“What’s so fascinating about that fish? You’ve been staring at it for over an hour now.”
Brought out of his daze by this remark, Alan Strain looked down from the swordfish mounted on the wall to his watch. He smiled and chuckled nervously. “You’re right. I don’t know, I just got lost in thought, I guess.”
He stuck his hands into the pockets of his baggy tan shorts and strolled over to the lounge’s sofa. He was thirty-one years old, though to look at him you would think he looked much older. His black hair was thinning on top and graying at the temples. There were numerous bags and wrinkles beneath his green eyes. Otherwise, he was a somewhat handsome man.
It was his first cruise, and even though the Lady Deluge was a small ship, it was very comfortable. It had been his father’s suggestion to take a cruise, claiming that he needed to relax. “If there’s anything the world could useless of, it’s stressed-out postal workers,” Jim Strain had said. “Forget your job for a week and go on a three-day private cruise to Bermuda. My treat.” It was easy for Alan’s father to offer such treats, being a retired military doctor.
A bald man twelve years his senior, George Chandler poured himself another whiskey sour at the ship’s rolling liquor cart and walked over to where Alan sat. He had light brown eyes which were accentuated with the brown suit he wore, the tie hanging loosely around his skinny neck. They had only met the day before, which was the first day of the cruise. From what Alan knew of George, he was a traveling salesman dealing in weight loss products. He himself looked as if he might have been using his own products a little too much. He also had been using the ship’s bar a little too much.
Sitting across from Alan, who had just picked up the newspaper from the table between them, George sipped his drink and looked around the room contentedly. Alan Strain was bothered by something, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. Ever since this morning he had been having chest pains, and he couldn’t keep his attention away from that giant blue swordfish that some lucky fisherman had had immortalized in plastic and hung on this cruise boat’s lounge wall. And even though this was today’s newspaper, picked up on one of the neighboring islands during the wee hours of the morning, it seemed as if he had already read these articles before.
To break the silence, George Chandler said, “I know the answer is probably no since you’re alone, but I might as well ask: do you have any family?”
Alan took a deep breath. Chandler didn’t seem like the kind of man he enjoyed associating with, but he figured that it would take his mind off of the deja vu involving the paper, as well as the swordfish and the occasional chest pain. “My wife and I are separated. No kids. Otherwise, my only family is my dad.”
George nodded. “Sorry to hear that. About your wife, that is.”
He shrugged. “Don’t be.” Sylvia was a very demanding woman, and when even Alan’s generous wages from the postal service failed to meet her needs, she decided to find a new sponsor. Other than being lonely at night, Alan really didn’t miss her at all.
George reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Without being asked if he had any family of his own, he flipped to the plastic picture flaps and pointed to a miniature family portrait. It must have been at least five years old, as the George Chandler in the picture still had some brown fuzz on top of his head. In the photograph, he wore a brown suit, and Alan wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if it was the same suit that Chandler now wore. Standing beside him was his wife, a gorgeous young blonde with a wide smile full of pearly white teeth. She wore a nice blue dress and an abundance of jewelry Being the young beautiful wife of a successful traveling businessman, it was more than likely that she was an adulteress. A small child stood beside each of them, a boy (the elder, about eight) by his father, and the girl (possibly four) by her mother. Both children had light brown hair, the girl’s in pigtails and the boy sporting a crew cut.
Pointing as he spoke, Chandler said, “This is my wife, Terri. Our boy, Trevor, is almost twelve now, and his sister Jenny is eight.”
Alan did the math in his head and found that his guess had been close enough. “Nice looking family,” he said without any real interest.
Not picking up on the insincerity of the remark, George beamed. “Thanks.”
“Why aren’t they here with you?”
Chandler grimaced and waved his hand through the air. “It’s a company thing. Our associates deal strictly with me. Besides, it’s not like it’s a complete vacation. It’s ‘suggested that I maybe persuade the islanders to sample our product,’ but what that really means is that I get to work in a fun-in-the-sun environment for a couple of days. My kids hate it, but my wife understands. After all, it pays the bills.”
Yeah, I bet she does, Alan thought.
Noticing that his whiskey glass was empty, George’s eyes floated back to the liquor cart, which had been calling his name all day. He stood up and asked Alan, “Do you want something to drink?”
“No, I haven’t had anything to eat yet and it’s only a little after one. Maybe you should take it easy too, you know.”
“Why? It’s not like I’m drunk or anything.” And he had a point. His speech wasn’t slurred at all, and his coordination was perfectly fine. “I’m just relaxing. These drinks help me. Trust me, I’ve been on enough of these little excursions to know how much liquor I can handle. And if you’re thinking I’m an alcoholic, you can think again.”
“I’m sorry, didn’t mean to sound like I was making any accusations,” Alan said defensively.
“It’s okay,” he said as he poured himself another drink.
Not sure what else to do after that tense altercation, Alan’s attention went back to the long serrated snout of the mounted swordfish on the wall. There was just something mesmerizing about it.
Three whiskey sours later, the silence was broken by the entrance of the third passenger into the lounge. Vivian Jackson was the typical rich bitch tourist, clad in a pink sundress, thin cotton scarf over her shoulders, and a straw hat over her silver hair, Large purple sunglasses perched on her nose, and also found a resting spot on her chubby cheeks. She reeked of tanning lotion as she walked through the lounge door.
Looking at Alan and Chandler, but not really seeing them, she asked, “Have either one of you seen Missy?”
Chandler shrugged, and Alan simply shook his head with a sigh. Women like Vivian always had to own at least one cat, and take it with them wherever they went, but the idea of a fluffy gray cat on a cruise ship was patently ridiculous.
Grimacing at the two men for not having a satisfactory answer, she sauntered around the room calling her cat’s name, peeking around every possible corner, into every little nook and cranny.
George gulped down his drink, then shook his head and said just loudly enough for Alan to hear, “Nutty old hag’s been hunting that pussy all day. She oughtta relax.”
Alan only nodded, though he didn’t agree. There was something wrong about today, he felt it in his bones, something that would keep everyone from relaxing before long.
Just then, the fourth of the five people on the ship entered the room: a small black nametag on his left breast pocket confirmed that his name was Eric, the the first mate/deckhand/waiter. He was a young man with tangled blonde hair and pale skin. The white uniform he wore made him look even more pallid.
With a spacey expression on his face, he clapped his hands together and asked, “Can I get anyone anything?”
Vivian immediately rushed over to him. “Oh yes! I can’t find my cat anywhere. Her name is Missy, have you seen her?”
Eric winced, then shook his head. “No ma’am, I haven’t seen her today. But if I do, I’ll bring her to you.” He massaged his forehead, then looked at the others. “Is there anything I can do for you gentlemen?”
George Chandler knocked back another shot, glanced at the boy, shook his head, then poured himself another drink. Alan leaned forward in his seat and looked at Eric. “Are you okay? You look like you’re in pain.”
Eric shrugged it off. “Just a headache. I took some Tylenol, so it’ll pass.”
“Looks pretty bad to me.”
“I’ll get over it.”
Suddenly, the entire ship shook. George jumped in surprise. “What the hell was that?”
All four of them ran through the door onto the deck and looked around for the source of the contact.
Now joining them was the Lady Deluge’s captain, Morgan Harnfeld. A gruff man roughly fifty years of age, he had a muscular build and a thick head of rust-colored hair beneath his captain’s hat, white to match the shirt of his uniform. The hat and black pants were what distinguished him from his first mate, and he was a man who liked showing superiority in his appearance.
He rubbed a hand over his thick red beard, looked over the faces of his passengers, then asked, “Do any of you know what that was?”
Shrugs and mutters went around, then Eric said, “Maybe you nailed a shark, Cap.”
Morgan rolled his eyes. “The impact came from the side. A shark’s got sense, boy. It wouldn’t swim head-on into the side of an object unknown to him, even if he thought he could get a meal out of it. That shit you see in the movies where a shark chews its way through the center of a boat so that he can have himself a manburger is just that: shit. Bullshit, horseshit, whatever kind you wanna call it. So whatever it was either has no sense, or hit us on purpose. Why any marine life would wanna do that is beyond me.”
Alan Strain found himself liking the Captain. He was vulgar, straight-forward, and intelligent. Everything his father wasn’t and that his grandfather had been. He looked over the side of the boat and saw something metal emerging through the water’s surface. “Aw, damn. Looks like a sub.”
The other four looked over and Morgan Harnfeld swore to a nearly endless extent. “That’s the last thing we need,” he growled. “Uncle Sam bossing us around, putting us behind. They don’t realize how expensive these things are. They take enough of our money as it is with taxes, but that’s not enough! Oh, no! They gotta push us around and let us know just who our cash is going to! It’s protection money. Our dear old uncle is nothing more than a racketeer, like Al Capone. Pay us or else. And even when we do pay, they remind us why by kicking dirt on us every now and then.”
The bitter captain’s tirade ended when the hatch of the emerged submarine opened. All five of the Lady Deluge’s current occupants stared on curiously in anticipation as the man who had opened the hatch stepped up and into their view.
He wore the suit of a commanding officer, navy blue coat covered with medals, patches, and stripes. The nametag he wore, similar to Eric’s, said his name was Neptune. Unlike Morgan, he wore no captain’s hat, and his blonde hair was slicked back perfectly, not a single strand out of place. His eyes were baby blue, and when he smiled, he revealed teeth that were perfect in every way, all straight, pearly white. He extended a hand to Alan, who clasped it to help the submarine commander climb aboard. When he touched this Neptune’s hand, a sickening feeling slithered through Alan’s spine. The man’s hand was cold, like raw meat fresh from the freezer.
Once the naval captain was standing on the deck of the Lady Deluge, two officers of lower rank in brown uniforms followed, one black and one white. This time, Alan Strain did not offer a helping hand. He waited as their icy commander lifted them aboard. They were both stocky and muscular, with cold dark eyes sunken deep in their skulls. Both were shaved bald, but there was something wrong with their looks, something that made the hair stick out on the back of Alan’s neck. He looked at his companions of the Lady Deluge and could see that only he sensed something extraordinarily wrong with these men.
Captain Harnfeld stared into the commander with impatient irritability. “So, what brings Uncle Sam’s boys in blue to our little cruise today?”
In a pleasant voice, the commander replied, “Well, to be perfectly blunt, Captain, we were alerted of some strange disturbance up ahead in this area, possibly a downed aircraft.”
With a small smirk, Harnfeld said, “I appreciate the warning. I’ll keep my eye out for it on the way to Bermuda.”
“I’m afraid I can’t allow you to continue on your course.”
Still irritated, the captain, whom Strain deduced just had to be a Democrat, asked, “And why not? Is it an alien aircraft?”
With a straight face, the commander said, “Frankly, sir, I don’t know what it is. All I know is that the area your ship is approaching is potentially dangerous and that I have to take you ashore.”
“You have to take us ashore,” Morgan repeated with disbelief. He glanced at the nametag briefly. “Captain Neptune, is it? Like the god of the Sea. Huh! And just why do you have to take us ashore? Why can’t you just tell us where to go?”
Neptune smiled thinly. “Call it a matter of trust. It’s just easier that way.” Just as Alan was thinking about the captain’s claim that Uncle Sam was further taking money from their pockets by canceling the cruise, Neptune answered before he could ask. “And if you’re worried about the tour, don’t be. You’ll be reimbursed, I assure you.”
“And where would we go once you got us ashore?”
Neptune shrugged. “Back to your homes. We’ll contact you when the danger is taken care of, and you can then call your customers and tell them you’re back in business.”
“Sounds to me like you think it’s gonna take a while to clear this ‘danger,’ even though you don’t know what it is. Sound to me like bullshit.”
Neptune sighed. “I’m only following orders, sir. It would be so much easier if you just come with us. You’ll be compensated, you have my word.”
George shrugged. It was a matter of his company versus the United States government, and he didn’t want to be a pawn stuck in the middle. He said, “Okay. Help me down in there.”
Morgan held up a hand, “No need to rush, Mr. Chandler. Not into that thing, anyway. Assuming I do call this tour off until our good ol’ uncle decides for the five of us to meet again some sunny day for this same excursion, why should we ride back with them?”
Neptune smiled thinly. “Don’t worry about your ship, Captain. One of my privates here will bring it in behind the sub.” Their nametags labeled the white man as Smith, and the black man as Jones. This also seemed wrong to Alan.
“Okay. But I’ll stay on board with your private as we go back.”
The commander grimaced. “Captain Harnfeld, the most convenient thing would be to have all civilians brought to safety on one vessel. So please, come aboard with me.”
Morgan was not to be swayed. “Okay, if you want all the civilians on one ship, we’ll stay here with your private and he can make sure we follow you ashore.”
Neptune began to clench his teeth. “Please, sir, make this easy. Our sub moves faster. If the danger is immediate, we have to get you to shore as quickly as possible.”
The captain laughed. “Then you’d be leaving your private in the path of danger!”
Both Jones and Smith said in unison, “It’s a responsibility we’re willing to accept, sir. All part of our duty.”
Morgan looked the two privates up and down, then turned back to Neptune. “So when did y’all okay the operation to separate the Siamese twins over here?”
Alan burst out into laughter, which was greeted by a cold look from Neptune. This situation had quickly gone from being terrifying to being outright hilarious. The more he thought about how Harnfeld reminded him of his grandfather, the funnier it seemed. Hell, his life had gone down the tubes in the past year, why should he be uptight about a sailor wanting to keep him from continuing his cruise and the bitter old Democratic captain challenging him? And for the first time, Alan realized that Morgan looked like the comic strip Viking, Hagar the Horrible, and burst out into even more laughter.
Neptune said, “Please, Captain Harnfeld, get in the sub. Time is wasting away, and we’ll all be safer if you do as I ask.”
Morgan snorted. “Doesn’t sound to me like I’m being asked anything, and I’m not a man that likes taking orders.”
Vivian Jackson was shaking with fear. Eric whined, “Come on, Cap, let’s not have any trouble. He says we’re already in danger.”
“Right. He says. But we don’t know this guy from the man in the fucking moon.”
Chandler said, “Either way, we’re taking a chance. Let’s get out of here. Fuck the boat, Captain Morgan.”
Without even paying attention to what he was saying, Alan said, “I bet you wish you had some Captain Morgan right about now, GeorgiePorgie.”
Turning red in the face, Chandler realized he was still holding his whiskey glass. “Shut the fuck up, Strain, or you’ll be staring at some fish up close and personal where I put you.”
Harnfeld said loudly, “That’s enough!” Then he looked back at Neptune. “I don’t care what danger lies ahead, I’m going to face it. I’m expected to deliver a tour group in Bermuda, and I’m going to get there. If any of these four want to go with you, they can. If one of your privates wants to stay with me, he can. But I’m going to Bermuda. That apple is polished and in the bag.”
Neptune growled, “You do realize that by resisting the demands of a military officer, you could face incarceration.”
For the first time, Harnfeld grinned. “I sure do. But am I resisting the demands of a military officer?”
This took everyone by surprise. “I beg your pardon?”
Morgan smirked. “You said we’d be going back to our homes upon getting ashore. What’s your base?”
Neptune did not answer.
Captain Morgan Harnfeld smiled again. “That suit you’re wearing is what the captains have on in pictures, but they usually don’t wear them in the submarines. By the way, those are some impressive stripes. Where and when and how did you earn them?”
“My past is not important,” Neptune stammered. “Please come with us!”
Harnfield reached into his shirt and pulled out a pistol, making all of his passengers jump. “Sorry, pal, but I smell a pirate when it comes around.”
At the mention of the word “pirate,” Vivian fainted.
Without responding to Harnfeld’s comment, Neptune said, “Would one of you please revive Ms. Jackson?”
Alan felt queasy. “How did you know her name?”
But Morgan paid no mind to any of this. He said, “I don’t know where you stole those uniforms, but you don’t know jack shit about the Navy. Where do you think I learned to sail, shop class? My old man was a sailor in World War Two. He taught me all about the Academy. You did go to the Academy, right, Captain Neptune? Or can you even tell me where it is?”
Neptune said nothing.
“I didn’t think so. Kings Bay in Georgia is where you’d take us if we went with you, if you were really Navy. And by the way, the Naval Academy is in New London, Connecticut. Next time you decide to scam someone like this, get the facts right.”
Neptune shook his head. “I won’t be after anyone else. I still urge you to come with us.”
“And why should we? You’ve been giving us bullshit since you rammed my ship! And if you damaged it, it’s your ass. Now, leave, or I will use this gun to remove you from my property.”
The impostor did not move, he simply said, “I wish it had gone smoothly.”
That was when it finally dawned on Alan what was wrong with how Jones and Smith looked. The sun reflected a spot of light from George Chandler’s bald head, but their was no light reflecting from the shaved heads of the two privates; it was as if the sun completely looked over them.
What seemed like hours passed, but Alan knew it was only about a minute. Finally, to everyone’s surprise, Morgan Harnfeld shot “Captain Neptune” in the chest. Or at least, they thought he did.
Neptune stood there, not even knocked off balance by the bullet that traveled through him.
“No fuckin’ way,” George Chandler whispered.
Morgan Harnfeld dropped his gun at exactly the same time as George Chandler dropped his glass. After regaining his composure, the captain asked, “Okay. Who or what the hell are you, and why do you want us?”
Neptune straightened, then spoke. “I’ll be totally honest now. There is no real danger ahead, and we didn’t stop you to save you. Nor did we stop you to harm you. We stopped you to study you.”
“That’s right. We’ve been watching you for quite some time now, and decided it was finally time to step in for closer examination.”
“What do you mean? You’ve been following each of us?”
Neptune shook his head. “No. Just the ship.”
Chandler creased his brow. “I don’t understand. What is it about us? And what branch of the government are you from? Who are you really?”
“We have no part in the United States government, or that of any other country. And my name is not really Neptune. I don’t really have a name. None of us do.”
Even though he didn’t understand those last two sentences, Harnfeld asked, “So you just adopted the name of the god of the sea so that you could come put us under a microscope, is that it?”
“No. I didn’t realize I was taking on the name of one of your gods. I chose that name because it’s the planet closest to our home.”
A few moments passed, then both Alan and George burst out into laughter. Chandler asked, “So what, are you going to beam us up and stick probes in our asses?”
Neptune shook his head. “No. Our kind has finished studying the living specimen of your race.”
Alan froze as chills raced through his spine. George creased his brow. “Then what do you want with us?”
As icy as ever, the phony naval commander said, “Like I said, we’re finished studying the living specimens of the human race, and you intrigued us to the point where we had to investigate.”
Breaking out in gooseflesh, Eric asked slowly, “Are you trying to tell me we’re dead?”
Neptune looked at “Smith” and said, “Show them.”
The white private opened the brown shirt he wore to reveal pale skin, hairless and smooth. But it was also transparent. They could see organs through this outer layer, though they didn’t look quite like human organs. And suddenly, the organs were replaced by a deep blue image. It didn’t take them long to realize that what they were seeing through Smith was the ocean on which they were traveling. And soon, the Lady Deluge herself came into view.
Morgan Harnfeld felt his mouth go dry as he saw his ship, his baby, head straight towards coral reef. “No,” he whispered. “I know my way around here. I never would steer into that.”
But the images displayed on Smith’s surface showed different. As soon as the ship made contact with the reef, the captain was tossed head-first into the wall, which was decorated by one of Morgan’s father’s old war posters, depicting Uncle Sam saying, “I WANT YOU.” An audible snap immediately filled the room when the captain’s head hit the wall.
Neptune said, “Does that explain anything?”
The captain seemed to shrink before Alan’s eyes. It most definitely did.
They looked back at the movie showing on Private Smith’s screen of skin, though they doubted The Sinking of the Lady Deluge would win any Oscars. The next scene took place in the lounge, where the other four were. Upon impact, Eric, the only one standing, stumbled towards the doorway and cracked his head on the way out, knocking him unconscious before he plummeted over the side and into his watery grave.
Eric shuddered as he placed a hand on his forehead, which had been pounding all day. He now understood why.
George Chandler had been standing at the bar, and when the ship struck the reef, he fell back against the wall, and the bar cart rolled backwards, crushing his head. He winced as he watched this, then looked down at the empty whiskey glass.
Alan Strain was afraid to see what was coming next, although he already knew what it was. He was sitting in the chair reading the newspaper when his seat slid back, towards that swordfish mounted on the wall. The trophy fell from its place and landed just conveniently enough to send the pointed snout through Alan’s heart. His chest pains started again.
Vivian Jackson (still passed out at their feet) had been sitting on the couch with her precious cat. The crash propelled her forwards, causing her to land on poor little Missy, crushing her. Vivian then rolled across the floor until she met a fate similar to that of the captain’s, her head cracking against the wall.
George, looking as if he was about to be sick, said, “That’s why she’s been looking for her cat. She killed it.”
Neptune nodded and said, “One of the things that puzzles us is why there are no animals in your afterlife. We’ve been studying your ship for thirteen years and still haven’t figured that out.”
Alan’s eyes widened. “Thirteen years!?”
“That’s right. On the second day of your cruise, thirteen years ago, your ship became another victim of the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon. Since then, Captain Morgan Harnfeld’s family has moved on rather well, honoring his memory. Mr. Chandler’s wife re-married. The man she had been cheating on him with, a med student. This upset your children greatly. Trevor committed suicide eleven years ago.”
George went pale again as Neptune looked at Alan and continued, “Your wife Sylvia broke off her other relationship after your death. Your father suffered a heart attack upon hearing the news, and she’s been devoting herself to caring for him since.” Alan was surprised, pleasantly, that both of them had actually loved him to such an extent. With a smirk, Neptune added, “It might please you further to know that she hasn’t engaged in sexual intercourse in thirteen years.”
Looking at Eric, he said, “It took a year before your girlfriend got over you and found a new fiance. Your parents came down stricter on your sister so that they wouldn’t lose her. And as for Ms. Jackson, she had no mourners, but was recognized by the congregation of her church. But these things occurred without any of you knowing it. As far as you were concerned, not only were you still alive, you were still on the second day of your cruise.”
Feeling faint himself, Alan said, “And now you want to examine the human afterlife.”
Captain Morgan Harnfeld was pale as he asked dryly, “For how long?”
The entity known to them as Captain Neptune grinned. “That’s one of the things we plan on finding out. How long your afterlife is. In other words, for the duration of your cruise.Your eternal cruise.”