The man was awakened by water slapping at an even rhythm. He was pulled from a dream he couldn't remember (except that he was falling) into an awareness of being rocked slowly back and forth. His eyelids registered daytime before they opened. The heat of midday reddened his face, and the smell of saltwater pulled the senses together and to attention. He sat upright and squinted into the air to his right and left. He was on a boat, a speedboat with a small control cabin up front. The man went to stand. He made it to his knees before the rocking of the boat mixed with a swirling in his head and sent him sprawling to the deck. He leaned against one of the seats and closed his eyes against the searing drum beat rising in his temples. He took in the sea air and breathed it out, nearly vomiting. He tilted his head downward and let his eyelids part slightly.
Why am I hungover on a boat?
His free hand blocked the sun and his vision cleared. He could see the bare skin of his legs, peppered with small black and gray hairs. As his vision opened, so did his sense of touch. He wasn't wearing pants or underwear. He wasn't wearing a shirt. His nakedness hit him suddenly and he crouched and covered himself as his head swiveled to see if anyone else might be on the boat and watching him.
His head periscoped up over the side of the boat. The sun was high in the sky but he felt the first direction he looked was east. East held seemingly endless blue sky and ocean. West was the same. What would be south, over the back of the boat, offered the same view. He turned to check the front cabin. He didn't see anyone and was about to call out but thought better of it. If there was someone else on board, he didn't think their first interaction should be in the nude. He scanned the deck for clothing and saw none. There were no towels, or blankets, or discarded swim trunks or shirts. Thinking about where his clothes might be took the man's mind to the more obvious questions:
Why am I naked on a boat?
Do I own a boat?
The man smiled at the simple questions. He had been on a boat in the ocean before, years ago. It was a yacht, owned by a businessman out of New York. The man couldn't remember the businessman's name, but the boat had been called the “SS McDuck,” and the S's were dollar signs. He smiled at the name, and then laughed at how stupid a thing it was to remember it years later. He stopped smiling as he tried to remember how he came to this one. He couldn't trace his steps back beyond waking up. He couldn't remember riding in the boat, or getting on the boat in the first place, and couldn't remember any of the events that lead him to the boat. He searched for some kind of solid anchor.
“How did I get here?”
He said it out loud. He said it again, and a third time. Ahead of the boat, the blue sky ran far into the distance and darkened to a deep blue, then gray, then at a cluster of distant, heavy storm clouds, to black. A powerful storm, but far off.
The man looked toward the cabin and waited for someone to appear. The open door revealed interior windows and a small portion of a control panel. The waves continued their chatter but no person appeared. When he realized there was nothing on the deck to cover him, the man stood and called out.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
He looked over the sides of the boat again. No ships, no other boats, no planes, no birds, just sky and water. The waves continued to rap gently against the side of the boat and the man stepped quietly toward the cabin door.
Only the water answered. As the man reached the cabin, he stopped to look left and right. The man let his hands drop from their protective position over his crotch. He was alone on the boat, someone's boat, in the middle of the ocean, some ocean, with no memory of how or why.
The man's eyes appreciated the slight darkness within the cabin. The throbbing at his temples slowed and the burning behind his eyes began to cool. Being on his feet for a few seconds and feeling the adrenaline response retreat, the man's legs sagged and gave out. He caught himself on the wall and brought himself down onto the driver's seat. His limbs felt like they'd been hollowed out. His stomach was empty and he was nauseous and weak. His mind thrashed around in the present, and finding nothing to hold to for psychological balance, he went simpler:
What is your name?
“Ed, Edgar Stephenson,” he said aloud.
Who are you?
“My birth date is March seventh, nineteen seventy-four.”
He continued, declaring his home address, phone number, social security number, bank accounts. He recalled driving a twenty-fifteen Audi A4, silver, and remembered his license plate number. He recited his ex-wife's new address and social security number, the stats on his two kids, and named all of the dogs he ever owned. He stopped. He could feel that his memory was intact, he knew who he was, so he focused on more recent activities. His job had him interviewing potential partners for his venture capital company earlier in the week, Tuesday and Wednesday. Dinner, drinks, tickets to the Knicks' game. Drinks out after the Knicks' game, with a Timothy Statton and a Martin Fole, and then...
That was the end. Drinks downtown.
Did I go back to my hotel room? Did I have a hotel room?
Ed looked at the controls. At first he'd thought his blurry vision and hazy mind had made the lettering around the boat hard to read. Now he could see that the controls were not written in English. The characters appeared to be middle eastern, Arabic or Farsi, or maybe something older. There was a small compartment built into the wall and the latch popped easily when the man pulled at it. There were documents, booklets, and a compass inside, the same strange language on every item. Seeing it on these documents, the man considered Urdu as a possibility.
He let his hands travel from dial to dial, to the steering wheel, the throttle, the various buttons. He hoped for some spark of recognition. None came. There was a pink rabbit's foot dangling from the key in the boat's ignition. It had no writing on it, only a small black triangle. He turned the key. Even before he turned it, he knew the boat wouldn't start. He knew it wouldn't be that easy.
The boat whined briefly but wouldn't start.
A glint of metal caught Ed's eye. On the passenger side, on the floor in front of the seat, there were keys. And a wallet. He lunged across the aisle at the items. The keys verified his car memory. A black Audi key fob hung next to half a dozen other silver keys, and he tossed them onto the driver's seat. He sat on the floor and opened the wallet. It, too, was his. He still carried a family photo, his ex-wife and their two kids dressed in similar tones of blue and khaki, shining on a beach in front of palm trees and soft white dunes. It was his favorite picture, even though he hadn't seen any of the other people in it for more than two years.
The wallet had retained his credit cards but held no cash. He never carried an empty wallet. He tried to keep at least a thousand dollars on him at all times. After years of having his father call him worthless, he decided carrying at least a thousand dollars in his wallet at all times would be good proof to the contrary. As an eight-year-old, a thousand dollars sounded like all the money in the world. He soon found that it wasn't, but he liked the number and he liked the idea. When he sold his first company for eighty million dollars, it was the thousand dollars in cash in his wallet that made him smile that night.
Ed looked back to the floor where he'd found the wallet to see if the cash had fallen out. He didn't find cash. He found something better. Sticking halfway out from under the seat, his black and gold cell phone. He scooped it up greedily and wheezed out a crazed laugh. He hit the power button, his body surging with adrenaline again, and his mind buzzing with hope.
The phone stayed dark. He hit the power button again. Nothing. He held it down. The reflective screen stared back at him and showed him a haggard face and wild eyes. The man begged, then cursed, then screamed. Maybe the battery was dead, maybe the phone got wet or damaged. The phone stayed dark, now the most useless thing on the boat, and the man threw it across the cabin and roared.
His roar echoed back to him, amplified. From outside, a boom rose up and filled the sky, like someone must be shaking the earth. The boat shuddered under the noise, and even the waves seemed to hush at the power. As he stumbled back out onto the deck, the boom's echoes faded and the sound of the water returned. The waves were gently tapping the sides of the boat, the wind made a gentle hiss across the waves, and there was nothing else. For the first time, Ed noticed a sound missing that he'd always heard on the ocean. There were no birds. As he looked east, then west, and south, there were no birds. Not on the water, not overhead, not anywhere. The man looked north, ahead of the boat. The darkness on the horizon seemed to be bigger, and closer, having broadened and climbed higher above the horizon. Ed couldn't trust his memory of exactly where the dark clouds had been before, but he was almost certain they'd doubled their width and height in the sky.
“What the hell?”
Another distant boom drew his attention. It came from the north, from the crawling wall of thick black clouds. There was no denying it. Even watching the cloud bank for only a few seconds, he could tell it was moving closer, and quickly. Small bursts of lightning arced from cloud to cloud, from cloud to water. But the clouds were growing in height and not widening. They were gathering together, forming into a rising mound of churning debris and savage winds.
It's coming for me.
Ed tried to dismiss the silly thought. That a storm, whose mass, speed, and characteristics he'd never seen or heard of before, would focus on his little boat and come specifically for him, would be the last thought of a seemingly sane man before admitting he'd lost his mind. Storms don't target places, or things, or people, he told himself. But the cloud cluster continued its build up and if it wasn't coming specifically for him, he sure seemed to be in the worst possible place at the worst possible time.
The clouds clustered and twisted together, tighter and tighter, into a black tower like the hood of a cobra. The lightning bolts continued, striking closer together and more frequently, until they were nearly a single bright beam of electricity surging into the water. Another boom shook the air and nearly knocked Ed to the deck. He caught himself and watched as the cloud pillar built up like a wave preparing to crash down on top of him, and he held his breath as all noise left the air. The lightning stopped. The cloud froze in its place, what Ed thought might be two miles away, maybe three.
The lightning wasn't gone. It had been building, deep in the heart of the storm, and all of its energy surged out into the water in one blinding blast. Ed cried out, his scream swallowed by the boom, and he was thrown toward the boat's stern. The bolt of energy filled the sky with light. Even with his eyes shut and his hands instinctively up in front of his horrified face, the world was white light and white noise. Time disappeared. His scream felt final, felt eternal, and he kept waiting for the sound to stop and for his life to be over. He was still screaming when the sky reappeared and all was quiet again.
Ed swiped at the air in front of him. He couldn't trust his senses anymore, and the first gentle slap of a wave against the side of the boat made him jump and cry out again. He turned wildly to the left, then the right, clawing at the air, his teeth clenched and his head ringing.
The dark clouds remained, now centered and circling like a budding tornado. The lightning was gone, but the water seemed to be glowing slightly where the energy bolt had struck. Ed squinted, curving his hands around his eyes to cut out light and focus his vision. The glow over the water also seemed to be spinning. It's rotation matched the rotation of the clouds, a column of water and light joined by swirling winds.
The boat started up. The engine roared to life and the boat surged forward, turning itself directly toward the storm. Ed ran to the cabin and leaped into the driver's seat. The steering wheel was turning on its own. The throttle was clicking forward, nearing its fully open position. The boat was operating under some sort of autopilot, or by remote, and when Ed grabbed the wheel and tried to alter the boat's course, electricity shot through his arms. The current locked his hands against the wheel and he writhed in the seat, his face locked in a pained, wide-eyed scowl. He couldn't open his hands to let go, couldn't move, couldn't breathe. When the electrical current finally cut out, he fell to the floor and watched his hands quiver as he fought for breath.
When he pushed himself up to his hands and knees, the boat made a sudden hard turn and accelerated. The force tossed him through the doorway and he rolled out onto the deck. The fall slammed his head into the floor and a gash opened up over his right eye. He wiped the wound and pulled his fingers back bloody. The boat adjusted its course again, but this time he caught himself and braced against one of the seats. He stared up at the swirling storm. It was closer now, climbing almost directly overhead in the darkening sky. The red glow over the water was growing and getting darker. Crimson, he thought, blood. At this distance, Ed saw the ocean surface under the clouds. Or at least, he saw where the water's surface should have been. The storm seemed to be parting the water, burrowing into the sea, hollowing out a cavern half a mile wide of swirling waves. As the boat skipped across the water, Ed squinted through the haze of vapor and red glow and tried to find what might be at the center of the churning sea funnel.
He blinked hard and looked again. He sat down on the seat, laid his hands in his lap, pulled between dismissing his mind as playing tricks or being overcome by fear that what he was seeing might be real. He could blink all he wanted. He was seeing what he feared he was seeing.
Tentacles were unfurling from the tunnel and lashing out at the surrounding waves. As the beast rose, Ed's disbelief gave way to paralyzing fear.
He cried out. He knew there was no one to cry out to, but there was nothing else to do. He thought of returning to the controls, but his hands still burned from the previous shock. He could try to use one of the pieces of wood from the deck to pry the throttle backward, or press the control panel buttons, but he knew what would happen. Nothing. Whoever put him here wanted him here. They took measures to keep him here. He imagined himself slamming his fists into the controls, breaking the throttle lever, ripping the steering wheel from its housing, reducing the boat to wreckage. Yet he knew that somehow he would still be delivered to his intended destination.
A roar croaked into the sea air, swallowing the noises of the water and the wind and the boat engine. The creature pulled its massive brown body from the depths and fanned out scaly frills from the sides of its writhing neck. There were too many tentacles to count, hundreds, Ed thought. He saw a mouth open up before another roar filled the air. The beast was close enough now for Ed to see the rows of small, sharp teeth running vertically beneath shuddering black lips. After that mouth opened and roared, a second mouth yawned open from the other side of the creature's head. A third mouth opened between the two, this one snapping violently at some unseen prey. The creature raised one of its many tentacles up out of the water and brought it back down like the hardened tails of a whip. Ed watched the end of the tentacle hit the water and disappear beneath the waves.
He would jump. He didn't know how fast the boat was going, but he guessed it might be more than a hundred miles per hour. At that speed he knew he would be injured. The impact might break his arms, his legs, maybe his back or neck, or some combination that would almost certainly mean he would drown. The thought of drowning terrified him, but not as much as continuing on the boat to the ends anticipated by this creature.
The boat was still accelerating and he knew he couldn't wait any longer. He looked around one more time. No life raft bags. No life vests. Naked, possibly injured, and alone in the middle of the ocean sounded better than doing nothing. He would take control of his life, or at least his death. He wouldn't be kidnapped and stripped naked and offered up to some sea beast. No, his death would be his choice. It might be his last, but it would be his choice.
He stood, took a few rapid breaths, and made his decision. He stepped to the side of the boat. He thought of the picture from his wallet. He thought of his ex-wife and his kids. He tensed his legs and grabbed the edge of the boat to jump.
When he touched the boat's edge, he immediately felt his mistake. As his fingers made contact, a surge of electricity jolted him for a few seconds. It was an even more powerful surge than he'd been given by the steering wheel, and when it finally cut out, he fell to the deck, unconscious.
He dreamed of falling. When he awoke, he felt the elation of waking from a nightmare.
It was just a dream.
He thought back to the dream, to the electrical shock and the pain and the creature and the boat. He tried to breathe in a deep sigh of relief, but his lungs wouldn't open. There was a pressure on his chest, around his ribs and stomach. He tried to move his legs and they wouldn't respond. The feeling of falling was gone but he felt movement. He felt like he was rising. His eyes opened to blue sky and seemingly endless water. As his eyes tracked downward, he saw the boat. It was slowly rotating through the water in a long spiral, circling a deep tunnel down into the black depths of the ocean. He was flying, hundreds of feet up, out over a massive whirlpool.
A noise appeared from behind him. It was quiet, but had the essence of a familiar noise, a noise from his very recent past. A wet gargle, a booming purr, the beginnings of the roar of a terrible, prehistoric creature. He was suddenly aware of the smell, of thousands of rotting fish and salt and algae. The smell of an ocean death, the smell of an ancient grave.
Ed looked down. Where his chest had been, wriggling brown, scaly flesh coiled around him. He was encased in it, from neck to feet, and the squeeze tightened slowly as he was being turned around. His head was immobile under the tension, and as he turned, his vision moved from blue skies and seas to the dark swirling pit to the massive base of the creature's body. It seemed endless, and Ed realized his exaggerated estimates about hundreds of tentacles wasn't even close. There were thousands, of varying lengths and thicknesses, jutting out from every part of the monster's body.
Ed suddenly remembered one of the last things he saw before being shocked.
He couldn't remember how many. Three? Maybe more? As the thought hit him, he had an answer. The tentacles turned him over and he looked down on three different, gaping mouths. They each had their own pair of probing tongues, which lashed out back and forth a few feet below Ed's face. The tongues were the dark pink of rotting flesh, and each was tipped with a similar number and arrangement of small, fleshy barbs. The barbs twisted in the air, searching, and as they passed nearer to Ed's face he could see a slimy film shining in the light. The slime coated the barbs and the tongue, and small sticky strands stretched between them or detached and blew away in the wind.
What he hadn't seen before were the eyes. There were more than a dozen orange eyes looking frantically, angrily, in every direction, but the tentacled arm reached a point in the air and stopped and the eyes found their target. When one eye found Ed, every eye froze suddenly, then shifted at once, their arced pupils widening at the sight of their prey. The mouths also registered the potential meal at the same time and each opened, as if begging for the honor of chewing. They seemed to be making their case by flicking and twirling their tongues in increasingly erratic motions, and sending croaks and bellowing howls out from wrinkled throats. The frantic desire turned to desperation, and then to rage.
The coils around Ed loosened. He felt the squeeze slacken and heard a wet suction as the tentacle unwound itself. He sucked in a series of desperate gulps of air and screamed without words. Had he been in a state of mind to notice, he might have heard a similarity between his primal screams and the shuddering roars from the creature, harsh and guttural. When the tentacle unwound itself enough for Ed's arms and legs to slip through the spaces, he didn't fight to get free. He clung to the wet scales, fetal and desperate, and tried not to fall into the hot, chomping mouths below. The creature noticed his clinging, and once the arm positioned Ed over the middle mouth, it brought him up and then snapped downward. The first downward snap didn't shake Ed loose, but the force of the second snap did. His legs lost their hold and swung downward toward the lashing tongues. He kept his arms entangled and his face smashed against the slimy arm as his legs dangled below him. He fought to bring them back up, but the arm rose and snapped down again. This third whip was the last. His fingers separated and his fingernails carved four furrows into each side of the tentacle as he fell. The fall was short before he was snatched out of the air by two sets of the creature's tongues. They battled over his body. The battle didn't last long. Ed didn't feel the separation of his limbs. He felt the sensation of falling again, of being pulled down, as if in a dream again, and this time his screams hushed and he was pulled silently into the darkness.
A man sits back in his chair and smiles at a large desktop computer. A dark image flickers on the screen. It is camera footage at sea, and splashes of water are making details hard to pin down. But the overall theme is clear. The camera on the boat captures a figure being pulled into the air by pixelated tentacles. It would be unclear to anyone who didn't know what they were watching, but when the man sees a small, lightly-colored mass fall from the top of the screen to the middle and then separate before disappearing, he hits a button on his desk and speaks.
“Kyoto two, report confirmed. Item nine has been delivered. Repeat, item nine has been delivered.”
The man sits back and balances a mug of coffee on his palm. He takes a drink. A voice responds from a hidden speaker.
“Roger that, Kyoto two, report confirmation received. Item nine is green. Good work, soldier.”
“We did it again, sir,” the says.
“Roger that, soldier. We did it again.”
The man finishes his coffee. He sets the mug on the small desk. He is alone in the small, white room, but he stands up and yells and punches his fists into the air and then buries his face in his hands. He screams out the triumphant tears and they wet his palms. Before he sits back down, he wipes his hands on his pants and slams his palms down on the desk and cries out again.
He picks up a phone and sends a text to his wife, “I love you, Lisa. See you tonight.”
The creature has been fed. The ninth of nine, the last one. When the man turns his attention back to the screen, the colors have changed. The darkness is retreating. The tunnel in the sea is filling in and the creature's head slips below the roiling waves. It's tentacles breech the surface a few more times and then are gone. The offering was accepted and the skies clear and the seas calm. The earth will continue its turning. Humanity survives for another season.