Of course I remember the beginning. Foolish question. Who could forget the headlines? “Leviathan devastates Manhattan harbor”. “Millions in shipping lost to mysterious creatures”. And my favorite, “Scientists Mystified”. 1872 made the fortunes of newsmen and half-wit prophets everywhere.
That was the year that the sea crawled forth to prey on humanity, the year that London convulsed and Manhattan fell to rubble. The year of the beasts. The Rising Days. The End Times. You won’t remember, but I’ll wager no one will ever let you forget.
Of course there was panic. Riots, cults, madness. Army put a stop to that pretty quick. The sea was a bigger problem. Ports shut down, ships rotted in drydock. And everywhere, there were whispers of madness, madness of the body and soul. For the first time in long centuries, men learned to fear the sea.
Not us. We’d gazed into its depths, into the maddened eyes of dying leviathans and murderous hurricanes. We’d seen the worst the sea had to offer. And we’d been disappointed.
So when the call went out for volunteers, iron men for the wooden ships that would prowl the coasts for even deadlier prey, we answered. We men of the tall masts and low hulls. We whalers. We fools.
I started when I was young, on a foul and clumsy tub out of a port whose name I’ve quite forgotten. But I remember the ship, the stink of the below-decks, the wind-sheared peak of the mast, the creaking sides that seemed wroth to let you sleep. Back then, I thought the smell and the cold and the noise were the worst the sea had.
The first hunt had showed me different. There was blood, and terrible noise, a clash of men and ship and beast. But we always brought back the oil, and we always drank to those we lost. It wasn’t so bad, those old days.
But the whales dried up, the fields started bleeding burning-black, and we were pushed aside. Plenty of us moved up to the Banks, or down to the Gulf, but none of us never forgot the open sea, and the wrath of its children. They’d made us men.
So there I was, twenty years older and a good deal rougher. But my clothes were just as soiled, and my eyes were just as bright, as they’d been two decades before. I stood on the dockside and smelt the sea, just like before. My knees were weaker, my skin rougher. But the sea! The sea was just as dark, just as vast and unknowable. The ship just as round and tubbish. The wind stung the same. And once again, there were monsters in the deep. Once more, there was a hunt on.
I didn’t know any of the crew, but they were all familiar. Scarred faces, rough faces. Hard hands and bright eyes. Sea faces.
I’d heard there’s something about the beasts—the new ones—that gets inside a man’s mind. Soldiers, sailors, men of faith and science too, all get jumpy. Itchy. Nervous. They start to twist up inside, knowing what’s down there. Navy had a run of suicides, after Brooklyn. But not us whalers. Or at least it works softer on us. Maybe it’s the sea, maybe it’s the fear. We’re used to that. As for the rest…well, you’ll see.
The captain was a navy man, but we didn’t care about that. He was a hard and rugged man, scarred and loved by the sea. That didn’t matter much: weren’t we all? But he’d been at New York, and that meant something. He’d seen the Beast of Manhattan, watched it make blackened splinters of a harbor. He didn’t talk about it, but we all saw the sharpness in his eyes. He was a hunter, like us. We liked that.
Our first week out of port, we followed the coast up towards the Banks. That was where the navy had last spotted one of the things. It was a cold fall that year, and it grew colder as we sailed north.The wind cut my hands, and on night watches my eyebrows frosted to my face. But I felt young again. I was alive, and at sea. On the hunt.
We hit the Banks in the second week. It was too quiet for the late season. Usually it was choked with boats and nets and men. Not this year. We put into a tiny little harbor, brought on fresh stores, milked the locals for information. Another ship had come by not long ago, and headed straight out to sea.
We sighted them on the third day out. A slender vessel, it had probably been a fast freighter before the rising. But it didn’t respond to our colors or answer our signals. As we pulled alongside—an easy task, for it was drifting lazily—we saw no one at all.
The captain asked for volunteers to board it. I went. Figured I might as well face down whatever we were after. In for a penny, in for a pound.
The deck was empty. There was no sign of violence, no broken rails or tattered sails. The rigging swayed gently in the wind, abandoned but intact. The hatch was sealed, though. The captain had us bring up sledges and break the thing down. Took us near ten minutes. Finally, we hacked through the wood, and pried away the iron bars that’d been jammed in place to keep it sealed.
Right away we smelled it. A rank moistness welled up, wave after wave of soft warmth and terrible stink. There was burning wax and rotting flesh in that, as well as sweet perfume and strange spices. I staggered back, alongside most of the rest. But the captain hurled himself down the hatch, and the doctor followed after, clutching that bag of his. After a moment or two, the captain called us down.
It was something out of a nightmare. Everywhere was the refuse of madness and death. I don’t want to describe it. It still hurts, the sight. But you should know what we’re facing. What you’ll face. There were…pieces. Remnants. You couldn’t take in the whole scene, you could only grasp at bare fragments, and those were enough to make to wish you could look away. How many? Were there women and children too? How long did it take for them to die? How many joined in, and how many were forced by the hands of those they’d trusted? A man’s imagination went wild, and you felt as though you were glimpsing through a peephole at the most terrible perversion in history, caught in momentary flashes that spurred the mind and evoked the senses until you felt complicit simply by being there.
Each of us, as we glimpsed this on the way down, scrambled back. Each of us, to a man, vomited onto the defiled floor. More than one—I’ll not say who for their sake—collapsed as if struck. Only the captain stayed firm, and the doctor merely wavered from side to side, eyes still gleaming bright.
Once a few of us had regained control of ourselves, we immediately set about searching the ship for survivors. The captain had us go in pairs, and together—it was me and an Irish fellow—we crept down the ochre-smeared hallways. It was impossible to avoid the stuff that caked the floor, it inevitably clutched to your boots and gloves, and even the makeshift sloth masks we pulled over our faces became smeared with brown and tan and red. No one left that bore some mark of the experience. And the smell never truly left your mind.
It’s terrible what happened. I should have been more watchful. I suppose we were all too horrified by our surroundings to really pay attention like we should have. Out of all the loss, this one might have been avoided. But no. The Irishman was ahead of me, trying vainly to avoid the walls and step as lightly as possible across the stained floor. He never saw it coming.
It struck him from the side, a blur of flesh wrapped in a bestial scream. I flung myself back, scrambled against the slippery floorboards, shouted for help. The poor fellow was slammed against the wall, thrown down, and the thing came at me.
A shot broke the confusion. The thing slumped to the floor, clawed at the boards. The captain stepped over me, pistol trained on the body. He fired again. Then again. It twitched once, then lay still. An acrid sting trickled through the musk.
The captain stepped over it and moved on. I lay for a long minute, then picked myself up to look at the thing. It was a man, but a man in the same way that a broken, fossilized stump resembles a live tree, a lightning-blasted human waxwork. Had he heard our voices and footfalls, and lain in wait? Or was he simply mad with rage? Or fear? I hope he found some peace.
The doctor came along soon after. He swept over the body, set down his case and brought out his little tools. He poked and swabbed and pried. His eyes never stopped moving, and he whispered under his breath as I watched.
When I stepped back on deck, interminable ages later, the sweet sea air cleared the horror from my nostrils. The smell, the damp, the creeping guilt, all swept away. Only the memory remained, and, well, you see how it has clung to my mind. Perhaps that’s best. You have to know.
We torched the ship, remains and all. Its masts went up like tallow candles, its hull flamed and smoldered like a furnace. Wood and bodies burned alike. A few of us muttered a prayer or two, but none of us looked back. Except the captain. He stood on the stern and watched it drift away into the distance. Only when it passed from view did he come down, and set us to sharpening the harpoons.
A day later, a lookout spotted the wide, trailing wake that was the creatures’ scar on the world. It was like the path of the great ship, but stretched to the horizon, a vast swath of disturbed water. We knew, then, that we were closing in. We followed after it. The captain had us switch lookouts every hour, and kept as many as possible below deck.
The sound—keening, some of the men called it—started after the third day. First it was an occasional thing, like hum that throbbed through the sounds of the sea and sky and ship. It was an unnatural thing, like a voice in a dream, but it refused to fade in the sunlight. As we sailed on, as the wake narrowed and we came ever closer, it grew to a constant and inescapable sensation. It saturated the air, it bled from the hull and crept into our waking daydreams. It was not a sound, exactly. It was more akin to a fever, the way it clung to the mind and weighed on your senses. None of the doctor’s instruments could measure any sort of atmospheric disturbance, and when he interrogated the men, no one described it quite the same. To some, it was a dull ache around the ears, to others a biting pain in the temples. Sometimes it was just whispers. But no one escaped it.
Most of us resolved to grit ourselves and carry on. It wasn’t so different from the wind, or the cold, after all. We could deal with that. Why not this? Hadn’t we always complained about the ship’s creaking, joked about what it might be saying? We could endure this new thing. It wasn’t so different.
Not everyone managed so well. Four days in, when the keening had been constant for a day or two, we found one of the younger men in the hold. He’d taken a knife and was etching the floor. His right arm was covered in blood—I’m told the ones who found him didn’t quite believe it at first—and he was using it like an inkwell. The bent and twisting lines were interspersed with beads of blood, and stretched all across the floor and up to the walls. He’d been there for hours, pale and shivering, but grinning wide, enraptured by his work. He didn’t even look up when they called his name.
It took four of us to wrest the blade out of his hands and tie him down. The captain came along after, grinding his boots contemptuously on the bloody diagrams. Soon after came the doctor, who stepped around, taking care not to disturb them. After a few minutes of examining the bound man, who struggled and thrashed terribly all along, the doctor wound up his arm in a bandage and stood up. Yet his eyes drew downward and traced the swirling red inscriptions. He stooped, hand swept an inch from the savaged boards.
“Music”, he whispered.
After the incident, the captain ordered regular searches of the ship. The low beams and curving walls had been familiar to me, but now I walked through the oil-lit dark with a tender step. Every corner could hide a crewmate gone mad, every crevice could play host to dark thoughts and darker deeds. The older ones, whom I begrudgingly found myself included in, we trusted each other. It wasn’t so different from cabin fever, we supposed. But the younger ones, they got jumpy. They travelled in pairs, or threes below deck, and talked in low voices. The ship went quiet, and the keening only grew louder, deeper, more pervasive and ever more inescapable. Keeping quiet only reminded us that silence was a luxury we left behind on shore.
Two days later, we found another one. Another greenhorn, from New York City, I recall. He’d joined up after Brooklyn. He’d been full of rage against the beasts, and talked loudly and often about skewering and butchering as many as he could. We found him hacking at the hull with a hatchet. He hurt two men who tried to tackle him. Finally someone got him with a board. He went down hurling curses and tears. We kept him tied up beside the first, in a makeshift brig of wooden boards across a crevice. Usually, he would scream, seemingly in terrible pain, at least once or twice a night. It put everyone on edge, and the dark quiet hours were tense, waiting, dreading. No one slept much.
A day after that, another one. I knew him better then the first two, a tall Swede, quiet and inoffensive to all. He’d been a great reader, I recall. I’d never appreciated it before, but there’d been a great comfort in his tall, sturdy frame curled around one of his books, while the rest of the men swore and drank and yelled. He was trying to light the ship on fire with a great pile of torn pages and a cask of oil. After, he spent the hours muttering to himself in strange languages that shifted and twisted and wore their way into the mind.
There were a few more out of our crew of a scarce few dozen. One simply disappeared, until we found him days later, crammed into an empty barrel. He’d wedged himself in and waited for the end. Died of thirst.
Another hung himself from the mast in the night. We found him swinging there in the morning. The captain cut him down himself.
We held a small ceremony for each, with the whole crew in attendance. I think we were mostly happy to have them gone. It cleared the mind, somewhat, considering the dead. It was the live ones, the mad ones with their mutterings and capricious cries in the night, that preyed on our imaginations. We kept them locked up tight, but I think they did more damage crammed away together, then if we’d just let them do themselves in. A suicide is a dark thing, no doubt, but it fades. Their voices were a constant reminder of what we were chasing, what we were risking. Not all of them were young and inexperienced.
The wake narrowed. The keen rose. Finally, we spotted the beast.
It was the early dim of the morning twilight. The sea is grey at that hour, and the sky is ash-blue. The sun is an orange smear on the horizon. It was just the same that morning. The the call came down into the lower decks, perked every ear and set hearts racing.
We all scrambled up onto the deck. The captain was there—I never recalled him to sleep for a full watch—seized to the side, staring with ferocious intensity forward, into the wake, a thousand foot path that ran to the horizon. He stretched out a hand, clawed the air, as if he could wrench the beast from the depths by his will alone. Fate, it seems, indulged him.
There was a churning in the sea, ringed with clouds of spray and mist that shimmered in the morning grey-glow. Yet it did not sparkle, or shine, like it usually does. Instead, there was a dim and clammy curtain hung across the lightening horizon. Even several miles distant it cast a pall on every face and burdened every heart.
The churning and boiling split away, and we glimpsed—or thought we glimpsed—pieces of the deep thing. It was no rounded whole, like the smooth bulk of a whale, but a divided and fragmented tangle. It might have been a swarm of several dissimilar creatures, biting, clawing, intertwining and struggling to against each other. But the thing moved as a whole, even as it fractured the sea around it. When the water settled behind its movement, it never quite seemed to smooth out again, as if the beast released some secret oil that disturbed the water. Perhaps the world was simply loath to join together what it had torn asunder.
All of us stared into the distance, marveled at the size and ferocity of the thing beneath the waves. But our reverie was broken by the captain’s shout. Barreling about, he hurled orders and stung us all to action. Sails were tightened, lines drawn taut on the great drums. The wind at our side, the air hanging cool and damp on every surface, the beast’s silent keen ringing like a chorus in our ears, we gave chase.
It wasn’t so different, I supposed, from the old days. The captain cried out orders, and the rest of us attended to the small tasks of sailing which, though insignificant to the untrained eye—a line tightened a few feet, a sail loosened by a fraction—nonetheless comprise the great bulk of seamanship. We readied harpoons on the deck and cleared the deck of every unnecessary obstacle. We prepared our longboats, hung on clammy ropes from creaking frames. But mostly, we waited, and muttered to ourselves that it was just the same, just the same as ever. Just like the old days.
But the ship was driving straighter then any whaler. And the prongs that we carried with delicate tenderness from the dry, padded holds were supplemented with explosive charges. We aimed not to catch, or to kill, but to destroy. And none of us had ever chased something so huge, so strange, so fascinating. It was like my first chase again, new and terrifying and glorious.
As we came up, mile by mile towards the creature, it gave no sign that it noticed us. A whale might have been wary of a ship and its longboats, but the churning, foaming focus of our attention wandered on, plowing its long arrow-straight wake through the ocean. I suppose the thing and its race didn’t fear tall ships or scrambling men. Whether that can change…well, we’ll see.
Soon we were within a half mile, and we prepared to launch. Waiting burst into movement, and the oppression of inaction shattered into a fevered rush to the boats. Harpoons were loaded, boats were lowered, lines cast off. Once each had drifted safely away from the ship, arms strained and oars beat the water. Heaving in the swell, straining with muscle and wood against the sea’s grip, they swept forward.
I stayed on the ship, too old for the boats, I suppose. I think I would have pulled my weight, but I didn’t envy the younger men, hauling through the surf, soaked with sweat and spray. Like daggers they flew across the sea.
I wasn’t surprised, when they fallowed or snapped or capsized , sending screams drifting across the waves to us. I tried to grit them out, but you couldn’t, no more then you could ignore the beast’s insistent, rising keen. You accepted it. But still, I had hoped the young ones would do better.
Oh, we all let our spirits rise a bit, when the great Crack! of a charge split the air, blasting spouts of water and flesh. But too often it was men’s flesh, and too often it was just water. And each time, the creature just redoubled its ferocity, crushing the crew under folds of unseen muscles or tossing them aside with wave-cloaked bulk. One by one, our boats sank or splintered or fell, and the beast came on.
It was angry now, if it could contain such a petty human thing as anger. It thrashed and beat and boiled the oceans in every direction, first this way, then the other. Perhaps it was uncertain where its attackers’ lay. Perhaps it was truly enraged. Soon there were no boats left, nor men. Just drowning screams, splinters and corpses.
But the captain—his eyes boiling, his voice burning with fury—he drove us on. .He seized the wheel himself, and heaved it to one side, sent us straight on towards the roiling maelstrom.
There were no sails to be set, no lines to be pulled. Those of us who retained our wits—for the keening was clawing at our ears with a sound like daggers, and it was all we could do to stop from being torn from our senses—we clung to the deck and prayed. A few broke, then. One fellow began singing, singing as he staggered toward the side. It was a cool and wistful song, and he seemed perfectly calm as he ran to hurl himself overboard. But his eyes were mad as he wrenched out of our grasp and into the waves. I suspect there was more like that, but we never found them. Couldn’t bear the thought of sailing straight at the thing, I think. Couldn’t stand the madness, I suspect. I can’t blame them. Me, I just clung and hoped. Maybe I was already mad. Maybe the depths already had me. I let the chaos carry me, like a breaking wave, towards the deepening sea.
We struck with a terrible blow that sent every man hurling from their place of refuge. Not everyone managed to keep ahold of the ship. The lucky ones were knocked into oblivion. The unfortunates fell screaming into the lashing, wretched grip of the sea.
For a moment, it rose, as if to chastise us for our arrogance, and we saw the thing for what it was.
I don’t want to describe it. I don’t want to. I don’t know if I can.
But I have to try. You have to know.
It wasn’t all of a single quality. There were mouths within mouths within mouths, and eyes filled with roiling, lashing worms. There were fleshy arms, great clumps that coiled and beat the ocean into foam, scaly fins with long, wicked tendrils, and part of what might have been a shell. But even when a piece stayed in view long enough for the mind to form an impression, a second glance might reveal new terrors. Scales were instead chaotic, molted hide, hairs seemed to distend into long, bristling needles that swayed in the spray. Colors would to melt and shift, first midnight-black, then ash grey, an iridescent sheen then a dull monotone. Maybe it was all those things at once, or none of them. I think each of us, moment to moment, tried in vain to pin it to a shape. Anything you’ve heard, any description, that’s just a man’s way of putting a form to his fears. That’s all it was, really, fear. It was a nightmare without any hope of waking. It was a knife twisted into the world, a gaping wound in the order of things. It was death.
But all tides go out, it seems, and at last it abated. Whether it was the explosives or the harpoons, or the two thousand tons of wood and metal and rage, it ebbed. It let out a ravenous wail, convulsed the sea, clawed at our minds with its terrible keen. But at last it sank beneath the blessed concealing blue-grey waters. Its call faded, the waters calmed, and the world—and perhaps my mind—was given a chance to heal.
We talked a fair bit, in the following, weary days, about what finally forced the beast down. Many of the young ones—although I think no one who came back would ever be properly young again—proudly convinced each other that it was the captain’s final, desperate blow that taught the creature fear. I kept my opinions to myself. Because I didn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that something that had fed on panic and spawned in madness for so long could be turned away by such a thing as fear. Ships do not turn aside for cod. Perhaps it simply had its fill of our fear and madness and, glutted on our broken minds, sank back to its long satisfied slumber.
The scientists haven’t told us what they think. Or rather, they have, and they can’t agree. Me, I wonder. The sea’s been there for a long time. Is this the first time the beasts have risen? I’ve heard the stories of Odysseus, of his run-in with Charybdis. Did the ancients survive their rising and hide them in stories to blunt their fear? I think of London too, and Brooklyn and Singpore, all gone. Like Atlantis and Lemuria before them? Only one thing’s certain. The creatures do not die. There was no blood in the water when we fished the mad and dying out of the sea, except our own. There was no flesh save what we spent to distract the thing for a moment. Our wounds and our dead and our madness were the only record of its passage, and they cost us dearly.
Perhaps we put it to sleep for another few millennia. What did it care? It could glut on our madness and fear until the stars fell, rising again and again until the earth spins into the void and the heavens crack. And there are more, always more, swallowing ships and ravaging coasts and spreading their taint of fear and chaos further, ever further, year after year. We could push them back as many times as there are stars in the sky and still fail in the end. I’ve heard talk of new weapons, new ships, new tactics to keep them at bay. But me, I’d had enough. Leave it to the younger, saner ones, wilder ones. A lot of us felt that way. The sea had finally shown us something unconquerable. Something we couldn’t beat. Something very much like itself. A lot of us moved inland, found work, and lived as best we could. I still miss the sea. But I’ve never thought of going back.
I’ve heard about the great battles, of course, the iron ships with their vast cannon and brass rams, hurling themselves at the deep. Whole generations of young men, sent to die for a few months peace in the lonely sea lanes. The struggle against madness seeping inland from the coasts, and the unending war at sea. The rest of the world—what we hear—well, it isn’t much better. Everywhere it’s the same. Nothing like the old days.
My part’s done. Others will have to man the ships now, and lead the evacuation of the great coastal charnel-cities. Can they win? I can’t say. Mayhap they’ll find some new weapon that can kill the things for good, and mankind can rule the seas again. Perhaps they’ll buy us a few decades of peace before it all goes spiraling into the dark. Maybe it won’t even be that long. You might see the end of it.
Me, I’m through. I’ve seen the worst the sea has to offer. And I’m afraid.
Justin Roshak ’15