Read Borealis Online

Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (9 page)

BOOK: Borealis
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McEwan, having successfully retrieved the ice axe from the pilothouse door, lurched across the foredeck in pursuit. Chunks of graying ice adrift on silt-blackened water pool around McEwan's ankles. The trawler was foundering, the rising water breaching the sides quicker than it was able to dispatch it back into the sea.

Charlie slammed down the stairs and hurried down the corridor toward his cabin. The walls were frozen, the pipes dripping icy condensation from above. He burst into his room and slammed the door behind him, engaging the meager, useless slide bolt. A swift kick and the door would splinter down the middle.

He tipped over his cot, the four metal legs jutting up like the stiffening legs of a dead gazelle, and quickly scrambled for the first-aid kit. His located the white aluminum box but his big fingers, in their panic, fumbled at the latches. Out in the corridor, McEwan's bullish laughter erupted. Charlie froze. A second later, the cabin door buckled down the center in a perfect vertical stress line through the center of which projected the tapered iron tip of the ice axe. There was the sound of splintering wood as the ice axe was withdrawn. A second strike punched a fist-sized hole in the flimsy door.

“Mears!” McEwan shouted from the other side. “Goddamn you, Mears, you're fucking it all up!”

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the first-aid kit popped open. Charlie fumbled the flare gun out, shaking the flare cartridges into his lap.

“Mears!”

McEwan rammed the door with his shoulder, the weightless wood disintegrating nearly to sawdust. The big man stumbled a few steps, the ice axe now poised over one shoulder like a baseball bat. When his eyes lit on Charlie, who was crouched in the farthest corner of the room, they seemed to briefly emanate a fiery luminosity. Like the eyes of a lion.

“Goddamn you, Mears, you stupid son of—”

Flare gun raised, Charlie slammed the trigger. All in a single second there issued the faint hiss, the acrid burning smell, and—finally!—the belch of dazzling pink radiance from the muzzle of the flare gun. Almost in slow motion, Charlie watched the sparkling pink ball of fire propel across the room, flagging behind it a blackish contrail of sulfur-smelling smoke.

McEwan shrieked and attempted to sidestep the assault, but his great bulk moved too slowly; the sparkling magnesium flame, pink as a neon strip-club sign, drove itself into Billy McEwan's face where it seemed to grow brighter and larger, expanding, breathing like new lungs, and the ice axe clattered heavily to the cabin floor. McEwan's screams reached a girlish timbre, enough to fuzz out Charlie's eardrums, while his large, club-like hands began pawing at his face. The pink, starlight brilliance of the flare quickly diminished, and between the swiping of McEwan's hands, Charlie could see the charred, smoking crater that had replaced the man's left eye—

“Muh—!”

The half-word was actually punctuated by the expulsion of thick, charcoal-colored smoke from McEwan's mouth. As Charlie watched, McEwan accomplished a single uncertain step forward before his bones surrendered, sending him face first—not to the floor but toward one of the jutting metal legs of the overturned cot. There was a wet crunch as the metal pole impaled itself through the center of Billy McEwan's chest, followed by the softer susurration of McEwan's heavy bulk sliding lower and lower on the implement until, eventually, and like the conclusion of some dramatic stage play, Billy McEwan came to rest against the underside of the cot, the cot leg glistening with blackish-red gore, projecting from between his shoulders. In seemingly no time at all, a dark oil slick of blood expanded from beneath McEwan, filling in the grains of the cabin floor.

Charlie sat wide-eyed, staring, hugging both his knees with one large arm. The flare gun was still in his right hand, still pointing in the direction where, less than five seconds ago, McEwan had been standing. Smoke still trailed up from the muzzle and the entire cabin was suffocating with burnt sulfur.

How much time passed while he sat there, the gun still aimed at the empty space across the cabin, Charlie could not be certain. But when he finally lowered his arm, the muscles had tightened and grown sore, and the flare gun felt like it weighed two hundred pounds.

Eventually, he pulled himself up off the floor, his entire body trembling like an electric cable. The cabin floor was now soaked in McEwan's blood. He refused to look at McEwan's face—at the blackened, roasted divot where his left eye had been…and where wisps of ghost smoke still spiraled from the gaping socket.

He toed the ice axe across the floor, leaving an arc of blood in its path. The ice axe was wet with blood; it took great control over his tensing stomach muscles for Charlie to reach down and pluck it from the floor. The blood around its hilt had already begun to congeal—How the hell long had he been sitting here?—and it made his arms weak to carry it through the doorway.

The corridor was pitch-black, the lights having burned out in their fixtures, with only the faintest suggestion of light issuing from beneath the closed door of the head. His heartbeat suddenly in his ears, he proceeded down the corridor toward the head, one hand trailing along the wall. The whole corridor was canting to one side, taunting his equilibrium. He passed Mike's stateroom, his fingers running over the cupboard door still nailed across the frame…

As he approached the head, the ghostly bluish light outlining the door, the sound of gravelly respiration could be heard coming from the other side. The sound of it caused Charlie to freeze just on the other side of the door, his skin suddenly clammy with sweat. Shaky-handed, his fingers tacky with McEwan's blood, he reached out for the door and gripped its anchor-shaped handle. Tugged on it. Heard the bolt retreat from the frame. Opened the door—opened—

“Oh, Joe—”

He lay crumpled, nude, curled like a prawn on the floor of the claustrophobic little bathroom. Lids fluttering, only the milky whites of his eyes shown while a greenish, sudsy foam bubbled out of his mouth. The muscles in his thighs were so tense, Charlie could make out, beneath the taut, bluish skin, the individual filaments of musculature like piano cables strapped over the leg bones. Vomit pooled beneath Joe's head while a fouler, darker substance seeped from Joe's rear.

Charlie bent and clamped one hand around Joe's knobby, bluing shoulder. Touching his flesh was like petting damp, featherless gooseflesh and Charlie instinctively recoiled, leaving bloody fingerprints on his pale flesh. Joe rocked on the hump of his spine; membranous webbing veined with black, pubic-like filaments revealed itself as his legs parted. The membrane pulled taut then retracted like a mesh of elastic, clapping both of Joe's knees together with a hollow pop.

Charlie shuddered and threw himself backward, spilling back out into the corridor and down hard on his ass. The head of the ice axe clanged hollowly against the wall. A pathetic cry escaped him. As he watched, an inky jet of bile squirted from Joe's mouth and dribbled from both nostrils.

Managing to stand, righting himself against one wall, Charlie began staggering backward down the corridor. Framed in the fading blue light of the head, Joe continued to convulse on the head floor, the chalky, foul-smelling liquid maintaining steady evacuation from his body. One of Joe's hands slid blindly through the pool of thickening black fluid. There was the sound,
sssssllllit,
of the sliding, the fingers—

A moan escaped from Joe's mouth, bubbles of dark green foam snapping and popping, but was instantly amputated by a wet, muddy cough, which sprayed thick crimson clumps of fibrous tissue onto the floor.

Charlie turned and ran, slamming one shoulder against something solid and immobile in the darkness. Stars exploded before his eyes. He reached out, sightless, grasping: a pipe. Cold as ice. Above, the vents pumped frigid air into the corridor—
uhhhhhhh,
they moaned like the damned. In his frustration, he swung the ice axe into the pipe, piercing its shell without difficulty. A sludgy black stream of frozen water spouted from the rent.

Heating ducts filled with water…

They were floating on a frozen coffin.

Who's “they”?

Sammy Walper—dead. Bryan Falmouth—abandoned ship. Billy McEwan—impaled on an overturned cot leg. And Joe…
Jesus fucking Christ, Joe, what the hell?

There would be no reasoning with Mike. The man was already too far gone. And he was determined to navigate the
Borealis
back to Saint Paul Island. As keenly as he had ever understood anything in all his life, Charlie Mears knew he could not let that happen.

“You're not getting back,” he bellowed, his voice like thunder in the lightless corridor. “You're going to stay out here.”

He was speaking to the barricaded cabin door—Mike's old stateroom—behind which the trawler's mysterious guest was held prisoner. If he could—

But a fresh thought stopped him cold.

He was alone with his breathing again, his heartbeat. Reaching out, he tugged at the panel of wood—the cupboard door—he'd nailed across the cabin's doorframe. It was still securely in place…

Kill her,
a voice spoke up at the back of his head. Strangely, a woman's voice: eerily similar to Johanna's.
You have to kill her, Charlie. If she reaches land…if she reaches Alaska…

He knew what would happen. All that had transpired aboard the
Borealis
was a microcosm, was the world in miniature.

With the curved head of the ice axe, Charlie pried the cupboard door off the doorframe, the nails groaning as they were extracted from the wood. He kicked the door open with one boot; it swung inward, hinges squealing, upon a murky darkness. A smell not unlike something fetid and rotting struck Charlie and he shrunk back from the doorway, the ice axe, as if in protection, held up before his face.

The room was empty.

Charlie slumped against the bulkhead. He clutched the ice axe tighter. Someone had let her out, of course.
Someone
—McEwan before going fucking screwball? Bryan, just prior to flinging himself into the frozen sea? Or was it possible, he wondered, that she let
herself
out? Anything, it seemed, was possible.

The
Borealis
jerked and seemed to come nearly to a stop. Charlie stumbled forward, spilling into Mike's empty, reeking stateroom, the ice axe clattering to the floor somewhere ahead of him in the darkness. A moaning, clangorous sound shrilled up through the flooring: banshee cries. Charlie actually felt the trawler's hull cutting through clutching mires, an unseen net of impenetrable ice, and the grinding of metal being sheared away grew to an intensity so great he had to clamp both hands over his ears. Something somewhere in the distant bowels of the ship popped—
Thwanggg!—
and the
Borealis
shuddered forward again, clear of whatever it'd run over.

The fuel lines.
The thought blossomed in his head like a dazzle of Broadway lights.
The fuel lines are down in the engine room.

Fumbling around in the darkness of Mike's stateroom—

(not Mike's stateroom)

—his hands eventually fell on the ice axe. He gripped it and slammed back out into the corridor, the red emergency lights wholly useless save for drenching everything in a foreboding vermillion, and hurried toward the rung ladder leading down into the engine room. He moved quickly by the galley, food articles and utensils tossed in tangled nests, broken coffee mugs, oily petrol seesawing across the tabletop, operative notebooks and
Penthouse
calendars, Scotch-Brite scouring pads, flecks of cornflakes sprayed in Big Dipper fashion along the sticky countertop, a sepia-toned map of the Aleutians, unfolded like an accordion—

Belowdecks, it was intestinally dark. The cold was instantly unbearable. The last rung of the ladder had been swallowed by dark, standing water, atop of which a film of filthy slush had already begun forming. Unfortunately, Charlie didn't see this until he'd already driven his boot straight down to the floor—hearing the
plosh;
feeling, a second later, the ice water seeping through the worn creases of his boots. His foot bristled with needles then went immediately numb.

Steeling himself, he dropped his other foot down—hissed like a cat—and, poising the ice axe over his shoulder, pushing through the freezing water toward the rear of the engine room. Gears growled and chugged. His eyes slowly acclimated to the darkness. The furnace was a dead cylinder, hardly visible without its flickering yellow faceplate. Yet despite the loss of power throughout the rest of the boat, the turbines continued to hum from within an ancient steel enclosure.

He knew the fuel lines ran against the far bulkhead, though he couldn't see them in the dark. On deadened feet, his lower jaw shaking like a maraca, he stepped around the turbine enclosure, feeling with hands pained by the sharp, cutting temperature, for the line spout. He could feel his breath freezing in front of his face—could imagine the vaporous cloud crystallizing in midair and raining in a shower of ice pellets to the sloshing water around his ankles. Touched something—the goddamn blessed motherfucking
line spout,
thank you, Jesus.

And the water level was rising; he could feel it creeping up the legs of his cargo pants. Mike's carelessness in traversing an ice field…

And there was
someone else down here with him—

His breath caught in his throat. Froze. Dripping water sounds among the steady snarl of the turbines…and, somewhere
behind
him, the sound of someone wading through the water.

“Who's there?” It was hardly a whisper—weak, ineffectual.

No answer.

He was shaking uncontrollably now, the ice axe growing increasingly heavy. Gripping it tighter, he gathered what strength was left in him to mutter, “Who the
fuck
is there?” This time the sounds of the wading stopped but, again, there came no answer.

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