Jurgen was skeptical. Cautiously, he tugged on the line to make sure the grappling hook had found its hold. It had. Stable as the cable seemed, though, it proved difficult for Jurgen to identify how, specifically, hijacking a 19th century galleon stranded in the gelid black waters of the Arctic Ocean might help him find a sense of purpose. It was, after all, a search for purpose that had led him to abscond from the final day of the International Conference on Applied Nanophotonics, where he was scheduled to present his ground-breaking findings in the field of Disruptive Photonic Technologies before a panel of the world’s leading authorities on the topic. And it was in this search, only a day or so after boarding a rickety, unlit train whose destination, other than out of Moscow, he neither knew nor cared to learn, that Jurgen Hadley of Manchester, New Hampshire, had found himself fetid, bearded, and dismally drunk in a hotel bar on the cusp of the Caspian imbibing mugs of potato vodka in the company of Aysel and Aslan Ashamisov, a brother-sister duo in their early thirties who were distantly related to the matron of the hotel where they allegedly drank at half-price and who, if they were to be believed, were also the most loathsome and notorious Azerbaijani pirates their technically landlocked country had ever produced.
Typically, by this point in his exodus—this was not the first time that Jurgen had beaten a hasty retreat in the face of mounting professional pressures—the fog of his disillusionment would begin to burn off, the consequences of his decision to flee would come crashing down around him, and he would sheepishly trudge back to wherever it was he was expected to be. But this time, whether by the workings of the inebriants or the twinkle in the matching ochre eyes of those fledgling corsairs with whom he’d managed to form some sort of inexplicable but unmistakable bond, Jurgen found himself taking on the role of apprentice-sidekick-mascot-mediator as Aysel and Aslan transitioned their buccaneering efforts from the Caspian, where they had practiced and honed the art of nautical piracy, to the high seas of the Mediterranean and beyond, where they hoped to plunder their way to fortune and fame, or, at the very least, earn a bit more respect from their fat, sweaty uncle and everyone else back home in their scantly populated village who thought the pair to be, at best, less than useful.
“You first, my friend.”
Jurgen’s wavering eyes traced the length of the old rope snaking its way up the aged oak hull to where it disappeared over the starboard gunwale of the massive ship, at least sixty feet above their own rickety skiff. He looked at Aysel, then Aslan, then back at Aysel. Resisting the urge to utter some stirring endorsement of their sweaty uncle’s opinions and forcing himself to ignore the countless segments of frayed and thinned braid, he took hold of the line and started his ascent.
Since departing from the regimented itinerary that had been planned, funded, and, after several weeks of the standard and ineptly bureaucratic review process, ultimately approved by the University, Jurgen had survived enough navigational mishaps and close calls to have exhausted what he thought to be a lifetime’s worth of terror. But, as he flopped over the gunwale and set foot upon the lacquered wooden deck only to find himself encircled by, at minimum, two dozen grim-faced, square-jawed, and palpably displeased officers of assorted militaries in full service dress with enough brass pinned on their respective chests to equip an entire marching band, Jurgen quickly realized he still had plenty of terror left to spare.
“Oops,” he said to himself, possibly out loud.
“State your name, nationality, and intent of invasion,” commanded the shortest of the lot, a stout, fearsome Admiral with a pock-marked face and a heavy Russian accent.
“Say again!” came a pithy order from the left.
“Just as I thought,” muttered the lanky British two-star General. “American.”
“The hell he is,” said the rotund Colonel on the opposite side of the quorum, his heavy Texan drawl biting against the cold. “Tell him, boy. Where’re you from?”
The Colonel and the General clenched their respective jaws.
“New Hampshire,” Jurgen clarified.
“Ha!” the general crossed his arms in triumph. “Have the intruder neutralized. As for you, Colonel Lawson, it would appear that you can no longer be trusted, wouldn’t it? All in favor of banishing the Colonel from present and future parleys for his latest in what can only be described as a dreadfully disturbing pattern of attempts to compromise the very mission of our gatherings, this time by surreptitiously arranging for an invasion by an undercover”—the general scanned Jurgen’s tepid body from head to toe— “if rather feeble-appearing American operative.”
“Oh, go to hell, Ed,” spat Colonel Lawson. “I’ve never laid eyes on this sonuvabitch in my life. And believe you me, if I wanted to overthrow you sonuvabitches, there are about a million ways I could, not one of them including this little pithy-ass pipsqueak.”
“It’s true,” Jurgen offered sheepishly. “This isn’t an invasion. I haven’t been ordered by anyone. We’re just lost.”
“We?” the General arched his weighty brow.
It was, of course, at that exact moment that Aysel, followed by Aslan, rolled clumsily over the gunwale, landing with muffled thuds on either side of Jurgen.
“How many do you send, Lawson?” the Russian Admiral shook his head.
Not wasting any opportunity to put their fledgling skills to the test, the ambitious siblings scrambled to their feet and withdrew matching rusty cutlasses—their points dulled and, save for the threat of Clostridium tetani, innocuous—that had been acquired in exchange for a bucketful of brown trout siphoned from the nets of their sweaty uncle just before skipping town.
“Surrender!” shouted Aysel.
“You are invaded!” announced Aslan.
“No no no no!” pleaded Jurgen.
Though the gentle undulations of the massive liner were far less nauseating than anything he’d experienced in his partners’ rickety little skiff, Jurgen’s stomach felt more upside down as he sat against the wall in the dark corner of the makeshift prison cell than it had at any point throughout their convulsive trans-Arctic journey. It was the regret that made him ill—a familiar sensation for Jurgen. His current predicament was nothing more than the culmination of countless wrong turns, not the least of which being the one that had pointed their skiff northward and taken Jurgen and his two companions about as far away from the Mediterranean as any of them would have thought possible. And, as best as he tried to logic with himself that, somehow, there would be a way out of this one, the two heavily-armed company-grade officers—one Lithuanian and one Mexican—who had been ordered to make sure that neither he nor his comrades could “so much as sniff the light of day” stood to reason that, most likely, Jurgen wasn’t going to be giving that lecture on Disruptive Photonic Technologies after all.
“Biz onları öldürmək lazımdır.”
“Mən qəhvəyi bir öldürmək edəcək.”
“Would you two please shut up?” Jurgen whispered through clenched teeth. “You’re going to get us killed.”
“Is okay, Jurgs. They do not know what we say.”
“And they do not listen. See?”
Jurgen looked at the two guards sitting across from one another at the rickety little table just beneath the lone porthole window in the room, upon which sat, amongst other weapons of varying severity, the rusted Azerbaijani cutlasses. The guards were deep in a heated conversation of their own, one so spirited that neither seemed to notice when Aslan, to emphasize his point, jumped to his feet and proceeded to moonwalk back and forth across the plush carpet floor as Aysel beat-boxed the tune of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
Sure enough, the guards didn’t so much as look in their direction even as Aslan rounded out the first verse with a surprisingly graceful pirouette. Doing his best to tune out Aysel’s gulps and gags as she rolled seamlessly into the second verse, Jurgen tried to make sense of what was happening on the other end of the cabin.
“But when? And how?” said the slouched Lithuanian, his pale chin resting flush against the table. “For why would she ever come to my country?”
The Mexican leaned back in his chair, balancing on its hind two legs against the steady sway of the ship and the less-predictable swinging gestures of his emphatic upper extremities. “Don’t worry, my friend. I can confirm one-hundred por ciento that Ariana Gomez will be in un airplane over your capital city in exactly three weeks. On her way to Moscow. For her grande World tour. Her new album, of course, is very very popular in Russia.”
“And in Lithuania too. My daughter.” The Lithuanian produced a 3x5 from the breast pocket of his uniform. “She love Ariana very much. And I do also. ‘Underneath the staa-aaars, you and me we fly to Maa-aaars.’”
“‘Even if there is no water, the two of us will make it hotter,’” the Mexican crooned. “Yes, it is a great song, no?”
“Very great,” the Lithuanian shook his head. “So why to kill her?”
“Por el bien mayor, amigo. For the greater good, as we know. Your country, my country, we deserve this, no? When was your last war? It was Soviet, no? Not even yours, de verdad. A big war and you are minor soldier, no? And for Mexico even longer. Now we can make a war of only us. Lithuania frente contra Mexico. Then nobody say, ‘Lithuania who?’ or ‘Mexico quien?’ no?”
It was at this point that Aysel, whose cheeks were becoming tired from her incessant beat-boxing, decided to switch roles with her brother. Unfortunately, Aysel’s dancing acumen left more than a little to be desired—the result of a regrettable scything accident that led to the partial amputation of her left great toe at the age of five—and within seconds of attempting her first pirouette she found herself face-first on the floor, her mouth filled with musty shag carpet, and her brother cackling in a tune that, oddly enough, remained remarkably true to the final few bars of the third verse.
This, of course, was a bit more than the two guards could plausibly ignore.
“On the ground!” shouted the Lithuanian.
“To your feet!” commanded the Mexican.
But neither Aysel nor Aslan could stop laughing.
“Quiet!” The guards snatched the cutlasses from the table. “Quiet, or we will make you quiet.”
Slowly, cautiously, Jurgen stood to his feet, his hands stretched toward the ceiling in submission. “What were you guys talking about?”
“Just now.” Jurgen looked back and forth between the steely glares of his captors. “Ariana Gomez? Her world tour? Moscow? You’re planning to…kill her?”
The Mexican and the Lithuanian eyed one another nervously.
“Ariana Gomez!” Aysel hopped to her feet and resumed her beat-boxing, this time with her brother singing along.
“‘Unda-neeeeeeeeth the staaa-aaaaaaars!’”
“What did you hear?” shouted the Lithuanian over the siblings’ latest rendition.
“All of it,” said the Mexican, brandishing the cutlass as he furrowed his brow. “He knows everything.”
“Why?” Jurgen pleaded. “Why kill her?”
The guards looked at one another, then shrugged. “For the greater good.”
“What good is there in killing Ariana Gomez? Her music isn’t that bad.”
“This is very easy for you to say, Americano,” said the Mexican. “There is always war for America. You never have to search. You never have to work for it. But for Mexico—”
“—we are not so lucky. War does not just, how do you say…fall into our lap? We have to find it. We have to make it happen.”
“Why the hell would you ever want a war to fall into your lap?”
The guards eyed Jurgen with skepticism.
Jurgen shook his head. “You’re actually planning to murder a teenage pop star to coerce your countries into declaring war against one another?”
Again, they shrugged. “Yes.”
“You’re insane.” Jurgen shook his head and pushed his way toward the door of the cabin. “You’re both completely insane.”
“Para, amigo.” The guards crossed the rusted cutlasses in front of Jurgen, stopping him in his tracks. “Where do you think you are going?”
“To let whoever it is in charge of this ship know that he’s got a couple of unhinged war-mongering lunatics in his ranks who need to be locked up.”
The corner of the Lithuanian’s lip twitched upward into a quivering smirk. “Maybe if you do not like war so much, maybe this ship is not good place for you.”
Jurgen almost laughed. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“No, no, no, amigo.” The Mexican used his thumb and forefinger to tame the thick mustache nestled beneath his nose. “What my partner is trying to say is that if you think we are, as you say, lunáticos, I think you will see that the others outside, the ones in charge who you want to find, they are lunáticos más locos. After all, we are talking only about sacrificing one teenage superstar—for the greater good, of course—which is nothing in the shadow of what they are talking about doing out there, or what they have done in the years before this.”
“Guillermo!” The Lithuanian elbowed his counterpart in the ribs. “Please, you say too much.”
“Is okay, Lukas,” the Mexican grunted, favoring his left side. “If you think about it, he will probably not be living for very long.”
The Lithuanian nodded guilefully, his tremulous smirk now shifted to the opposite side.
“What do you mean ‘I won’t be living’? And what do you mean, ‘what they’ve done before’? What kind of ship is this?”
“Amigo, please sit. I shall tell you.” Guillermo the Mexican motioned Jurgen back to the ground as he reclaimed his own seat at the table, tilting the chair back onto its hind legs once more. “This ship that you and your comrades invade is home of a very secret, very old, very very important, how do you say…conference. Every year, for many years, beginning in 1903, right, Lukas?”
“It is 1904, actually.”
“Every year since 1904, the greatest warriors from countries all over the planet, we meet here on a ship in el Océano Ártico, far away from anyone who does not understand what we do, and it is here that we, the great warriors of the world, discuss how to make honor, to make progress, to preserve machismo in our world.”
“And how exactly do you do that?” Jurgen could hardly believe what he was hearing.
“To make war, amigo. Lots and lots of war.”
“Yes, I understand of your surprise,” said Lukas the Lithuanian, both corners of his mouth now curled into a chilling smile. “When I first hear of this ship and this mission from my Pulkininkas, I am also surprised. But think about it.”
Lukas paused to allow Jurgen his moment of prescribed reflection. Jurgen simply scoffed, then sneezed, then scoffed once more.
“We learn over time that humanity, if allowed to live as we please, prefer to live with peace. That is the natural way, of course. But when there is peace, as we know, the world becomes slow, and fat, and lazy. There is no progress. No technology. No travel to moon. There is just fat, lazy people who eat the BigMac and watch of the porn. But when there is war, my friend, there is honor.”
Guillermo nodded with enough vigor to throw off his balance, sending him tumbling to the carpeted floor over the back of the falling chair. Still, he carried on as if nothing had happened. “The world would not be what it is today without this meeting every year,” he proclaimed from the supine. “Think about it. Aeroplanes, por ejemplo. Without La Primera Guerra Mundial, with the French and England working very very hard to make better planes than Germany, and Germany working even more hard. And then La Segunda World War, and then all the wars after. Without this, you think aeroplanes will be so strong and fast and big like they are now? No, amigo. They will not. And the same is true for many, many things. Radar, penicillin, el microwave, superglue…”
“But you’re talking about war! I don’t care about penicillin. People die in war!”
“…space planes, satellite TV, GPS…”
“War that makes us stronger, my friend,” said Lukas. “It makes us better.”
“…computers, nuclear power, el internet…”
“How the hell does murdering people make anyone better?”
“…even you, amigo. Especially you. Do you think you would be wearing those nice Pumas if it was not for us? Do you think your own country would be so strong, so rich today without this ship? I must tell you, it was here, many years ago, that your own countryman reached his hand into a bowl of balls de ping pong and pick the one with the name Lusitania. And then, as you say, the rest is history.”
“The Lusitania?” Jurgen shook his head. “You’re saying that was…arranged?”
Guillermo, still lying in the carpet, twirled the end of his out-of-regs mustache. “According to legend, in this exact room, amigo.”
“You are not innocent,” said Lukas in a near whisper. “None of us are.”
It was then, as Jurgen stood gape-mouthed, that the crackling pubescent howl of a two-stroke engine he’d become all too familiar with over the last several days drew his gaze to that single porthole window over the table. Likewise, Aysel and Aslan dropped their tune and dashed over to the far end of the cabin.
“Halt!” shouted Lukas as he scrambled for one or both of the cutlasses.
“That is our boat!” cried Aslan. “They steal our boat.”
Aysel, who, since losing the distal tip of her toe was none too bothered by most things sharp, effortlessly hip-checked the Lithuanian officer to the floor, tossed the table aside, and flattened her uneven nose against the chilled porthole glass. “Pox! Our boat! Not our boat!”
Lukas scrambled back to his feet and pulled Aysel away from the window, pushing her back in the general direction of her brother.
“Who is that in our boat?” she demanded.
“That is Commandant Dieudonné Ndabemeve of the Burundi National Defence Force.”
“What is he doing in our boat?” cried Aslan.
“It is my guess,” said Guillermo, now sitting cross-legged on the floor, “that Comrade Dieudonné lose the bet. He is the one we choose to go search for la gasolina.”
“Gasoline?” Jurgen’s eyes narrowed.
“This guy is riding off into the middle of the Arctic Ocean, where there’s no fuel for at least a thousand miles in any direction, because…we’re out of gas?”
“Well, technically there is oil under the ice. But unless you know how to get it and refine it, this is our best idea.”
Jurgen’s face went blank. “You mean to tell me that a ship full of the world’s most decorated military personnel, and not one of you thought to check the tank before casting off?”
“She is old ship, amigo,” Guillermo shrugged. “Efficiency of fuel is not her strength.”
Jurgen grasped at his own hair, his left eye now twitching in saccadic bursts. But before he could conjure up some combination of words or sounds that might reflect the maelstrom of disbelief swimming inside his head, there came from outside the sound of another howl, this one much more blood-curdling and humanoid than what they’d heard just moments before.
“What the hell?”
All five of them rushed to the window, jockeying for position until they settled on a somewhat contorted configuration wherein each observer was able to peek one eye through the porthole glass just in time to witness a towering, deep-purple tentacle spotted with dingy gray suckers reach out of the sea, pluck the little skiff and its unfortunate Commandant from the waves, and then, after a half-dozen or so tantalizing, damn-near taunting waves of its prize to and fro, plunge back into the blackened deep with nothing more than a cycle of fading ripples to mark what had just happened.
As constricting as the cabin had felt just moments before, now, with each remaining bellicose member of the ship’s hawkish crew packed inside to convene an emergency tribunal, and the all-too-vivid memory of the horror he’d just witnessed playing on repeat in his head, Jurgen felt as if he might actually suffocate.
“What in the good name of fuck was that thing?” gasped Colonel Lawson, the heavyset Texan.
“Please, Lawson,” said General Gleeson, the British two-star. “Pull yourself together. That sort of language won’t get us anywhere.”
“Oh, fuck off, Ed. We just watched a giant goddamn octopus inhale Pierre. I think your precious Queen will forgive us one if we let a fuck-bomb or two slip.”
“First of all,” started the pockmarked Russian Admiral in his slow, severe voice, “this was not Pierre. This was Dieudonné. Pierre is still with us.”
“Oui,” said Pierre, the Djiboutian Lieutenant Colonel hunched in the back of the room not far from Jurgen.
“Second, I believe it swallows him, not inhales. And third, neither is this octopus.”
“Right, then what is it, Burkov? Another leftover Soviet secret weapon you just conveniently forgot to tell us about?”
“Please.” Admiral Burkov shook his head impassively, then motioned to the Slovenian Ensign standing next to him who promptly produced a rather large dust-covered logbook from behind his back, then handed it to the Admiral before lowering himself to the carpet and offering his own back as a table, which the Admiral, again impassively, obliged.
“I remember story of this ship from many years past. It was during voyage with only sails, before there is engine. The ship, she arrives here in the Arctic, but then there is no wind and she does not move for hours. In this time, a great monster of the sea is awaken and, very hungry, he eats many crew. If not for strong gust from fumes of monster’s digestion, this ship is probably destroyed.” Admiral Burkov flipped gracelessly backward through the old pages, forming a dank plume of yellowed dust that, slowly, settled atop the Ensign’s strained neck. “Here,” he stopped at an entry near the beginning and held the book up for all to see. Sure enough, scrawled across both pages was the faded and rudimentary, yet indisputable depiction of a scene involving a giant tentacle that, with the exception of a more greenish color of the suckers and a pair of British imperial guards clenched in the monster’s grasp, was nearly identical to that which had just transpired.
“Fucking hell,” General Gleeson muttered under his breath.
“I believe that after this, we develop coal and steam and, eventually, oil, and we do not have same problem. But now…”
“Yeah, yeah. We’re stuck and someone woke the ugly sonuvabitch up.”
A volley of accusatory glares ricocheted around the cabin, leaving no one, not even Jurgen and his pirate companions, untouched.
“So, what do we do?” asked a faltering voice from the other side of the room that Jurgen recognized to be Lukas’s.
“Well, I’ll tell you what I’d like to do,” said Colonel Lawson. “I’d like to pull out my M9 and give that giant-ass-whatever-it-is a piece of my mind if it so much as tries to come anywhere near us. It’s just too bad this crew is made up of a bunch of twinkie-ass Nancyboys who just ain’t comfortable having actual arms at an arms summit.”
General Gleeson shook his head dismissively. “That regulation has been in place for decades, Lawson. Regardless, there’s no reason to suspect your Lilliputian M9 would be useful for much more than further angering the bloody thing.”
“Yes, but there must be some weapon on board,” offered a German-tinged accent from the center of the crowd.
Gleeson shook his head once more. “Her cannons were stripped years ago and the rifles hanging over the bar are merely decorative.”
“What about the gunpowder barrels?” suggested Guillermo. “The ones at the bar.”
“Is there actually gunpowder in them?”
Guillermo shrugged. “They are heavy.”
“Even if it is gunpowder inside, those barrels have been there for years.”
It was here that Jurgen decided to speak up. Sort of. “Excuse me,” he mumbled almost coherently, not quite sure of how best to interject with all the brass and pugnacity surrounding him.
“Like one hundred years, no?”
“Does gunpowder expire?”
“Excuse me,” Jurgen tried again, this time with a speckle more assertion.
“How the hell do you not know that?”
“Hey, bitches!” shouted Aysel, her shrill, sputtering cry immediately silencing the entire cabin. “Listen to Jurgs.”
Jurgen offered his comrade a barely perceptible and at least somewhat reproachful nod of gratitude, then turned his attention to the crowd. “Have we thought about other options? Maybe, perhaps, not fighting at all and just running away?”
The room was silent.
“I mean, surely we can’t hope to overpower a monster like that. That thing was huge.”
“Lawson, I believe your comrade, he is afraid,” said Admiral Burkov through the pithy aperture of an almost perceptible smile, the likes of which he had not experienced since the fall of Saigon, as a pattering of chuckles spread throughout the cabin. “Is this example of ‘Natural American Spirit of Warrior’ you tell us all about?” he scoffed as the chuckles evolved into a chorus of full-on chortling.
The Colonel, far from amused, stood motionless with his arms crossed and his eyes, which glared deeply and fiercely into the soul of his feeble countryman, contorted to form a sanguinary scowl, the likes of which had ended the careers of more than a few of his subordinates since Saigon. Jurgen, frozen in his own right, couldn’t help but stare back.
And for a single brief moment, as Jurgen watched that steely look in the Colonel’s eyes devolve into one of stark, dilated fear, he allowed himself to believe that he’d gotten his point across. That, somehow, the seething logic he felt boiling within had shown itself in his own unrelenting glare. That the Colonel had, through Jurgen, born witness to the error of his ways and, again through Jurgen, achieved a new appreciation for the preciousness of life, inspiring him at once to relinquish his martial career, to throw down his figurative weapon, and to inspire all the other members of this hawkish crew to do the same so that they might give up a hopeless fight and flee from the unconquerable beast that lay in wait beneath them.
But then he heard the roar and the blood drained from his own face.
“Shun!” General Gleeson called out, the ship listing, plunging, pitching, and rolling in the wake of the beast as the crew fought to hold themselves at attention. “Form up in four patrols. Two below deck, fore and aft, including the bar. Two above, fore and aft. Confiscate any and all ordnance you encounter and report back here in precisely seven minutes. Godspeed, soldiers,” the General commanded as he toppled forward into the ranks. “Godspeed.”
An especially frigid gust tore through the air as Jurgen, hands in pockets, shuffled along the deck in no particular direction. All around him, members of the crew clambered frantically to scoop up whatever sharp, blunt, weighty, or potentially combustible items they could find, not one of them offering so much as a second glance in the direction of their freely-strolling captive. And though the current predicament Jurgen found himself in was undeniably a first, that sense of being overlooked was something he’d come to know quite well over the years. After all, Disruptive Photonic Technologies was not a field that attracted much in the form of appreciation—personal or professional—and Jurgen had grown used to seeing his work, barrier-shattering as it was, underfunded and overshadowed by so many things less logical.
Physics. Photons. Atomic principles. These were entities defined by a set of logical, uncompromising laws that had existed well before mankind ever understood them, laws that would inevitably persist well beyond the final days of humanity. But war? Fighting? Slaughtering one’s fellow man for reasons that couldn’t possibly be explained by the precepts of quantum mechanics? These were the illogical, unsolvable problems that had weighed on Jurgen for years. He could solve every last quantum conundrum of the universe, but what good was that if the whole world was burning anyway?
“A sextant? How the hell are you going to fight that thing with a sextant?”
“Please, my friend. I can kill both monster and you with only my hands.”
Jurgen felt a certain lightness spread through him as another cold gust filled his lungs. Up until that point, he’d devoted his entire life to studying things that were rational. It was an honorable, if not entirely satisfying pursuit, and one that he figured would lead him to that sense of purpose he’d always been missing if he stuck with it long enough. But standing on that ship, watching fully grown men rip lamps off of walls to throw at a murderous sea creature in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, he realized there was no such thing as rationality. There was no formula, no set of proofs for him to discover that could possibly make sense of the chaos all around him. If there was any chance of Jurgen finding a sense of purpose at some point in his life, he almost certainly wasn’t going to find it there.
And so, with that weight off his shoulders, Jurgen pushed his way through the heavy wooden door of one of the quarterdeck cabins for no other reason than because he was cold and because it was there.
“Hello?” inquired a shadowy figure crouched low to the ground amidst a sea of documents at the far end of the room. Quickly, and not without guilt, he stood to attention, revealing to Jurgen a laconic, slender central-Asian frame garbed in what must have been the most decorated service uniform on the entire ship. “I am only cleaning.”
Jurgen gauged the thoroughly unmaidlike features of the slight, yet unmistakably important man standing before him. “Really?” He nodded at the conspicuously green and yellow patterned epaulets draped over his gangly shoulders. “You? A…”
“Ded Hurunda,” the man nodded knowingly. “Lieutenant Colonel, yes.”
“They make a Lieutenant Colonel clean their rooms?”
A hardened look appeared on the man’s face, and his hands, still pressed firmly against his side, slowly curling into a pair of unwelcoming fists. For a brief moment, Jurgen found himself on the verge of retreat, but this quickly evaporated as the man let out a sigh and slouched back into his naturally hunched stature.
“Forgive me. I am not so good with deception. My name is Khünbish. I am, as you know, Lieutenant Colonel of Mongolia Air Force. I do not clean.” He nodded at the savagely disarrayed armoire across the cabin to mark his point. “I am, in fact, spy of the Infinite Empire of Glorious and Eternal Mongolia.”
Jurgen’s eyes narrowed.
“Mongolia. She is a country of Asia, yes? You have heard of the Great Khan, Chinggis, perhaps?”
“Yeah, Genghis Khan. Mongolia. Of course.”
“Yes, Khan of Khans, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, the great-great Khan. It is, in fact, for him that I spy. You see, long ago, Mongolia was greatest power of the world. The horseman, the archer... None are stronger than Mongolia. But now there is guns, and oil, and borders, and nobody fears Mongolia anymore. Why fear arrow when you have nuclear warhead? But this is why I am here, why I come here every year. Not to create meaningless war for my people. Chinggis would never have make meaningless war. I come to make Mongolia great again. To return for my people what once made Mongolia the most strong.”
“Horses?” Jurgen cocked his head.
“No, my friend,” Khünbish smirked. “F-16. MiG-35. The Eurofighter Typhoon. Jets, my friend. The modern horse.”
“And so, you come here…”
“To steal designs, yes.” Khünbish turned his attention back to the farrago of documents splayed across the cabin floor. “At first, I try to negotiate, to trade, to buy plans for jet. I even win against the fat Colonel Lawson in dice many times, but still none want to give Mongolia their planes. They are afraid, you see. Even now, you can hear their screams.”
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think it’s Mongolia they’re screaming about.” Jurgen motioned to the fogged starboard window. “Have a look.”
Cautiously, Khünbish tiptoed around the maze of blueprints and diagrammed jet engine specs, then, standing on his toes, wiped the window clear.
“Ee burkhan mini. What is it?”
“This is why no one finds me here. What does it want?”
Jurgen shrugged again. “To eat us, I guess.”
“So, so, so.” Khünbish clenched, then unclenched, then clenched even harder his skittish hands. “So, what do we do?”
“That depends who you ask. The idiots in charge think they can just throw some recycling overboard and pelt it into submission.”
“And if it was up to you?”
Jurgen sighed. “If it was up to me, we’d find a way to get this ship moving and run as far away as fast as we possibly can.”
“Yes, of course!” Khünbish cried out. “A favorite strategy of the Great Khan himself. We begin retreat, and when the beast believes the threat has passed, we turn and attack with surprise. Brilliant, my friend. Maybe you also have some of Great Khan’s blood. He was, you know, bountiful.” Khünbish laughed as he scurried toward the cabin door. “Please,” he motioned to Jurgen. “This way.”
“Where are we going?” Jurgen inquired, not quite sure he wanted to know the answer.
“To the bar!”
It was not all that surprising to Jurgen that the bar—a furtive suite that could only be reached through a creaky trapdoor in the floor of the bridge—was larger and quite a bit more hospitable than either of the other two cabins of the ship he’d already set foot inside. Its current state, however, was one of portentous tumult. A leather sitting chair overturned next to the unlit fireplace, several splintered mahogany stools strewn about the lacquered floor, and, on the walls, at least four darkened long-barrel silhouettes marking where the aforementioned rifles had, until recently, hung on the teak veneer. Even so, the room’s inherent stateliness and the vigor with which its patrons had striven to preserve it was not lost on Jurgen.
“Many hours spent in this room,” Khünbish smiled. “And many, many, many agreements made here too.” He nodded toward the wall across from the bar where a collection of framed portraits hung in a perfectly symmetrical diamond pattern.
“Is that…Teddy Roosevelt?” Jurgen narrowed his gaze on the earnest-faced mustachioed man wearing a pince-nez in the center of the formation. He blinked, then blinked once more.
“One of the first,” Khünbish nodded. “And around him are his friends. Herr Himler, Comrade Trotsky, Pol Pot, General MacArthur…”
“They were all here? On this ship?”
But Khünbish, who had found his way behind the bar and was rummaging through an impressive cache of polychromatic bottles, either didn’t hear him or didn’t care to explain. “I know it is here,” he mumbled to himself. “Somewhere. Somewhere it is here.”
Shaking off his stupefaction for what must have been the hundredth time that day, Jurgen grabbed one of the stools, took a seat at the bar, and commenced with scratching out calculations on a monogrammed napkin.
It wasn’t any more than a few moments later, before Jurgen had so much as written down the specific heat of ethyl alcohol, that the trapdoor above him creaked open and a large, round, and mostly hairless head peeked in through the ceiling.
“Can I help you?” Jurgen asked, looking straight into the visitor’s stony, deep-set eyes, prompting the man, in what might have been a form of expressionless panic, to quickly retract his head and slam the trapdoor closed.
“It is okay, Aleksei,” Khünbish shouted at the ceiling. “It is me, your Mongol comrade.”
A stiff moment passed before the hinges, with a slow, cautious groan, swung open and the same head appeared once more. “Who is this?” the man demanded in a heavy accent very similar to Admiral Burkov’s.
“He is Jurgen. A friend,” Khünbish answered from behind the bar without turning away from his search. “Please, come in. Help us.”
“Who is he?” It was Jurgen’s turn to ask.
“He is Aleksei. A friend.” Khünbish sighed, then turned to face the newcomer for the first time. “Do you remember, at this meeting three years ago, there was a vodka—from your country, I believe—so strong it burned a hole in esophagus of the German Admiral?”
“My friend.” Aleksei didn’t quite smile. “This is exactly what I am coming to find.” And in a matter of seconds, he was standing beside Jurgen.
“Aleksei is also an officer of Air Force,” Khünbish explained as his friend climbed over the bar to join him. “The Belarusian Air Force. Like me, he is not so much interested in making war with other countries. But unlike me, he mostly come here for the parties.”
Aleksei turned and offered Jurgen a cold, stoic wink, sending an equally cold chill down the American’s spine, before making his way to the far end of the bar where he knowingly gripped the polished nose on a bronze bust of Gavrilo Princip, twisting it clockwise until a serpentine hiss escaped from beneath him. With a satisfied grunt, he disappeared beneath the bar and, after what seemed to Jurgen an unreasonably long pause, reappeared with an unmarked black bottle in his hands.
“This is the one!” Khünbish applauded. “I can never forget this bottle.”
Aleksei’s head twitched in a sort of nod as he wrenched the cork free, filling the room almost instantly with a thick, caustic haze. But before he could raise the bottle to his thin, colorless lips, Khünbish had taken hold of it as well.
“Not to drink, my friend. Not this time,” he said. “We need for something even more important.”
The Belarusian’s jaw clenched audibly, and if he’d been afforded the opportunity to employ violence in the name of his drink, he may very well have done so. But it was then, just as Khünbish was starting to second-guess his newfound audacity, that the trapdoor swung open once more.
And, once more, Jurgen felt his heart jump a few beats. This time, though, it was for a cause much less unnerving, as, to his great surprise, it was the flawless face of a jarringly beautiful woman jutting down through the ceiling. “Has she been on this ship the whole time?” he wondered as he gazed into her fierce brown eyes. She was breathtaking. Her nose, her lips, her immaculate hair, not a single strand of the truffle-brown bun out of place as she hung upside down.
It was only then that Jurgen realized this woman, perhaps the most beautiful he had ever seen, was yelling. Rather furiously. At him.
“…absolutely dire circumstances with the life of everyone on this ship on the line and where do I find the lot of you but down in the bar trying to drink your way out of this mess?” she berated them in perfect Cambridge English. “Get your arses up here and back to work straight away or I’ll feed you to the beast myself!” And with that, she disappeared back out into the world above, slamming the trapdoor so loudly that Jurgen nearly lost his balance.
“Rear Admiral Nathalie Camenzuli of the Maritime Squadron of Malta,” Khünbish explained as he rubbed his ears. “She is very popular in this meeting. But, I promise you, she is even more dangerous than she is beautiful. Her plan is to make Malta the most powerful nation of all. I know, you say, ‘Malta is small. Malta cannot be strong.’ But, I tell you, if there is anyone who can make Malta on the top, it is Admiral Camenzuli.”
“But first,” Aleksei offered Jurgen another of his chilling winks, “I will be on the top of her.”
Jurgen glanced at his watch as he shuffled hurriedly across the deck. They were late. He gulped, pulling up short just in front of the cabin door, behind which roared a volley of bitter and imperious shouting. His heart started to pound as he contemplated the different forms of enhanced interrogation techniques he’d read about back home, and just as he arrived at the conclusion that it would likely be in his best interest not to go inside, Aleksei—who was seemingly immune to most forms of emotion, particularly those relating to fear—lumbered past him and kicked open the door.
As it turned out, no one so much as glanced in their direction as Jurgen edged inside behind the stout Belarusian. His temporary relief was short-lived, though, as he quickly realized just where all the commotion was coming from.
“Our boat!” Aslan cried out, wrestling to free himself from the combined grasps of Guillermo and Lukas. “I want no more words about weapons or strategy or monster until someone will pay for our boat.”
“Mmhummm Fmmmmhuuummmmm fmooaaaaamm,” shouted Aysel, her mouth covered by the hirsute hand of a stubby Bolivian lieutenant who had her pinned to the floor.
“I said,” Aysel spit into the carpet, “if you don’t pay, we will take this boat from you!”
“Oh, for the love of God!” Jurgen snapped as all thoughts of waterboarding drained from his mind. “Could you two shut the fuck up for just ten goddamn minutes? No one gives a shit about your goddamn boat, you’re not real goddamn pirates, and if we don’t do something soon, there won’t even be a goddamn ship for anyone to steal!”
The cabin fell silent. Every single officer, each of them standing sharp, crisp, and motionless, held his eyes fixed with discipline on Jurgen who, hunched and breathless, felt the adrenaline in his veins slowly diluting back to normal, negligible levels.
But, somehow—whether a result of the unfettered, heretofore uncharacteristic rage with which Jurgen had delivered such a piercing address, or perhaps it was just that his two companions, after years of quixotic aspirations and a couple of blunderingly ineffectual weeks on the high seas culminating in this latest debacle, had finally come to realize that they probably weren’t real pirates—both Aysel and Asland found it within themselves to, indeed, shut the fuck up.
It was the Bolivian who first broke the silence, allowing a mumbled but potent, “maldita perra” to escape from between his quivering lips as he nursed his wounded fingers.
“I must apologize, Lawson,” Admiral Burkov addressed his American counterpart from the front of the room. “I now see your comrade does have famous Spirit of Warrior you tell us about. Ferocious indeed.”
The cabin erupted in laughter.
Jurgen, who was not laughing, tried as best as he could to become invisible. Having not yet mastered the physics necessary to pull off such a feat, however, he instead settled for doing everything in his power to avoid making eye contact with Colonel Lawson who, he was certain, was not laughing either, and who, he could sense, was glaring at him from across the cabin with more Lone-Star rage than this uppermost corner of the world had ever before seen.
But the gravitational pull of the angry Texan was simply too strong, and after only a moment or two of hapless resistance, Jurgen found himself gaping right at him.
“…little sonuvabitch,” the Colonel snarled through clenched teeth, “…goddamn disgrace to the red, white, and blue,” his thick Texan drawl remaining largely intact as he forced his way through the crowd of cackling crew. But just before he came within arm’s length of his target, the entire ship jolted forward, propelling him sideways atop a pile of Central African field-grade officers. Jurgen, who himself had been upended, couldn’t help but grin as he squirmed to liberate his face from Andrei’s musty armpit. His calculations had worked.
“What in the name of the goodgodalmighty?” Lawson shouted, stepping on more than one face as he clambered to his feet. “Who the hell gave the order to retreat? Burkov, was that you, you feckless Russian coward?”
“Of course, I do not call for retreat,” said the Admiral. “There is not even fuel to retreat.”
General Gleeson lifted a finger. “You hear that? Those are the engines.” He narrowed his eyes. “Someone’s found fuel!”
“Ha!” Andrei grunted from the carpet. “Not even close.”
Jurgen flashed the Belarusian a reproachful glare, but no one seemed to have heard him.
Guillermo and Lukas snapped to attention.
“Get down to the engine room and take care of whatever lily-livered, chicken-hearted, yellow-bellied namby-pamby is behind this mutiny. Use whatever force necessary.”
The pair offered up a set of mismatched salutes and then rushed out the door.
“Everyone else fall in! Arms at the ready, whatever you got. We’re gonna hit this sucker now before we get outta range.”
Jurgen looked on as the lot of them, armed with an array of mostly innocuous weaponry, stumbled into formation and, one by one, filtered out into the cold. And though he was certain that there was no amount of makeshift ordnance aboard the ship that could hope to repel the great beast, he couldn’t help but wonder what level of force Gutierrez and Rimkus might deem necessary to “take care” of Khünbish in the engine room down below.
It was only moments later that Jurgen got his answer.
“Aggggghhhhhh!” the legato scream rang out across the baleful sea before it was abruptly cut off by a rather impressive splash, followed by a round of hearty cheers.
Jurgen rushed over to the starboard gunwale.
“The traitor. They’ve dealt with him,” a brawny Nord offered by way of explanation.
Jurgen could just make out the formless speckle that must have been Khünbish flailing through the inky waters below. He turned to run back to the cabin in search of something—anything—he could throw down to help his friend, and in the process nearly tripped over the very grappling hook he’d used to climb aboard only a few hours prior. Inexplicably, this four-pronged iron claw had been overlooked as a potential weapon during the ship-wide crusade for ordnance, and, again inexplicably, also went unnoticed as Jurgen dug its hooks into the gunwale wall and tossed the rope overboard. Slowly, against the jeers and taunts of his former crew above him, Khünbish paddled his way toward the rope.
But then the crew fell silent, and the black water beneath Khünbish turned blacker, and everyone, even Khünbish, froze in place.
The explosion was deafening. The entire ship rocked near the point of capsizing as that same terrible purplish tentacle burst out of the sea, Khünbish crushed in its grasp, and crashed repeatedly against the hull of the old ship, dousing everyone on board in waves of icy cold seawater.
“Fire!” shouted Gleeson.
“Attack,” commanded Burkov.
“Bomb this cocksuckingmotherfuckingovergrownoctopussonuvabitch back to the depths from whence it came!” cried Lawson.
Jurgen, who lay splayed, soaked, and freezing on the deck, watched as the crew hurled everything they had at the beast amid a chorus of whoops and cheers that couldn’t quite drown out the panicked screams of poor Khünbish. But the attack was hopeless. Just as he’d expected, the barrage of candlesticks, light bulbs, billiard balls, sextants, and whatever else they hurled overboard collided impotently against the massive tentacle without so much as a scratch.
“Harder, ladies! Put your backs into it.”
Jurgen scrambled to his feet. There was no good option, but he figured drowning below deck would be better than suffering the same fate as Khünbish and all the others who would surely be swept up sooner rather than later. But then there was another explosion—this one much smaller—followed by a rumbling, monstrous, submarine groan and a pair of cackles he’d come to know all too well over the last few days.
“Stupid monster,” laughed Aysel as she lit the tablecloth fuse of a Molotov cocktail.
Aslan launched two projectiles of his own, howling with laughter as each exploded inside neighboring suckers, prompting another of those miserable groans. “Ahhhhh direct hit!” Aslan high-fived his sister as the tentacle recoiled away from the ship.
“The pirates!” shouted General Gleeson. “Do as they are doing!”
The men hurriedly converged on the siblings, ripping the mostly-shredded tablecloth from Aysel’s hands and the box of half-filled bottles from Aslan’s.
“Sister, did you hear?” Aslan stood as the crew took over his post and commenced with launching cocktails left and right.
“Yes, brother.” Aysel embraced Aslan, her eyes moist with tears of confirmation. “He calls us pirates.”
And then, as if to celebrate alongside the jubilant siblings, the crew erupted in a triumphant refrain of guttural guffaws, though not one of them could have cared any less about Aysel and Aslan. Instead, they cheered because, miraculously, their attacks had actually worked, the battery of slapdash incendiaries having warded off the dreaded beast, forcing it with explosion after explosion to retreat into the water, or, as Lawson put it, “made that lilly-assed pussy-urchin run like the bitch of the Arctic that it is!”
Jurgen, as usual, was skeptical. He knew the monster wouldn’t leave them unfettered for long. And even then, those five or six gallons of fuel he and Khünbish had concocted couldn’t possibly carry them much farther. As the others proceeded to inflate moments-old war stories, Jurgen knelt over Aslan’s cache of bottles. He picked one up—an old daubed bottle of Akavit—sloshing it around before his eyes, chemical equations and mounting panic swimming through his mind.
“You made the fuel.”
Jurgen dropped the bottle and snapped clumsily to his feet, his eyes coming to rest mere inches from those stunning irises of Rear Admiral Camenzuli. “I—I’m sorry?”
“There was no fuel on this ship. You made your own. How did you do it?”
Jurgen blinked several times in quick succession. He could feel his heart begging for mercy. Her voice was soft, yet chilling. Feminine, yet dominant. She was absolutely stunning. And he was absolutely terrified.
“The Minsk vodka. Furniture polish. Lubricating ointment…not mine. And some embalming fluid. I don’t know why there was embalming fluid down there.”
Jurgen cocked his head.
“How much fuel did you make?” Admiral Camenzuli’s eyes narrowed, prompting Jurgen’s to open that much wider.
“Well,” he sighed. And then the engine stopped. “Not much.”
Another groan from the depths shook the entire sea. This one, though, wasn’t quite so pained. It was angrier.
“Come with me.” The Rear Admiral grabbed Jurgen’s damp, trembling hand and pulled him through the cabin door as the crew prepared their next assault of bottled combustibles.
“I need you,” the Rear Admiral said, turning to stare Jurgen directly in the eyes as soon as they were alone.
Jurgen knew better than to get too excited. As reliably unpredictable as his life had recently become, he knew enough to know that what she had said couldn’t possibly be what she had meant.
“You are brilliant. Nothing like these chauvinistic, overweight fools I’ve been surrounded by for days.”
Jurgen’s groin and left eyebrow twitched simultaneously.
She leaned closer, the warmth of her breath restoring a portion of the feeling in Jurgen’s chin. “Can you make more?”
Jurgen sighed, then shook his head.
“This is an impossible battle.” She turned an about-face and commenced to pacing back and forth in front of the porthole window. “We are no match for this beast. I’ve only seen one of its arms. For all we know there could be seven more. We don’t even know how big it is! And of course, it can attack, and then disappear, and then attack again with no warning. How do we defeat that? Even if we were fully armed, if we had guns, radar, torpedoes, helicopters, I do not think we could win. Why fight a war that cannot be won? They all want to fight because they need to prove the space between their legs is not empty. But you,” she glanced ever so briefly at Jurgen’s crotch, “you prove nothing.”
“Well, I don’t know if I—”
“You want to run. You are smart. Brilliant!” The Rear Admiral shook her fists, her piercing eyes narrowing as she spoke. “I cannot die here. There is too much yet for me to do. It is very important for my country, for the world, that I do not die here.”
Outside there was a blood-curdling scream followed by another round of explosions.
The Rear Admiral grasped Jurgen by his arms. “There must be a way to run,” her eyes demanded. “Something. Anything.”
Unnerved by the intensity in her stare, Jurgen lowered his own eyes only to find them focused on the Rear Admirals’ brilliantly endowed service coat, her countless medals—polished and gleaming—reflecting what little light had found its way through the porthole window back at him so that, faced with no better option, he closed his eyes.
And then the idea struck.
Without pausing for explanation, he ran to the door and swung it open, the excitement of his epiphany shielding him from the frigid gust that slammed against his weedy body. Towering above him just feet from the cabin door was the old mainmast, its tip barely perceptible in the vacuous arctic night.
He turned back to the Rear Admiral, his heart racing. “Can you sew?”
Invigorated as he was at that point, no amount of exhilaration could have possibly protected Jurgen from the biting cold as he stepped out onto the deck once more, this time in nothing more than his flimsy plaid boxer shorts. The scoffs and jeers of the crew immediately rained down upon him as he cowered in the wind, but then came to an abrupt and reverent halt as behind him emerged the stunning, coveted, and, after days of fantasizing amongst the otherwise masculine crew, finally revealed figure of Rear Admiral Camenzuli in her own undergarments, which, incidentally and in contradiction to most of those shared fantasies, turned out to be rather bland and unimaginative for someone so youngish and shapely, but were still sufficiently titillating to momentarily draw the attention of every creature on board away from the conflict. Even the beast itself seemed to recognize the gravity of the moment, suspending its attacks just long enough for each to shake himself back into reality.
“We need your coats, your shirts, your pants,” Jurgen shivered, his voice cracking in the cold. “Anything you have.”
The laughter echoed over the sea.
“Vicious American warrior wants to negotiate for my clothes.” Admiral Burkov shook his head, a lit Molotov in each hand. “Reminds me of Reykjavik. This is your plan all along, Lawson?” He hurled the cocktails overboard just moments before they blew.
The Colonel’s face took on a deep, ferocious shade of red. “I don’t know two shits about why the little fruitcake wants your britches, Burkov, but I bet you if your twinkie-assed knuckle-dragger Gorbachev were here right now that’s one term he wouldn’t be afraid of.”
“Your clothes!” demanded Admiral Camenzuli. “All of you!”
And just like that, without so much as a quip of protest, they disrobed. All ages, ranks, and nationalities. Service coats, cloaks, blouses, trousers, watch caps, cumberbunds, sashes…everything but their socks and undergarments, and most would have conceded those as well if only the stunning Rear Admiral were to order it.
Jurgen rushed over to the pile of discarded garments, scooping up as much as his trembling arms could hold and then delivering them to the base of the mast where Admiral Camenzuli was preparing the needle and thread she’d retrieved from her rucksack.
“Well, don’t stare!” yelped General Gleeson, his plaster-white arms crossed defensively across his wilting chest. “Turn back around and fight the bloody thing!”
“You heard the General!” shouted Lawson, who made no attempt to hide his rather sizable gut.
“General?” scoffed one of the African field-grade officers. “I don’t see any stars on him. Just a saggy pair of tits and a birthmark like Cuba.”
Gleeson tightened his grasp on himself, lowering his right hand to cover the birthmark on his flank. “Why you insubordinate, mutinous fool. I’ll have you—”
The General let out a single helpless squeal as another tentacle, this one slightly more greenish, plucked him from the deck and pulled him into the Arctic.
“Ed is gone,” Burkov declared.
The deck listed violently. The old wooden hull creaked in protest. And then there were more tentacles. At least six of them, towering at least as high as the mainmast, each gyrating furiously in the sky above.
“Attack!” Lawson bellowed at the top of his lungs as the tentacles crashed against the hull. “Show this fucking lizard-bitch what we’re made of!”
The barrage commenced, and Jurgen, stumbling, dumped another load of uniforms at the feet of Rear Admiral Camenzuli. “Are we going to have enough? Is it going to hold? Do you think it’ll be wind tight? How are we even going to get it up there?”
“The medals,” she muttered, her eyes glued to her work. “Take them off. They are too heavy.”
Jurgen nodded, then dropped to his knees and started ripping decorations of all types from breasts and lapels, tossing them aside in a quickly growing pile of assorted medals, ranks, ribbons, and other commendations of varying size and worth.
“What are you doing?”
Jurgen looked up. It was Guillermo.
“Making a sail.” He tossed a bronze Order of Merit over his shoulder.
“You think this will work?”
Jurgen nodded at Lukas, who was struggling to light the drenched fuse on another round of cocktails. “You think that will work?”
Guillermo shrugged. “Good point. I can help? I am very good at sewing. Mi Mamá taught me. I do all the patches in my unit.”
Jurgen nodded at Camenzuli.
“Take what you need from that sewing kit,” she grimaced as she split the seam on a pair of striped trousers. “Start from the other side and keep it as square to me as possible. You too,” she glared at Jurgen. “Do you not want to live?”
Jurgen, taking the question to be rhetorical, pulled a needle and a spool of thick drab thread from the sewing kit and got to work. As it turned out, though, his needlework skills were not nearly as impressive as his knowledge of combustibles, and by the time he had finished clumsily stitching his first blouse into the pattern, Camenzuli and Guillermo had already completed the perimeter of the sail and were working to fill in the center.
“Arriba, amigo!” yelled Guillermo. “A sail with a hole this big is no good!”
Jurgen reached for his next garment from the pile, his fingers aching from the countless tiny puncture wounds he’d inflicted upon them. Then an idea struck. “Aysel!” he shouted to his fellow invader. “Aysel, come here!”
“What, Jurgs?” she grunted as she hurled an entire box of explosives overboard. “You see I am busy, yes?”
“Please, Aysel.” He held out the needle and thread.
Aysel’s eyes narrowed. Her jaw clenched.
“Help me, please. I can’t sew.”
“Neither can I,” she sneered. “I am pirate. Pirates do not sew.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Aysel. You’re a seamstress! You told me that on the boat. I bet you sew better than anyone here.”
“Okay! You don’t have to share with world.” She snatched the needle from Jurgen’s bloody fingers. “What you want me to sew?” she whispered.
“That.” Jurgen nodded at the patchwork pipe dream on the deck. “Make it into a sail.”
Relieved from his darning duties and with neither the grit nor the arm strength to properly contribute to the fight, Jurgen inched back toward the shelter of the cabin and retreated into his thoughts. He sighed. There wasn’t a chance in hell this was going to work. A sail? Made from uniforms? He’d run cylindrical cloak experiments less ambitious. He thought about those experiments, about his lab back home. That stupid, grey, sunless tomb in the basement of the Applied Sciences building. All those hours he’d lost to that place, all the time he’d spent dreaming of escaping, of finding something else somewhere else. But now, looking back, it didn’t seem so bad. If only he could go back…
But going back wasn’t an option. This was one tomb he wouldn’t be escaping from. Jurgen Hadley of Manchester, New Hampshire, was going to die there, in the Arctic, the last place he ever would have imagined his story to end. Even Mars would have made more sense. But instead he was destined to drown, or freeze to death, or be eaten alive by a cold-blooded sea monster at the top of the globe. He cringed as his eyes darted back and forth amongst the blood-lusting combatants scampering about in their skivvies, the last people he would ever see.
But then Jurgen felt another lightness come over him as he was struck by a weighty, if rather unsettling realization—it was better that way. The ship needed to go under. The whole world would be better off the moment everyone on board was snuffed from the earth. So many countries saved from needless wars. Poor, innocent people liberated from manufactured conflicts that might have been. All of the pain. The suffering. The unsuspecting soldiers fighting one another with blind, obedient faith. The women. The children. Ariana Gomez. Her fans. She had a lot of fans. Pound for pound, there would be countless more grief across the globe if Ariana Gomez were to die instead of Jurgen Hadley. Sure, his boss would be pissed that he skipped out on the conference and didn’t bother to make it back to lab. His mom would be sad. And maybe—just maybe—the field of Disruptive Photonic Technologies would be set back a few years by his absence. But, in the end, this was exactly what he’d been looking for. A purpose. Something meaningful he could contribute to humanity, and not just some esoteric scientific advancement that, realistically, would just be bought up and implemented—probably by those same warmongering psychopaths on that ship—to build stronger, more efficient, more terrible weapons. In the end, wouldn’t going down with that ship and all the terrible people on it be the most significant thing Jurgen could ever possibly be a part of?
Jurgen looked up just in time to dodge the needle.
“Finished,” Aysel grunted. “I sew for you no more.”
Sure enough, splayed out across the deck before him was a heavy, ugly, mismatched, but completed sail. And just like that, Jurgen’s mind purged itself of complex concepts like meaning and self-sacrifice. He could find purpose elsewhere. Back on land. Away from monsters, human or aquatic. He wanted to live. To hell with the women and children. To hell with Ariana Gomez. Jurgen Hadley deserved to live too. “Let’s get that sonuvabitch up there!”
It was Guillermo—a self-proclaimed maestro in the art of climbing—who agreed to scale the height of the mainmast with the patchwork sail knotted around his neck like a cape one-hundred sizes too large.
“Hook it to the center first,” Jurgen called out. “Then out on the sides. We’ll tie it to these pole-things down here.”
“The yard, you mean,” Guillermo paused and looked back over his shoulder. “I am expert sailor in my home, amigo. You do not need to worry.”
But then Jurgen heard the woefully familiar cackling of Aysel and Aslan across the deck and was reminded that he most likely did need to worry.
“More!” Aslan shouted to his sister as he stuffed a handful of decorations shorn from the crew’s uniforms into his next round of Molotovs. “The sharp ones, like this.” He held up a pair of bronze aviator’s wings. “He will not like this!”
Aysel grabbed as much from the pile of ranks and pins and medals as she could carry and started loading her own rounds.
“Ready?” Aslan lit the fuse. “Aiming.” He cocked his arm back, the loaded bottle clinking audibly. “Boom!”
And then all hell broke loose. The projectile landed directly inside one of the beast’s suckers, engulfing the whole thing in flames. Shrapnel tore through the scaly flesh and pelted the deck below. One Lieutenant took a Victoria Cross in the carotid. The rest of the nearly nude crew dove for cover. But the monster, whose tentacle was dripping bright yellow blood, was even more furious. There was nowhere to run. The whole ship started to shake from below. Now there were eight tentacles. Taller. Thicker. Fiercer than before.
“Bunch of candy-assed cowards!” Lawson shouted, the veins in his leathery forehead bulging near the point of rupture. “Pull yourselves together!”
The monster dealt with him first, wiping Lawson clean off his feet with a single flippant swipe of a tentacle that sent the seething Colonel crashing limply against the wall of the cabin. And then the remaining tentacles came crashing down, each waylaying pitilessly across the lacquered deck, raining splinters and seawater and thick yellow goo over all those who were lucky enough not to be flattened to a pulp.
Jurgen, frozen in place, somehow remained uncrushed. But then he saw Rear Admiral Camenzuli’s body lying crumpled and lifeless against the base of the mainmast. Without allowing himself a moment to think better of it, he sprung to action. “Admiral!” he ran toward her, ducking narrowly beneath one tentacle and hopping over the body of another crewmember. “Admiral!” He slid to the deck and grasped her by her silky white shoulders. “Wake up! Please, wake up!”
And she did wake up, her fierce brown eyes looking quizzically into his, first with a calm but mystified tranquillity that quickly devolved into pure, dilated horror as a shuddering crack ripped through the air above them.
Jurgen looked up just in time to see the tentacle collide with the sturdy timber right beneath Guillermo, splitting the mainmast in two.
“The sail!” shouted Camenzuli as she watched Guillermo fall out of the air.
Jurgen jumped to his feet and sprinted to the portside gunwale. He dove with all the force his flimsy legs could muster and grabbed a fistful of the ragged cloth before it disappeared overboard along with the poor Mexican officer and the upper portion of the mast. With all the strength he could have possibly mustered, Jurgen hoisted the sail back onto the deck then peered overboard, frantically scanning the waters below. But Guillermo was nowhere in sight.
“He is lost,” called out Camenzuli. “But you have saved us.”
Jurgen turned around. The Rear Admiral was back on her feet, her eyes radiating something that must have been gratitude. Or appreciation. Or maybe even respect. Whatever it was, he’d certainly never seen it in his boss’s eyes before. Or really anyone back home for that matter.
“Come!” she urged him foreword. “To the foremast.”
Jurgen could feel the warmth radiating from Camenzuli as they stood at the base of the towering foremast. “It’s really high,” he sighed, fighting to catch his breath. “I can’t even see the top.”
“The view is better from here.”
Jurgen and Camenzuli spun around. It was Aleksei, slouched, fully clothed, and patently sloshed against the starboard gunwale, another unmarked black bottle in his lap as he hungrily eyed the Maltese Admiral.
“You should be fighting,” Camenzuli scolded.
“Also, should you.” Aleksei raised the bottle in a toast, then took a sizable gulp.
“You had more?” Jurgen glared.
“Always more, my friend,” Aleksei winked.
Jurgen was incredulous. “Don’t take another sip!” He lurched at the Belarusian, who quickly guzzled down the last of the bottle.
“Except now, there is no more.” He smiled a crooked smile.
“I could’ve used that to make fuel!”
“It does not matter,” Camenzuli cut in. “We must rig the sail. You,” she glared at Aleksei. “Climb to the top and hang this. Your life depends on it.”
Aleksei looked at the hopeless sail, then back at the stunning Rear Admiral, then shrugged. “As you order, commander.”
Aleksei, in spite of his landlocked allegiances and blood-alcohol concentration, turned out to be quite the adept sailor, and in a matter of minutes the sail was rigged. “Please, awake me when we reach land.” He offered Camenzuli his wrinkled service coat before returning to his position against the starboard gunwale where he promptly fell fast asleep.
Camenzuli grimaced and tossed the musty coat aside. She and Jurgen then turned their attention upward where their creation hung limply against the pitiless backdrop of the Arctic night. From where they stood, the screaming, the explosions, the crashes of splintering wood behind them were faded, but no less chilling. “Well, Admiral. I guess this is the end.”
A gust even more frigid than the last blew over them. And though Jurgen’s lips were now starting to blue, the pop of the sail pulling taut overhead was enough to keep him from noticing just how cold he actually was. He looked up. The stitches were holding! The wind was catching! He and Camenzuli locked eyes…
…and then they felt it. The deck lurched forward ever so slightly. It was faint, almost imperceptible. But then they felt it again. And again. And again. And soon enough it was unmistakable. They were moving! The sail was working! It was ugly. Smaller than it should have been. And severely misshapen. But it was working!
“I cannot believe it!” Camenzuli allowed her eyes to soften into something resembling a smile for the first time since Jurgen had met her. “You are brilliant! I owe you my life. The Republic of Malta owes you my life.”
Jurgen shrugged, his face regaining some of its color as he tried to pretend that this was the sort of thing that happened to him all the time. “I wouldn’t say brilliant.”
Camenzuli shook her head. “You will come to Malta. I will have you appointed Minister of Science. You will have everything you have ever wanted.”
Jurgen gulped, not quite sure how to respond.
“You hesitate,” Camenzuli frowned. “Why do you hesitate? The life you will live in Malta will be nothing like the life you live now.”
It was clear she meant it in a good way, and it was clear she knew that Jurgen didn’t have much to look forward to back in the States, but he was too exhausted to give that any more thought.
“You come here every year? To this…”
“Summit,” Camenzuli nodded. “Of course.”
“To bargain for war?”
“To advance the interests of my country and my people.”
Jurgen looked back over his shoulder in the direction of the chaos they’d left behind. “Just like them.”
The Rear Admiral scoffed. “In no way am I anything like them.”
“How?” Jurgen frowned. “How are you different?”
“They are here for ego,” she shrugged soberly. “I am here for the greater good.”
What Jurgen wanted to say was that she was full of shit. That there was nothing on that ship that could possibly be for the greater good of anything. That every single person on board, himself and the Rear Admiral included, were all just fooling themselves if they actually believed such a thing. But even without looking at her, Jurgen could sense that Camenzuli’s smile had already dissipated. If there had been a window for him to speak so candidly with an officer of her stature, that window was almost certainly closed. So instead Jurgen said nothing, his eyes drifting absently to Camenzuli’s bare feet as he tried to think of a more tactful way to demonstrate his dissent.
The Rear Admiral, taking his silence as a sign of acquiescence, nodded her approval. “So, it is settled then! You are now Maltese.”
“Huh?” Jurgen lifted his eyes back to hers. “I, uhh…” He looked up at the sail, then out against the horizon, then back to Camenzuli. “I just need a minute to think.”
Jurgen’s head was swimming as he shuffled aftward across the deck. The whole ship had fallen under a thick and rather unsettling peace. A few of the crew members scrambled about trying to recover whatever discarded decorations they could find, but the rest who hadn’t been crushed or thrown overboard were already back to bargaining. Assassinations in Crete. A strategically misguided missile off the coast of Jakarta. Another invasion of Kuwait in exchange for a box of Cubans and “future considerations.” Even Aslan—the same Aslan who had drunk three shoes-full of seawater within half an hour of setting off from land because his sister had bet him he wouldn’t—was the picture of well-mannered professionalism as he discussed with Lukas and Admiral Burkov a plot that would see him and his sister leading an armada of Russian ships sailing under the Latvian flag on a clandestine mission to pillage Lithuania’s most lucrative shipping routes in the Baltic.
“Sister, come down!” he shouted up at Aysel, who was perched precariously atop the halved mainmast hurling round after round of impotent incendiaries at the now well-out-of-range monster. “These men have for us offer of lifetime!”
Aslan flashed a wink at Jurgen as he walked past, but Jurgen didn’t want to have any part in that. What he wanted was to get out of there. He needed to think. To just get away from it all for a minute so he could think.
He sighed as he climbed up to the quarterdeck.
He was pretty sure it was an island. Or maybe it was in Eastern Europe. One of those old Soviet states, maybe. Wherever it was, it certainly wasn’t New Hampshire. It wasn’t his lab. It wasn’t one of the thousand odd reasons he’d decided to defect from his life a thousand odd times before.
Jurgen stared up at the stout, bare mizzenmast and briefly considered commissioning another sail to hang from the back of the ship. But he knew the likelihood of finding anyone left on board to fork over what was left of his uniform was about as good as his chances of convincing Aysel to sew for him again. And besides, the other sail was working just fine. They were still moving. Slowly—painfully slowly—but they were moving.
He lowered his eyes and set sight on the ship’s wheel, which stood proudly in the center of the quarterdeck. Somehow, he’d missed it before, but now looking at it, he was struck by just how beautiful it was. Teak wood set around a dark brass barrel, the thick cylindrical spokes splayed out in near-perfect conformity with just enough asymmetry to quell any doubts that the thing must have been hand-carved a long time ago by a very skilled and likely copiously underpaid craftsman. But what was most remarkable to Jurgen was that the wheel was completely unmanned. The ship was moving, but no one was steering it.
He turned around and looked back out to sea. It was dark, but he could just make out the faint outline of those menacing tentacles still flourishing in the distance. Jurgen felt a chill even colder than the Arctic breeze run up his spine. The fight was over. All of that was behind him now. But still, he couldn’t help but feel he’d missed out on something. Just like so many other times in his life when he’d been faced with something big, something scary but potentially meaningful, all he’d managed to do was run away. It was the easy thing to do. The path of least resistance. But Jurgen was tired of that path. He wanted purpose. That was, after all, the whole reason he’d ended up there, on that ship, in the Arctic, staring out at an abominable monster of the sea whose wrath he’d only just narrowly escaped.
Jurgen knew what he had to do. He didn’t like it, but he knew that if he couldn’t find a sense of purpose there he probably never would. He took a deep breath and grabbed the cold, wet wheel.
It was heavier than he expected.