Chapter One – Harry right after the Incident
“What the hell was that?” I yelled to Jim Valente, the First Officer.
“Beats me, Captain. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I’d never seen anything like it either. My gut told me that I was about to start a weird journey. My gut was right.
A few minutes ago, on April 17, 2017, we were steaming through the beautiful Azores when the world turned upside down, for me and everyone else aboard. It was a beautiful April evening with a sky full of stars and a half moon. Two other ships were nearby, about a mile away off my port side. A small yacht was off to starboard about 300 feet away. Based on communications with the two ships and the yacht, we were all headed toward for Lisbon, Portugal. At 9:13 p.m., the Maltese was suddenly bathed in bright sunlight—at night. We felt a strange rumbling sensation along the hull below the waterline. After two minutes, nighttime returned and the rumbling stopped. My weird journey had begun.
My name is Harry Fenton, and I’m the captain of the Maltese, a 920-foot ship owned by Malta Investments and which serves the company as its corporate cruise ship. Everybody calls me Captain Harry, including my crew. The Maltese can carry 2,900 passengers, but this cruise was a VIP event and only 950 passengers were aboard. Passengers, mainly executives and a few wealthy clients of Malta Investments. I was impressed by the people from Malta ever since I first interviewed for the job. A cruise ship may sound like an extravagant investment, even for a fabulously successful company like Malta, but the ship wasn’t just for fun and entertainment. Every cruise was run for a different charity, this one for children’s cancer research. Malta donates 100 percent of the net proceeds to the charity of choice for each cruise. Along with a crew of 35, I run the ship, or I thought I did. I retired from the Navy last year at age 38, pretty young for a retiree, but I started my naval career at age 17 when I went to Annapolis, so I got in my 20 years. Pretty neat that the taxpayers picked up part of my retirement tab when I was going to college, which was also on the taxpayers. I liked the Navy, actually I loved it, but after almost getting killed, I decided to give civilian life a try. My wife’s death from cancer also told me I needed a change in my life, a life in which she played a big part. We had no kids, so I was alone.
In the Navy I was a destroyer captain and I got a reputation among Navy brass that I liked going into combat. That, of course, was bullshit. I never liked combat, but I never avoided it either. So I was constantly deployed to hot spots around the world. Although I’m new to civilian life, I prefer to lead people based on who I am rather than what rank I hold. After what just happened to the Maltese, I already miss the relative safety of naval combat.
I grabbed the microphone for the PA system and announced, “General quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations.”
“Captain Harry,” First Officer Valente said, tapping me on the shoulder. “This isn’t a warship. I suggest you make another announcement.”
“Oh, right,” I said. My Navy years just came back to me. I pressed down the speaker key and made a new announcement.
“Good evening everyone, this is Captain Harry, again. I just realized that I’m not running a warship, so please ignore my command to man your battle station, unless your battle station is a barstool. The reason for my sudden burst of nonsense, ladies and gentlemen is obvious—we just experienced some weird shit, insanely weird. First Officer Valente and I are checking all of our systems to see if we can figure out what happened. I’ll keep you informed.”
I’m often told that I have a way of making people feel relaxed, and they find my salty tongue to be part of my way with people. What people don’t know is that I use foul language when I’m unsure of myself, which is quite often. In the Navy I toned it down and spoke as a military officer. But civilian life is different. What people find charming about me is actually a mask, a smiley mask, a mask that calms people down and makes them feel relaxed. Truth is, I’m the one who needs to calm down. After what had just happened, I was scared shitless. Please don’t tell anybody.
Jim Valente and I put the ship through a series of tests. What else was there to do? We were trying to figure out what just happened and also checking to see if anything on the ship had changed. I wasn’t happy with what we discovered. The starlit sky was now pitch black, and the half moon was nowhere to be seen. The two ships that were steaming near us are no longer there, nor was the yacht. At the moment of our bizarre incident I told Valente to take a fix, an automatic thing for me to say. As I learned in the Navy, anytime something out of the ordinary happens, you take a navigational fix. You don’t think about it, you just do it, like saying “God bless you” when somebody sneezes.
“Our GPS navigation seems to be out, Captain,” Valente said after he tried to take a fix. “I can’t locate one satellite.”
“Radio one of the ships nearby to get a fix from them,” I said.
“They don’t answer, Captain. They’re not there anymore.”
I grabbed the radio microphone. This time I didn’t order my passengers to man their battle stations.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. Any vessel, any vessel, this is the American ship Maltese. Come in please.”
Mayday is the internationally recognized code for an emergency, and I figured we sure as hell had one.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. Any vessel, any vessel, this is the American ship Maltese. Come in please.” I repeated.
No response. We’re alone. God knows where, but it’s only us.
“Is everything okay, Harry?” asked Randy Borg, who just stepped onto the bridge. Randy, or Randolph, is the CEO of the Malta Investments. He’s the guy who hired me, and he’s my boss. He’s also a good friend. I like Randy and I appreciate his attention to detail. You can’t run a company as successful as Malta without focusing on details, but he leaves running the ship to me.
“Sure, Randy, everything is just great,” I said. “I haven’t the foggiest fucking idea where we are, how we got here, or where we’re going. The only way I’m able to communicate is like we’re doing now—talking face to face. We’ve got a problem, Randy, a big one. All stations have reported, and we have no damage, thank God, but we seem to be in the middle of nowhere. I know you don’t expect to hear that from a ship’s captain, but it’s the truth. We’re alone in the ocean. So, in answer to your question, everything’s just fucking wonderful, Randy. How’s by you?”
Randy peppered me with a list of questions, the answers to which didn’t please him.
“Harry, we need to have a meeting of everyone on the ship,” Randy said. “Our passengers and crew are entitled to know what’s going on. Let’s make it for 9 a.m. tomorrow. I want you to conduct the meeting.”
The following morning Randy and I stood at the entrance to the dining room to greet each of the guests. The list included not only executives and board members of Malta Investments, but all passengers, mainly rich clients who invested heavily with Malta. Any of the crew who weren’t on watch were also at the meeting. Randy and I figured that it was best to be straight with the audience, and talk about our strange circumstance without holding anything back. After breakfast, I stood before the group. I would normally wear a dress uniform when addressing a meeting, but I figured that circumstances called for more casual attire, so I wore khakis with no tie. Randy agreed with my wardrobe choice.
After everyone was seated I called the meeting was called to order. We were in the main dining room overlooking the sea, which normally provided a beautiful view, but something was wrong. It was daylight, but the atmosphere had a murky quality to it, reminding me of skim milk. At least the sea was calm, without a ripple. The weather reports the night before called for a sunny and cloudless sky, with a brisk wind and choppy seas. But the sky was overcast, the seas were dead calm, and there was no wind. Just a few more things about our circumstance that weren’t adding up.
My name is Meghan Johnson, Vice President of Operations for Malta Investments. I’m watching Captain Harry make his introductory remarks. Harry is well liked by everybody aboard, for his quick sense of humor and his friendly attitude. He’s tall, at 6’2,” extremely handsome, with wavy black hair, a devilish twinkle in his blue eyes, and a foul word always poised on his tongue, ready to burst forth accompanying a humorous remark. We only met briefly, when he was greeting passengers as we boarded the ship. Since our first brief encounter, I’ve had a hard time keeping my eyes off him.
“Good morning everybody,” I said. “Well, we’re here to celebrate having an ocean all to ourselves.”
I figured that would get a few laughs.
“Randy Borg asked me to be totally frank with you folks, and that’s exactly what I will be. But please don’t call me Frank, the name’s still Harry.”
Again, no laughs.
“We’re lost,” I said. “There’s no other way to put it. But hey, I’ve been in worst circumstances at sea. At least nobody’s shooting at us.”
That brought a couple of chuckles, but I think those people were trying to be polite. I can see why standup comedians spend so much money on psychotherapy.
“I’m going to review our situation—as if we need a review,” I said. “I’ll be calling on people who wish to comment or share an idea. And I want you to weigh in. You people are smart enough to pay my crazy high salary, so I expect that some good ideas are floating around out there. I have one request—no bullshit please. Tell it like it is or how you perceive it. Okay, so let me review our weird circumstance. Last night, on April 17, we encountered a situation best described as strange. At 9:13 p.m., right after dinner, the dark sky turned to daylight, which lasted for two minutes. During that time the ship rumbled like it was being humped by a herd of whales. When the darkness returned, everybody, myself included, ran for a rail to see what was going on. Because it was night, there wasn’t much to see. But before the incident occurred there were two other ships running nearby on our port side with their full lights turned on. I checked them out on radar as is my habit, and saw that they were a couple of miles from the Maltese. There was also a yacht on our starboard side, maybe 300 feet from us. After the incident, however, there was only darkness—the ships and the yacht simply weren’t there. We sent messages to both of the ships and to the yacht, and we got no response. I then sent a message to our radio contact in Portugal, about 1,200 nautical miles away. Lisbon, Portugal, was our destination as you know, and I was in constant radio contact with them, most recently five minutes before the strange event. Portugal was silent. I then tried to contact New York. No response. Miami—ditto; Washington D.C.—the same. Again, I apologize for ordering you all to your battle stations. After I pulled my head out of my ass, I figured it was time to declare an emergency to anybody with a radio receiver. I grabbed the radio microphone and yelled the international distress signal, “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is the American ship Maltese, come in please.”
“I tried that three times. Bottom line, folks, is that I had no way to communicate with any vessel or land location. We tested our radio and it works, both for sending and receiving. At least it works for sending messages from one part of the ship to another. We tried to establish a GPS navigational fix, but after 40 minutes of trying we couldn’t locate one satellite. Fortunately, I had taken a fix about five minutes before the event. So here we are. I know that you people expect the captain to have answers, and you have every right to. But I began this talk by telling you that I would be straight with you, and the straight truth is that I don’t know what happened. Any questions?”
Meghan Johnson, vice president of operations, raised her hand.
I grabbed for my glass of water. Since my wife died two years ago, I haven’t thought much about women. Maybe the pain of losing her made me scared to fall for another woman. But any time I looked at Meghan Johnson, my heart started pounding. We first met a few days ago when I stood at the bottom of the gangplank to welcome passengers aboard. After that, any time I saw her, I couldn’t help but stare. I estimate that she’s about 5’10,” with medium length blond hair and the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen. She had an athletic body, almost like a gymnast, especially her shapely legs and firm butt. She was simply striking, and she struck me—hard.
“Wadda you got, beautiful?” I said.
I figured if I dropped into wiseass mode it would relax me and stop me from sweating so much. I drew a deep breath and took a sip of water. I couldn’t believe I just called a senior executive “beautiful,” true as it may be.
“I got a question, handsome,” Meg Johnson said, chuckling.
Holy shit, she called me handsome. Suddenly I didn’t feel like a 39-year-old sea captain. I felt like a 14-year-old boy who just got his first hard on. I took another sip of cold water.
“When did you realize that the sky had changed?” Meghan asked.
“Here’s where things got totally weird, Ms. Johnson.” I said. “When the sun came up this morning—and we all saw this—it wasn’t normal daylight, if you define daylight as the light cast by a risen sun. It’s light, yeah, but a gloomy kind of light. And then our collective minds got blown. We found ourselves and our ship inside what looks like a gigantic cave, almost too gigantic to describe. And that’s where we’ve been since ‘the incident.’ We’re in a location that doesn’t appear on any chart. If we look up we can see a cloud cover that almost looks like a roof. We can’t see the sun, but it definitely rises and sets—as if it’s behind a screen. We saw it rise this morning, but we didn’t see the sun itself. I steamed around for a while trying to get some kind of bearing, but I couldn’t find out where the hell we were without any normal navigational aids including our electronics.”
“Harry, please review for us what you found on sonar,” Randy Borg said.
“Sonar told me that we really don’t need a navigator or even a captain,” I said. “Sonar told me that we need a psychiatrist. Because we aren’t nuclear-powered and have a limited amount of fuel, I was looking around for a suitable bottom to drop the anchor. This is why we need a shrink—I could find no bottom—I repeat, no fucking bottom. I dropped a sonobuoy over the side and determined that the sonar was definitely working. So we’re on a body of water that has no bottom, or at least no bottom that we could detect. Yes, I know that’s impossible, but it’s also the truth as far as our powerful sonar can tell. So, in the interest of conserving fuel, I turned the engines on standby and let the ship drift. Wave activity is at a minimum, so it’s not too uncomfortable.”
“Captain Harry, how much fuel do we have and how far can it get us?” Meghan Johnson said.
Her blouse was slightly open at the neck, showing a breathtaking view of sun-tanned cleavage. I wiped some sweat off my brow.
“It’s comforting to know that we have an operations VP aboard to keep me honest,” I said. “The answer won’t make anybody happy. With the amount of fuel we have aboard, we can cruise for no more than 1,200 nautical miles. I had planned to top off our tanks in Lisbon, but that never happened as we all know. Right now we’re slowly steaming toward that landmass you can see on the horizon.”
“What about food, Harry. Do you have an update for us?” asked Randy Borg.
“The breakfast we just had was pleasant, but don’t get used to it,” I said. “Carlos, our chef, told me that we’ll to have to invade our flash frozen stores within a few days. We intended to replenish our food stock when we got to Lisbon, but of course that didn’t happen. Soon, and I’m talking about two months maximum, we’ll be out of stored food completely. I’m steering toward the land that we can see. Fortunately we’re able to catch fish in the meantime, which was included with our omelets today. If you don’t like the taste of fish, learn to get used to it. Soon, it will be the only food available to us unless we find edible game on land. We haven’t even seen a bird, and God knows what we’ll encounter on shore. We have plenty of rifles and ammunition, so we’ll go ashore soon to look for food.”
“Okay, the meeting’s over, folks,” said Randy Borg. “We’ll assemble again as a group in a few days. If you have any questions or concerns, please call me or Captain Harry.
Two days went by and nothing had changed. The same milky sunlight, the same calm ocean, and the same ignorance of where we are. I ordered the engine room to give us eight knots, a slow fuel-conserving speed. We steamed slowly toward land.
“Captain Harry, may I see you for a moment?” Meghan Johnson asked, knocking on the door to the bridge.
“Sorry, I’m busy. You’ll have to come back later.” Of course I didn’t say that. What I meant to say was, “Oh my God, you look gorgeous.” Instead I said, “Sure,” after I cleared my throat. “Step into my office.”
“You can take a break, Jim,” I said to the mate on deck. “I’ll take the watch from here, not that I have any idea what I’m watching.” Actually I did know what I was watching, and it was Meghan Johnson.
“So what’s up, Ms. Johnson?” I said, after taking a swig of cold water. “I hope I didn’t embarrass you the other day by calling you beautiful. It just slipped out because you are, well, beautiful.”
“I just wanted to say that I found your comment touching,” Meghan said. “You took my breath away. You’re quite good-looking yourself, Captain. Ever since I came aboard I can’t help staring at you.”
“Are you flirting with me, Ms. Johnson?”
“Yes, I thought you’d never notice. Please call me Meg.”
Oh my God. She admits that she’s flirting with me. I glanced at a bulkhead where a defibrillator hung, figuring my heart might need it.
“I hope I didn’t upset your husband or boyfriend or whoever that guy is who’s constantly at your side,” I said.
“He’s Phil Jackson, my aide. He looks older, but he just graduated from college. Oh, and I’m not married. You picked a cute way to coax that information out of me.”
I said nothing; I just stared into Meghan’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Harry, I don’t know why I had to share that information. I’m embarrassed.”
“Don’t be embarrassed, Meg. Maybe you shared that information because you didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable talking to you.”
“Why would you feel uncomfortable talking to me, Harry?”
“Can I tell you a secret?” I couldn’t believe I was being so straightforward.
“Sure, Harry. What’s your secret?”
“Well, with my loud mouth and my Navy-trained ‘command presence,’ few people ever spot my little secret—I’m shy as hell.” I felt like a little boy kneeling in the booth for my first confession. “Bless me father for I have sinned…”
“I actually spotted that in you, Harry. I can even see you blush. I think it’s totally charming. Now that you’ve told me your secret, do you still feel shy?”
I took a sip of water and mumbled something inane which I really can’t recall. All I can recall is the scent of her perfume.
She moved closer to me to pick some lint off my shirt. I think she just used that as an excuse to come closer. The scent of her perfume and the warmth of her body almost made me pass out.
“Now, what was it you wanted to see me about?” I stammered, barely able to catch my breath.
“I forget,” Meg said as she took a deep breath. “Oh, yeah. I want to talk to you about breaking our group down into committees.”
“I was really hoping that you wanted a business meeting.” I said.
“Wiseass,” Meg said with a laugh. “Let’s take care of business.”
I just smiled, reached over, and whisked some hair from her forehead. She grabbed my hand in both of hers and held it against her face, never once taking her eyes off mine. I was no longer feeling shy. Meg cleared her throat, as if to announce that she was changing the subject.
“Here’s what I recommend,” Meg said. “Randy is definitely the boss, but I can tell that he looks to you for leadership. He’s a great guy, but he’d be the first to tell you that he’s not a hands-on manager. Back at the office, he relied on me and a few other key executives. So it’s obvious that you’re the boss, and the big boss thinks so too. I suggest that you appoint four committees. It will be Randy’s decision, of course, but he’ll do just about anything that you suggest. I think that the committees should include: One, a lookout committee. We should have recorded notes and photos of anything that a lookout sees; Two, a physical plant committee, which means anything involving the ship. Obviously you will head that committee; Three, a good and welfare committee, which will tend to the various needs of those aboard; Four, a food committee. It’s important that we should have a separate committee addressed to each issue. You will serve as member ex officio of each committee, and you’ll combine or create new committees as needed. So what do you think? Hey, Harry, did you hear anything I said?”
“Yeah, something about committees—I think.”
I was beginning to feel like I was in the fourth grade when a pretty girl sat at the desk next to me.
Meg laughed. “Yes, it was about committees. We can go over it later.”
“I wasn’t paying attention because I can’t take my eyes off you,” I said. “I think that you’re beautiful, and I also think that your perfume is driving me insane.” Forget what I said about my shyness.
“You really are a charming guy, Harry. I had heard that about you, but now that I’m talking to you in person I can see how that’s an accurate description—charming.”
I glanced over at the bulkhead to make sure the defibrillator was still there.
“How’s this for an idea, Meg? Randy and I dropped that ‘dinner with the captain’ tradition because of the incident, so how about we replace it this evening with Meg and Harry have dinner? We can talk about committees and stuff.”
“Don’t I get a formal invitation?” Meg teased.
“Here’s your formal invitation.” I wrapped my arms around her and we kissed.
“In that case, I graciously accept.” Meg said.
My secret—that I’m shy—was becoming a secret even to me. For some reason I don’t feel shy around Meg Johnson.