This is the 15th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “O“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “O” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — Gary Broxson
(2,235 words – approx. reading time: about 9 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Three young men on their way to a wedding walked past a tattered old man begging on the side of a street. The youngest, a lad of 19 wearing a jaunty green cap, dodged back and dropped a generous palm of coins into a cup at the ancient man’s feet. The beggar lifted his shaggy head and opened his glittering eyes. His hand sprang out from a cloak like a five-fingered cobra; it seized the wrist of the boy.
“Let go, old goat!” cried the youth. Pulling with all his might, he could not break free from the old man’s iron grip. But it was his eyes, his glittering eyes that held the boy sway.
“Come on, we’ll be late,” shouted the wedding guests as they forged ahead without him carrying lit candles. The music from the nearby churchyard was already striking up.
“There was a ship…” whispered the old man. The boy, caught in the glitter of his eyes, sat down and listened like toddler to a stern father. His friends went into the church without him.
“She was the only one of her kind left and we were sent out by the world’s top-tier to dredge up the devil’s own blood. Don’t come back without it, they told us. You are our last hope,” the old man remembered.
The boy watched and listened, mesmerized as the ancient man with a mossy gray beard spoke of things long forgotten.
“Three other ships had been sent out to the corners of the earth, one south, one east, and one west. They never returned. Our ship, the Qatar, sailed north into the heart of the ice.”
“I was Chief Mate, serving under Captain Cole. Our ship was a beauty; a Q-Max class oil carrier modified with a drilling rig with Kelly-drive pipes and diamond-toothed bits,” the old man smiled with no teeth of his own, his eyes dreaming of a long-lost lover.
An organ droned from the nearby wedding party wafting over the improbable pair as they squatted on the squalid street curb. The boy yearned to go toward the strains but remained motionless as the mariner recounted his accursed tale.
The old man’s brilliant eyes dimmed and turned the color of a stormy sky. “We were only two days at sea and rounding the Cape of Good Hope when they hit us. Bloody Greeners!” He spat on the ground between them. “They launched three Stryker inflatables off their main vessel and swarmed around us like hornets. I called general alarm and all crewmembers scurried to their stations.”
“We tacked port, then starboard to try to get past them but they were too fast. I tried the intercom but I couldn’t raise the captain. The Greeners were getting closer, bolder. One Stryker matched our course and sped alongside the bow while the other two distracted the crew who were throwing bags of trash and galley slop down at them. We were not a naval vessel and had no arsenal to repel them.”
“A man wrapped in green cloth leaned out of the Stryker. Balancing himself like a surfer, he prepared to leap into the Qatar’s anchor well. Just before he sprang, a shot rang out and the man’s head became a busted pumpkin. I looked up to the bridge railing and saw Captain Cole with a rifle. He kissed a cross that hung on a gold chain about his neck and calmly pulled the bolt back then chambered another round. As the Stryker sped off back to the mother ship, he fired again. This time the inflatable exploded, turning the Greeners into codfish chum. Captain Cole lowered the rifle and sipped at a cup of steaming tea.”
“To the stern! I heard the Boatswain command. One of the Greeners from another Stryker had leaped onto the aft siding of the ship. Like the others, he was garbed in bright green cloth, but this was a sticky fabric covering odd lumps all over the interloper’s body. He stuck to the hull like a starfish even as old Scully poured hot grease down on him.”
“The Greener screamed a martyr’s prayer and exploded, rocking the Qatar like it had been struck by the trident of Poseidon himself. The blast destroyed the nearby Stryker and its remaining crew but it left a ragged hole in the hull, just above the water line. Crews went to work, sealing compartments and pumping the bilge. Almost unnoticed in the maelstrom, the Captain’s cup of tea crashed onto the catwalk below.”
“All decks reported in: The good news was, there was a nasty hull breach but the bulkheads held and we were in no danger of diving. The bad news,” the old man sighed as he remembered telling the Captain, “the Greeners’ bomb was packed with wicked bio-bugs, organic weapons. The bastards poisoned our food and water supply. Already two crewmembers had vomited up green bile after drinking from the ship’s cistern.”
“Maintain course, Captain Cole ordered me. I relayed the message to the helm and knew then that there was no turning back. Most of our food was contaminated, and nearly all our drinking water was poisoned, and we still had weeks until we arrived at the Polar Cap, our destination, and the world’s only hope.”
“The air chilled, then bit with needle-sharp teeth as we trekked northward at 19 knots, only slightly slower than our original speed. The repair crews and hazard teams had done a miraculous job of keeping us afloat and moving us toward our destination. The ship was seaworthy, but clean water and uncontaminated food was severely rationed and the crew was down to sips and nibbles per day. The sailors grew thin, weak, and haggard.”
“Captain Cole was a large man, completely bereft of hair. Some say he hailed from Australia, but I never detected the accent. He was an ornery old cuss but I’d follow him into the pits of perdition. Despite the lack of food and fresh water, we pressed on. In the warmer climes some of the crew got lucky trolling for tuna and swordfish off the stern. The Captain plunked a few dolphin that were foolish enough to frolic in the bow’s wake. But when the sea turned to ice, the pickings grew slim.”
“At the brink of mutiny, the Captain addressed the crew: Mates! he squawked through the ship’s intercom. This is your Captain speaking. He paused as if humbly awaiting applause or a bloody genuflect but was only met with the muffled mutterings of derision. I watched as he kissed the gold cross, then tucked it back into his shirt. We have come this far and are forever past our point of no return. Our destiny lies ahead, not behind. Your futures lie not with your families, not with your friends, but with the heroes of Olympus, Troy, and Alexandria. Epic poems and sea shanties will be written and sung about your great deeds. Yes, you shall be hailed as new-world heroes. He clicked off and poured himself a cup of tea, then added —posthumously.”
“For weeks we threaded our way through icy monoliths as big as mountains. The Qatar sliced through the surface ice, her bow a razor of carbon steel. Each night the captain would peer into his brass sextant and shake his head. Below deck, we knew men were dying and we knew they’d be drawing lots for corpses as was the custom of the sea.”
“On the bulkheads they wrote verse describing their woes:”
Water, water everywhere,
And all our souls did shrink,
Water, water everywhere,
Yet not a drop to drink,
Water, water everywhere,
God help this ship to sink.
“Then the day came. Captain Cole checked his sextant twice then traded it for his rifle. Looking through the telescopic lens, he spotted a lone tree off our port. He wheeled the ship toward the gnarled tree, sprouting up from the ice as odd and ominous as a shark’s fin in a kiddie pool.”
“The captain keyed the intercom. His voice came out dry and cracked; he bit into his arm to lubricate his throat with his own blood. Mates, he said, tomorrow we anchor. By the Gods, I think we’ve found Mother Earth’s honey hole. Then he laughed, more like a croak, and now where gonna fuck’er deep.”
“The next morning the Captain gave the order and we anchored at the top of the world. The remaining crew came up from below, hollow-eyed and shuffling, but ready enough to drop the bit. They hauled and lashed pipe for 12 hours straight, slamming it deeper and deeper into the ice with the weighted traveling block. When it finally broke through, we heard them. Twas the cry of babes, babes yet unborn.”
The church doors opened and joyous music piped out. The boy tried to stand. “Please, old demon, let me go now and I won’t tell a soul of your curs’d quest.”
“Oh, you’ll tell,” replied the old man with a toothless smile, tightening his grip.
The church door closed again and the music ceased; the old man continued. “The crew drew back, they stopped the drill. What is this place? they cried. Captain Cole stood on the bridge overlooking the rig. Mates, he began, this is our destiny. The sound of wailing babies vibrating off the pipes was like the night songs of a 1000 blue whales. This was once a garden, The Garden. That was the tree of souls we crushed under the bow and now we have tapped into the Guf, the treasury of awaiting souls. Below the Guf we’ll find what we came for – crude.”
But what will happen to the souls? The crew shouted over the eerie cries.
To Hell with them; they’ve come between me and my prize, Captain Cole replied, his eyes the eyes of a madman.
We’ll be dammed, one man said. We’ll be cursed, cried another.
You’ll be heroes! bellowed the Captain.
“But they turned on him, the mutinous curs. Even as he fired his rifle into the belly of ‘em, they converged. They buried him under their stinking mass and tore him limb from limb. All that remained was this cross.” The old man pulled it out from his cloak. “Craven, I watched but did nothing to save my captain. Then I watched as the bloodied sailors, one by one, leaped into the frozen sea, each taking their precious soul with them.”
“There was now a vast choice to be made. Alone, I had to decide if I should follow my mates to a watery grave or finish the mission we were sent to complete. I was weary and longed for the peace of death, but I was also a coward that feared divine retribution.”
“What did you do, old man?” the boy demanded, his eyes wide with fear and wonder.
The church bells rang out, they peeled like thunder. A gauntlet of well-wishers pelted the newlyweds with rice and rose petals. They were hustled into the back of a stretch limousine and it pulled away, cans clanging from the rear bumper.
The huge black car stopped for a traffic light in front of the curb where the two men squatted. The engine grumbled softly, oily blue smoke from the exhaust plumed and engulfed the pair. The boy coughed but the old man inhaled deeply.
“You drilled!” the boy accused in a high-pitch wheeze.
“Yes,” the old man closed his glittering eyes and loosened his iron grip. The boy remained.
“The souls, what happened to the unborn souls in the Guf?”
Now the old man’s eyes glittered only with tears. “I destroyed them, all of them. I plunged the drill into the heart of the Guf that day and slaughtered those unborn babes. I can never unsee the ice, the red ice. For miles around the Qatar, the tundra turned bright red with their blood.” The old man bowed his head solemnly, then lifted it with a jerk. “But the Captain was right,” he wiped his eyes and tried to smile, “there was oil below. More oil than this world will ever need.”
“I shot up a satellite flare and they rescued me two days later. But I was never the hero my Captain had promised. Nor did I want to be. The top-tier couldn’t let the world know of the terrible price we had paid for cheap, unlimited energy. I soon started drifting and now I find myself dying, but Mother Earth refuses to receive me until I have passed my burden along to another.”
“No, old man, I don’t want your curse. What have I done to deserve this thing?”
“My boy, along with the curse I am giving you a gift.”
“Fiend, I don’t want your gift.”
“I give you a soul; my soul. For after that day on the ice, no child has ever received a new soul at birth. So I offer you this old one, perhaps you can find redemption and one day enter His house. As for me, I prefer to die and rot like a dead dog.” The old man swirled the gold chain and cross into the boy’s palm then exhaled one last smoky breath.
In a dying world cloaked in smog, an old man in a green cap grabbed a young man’s wrist. “There was a ship…” he whispered.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
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