This short story is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Creative Writing Ink.
Murky waters lapped at the ship’s hull, gurgling and bubbling as they were pulled to and fro. That was the only sound that night, that of the waters against the vessel; it was too late for gulls and too isolated for the drunks that would be staggering their way home. The ship stood silent and unrecognised, no one there to question its presence – no one there to question the silence.
On board, the quiet was matched only by the stillness. The crew members sat about their bunks, faces grey and stony. They did not sleep; they did not dare to sleep. They were far too busy listening: listening and waiting for the answer that they so longed for. Each man knew exactly what was happening in the cabin high above him, and each man feared it and desired it to much the same extent. They were caught in their own curiosity, their very skulls aching with the tension that seemed to suffocate the lower decks.
One man let out a low, gravely cough, and the others responded with offended glares and jolts of shock that sent chairs sliding across floorboards. The moment of action calmed once more, and order was restored; most returned to their slightly glazed expressions, whilst others stared fixedly at the ceiling.
High above them, in the luxury of the Captain’s Quarters, Leopold Fielding sat hunched over his desk. Old maps and written documents surrounded him, as he scratched the occasional note into his journal. He did not spare a thought for the men waiting in agonised silence below, though he would not expect them to be asleep at a time like this. He leant back in his chair for a moment, letting his quill go limp in his hand. He had never been a rich man; if he had been, he never would have found his way to the sea in the first place. He would have a house and perhaps a wife to occupy his time. Now though, the power in his hands seemed immense. He slid his glasses from his nose to rub his eyes several times. He didn’t like the power exactly, but he liked the knowledge of it. He was in control; nothing bad had to ever happen to him, because he was in control.
He imagined, for just the most minute second, being tied to a captain as his crew were tied to him. They had promised him their lives for their crimes against him, and now it was his word that would settle their futures. He returned his glasses to his nose and looked back at the map he’d been poring over for the last hour. The likelihood was that all of this stress and all of this worry was meaningless. He was consumed with doubt when the danger could be a mere story. He groaned for what must have been the hundredth time that night.
Since the ancient days, stories had been told of the mythical sea monsters that had haunted the waters off from Italy. Fielding had read and reread the tales of Scylla and Charybdis, monsters prowling every inch of sea within hundreds of miles, leaving no man alive. He could dismiss these myths with very little thought, of course, if it were not for the more recent tales. Strange things happened in those waters: men disappeared, or returned mute and useless, unaware of who they were or where they had come from. Then there were the claims of fishermen, sighting strange tentacles in the water, or superhuman whirlwinds that stirred winds strong enough to pull them in, many miles away, though they were.
Fielding knew his men feared the stories more than anything that they had faced. It was easier for them to be influenced, he supposed, constantly hearing the stories retold around them. As for the Captain himself, he still felt unsure. If he could prove that there were no dangers waiting in the depths for them, then he would become notorious; all those ships that shirked the site, terrified of what could be just beyond their field of sight, would be forced to respect him. He would be powerful, and he would be rich.
It made no sense that there could be some creature of mythical proportions still alive in his world. Those things had never existed to begin with, or else had died out centuries ago. Yet even a forward thinker such as Fielding did have difficulty in denying the reports of the men that had gone missing, or returned injured and confused. He was a man of statistics, and figures such as those surely meant something. He drummed his fingers against the desk, brain racing. The sun would be rising soon, and he would have to have made his decision. It was time.
He stretched, pushing back his chair and getting to his feet. Glancing only once more at the work left behind him, he marched from his cabin and made his way down to the lower decks. The crew was still wide awake, watching him with great apprehension as he opened the first bunk door. He cleared his throat, looking around at their dirty, strained faces.
“As soon as the sun rises,” he called out, “we set sail for Italy.”
He left behind him a silence as stony as the one that had occupied the bunks before his entrance. The crew members looked at one another, all thinking the exact same thing: their time was up. They were all doomed.