Submission for the Ship of Dreams Challenge
The chopping of the sea, ancient and mysterious, all knowing while descending its waves upon an old galleon, wood bending from the force of the water’s hammer like strikes, each colossal blast pushing to bring it under, but still it sailed through the storm.
You are never really prepared for an emergency, you rise or you crumble,
I was suddenly startled awake, it was pitch black, but I knew my eyes were open even though they saw nothing. I could feel that the room I found myself in was very small and someone stood over me.
“Mr Right, its 21:00, I know you wanted to be awakened for the night shift.” Benjie quietly whispered to me.
Benjie was my righthand man, I quickly reached and flicked the switch exposing the small room to the bright yellow light. We were in cramped single quarters, which was actually a luxury for any crewman. A single bed, sparse dressings with my personal affects mounted from hooks on the wall. I dressed quickly, while Benjie and I spoke.
“Anything to report from dayshift?” I checked myself in the small bedside mirror.
“The fire on deck 7 was finally put out, and there was a casualty with one of the Gremlins, a man named Dawson is dead.”
Hmm I mused. The Gremlins stoked coal for the massive furnaces, they ran at half speed during the day so the dollies didn’t have their beautiful view ruined with so much smoke, but that meant running at full speed during nights to keep route pace.
“And there is a worrying situation with bulkhead 46, right below the bow of the ship.” Benjie continued.
“Breach?” I asked.
“No Sir, just strangeness.” Benjie shrugged, he was a man of action not words.
“Alright we will leave the Gremlins for now and check out the forward right away.”
Benjie handed me my silk overcoat with its large imperial shoulder pads, marked with my classification and title, along with a ceremonial hat. We were dressed very alike, but mine was a little fancier to match my station. We nodded to each other.
I stepped out from my closet deck side room and I was instantly perfumed by the smell of the sea, a gentle breeze of a very calm night, people milled about in their frocks, furs and overcoats. They scattered among the deck laughed and sang, it was like looking down the boulevards of home, lights pouring like wine into the blackness as I surveyed the crowds. They were just leaving supper, about to really get into their cups.
A deck that at this angle seemed to itself travel all the way to the horizon.
Harder to behold the whole beast this close.
The Leviathan, The Modern Titan, The Clockwork Island, City of the Sea, The Titanic.
We would need to travel though one of the main dining halls to reach stairway E. It would be the fastest descent into the ships bowels.
We began to politely move through the gilded halls, tables adorned with the finest crystal sets, perfectly machined cloth, candles of every elegance, atop thousands of the world’s finest handcrafted porcelains. Men and women who wept and cheered to their own excessive lifestyles. All without worry, without care. I passed a few of the guests and as I did I accidently made eye contact with a woman at one of the tables.
“Mr Right.” She cooed.
I nodded briefly to show I was on duty, but was clearly eager to move on. It was getting harder to get past these women after four days of the trip, having a go on some of the Toff’s wives was fun, but now proving dangerous. Closets, powder rooms, even one in her own bedroom while the husband was in an adjoining bath.
They all wanted a cheap thrill or “entertainment,” on their terms, after all the ship for many of them was a cage, everything was designed for the men. Gambling dens, haberdasheries and gentlemen’s clubs. All ways to leave your women alone at night squealing away, like they had never been with a man that could move before. It was fun sure, but all of them were just placeholders, none held a candle to Martha.
I had begun to see her face everywhere now, every woman had her eyes, or mouth, her ears, I had even heard her voice in the halls. Of course, she’s actually at her parent’s home in New York, little feet kicking away inside of her, probably keeping her awake all hours of the day. I missed her horribly, I had never seen her as angry as when I told her I was taking this job, but the maiden voyage alone paid almost a year’s salary. We could almost get our own house, for just about 3 weeks work, and if I didn’t someone else would have. We arrived at a felt carpeted brass lined staircase with a large embossed E overhead, this was a service stairwell and didn’t connect to any of the suites. We walked down the two sets of 5 steps that lead to the floor beneath. There were 8 floors of the Titanic.
We began to delve into the ship directly under the deck, the voided space for simple lightweight materials was probably the safest floor. Footmen would come and collect goods for the kitchen staff from within the first layer of the ship. Utilizing open spacious hallways, it incorporated more modern design characteristics matching with all guest areas of the ship. Rich wide redwood flooring polished within an inch of its life, only broken by the thick fir green carpet, which was integrated with nautical etched designs to attract the eye of those who walked upon its soft surface, constantly cleaned and recleaned providing a joyous space for one to complete their shift.
We had to walk a little on this floor to get to the next landing. These staircases didn’t line up directly with each other like in a building, the threat of flooding getting between levels was very real, so you had to have the stairs staggered on each floor with multiple bulkheads in between. It made the trip actually a little more confusing and challenging then it should be and despite the ship’s great size it only had four actual staircases that went from the bottom pits to the surface.
Benjie and I continued down the decorated wing and then pivoted into the second floor stairwell. This place was a little different from the luxury of the heavens above. Here a large corrugated brass gate blocked the path, and behind it a doorman covered in all the bells and whistles stood on duty on the inside of the gate, ready to stop a factory owner who had gotten lost from getting any deeper into the beast. This doorman needed no instruction, and in a silent perfect gesture he opened the brass gate door contorting to his right as if it had a mind of its own. We stepped inside and rounded the corner, I could hear the gate return to its rested position as we moved down the steps to the second floor landing. At the bottom of the steps we approached a wall of hooks, some covered in overcoats and dress shirts. We unbuttoned our fine silk shirts and then unceremoniously threw them onto the hangers. It was against the employer’s rules to allow the passengers to see any crewman in a decrepit state or in undress. You couldn’t have a guest think that maintaining a premier luxury liner was hard or dirty work, even if you spent 8 hours moving lard by hand.
The same way an opulent boulevard can have the very air change around you as you step into a rough neighborhood, now the wood flooring fled, the carpet receded replaced by plaster over hewn steel, which was all that remained as we began to enter the actual work areas of the ship. Where the vast majority of the crew would live and operate during the voyage. It didn’t matter how expensive the construction of a building was it was always built on shitty waste concrete or the bones of other buildings, but you didn’t need every single aspect of a beautiful thing to be perfect, just the parts anyone could actually see. The Mona Lisa is an amazing painting and yet it’s still on a canvas made with human urine as its base. We left behind our useless coats, donning just undershirts, no longer did we need to look like we “served” instead now we slaved.
As we began our descent of the 8 floors, I couldn’t help but think of Benjie and myself as a modern Virgil and Dante, each floor a new challenge, each floor a step closer to the pit, to him. Now people didn’t politely walk, they sprinted in the narrow foxhole like halls darting to and froe, afraid that if they stopped even for a second they would collapse from exhaustion. People needed wine, beef or more cigars and they needed it upstairs now.
A need, never a want. A task was only impossible if it didn’t get done.
The lower floors were cramped full of people who stood in hallways, drunk off shift, gambling and shouting, the smoke so thick down here each breath felt more and more futile. Almost made the dim yellow-white walls look like they moved as you traversed the haze,
“Jesus, this heat, what happened to the ventilation?” I asked as I could feel my brow begin to dampen,
Benjie who was leading the way just shrugged,
“cold storage said the air swapping was causing the meat to soften, they had to stop the fans, now the vents run opposite, no fresh air return.”
I shook my head slightly “I’ll speak with them later when we complete our inspection.”
People were everywhere as we continued down the hallways, past the infirmary where about 40 men stood injured, some burned from getting too close to the boilers, men who had burst eardrums from standing exposed to the Goliath Engines far too long, crushed limbs from using the vertical lift,
“Mr. Right.” Each of them would say with a nod as I passed. The official title was Master Wright, but labourers hated prettying something up, so it became Mr. Wright, then simply Mr. Right after all the rumours about the dogging. No one ever put out their cigarettes, no matter the work. Smoking kept you awake, which kept you alive even on the far end of a 12 hour shift. We approached the 8th floor, the final depth, the belly of the Leviathan, here you were far below the water’s surface, you could physically hear the soft “whoosh” as the ocean swam past you just outside the thin steel shell.
All in all it took roughly 20 minutes at a good pace to actually descend to the bottom level of the ship, no simple task as we made way through the cold storage, a frigid area packed full with even more claustrophobic hallways, few people milled around this far into the Titan, we headed toward the bow of the ship, much in the same way an ant in an ant farm slowly traversed the tunnels, until we finally reached bulkhead 46. A large room mostly utilized for the storage of fuel, it was flat bottomed in one of the thickest casts on the ship, yet very rounded on one side which was the exterior wall and icebreaker of the ship, the back wall had manned hatches that connected to several hallways along this floor.
It was one of the thickest walls on the ship probably over a foot of pure blackened steel, it was designed to act as both ballast and ram to clear a path through the ocean, but as I looked to the once impenetrable smooth surface I could see that along the righthand side of the rounded face, the wall didn’t look uniform. Like the skin of an adult now grown old the steel looked almost wrinkled in a 6 foot circle along the face about 4 feet off the ground.
My concern was very apparent as I walked straight up to the spot and began to examine Benjie’s “strangeness,” which was a deformation in the material from outside forces, it compressed the steel inward like denting an empty can. Compression itself wasn’t unusual its part of why high carbon steel was chosen, but what really worried me was that the wrinkles themselves looked to have chips missing from them. On the floor I could see the flakes of steel that had come free, shining cheerily from the ground. I ran my hands along the rough surface, shattered edges, the metal face felt jagged to the touch,
“What do you make of it Mr Right?” Benjie asked.
“Hmm, it’s odd, this metal deformation is wrong for this schedule of steel, it’s almost like it’s too hard?” I mused.
“Wouldn’t harder steel be better?” Benjie chuckled.
I smiled a little at the comment. “not in this application, steel needed flexible strength to resist torsion, it’s what allows it to deform safely and return to its original position, think of it as being too hard is also being too brittle.”
Benjie’s body language seemed to change at my comments.
“The flaking is especially worrying, it is acting more like a ceramic.” I felt the cool wall again.
I could feel the water, pushing against the wound, hear the rush of its power, slithering outside, just out of reach.
“We will get a team ready to sure up the room, and reinforce this spot from the inside.” I said.
As if the ocean had heard my comment and disapproved we began to hear a low rumbling very deep and slow scraping from the exterior of the ship. Benjie and I looked to each other. Something bouncing against the exterior of the hull, maybe a chunk of ice. It was slow though like pressing your hand against a window pane, constantly applying more and more pressure. We could hear the whine of the metal tensing under the newfound opposition, we held our breath praying it would pass, but then the low whine got louder, began to fill the room as the walls themselves began to share the burden.
“sounds like a berg.” Benjie yelled over the metal’s wailing.
I could see now more flakes began to spall off of the walls surface, almost looking like light drizzle before a storm glinting as the dust settled, The noise was worse now, inside the room I began to feel the actual pressure as the room shook, in tiny tremors, the piece wasn’t being pushed very effectively, it must have been truly massive.
The dust began to shear off in pieces now, more in the size of coins,
“Benjie, away from the door, we need to alert the bridge.” I began as the wrinkles started to extend rapidly throughout the wall reaching to more of a 10 foot circle now.
It was like cracking a can, a little tsssss as the first drips of sea water permeated the steel.
I spun around away from the wall, “Benjie run!”
I didn’t face the hull as it buckled in, but I knew the initial crack wouldn’t have been large. The bulkhead was dented earlier in a collision and now a second impact had completely compromised the steel. It fractured more like glass then a metal, breaking off shards of its own hide as the water entered the wound. I was able to escape with Benjie into the nearest corridor as we turned to seal the room. I could see the steel giving way like paper to the claws and teeth of the ocean, and upon being struck the flesh was pulled from the bone as the darkened steel buckled into a large deep gash, then shredded and dragged as the puncture widened along the Starboard side, who knows how long the incision continued on for. We struggled together both of our hands forcing the drought door shut as the icy water attempted to escape further into the ship, it was a battle of wills, as we secured the bulkhead shut for an instant pinning the flange handle locking it in place.
But by no means was the ship safe, even now we heard the churning flow of water.
“Benjie, organize the closest crew, we need bulkheads locked, I need to inform the bridge of the puncture” we nodded and separated.
I was sprinting down the corridor, we had only closed one of the floodgates to bulkhead 46, the other hallways would be filling with water even now. I could see the first staircase in front of me. We were now in a race against time.
I was sprinting up the last steps, I had collided pretty badly with a beam earlier during my ascent and now the heat was radiating from my right shoulder. I was in a panic, my body acting to save itself, in the repeated action using my vice grip to grab stairwell handrails and then pull myself up to ascend the steps even faster. I was now in view of my target as this final stairwell had a direct door to the bridge. I was bounding leaping in my soaked clothing clenching at the skin.
All this time I had spent almost 15 minutes just running and while I ran I could hear what sounded almost like a massive cloth of fabric tearing, which must have been some of the internal support walls, popping the rivets out easily as the snake like sea coiled around us, removing our breath.
I made it to the door, I was gasping for air,
I knocked on the internal door to the bridge.
I knocked again, faster and louder.
Without a second of hesitation I reared back, and kicked right over the lock of the door shattering the wood as I burst into the room. Only to discover no one in sight. No Radio Handlers, no Navigation Technician, no Captain, in fact all of the bridge equipment appeared to be off. The room’s silence was mocking me as I heaved from my run. The power was out, but where was the bridge crew? No sign of anybody as I moved up to the large glass viewing platform facing out over the bow and waves of the sea. I could now see through the perfect clarity of the window that in the distance maybe 500 yards away, imitating the clear night sky itself, was a little constellation of stars bobbing away on the ocean.
Lit hand lamps, balanced along the bows of small rafts.
The life boats had already been launched,
But no one had sounded the call for everyone to abandon ship. I pressed my hands up to the cold glass, it looked to be about 100 life rafts just clutching together in the water, getting ready to watch the main event of the program.
I slammed my fist hard onto the window’s perfect surface,
“You fucking cowards!” I cursed the little boats way too far out of reach to hear me.
There was no time now, the bridge crew had already abandoned the ship, no distress, no orders, no securing the guests. I walked out of the deck side access from the bridge and now I could see it all unfolding, the pit fiends, imps and devils, all just bathing in the chaos of the event. I now beheld the guests all awoken to the tragic truth, screaming and fighting over the very last of the life rafts. So few left, maybe 5 in total, and I could see hundreds of guests rushing as if there was somewhere to go. People shrieked till they ran out of air, citizens fought and threw things at each other, wealthy high society men now bludgeoned women just to have their space. The very last life raft was being lowered and was absolutely packed full of people, but before I could close the gap to warn them, I saw one of the tethers stretched at its absolute limit suddenly snap with a loud “crack” and fling the raft vertically, dropping almost 40 people straight into the sea. It was no longer a calm ocean due to the massive amount of air leaving the lower decks of the ship, it now took on the visage of pools of onyx mercury just roiling at the offering put into its lap. People far below screamed and then went silent.
No more life lines, we just sat out on the ocean.
I saw some of the guests begin to pull their luggage out of the deck side suites, as if salvation was another pair of shoes or precious jewelry. Some just appeared to sit down, becoming completely still like they were mentally defeated, a puppet that once moved and now no one played with. I reached into my pocket producing an old tin amalgam whistle, bringing it swiftly to my lips.
The whistle was long and shrill, pulling everyone out of their individual panic, for a split second focusing their eyes all in my direction. People were desperate beyond imagination, hopefully they would understand what had to be done.
“Everybody listen! We need to work together now, the majority of the life rafts are in front of the ship a few hundred yards away, too far to swim in water this cold, we need to throw as much wooden material as possible over the edge of the ship now, then-“ I was interrupted.
It felt like a tremor in the Earth, had the Earth been anywhere nearby.
As if to complete the image of the very pits of hell the ship rumbled, crackled, seeped out, something deep in the Titan’s heart burst, coughed, choked onto the deck, as a violent lurch shook each person. The wind was picking up now and a very loud hissing began growing in intensity, until suddenly funnel #3, the smoke stack closest to the middle of the ship, gleamed with light, cracking at the surge of power far beyond its design, exploding into the sky a massive column of flame, the smokestack. It became a firestorm that rained from above as the red filled the horizon. Bright crimson purging into yellow, filling our field of view, the dark night replaced as a massive column of dusk highlighted by sparks flung high into the sky and then began to settle among us, riding the wind into our path.
Everyone faced and acknowledged the new opponent.
The ships deck began burning segregating the two halves of the great Titan, the sky once full of stars now retreated and became just the bright light of flame spewing out of the ocean, the sea took on its colour and began to bubble and churn basking in its new personality. Whatever small hope these people had was broken in this moment, shattered, no one to pick up the pieces.
The image of the fiends returned now as people fought each other more than anything. Someone, anyone to blame, crying for help, laughing at the helplessness. The horde was senseless and everywhere now, mobs ran over every inch of the deck, all without ever breaking eye contact with the beacon of flame, their silhouetted backs almost looked like they were in reverence, applauding, loving it.
Engine three had clearly exploded, the wind was whipping the flames on the deck into a steaming frenzy and we were about to run out of places to hide from it. The fire licked every surface, looking for the smallest handhold to grab on with, the guest suites were smoking, the dining hall ablaze, the gentlemen’s club sundered.
To me it was all a blur, everything changing so impossibly fast so silently, as if I was stone.
I took a soot filled breath, regained my consciousness.
I ran into the burning dining hall, right through its fiery maw as thick black smoke poured out like the air out of the Titanic. Every dollied surface, fancy alcohol and cloth fixture was ablaze. I grabbed a couple of small wooden tables, the kind couples would dine at and share a nice meal together and ran to the handrail throwing both overboard to join the flotsam below. The murky red sea, gladly attempted to swallow them, but I could see one had overcome the fall and was now bobbing away upside down. The Smoke was far more intense now, a huge Spector that began to stand imperially over the deck, it oversaw everything, observed people who could do nothing to stop it.
I kicked off my boots, took a running start and jumped from the side of the Leviathan.
As I hit the water’s surface, after the long drop from the deck, I could once again hear, the rush of water, crackle of wood, panic of the doomed. I plunged deep into the glossy red blood, so cold it made me want to gasp under the waves. I had to kick with everything I had to fight the roil, and as I surfaced already chilled to my core, I grabbed on to one of the upside-down tables, I had to hold it for support just to keep swimming at all. I needed safety a haven away from the ship itself or the suction would drive me under as it sank, I kicked hard, as hard as I could to escape the pull of the walls, which were hoping to capture another person and ensnare another soul in its net.
I pulled a little away and then changed direction heading for the constellation of stars at the water’s surface, the rafts would have space, and be far safer than the table. I kicked with stiff legs, white frozen hands limply pawed at the water as I could see ice mounds gather around to watch the unsinkable ship ironically burn while it sank. I wouldn’t allow the cold to slow me though, wouldn’t allow the water to take me, wouldn’t allow the ice to crush me. I needed to arrive at the life raft. My rage for the Captain would keep me warm, keep me alive, keep me kicking. I burned with a flame on my insides hotter then the one that was destroying the ship right now. Leaving these people for dead, not thinking to warn the crew, workers who may even now be in the Titanic’s depths expecting aid to arrive any second.
I was going to kill the Captain, with my bare hands if need be.
I paddled futilely at the ocean’s surface, which was in calm contrast to the events now behind me, I kept the dim lifeboat lights ahead of me and my anger burned on, even when the second explosion of funnel #1 went off to join its sibling, I didn’t look back. When the screaming got worse and I heard splashing as people dove off the ship to their doom, I didn’t look back. Just ahead, just at him, just at the justice I would enact when I arrived.
My hate kept me warm all the way to the rafts. I was burning, a white flame thousands of degrees above the heat of the funnels, as a hand reached down and plucked me from the ocean’s grasp I was the inferno, I had become a small sun ready to get revenge for every person abandoned on that ship.
But as I sat down in the raft, with my damp clothes freezing to me, my shivering hands and feet, while my breath steamed off into the wind, my hate seemed to stall, then sputter and finally go out entirely. Like a snuff to a candle, my hate extinguished.
I could see the Captain in one of the nearby rafts, his head in his hands facing the burning fireplace that was once his ship, smoldering more and more in black sooty smog as it lowered into the sea, but now I couldn’t face him. He had acted selfishly, but to look at him was like looking at myself, I would have had the right if I was dead, but now I just felt low like I was no better than him. Had my actions saved more people than his? Did I save those loyal to me? Did Benjie fight on bravely without me?
My rage had kept me alive, but my shame kept me quiet.
We huddled in the sparsely populated lifeboats with luggage and goods late into the morning. We watched as the fire slowly lost the will to fight against the waves. The same fight that the Titanic itself was losing as the bow of the Leviathan began to go under, and soon enough the rest of the ship was gone, descended into the depths with no trace that it was ever even real. The ship of dreams had become just that, a dream. We listened as the cries for help once in the hundreds, drop into the tens, until very slowly it was just one person.
The last person whose voice sounded impossibly to be Martha’s, that cried and cried until it too was snuffed out. We didn’t move in to help anyone, even after the risk to the boats was gone, our shame wrapped around us, how could we face them now.
I would be rescued and survive the events of the Titanic.
People treated us as heroes for saving who we could in the face of the disaster.
I never went back to the ocean, I never took the responsibility for my failure to those around me.