The main distinction between animals and humans, for Richter at least, is the uncanny psychic ability to embrace death. This is not to say a dying dog knows it is dying and that its crawling under the porch is a random event, but humans know about death. In a perfect world, for a perfect life, they know their slow engagement with the reaper and welcome it. It is this distinction the S.S. Lotus brings to Richter’s mind as they approach what once could have been a green and purple hull but has since been eroded with time and the heat sink of the radiation lurking within. From outside, the ship is on its last leg, has been for many years, but still it floated, right off the Atlantic Sea, anchored by far-reaching harpoons by nations not wanting to take responsibility for it, chaining it to a coral reef in a nautical no man’s land, a non-place. It is not unlike the S.S. Orchid six months ago, or the S.S. Whicker last year off the Baltic Sea. These husks bob aimlessly, pointlessly, feebly on the ocean, not yet ready to die because it does not know that it is an option.
The motorboat skids across the water, wings of bubbles and froth skating behind them. Richter looks around him, sees the group which he has been with for the last couple of years. Leon and Jane are reliable, and Richter tolerates their company, which probably borders on friendship. It is more than he could ask for. Sometimes he wonders if they would ever be friends outside of this line of work. They have all come into this contract in financial dire straits for some reason or another, enough to warrant leveraging their lives. This is also a dangerous job, both psychologically and physically. It takes about six months to locate one of these husks and another three months of planning. Only then can they strip the derelict ships with enough confidence and competence to do it right, serving as a reminder all the while how cruel people can be to one another. Yes, Richter thinks, perhaps it's good to have friends.
The actors do not matter, but during World War II one country developed a deadly strain and infected a large group of sailors (some willing, others not) that masqueraded as a merchant ship. Once docked, they would hug, shake, mate, and infect the population within the forty-eight hours they had, until their hearts literally exploded and erupted fiery blood from their gullet like a burst pipe. It was a virological Trojan Horse. Toss aside the more direct atomic bombs, inflict a pandemic on your enemies. And it worked. And then other countries started doing it. Before long no one was expecting any unsolicited trade coming from international waters. All those Trojan (sea)horses had to turn back or be hit with napalm on the spot. Thus the husks, now aimlessly ricocheting along the aquatic perimeters of a country, knocking about like a drooling child. At first, it was the NGOs that paid to get them removed from the ocean, then it became merchant unions who held the purse, and now, as Richter, Leon, and Jane approach the underside of the Lotus, it is a mix of war profiteers who want the dormant and dead radioactive plants back and pharmaceutical companies that want to manufacture the cure for any dormant strains, still scratching on the human genome like pesky branches against a bedroom window. Richter gave up on morals when they started to name their price.
The Lotus is a metal behemoth, barnacled with rust and ill intent. Richter scales the starboard hull with a levy and then helps Leon and Jane onto the dock. Jane carries the glass container meant to hold the dried, brittle petals of these cancerous plants. Long dormant and no longer infectious to humans, certain invested parties have developed technology to revive their stymies. It is all science hokum that Richter does not know and cares not to learn. They walk along the empty shell of the starboard side. Like all the other ships, it is not built to be empty. The unnatural loftiness of the balconies, the main deck, the interweaving hallways distort space/time. Something is not right about the Lotus, but something never is with these ships.
These Trojan Horses always keep their plants in a special vault with expensive lamps to emulate sunlight. It is as secure as a bank vault, but with steady hands and the aided passage of time to accumulate rust, these vaults only required patience, of which Jane has droves. The ships are all built differently, but these vaults are always in the center, acting as the heart that infected the air of every sailor who charts a map, smokes a cigarette, or eats in the mess hall. Richter stopped wondering what it would be like to envision their days, so benign with endless sea, their bodies disintegrating from the inside out. For those who went willingly, did they consider themselves martyrs?
Leon marks the wall with luminescent blue chalk within the bowels of the Lotus. Every ten minutes he lights a flare that illuminates the dark caverns of the ship with a ruby glaze. The ship rocks on the water. Up…down….up…down. Industrial flashlights illuminate only a cone in front of them, but they are of good quality and did the job. A thin layer of sea water nips at the heels of their boots.
“Here,” Jane says, stopping them, “it’s here.”
She goes to work wordlessly, bringing out her tools to identify weak points in the vault. She scrapes off a cluster of oysters like shingles, pounding away at the barnacles that fuse the cinch and axis of the vault. Her hammering sends sharp metallic arrows through the halls, like a penny being dropped down a mineshaft. Within minutes the door creaks open, falling at first into its hinges and the salty film of water at their feet, and then props against the wall with the combined strength of Richter and Leon. Like clockwork.
Jane sets her industrial flashlight into the corner and rummages into her bag for a vile and a pair of tweezers. Her hands are surgeon's hands, and at one point she was a doctor at a respected hospital before saving the life of a drug lord, and then ended up being a personal retainer. Such was her trajectory before finding her way here, sloshing through stale water and over barnacles, navigating through ghost ships. It is a simple task: pluck the dried stems of the virulent flower, put them in a container, and deliver it via a series of anonymous exchanges.
The Lotus rocks along the water. A wave pushes against her rusted hull, sending a metallic groan through the darkness.
“It’s not here,” Jane said, unemotive.
“Come again?” Leon says. He flashes his industrial light on the pedestal, cruising a circle of yellow along the remains of the vault as he does so. “It’s not like it could have gone anywhere.”
Richter hears sloshing at the far end of the hall, the sound of what seems like feet going in and out of water. Another metallic thump. He ignores this. It is always unpleasant being in these husks of ships. Thoughts of his part of the fee are the only motivator for stewing in this briny environ, smelling decaying fish and the earthy, slimy smell of long rotted and bloated bodies. Now that Richter thinks of it, they usually saw bodies float in the hallways in these ships, bloated and red, sometimes half eaten by crabs. Sometimes, when the ships are positioned at an angle, the bodies float on top of one another in a cluster of mangled limbs like discarded planks, loose skin still clinging on them like algae. This is probably the case, he thinks, hearing the water slosh outside the vault again.
“Look harder,” Leon says.
“If it’s not here, it’s not here,” Jane argues. Then she turns to them both, a sign that she is done trying to investigate the absence of the virulent flower, “let’s turn back.”
Richter shakes his head, “If we turn back, not only will we not be paid, but our reputation will be at stake. We need to look harder.”
“Perhaps it floated away,” Leon says, “no other explanation.”
Another metallic clang. Eerily calm debris skating through necrotic water. Leon is about to say something else, but Richter holds up a hand, listening not just for the illusion of feet trotting their water like their own, but for the pattern to prove it. It is there, slowly, as if the noise materializes and knows it is being listened to. Richter can make out a pattern, but this is broken by a series of loud clangs and, to his shock, a grunt. He looks to the others to confirm that they hear the sound, but their faces already tell him that he is not going crazy.
“Maybe it was taken already,” Richter says.
“I didn’t see any boats on the radar when we approached,” Leon says.
“Maybe they aren’t on the radar,” Jane adds, securing the empty airtight vile in her backpack.
Richter draws his pistol and the others followed suit. They step out of the vault and move in tandem with one another. Ghastly smells of rotted fish and crabs permeate the cavernous hallways. Richter figures this is what it is like being in a can of tuna fish. They came across a fork, and when they flashed light on either path, there was no difference; only the rhythm of the water at their ankles, a line of crabs scuttering in both directions on the wall, paint marks of algae growing over the unblinking and dead stares of fish. To their left, they hear another grunt amidst a scutter of sloshy steps, and the three of them engage in pursuit down the hall which leads into darker depths into the undercarriage of the Lotus. They have never needed to go into the lower docks of these ships before. It is of no interest to the three of them, and any more minutes spent in this aquatic mausoleum are better spent literally elsewhere. Yet they went in pursuit of their bounty, taking precarious steps down slippery, barnacle-crusted stairs as if their lives depend on it. It does.
Another sound to their right and Richter aims his flashlight down the hall. There, in a kaleidoscope frame of orange rust, silver fish scales, and black oyster shells, a figure stands, pale and nonplussed by the sudden light. It is a male, his skin so taut it looks like it clings to just his bones and nothing more. He wears a suit and button-up shirt that are heavily disheveled and splotched, brown, and green like makeshift camo. Water brushes against bare ankles with skin swollen and cracked, weeping blood over the salt-irritated open wounds like lines of cartography. He has a crab in his hand, its shell punctured with the white meat throbbing both in its exposed body and the man’s fingertips. Clumps of it dribble from his lips.
“Listen,” Richter begins, “we don’t care who you are or who your buyer is. Hand it over.”
“You’ve got it,” Leon says.
The man looks at the three of them, tilts a bald head with strands of silver sprouting like a weed. His eyes are blank, like those of a fish. Slowly, absently, he takes some meat from the feebly snapping crab and shoves it into his mouth, where he proceeds to chew not with his teeth but with his lips.
“Bring us the flower,” Richter says.
“Flower,” the man says, his voice sounding as if dragged through gravel. With gnarled and dry fingers dotted with crab coagulate, he points down the hall, deeper into the threshes. He repeats, “Flower.”
And then he is off down the hall, frantically splashing in the ankle-deep water, necrotic toes dipping into sewage and bacterial orgies. Richter rushes after him, his breathing suddenly labored by the enclosed space. Leon and Jane follow suit, lighting the way with their heavy-duty flashlights, rocking the circles up and down like an erratic buoy. The skeletal man discards the half-eaten crab over a shoulder and Richter smacks it away with the butt of his pistol. He chases the man two lefts, then a right, calling occasionally to the others so they can all help navigate their pursuit.
He turns a corner and stops short. The man is in front of a locked door, the remaining wisps of hair looking like antennas. He looks over his shoulder, sniffs at an oyster which has clung to his suit and knocks on the door.
“Flower,” he says again, his shaking eyes focusing on the sudden light of Leon and Jane’s more powerful bulbs. The corneas are hazy, and his nostrils flare like a curious beast above a mouth of broken glass.
With Leon and Jane at his side, Richter admits to himself that he felt a little better. He keeps his pistol aimed at the man, who waits in front of the door. The iron turnstile in front of the door opens with a powerful start and settles into a creaking rhythm. The door pushes inward and in the shadow another man appears, holding one hand over his eyes and squinting. He too is wearing a suit, but his clothes are less destroyed than the wraith’s. His skin, too, is the color of an elephant’s tusk.
He says half whistling, “Oh, Mr. Jiminy, what have you brought us?”
Richter says, “We’ve come for the flower.”
“Flower,” Mr. Jiminy says. He starts to giggle.
The man lowers his hand, blinks several more times to adjust to the light, and says, “Come in, come in. You’re letting in the stink.”
“You come out,” Leon says.
He appears more cognizant than Mr. Jiminy, acknowledging the three pirates with their lights and weapons. Trash and fish skeletons pushed up against the raised lip of the door.
The man speaks as if they knocked on his front door. “Now is not the time for that. You’ve come for the flower, yes?”
“We have guns,” Richter says, “we aren’t afraid to shoot.”
The man opens the door wider, revealing a maw of eternal black. He stands in front of it, framed by the oval perimeter of the threshold, like a man at the edge of the shore. Mr. Jiminy stares dumbly at them, splashing in the water.
He says, “If you are here for the virulent strain like I think you are, you know that shooting me will release the virus. You’d die before you made it back to wherever you’ve come from. But let me introduce myself. My name is Helmut Werzig, apprentice cartographer for the S.S. Lotus.”
“Apprentice cartographer?” Jane says.
Werzig grimaces, “Well, only cartographer. I try to be respectful. Come inside. It’s dry. We’ll give you the flower.”
Richter looks to Leon and Jane. He nods, they nod back. He says, “We’re keeping our guns.”
“I would hope so,” Werzig said, “it’s the only logical way. But we intend to be your friend.”
“We?” Jane says.
“We,” Werzig echoes.
Slowly, gingerly, Richter leads the way through the drowned hall. The ship rocks sheepishly, swishing the discarded wrappers and eyeballs from right to left and back again. The motion is more subtle here, being so deep into the ocean. Richter keeps his attention on Werzig, even as he approaches the clattering and giggling Mr. Jiminy, who stinks worse than he looks. Mr. Jiminy, Richter realizes, is simply a frantic but docile creature. It feels like he is passing the gaze of a child.
When the three of them step through the threshold, Werzig situated himself in the gap. “Not you,” he says to Mr. Jiminy.
Werzig shuts the door behind them, fastening it with laborious grunts before setting off into an even speed. Their circles of illumination only show parts of the room, fragments of a greater picture. In their three cycloptic visages, they saw tables, used sets of cards, and cups.
Werzig warns, “I’m turning on the lights now.”
The room blossoms into illumination with a sharp click. They are in a breakroom or a lounge area. Iron tables bolt to the floor along with metal chairs that resist the sway of a boat. Old electronics and amenities like a microwave and refrigerator take up space in the corner kitchenette, emitting an aura of neglect. The sink is bone dry. To the right are magazines and a lounge area. The magazines are crinkly from water bloat and the colors of the covers are faded with the briny water. Outside the steel door, Richter hears Mr. Jiminy padding away into parts unknown, no longer interested, nor seemingly offended, by his exclusion.
A phonograph is playing old-time jazz amidst the undercurrent of creaking metal. The place smells of heavily applied disinfectant, but this only serves to mask the stale, acrid smell of what only reminds Richter of a hospice. Werzig waits for them to repackage their flashlights, unperturbed that their pistols are kept out, before gesturing for them to follow.
Werzig begins, “Half of us believed in our country, the other half were cattle. Only those who went onto the Lotus willingly understood the virulent strain that turned the ship, and by extension their bodies, into a plague-bringing trojan horse. Oh, what pandemonium our sister ships brought to governments, what chaos they brought to the kings who choked on our blood.”
“There are no kings anymore,” Leon says, “not even during your time, either.”
Werzig stops, looks at his hands. “There will always be kings, sir. The world just calls them something different.”
“How are you all still alive? We hadn’t expected anyone to be in this ship,” Jane says.
“You expected to see a drowned prison full of bloated bodies, no?” Werzig says, “I cannot answer why some of us survived. Our medic has befallen an accident in the beginning. Consumed by those whose minds shattered in the first wave. They say all problems in a ship start with the kitchen.”
The three of them exchange glances. Already Richter is losing patience. He pictures Mr. Jiminy hunched over a cluster of crabs and barnacles, his feet entangled in briny seaweed, stupidly staring at the flashing colors with his milky eyes.
Werzig shepherds them through the cabin, which is an interconnected and seemingly preserved series of rooms. Some of the rooms remain as they are: bunks, latrines, rec rooms. The mess hall is a modest room meant to accommodate shifts of sailors, and it is small but contains an array of crabs, oysters, and flayed fish. They are all dead and simply organized, a display of higher cognitive function which gives Richter comfort.
Werzig continues, “Oh, it’s been hard for the past couple of decades. But the strain has done right by us, as we have done right by it. It has kept us young and spritely.”
He rounds a corner into another hallway. Now it is hard to triangulate exactly where they are in the ship, this once thought to be abandoned colossus. Werzig brings them to the heart of the domicile cabin, which is proceeded by the sudden introduction of light laughter and soft chatting, the clicking of lighters and following inhales, exhales. Richter exchanges glances with Jane and Leon. Have they really been surviving all along in this nautical mausoleum?
They pass open doors and in them, Richter feels himself being watched, even though none of the survivors of this strain seem to pay the three of them any mind. They all wear suits and dresses, much like Werzig, and have similar lacerations on the hems and shoulders, perpetual scabs of brine on the threads. Evidence of open sores on their pallid hands. In some rooms they dance and sway to the jazz music, couples embracing and pulling back as their hips swing. It is like a soiree, all contained in a seven-by-seven-foot space. A thin layer of water occupies some of the rooms, most likely from a leak between the walls with the rancid water outside. This seems to bother no one. In another room there sits a couple of people, faces unshaven but eyes focused, flipping through magazines and smoking long cigarettes. Barnacles creep up both the legs of the chair and their legs as if crystallizing both; a fusion of biomaterial.
Werzig brought them to a back room, which is the only locked space in this area. “You desire the flower, yes?”
“Yes,” Richter says.
He starts to open the door. It looks laborious, but the three of them make no effort to help.
“The flower is dead,” Werzig says, “but we are not.”
He opens the door into a small room. The lights are dimmer here, a marigold yellow. A cluster of people, about seven or eight, stand like totems on the floor. This too is waterlogged, although the murky water is void of any other living creatures or trash. They sway with the rhythm of the Lotus. Smears of green and red coagulate on the wall like a cluster of apostrophes and question marks. They stared aimlessly at their feet, shifting occasionally to the walls, twitching and scratching at themselves. Their attire is asynchronous with the likes of Mr. Werzig and the other survivors. Some wore flotation vests and windbreakers. When some of them turn, the light catches the carabiners still attached to their hips.
“What are we looking at?” Leon says.
Werzig answers, “The flower talks to us. It knows that it no longer lives in its base form. You will not be able to retrieve the flower because there is none. Instead, it lives with us, as vessels. For those who have become infected, the flower recognizes our drive to topple these kingdoms in the name of a bigger idea, bigger than ourselves. The flower understands this. The flower understands the need for propagation. In this sense, we are linked, each one of us here.”
“What about Mr. Jiminy?” Richter asks, “Are you linked with him and his madness too?”
“No,” Werzig says, offended, “his kind were slaves and prisoners, rapists and pedophiles. The kind we kept locked up. For us the flower was a gift, for them, these monsters in the old world, it was a penance. The flower rejected them. The virus ate away their minds like maggots, a psychic lobotomy. There is a point when we stopped needing traditional food, but they didn’t. They became ravenous, mindless creatures. Soon, they invaded our dreams, encroaching on the psychic unity the flower had given us. They are a virus within the virus. Hence the closed doors. Steel seems to help sever the connection to Mr. Jiminy and the others.”
“The others? There are more out there?” Leon says.
“It is a big ship, my pirate guests. Although I’m sure you already figured that out.”
“I don’t understand,” Jane says, addressing the swaying figures standing ankle-deep in the runoff, “these people…you keep them in the dark? Locked away? Are they like Mr. Jiminy, crazed, chaotic?”
Werzig shakes his head, “They were the crew that got here first.”
The totems idle stupidly, blank and absent. Their backs are cragged with split wounds. Saltwater drips the curves of their backs. A tangle of seaweed crawled up their arms and legs.
Werzig continues, “The flower wants us to propagate. Its strands have dried up and died because the hosts could not live. But we are stronger. We’ve embraced the flower and in turn, it has given us life. Now, it is time for the flower to leave this ship, just as intended.”
“What did you do to them?” Jane asks.
“We’re seeing if they turn into us, or them.”
Richter starts to back up. Briny water sloshes at his ankles. He raises a pistol to Werzig, alternating between his calm interior to the wraiths standing in the corners of the room. What has befallen their psyches to make them this way? They do not seem psychologically obliterated like the crab-eating wraiths lurking in the halls. They make noises that seem rudimentary, but with acknowledgement. This thought unnerves Richter, who does a quick cost/benefit calculation. He needs the money, as di Jane and Leon, but this…Richter feels as if he walked into a spider’s nest.
One of the wraiths turns, a tendril of drool trailing down its chin. Its eyes are milky, and it is bald. Richter cannot tell of the human that it once was. It looks almost bat-like. He wants none of this. To exist in this drowned limbo is a fate worse than death. A barnacle pulses from its clavicle like an open sore. Richter looks onward, seeing now as his eyes adjust to the darkness that some of them are missing limbs, exposed spikes where the bone snapped and never healed over, patchworked by skin grafts of seaweed and fish scales. Mutants, they have all become mutants.
“We’re done here,” Richter says. He steps out of the room, feels the density of the thick water at his feet fall and then hit solid steel. Jane and Leon follow, each with damp pants legs and layers of sweat. The smell of rotting fish permeates throughout.
“Take us with you,” Werzig says, “let us propagate your world. You’d get our DNA. Make that cure you and the last group and the group before them have been trying so hard to find.”
“No,” Richter raises his pistol, “I said we’re done here.”
Werzig furrows his brows. The hallway amplifies his voice, which has taken on a grating tone. The jazz music reduces to a whisper. Around the corner, Richter hears movement in the water, the sloshing of soiree-adorned feet wading through fish guts and smashed oyster shells. The ship rocks as if trying to soothe a baby.
“Do you want to be like the last group? We don’t want to keep populating with whatever scraps of biomass we can get. We are a civilized culture, full of rational people. Don’t you understand what you are denying us?”
“I don’t like this,” Jane says.
Werzig steps out of the dark room and closes the heavy door behind him. The others start to appear in the doorways, standing idle, watching. Some have cigarettes balanced in their fingers, emitting sour odors of burnt seaweed. The group of dancers still hold onto each other, but now they stand like sentinels, ramrod straight, inactive department store mannequins.
Werzig roars, “We are existing on scraps!”
A hand stretches out, bony and pale. Her hand unrolls like spider legs, her wrist moving in short, skeletally stiff bursts as her bracelet rattles like Christmas tinsel.
“Take me,” she says, “I want to see the world again. Please.”
“No, you bitch,” another one says, throwing an old magazine into the water where it bloats and then disintegrates. The man has small razor cuts on his cheeks and chin, hiding underneath an attempt at a kept beard. His teeth have yellowed. “It’s Karl. Karl will survive in the new world longer and you will live through Karl.”
“We are one,” the dancers say in unison, turning their heads in Richter’s direction and then into the room across the hall with frantic, sudden movements; a moth suddenly taking off. Their voices are discordant, a mix of soft tenures of pleasure and groans of pain, “if one of us goes, we all go, and we will leave these old, bloated husks of flesh. We are one. We are one. We are one.”
Werzig says, “No. I found them. I deserve to go.”
“We are one,” the dancers chant.
The woman continues, “We propagate via fluids. Let me go. I am the sanest of us, and the most beautiful. This body still has more use.”
The man smoking the cigarette flicks the cylinder in the water, ignoring the feeble sizzle of smoke. “It has been of much use to us, Hilde, for we do not care about the open sores underneath that dress of yours, the seaweed coming in and out of your holes.”
The woman’s lower lip trembles, a flash of clarity. “Leave me alone, Gunther. I’m only human.” She directs her attention to Richter and the others. “Please. I’m only human. This flower is a rapist. Our bodies are prisons.”
“No, I found them,” Werzig says, stepping forward, “I am the most democratic, the cleverest. Hilde, you’d die in a gutter, naked and alone. Gunther, you’d get yourself killed in a pub brawl. And Karl, you will die because you will be outsmarted by the nearest con man. No, you fools, no. Me, Helmut Werzig. I will propagate our virus. I am the most hospitable, most amicable. I will eat with the politicians, rub shoulders with the union men and dock workers.”
“You are arrogant is what you are,” Hilde says.
Werzig says, “That’s the human in you talking about the human in me. We are more than that.”
“We are one!” The dancers yell again.
Hilde advances her jangled hand. She brushes a gnarled talon over Leon’s shoulder. “Please. I’m tired of living. This virus needs a new host, a better host. Let it find someone healthier. Please.” Then she blinks again, losing that trembling part of herself. She arches her back, bites her lower lip. “We can go somewhere dark. I know of a comfy place. Come into union with my body. That will solve everything for everybody.”
“We are one!” The dancer’s discordant voices start to break into laughter. They intertwine once more, flitting in the slogged room.
Richter looks down on his feet as they pedal back out of the hallway and the blank stares of Werzig and his companions. He hears Jane’s steady breathing behind him, the scratching of her backpack swaying like a pendulum. There is an absence of space behind the two of them and Richter looks back to find Leon still in the hallway, this drowned mausoleum, being grabbed by the gnarled fingers of the women and now by the starchy sleeves of the Gunther and his nicotine-stained teeth. His body is pushed in several directions, like a doll desired by multiple children. The dancers prance in the adjacent room, kicking up pebbles of salt water from their feet. Someone turned up the jazz music on the phonogram across the hall.
“Help!” Leon screams, “Richter, Jane!”
He falls backward and Werzig’s companions pounce on him as a trumpet solo reaches a crescendo. They drag him along the rusted hallway and Werzig stares above the tumble at Richter and Jane, his eyes unwavering and voracious. He maintains eye contact as he reopens the door to the mutates so the others can throw Leon in, his screams drowned by smooth jazz. He twists, writhing as fingers dig into his cheeks, reaching under his ribs. He fires his pistol into the crowd. The aggressors stop, and Karl looks down at his stomach, examining the bullet hole.
“Now Karl is leaking,” he says, nonplussed by the wound. No blood escapes his body. This realization causes Leon to squirm and begin weeping, his once hardened exterior reduces to madness, the aggressive encroach of the abyss. Karl picks Leon up by his neck, “If your mind doesn’t shatter, then the flower will take you, and Karl will be freed.”
“You popped him,” Gunter says, “now you’ve damned yourself.”
“No, no!” Leon shouts.
He fires again at Karl, who is only pushed back by the force of the blast, like hitting a sack of wheat. Karl grits his teeth and throws Leon into the vault. Glimpses of the half-consumed and stupid sentinels, their dolphin-like skin full of open wounds and seaweed, turn to glance at Leon, half aware of Leon’s intrusion into their cellar.
“Leon,” Jane shouts, “we have to save him!”
“No,” Richter says, “he’s already dead. Werzig said that shooting them will infect us. I’m taking him up on that threat.”
“We can’t leave him, Richter.”
“We can’t save him either.”
Werzig closes the door. The others brush themselves off, scraping off dried seaweed and clinging clams. Hilde’s jewelry rattles on a listless wrist. They straighten themselves and Werzig points with a gnarled finger.
“If they will not take us, we shall take them,” he says.
The others run after the pair, a flurry of dress shirts and bow ties, hems of glittering skirts. Richter and Jane retreat, moving past the cafeteria, bloated feet snapping at their heels. Richter sprints to the entrance and begins to turn the stiff, heavy wheel. His hands struggle to find purchase on the rusted spokes and latches.
“Open it, Richter! They are coming around the hall!”
“It feels so heavy.”
Richter grunts, feels fire ignite in his muscles. How had Werzig been able to open the door with such little effort? Richter is twice his size and more fit.
Jane rushes to him and holds a spoke. Spots of blood dot their hands as the rust cuts into their palms. They pull at the spokes together, heaving in unison. Richter puts his legs against the jamb and uses the leverage to pull his full body weight. In the corner of their eyes, Werzig and the others appear. Richter swears and with a final grunt falls onto his back, the wheel loosening. Jane opens the door revealing the dark void of the hallway outside like a black hole. A hot, salty gust of dead fish, exposed crabs and rotten seaweed sweeps into the lounge.
Werzig and the others crossed the room. Flecks of Leon’s blood coat Hilde and Karl’s fingertips. Jane cocks her pistol and puts it to her head. Her eyes are red with tears.
“Any step forward and I’ll blow my brains out.”
This stops the pursuers. Werzig steps in front of them. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would,” Jane says, nestling the pistol into her temple, “those flowers can’t invade my mind if my brains are on the floor, and I’d rather be dead than live in that cavern like some cattle.”
Werzig frowns, “Or you could just take us with you to mainland. Simple as that.”
Jane does not respond to him. She tells Richter to get up and he does. He watches Gunter and Hilde begin to twitch and tap their feet. Their nostrils start to flare. Hilde puts jangled wrists to her head and begins massaging her scalp.
She says, “Close the door, please. I can feel them outside, taste what they taste. Please. Cut off the link.”
Richter looks to the void. He remembers Werzig suggesting that the likes of Mr. Jiminy and the other people whose minds became shattered would begin to infect them, too. The gaping maw of salt and floating eyeballs is a noxious aura of protection. Slowly, cautiously, Richter and Jane step backwards into the dark hall, back into the bowels of the S.S. Lotus. Werzig appears on the threshold, lips trembling and eyes bulging. He descends into madness before their eyes. Wordlessly, Werzig shuts shut the door behind them, complaining about scraps, and leaves them in darkness. Once the door is fastened, a discordant series of shrieks and wails erupt; sounds of anger and sadness, of hunger. It is monstrous, beastly, full of gargling and like nails against the chalkboard. It makes Richter’s hair stand on end.
“Leon…” Jane said, fishing out her flashlight.
“He’s gone, Jane. Either he’s going to be one of them, or…” he brings out his flashlight, scans the empty hallway with its ankle-deep water and crust of barnacles, “or one of them. He was gone the second they grabbed him.”
They navigate through the darkness, their paths carved by the circular scope of the flashlights, side by side. Their ankles brush against strands of seaweed and half-eaten crabs dissected by withered, scabby hands. Pink coagulates of shredded fish bob along masts of barnacles. Each turn brings them to another corner, each a similar sight. The S.S. Lotus is a dreadnought, but no larger than a typical supply ship. These virulent trojan horses were built to mimic supply ships for this reason. Yet somehow, it seems labyrinthine on the inside, a complex network of twists and turns existing beyond all logic of dimension. Occasionally the ship will bob from a passing wave or would snap with random pinging of metal against metal.
“Here,” Richter says, “I think it’s here.”
Jane nods and they make the turn, swinging their cones of light with them like a lame limb. There, in the scope, stands Mr. Jiminy. A shattered mind, now holding a flailing fish in both hands and biting down on its shimmering scales, flakes and white guts popping from the side of his mouth. His milky eyes stare at them but remain as absent as before, a tongue lopping out from his lower lip.
“Flower,” he says.
White figures, all willowy and in torn cocktail suits, appear in the cones of light behind Mr. Jiminy. They tilt their bald skeletal heads and dropped whatever there are trying to eat. Blocks of barnacles, oyster shells, and twitching crabs fall at their ankles. They stand frozen in the light, blinking stupidly, tendrils of drool lazily dropping from their chins.
“Oh no,” Jane says.
At once Mr. Jiminy and the others start after them with long, stilted legs. The sound of breaking water trails in front of them. Richter and Jane break into a run, turning randomly, each trying to keep the light in front of them and stay with one another. Gargled voices echo metallically in the distance, piercing through the dark. Occasional laughter and giggles sound like broken keys on a piano. They continue to run, splashing through the ichor, crushing whatever runoff settled underneath the ankle-deep water. Wraiths appear in their cones of light, sometimes running at them in a white, stinking flash, sometimes in pursuit down another hall. It appears that their shattered minds cannot comprehend directions, having wandered so aimlessly around these subterranean catacombs for many years. It is the illumination which attracts them. Richter tells Jane to shut off her flashlight.
Now they wade through the darkness, gingerly turning corners once giggles and laughter subside down the hall. One of them occupies the same hall as Richter and Jane. The stink of rotting fish, while unpleasant, is a good indicator of their coming, and one of the wraiths comes so close that the shoulder of his bloated jacket grazes upon Jane’s nose. Richter puts a calloused hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming. Once the wraith passes, they continue their escape, eventually making their way to the familiar corner leading to the stairs. The blue-white glow of Leon’s markings looks like the golden rays of Heaven.
“Go,” Richter whispers.
They reach the foot of the stairs. The door to the middle level of the hip is ajar, having been thrown open in haste after they discovered the vault empty. Richter follows up the rear, watching Jane ascend the steps two at a time. Once he makes sure that Jane was well up the steps, he lifts his legs from the water and feels rubbery hands wrap around his neck.
“Flower.” A voice whispers into his ear. It is gargled, hardly a language.
Richter feels like one of the fishes or crabs in Mr. Jiminy’s grasp. With arms much stronger than the branch-like limbs he possesses, Mr. Jiminy slams Richter into the adjacent walls. Rushes of blood fall from his brow, and saltwater stings the open wound. He feels his throat closing, and Richter fires the gun at Mr. Jiminy, who only stumbles from the impact, unaware of the gunshot.. His gnarled hands are cragged, rubbery, and smell like dead fish. He giggles like a child amused by toy blocks. Jane calls after him.
“No!” Richter says, trying to pry Mr. Jiminy’s hands from his throat and face, “Get out of here!”
Jane stands on the stairs for a second. She locks eyes with Richter and understands. She watches Richter claw at the bottom of the stairs for a second longer, watches his face slam into the metal steps, his open mouth gulping the stale, necrotic salt water, and ascends the rest of the way. Richter fights for purchase, his body scraping against smashed oyster shells and barnacles. He aims his gun, fires two more times into Mr. Jiminy’s torso. Mr. Jiminy recoils, paws at Richter’s throat, and tears out a part of his carotid artery, tossing it aside like a slug. Richter gasps in a final pulse of energy and aims the pistol at Mr. Jiminy’s temple, firing. A flash of light, the smell of gun smoke dominates the salty, rancid air. Mr. Jiminy falls to his side. Richter leans on the steps, a gorge of blood rising into his throat, the sticky warmth of it trailing down his chest. With one hand on the bottom step and another resting on Mr. Jiminy’s dead body, he leans his head on a concave of barnacles crusted upon the wall.
He pictures himself looking at the ship from a bird’s eye view. Deep within the bowels of the S.S. Lotus Leon lay trapped like cattle, a food source for the strange commune of Helmut Werzig and his associates, or whatever they have turned into. He sits now at the bottom of the stairs, drowning not in these damned waterlogged hallways but in his own blood, never to see the shore again. And Jane, by the grace of whatever God may or may not exist, frantically untying their boat and starting the engine with bloodied, shaking fingers, the madness of the S.S. Lotus falling away in her wake.