is this too much to ask?” Franshisma felt like she sometimes did at work, when her superiors needed a project finished, but some assistant came to her with meaningless blueprint details — only that it was her life at stake here, not her career.
The curtain swayed in an otherwise unnoticeable breeze, and the banging had almost reached the room. Franshisma began running, down from the stage and toward the stairs, but there was already movement up there, a semi-naked figure with a metal pipe.
It was hunched over and had no face, just an insectoid horror mask with a dangling hose, seemingly writhing of its own volition. Where could Franshisma go? Where could she hide? She ducked between the front rows, but more of the creatures entered the theatre and swarmed out along the ranks, violently smashing their iron pipes against the seats to keep up their rhythmic banging.
Apathema didn’t seem to care, even as one of the beasts trudged past her, the hose of its terrifying face glistening in the theatre’s dim light.
Bang. Franshisma cringed as metal crashed down very closely, and she crouched between the ranks, trying to find a way out. One creature was almost directly above her, two others advanced from the stage toward the stairs, and several more streamed out of the upper entrances.
Franshisma had only one choice left: to make a run for it before these beings found her. She took one deep breath, a second deep breath, then leaped up and sprinted.
The creatures’ inhuman heads turned, and their gaunt arms swung like wiry pendulums as they set themselves into motion. Franshisma accelerated and headed for the nearest exit on the ground floor, even if it wasn’t where she had come from, and she had no idea where it might lead.
It was a corridor connecting to some sort of backstage area, a maze of dressing rooms and prop warehouses. Mirrors with rings of burnt-out light bulbs marked make-up stations with little partition walls between them, and Franshisma could see her own reflection fractured in three, tired eyes, tangled hair, rolled-up blouse sleeves.
Open doors revealed closets with costumes, like drained skins hung up to dry, but Franshisma had no time to look, she had to run, the booming sounds of the creatures on her tail.
She passed the next door and entered a hot and humid corridor, a passage through deafeningly swollen machine noises. There were gears and tubes coming out of the walls, like the teeth of milling jaws, and Franshisma got caught in one of them, shredding her clothes, her skin, feeling warmth streaming over her arm.
She looked backward and saw a creature crossing the dressing room, then turned around again, only to discover other movement before her.
“What do you want from me? Stay away!” There was no weapon in sight, only the mercilessly grinding gears and the sweltering steam. “Stay back!”
Something rolled itself through the corridor and directly toward Franshisma, a flash flood of meat, of clawed legs and needle-sharp teeth. At first, it appeared to be a whole swarm of creatures, but somehow, this disgusting mass of blood and softness was conjoined together, one single organism thundering in her direction.
The speaker system activated suddenly as always, a layer of red, shrieking noise over a distant chorus of voices. Franshisma thought she heard something like the ground floor of a stock exchange, a multitude of screams and cries, driven by adrenaline as well as something deeper, by pain and anguish.
It was short, but it penetrated Franshisma’s body almost to the bone: and when it ended, the creatures were gone.
– IV –
It was as if Franshisma was waking up from a nightmare, soaked with sweat from head to toe, but unharmed. The ship appeared exactly as it had in the beginning … abandoned corridors, soft lyre music, quiet shades of brown and grey.
There were no engine noises, no flames or hissing steam, no mold, no wetness, no sign of any living being. The Oceanic Harmony could have just as well been launched from the dry dock an hour ago, and its purity seemed almost more disturbing than everything else Franshisma had seen.
She looked down at herself and discovered a dark puddle staining the carpet, a déjà vu of her first awakening on this ship, and a reminder that she was not actually unharmed. As soon as she saw her arm and the blood running along it, dripping to the floor from her fingernails, the pain returned, making her clench her teeth.
She hadn’t been dreaming of that theatre, and she wasn’t dreaming now: this was all real. A part of her wanted to follow the example of Apathema, to just find a place to hide and stay, waiting for the creatures and this ever-shifting ship to disappear — but a stronger faction of her mind revolted against that.
Through a series of high windows, Franshisma could see the storm-ravaged sea outside, a chaos of spraying foam and towering whitewater, before the corridor curved back inward and led her into a chamber with dim lights. It had the atmosphere of a museum: a gallery of ancient Greek art, with vitrines full of vases and paintings, of sculptures, metal figurines, tools and weapons.
Franshisma made a few steps, then stopped. Everywhere she looked, she saw horrific images, scenes of spiritual darkness: amphorae with black-figure painting, silhouettes of shackled men and women, of infants smashed against rocks. Another monochrome composition showed a faceless figure drowning in clay, people wearing yokes, people being flogged; a partially ruined fresco animated a tableau of war and slavery, where a man pulled out another man’s throat surrounded by swords hacking down, spears goring flesh like the horns of a bull.
There were gods above the slaughter, far removed and uninterested, their eyelids closed toward the suffering beneath. Franshisma saw a broken shield, its rim adorned with rows of painted teeth, and her arteries suddenly tightened as she smelled the thing from behind the theatre, the avalanche of flesh that had come crashing toward her.
Every contraction of her heart echoed painfully across the length of her body, vibrated through her fingertips as if they could burst open at any moment. She had felt so helpless, unable to do anything … Grin would have tried to stop it, escape from it, find some way to deal with it — just as Franshisma always found a way to deal with her own problems at work.
A serrated dagger gleamed behind another glass casing, and as Franshisma turned away, she suddenly realized the life-sized female statue standing next to it, with marble skin and arms ending at her elbows. For a moment, the statue merged with the image of the gas-masked creatures, and a glistening worm seemed to wind out of her open mouth, crawling over her breasts like a gargantuan slug.
Franshisma hurried out of the art gallery, following signs without reading them. She descended a short, white-lighted set of stairs and entered a bar area, with a counter interrupted by columns that carried a joint entablature, like a colonnade filled with glasses and liquor bottles. A turned-off fountain lay dormant amidst the tables, its water mirror-smooth over pebbles and archaic grey coins.
Franshisma rolled up the remainder of her sleeve and immersed her arm in the coolness of the water, watching a cloud of blood disperse. She waited until the cold had numbed the pain of her cuts, then carefully stood up again and looked around, realizing that someone else had entered the room.
“Fran!” Emolia stood there and waved as if it was the most normal thing in the world, as if nothing had happened. “I’m so happy to see you again, you know? This ship is very empty, I haven’t crossed paths with anyone!”
“You haven’t seen the creatures?” Franshisma quickly closed the distance between them, as if that alone could prevent Emolia from vanishing again. “The rust, the machines, you have seen nothing?”
“What are you talking about? I’ve been following these corridors, searching for you or somebody else, but there is no one, not a single soul aboard this ship.”
Grin had disappeared when the engines started up, and Apathema had seemed not only unwilling, but almost unable to leave her spot on the theatre’s stage. Strange though they were, there seemed to be rules to this place, regulations and rhythms, unnatural laws of nature.
“I’ve met this man, Grin Gelborg, from the plane and the lifeboat. He wanted to get to the bridge, but then these creatures started stalking us, and we … got separated.”
“Then we should head for the bridge too, don’t you think? He might be there, and we can all find a way to be rescued together, as a group.”
The speaker system began to crackle, and Franshisma reacted immediately by grabbing Emolia, keeping her eyes glued to the other woman while the strange noises and piping washed over them and through the brown-grey bar area.
– V –
Franshisma and Emolia observed rust flowers blooming on the walls, the metal changing its hue to an underwater green, mold and lichen creeping up from the carpet. Franshisma didn’t let go of Emolia’s arm, and Emolia didn’t seem to mind: their body warmth joined them together and granted them some sort of protection against the ship’s transformation.
“This is what you were talking about, isn’t it? What does it mean? How can this be?”
Franshisma followed Emolia as she started to walk, moved her hand over the damp surface of the walls, then opened a cabin. It was pitch dark outside the portholes, and the floor was covered by shallow water, reflecting the cabin lamps and projecting swirling patterns on the walls. For a moment, Franshisma couldn’t breathe, her mouth and lungs blocked by a pressure from outside, as if she was drowning deep underneath the sea — then, it was gone, and she gasped for air.
Bang. The sound reverberated along the corridors like a hunter’s shot through the forest. Bang. Somewhere in the distance, another clash of metal against metal answered the call, and Franshisma finally let go of Emolia’s arm, staring into the ship.
“What is this? What should we do?”
“We should run.” Franshisma took the lead and tried to orient herself, to find the fastest way to the bridge before the ship changed once more.
Bang. Bang. Bang. There were three sources of noise in different directions, and Franshisma could already tell from their interplay that they were encircling them. Something moved behind the next corner, a wet pitter-patter of feet through the growing puddles — but it was much too close to be one of the creatures already.
“You?” Both women sighed with relief as they saw Grin, his clothes drenched with sweat, a signal pistol in hand.
“Franshisma! Where have you been? Who’s that?” He shook his head, as if to get rid of some bad thought. “Doesn’t matter. Quick, do you know the way up? We have to keep moving, or they’ll get us!”
He set himself in motion, and they hurried through the Oceanic Harmony, trying not to be slowed down by the sponge-like carpet or slip and fall. They reached a staircase and climbed up several stories, to deck three, six, finally eight, where the stairs ended and they had to enter the maze of the ship’s entrails again.
For a moment, Franshisma felt surrounded by water — algae swaying in the sluggish current, plankton floating through dim celadon — until they turned the next corner and the mirage vanished.
All three of them stopped as they saw the thing behind it, a thing that quickly came toward them: gaunt, with pallid skin stretching over sharp bones, a body like that of a starving man, fleshless fingers clamped around the handle of a wrench.
Grin aimed his pistol, but Emolia stepped in his way while Franshisma tried to fight down the adrenaline pumping through her veins.
“Wait, wait, don’t shoot it! Let’s try to communicate with it … you, can you understand us? Can you speak?”
There was only a soft, gurgling sound from behind the glistening mouthpiece, as if someone was attempting to breathe while completely submerged. Water trickled down from under the mask, leaving murky trails across the creature’s androgynous chest, but no comprehensible words followed.
“Do you need something from us? Do you need help?”
Grin struggled to steady his trembling pistol, and Franshisma felt her heart hammering as Emolia approached the creature, which tilted its grotesque head and allowed her to get closer.
“Or can you maybe help us? We need to get to the bridge, you understand? Up on the ship, do you know the way?”
More water sloshed out at the mask’s edges and seemed to secrete from the tentacle-hose, accompanied by almost inaudible blubbering.
“Come back!” Grin side-stepped Emolia and pointed his weapon at the creature again, but Emolia moved fast to block his field of fire. “We don’t need this thing, it’s only stalling us until his freak friends are here!”
But even while he was saying it, Grin’s voice trailed off as the creature began to walk a few steps, then looked at them from lifeless glass eyes the size of human hands. It made another step, and Emolia followed it down the corridor, where it started to bang the walls in regular intervals and set off on a hunched run.
The creature led them up through the labyrinth without hesitation, without stopping at the many junctions or the staircases flooded by rust-tainted rivulets.
They had to wade through partially submerged passageways and across a hall full of tiny fish flitting away, all the time accompanied by metal crashing against metal, swung through the air by the creature’s wiry muscles. Franshisma and her companions could hear movements in the distance, and always the voiceless calls of the other creatures, which seemed to neither get closer nor farther away.
Franshisma more and more feared the moment the ship’s speakers would sound and it would change again, from this drowned wreck to the working engines, the heat, the machines — but then, the creature stopped at another set of stairs, and Emolia gave it a warm smile. “This leads to the upper deck? You’ve been very helpful!”
“Yes, very helpful, thank you.” Grin smiled as well, like some great predator of the jungle might smile. “But we have to keep moving.”
Without averting their eyes from the waiting creature — who had finally stopped its banging — they climbed the stairs and stepped outside. There was no rain, no wind, no lightning, not even a sky: only banks of thick fog rolling softly over the ship’s superstructure, like the waves of a spectral sea.
“The bridge has to be on the bow,” Grin rotated around, then stopped, the flare gun pointed, “which is this direction.” Franshisma stared at him, and he hesitated: “Do you all agree? Then come with me, please.”
They followed Grin through the fog, which absorbed the sound of their steps completely and restricted their view, until all they could see was the ground and some shadowy silhouettes. Franshisma walked over wooden planks, which felt very light and hollow under her feet, probably nothing more than a decking to cover the metal hull underneath.
The sounds of lapping and burbling water echoed and resounded from somewhere not far away, distorted by the fog, and Franshisma hoped that Grin knew where he was leading them, that it had been a good decision to let him take charge.
“Not very. The Oceanic Harmony is one of the biggest ships in the world, but Emolia’s freak friend has brought us up very close to the bridge. I estimate we just have to cross the pool area to reach it.”
The ground narrowed to some sort of walkway, with duckweed-covered basins peeling themselves from the mist on both sides, and Grin slowed down his march to prevent slipping on the wet wood.
Marble faces with snake hair and green patina gurgled up steady streams of water into the sludge below, their eyes lifeless and uncaring. How much time had passed? Franshisma wanted nothing more than to get off this ship with Emolia and Grin, but there were murmuring voices inside her, telling her it wouldn’t be that easy, that it couldn’t be that easy.
With a crackling discord, loudspeakers all around them turned on and resounded words across the deck, inhuman and distorted, but clearly comprehensible: “Attention all passengers: the Oceanic Harmony will now approach its home port, the end of its journey. We hope that you enjoyed your stay and will visit us again. Attention all passengers!”
– VI –
As soon as the announcement faded away, the water began to steam. It created a strange phenomenon in the air: the fog, which had hung over the upper deck like heavy cloth over an exhibition piece, lifted and was immediately replaced by finer, hotter, more humid vapor.
Everywhere around the two women and the man, ghostly forms manifested in the air, coalesced into each other and vanished again, a kaleidoscope illuminated by flickering red lights that emanated from beyond the ship’s sides, as if this was a foundry or some other superheated workplace.
Franshisma slowly let go of Emolia and Grin, whom she had grabbed as soon as the loudspeakers activated, and listened to the startling rattle of the engines beneath their feet, the hissing and piping and pounding that was gradually building up.
“We need to get off, and we need to do it now.”
The walkway collapsed under their feet, and all three of them plummeted down through the mist, right into the steaming water. It was far too hot, and Franshisma couldn’t see anything, just started to sprint, half running and half swimming in a surge of panic.
She reached the edge of the pool, climbed up and looked around, but Emolia and Grin were gone. Through the screen of water vapor, more of the ship had become visible, but only as faint, hazy contours, as if through the atmosphere of an alien planet.
There was a strange glow rising up from the ocean, as if the Oceanic Harmony were accelerating toward a submarine sunset, and in the flickering reverberations, Franshisma saw the creatures. They were straying through the mist in packs of three or more, dragging their improvised weapons along the planks or carrying them over their shoulders.
Franshisma fled, and the mist whirled around her, touched and caressed her skin, stuck to her in fine layers, accumulating to an incorporeal cocoon. Wisps of fog hung from her arms like bloated leeches, fraying out as she moved, trailing behind her, then sinking back to the ground.
There was a hill of artificial rocks rising up between the basins of water, with the opening of a grotto in its flank — and behind that opening, Franshisma spotted a figure, a woman with dark hair, huddled in a corner against the elements outside.
“You have come to me again … are you tired of trying to get off this ship, to get out of this?”
The inside of the cave was wet and pleasantly temperate, the rock walls drowning out all machine noises, replacing them with a hollow melody of dripping water. The wavering glow from outside only reached the entrance as a pink hue, and the rest of the grotto was filled with softly swaying shadows.
“When … how did you get up here? Do you want to come with me now?”
“No … I’m not going anywhere, I want to stay here … and if you want, you can stay here with me, in this grotto, where we are safe.”
“I was with two people, I have to find them!”
“Why? What do you really have in common with them? They are just what their environment makes them, chatty amidst people and busy among work … but you are different, you are a true person, even alone, especially alone. Let them wander into the fog and get lost, while you stay here with me, were it is safe. The ship’s journey is almost complete.”
“No …” Franshisma slowly backed out of the grotto, then turned and began to run. “Emolia! Grin! Where are you?”
The mist wrested the words from her, carried them away, made her voice falter – and then, it brought back a response.
The ground had turned into a nightmare of revolving cogs and steel spikes, but Franshisma maneuvered resolutely toward Emolia’s position. There she was, and Grin beside her, a trickle of blood running down his grimly smiling face.
“Let’s move!” A glowing comet flared up from his signal pistol and exploded in brightness, transforming the deck into a pattern of blinding light and stark geometrical shadows, revealing the creatures closing in on them. “There, do you see it? Follow me, we are almost there!”
Something towered up before them, a massive structure with walls that were red-hot in several places, steam hissing over them like fast-flowing water. A set of double doors led in, and Grin was there first to push them open, shouting for the others to come.
Franshisma mobilized her last reserves, while the glowing ocean got brighter, bathing everything in heatless fire — then, she spurted through the doors with Emolia at her side, and all three of them entered the bridge.
Franshisma felt the ground moving beneath her, and there was cold wetness lapping at her feet. She opened her eyes to a panorama of blue and yellow: an endless expanse of blue ocean blending into the horizon on all sides, and the yellow walls of a tiny lifeboat surrounding her like a broken shell.
Where was Emolia? Where was Grin Gelborg? How had she gotten here? Franshisma didn’t understand what had happened, but there was a feeling of release, of unity, of parts and pieces fitting together into a single frame.
The sea was calm and empty in all directions, just on one side framed by a few clouds – and for a short moment, Franshisma thought that she could see something huge and dark vanishing there, a shadow towering out over the waves — or maybe just a wisp of fog that dissipated in the hot evening air
Originally published in The World of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 1, January 2016.