From the Author:
“Moby Dick is one of my favourite novels, and this story is inspired by the same incident which inspired Herman Melville; the fate of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale, leaving the surviving crew drifting at sea for 95 days.”
Further reading from Alasdair:
Half-Men of the Night Marie
by Robin Husen
Three half-men in a lifeboat drifted on the methane sea. Her ship’s name, Night Marie, was written on the stern like a tombstone. The ship, along with the rest of her crew, had sunk thirty hours before sunset. Sparks, the ship’s half-boy, crouched in the bows, his ears still ringing with the sound of screams, though the sea had long since swallowed them up. Hobb, the mate, lit the lanterns. Beyond their circle of light, the darkness was total, as though they sat inside a bubble in a well of ink.
“Well,” Hobb said, at length. “We shouldn’t have thrown old Creeping Jack overboard, that’s what I say.”
Copper, the harpooneer, stared unmoving at the sea. The only sound was the auto-focus in his eyes, whirring every time the waves moved.
“Old Jack was dead,” Sparks piped up. He only spoke because Copper said nothing, and listening to Hobb talk to himself might drive him to madness.
“Aye, he was,” Hobb said. “But he was still worth a bit, for parts. We might think we’re nothing, just three bodies starving on a boat. But there’s something to us all.”
In his hand, he held three splinters from a fractured oar. He rolled them between his fingers like cigarettes.
“Take you,” he said to Sparks. “You know that body ain’t even yours. The company made it.”
“The soft parts are mine,” Sparks protested.
“Aye, but what do they do?”
“Aye, and what good is that? What’s you, against the grand scheme of things?”
Sparks had no answer. He hiccupped sadly, belching out ethane from his altered lungs. It was true that the company had taken him apart on the long sleep out, and re-built him to survive on this backwards moon where the methane flowed and the water froze harder than rock. But he still felt the same, in his vital self that lived behind his eyes.
“Just something to think about, that’s all,” Hobb said. “The company’ll find us, before it comes to that.”
Copper’s huge throwing arm shot out from his silhouette and caught Hobb by the throat.
“Stop your thinking.” His voice was like the grinding of gears. “You’d never spare a morsel for another man. Not even your own mother.”
“Well, she ain’t here.” Hobb struggled without effect. “And you’re wrong besides. I’d do my part. But a ship needs a mate, or what is she?”
“She’s sixty fathoms deep. And insured with a hold full of oil. The company’ll get their money. No need to come back for us.”
Hobb’s breath narrowed to a wheeze. He grinned behind the gate of his respirator. “Now, Copper. You’ll scare the boy.”
“What does it matter? We’re just spare parts. If I can tickle that kraken before I go, I’ll die a happy man.”
“Then keep that harpoon sharp,” Hobb said. Copper let him go with a grunt and went back to scanning the waves. Sparks had never seen the kraken which had sunk the Night Marie, just heard the hammer blow against the hull before the deck raised and buckled like a mountain range. But Copper had seen it, and had seen nothing else since, until his eyes were full of shadows which writhed.
The moon’s night wore on, overtaking their sleeps. Hobb turned off the lights to save power. Sparks felt huge in the dark, his senses stretched to fill up the vastness of space. The sea was his guts sloshing. Each star was a puncture in his skinsuit.
He heard the sea churn. “She blows!” he cried, and the boat woke in a scramble. Hobb cast his light across the surface to see it rock itself back to stillness, with no sign of a rising beast.
“Blast it,” he said. “Damn its seven black eyes.” His parts were starting to whirr. Even Copper’s eyes had dimmed, though he still scanned the waves with their dying light.
“Who’s going to eat who first?” he taunted Hobb. “My money’s on the kraken. Maybe I’ll choke it going down.” He gave a wet cough. His jaw seemed to freeze, and he jerked like a clockwork toy.
“That’s that, then,” Hobb said, but Copper still had his harpoon. Hobb fretted and drummed his booted heel on the planks of the boat. The little boat rocked with the movement and waves slapped against her side in an anxious rhythm. Sparks felt like the heater in his chest might explode. He hoped that it would, and that the blast would knock Hobb right out of his seat, and pitch him down to fret at the bottom of the sea.
“We do this fair,” Hobb said, at last. “Whoever draws shortest. Hear that, Copper? Fair’s fair.”
“I’ll choke you going down,” Copper spat through his clenched jaw. Hobb grinned. Three splinters of wood turned between his fingers, then vanished in his hand. Only the ends peeked out of his closed fist.
“You first,” he said to Copper. Sparks saw his fingers twitch as Copper drew. Hobb caught him watching and winked.
“Fair’s fair,” he said again, and let Sparks draw. Hobb opened his hand to reveal the splinter he had kept. It was as long as his palm. Copper creaked his fingers open. His splinter was as long as Hobb’s.
“Oh,” Sparks said. The moon was cold. He’d never felt it before with his warmed over blood, but now the cold came creeping in his skinsuit.
“Hobb cheated,” he said. “I saw his fingers twitch.”
“I saw that too,” Copper said. “You let me draw all the same.”
“I was going to say something. I was!”
“After you picked my bones clean?”
“No,” Sparks said to the darkness. He’d been slow, that was all. Slow from hunger, and the long night. His thoughts were like pushing a rock upstream.
“Now, lad,” Hobb said. “Don’t make this hard on us all.”
Hobb showed Sparks the edge of his knife. The first cut sliced through his skinsuit. He tried to cry out, but the heater in his chest picked up a notch, and his ears rang with the sound of racing blood. Hobb peeled off a strip of flesh and held it aloft, already stiffened and spiked with frost. He ate like a bird, a devil’s heron, throwing his head back and downing the meat in a series of gulps. The macerator in his throat whirred.
“That’s good,” he said, and sliced again. The next strip he handed to Copper, who growled with distaste, but did not refuse. He still had his teeth, and he ate like a wolf. The third strip Hobb handed to Sparks.
“We won’t leave you out, see? You’re one of the crew.”
It looked like a strip of dried pork. Soft hair stiffened into bristles with ice. His gag reflex had long since been removed, and the meat slid down smooth, until it started to melt, and warm copper flooded the back of his throat.
“Get it down, lad,” Hobb said, kindly. “You’ll feel better for it.” His eyes were a warm red light, like the fires of home. Sparks swallowed hard, and the lump passed down his gullet. He did feel better, as his body got to work making fuel of the meat. The aching in his limbs abated, and his sight came back a little way.
“We’re gentlemen here,” Hobb said. “Ain’t we all?”
All through the downhill side of night, Hobb came again with his knife. Sparks cringed away, but the glint of the blade made his mouth fill with spit. Hobb had been right about his soft parts. Everything that kept him alive, the company had made. His lungs were two plastic sacks which continued to suck in hydrocarbons. His blood piped through tubes, kept as warm as weak tea by his heated heart. When the day came again, he lay exposed. The dull metal of his reinforced bones caught the light. He set his own teeth on edge.
Copper seized up with the sunrise. His eyes shifted from left to right, and he twitched his fingers as though dreaming of making a fist. Beyond that, he could not move. Hobb took his harpoon and propped it up out of his reach.
“Fair’s fair,” he said, and helped himself to a slice. Sparks could not raise himself from the floor of the boat, so Hobb tossed him scraps. However much he ate, the hollow in his belly didn’t ease. Copper’s blood tasted like milk on the turn. Only Hobb grew fat on their bounty, reclining in the stern, intact. He watched the waves with red eyes.
A great bubble rose from the depths and burst at the surface with a hollow glop. A shadow grew in the sea, and the little boat lifted on its swell. A honeycombed eye emerged, growing from a dark mass many times their length and broad enough to build a house on.
Sparks unhinged his jaw. Copper creaked in his seat, and Hobb jittered. They had all seen the kraken before, hunted from the high decks of the Night Marie, or dead and diminished, being drained of its oil. But to see it eye-to-eye was to see it again for the first time. Their boat was like a popped cork, bobbing in the kraken’s bathtub.
The kraken turned and showed its seven eyes, which it wore in a loop like a string of pearls. It uncurled its many arms and they spread like spilled ink across the face of the sea. It rolled at the surface, island huge, and then was gone, displacing methane down to the depths. The waves slopped in its wake, and stilled.
“All that oil,” Hobb mourned, but his words rang as flat as an empty bell. The kraken’s eye had made aliens of them. Sparks felt bereft, and sank with it in thought, down into the dark where the Night Marie slept. He drifted for hours in a world without pain, a comrade among his dead crewmates. The kraken loomed on the edge of his senses, the reach of its arms as wide as the moon.
Sparks came back to himself as the sun went down. Coldness came inside him like a hooked claw, and every surface he touched seemed sharp. Copper sat slumped in his seat, reduced to a rough artist’s sketch of a man. Hobb sat humming in the bows.
“I do my part,” he sighed. “Same as any man.” He peeled a strip off himself.
A scream cut the sky. For a moment, Sparks thought the Night Marie was sinking all over again, half-men crying for mercy as they clung to her prow. He looked up and saw two stars falling towards him.
“I told you they’d come,” Hobb crooned between the bars of his tuneless song. The scream became the anger of engines, and the black shape of a ship fell like a stone towards them, gusting hot air which turned the crests of the waves into gas. It pulled to a stop and hovered bare metres above their heads, New Moon Kraken Oil written on its hull. Its hatch fell open like an unhinged jaw.
“What a mess,” someone said. A thin soup of frozen blood lay across the planks of the boat. The remains of the three half-men lay twisted like trees stripped by winter. The company needed a pitchfork to scoop them aboard.
Scrap metal lived in the belly of the company ship. Sparks lay strewn about and shuddered by engines. He felt like a star in the dark.
About the Author
Robin lives in Nottingham, UK, and is a PhD student researching how humans and animals interact. She fits her studies in around her job at an animal shelter, and writes stories in her spare time to relax.