Short Story by: chopetov13
Will Forthright stood behind the helm in the steel cubical of the bridge as the boiler exploded.
On the captain’s orders, every stoker had shoved load after load of coal into the fires consuming the bowels of the ship. Black coal dust mixed with sweat, coating the laboring men in a black oil that grew thicker as the captain called for more power. Mighty wheels drove on both side of the Tribulation, each creating a churning microcosm of an angry sea. With each shovelful of coal, the flames in the furnace grew hotter. Burning embers, prodded by the singed air from the fire, rose rocketing from the flames that birthed them and dashed themselves against the soot encrusted roof of the furnace. The hisses of their extinction was drowned by the encompassing roar.
Yet as the heat built, the ship slowed. Every lump of coal seemed to drag from the ship like an anchor, the stokers destroying their work every time they raised a shovel. Locked in the boiler room, the walls made of more coal than steel, they saw no sign of the seas at the paddlewheels calming into the placid waves of the quiet sea surrounding the menacing bulk of the ship. Stories above the seas, the bridge crew felt the slight shudder as the iron hull of the ship slowed, the still wheels working as massive brakes. Indignant that his orders were having an inverse affect, Sir Gaylord Preston Sheridan, captain in His Majesty’s Navy, barked into the voice tube to the engine room as he rammed the throttle forward into the final setting, all ahead full.
As Sheridan’s voice echoed down the copper tube, steam in the massive boiler rose, fleeing the flames roaring below in the massive furnace. Fighting through the thick air, each rising vapor pushed through the end of the boiler to the mass of pipes and pistons giving life to the wheels of the ship.
Forthright looked over his shoulder, calling the captain, his hands remaining on the helm that he knew was his responsibility, regardless of the ship’s motion. His years at sea had impressed upon him, if nothing else, a caution against throwing assumed solutions blindly at the unknown. He knew little about the gaudy Captain Sheridan, but survival and hard labor against the stinging salt winds of the open sea was instinctive to Fothright. It was as a product of the ship, and not a man, that Forthright addressed the captain.
The steam continued to hiss in the boiler, its sound changing from one of speed, to the cry of a trapped animal. Years of corrosion in the moist environment of the boiler had built a cork of rust in the main pipeline funneling the burning cloud to the pistons of the ship. As the pressure built in the boiler its tube began to impossibly bulge, rivets straining to hold each two ton sheet to the next, concealing the enraged gas beneath.
“Cap’n tell the stokers-” Then the boiler blew. As the center of the erupted up and outwards, a plume of steam rose from the crater, veiling the damage as it rose to freedom. For a moment the world became misty as the windows of the bridged fogged over, the furious gout of steam slowly devolving to a gentleplume . Despite G.P. Sheridan’s wild hopes, the hole in his command gapped broader than any cannon wound. The first mate frantically grabbed the handle for the claxon, a wild wail moaning from speakers across the ship. As the plume cleared, Sheridan’s chin rose just slightly as he strode forward barking commands. All hands were too preoccupied to notice his change of posture.
“Mate, send a team to check for flooding. Start the main pumps immediately.”
“Sir, those pumps are powered by the boiler.” Sheridan eyebrows came together as he cast a hostile glance at his subordinate.
He replied tersely. “Well, then set to work with the hand pumps. Stop wasting your time here; get below.”
The captain’s tone of command had taken on a shade of aggression, yet the mate asked a final question. “Where would you have me create a hospital? In the mess?”
“You know what you’re doing,” Sheridan replied bitterly. “Start the job and report to me when it’s well underway.” Even before the mate had saluted Sheridan, the other man was already barging into his cabin, the gilded steel of the door slamming in his passing.
In the ship’s inner workings, the twisted light from the void of the boiler illuminated a dark sea, stained with the ashes and coal from the furnace and the coal lockers. The light from the lanterns shone on the corrupted shapes of twisted metal, still glazed with warm water over burnt ashes. As the engineers moved to see the damage done to the hall of the ship, and what hope there was of repairing the boilers, Forthright worked with deckhands as they pulled the injured from backrooms of the hold. The immediate area of the boiler was vacant of life, and steam and shrapnel had blown through open hatches, but steel walls saved most of the crew below.
“Where do we take ‘em?” asked a young midshipman. He turned to Forthright for experience to compliment his earnest desire to help.
“To the mess, but gently” Replied the other man “Find cool water and bath the steam burns. Cover them with cloth, and keep the burns clean.” Following his advice, the young sailor called out to the men with him, then offered encouragement and comfort to his groaning comrades slung on the makeshift stretchers, lengths of cloth hung between lengths of piping.
The injured borne away to care, Forthright walked to the rear of the ship, directly below the bridge. He was no engineer and new nothing about repairing steam engines, but his years as a helmsman had taught him the intricacies between the ornate brass wheel and the system that connected it to the planar rudder. Upon inspection, he saw that the same bulkheads that had saved the lives of men had protected the steering chain from the heavy shards of the boiler. Unlike men, the links of steel were unaffected by plumes of burning water vapor. Mounting the ladder to the surface, he pulled his feet from the blackened bilge.
The mess lost all semblance of a dinning hall for men. Burned men screamed like devil food as pain overcame shock. Many of the uninjured crewmen winced with each groan of agony, some covering their ears at the worst moments. Their attemps at blocking the noise didn’t stem from the sound itself, rather it was an aversion to the cause of the noise. Even Forthright’s ears focused on every rustle of bandages or slosh of water in an attempt to mask the wounded groans. Hiding from the cries was the reaction of a human, but everything that followed was the work of an expert. Even peacetime on a ship was no mercy, and Forthright had spend days and years under the thunder of the cannons and the chatter of Gatling guns. It was a relief to doctor the wounded without the hiss of the elevators raising the guns to fire on the zeppelins over the Channel, or the groan as they arced down to fire on the behemoths off the African coast.
The expert in him turning incoherent sounds of pain into messages of urgency, Forthright lifted the ship’s tin medical kit from it’s shelf and moved to an injured man laid on a table, a hunk of boiler imbedded in his back.
“Midshipman!” He motioned and the young midshipman who had hauled the wounded from the lower decks twisted through the mass of men to stand beside the helmsman. “Help me care for this man. I’m gonna get out the metal in his back. You’ll have to gag him and hold him down.” The young man was anxious but nodded resolvedly.
Turning to the man on the table, Forthright said “This is gonna hurt like the nine hells. The piece is in there, but you don’t have any major blood loss, and you’ll be alright afterwards.” He nodded to the sailor.
“Take a dose of rum now.” The man drank as the midshipman poured the rum into his mouth. He grimaced with the motion of swallowing, drops of the liquid leaving teartracks from the corners of his mouth.
“More. Alcohol never hurt a wound” When the sailor was finished with the bottle, Forthright laid it in the bottom of the medical tin, and drew out a pair of clamps and a knife. The midshipman gagged the fellow draped on the table top, and Forthright began to slowly lift the steel sliver from the man’s flesh. The oil lanterns hung throughout the mess made poor working light, but the helmsman’s lifetime at sea guided his hands. He worked the piece as gently as possible, pushing flesh away from the steel with the knife when he had no other option. Immediately when the piece came our, he mixed iodine with water and bathed in and around the wound, the chemical staining the flesh an earthen shade. He dried the wound then repeated the process. As the midshipman held the sailor’s trembling shoulders, Forthright threaded a needle and began stitching the wound closed.
When he finish with the man on the table, Forthright turned to the next patient, soaking his burns with water and vegetable oil and his throat with rum. As the cries of the wounded refused to diminish, Forthright poured the only relief he could. The ship’s doctor was rapidly depleting the ship solitary supply of analgesics, and the helmsman soon emptied the last spirits he held. Pausing after treating a burn, he turned to the galley for more of a sailor’s medicine, his pocket holding one of the few keys to the rum locker. Entering, he was mildly surprised to find the midshipman from the rescue. Kneeling before the locker, the young man pulled bottles from the cases. Forthright realized the sailor was simply resupplying after observing the shortage, but the same belief that conjured the monsters in the blanks of the maps also tainted the midshipman’s actions with a flavoring of prescience.
“What’s you’re name?” He knew using a name was the surest way of ensuring appreciation and loyalty, called for a midshipman when he needed help would have only a slight chance of the desired result. Yet even a sailor with as many years on the sea as Forthright was still more human than kraken, and a helmsman did not live in a post of isolation.
“Lincoln Davis, sir” came the brisk reply. Forthright nodded in reply. The current situation warrented an introduction, not a greeting.
“Mr. Davis, well done on your preparation and handling of the situation.” The formalities finished, Forthright returned to a more natural sea brogue. “Divvy what ya can find between the doctor and meself, and look for clean bandages while you’re ‘ere.”
“Then I’ll start settling patients into more permanent quarters.” Davis began to muse to himself. “The tables will never do for beds. We could make cots from extra blankets stored in the forward locker. Find some pillows to make the men more comfortable…” Davis turned towards the banks of cabinets, reaching to open the tin doors. Forthright left through the galley’s door, opening the heavy steel hatch carefully. He peered out before swinging it fully, checking that no one would be hit by the momentous hatch. Coming to the doctor’s side he restrained the agonized, waiting for Davis to return with the liquor to deaden their eyes and nerves. Too many people needed attention for Forthright to take time for a private word with the doctor on the status of care and the wounded. Even time he could not have worked doctor into forsaking the efficiency he had been posted for.
That night, the sea around the ship was transformed into a mass of fog. The humid air lingered just outside the reach of the deck lanterns, held at bay by the light yet still coating the steel hull in a sheen of perspiration. On any other night there would have been a watch, especially in weather this dense, but a crippled ship was no prize to reefs or shoals. Only the pulse of a sourceless ripple broke the sedative silence. Steamers like the Tribulation encircled the globe and carried thousands to new lands, but they remained trespassers, averting their eyes in vain hope that the landlords of the deep would respond in kind. The surface of reality and now even the dream world of the skies were the realm of humans, but the seas were a no-man’s-land. The empty spaces on the map were filled by man’s imagination, and the deep places of the oceans became the breeding grounds for all things dark and macabre.
As the ship drifted in the lazy current, silent leviathans ran against it’s hull, created nudges all too easily mistaken for the pulsing waves. Islands of fins and scales rose from the black water, shrouded from peering eyes by a fog bordering on the supernatural. The humps of unspeakable thinks nudged the small hull they had seen from the depths of their abyss. And throughout it all, the men on the ship had only the weakest inkling of how vulnerable they truly were. Though the armored hide of the greatest of ships might fend off barrages of cannon fire, it was nothing but a pliable membrane between sailors and the alien world beneath their feet.
Had he not been forcing himself to sleep, Forthright would have notice the testings of the things below. In the absence of the dully thudding pistons, the ship was eerily removed from the sphere of the living. The constant labor in the mess of the previous hours had slowed as rum and the scarce medical analgesics dulled the pain and mouths of the men on the tables, and Forthright found a moment to rest until the next pained groan.
Above the rear of the mess, a dark stain of corrosion seeped in a tapering V from the top of the bulkhead, halting just shy of the steel deck. Above that spot stood G.P. Sheridan’s ornate bath. A painted aluminum affair, it was burdened with more illusion than purpose. A dense coat of chrome and while paint encased the functional aluminum core of the tub. Rimming the edge and the pedestal it rested upon were the gilded likenesses of sea life. Gold dolphins leapt over the glimmering bodies of fish and shells. On his first introduction to the ship, Sheridan had ordered the bland steel tub of his predecessor overboard, and had since turned his cabin into the equal of any stationary Victorian study. Carved shelves housed dozens of books, most unopened by the disinterested captain. A polished lamp blazed upon an analog star chart, sitting beside the astrolabe it was designed to guide. The opulence of cabin had dichotomized the crew. Officers envied the wealth, certain that a gilded bath was in their future. For those who could never aspire to such a command, the bath bred distain. The loss was especially poignant when they realized the study was funded by an unfair portion of the ship’s pay roster.
Forthright stood separate as he lived on the ship, his skill at the wheel preventing promotion, yet that same skill eternally separating him from the massed labor of the poor below decks. In any military or maritime crisis he would have forsaken sleep, but night had fallen and he was no mechanic. Even his skill with the wounds of others was temporarily stalled as the patients were settled as comfortably as possible. In the current situation, nothing could be done save wait till dawn to inspect the healing of burns and gashes.
Davis alone remained upright, his back to the cold bulkhead. Thrice his head dipped towards the deck, eyes closing for the briefest moment, but three times he resisted temptation and raised his head, a trouble furrowing of his brows pulling through grogginess. His inexperience made him inefficient, and though he had worked the same hours as the helmsman, he stayed immobile against the wall, ready to rise with the first cry of agony, even while Forthright succumbed to exhaustion.
In the air around the ship, mist continued to engulf the world of the cold sea, vapor as intangible as dreams feasting on the flesh of Juggernaut, the red blood of rust even spreading from rivets and pipes. Every two years the ship steamed into dry dock, and antlike hordes fell upon the rust, chipping flakes and sanding the aging joints before a uniform grey once again engulfed the hull. With each repetition, the rust stole precious mass from rivets, the ship disappearing ghostlike to the pestilent eternity of the incorporeal. Below, the nightmares of the drowned continued to stalk, not fully revealing themselves to those who would be kings. Ancient realms are not so easily abandoned.
If the night had been a phantom, then the morning dawned a suicide. The mist rose to join the grey sheet of clouds, a living entity whose whole remained unchanged by the flitting of each vapor. The sun was nonexistent; the men crawling over and through shattered pipes resorting to lanterns in all but the most exposed of gaps.
Captain Sheridan perched on the foredeck of the bridge, eyes twinkling impossibly in the dull light. Overseeing the clearing of the boiler shards, he stood well removed from the labor yet bellowed commands through his brass bullhorn. Despite how strenuous the work was, the hiss of moving lines and the clatter of shifting metal was dulled, almost beyond recognition of effort, the bullhorn the only clear noise in the solemn air.
“Shipman, cut off that end of pipe.”
“Sailor, brace the boiler half.”
“2nd Mate, organize that team to pump the hold.”
Though he had no gift for finding solutions or even leading men, the captain could give orders with absolute self confidence and assertion. The vacancy of the order left each mate or seaman responsible for the planning and completion of his assigned task, and the lack of coherency led to multiple incidents during the first grey hours within the iron crater.
The 2nd mate worked with a team of sailors to suck the blackened water from the steel chambers with a hand pump. They faced a hard time of it; the main steam-powered pumps handled many times the volume of water that the hand pump could. Despite the delay incurred, they soon began spewing water from the hold. Without the Captain’s guidance from the foredeck they had to go on assumption that the pipe they sent over the side was still pumping. It was not until rain fell in the hold that anyone below noticed the pipe had shifted, its soiled water gargling mutedly from the nozzle across the deck back to its source.
Knowing the boiler was far too gone for repairs, Forthright worked without sharing his personal feelings to all but the engineer. None of the officers close to the captain cared about anything other than pleasing their commander; practicality was an afterthought. The Captain himself was completely absorbed with proving his ability to handle what he had described in the ship’s log as ‘a little hardship.’
The darkness in the hold was cut by a butane torch, its brilliant flame biting into the jagged edge of the split boiler. No plate would hold over the split boiler until its edge bore an even cut, some healing following the torment that rent it. The blaze of the torch slowly ate through the most tortuous steel, outward blown fragments falling to sloshing water below. The hands working fled the lower deck as the pieces as they came down, the Captain’s self assurance blinding him to their peril while the welder’s helm masked the world from him. Clambering up the ladder to stand level with the tank of gas, a foreman tapped thee welder’s shoulder until the light faded from the boiler’s cavern.
The quick cry arose for ropes to guide the pieces down so that they could be raised to the top deck later in the work. Others arose for the flaming sword to remain sheathed until the crew had finish draining the coaled sludge below. The welder personally held no reservations about stalling the draining so his work could take precedence. Once he finished cutting, at least for one day, he was free to return to his place in the galley, trading steel plates for steel pans.
In a rare moment, the time was taken for the men to plan. On the top deck, the yell has heard for a man to be lowered to guide the steel piece so they could be raised to the deck as they were cut. It was only after ropes, lashings, blocks and tackles had been retrieved from a forward hold that the pulley crew discovered they had neglected to locate a human pendulum. As they turned to search, a young midshipman maneuvered through the throng of working men and stepped carefully over the pile of ropes.
“I’ll go down”
“If ya want. I was goin’ a find a riggin’man, but ya look fit for the job” replied the head of the rope crew. “Ya best know all the proper knots. You’ll not have much light or working space once ya get below.”
“I can tie my knots. If a sailor can’t run his ship at night too, what’s he going to do for half the day?”
“Very well then, give us half a minute to put these ropes together and well send you on your way.” The man returned to the four men of his team, as they began to assemble the lines for the hoist. Tying off around the base of a vestigial mast, they set up two rope systems. The first was the simpler of the pair, place to hold Davis as he was sent down. The second would require additional sailors to hold, even with it’s five to one ratio. This would be rope to raise the heavy hulks of steel, it’s line providing a controlled, if ungraceful, ascent. Threading the line through the pulleys, the sailors rapidly assembled the system.
Seating himself on the wooden board the pulley crew attached to the first line, Davis pushed himself into the narrow chasm between the boiler and the bulkhead. Eyeing the searing flame of the torch, he cautiously swung over, trailing the second line. Reaching the elongated slab preparing to fall to the water and workers below, he hitched the rope around the upper end, pulling the knot to check it’s strength before calling for another five feet of slack. Reaching the bottom of the slab, he looped the and tied the rope just as the torch melted through the last of the steel holding the part to the whole. The half ton of steel dropped, the men above straining to absorb the sudden force before the weight dragged the rope from their hands. Below, Davis pulled his hands back, the slab arcing perilously close.
“What the hell was that?” He yelled, thudding the boiler with a boot to draw the attention of the blinded welder.
“Everything controlled?” cried the boiler foreman.
“Yes, it simply came off sooner than I though. Go ahead and pull it up” Davis replied. The blue flame of the torch once again appeared through the steel, Davis shaking his head sadly as the welder continued to rush the job. Waiting for the cut to grow, he began to whistle to himself, mind still thinking of ways to improve the conditions in the infirmary.
Unbeknownst to Davis, the welder was completely unaware of the midshipman’s presence. Because of a division of labor and the position of the hatches in the rear of the ship, all information that couldn’t be yelled down to the engineering decks was carried as far as the Captain, who in turn sent a second runner to spread the news below. When the rigging foreman sent the hoist plan to the Captain, he requested a message be sent to the welder to coordinate the shedding of the steel. Despite his wish for order, the message was lost by the Captain, the welder remaining unaware of the situation above him.
Even the presence of Davis had done nothing to enlighten him. The small tinted visor of the welding mask showed him only his hands, the knots tied around the steel completely unnoticed. Even Davis’ thumping was obscured by the deafening cast iron mask. So intent upon finishing the sweating labor with the volatile gas, the welder began slicing a more ambitious cut of boiler, each inch he added buying him a meager second.
Davis watched the blazing flame etch meticulously through the steel, an abrupt change in angle the only deviation from the tedious process. As the lower end was finally cleared, he signaled for more rope, dropping the prearranged three feet with each cry. Five of these cries brought him to the bottom of the flake, the position for the lower tie-off. The knot attached beautifully, but his testing yank spawned the subtly unnerving sound of fraying rope. On the second tug, the line came off in his hands, sliced asunder by the razor edge created from an unfortunate angle of the torch. Silently cursing without much seriousness, he leaned forward in his wooden seat to reattach the line at a less jagged point on the shard.
Davis threaded the rope around the steel plate and began the knot, unaware of the bending of the weakened and corroded metal. With a groan that startled even the welder encased in the near solitude of the mask, fifteen feet of steel arched away from the boiler, snapping a foot below where it was expected to. The welder cursed loudly and with uneasy vigor. This piece was much larger than anything he had already cut, and he had meant to take extra precautions to ensure no one was below before he released it.
Vigilantly focused on his task, Davis barely noticed the movement before the plate tumbled on him.
The men of the rope crew felt a violent tug on both lines a second before they heard the deafening clang of the steel as it smashed though water to strike the bottom of the boiler room.
“Why the ‘ell ain’t that damned fool careful with his torch?” exclaimed the man at the head of the rope gang. The foreman bent over the edge, calling down for Davis. Receiving no response, he cursed and ordered the men to up rope. As they heaved on the line, it dragged through the pulley, taunt with dead weight. The foreman cursed louder as he saw Davis rise through the gloom into the bright corridor of light slicing into the belly of the ship.
Captain Gaylord Preston Sheridan stood on the forward deck of the ship, his shoulders draped with black. His hands held the black prayer book open before him as he spoke to the assembled crew, standing dark with grease under a shadowed sky. White linen hammocks lay heavily on the deck, weighed down with the cargo that they had always carried. The eyes of the crew were downcast, only the greenest sailors watched the hammocks, still engrossed by the spectacle of death. The captain held his back straight, varying from the text to assign the words he dubbed powerful. The steel of the bridge turned to a choir loft as the smokestacks rang with the sound of bells tolling. His tone rose to a fevered pitch as he envisioned himself as a prophet of God spelling out salvation for his people. Will Forthright saw only a worn man masked with embellished capes and commands.
The ceremony became iconic as a light rain began to fall. Blackened sailors lifted three hammocks and balanced them on the gunwale, waiting for the captain’s nod. Forthright fought the urge to stare at the middle bundle, but looked anyway. As Sheridan gestured and hammocks were released to slide over the brink Forthright spoke quietly to himself.
“Lucky are the dead the rain falls on.”
© Copyright 2017 chopetov13. All rights reserved.