Beginning at the end

Our writers’ group, the Lichfield Writers, gave us an interesting exercise this week. Usually, a writing exercise gives you the opening sentence of a piece. This time, we were presented with the end.

As night turned to day, he started to understand the truth.

I ended up writing a genre which is somewhat unfamiliar to me. I think it almost works.

He woke with a start. Had he really dropped off? He thanked his lucky stars that the captain or none of the mates, or even worse, the boatswain, had not caught him with his eyes closed.

And talking of lucky stars… He turned his gaze to the sky, but the clouds were covering the stars. There was a faintly lighter parch of cloud which he guessed was where the moon was trying to break through. Looking forward, or after or to either side, there was nothing to be seen – just a wall of fog. Even the deck below his lookout post on the mast was blurred and hazy.

Well, that was why he was up there. The radar was on the blink – again – and the captain had a schedule to keep. So he was up here with his Mark I eyeballs, replacing the broken pile of ancient electronics that passed for radar on this ship.

The ship sailed on. He could hear nothing above the muffled monotonous throb of the diesels, but then he wouldn’t expect to at… He looked at his watch. Surely it was wrong? It couldn’t be that time already, could it?

It would soon be time for his watch to end, and he could slide into his bunk and sleep properly. He yawned. Stay awake, stay awake, stay awake, he kept telling himself. Only another fifteen minutes.

There was still nothing to be seen out there. The red and green navigation lights on each side of the bridge and the white light at the masthead above him seemed to show only thick fog. He hoped the radar had started working again. At the speed the ship was travelling, there’d be one hell of a bang if they hit anything, and he wouldn’t be able to see it in time.

A thousand and one, thousand and two, thousand and three… How many seconds in fifteen minutes? It seemed like a long time – just quarter of an hour. Funny how time stretches and contracts depending on how you feel, he thought.

It must be time now, he thought, and looked at his watch again. Bloody hell, the hands hadn’t moved at all. He held it up to his ear. No sound. He had no idea what time it was, but surely he should have been relieved at his watch by now.

I’ll count slowly up to two hundred, he told himself, and then I’ll try to find someone.
He dutifully counted, and then, expecting to hear someone yelling at him from the bridge asking him where the hell he was going, slipped down from halfway up the mast and made his way towards the stern of the ship. There was no-one on deck, and as he passed the bridge, he looked upward. There was no-one visible. For half a moment, he considered the idea of committing nautical sacrilege and going up to the bridge uninvited, but the habits of years held him to the deck.

At last he reached the stern, and was shocked. Instead of the ship’s wake streaming out in a straight line, it seemed to form a constant arc, as far as he could make out through the fog. As he watched, the brighter patch of cloud seemed to move past the masts, behind the bridge. With a shock, he realised that this had been happening all the time, but his brain hadn’t registered the fact.

There was still no sign of anyone else on deck, but he decided to make sure by walking forward along the port side of the ship, having come aft on the starboard.

Suddenly his feet started to slide from under him as he slipped on the deck. He could vaguely make out some dark stains on the wood. Someone’s going to catch hell for this, he said to himself. He bent and dipped a finger in the dark sticky fluid. A metallic smell which he recognised as that of blood. What the—?

He shouted for help down the companionway leading to the crew quarters, but there was no answering hail – just the endless throb of the diesels.

Then he noticed the lifeboat – or rather the place where the lifeboat had been. Now there were only a few splintered planks, smeared with the same dark blood. And the other lifeboat on the port side seemed to have been used to get away from the ship. The davits swung empty, the cables dangling uselessly in the water.

He tripped, and swore. The sky seemed a little lighter now, and he was able to see the hose that had fallen across the deck and caused him to stumble. Quite a lot thicker than the fire hoses, and it seemed to have lumps on it. Looking closer, he could just make out that it was a tentacle from a squid or an octopus or something similar, but many times larger than anything he had ever heard of, let alone seen with his own eyes. There seemed to be about ten metres of it, and the end where it presumably had been joined to the body was marked by a fire axe, buried in the deck. Bloody footprints surrounded the axe, moving in a pattern that looked almost like a dance, then skidding towards the rail, and then suddenly ceasing. There was no sign of whoever had made the prints.

He looked back. The wake was still curved. The ship still seemed to be sailing around in an endless circle. Now he really did have to get up to the bridge and see what was happening.

He climbed the ladder and stopped just before he reached the top. The door to the bridge was shattered to splinters, and was half-hanging from its hinges. All the windows seemed to be broken. Peering inside the bridge, he could see the floor was covered with shards of broken glass, and, as he had feared, there was no-one to be seen. Only one boot, which he thought he recognised by the distinctive pattern of the toecap as the second mate’s, lay empty at the foot of the wheel.

The sun was starting to come up, and the fog was lifting – and it was increasingly obvious that the ship was continuing to turn. There was no way he was going to reach port unless he did something.

The bridge deck was slippery – not with blood this time, but with something dark and slimy which smelled bad. He didn’t want to think about what it was, or where it had come from, but took the ship’s wheel and turned it experimentally.

Nothing. Nothing. The wheel spun uselessly in his hands, and the ship continued her endless circle. He looked forward to the bows, and saw for the first time as the fog was burned away by the rising sun’s rays, the wreckage and carnage of the ship’s superstructure – and the nameless formless lumps of flesh, leaving red snail-trails behind them as they moved about the deck, following the gentle rolling and pitching of the ship.

As night turned to day, he started to understand the truth.

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