Chuck Wendig: Ghosts of the Sea Queen

This week’s Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction challenge is called, “Here are your five word titles.”  Last week, Chuck asked us to submit five word story titles, then picked ten for us to choose from.  I chose “Ghosts of the Sea Queen.”  There seemed only one real place to take it, and if it seems a little cliched, it’s okay.  It’s supposed to.  We had a 1,500 word limit, and I used 1,483 of them.  Please to enjoy, and please leave comments if you are so led.

GHOSTS OF THE SEA QUEEN

The lookout sat his lonely duty in a bucket-shaped platform built from stout timbers high atop Petrel’s mainmast.  Once it had been simply a barrel lashed to the mast, before the bottom had given out under Billie Simms’s lardbucket ass and he had fallen nearly eighty feet.  A grisly chore it had been, too, swabbing his guts off the deck.  After that, the captain had decided he didn’t want to lose any more sailors than could be helped, so he put into Regulo and they had built such a sturdy structure that men actually volunteered for lookout duty.  It wasn’t a punishment any more.

Cyril was up top the day Sea Queen came into view.  It was a sunny day, with a wide panorama spread out below him, which made it all the more odd when a bank of mist rolled in from the west.  It was an extremely small mist; the edges could clearly be seen in all directions.  It didn’t look like a regular mist, either.  Cyril glanced at it out of his side-eye and realized that it was reflecting the sunlight from the wrong side.  This time of day it should have been brighter on the east, but the west was showing more of a gleam.

As a rule, sailors weren’t particularly religious, but Cyril crossed himself all the same.  It’s not natural, he thought.  He took a deep breath and prepared to call the sighting, but as he did, he noticed the tips of masts sticking out through the top of the mist.  There’s a ship in there.

“Ship ho!” he called.

“Where away?” came the answer from the deck below.

He took a deep breath.  “In the mist, starboard!”

He heard a buzz as sailors below began to chatter.  “What mist?” shouted the helmsman.

He looked again.  The fog was still there, clearly visible to the west.  He called the direction down, and Petrel began to turn.  All around him, sailors scrambled up into the rigging, peering westward.  They pointed and cried out.  “There it is!”  “West away!”  “I see it now!”

One of his crewmates joined Cyril in the crow’s nest.  “It’s not visible from the deck,” the man said.  “We was looking right at it and couldn’t see it.”

So many crewmen began shouting directions that the captain himself came out to see what was happening.  “Cyril is the lookout!” he called out.  “He will guide us, as the lookout should!”  Cyril saluted, and gave directions until Petrel was matching heading and speed with the mist, which was moving in a generally southwestern direction across the surface of the water.

Those on deck finally got a view of the mist as they drew near.  It gradually faded into view, resolving from nothingness to a thick pea soup that then gradually dissipated, leaving a ship behind.  Words painted on her bow gave her name as Sea Queen.

She was smaller than the giant ship of the line that was Petrel, being simply a frigate.  Her sails were either furled or torn and ragged, hanging loose from the lines.  One mast was broken, the other had been twisted so that it was turned nearly sideways.  There was no crew visible.  A ship the size of Sea Queen should have had a crew of at least 200, but there was no sign of anyone.

The captain, his second and his helmsman conferred.  “Do you think she’s real?” asked the helmsman.

“What else would she be?” asked the captain.

“You know what they say about these waters,” put in Number Two.  “Strange things happen out here.  A mist that can be seen from up top but not from the deck isn’t a patch on what I’ve heard.”

The captain considered Sea Queen.  “Send over lines.  If we can hook her, we’ll know she’s real and we’ll send over boarders.  If there’s no crew, we’ll look for her log book and see what happened.  We have enough men on board to crew her as a prize and take her back to Regulo.”

The helmsman nodded, and Number Two called out the commands.  Lines with grappling hooks were fired from harpoon guns and flew across the space between the two ships.  The first few passed through Sea Queen as if it were mist itself and Petrel’s crew gasped.  Then, the Queen seemed to flicker and the last lines found purchase.

“I don’t like it,” muttered Cyril to his chum in the crow’s nest.  He crossed himself again.  His crewmate nodded and, having seen what Cyril did, crossed himself for good measure.  It couldn’t hurt.  Sailors were a superstitious lot.  Whatever they could do to ensure good fortune, they did.

The helmsman and Number Two were in full throes of that superstition.  Having seen the lines pass through Sea Queen, the helmsman began a mantra, “Cut it loose.  Cut it loose.”

Number Two nodded, and turned to the captain.  “Sir, it’s not natural.  Cut it loose and let’s be on our way.” Sailors nearby had gathered to listen to the conference and they murmured agreement, and the helmsman’s mantra became a chant.

The captain looked at them all and held up his hands.  “Aren’t you even the least bit curious?  Don’t you want to see what it could be?”  To a man, they looked at him in amazement.  No one spoke up, but the mood began to shift, and the chant became just a little more menacing.

Before anything else could be said, Cyril noticed movement on the deck of Sea Queen.  The forms of men were appearing as if out of the mists that had surrounded their ship.  They were in the lines, and at their posts, and their helmsman was beginning to turn the big ship’s wheel.  Cyril’s crewmate was gobsmacked, but Cyril retained his wits enough to shout a warning.  “She’s coming about!”

It was too late.  Sea Queen turned 90 degrees and came straight at Petrel, riding a wind that didn’t exist on Petrel’s sea.  Her crew were shouting a challenge that made no sound to the ears of Petrel’s crew.  The Queen struck Petrel amidships and the world seemed to stand still for a long moment.

There was a flicker, then suddenly Sea Queen snapped into full, blazing view, and the roar of her crew’s battle cry sounded shocking and raw and hungry to the stunned crew of PetrelPetrel rocked.  The mainmast whipped forward then back and Cyril and his mate were thrown from the crow’s nest.  They landed in the water and were swept away by waves that appeared from nowhere and disappeared just as quickly.

Petrel’s hull shattered.  Water poured in from all directions.  Sea Queen’s crew leaped aboard and fought hand-to-hand against the dazed sailors of Petrel, laughing and shrieking all the while.  Petrel’s crew tried to run, but there was nowhere to go.  Their ship was sinking, and any man who touched the sea vanished in a flash of rushing water.

The captain, the helmsman, and Number Two were ignored completely.  They rushed to the main deck to join the battle but were not engaged in fighting by any of Sea Queen’s sailors.  Finally, the entire crew of Petrel was gone, washed away, save those last three.  The ship was nearly sunk, then the inrushing water simply stopped.  Petrel hung there, halfway below the waves.  Sea Queen’s crew stepped back and knelt in supplication as their captain came forward.

He approached the three survivors of Petrel.  “Your crew fought well, Captain.  You have my compliments.”

“The devil take your compliments, sir.  Your attack was unprovoked!  Dishonorable!”

“I have no need for honor any more, Captain.  However, I can always use new crewmen, and an experienced helmsman and two command-level sailors would be a bonny addition to my crew.  Will you join us?”

The helmsman laughed.  “To feast upon naïve, helpless ships such as ours?”  Sea Queen’s captain spread his hands and smiled.

“We will not,” said Number Two.

“I am a Captain of the Line,” said the Petrel’s commander.  “I will die with my ship.”

“You’re certain of that?”

“Would you expect anything less of us?  Of me?”

“Actually, no, now that you mention it.”  He shrugged.  “It seems such a waste, however.  Perhaps you will change your mind after some time spent below.”

The three officers looked at each other and drew their swords as one.  “We are the survivors of Petrel,” said the captain.  “We will never dishonor her, nor our crew.  Get off my ship.”

With a collective shrug, they did.  The crew of Sea Queen returned to their ship.  There was another flicker, then the sea rushed in and finished its work, disposing of Petrel and the remainder of its crew.

The last thing Petrel’s captain saw was Sea Queen fade back into ghostly transparency, and the phantom mist reappear around it.  Then it was all water and darkness.

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