Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Voyage of the Piquant [Part Four]

I will make no attempt to capture the horror that we endured those next few days. Perhaps words are inadequate for the job. And if I succeeded, dear reader, if I somehow managed to properly convey some fraction the agony that comes from enduring “Achy Breaky Heart” for the 29th time, hearing a margarita-soaked golfer from New Jersey execute this hellish serenade to the ocean as I sweated and lolled on my bunk… well, I would be doing you no favors.

In my heart, I believe that this is true: if Mocha Rich didn’t exist before, we would have created him through our ill-guided enterprise. He would have coalesced from the outrage of the sea itself just to strike us down for our sins.

Four days and nights passed.

On the morning of the fifth day, with “Yummy Yummy Yummy (I’ve Got Love in My Tummy)” vibrating through the hull of the Piquant and my own sanity stretching ever closer to the breaking point, the lookout belted out her call from her high perch. “Oh my God! Thar she… um… thar she inks? Oh, whatever! It’s a big white squid! I see it!”

“Hard starboard!” Aholl roared over the speakers, his coarse voice thundering across the bridge. “Full steam ahead, damn your eyes! Beat to quarters! Battle stations, says I!”

My heart began to pound, but not from fear of Mocha Rich. “Sir, may I give the order to stop the karaoke?”

“Aye, laddie,” Aholl snarled.

Never in my life have I issued a more satisfying command.

The Piquant’s immense hull pounded through the crystal-blue waters. I craned my neck to catch my first look at the monster we’d been hunting, and felt my throat clench. The squid was a boneless colossus, over two hundred feet long, whiter than a bleached linen undershirt. It glided through the waters with alien grace, its mighty tentacles undulating behind it as it swam.

“There you are, you demon!” Aholl exulted. “From Hell’s heart, I throw an uppercut at thee! For hate’s sake, I hork a big old loogie at thee!”

“It’s real,” the captain croaked. “Great God… you fought that thing?”

“As Jacob strove with the angel,” Aholl said. “As Hercules pit himself ‘gainst Cerberus. As Ali took on Smokin’ Joe Fraiser.”

Captain Wellington hurled himself at Aholl, his voice ratcheting up into the soprano as the clutched the madman’s lapels. “You fought that thing and only lost your little finger? Why tempt fate again, you fool?”

“Fate?” Aholl roared, throwing the captain to the floor with a meaty thud. “’Tis my fate to grapple with yon devil-spawn, ye cowardly pudding! Stand not ‘tween me and my fate.”

“We weren’t standing between you and your stupid fate! You dragged us into this, you big… mean…” Wellington floundered, his face purpling as he struggled to find a powerful yet family-safe epithet, “…poop-head!

With the speed of a popping champagne cork, Aholl lashed out and poked Wellington in the eye with his wooden pinkie. The captain let out a pained squeak as the peg struck home, then huddled into a quivering mass on the deck. “Mr. Irving,” Aholl snapped at me, “you know the battle plan.”

“Aye, sir,” I said, my voice strangely calm in m own ears.

“Then thee shall take the place of yon captain, who is no longer fit for duty,” he said. “Step lively, laddie. The demon cometh.”

Like some immense living torpedo, the mammoth squid knifed through the waters in a direct course towards the Piquant. The sea swirled in its wake Mocha Rich propelled itself forward, silently sliding its porcelain-white form through just beneath the waves. As it approached us, the squid rotated its body and a portion of its slick bulk crested the surface. One eye the size of a Volkswagen Beetle rolled towards the ship, surveying us with inhuman intelligence. Though a squid’s expressions are hard to read, I had the distinct impression that Mocha Rich was feeling grumpy.

My fingers tightened into a death grip on my clipboard. My heart thundered in my chest as the fever of battle gripped me. I saw a single vast tentacle rise out of the water and loom over the deck. Mocha Rich was in range for the first assault.

“Shuffleboarders, fire at will!” I commanded.

“Who’s Will?” they responded as one.

“The squid, you morons!” I cried.

“I thought its name was Rich,” they said in perfect unison.

“Then fire at Rich! Just fire!”

The tentacle descended towards us, seawater sluicing off its slick mass in cascading sheets. Three dozen shuffleboard sticks moved in perfect unison, cracking against the plastic surfaces of game pucks that had been sharpened and weighted for battle. The discs whizzed across the deck, up the launch ramps, and pelted into the pale skin of the great boneless appendage.

The tentacle wavered.

I didn’t give the enemy a chance to recover. “Tae-Bo squadron, forward!”

Our aerobics instructor glared at her adversary though tinted contacts. The rage of a thousand prom queens burned in her blood. She slammed down the play button on her boom box, and suddenly the battlefield was alive with up-tempo world grooves. The ex-cheerleader let loose a high-pitched shriek of command, then charged like a spandex-clad Amazon to lead her unit into battle. They danced forward to the beat, raining down bouncy punches and kicks upon the flailing tentacle of the leviathan.

“Two, four, six, eight, go hit that invertebrate!” the instructor exhorted her legion.

“Sir!” cried one of the lookouts. “A second tentacle to the aft!”

I whirled to attend this new challenged. “Bartenders, get ready! Set blenders on frappe and fire!”

The battalion of bartenders oriented their turbo-charged blenders towards the second tentacle and engaged the rotors. In daring defiance of all safety procedures, they lifted off the lids of their mixers. Crystalline shards of ice streaked through the air at fantastic velocities, glittering like diamonds in the autumn sunlight. The squid’s tentacle writhed under their assault.

“Five degrees starboard!” Aholl commanded. “We have him now, the hellspawn!”

The Piquant shifted her ponderous bulk, orienting her bow towards the main body of the giant squid. I commanded the racquetball unit to deal with another tentacle and looked on, blood pounding in my ears. The bullet-shaped mass of the monster’s main body protruded from the sea. Mocha Rich was almost in the firing arc of our main weapon.

“Sandwich crew!” I shouted through my megaphone. “Prepare to release!”

This was our ultimate weapon, the greatest creation in the illustrious career of ship’s cook Quisiene. Baked over the course of days in the Piquant’s mighty ovens, the sandwich was 35-feet of sourdough with a payload of the deadliest toppings. It had a core of glazed Damascus ham to give it weight, fiery peppers to add a lethal sting, a cement-like horseradish sauce to bind it together—and one end filed down to a keen point, revealing a spearhead of cheddar sharp enough to split oak. Through the mysterious alchemy of Quisiene’s baking and glazing, the sandwich had been hardened again and again, until it could repel even the cook’s most vigorous attempts to penetrate its crust with a cleaver.

This was a weapons-grade sandwich. Even Mocha Rich must fall before such a confectionary harpoon.

Fifty pairs of middle-aged hands took hold of the draw rope to the great sandwich, sunscreen-slathered backs heaving in unison. Quisiene’s deadly creation had been mounted like some giant crossbow bolt straddling the bow, set to a giant elastic string crossing the Aloha Deck. Every swimsuit on the ship had sacrificed its waistband to make this mighty weapon, each industrial-strength length of elastic woven together into a single unbreakable cord.

“Steady...” My voice rang strong and confident. “Steady...”

The band creaked as it drew tighter. The guardrails to which it had been attached groaned in protest, metal threatening to buckle under the stress. The bow of the ship swung slowly around, orienting closer and closer to the dead center mark on the body of the beast.

“Steady... release!”

The hands let go. The elastic thrummed like a chord played on King Kong’s banjo. The sandwich rocketed towards the squid, flakes of shredded iceberg lettuce trailing like a comet tail in its wake, hurtling directly towards its mark between Mocha Rich’s two monstrous eyes.

A tentacle shot out of the water like a bolt of slippery white lightning, whipping around the sandwich in mid-flight. The great invertebrate caught the deadly missile, killing its momentum moments before it would have punctured its pale carapace.

The moisture drained completely out of my mouth. “Oops.”

From his position in the corner of the bridge, Captain Wellington let out a tinkling giggle. “Quite the reflexes on that squid, wouldn’t you say?”

Aholl gnashed his teeth fitfully.

The monstrosity held the vast submarine sandwich in its tentacle, seeming to consider it for a long moment, then plunged the end of the weapon into its gaping beak. The hellish maw of the monster closed. A sound like a falling sequoia thundered across the waves as Mocha Rich devoured our mighty weapon, right down to the last crumb.

When Mocha Rich was done, its unspeakable eye focused on us once again. I could tell that this squid wasn’t merely grumpy anymore. We’d really managed to piss it off.

“Damn your rubbery hide! I’ll end thee myself!” Aholl bellowed, and took off like a cannonball. He hurtled down stairs and across the deck, disregarded the “no-running” safety signs with a madman’s obsession, brandishing his harpoon gun as he bolted towards his hated nemesis.

I wondered if his hand-held weapon could possibly kill such a vast creature, even if he shot it in some vital spot, but I never got the chance to find out. Mocha Rich’s body dropped below the waves before Aholl reached the guard rail, disappearing into the brine with an eerie smoothness that barely disturbed the waves.

“Now what?” muttered the captain. “Is it gone?”

“No,” I said.

“Maybe it’s full now and wants to go have a nap,” Wellington suggested. “How do you know it’s still here?”

“Because we’re still here.”

Suddenly, the waters around the ship burst into churning froth. What followed was a sound that I cannot begin to describe, a boggling series of rapid-fire, gooey thumps as thick mollusk flesh collided with steel. Mocha Rich fastened its unthinkable tentacles onto the hull of the Piquant, bonding itself to our vessel with countless jacuzzi-sized suction cups.

The captain began to emit a noise like a trapped mouse. The ordered ranks of the passengers who had been pressed into squid-hunting combat service began to dissolve as panic spread its tendrils through the crew.

“What’s it doing?” whimpered Wellington. “Does it mean to drag us down?”

I didn’t think it was possible, even for the monster squid. The Piquant still outweighed Mocha Rich by thousands of tons. I thought perhaps the beast intended to peel the hull off like the skin of a banana, yet in that guess I was mistaken as the captain.

A second sound arose in the ship, a noise even stranger than Mocha Rich affixing itself to our hull. It was a slimy, rushing noise, quiet at first, growing louder with each second, seeming to come from every direction.

“Aholl!” I cried through my megaphone. “What’s happening?”

Old Aholl needed nothing but his own hate to amplify his voice. He called back to me across the stretch of the Piquant’s deck, his harpoon gun raised in his maimed hand. I could see the whites of his bulging eyes from fifty yards away as he bellowed the last words I would ever hear him speak.

“Revenge, my lad! I told you that your kind’s outrages against the sea would bring down the wrath of yon devil, did I not? Now see the foul color of Mocha Rich’s vengeance, good Mr. Irving!”

Metal screeched behind me, and I whirled. One of the pipes had split at the seam, emitting a jet of the most disgusting liquid I have ever seen. Part seawater, part human waste, and part black cephalopod ink, it gushed out under fantastic pressure and spattered polished planks of the deck.

“Oh my God,” I choked, pressing my handkerchief against my face against the reek. Horrible comprehension dawned as I realized what Mocha Rich was doing.

The squid had somehow sensed the location of the disposal valve on the underside of the Piquant. It is from this port that a cruise ship expels her waste into the sea—grey water from all the ship’s showers, the used cleaning fluid of a battalion of maids, and most of all, the excretions of thousands of over-eating vacationers. Our holding tanks were almost full right now; we were overdue for a dump, too occupied with our preparations for battle to attend to that key element of the normal routine.

A squid propels itself through the water with living hydraulic jets. Now Mocha Rich was using those jets to pump thousands of gallons of seawater and its own inky emissions up through the disposal valve and into the ship’s plumbing.

Across every deck, I heard the toilets exploding. I knew the Piquant was doomed.

“Abandon ship!” I commanded over the PA. “All hands to the lifeboats! Abandon ship!”

All semblance of order disintegrated. I can barely remember the minutes that followed, the mayhem as the passengers stampeded towards the lifeboats while Mocha Rich continued its devastating liquid siege upon the Piquant. I remember the planks of the deck warping as swirling dark puddles spread from between the decks. I remember ducking as rivets blew off the pipes and whirred through the air like demented hummingbirds. The great cruise ship heaved and groaned as unspeakable fluids filled her living quarters, her massage parlors, her engine room, the weight dragging her down into the merciless embrace of the waves.

The last thing I recall on the ship was the screech of tearing metal to one side, then a massive column of the loathsome ink-and-sewage seawater colliding with my body like a battering ram, carrying me over the safety rail. As my body plunged into the chilling waters of the north Pacific, darkness began to claim me.

Moments before consciousness left me entirely, I felt my arm brush against something warm and savory.

It was Quisiene’s funeral cake, of course. As buoyant as it was delectable, the great confection bore my unconscious body on the ocean, its oven-fresh goodness warming me against the life-sapping cold of the sea. When the Coast Guard pulled me out, much of the cake had been nibbled away by gulls and fish. Nobody had any complaints of Quisiene’s final dessert, least of all me.

I remember none of that, however. I awoke in the hospital with what passengers and crew of the ill-fated Piquant made it to the lifeboats ahead of Mocha Rich’s terrible vengeance. I found myself caught up in a maelstrom of doctors, reporters, and scientists, all asking questions that nobody could hope to answer.

Captain Wellington took most of the blame for the incident, though the cruise company and the designers of the Piquant found themselves deluged with subpoenas and summons in the months to come. Politicians and Archbishops took the opportunity to denounce all sorts of things which they had already been denouncing for years. Engineers and scientists offered explanations of how the cruise ship’s internal plumbing could have gone out of control. But nobody credited the story of Mocha Rich.

In spite of all the cameras which had been aboard the Piquant, not a single clear image of the squid survived the devastation. The salvagers managed to recover a few blurry pictures here and there, generally with somebody’s thumb obscuring half the view, but there was nothing that showed enough to convince the skeptics. It made me wonder if Mocha Rich wasn’t more than just a bloody huge invertebrate, but if he was some unimaginably powerful and camera-shy embodiment of nature’s wrath.

The only man who might have been able to answer that question had disappeared. Aholl wasn’t found amongst the survivors. Some part of me believes that he survived, and that he still roams the seas seeking retribution for his lost pinkie, locked in a never-ending mortal struggle with the unfathomable creature that he called Mocha Rich.

As for me... I’m moving to Montana. I’ve had my fill of the sea.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Awesome writings. I'm on the edge of my seat. Wowza. keri (a.k.a. Sam)