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Unknown Cargo

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The last time I set foot on that ship was 1993.

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Chapter 1

In the early 90’s I was a deck hand on a ship that frequented the southern half of the globe. We mainly transported goods, occasionally passengers, and sometimes things that we weren’t allowed to see. Once in a while we’d see something we weren’t supposed to. The guy who got me the job lost his life in one such incident; a large wave had rolled our ship hard to the port side and caused our below deck cargo to shift violently. The strapping holding down a particularly heavy box gave under the strain and let the box go. It slid into the wall revealing a large quantity of ivory and other illicit goods. He left the hold as soon as he saw what it was, but he was found dead later that same day crushed by another “loose box.” They neglected to mention that he was also shot in the head on the official report. This was one of the incidents that made me quit…one, not ‘the.’

The last time I set foot on that ship was 1993.

The long and short of our journey is that we were headed from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Puerto Montt, Chile. It was easier to sail around Cape Horn than it was to find a reliable passage through the Andes. I don’t know much about the client, but he hired our ship and paid us a fat bonus so that he could fill out the paperwork instead of us. This entails certain risks when entering port cities…but it gave our client a greater degree of anonymity. Some people pay quite well for that.

The seas around Cape Horn can be some of the most treacherous on the planet. They’re certainly the worst I’ve ever seen. Due to the fact that there is so little land that far south the winds can whip around nearly the entire planet past 40° south creating the “roaring 40’s, the furious 50’s, and the screamin’ 60’s.” These sound like neat names to most people…to me they mean we’re in for a rough ride. Cape Horn forces ships to drop below 56° S. The further south you go the worse the winds can get. We were aiming for a course around 56.5° S. This put us a little further off shore, hopefully out of reach of anyone who’d want to inspect/steal our cargo, yet still close enough to land that we’d have a chance to make it if a storm hit hard and fast.

The journey was uneventful until we approached the Cape. My job on the ship was one that everyone can associate with; I was the cook. I didn’t have any particular area of expertise aside from a friend (since deceased) who had told them that I made the best food out of the crappiest ingredients and that I wouldn’t rat them out. I am a good cook, and I had no plans on ratting out a less-than-noble captain/crew who would ultimately kill me if I did so. We were about 50 miles off the shore on the night we’d be passing the cape when things got…odd? I don’t suppose that’s quite right…they went straight stupid; it was my last voyage for a good reason. Things I can’t rightly explain began to happen.

When you’re at home and something happens inside your house, such as a fire, you leave. You go outside, and you watch the thing burn down or you see if you can put it out. That’s not really an option at sea. You put the fire out or you jump ship and risk death. The fires we had to put out weren’t the kind I’m used to. It was winter and the winds were bad as soon as we passed 40° S. They got worse the entire way down. There were thirteen of us on the ship. A horrible number, but no one had yet been hired to replace my buddy.

I didn’t actually know any of the real names of my fellow crewmates; nor did they know mine. That being said I’m not willing to risk naming them as I knew them...lest they find me. I’ll refer to the captain as ‘Karl.’ He was in his mid 50’s and was the only person still on board who I really got along with. The pay was good so I stayed. He’d often ask me to take watches late at night as I had no other real obligations at that time unless it was very early (4-5 am ship time). On the night we passed the Cape I was on one such watch around 8:00 pm. It had been dark for over two hours and since it was winter I knew there was a real threat of icebergs in this area. I spotted the first almost immediately and alerted the mate who was in the wheelhouse. I honestly don’t remember which one it was because immediately I saw more and more icebergs and we realized that we’d stumbled into an ice floe. This kind of phenomenon didn’t regularly occur this close to the Cape, but it’d happened in the past…the only problem was that we’d need to go shallower or deeper to avoid it…we went deeper.

Once we were a few miles further out than the floe the wind picked up in a bad way. I couldn’t go outside anymore for fear of being blown overboard. The waves were in excess of 30 feet, and even some of the crew (those still awake) was starting to feel sick. Our ship was fairly sizeable; 400 feet, but 30 foot seas are nothing to be trifled with. My inside watch path took me through the forward part of the ship; away from the crew quarters and around the hold. We had a set route for this and I always followed it to a “T;” never lingering in the hold lest I see something that I wasn’t supposed to. Well, this time…it didn’t really matter. Just before I got to the hold I heard an alarm claxon that I’d only heard twice before; it damn near blew my eardrums, but it meant that there was a massive wave approaching. I grabbed the railing and held on expecting a large breaker or something of the like. I could suddenly feel the bow of the ship begin to rise and I felt myself being pulled backwards down the long corridor I’d just walked. I began to worry when it just kept going up. Finally, mercifully, the wave broke and our ship crashed down and through it. I wasn’t on deck to see, but I’d imagine we were briefly partially submerged. The impact was a relief, but it nonetheless threw me to the ground.

When I got up I was dizzy. I’d hit the railing and the ground pretty hard and could see a small bit of crimson on the ground where I’d lain. I’d cut the right side of my head…not bad, but it bled nonetheless. That’s when I first saw something. It was standing at the end of the hallway that led to the deck of the ship. It looked like a person, and I expected them to come help me up and make sure I was OK. The crew may not have been all buddy-buddy, but you want your fellow crewmates to make the journey…if nothing else so that you don’t have extra work to do. I was still dizzy and a little woozy, but I could clearly see a figure open one of the outside doors and calmly step onto the deck. This couldn’t be happening. No one had any reason to go outside. None. Everything we needed to do (adjustments to the ship, checking cargo, etc. could be done via passageways inside the ship.

Our ship had a two way intercom system. I knew the nearest speaker was in the hold so I reluctantly entered to let the mate at the helm know that one of the crew was outside and apparently had a death wish. When I entered the hold I noticed that it was eerily empty; then I recalled that our current client had contracted us to haul only his cargo. I made for the intercom only to stop dead in my tracks a few feet from it; the cargo had consisted of one large cargo container, the kind that can be loaded onto a flatbed truck. Only…it had broken free of its moorings and slammed into the heavy wall we all referred to as “the breaker.” It was a very thick wall designed to protect the aft compartment from yielding in the event the cargo became dislodged…as it had today. The container had split and was awkwardly crumpled against “the breaker.” I wasn’t about to witness precious gold spill onto the floor…followed shortly by my own blood if our client had anything to say about it…and was ready to run when I realized…the container was empty. I could see all the way to the back of the container, and there was nothing inside at all.

I ran to the intercom and screamed that someone had gone outside and went to leave the room when something about the container caught my eye. There were crosses painted all over it. Every side had at least one cross on it and the doors had one apiece. I stepped just a little bit closer to examine it and I noticed the interior. It was covered in claw marks. The hinges of doors on the inside had nearly been clawed clean off and there were deep gouges in the heavy metal that looked almost like someone had made them with a torch. My first thought was that we were hauling some sort of big cat to a millionaire for his personal pet collection until I realized how foolish it was to think that a cat could claw through metal.

Suddenly I heard the alarm claxon for the second time in so many minutes and realized that I needed to brace myself in a hurry. I ran for the door and the railing but I was too late; this wave didn’t hit us straight on, whoever was in the wheelhouse hadn’t seen it coming and must have done his best to turn us into it…but failed. The ship listed hard to the port side. I hit the floor like bug on a windshield and rolled about 20 feet. I heard the captain calling over the intercom that we’d taken water in one of our aft compartments. This had happened in the past and wasn’t all that surprising, but the fact that the captain had taken over the ship this late at night (it was now after 11 pm) meant that we were in pretty bad shape. I took a quick stock of my surroundings and our emergency protocol for situations such as these and realized something…I was completely alone. No one else on the ship would be within 100 yards of my current location.

That’s when I heard the wind howling louder than I’d ever heard it before. Somewhere nearby there was something open to the outside. I ran from the cargo hold and noticed the door that I’d seen the person walk out was suddenly open again. I ran down the hall and grabbed the door to shut it, but found it incredibly hot. The door handle burnt through my gloves and caused them to briefly smoke. I ripped my jacket off and used it to turn the heavy duty handle and finally seal the door. Over three inches of water now coated the floor. It would drain, but I still was left with the uncomforting thought that there was some person (or people) on board that I probably wasn’t supposed to know about…and he or she was now loose.

I decided to take the long way around the hold to avoid any unnecessary meetings with our guest(s). This took me to the extreme bow of the ship. It was a somewhat cramped passageway that I’d only used two or three times prior, but we all knew about it. This passage was our way avoiding the hold at all costs; it had only two doors and didn’t connect directly to the hold. Very near the turning point where the path doubled back I looked out one of the portholes and could see the worst seas I’d ever been in. It was almost as if some higher power was trying to sink our ship. I stared out the window watching the waves grow larger and larger, almost as if in a trance, for about fifteen minutes before I realized how long I’d been standing there. Then I saw a trifecta of monster waves rushing at our ship from three different directions. From what I could see there was a 30’ or better wave approaching each side of the ship, and a monster of at least 50’ coming at us straight on. I heard that massive alarm claxon again and this time there was an announcement with it; “Hold on boys. This is gonna be bad.”

The waves didn’t hit us all at the same time…if that was some sort of mercy. The port wave struck first and pushed us into the starboard wave which actually worked to right the vessel somewhat. The captain didn’t mess around; he was good at his job. The last wave was the biggest I’ve ever seen. If I hadn’t been there to see it I’d never have believed it. There was probably a five second break before it hit us and it hit hard. I was already well braced, thankfully, but I could hear metal being wrenched and sheared on deck. There was going to be damage. I looked up and out the window again only to see our onboard crane rushing towards it. I suddenly felt the temperature around me rise sharply and before the crane hit the window everything went black.

I woke on the floor about twenty feet from a gaping wound in the front of the ship. The main crane had broken free from its base and gouged a hole at least ten feet tall in the hull; I couldn’t see below my deck to see its true depth. I could feel the warmth escaping the hallway through the opening and realized that, while the outside temperature was in the low 30’s, the interior temperature had to have been over 100° F when the crane struck. The power had gone out all around me…I could only hope it was a localized event; if the ship lost power then we’d flounder in short order in these seas.

I suddenly had the unsettling feeling that I was not alone. I jumped to my feet and felt my way along the wall opposite the way I’d come. Suddenly I felt the temperature rise again and my mind immediately went to fire. Fire on a ship was bad. I knew that. This was worse. I made the mistake of looking back and I could see a dark figure on the other side of the crane wreckage that was completely cloaked in fire. But this fire shed no light. It only created heat. I took a step back and suddenly the area in front of me exploded with heat…the figure stood directly in front of me. It was at least seven feet tall, and didn’t walk like a person. Despite the incredible heat, I was completely frozen.

Another massive wave shook me from my stupor and I ran. I ran like I’d never run before. But I could still feel the heat right behind me. I finally reached the front commons of the ship and saw that the rest of the ship still had power. I also saw that there were deep scorch marks in my jacket. I looked behind me through the heavy door leading to the hold and didn’t see anything but black. I needed to alert the captain. As if the storm wasn’t bad enough, our cargo didn’t seem to be of this world. I had no intention of returning to the hold area, so I’d be using the galley intercom to reach the captain.

I went down the first flight of stairs I could find and made a straight line for the galley. About halfway there the power flickered. The emergency lights were all floor based and offered very little help except that I wouldn’t run full speed into a wall. As I turned the last corner before the galley the power went out completely. The emergency lights gave off their orange glow and illuminated the bottom foot or so of the path. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness I looked down to the galley, and to my horror I saw a large dark figure pause, then enter the galley through the exact door I was headed to. I had no wish to run into what/whoever that was, but I didn’t really have much of a choice; the bow of the ship was heavily damaged, and if we took too many waves through that gaping wound we’d eventually begin to flood. Forgetting the fact that there was something on board that I couldn’t rightly explain.

I made my way to the galley door and paused to listen in the galley. I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of the raging storm outside. I inched my way inside and felt along the wall until I was at the intercom. The intercom system had a battery supply that would activate upon power loss. I hit the button and asked for the captain. I heard only static. After several seconds that felt like hours I heard a mate I’ll refer to as Omar say “Who are you? Where are you? Karl is hurt. The ship is damaged, what has happened?” I identified myself and he relayed that Karl had fallen after the trio of large waves and broken his arm. The last thing I heard was that we couldn’t turn further inland because the storm got far worse when we did…with a pop, that message faded to static that I was unfamiliar with and I heard a voice I didn’t recognize broadcast across the intercom system. You will all die.

I felt my hair stand on end. The voice was not only over the intercom system…but also just inches from my face. I scrambled backwards and felt an insane heat grow from the galley. It had used the intercom I was actively using to transmit that…as far as I could tell to the entire ship. I ran to try to get back to the stern of the ship…where I knew there’d be other people. I ran full speed through the darkness and stumbled directly into a ladder well leading down to the next deck. I caught myself at the last second, but not before wrenching my ankle and banging my head (yet again) into the hard metal. I knew it wasn’t broken, but I could feel shooting pain in my foot with every step and I began to limp hard. I jumped down the ladder well and followed the dim emergency lights towards the main crew area. The first intercom I came to didn’t help much; no one responded to my pleas for help. I finally made my way to the bridge and found no one. There was a little blood on the floor, but no crew.

I looked out the windows and into the driving storm to see a small blinking light off to the side of the ship. The crew had taken the lone lifeboat and left me on board. I tried to radio to the lifeboat but the radio did nothing but crackle. Finally the lights on the bridge began to flicker as well. I was going to die. The thing had finally caught me. I had almost given up when I realized that I did have one last resort; we had survival suits stored in the hold of the ship. If I could make it there I might have a chance. Not a great one, but at least a chance in the frigid waters. The only way there would be on the surface of the ship. I ran to the door leading out of the bridge and tore it open.

The wind was terrible, it was driving sleet and snow all over the ship. It wasn’t quite cold enough to outright freeze the saltwater, but precipitation was a different story. I ran as best I could on my hobbled leg and in the horrible weather, covering the distance from stern to bow in about a minute. The outside lights were still operating but I could see the bridge flicker and go dark after a few seconds. I needed to hurry.

I opened the door leading to the hold and found it too warm; something was wrong. The lights were still on, but the temperature was just too high. I ran towards the rear of the hold to get to the emergency suits only to see water rush in from the open door. More water than there should have been. Too much water. I suddenly found myself floating and swimming in frigid water. It filled the room and then I saw up at the ceiling gasping for breath. I felt the ship move again and I was thrown towards the wall. That was the last thing I remembered.

I woke on the table of our ships doctor staring into a bright light. He was looking away from me when I woke, and I struggled to form the words to speak. He noticed I was up and informed me that something strange had happened on board. The power in the forward section of the ship had been lost in the storm, but the stern and engines remained fully operational. I had been found soaked in sea water in a survival suit running an incredibly high fever convulsing on the floor of the cargo hold. I’d taken a good shot to the head and probably had a concussion. I began to finally relax. I went back to my room with orders to rest and the crew would figure out food for themselves that night. I made it all the way back to my room when I realized that I’d forgotten my jacket at the doctors. I opened the door and grabbed it from the table and made my way back to my small room. As I laid down to sleep I remembered that my jacket had been burnt and I absentmindedly turned my jacket around to make sure that there weren’t claw marks or scorches on it. Nothing. As I threw it on my chair it turned inside out revealing a massive scorch in the shape of the door handle and a sizeable claw mark scorched onto the inside…exactly where it would have been if the jacket was on inside out. I had to check the hold.

I made for the front of the ship in a hurry. The hold was warm like it had been earlier, the crane was undamaged on the surface and the storm hadn’t abated much. I entered the hold and saw the cargo container. Crosses were painted on every side still…but it was wedged in place as always. Properly secured and unopened. I breathed a sigh of relief and went to go back to my room. I suddenly heard a voice over the intercom…a familiar one this time…I’m still here. I looked back to the container in time to see the power flicker on, revealing a large black figure standing in front of the container. The power almost immediately went back out and I was left dumbstruck.

I ran back to my room, threw the jacket out the window and locked the door, for what that was worth. I made excuses to the captain and crew to avoid the front of the ship the rest of the journey. It wasn’t hard. Once we arrived at Puerto Montt I informed the captain that I was quitting. I found overland transport back to home and never looked back. I saw it the entire way home out of my peripheral vision. I could see shadows moving with the truck, or when we’d be on a small boat I’d see things in the water. Once I got home I found a job cooking in a small restaurant and kept to myself. After about eight months I never saw it again.

I was then contacted by an insurance agency. My old ship had sunk. They had taken the journey around Cape Horn one too many times and were hit by a trio of waves that rolled the vessel. It almost righted itself, but the main crane had torn free and gouged a large hole in the front of the vessel. This let water in rapidly and flooded the port side of the ship. It never recovered. All hands were at sea except for the captain. He was found in a survival suit clutching a crucifix that he commonly wore around his neck. He was still alive when they found him…but he was burnt over 60% of his body. He mumbled the Lord’s Prayer until they put him in an induced coma to recover from the burns at the hospital. He never came out…dying less than a full day later. The ship has never been accurately located, though the best estimates put it significantly off course. The last proper coordinates read below 60° S. They were closer to Antarctica than to South America.

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