Fixing What Is Broken
That sphere of cosmic power was resting in the sky once again. That beacon amid the blackness of night. For most, it might be a beautiful thing. It was one of the few things that could exist so far away, and yet be at arm’s length.
For the engineer, it was just a big lantern that he couldn’t snuff out.
The frigid air played endlessly along the waves, stirring up his skin into goosebumps. Fourteen moons during the trip thus far, and each night had been the same; cold air, bright darkness, and the warmth of the bottle in his belly.
His vodka was meant to serve only friends and holidays. The busy nature of the Solemn Sailor kept him away from any company, and port would be made before Thanksgiving. The booze called his name, and his response was dogmatic; this was the fourth and final bottle, with only an eight of it left for the last leg of the trip. The engineer’s matchsticks were in short supply as well, and he’d be head first in hell or high water before he made a deal to get more from a greedy sailor.
He took another sip of the stuff. His feet rested on the bolted desk, tipping the front chair legs off of the floor. His sanctuary away from the bowels of the ship provided him with comforts fitting for the creature he was, with the exception of heat. There was no comfortable balance in temperature; he ran either too hot or too cold at all times.
“There’s a problem.” A voice manifested words from the darkness.
The engineer’s chair nearly became the instrument of his doom. His heart raced. He hadn’t seen anyone all day. He spun around to face the entrance to his hideout, his eyes fixed on the figure at the door.
The figure’s head peeked from above the door frame into the room. It was lanky, spindly, and without distinction in the darkness of the night. Its pose was alien; the hands were at the sides and the elbows stiff. The voice dripped with expectancy and contempt.
“In what sense?” the engineer asked.
“Search below.” the figure disappeared from view with a few footfalls along the railing.
The engineer shot up to his feet to make a few inquiries and spit some venom, but, when he twisted his head around the corner, his visitor was gone.
The engineer never expected such a vague request. Though most crewman lacked the technical terms to explain the issue, they had the common decency to give a location. This git with the stiff shoulders gave him no more than a heart attack and bad directions.
This trip can’t end fast enough, thought the engineer.
The engineer’s hammer, screwdriver, tongs and alcohol jingled with sound in his work bag as he wrapped the sling around his shoulder. The hands of his pocket watch pointed to 11 and fifty-five minutes. He would give a solid effort to fix the problem, and then turn it over to whoever was next in the shift. His fingers brought a lantern to life before he stepped into the frigid, black expanse of the night.
As the engineer worked his way down the catwalks, a light rain started to pour. An empty bottle materialized in his hand to collect the drops. Heavenly tears were a blessing to people living on water ration, especially one that drank devilish brews.
“Yer a thirsty git, aintcha?” the engineer’s heart couldn’t take many more scares tonight. Fumbling his bottle and spinning around at the same time, the engineer met eyes with another sailor, a portly fellow who might have been a seafaring Santa Claus.
“Appen to ‘ave a match?” the sailor asked.
The Engineer did, and wasn’t too keen on giving them out. But the salty, sea-born look of desperation shamed him into capitulation.
“Just take one.” the engineer dug around in his bag, and produced his matchbook. A bit too quickly, perhaps, as the matches shot out and scattered along the rails.
“Hell and damnation!” the engineer scurried to collect what he could but many were ruined. He only had one left to light so many fuses on the time bombs that were his lungs. He eyed the lone match that had stayed in the book. His grip was iron-like. His mind calculated and reconsidered, while his eyes betrayed his thoughts to his fellow crewman.
“No worries, mate.” the sailor tipped his cap and began to move away. The solemn words were a weight too great to bear on conscious.
“Take it. I’ll mind my habit. Go on.” the engineer reassured the crewman to his honest intentions. The crewman took the last match gingerly with a smile big as billboards. He thanked the engineer, and promised him a round of rum.
“We’ll drink til we drop, aye?” the jolly sailor struck the match, lit a smoke, tipped his cap, and swaggered away with pep in his step.
I hope not, thought the engineer. He shivered. Cold air and fearful night worked his spine, but he determined to trudge on to his task.
Step after step turned cold air into hot, then hot into scorching. The lower deck was a warm belly in the center of a cold, steel beast. Steam and smoke loitered in the air, tickling the lungs with humidity. Lights lined the passageways, their usefulness made suspect with constant flickering.
Time to search for a problem that didn’t want to be found.
The engineer’s many years of fixing, breaking and complaining along these halls made his memory photographic. He would know what was out of place or behaving strangely. For now, finding it became the biggest issue.
Check the most important part first, he thought. The engineer moved towards the engine.
Shoddy lights furthered their protest for maintenance, but with more sinister intent. The flickering started to intensify. Certain lights shut off completely before relighting themselves. Two bulbs burned with the sun’s intensity before shooting glass angrily in his direction. Another bulb, in what was surely a trick of the eyes, changed colors several times. Yellow to purple, purple to green, green to black, black to shattered glass. Other lights followed in sequence in some unholy light show.
The engineer’s feet were glued to the floor, and his legs wobbled like jello. The glass from the lights should have been enough to make any man duck for cover, if not turn tail. Instead, he stood statuesque among the Orchestra of the Bulbs, pelted by the blissful agony of their music.
He wasn’t being held in place by the bulbs; what followed their explosions caught his attention. The exploding lights offered passage to The Darkness.
Darkness was a old companion of his. But this time was different. It was active; It crept in at first, then flowed from the unlit sections of the passageway. It didn’t cover the pipes or steel interior, but swallowed them. Darkness spread inch by inch, with brain-strangling whispers and tales of torment on its blackened tongue.
The distance between the engineer and the Creeping Darkness became shorter and shorter. His legs remained frozen in place, in contrast to his wild eyes that tracked every dead bulb’s worth of progress by this Midnight Horror.
The bout of paralysis was lifted, and the engineer’s legs became instruments of his will. He immediately launched into a full sprint opposite of the encroaching enemy.
The once familiar halls became wicked malformations. Twists and turns materialized out of some plane of existence that he couldn’t fathom. He took a new path after seeing the same stretch of familiar passageway four times in a row, down to same defining pipe leakage that was ever-present at its midpoint.
His heart overflowed with regret at the decision.
With each new path he took, the halls became more obscene. The wicked halls glowed with a maleficent red haze. A blackened ichor clung to the walls; tar-like growths inched slowly along the passages, overtaking the metal beneath. The engineer, in his haste to escape, curved too hard on his turn and slammed face first into a wall of the ichor.
A grave mistake.
The tar lived, or taunted the maligned facsimile of existence. It latched onto his face, little tendrils pulled at the skin to keep it close. The tar jostled at his lips like a lover shunned, trying to give a kiss with malicious intention. The fumes of the slime tormented his nostrils with gasoline and ash. The engineer had no doubt that, given enough time, this thing would kill him. With both hands free, a breakaway might be easier. But given recent events, he had no desire to drop his lantern.
With the strength and willpower that so few are capable of, the engineer’s face found freedom. A mighty pull sent the slime cascading into the metal floor of the passage. Remnants of the stuff crawled along his skin, his free hand hurrying to strike them to the floor.
And then he started coughing.
Something rolled in his throat. The clog in the airway slowly pushed itself out through the efforts of his spastic lungs. Each cough became clearer, each breath less painful. The blockage flew through the air with a final, heroic dry-heave.
The mass of decay wriggled and writhed on the floor. It was a gloomy purple, bubbling and smoking like some sort of hell-boiled meat. It had the shape of a steak, and filled the air with the stench of decaying roadkill. It shivered, and reached towards him with some strange sense of longing.
The engineer’s eyes contemplated the purple tar with mixed feelings. Confusion, hatred, despair, regret, acceptance. The weight of emotion stayed him for seconds that were hours, until the broken chorus of shattered lights and disembodied whispers rounded the corner behind him to continue the pursuit.
Even the wind would have had trouble catching the engineer. His feet found more certainty than before; one misstep would’ve led to another face full of tar, or worse if he failed to get free again. The twists and turns of the endless hallway led him deeper into the abyss. The Solemn Sailor’s belly fast-tracked his digestion.
One particular corridor appeared as it should’ve, complete with regular lights and leaky pipes. Burning sensations had found a home in the engineer’s thighs, and he didn’t hear the Darkness on his heels. He decided that gathering his breath for a least a few seconds in the glow of the hallway was worth the risk.
The brightness of the lights became ever more intense. His eyes fixated on one in particular that seemed to have been reborn from the recesses of his mind.
A light in an old shower shined brightly over dark deeds. An awkward embrace under the gaze of an ever-present figure, a controlling force that guided his life even at such a distance. A closed fist lunged at his childish belly. Tears streamed from his eyes.
The motion in his hand was reflex. A single punch launched the light into a thousand shards. Pouring blood warmed the engineer’s closed fist, the glass cuts on his knuckles like mini infernos. His atomic mind harbored nuclear thoughts.
His wandering eyes spied into another light through no desire of his own. He saw failure with such clarity. Each palm against the forehead buried a memory. Milestones of misery laid behind slammed doors. Pictures shimmered along the bulb of familiar faces made foreign.
A twisting of the hips, a throwing of the shoulder and another bulb was no longer whole. Now both hands had found fire and warmth from the shattered glass. Though he had two rounds clearly in his favor, he’d lost interest in winning a boxing match against these bulbs. The ever-present danger of the Darkness drew near; Pathetic cries in the distance crept into earshot, and the sense of hopelessness was palpable. His gums drizzled the taste of terror onto his tongue.
As the lights flickered, his feet hurried away from pain and misery. The engineer’s fear of the Darkness was outpaced by his worry of what might come next. At least with the Darkness, a sense of familiarity underscored the terror itself.
The next corridor did not disguise its intentions. The floor purveyed a dark pool of liquid. It bubbled and oozed with unknown depth. The smell tempted his nose against temperance, and reminded him of so many nights spent alone. Trudging through the slimy corridor was a foregone conclusion, even without the creeping Darkness fast approaching his back.
Each step was more miserable than the last. It took a heroic effort to push through the filth, both mentally and physically. The engineer’s mind flashed back to so many relocations, of moved furniture and abandoned persons. The engineer’s mind reminisced of long nights with familiar company that kept his belly warm. His tossing and turning was only a side effect of being content, and company was welcome as long as the mind could remember.
The sludge crept along his bare neck. It caked along the skin, almost pulling him down with every step. Drowning was a real possibility. Fear took home in his heart like a household pest, but his mind played with possibilities. He was so warm when he had always been so cold. Just one last tip of the head and he might be that way forever.
No, not like this! the engineer steeled himself against the whims of his fragile mind. He would not be consumed by this dredge.
With dogged determination, his arms pulled themselves out of the muck. Ahead of him, the solid floor was a sight for sore eyes. Behind him, the cries of the damned danced on his ear drums.
Something grabbed his feet.
This grasp was not like the soft tugs of the congealing slime he waded through. With clear intent, the grip tightened. The bony texture of unnatural joints wrapped themselves around his ankles. The plan was to pull him straight into Hell.
His hands viced the solid edge, his body worked furiously to pull itself onto solid ground. The Thing Below remained steady in its purpose to murder, the grip growing ever tighter on his lower body. The engineer thought he would have to leave his legs and drag his torso inch by inch to prolong what seemed like the inevitable.
The grip on his legs would not come loose. Each pull jiggled his body with force. A voice clawed at his sanity, creeping through the cobwebs in the back of his mind.
You cannot go on. It’s too late to escape. Accept….release.
The engineer refused. It would not end here. With Herculean effort, the engineer lifted himself free of the sludge.
But the grip on his feet never loosened.
His mind could not comprehend what the eyes saw. A corpse, with a face he often saw in the mirror, held him by the ankles. It was covered in the substance, torso frail and decaying. Grave creatures, maggots and worms, called the festering skin their home. The eyes of the fiend met the engineer’s with wearied purpose.
“It will come to pass.” gravelly words slipped out of its rotten lips. “It is already done.”
With that, the creature that wore his face slowly sank back into the sludge. It’s eyes never left his own.
He did not have time to delight in his victory or consider ill tidings. As the engineer crawled from the sludge and found his feet, The Darkness manifested down the hall behind him. Before he turned to run away, it nearly took some sort of shape. But his need to survive outweighed his curiosity of its appearance.
Left and right. Devilry? Insanity? The engineer’s mind began to grow weary of the pursuit. Each turn took him a step further from his pursuer, but also a step further from freedom. He had to get around the Darkness to escape. But how? It seemed to be hot on his heels no matter how many rights he took instead of a left. It was latched onto him like a piece of rotten history. It followed him like wolves follow sheep, or like prophets follow portents.
Retreat had become a fools errand.
The engineer nearly accepted fate before he came to a passageway he remembered. He had been down here so many times when the ship first came together.
He remembered his days as a younger man. So youthful. So full of enthusiasm. He worked on this ship during its formation. He watched this engine built by the men who taught him this trade. Good men. Men with conviction. Men with ethics, with morality. Real father figures. He admired their work ethic, and promised them that he would strive to be like them. They laughed at his childish optimism, but appreciated his sentiments.
They were times that he could never get back.
These memories hit him with the strength of a thousand hangovers. They appeared for nothing; he had walked this passageway a thousand times over the years and hadn’t once revisited his youth. He grew up, became someone realistic.
He became someone different.
The Solemn Sailor hummed quietly. The sounds of the damned didn’t assault his eardrums, nor did he shiver at the cold wisps of frigid air that swirled when the Darkness was near. It was quiet. Almost peaceful.
He started slowly towards the engine room door.
A small light hung atop the ceiling about halfway down the passage. With each step, it flickered. When he’d covered a fourth of the length, it changed colors rapidly. At a third of the length, it shattered and then reformed itself.
When he stood underneath the light, an aroma of burning meat streamed into his nostrils. A ripple of fiery pain shot across his torso. The engineer doubled over with both hands gripping at his chest. His screams of pain would have woke the entire crew had he been topside. The litany of curses in his mind killed countless angels.
He tore open vest and undershirt to reveal the damage beneath.
Several long black streaks sizzled along his chest and belly. The smell of burnt flesh made roost in his nostrils, the pungent smell of carcass crawled into his lungs. He decided to hazard a touch of his pitch-black stomach.
He was falling apart.
His finger left an imprint along the streak. The engineer thought that some sort of satanic trick of the eyes might be at work; He was no longer surprised by anything he saw today. Until the fingerprint wriggled, and a small hole burst open in its place.
A single push was all it took to go too far.
A small cadre of maggots slowly pushed their way out of his belly and onto the floor. He watched them with morbid curiosity for a time, until another group followed suit. And then another after that. The corpse had been right.
It was time.
He had fought against this for what seemed like forever. He could hear the voices again, louder than ever before. They were shouts now; no longer beckoning him but making demands that he join them.
The end was near.
I’ve fought too hard! No! the engineer thought in agony. In defiance of God and fate, he stumbled forward step by step. The engine room door was the gateway to his sanctuary away from this vessel of nightmares. Not even the rot that spilled out of his wretched gut would keep him from his task.
He had found purpose.
The call of the Darkness blistered his back as he hurried to crank the wheel release of the door. Their predictions dirtied his mind. Dismay. Fear. Hate. Doom. His name was mentioned in ways that chilled his bones. Even the blood running from the hole in his torso and the heat that seared through his flesh wasn’t enough to stifle the icy tongue in the Dark.
He had found refuge.
The release opened after an eternity of cranking. The engineer slid his wretched form into the small opening before he slammed it shut on the other side. He worked rapidly to seal the lock. In moments, he’d tightened it so tight that he feared this would become a permanent stay. But he did not wish it.
There was no escape.
He hadn’t bothered to observe the Engine Room on his way into it; the threat of eternal torment from a floating cloud of malignancy provided him with much more pause than what corruption might lie in his “refuge”. But this was something he could have never anticipated.
The engine room was covered in a fleshy substance painted red, black, purple and all manner of colors that might be associated with the occult. Tiny mouths with wayward tongues and wandering eyes adorned some of the walls. The whole room shuddered as though it was taking deep, labored breaths. But the worst of it was the engine itself.
Gone was the magnificent machine that propelled the seafaring vessel. It was replaced by a large, pulsing mass that could best be described as some sort of warped heart. This “heart” was a massive mound, with a dark orange light shimmering along its center. Thick veins extended from the heart to many corners of the room, presumably giving life to the malformed entities that eyed him curiously and tried to tongue his personage.
A sense of gloom overwhelmed him. It wasn’t just the mundane feeling that so many have for disruptions to their routine, but something palpable. He drowned the tartness of despair, caught the whispers of discord riding along the air, and inhaled deeply the scent of defeat. Overwhelmed senses brought him to his knees.
To come so far only for this.
His vision blurred. His grip on his belly wound and life itself weakened. His bladder released along his legs to provide some sense of warmth, if only momentarily before the cold reality became clear once again.
His grave had been dug.
The Engineer started to crawl. He had no clear destination in mind, just wherever his hands and knees took him to lean against. His mind shut down. He couldn’t think or plan. He determined to meander along the floor until he passed out or passed away. It mattered little to him now.
A last place to rest.
His hands found something comfortable along the path. His eyes tried to make out what it was. It was a mattress, untouched by the destructive forces around it. It had a sheet, a bedspread, and even a pillow. Of all the devilry in this room, this scares me the most, he thought in his stupor.
But the appeal was too great.
He struggled onto the mattress with his still-breaking body. He felt the decay creeping from his torso into the limbs and neck. He heard the crackling and flaking of the skin as it slowly peeled itself off to take flight. A mole he’d long had on his collarbone playfully danced in the air to the rhythmic breathing of the room.
His deliverer was here.
He barely made out the other figure in the room. Long. Lanky. Stiff. A familiar form without a face. It stood next to the “heart” like some sort of menacing caretaker. He couldn’t see it’s face, but he swore it was looking at him. Into him.
The figure was calm in its approach. There was no sense of urgency to reach the engineer’s solemn little spot of comfort in this demented den of horrors. But, sure as sin, the figure arrived at his side.
Even at such a short distance, the engineer beheld nothing of its face. It had no discernable features. He likened it to a failed boyhood game of Hangman. It was entirely undefined, but he felt its breath on his face. He saw its disgust at his smell of piss, sweat and fear. He languished at the thought of it hearing his internal dialogue. And the stare. The creature with no eyes stared into the depths of his shattered soul.
A small claw manifested from the figure, and hovered in the air above the engineer. This he could see with perfect clarity, with its six, knife-sharp points and definite intention. Though the figure held his life literally in the palm of his hand as a child might with an ant as a plaything, he did not sense malignancy. The figure regarded him as before, with disgust.
“It is time to relax.” the icy words by the engineer’s deliverer were followed by the claw clasping gently over his mouth.
The engineer struggled. Both of his hands grasped the claw and pulled with feeble strength. It wasn’t enough. He could’ve tried to twist his whole body left and right to break away. He could have tried to scream. He could have done any number of things. He just didn’t want to.
A final wave of ecstasy.
The engineer felt an easing of tension in the muscles. Gone was the stress of his labor, swiftly followed by haunted thoughts from the dark corners of his heart. His mind eased its hyper-vigilance, but began a vigil for memories unmade. He felt a warmth in his belly, but cold along the eyes. He felt whole and empty at the same time. And he was powerless to stop any of it.
His breathing stopped. His eyes closed. His mind rested.