Water poured over the side of the ship and Dougall Hanson held onto the mast with all his strength to keep from being washed over the side. Around him, the ocean raged at them and the ship raged back, taunting it by remaining upright and stalwart. Dougall spit out a mouthful of salt water, coughing and choking. Still he held on for all he was worth.
The ship's mate and most of the crew had already been swept from the ship into the sea and rather than calming the sea witch, it only appeared to have made her angrier. Now it was just him and the captain and she desperately wanted these two. The ship wasn't having any of it. She mocked the water, her planks creaking and groaning out a curse at the ocean. She wasn't walty - that was a certainty.
The captain, tied to the helm, was screaming orders, trying to lift his voice over the wind and thunder, yet there was no one to hear him. All save he and Dougall had been lost. He was fighting the wheel, trying to take back control of the ship.
Dougall dropped his head and prayed. He prayed for God to be merciful, to save him. He prayed for safe delivery from the storm. He prayed for a swift death, if that was God's wish.
It took him a full minute to realize the ship was calming. The waves were calming, the darkness of the storm moving away. Still he didn't release his grip upon the mast, not until the deck stopped its mad cant from port to starboard and back.
Straightening, he cautiously released the wood and raked a handful of salt-stiffened hair from his face. Only then did he start to laugh. He took a step and laughed again, doing an impromptu jig on the afterdeck's planks. The ship was littered with seaweed and sea creatures of all types. Fish flopped around, gasping, crabs scurried away to hide. At least food would not be an issue.
Dougall spun happily. "Capt'n, we made it, we made… oh Capt'n…"
The man was impaled upon the shattered remains of the wheel of the helm. Dougall turned away from the sight. Capt'n Miller had been a good one, the best he'd served with. So overwhelmed by his sorrow, he never saw the kentledge, impossibly thrown topside by the storm. He tripped and flailed his arms, grabbing for a lanyard that swung out of his reach.
He fell from the afterdeck, bouncing on the deck, tripped over the hatch's coaming and finally came to rest against the base of a mast, a torn sail over his face.
Broken, cut and bleeding, he was too dazed to pull the fabric from his face as it suffocated him. It filled his mouth and nose and there was nothing he could do about it. As he prepared to release his hold upon this mortal coil, he could swear he saw the Capt'n standing there, shimmering and smiling. He tried to reach out a trembling, pleading hand and it was as if the ship whispered,
"Now you are all mine."
All he could do was scream in response as the ship claimed him.
"I don't freaking believe it! How much longer is this going to last?" His new wife was mad, really, really mad and Darrell Button didn't blame her. Being becalmed was never fun. He set aside the microphone and reached out to her. She moved out of his reach and pouted.
"Hey, now, you can't blame me for no wind."
"And you couldn't have gotten a boat with a motor?"
"It has one, it just doesn't work. I thought you wanted to get away from all of that."
"We're away from it, all right! Stranded in the middle of this God-forsaken ocean."
"It's not God-forsaken and I've contacted the Coast Guard. They are sending someone to give us a tow in. Half an hour, an hour tops, we'll be back in port and we can check into a hotel."
"Really?" She tried not to sound too hopeful.
"It's what you want, isn't it?" He was beginning to understand what his father had meant when he told Darrell that marriage was all about compromise… his compromise mostly. "This trip is the pits."
"Now you are starting to get it…"A sound caught her attention and she started to wave. "That was a fast half hour."
Darrell squinted at the ship bearing down upon them. The sails billowed and he shook his head. "That's impossible, there's no wind…" He abruptly realized the ship's course and grabbed two life jackets. "Put that on now!" he screamed. Hastily he pulled his life jacket on and clipped it shut, tugging the straps to make it tight. He snatched his wife's hand and headed for the stern. "Jump!"
He didn't wait for her to protest, but pushed her overboard and jumped himself a split second before the vessel plowed into their rented sail boat.
He bobbed up to the surface and watched as the ship sailed past. He spat and wiped salt water out of his eyes, then blinked hard in disbelief. Across the ship's escutcheon, in large ornamental letters was the ship's name - Mary Celeste.
ALL IRREGULARITIES WILL BE HANDLED BY THE FORCES CONTROLLING EACH DIMENSION. TRANSURANIC, HEAVY ELEMENTS MAY NOT BY USED WHERE THERE IS LIFE. MEDIUM ATOMIC WEIGHTS ARE AVAILABLE: GOLD, LEAD, COPPER, JET, DIAMOND, RADIUM, SAPPHIRE, SILVER, AND STEEL. SAPPHIRE AND STEEL HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED.
Sapphire heard his approach long before Lead knocked on the door of her quarters. She shut the book she had been reading.
Curious things, these book.,
Why's that, Sapphire? She could hear him laugh even in his thoughts. Lead was one of the happiest Elements she knew. He loved to laugh, he loved to eat, and he loved his human form. That made him a constant ray of sunshine in Sapphire's day and a constant thorn in the side of her partner's.
Steel was the opposite of Lead in so many ways. Lead dwarfed Steel, and while he never said anything verbally, Sapphire knew it bothered her partner. Steel had dismissed it as vanity when she mentioned it to him and then was just as quick to point out that he was above such things. Lead found amusement in just about everything; Steel rarely smiled. Lead believed in the overall goodness of the human race; Sapphire wasn't exactly sure what Steel believed in, but it wasn't humans. He held them in as much contempt as he did many of their co-elements. Lead was a team player; Steel would be content to never share space with another being again.
Lead opened the door and held open his arms to her. She stood and walked swiftly to be enveloped by his embrace. So strong and yet so careful with her… hmm, Lead and Steel did have one thing in common after all.
"So tell me why books are curious things, little Sapphire." Lead's voice practically bounced off the walls of her quarters and came echoing back.
"I find that they frequently create more questions than they answer and they demonstrate the true complexity of a human being."
Lead picked up the book she was reading; it looked like a toy in his hand.
"Where is he, Sapphire?"
"Who?" She slipped out of his embrace and took a few steps from him so she could look at him without having to crane her head up.
"You know who. Where is Steel?"
"I'm not his keeper, Lead."
"Yes, but you are his partner." Lead glanced around at the room. "You've fixed this up nice, Sapphire. It's real homey looking and comfortable like."
"Thank you, I like it." She sat and Lead sat opposite her, the chair groaning at the Element's prodigious weight. "I don't know where Steel is, Lead. Why do you ask?"
"I was pulled from my assignment and told to report to Steel. It was said that he had an assignment that might require my special talents. I show up and no Steel… no anything. And now I can see you are as equally in the dark as I am."
"If Steel needs me, he knows where I am."
"So why don't you know where he is?"
Because I prefer it that way.
Both agents looked at the door, but there was no one standing there.
Come to the assignment room, Sapphire, and bring Lead with you. He is correct in assuming that we may need him on this one.
"See, I told you, Lead." Sapphire stood, her outfit changing from casual to something a bit dressier. "He knows where to find me."
Sapphire nearly had to run to keep up with Lead's stride as they headed to the assignment room. They walked in and Steel was pacing, brow furrowed in thought. His head snapped in their direction and without preamble he demanded,
"Tell me about the Mary Celeste."
Sapphire's eyes began to glow, the sure sign that she was accessing her memory. Her voice took on a flat tone as she began to recite, "The Mary Celeste was built in Canada and was a hundred foot brigantine. She weighed two hundred and eighty two tons and was registered in New York. James H. Winchester, Sylvester Goodwin, and Benjamin Spooner Briggs were the registered owners. She would have undoubtedly gone without notice if it weren't for the December 1872 voyage of the ship. She was found abandoned in calm seas with no one on board. There was never any contact with her captain, Benjamin Briggs, his wife or small daughter, or the seven other member crew again. It was assumed that they had abandoned the ship and were lost at sea.
She was found adrift by the Dei Graita. After observing her for two hours, a decision was made to board her. The ship was seaworthy and her cargo of 1701 barrels of American alcohol, valued at $3,400 dollars was intact. The only thing that was amiss was that the ship had apparently been abandon in great haste, although the sextant and chronometer were not found on board. The conclusion was that they had abandoned ship, thinking she was sinking and they themselves were lost at sea."
Sapphire blinked, took a moment to recover, and then smiled at her partner. Her voice took on more of a conversational tone now. "The whole thing would probably have never been mentioned again, but in 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a short story about it and the ship became part of maritime legend. Sailors and crewmen avoided the Mary Celeste after that. Twenty years later, she was wrecked off the coast of Haiti in what was supposed to be a bid by her owners for the insurance money."
"What if I were to tell you she was not wrecked?" Steel asked, his voice daring them to argue with him.
"Steel, it's part of the ship's records. She was scuttled and completely destroyed."
"Four days ago, she was sighted running down a small sailing vessel that had become becalmed. Not only did the victims see and remember the name, an American Coast Guard vessel was en route and also witnessed the Mary Celeste's attack. Shortly thereafter, a fog bank appeared and the Mary Celeste once again vanished."
"I don't believe it." Lead finally spoke. "If it was anyone else, I'd accuse them of playing a joke on us."
"I never joke, Lead."
"As I said, anyone else." He clapped his hands together and grinned. "So what do we do?"
"We go back and find out what really happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. Perhaps they hold the clue as to why the Mary Celeste has suddenly begun to sail again."
The floor was madly shifting beneath her feet and Sapphire stumbled, vainly trying to find her footing. Hands steadied her and she glanced over her shoulder into amused blue eyes.
"Perhaps a change in outfits would be appropriate," Steel murmured. He was wearing dark pants and a dark turtleneck with a cable wool sweater over the top. A stocking cap was pulled over his blond hair and he sported three day's growth of beard. Lead was similarly dressed, although his face and head were clean shaven. "And it would be good if you could conform your attire to more fitting of a vessel."
Instantly her clothes morphed to something more befitting a deck hand. Her long blonde hair was caught and hidden beneath her cap, her face devoid of make-up and all jewelry gone. "Better?"
Lead laughed and turned to walk out the cabin door. Steel caught her hand and stroked her fingers gently. "No, but more convenient, seeing as the Captain's wife and daughter are supposedly the only females on board." He smiled and followed Lead out onto the deck.
The wind was spraying water up onto the deck and the ship was pitching side to side. Steel half turned to say something and was abruptly tossed towards the rail and Lead grabbed him. Sapphire, still holding onto the door frame, breathed a sigh of relief. Water and Steel didn't go together well. He tended to sink to the bottom and that would not do.
Steel shrugged Lead's hand from him and glared. Lead merely grinned back.
"You're welcome, Steel," Lead said and his laugh practically echoed within the room
"Mr. Gilling, we need you astern," a man shouted as he ran past Lead and then over to Steel. "Boy, you need to be on the downhaul."
Sapphire tried to hide her smile, even as spray hit her face. "Boy Lorenson is a deck hand on the Mary Celeste. Andrew Gilling is the second mate."
"How about that, Steel? I outrank you… Boy."
"Enjoy that while you can." Steel was obviously not happy about the arrangement.
"The Mate wanted you to go to the downhaul, Steel." Sapphire pointed. "It's that rope over there. I would assume it is used to pull the sail down." Overhead the sails bucked and wrestled the wind. "Lead, you need to go to the back of the boat."
"But why are we here?" Steel shouted above the storm as Lead lumbered away. "Why now?"
"I don't know." Sapphire reached for the rope and Steel tried to stop her.
"No." It was true he was more than capable, but Sapphire wanted to be part of it; she needed to be part of it. "I need this, Steel."
She snatched up the rope and suddenly she was no longer on the deck of a storm-tossed ship, but on the deck of a becalmed ship surrounded on all sides by a thick fog.
She watched it roll onto the deck and across it.
"Never seen the likes of this before," a man murmured to her. "Been like this for nearly twenty days and twenty nights. No wind, no way to escape it…" He was leaning his arms against a railing and staring out into the grayness. "It's driven better men to the brink of disaster and madness."
A moment later, there was a shriek and a dull thunk. Both she and the man turned towards the sound even as others were responding. A young man was writhing on the deck, spraying blood from a nearly severed hand, and moaning, falling over the coils of ropes and netting that broke his fall.
"He must have fallen from the rigging, is what we figured." The man looked up at the fog enshrouded mast and sails. "He was too young to be on the ship, but the Captain insisted. He said it would make a man out of him… a dead man."
"Shouldn't you do something to help him?" Sapphire took a step towards them and the man blocked her path.
"It's too late. It was too late for him when he climbed the rigging. A seasoned sailor knows not to do that in this type of weather. He wanted to prove himself though. We told him, begged him, and he knew better."
The captain pushed through the crowd and dropped to his knees, oblivious to the pool of blood. "Why did you let him climb?" he screamed at no one in particular. He cradled the boy in his arms, rocking him even as the lad was gasping his last. "A curse upon all of you and this damn ship."
One of the men behind him brought up a belaying pin and slammed it down on the captain's head. The man pitched forward and the crew fell upon him, beating, ripping, and tearing at him until there was nothing but a bloody pile of clothes on the deck.
The sailor turned back to Sapphire, a skull replacing his head. "And now you know."
He reached for her and Sapphire screamed as bony fingers dug into her flesh. She closed her eyes to block out the grinning skull and suddenly she heard the snarled,
"Not of us!"
She tried to tear herself free, but the grasp was like steel. Steel!
I'm here, Sapphire. Open your eye.s
Sapphire gasped and opened them, finding herself back on the pitching deck of the ship and in Steel's embrace. Letting go of the rope, she wrapped her arms around him.
"This is going to look very odd if the captain should come by," Steel whispered into her ear. "After all, we are supposed to both be men."
"What? Oh!" She quickly released him and looked around. Other crew members were seemingly too busy to have noticed them at all.
What did you see when you grabbed the rope, Sapphire?
A young boy fell to his death. The captain, his father, cursed the crew even as they were killing him. They ripped him apart, Steel. She shuddered at the thought.
It was this ship? Steel gingerly took the rope, but she could tell by his blank expression it was merely a rope to him.
It was this ship many years ago. She was originally named the Amazon. When she arrived in New York, she was practically in ruins. The new owners had to rebuild her from the frame up.
Did they know… about this… history?"
I don't believe so.
Steel gave the rope a solid yank and guided the sail down. "If this storm keeps going, we are going to go down."
"No, the ship was found adrift with no one on board."
"Then where did the people go, Sapphire?"
"I don't know." She looked around and then back at him. "We don't know."
Lead moved slowly down the length of the ship. He had no idea what to do or where he was going, but that was hardly a unique situation for him. With Steel as a frequent partner, ignorance and confusion usually went hand-in-hand.
Lead turned in the direction of the voice just as a rope ladder slapped into him. Reflexively he snatched it up and suddenly found himself airborne. This was a rare experience. Lead had never encountered anything that could lift him with such apparent ease. He laughed at the sensation of flying through the rain-splattered air.
Ropes flapped around him like windswept hemp birds. He fended off one, only to have another slap his cheek. In the cold, the contact brought tears to his eyes. Lead pushed it away and another took its place. And then a second and a third; they twisted around his torso, around his neck. A mere human would panic, but not Lead.
He didn't know panic until the rope encircling his neck yanked taut and he was gasping for air. It was mere reflex of course. He didn't need to breathe, yet he panicked as his fingers were unable to tear the rope from his throat.
He was hoisted off the rope ladder to dangle by the neck. The cordage apparently wasn't gauged for his weight and Lead swore he could hear the rope screaming as it fought to hold him.
"Not ours!" The voice seemed to reverberate through his skull and he found himself in free fall.
He'd be damned lucky if he didn't fall through the ship and end up on the bottom of the ocean, but the decking was stronger than it looked and he became aware of the rough friction of rope against his face. He looked around and the ship was very much as it had been a few minutes earlier.
"We may need to lagan the cargo," the captain was telling a crewman. He looked over at Lead and frowned, apparently trying to place him. "Go forward and tell them to prepare in case we do."
Lead saluted and made his way toward the bow of the ship.
Sapphire was still trying to put the jumble of images together in her mind when she saw Lead approaching them, taking his time to maneuver through the rigging and gear. Something was wrong and she touched Steel's forearm and nodded to him.
"Lead, what is it?" Steel wasn't one to beat around the bush.
"Well, if I didn't know better, I'd swear the ship just tried to kill me." He wasn't laughing now.
"Ships don't kill people, Lead," Steel said, shaking his head. "This is an inanimate object."
"Then explain this." Lead pulled his collar away. His neck was raw and bleeding. "I sure as hell didn't do this to myself."
Sapphire started and pulled up the sleeve of her wool sweater. There, on her forearm, were four parallel bruises. "He grabbed me, the sailor from the other ship."
"What ship?" Lead asked, touching her arm gently and darting a look at Steel.
"This one, but from an earlier voyage."
"I thought you were required at the aft of this ship," Steel interrupted.
"The captain is scared," Lead answered. "He's carrying a cargo of 1701 barrels of alcohol. He's terrified they are going to blow up. He's talking about laganing it, but I don't know what that means."
Sapphire's eye glowed, a haunting blue in the storm. "Lagan means to jettison cargo, but then to mark it with a buoy so it can later be recovered."
"But the ship was found with her cargo intact."
"The first mate is advising against it, saying we need the cargo for ballast."
"There's also talk of abandoning the ship."
"That would hold current with the facts as we know them." Steel grabbed onto a cargo net to keep from toppling.
Suddenly, his world spun about. He was on the other side of the ship and the water was warmer than it had been previously.
"Parker, grab the mainsheet, you laggard! Help him, Hanson!"
Steel blinked as a man grabbed the rope that dangled a few feet from him. "What's wrong with you, Parker?" the man, Hanson, snapped at him.
Steel shook his head and reached out for the rope. Something hit him square in the back, knocking him from his feet and down to the deck. He hit and grunted as he was struck again. Had he been truly human, he would have been grievously injured. Instead, he was just annoyed.
He struggled to move, but couldn't. Water was sweeping over him and he could barely make out Hanson staggering toward the largest of the three masts and grabbing hold of it. Steel coughed as the water covered him and he panicked. It was an odd reaction, but he suddenly was struggling, desperate to be free of the weight that kept him pinned to the deck. He saw the helm splinter and the captain thrown upon the splintered end.
Then, without apparent reason, Hanson started to dance around and Steel suddenly realized the ship was beginning to quiet down.
Hanson spotted the captain and started to run to his aid. He tripped over something and fell into the hold.
"Mine!" Steel heard. Survival instincts took over and he plunged his internal temperature downward. "No, wrong, wrong, wrong!" The voice shrieked and abruptly Steel was sailing through the air and slammed back down to the deck. Both the wood and Steel groaned from the impact.
Steel! The voice echoed around in his head for a moment before he recognized it as Sapphire's.
Don't touch him, Sapphire. I got 'em. Lead's voice this time. Steel felt himself being cloaked by something familiar and he relaxed. His body temperature started to drift back up to something that wouldn't cause an ice burn.
"Wh… wh… what?" Steel's teeth were chattering. He tried to convince himself it was the cold, but it was an empty lie. He got his eyes open and he was back on with Sapphire and Lead on Mary Celeste.
"You tell us, little friend." Lead was chafing Steel's arms now. "You grabbed that net and acted as if you were having a seizure. I thought you were dead."
"Very near it, I fear." His strength was returning, but he didn't shove Lead away. He didn't need to lift his shirt to know his torso was bruised and battered.
"What did you see?" Sapphire was close now.
"Get us out of here, Sapphire," he ordered.
"But we haven't…" She darted a look to where the Captain's wife and young daughter huddled. "The people here… we can't leave them."
"Can't we?" Steel pulled free of Lead's hand. "If we stay, this ship is going to take us, one by one. It's what it does."
"A little late, Sapphire, but I believe he's singing our song now." Lead's normally jovial voice was tempered now. "What happened?"
"I saw the ship kill those people, Lead. It waits for a storm and then it kills the crew. Afterwards, the official story is the crew abandoned the ship… but they haven't. They're all still here… "
"Sapphire?" Lead looked to her and she shook her head.
"That's a fairy tale, Steel. Ships don't eat people."
"This one does." He took a few steps from them, keeping his hands well away from any rigging. "It's in the ropes. It's going to kill each one of the crew. We have to stop it."
"By leaving. Now."
"No, I won't leave them to die." Sapphire's tone was firm and Lead simply stared at her. Steel was the senior agent. His word was law. His decisions were final. If he said to leave, they had no choice.
"Sapphire…" Steel began, but he didn't attempt to touch her or even to teleport them, although Sapphire knew he could. "If we don't leave, this ship will reign havoc over the seas. Time must be corrected. In two day's time, this ship must be found empty and adrift."
"We'll take the crew. We'll move them someplace else."
"Talk about altering the future, little one," Lead muttered. "We can't."
"We can if this is what was to happen. Perhaps in another reality, we were prevented from coming here. Perhaps we came on our own and Steel perished, simply because you weren't here to save him. In that reality, the ship was allowed to continue to pursue its course of revenge upon humans. How do we know this isn't exactly what we are supposed to be doing?"
"But they'd talk; they would come forward and tell what they knew. There is no history for that. The entire crew vanished and was never found again."
"What if they were without any memory of who they are? We could erase everything, place them and let the world move around them. They continue, but as other people. In effect, Captain Briggs, his family and this crew would simply cease to exist -"
"But that takes a lot of power," Lead interrupted.
"Not if we work together." Sapphire settled her full attention upon Steel. "I need your help, Steel."
"And these pitiful humans, they mean that much to you?"
"Yes." She took Steel's hand. Please?
They stood in the late afternoon shadows cast by the buildings. While San Francisco was far from the city it would be, it was large enough to accommodate ten strangers, people who wandered as if in a dream, trying to pick out familiar sights, but failing.
"How will they survive, Sapphire?" Lead watched the woman hold her child close, her face tight with worry.
"The Captain had some monies set aside; they were transferred with him. It will be enough for him to establish a place for himself and his family. The other men are young; they will find work on the docks or upon other ships. They have enough in their pockets until then."
"And what of the Mary Celeste?"
"It was found exactly as it was reported, abandoned and adrift. Denied the ability to absorb the energy of the crew, it was too weak to fight back any longer. It wil be known as a death ship after that and never allowed to regain its strength."
"Excellent, then you can report to Them and explain how all of this came about." Steel turned to leave and Lead caught his arm.
"That's it then? That's how this ends?"
Steel looked at the hand and Lead slowly removed it. Sapphire spoke up when it became apparent Steel wasn't going to.
"For the moment, but the legend of the Mary Celeste will continue on to haunt the dreams of sailors, then of readers, for years to come. They will never solve the mystery of what became of her crew, but that will not stop the stories, conjectures, and legends. She will live, but in a more controlled state. However, this chapter of her life is over." A nudge in the back of her head, a call to return home, and their part in this tale was finished as well.
A glossary of terms courtesy:
Afterdeck - the deck behind the ship's bridge
Astern – at the stern of the ship
Coaming – the raised edge around a ship's hatches to keep water out.
Downhaul – a rope for holding down a sail or spar
Escutcheon – back of the ship where the name is displayed
Kentledge – pig iron used as ballast in a ship's hold
Lanyard – rope or line used for fastening something in a ship
Walty – inclined to tip over