The Sacramento’s last port of call was Vladivostok, far on the periphery of eastern Russia. They were presently riding off the Aleutian Islands, bound for Juneau and, eventually, Seattle. They had encountered only one other vessel in their transit of the Bering Sea, a Japanese fishing trawler which had returned their salute but had stood well off to starboard and shown no inclination to draw nearer. Cradock suspected her of hunting for whales, a practice the Japanese were not eager to advertise or to draw attention to. The two vessels had gone their separate ways and neither crew had thought anything more of the matter.
That had been three days ago. Since then, the Sacramento had encountered only empty seas, grey skies and choppy waters. A steady wind blew out of the east but offered no hint of a change in the weather or a break in the cloud cover. The crew had been lulled by the monotony of the scene, the lack of prospect of any change, and were waiting only upon their expected landfall in Juneau, thirty hours hence. That was when the ship hove in to view, bearing the designation U.S.S. Pensacola across her bow.
“Have a look.” Cradock handed the binoculars to his first mate, Josh McKenna.
McKenna ran the glasses along the length of the vessel, taking in the decking, the superstructure and the waterline. “Looks pretty beat up,” he remarked, lowering the glasses. His face was impassive. “No sign of anyone on board. I think she’s abandoned. Although . . .”
“Presumably she’s a U.S. naval vessel. It’s a bit of a stretch projecting a scenario where her crew would abandon her while she was still afloat.”
Cradock grunted. He took the glasses back and scanned the vessel again. He did not speak for a long time, absorbed, as it seemed, in some reflection of his own. “According to the registry . . .” Cradock leaned forward, rested his elbows on the ship’s rail. The corners of his mouth were turned down in a frown. “The last known duty post of the Pensacola was the Yellow Sea. That’s consistent with our finding her here. What isn’t consistent, what defies understanding and logical analysis, is that the Pensacola was, at the time, part of the flotilla assisting the Inchon Landing.” Cradock took in McKenna’s blank expression and lack of recognition at a glance. “The Korean War. Circa 1950.”
McKenna’s eyes widened. He stared out across open water at the Pensacola, his face bearing a speculative look that had been absent before. “And after that – what?”
“After that, nothing. There was no after that. She was lost during the operation, presumed sunk although there was no visual confirmation of the incident. Her crew of forty disappeared with her, casualties of war. From that day to this, there has been no further news of the Pensacola, certainly no further sightings. To the best of anyone’s knowledge she rests at the bottom of the Yellow Sea. I don’t think she’s received a lot of attention these last sixty years. In fact, I don’t think she’s received any.”
McKenna tugged at one earlobe. “What are the odds, do you think, of her floating around out here for sixty years and nobody noticing?”
“The odds? I should say they vary between slim and none. With a heavy emphasis upon the later. You and I both know that it didn’t happen. Yet there she rides, before man and God, in the open light of day. I don’t happen to have an explanation off the top of my head. But I do mean to find one.”
McKenna smiled and then laughed. “We’re going aboard,” he said.
“Correction, Mr. McKenna. You are going aboard. Pick three of the crew, take the launch and go and introduce yourself. Don’t wait for permission to board her because I don’t think any will be forthcoming. I want a full report – and when I say full I mean I want every goddamn detail you are able to uncover. Bar none.”McKenna was already moving to prepare the launch when Cradock stopped him. “And Mr. McKenna?” McKenna turned. “Be careful. We both know that there is no such thing as a ghost ship. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be ghosts on board. You take my meaning?”
“I’m with you, Captain. One hundred percent. Something doesn’t add up. We’ll soon know what. We won’t be back until we do know, I can promise you that.”
Cradock nodded, satisfied. He stared out across the grey, foam-flecked sea at the looming bulk of the Pensacola .He looked at it almost with anger. ‘Why here?’ he thought to himself. ‘Why now?’ The sea returned no answer to his query.
# # #
Barrett steered the launch in alongside the Pensacola, secured it with a set of lines. The craft, no longer under power, wallowed and pitched in the surf so that the men were compelled to accommodate themselves to its motion. Barrett looked up the side of the Pensacola at the decking above. He shook his head. “You’re certain of this, Mr. McKenna? You really want to go onboard?”
“That’s why we’re here, Chief. That’s the point of the mission.” McKenna gave Barrett a long look. “Why, are you saying that we shouldn’t?”
“I’m no saying that, no.” Barrett smiled, the smile directed at himself as much as at circumstances or the strangeness of the occasion. “But it bears more study. All my years at sea, I have to tell you that this is a first. Abandoned vessels, they’re rare to start with. Abandoned vessels that go unreported for sixty years – you’re not stretching the bounds of credibility here. This goes beyond that. This is the stuff of legend, seafarer’s tales. The kind men tell because they’ve been at sea too long. Ghost ships are one thing when they’re a matter of talk and rumor. They’re quite another when they pop up out of nowhere and lie resting in the water before you.”
“It isn’t a ghost ship, Chief. You just said so yourself. There she is, as solid a ship as any I ever sailed aboard.” McKenna rapped his knuckles against the metal plating. “Doesn’t get any more real than that.”
“Then where’s she been the last sixty years, Mr. McKenna? Tell me that.”
“I don’t know, Chief. But there’s only one way that we’re going to find out.”
Barrett grunted, unconvinced. He set about rigging a rope ladder so they might board the vessel. He was quick and efficient, as in all his duties, an old hand who knew the sea and her ways as well as any man. McKenna always listened when Barrett spoke, even if he did not always follow his advice.
McKenna was first up the ladder, followed by Barrett then Pedroso and Titherington. The four men stood on the deck, aware of an odd sensation of absence, absence of movement and absence of life. The vessel felt as empty and as vacant as a ship in dry-dock, awaiting repair. A faint, high whistling sound emanated from some point on the superstructure. The sound added to the sense of emptiness, fostered a feeling of uneasiness amongst the men.
“Well, we’re here.” Barrett grinned at McKenna. “Now what?”
McKenna looked up at the superstructure then down at the deck. This was not a vessel that had ever been to the bottom of the sea, he could surmise that easily enough. Nor had it seen a great deal of maintenance and care over the past sixty years, that, too, was evident. The superstructure was dinged up and faded, bore great patches of peeling grey paint and rust marks. The deck showed similar signs of wear. Yet it was not this which gave the vessel its haunting sense of emptiness. That lay in the recognition that the ship had been cast adrift, was rudderless, without direction, prey to wind and current and tide. McKenna listened to the wind blowing through the superstructure, imagined it to resemble the voices of the dead, crying out in anguish.
“We split up. Pedroso and Titherington, you take the hold and the lower decks. Chief, you and I will cover the superstructure.”
Pedroso shifted from one foot to the other. He was a big man with a tangle of dark hair and black eyes. He looked sullen now, resentful, and was at no pains to conceal it.
“What are we supposed to be looking for?” he said.
“Anything odd or unusual. Anything peculiar or inconsistent. Any sign of human habitation, past or present. There is an explanation as to what this vessel is doing here. If we conduct a thorough search, we ought to be able to find the answer.” Pedroso muttered something under his breath. “What was that, sailor? If you have something to say, share it with the rest of us.”
Pedroso made a noise in his throat which might have signified disgust or which might, equally, have signified fear. His eyes were rebellious, seemed to swallow the light with peculiar avidity, to absorb it as though to store it against some coming darkness. “Death is the answer. That was plain even before we came on board. It’s even more plain now. Any man not tone deaf can hear it. It’s all around us. Death mans the helm of this vessel – and Death plots its course.”
“You may be right. But death leaves a signature, no less distinct and no less revealing than life. Evidence of either will help us interpret what happened. Now let’s move. You find something important, give a holler. Otherwise, we’ll compare notes later.” The men split up.
McKenna and Barrett made their way aft. McKenna examined the fixtures and markings as they went, found them consistent with U.S. naval design and tradition. McKenna had served a three year stint in the Navy so he had some claim to familiarity with the subject. That the fixtures were outmoded only further served to confirm that this was, indeed, the Pensacola.
The two men passed down a long, darkened corridor, made their way through the interior of the ship. The air inside was hot and stale, smelled not so much of the sea as of oil and machinery. The hum of the wind was no longer audible. In its place was a thick, enveloping silence, a barren emptiness reminiscent of a tomb. They climbed a ladder and emerged on an upper landing. The sky was an unbroken stretch of cloud, the sea below equally grim and uninviting.
“What do you think, Chief?” McKenna asked.
Barrett seemed unusually subdued and preoccupied. “I think,” Barrett stared out over the sea, his eyes holding something of the vastness inherent therein, “that Pedroso was right. Death inhabits this ship. It’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I see no evidence of it, yet it manifests itself in a thousand ways. It is a pestilence which pervades the ship from bottom to top.” Barrett flashed the self-deprecating grin again. “Pedroso is Portuguese, you know. The Portuguese have a long history at sea.”
McKenna stared down into the water. He considered himself a practical man, given to hard facts and to the precise, exacting calculations of engineering. But any man who had spent time at sea was not immune to the mysticism which it bred – or to the conviction that the ocean sheltered things which eluded understanding.
“Pedroso is free to think whatever he wishes. I still want answers. There’s no crew aboard and no captain. There’s no reason for this ship being here. Or even for it being afloat. It hasn’t been a derelict tramp for sixty years, that I do know. If there were witnesses to its sinking . . .” McKenna stopped. He stared up at the array of communications gear nestled in a recess of the superstructure. He felt a rush almost of relief.
“The radio room,” he said and, without further explanation, ducked back inside. The two men made their way through the ship, footsteps echoing along the corridor. The emptiness accentuated the men’s sense of isolation. The ship was only a shell, helpless and adrift, and any who were aboard her shared the same feeling of helplessness, aware that they were no longer in command of their own destiny.
The radio room was near the rear of the vessel. One glance at the equipment and electronic gear sufficed: This was not the technology of sixty years before. It had been refitted and brought up to date, the electronics as contemporary and as advanced as those aboard the Sacramento, if not more so.
“Hah!” McKenna exclaimed with satisfaction. “What do you think now, Chief? Still make her for a ghost ship? Curious that the dead should bother to retrofit her. I didn’t think they went in for that sort of thing. But I guess everybody needs to change with the times. Who wants to be stuck with outmoded technology?”
Barrett ignored this jibe. He examined the electronics with interest, running his hands over the console, bending, stooping, kneeling. “This isn’t American,” he concluded at last.
“I’m no expert but I can tell our stuff from somebody else’s. This, if I had to guess, I would say is Chinese.”
“Well, don’t that beat all: An American military vessel outfitted with Chinese electronics. That is not going to sit well with Congress. They’ve never been keen on farming out defense contracts to potential adversaries. This puts a whole different spin on things, wouldn’t you say, Chief?”
“You don’t think so?” McKenna was surprised. “I catch a whiff of international intrigue here. A vessel such as the Pensacola, I don’t think she’d be denied entry to any U.S. port. I don’t think she’d be challenged or labeled as unfriendly. Once word got around that she’d been missing for sixty years, that might occasion some curiosity. But, on a first encounter, she’d be made for one of our own. That’s a big strategic advantage. If you were planning some sort of skullduggery, surprise is the one element you’re most eager to achieve. Just ask the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.
“I wonder if . . .” McKenna stopped. He walked over and examined a portrait displayed on the far wall. He examined it with a feeling of having come full circle, of arriving back at the point where he first started, stepping aboard a ghost ship.
“What is it?” Barrett asked.
“Our revered father and illustrious leader.” McKenna spoke softly, almost to himself.
McKenna cleared his throat. He felt genuine fear now, as he had not before. It was one of those rare instances where the Known proved more frightening and disturbing than the Unknown. “Kim Jong Il, late head of state of the Republic of North Korea.” A dead man who, in his own way, was still very much alive. McKenna and Barrett stared at one another, minds awash with speculation.
“Do you mean to tell me,” Barrett struggled with this revelation, “do you mean to say that the North Koreans mothballed this vessel for sixty years contemplating some future attack against the U.S.?”
“That would be my guess. Secrecy is the byword for the regime in North Korea. Nobody knows what goes on there. The leadership is reclusive to the point of paranoia. They don’t necessarily share the inhibitions and concerns of normal people. They’re capable of pretty much anything.”
Barrett stepped over, looked at the portrait, as if to assure himself it really was Kim Jong Il. “Maybe we ought to round up Pedroso and Titherington and head back to the Sacramento. I’m thinking we ought to call in the cavalry on this one, let them sort it out.”
“Yeah.” McKenna did not move. He stood staring at the portrait, trying to fathom the mind and the motivations of the man who had held absolute sway, the power of life and death, over twenty-four million people.
That was when the alarm went off. It blared down the length of the ship and through the interior, filling the air with sound. After sixty years, it still functioned perfectly.
McKenna found himself running down the corridor. He seemed caught in the web of a nightmare, the alarm drilling in his ears, hot, stagnant air filling his lungs, panic coursing through him in a wild rush. He burst out on to the deck, realized suddenly that he had no coherent plan in mind. He had simply been reacting to the alarm, seized by the conviction that he must do something.
McKenna looked out across the water to catch a glimpse of the Sacramento. He saw her riding off to starboard, further away than he had thought, a stretch of sullen grey sea lying between the two vessels. The Sacramento seemed smaller viewed from this perspective, seemed vulnerable in a way McKenna had never thought of her before. What was she but a simple construct of metal and rubber and plastic conduit, arrayed against all the tumult and fury the sea might throw at her. It seemed an unequal contest at best, destined to end badly.
McKenna saw a figure stumbling toward him across the deck. For an instant he was convinced there really were ghosts on board. The figure walked with a shambling gait, seemed indistinct and blurry, as though a bank of fog had begun to envelop the vessel. McKenna wiped at his eyes. With a sudden jolt of recognition he realized that the figure was Pedroso.
McKenna rushed forward to meet him. Pedroso’s face was a mass of blisters and raw flesh. His shoulders slumped and his entire body seemed on the verge of disintegrating. He clutched at McKenna, eyes darting to and fro, unable to fix on any one point. McKenna recognized the terror in Pedroso’s face, the certain knowledge that he, Pedroso, was a dead man and that nothing anyone might do could change that.
“What happened?!” McKenna said. “What was it?” Pedroso pawed at him and McKenna noted with horror that Pedroso’s hands were blistered the same as his face. “Where’s Titherington?” McKenna only then remembered the fourth member of their party.
“Dead.” Pedroso did not appear to see McKenna. “God in heaven, we’re all of us dead! Did I not tell you so?”
“How did he die? Where I can find him!”
Pedroso’s eyes seemed to focus for the first time. He looked up at the sky then at McKenna. “The ship’s going to blow, Mr. McKenna. She’s awash with radiation. Damn fools tried to fit her with a reactor. The stuff is leaking everywhere. There’s nothing you can do but save yourself. Maybe there’s time, I don’t know.”
McKenna began to drag Pedroso toward the side, where the launch was. Pedroso was dead weight, unable to walk or stand, unable to talk now, as it seemed. McKenna clutched him under the armpits, threw all of his strength into it. Barrett came running up.
“Lend a hand!” McKenna demanded. Barrett only stood and watched, his face pinched, devoid of expression. “Help me, goddamn it!”
“He’d dead, Mr. McKenna. Pedroso’s dead.”
McKenna looked and saw that it was so. Pedroso was staring up into the sky, looking at nothing. His premonition of death had proved all too accurate. “Titherington?” McKenna asked.
“I don’t know. The whole lower deck appears to be contaminated. We’re not immune here either, I don’t think.” Barrett paused. “We need to leave now or . . .” Barrett did not finish the sentence. One look at Pedroso was sufficient to indicate their fate.
The two men ran for the launch, cast her loose. They made for open water, desperate to put distance between themselves and the Pensacola. Both men were silent, stricken, locked in their own thoughts. McKenna was numb through to the bone, exhausted. He tried to gauge whether any symptoms of radiation poisoning afflicted him but could feel nothing. He noticed a small blister on the back of one hand, did not know whether it was a result of contact with Pedroso – or something worse.
McKenna stared at the Pensacola, grey against the grey of the sky. Death was, indeed, her helmsman and a bold, hard charging one at that. He manned the con with swagger, feared nothing and no one, considered himself master over all. He turned with the tide now and bore his lethal cargo toward the coast of Alaska, a rendezvous with destiny which no one wanted, which all feared, all but He, who brandished his sickle in anticipation, a harvest rich even beyond his wildest reckoning.
BIO: Thomas Canfield’s phobias run to politicians, lawyers and oil company executives. He likes dogs and beer.