Ten hours later and Jake still couldn’t get the aftertaste from his mouth, a bitter fishy funk that seemed to take on a life of its own. Stretched out on the cot in his stifling-hot excuse for a room, pillow scrunched long-ways beneath his head in desperate effort to find comfort, he couldn’t help but contemplate the matter. It was as if the stench molecules had sprouted roots and drilled into his cheek cells, co-opting their chemistry to make more of their own—growing the smell, escalating the taste—to be continually top-posted in his mind, haunting his psyche. The sensation was so pronounced, it even drowned out the diesel fumes that gave his quarters the distinct bouquet of a 1940s railway station.
Sweating, sore and strung-out as Jake was from all that had gone down, he knew it was entirely possible that the foul taste was a psychosomatic afterimage concocted by his guilt ridden brain—self-flagellation of the devout eco-warrior. Killing a fish, necessary as it may have been, did not sit well with his ways. The fact that he could still taste the fish so many hours later after rinsing his mouth fifty times made no sense.
Maybe it was a ghost, he began to think as he laid there vainly trying to sleep. An apparition that worked the environs outside the normal paranormal. There was the standard lurking white ghosts that busied the optical milieu, the eerie clatter of chains dragged or a shutter slamming on a stormy night repping the auditory realm, ectoplasmic seepage of all kinds holding down the tactile arena—why not a ghost who prowled the pharyngeal? Given his extreme anxiety and the constant reminder of his actions, he’d have much preferred one of the more conventional visitations. At least then he could flee or close his eyes for a moments reprieve. There was no escaping a ghost in your throat.
He rolled his eyes in the near darkness of his metal box, chastising himself for ruminating so far off the rez. Not only did it feed fears and keep adrenals sizzling, but it was a distraction, preventing his mind from weighing more important matters.
“I gotta get out of here,” he said, flinging off the sweat soaked sheet, words heard only by himself and perhaps a recently acquired wraith. A walk top-side for some fresh night air might help. If sleep was not to be then maybe getting outside the box at least he could think. Maybe do a little detective work while he was at it. It had to be more productive than tossing and turning all night.
Rising to his feet he stumbled and grabbed the bunk to steady himself. Like an old wino who’d had a good day panhandling, his equilibrium was clearly off. He drew a few deep breaths to try and help reset his inner gyros, then took a hesitant step forward, testing his sea legs. He seemed to be holding up.
On the upside, and of great appreciation given his incessant nausea, the ship was an especially steady sailing vessel, its headway virtually devoid of any appreciable pitch, yaw or roll. With a state-of-the-art stabilizing system rivaling that of even the most advanced cruise ship—by means of multiple hull thrusters and automated ballast transfer—the vessel maintained an unswerving plane in all but the most deep-cut waters. Following a long shift hauling fish one could kick back, drink a beer, watch a ballgame and become so insulated from the larger reality that you’d never know you were on a massive slab of metal floating remote in the most dangerous sea.
After stopping quickly to brush his teeth for the umpteenth time today, he was out the door and wending his way through the vast and convoluted bowels of the Phantom Run, heading top-side.
Traveling along the main tunnelway, despite his angst, he couldn’t help but marvel at the architecture of the ship that would likely be his home for some time. Every seam was right and tight and powder coated smooth as porcelain, every stainless-steel bolt gleaming along clever curves and joints of architecture perfection. Commissioned several years ago by Joshua Elkington, a dot.com bazillionaire from the UK, a modern day corporate idol with fingers in economic pies worldwide, the Phantom Run was the most extraordinary fishing vessel ever built. At 150 meters in length, it was huge but not the largest factory trawler out there—more sleek and sophisticated than some of the behemoths that stalked the seas—but it was certainly the most smart. Beyond its aggressive utilitarian design, the Phantom Run was well appointed and built for extended—if not indefinite—stays at sea, its fishing tech every bit as evident as the devotion to design.
Despite the World-Wide word on the street and rumor posited by arm-chair conspiracy theorists as to the vessels intentions, one had to be amazed by the physical structure that was the Phantom Run. And aside from his quarters—a storage room Brett had retooled just for him—Jake was duly impressed.
Stepping out onto the deck and gazing across the ships breadth, Jake was immediately struck by the grandeur of the yawning night sky. Taking in the oceanic panorama and feeling the crisp night air lick his face, his body instantly unclenched, his mind going free-range with exhilaration as the great ship sped through the dark sea in near silence.
Refocusing his thoughts Jake continued to survey the ship, looking around for a place to sit and chill. As inviting as it was to head up to the bow—pop a squat to watch the vessel cut through the shifting sea in dazzling close-up—that would put him in direct view of anyone up in the bridge. Being out on deck at night was not against the rules, so far as Jake knew but, given the circumstances, he still felt it best to stay under the radar as best he could. And at the moment, he really just needed some time alone to sort his thoughts.
Jake flinched as two crewmen came into view forty-meters ahead to port as they rounded a massive circular structure that protruded from the main deck. The circular structure had been assembled on deck over the past several days at sea.
Settle down, he self-talked, you ain’t doing nothing wrong.
With near hypnotic obligation, Jake found his eyes drawn to the unusual structure that rose ominously from the center of forecastle deck, and he realized that it was as much the cause of his jitters as being startled by the two crewmen who had stepped from behind it.
Watching the two men approach out of the corner of his eye he wondered, not for the first time, what the machine was—if it was a machine. He was not part of the team that worked to assemble it, nor had he overheard any cross chatter on what it might be. Thanks to YouTube, Wikipedia, numerous Google searches and a little hands on experience—as well as spending time on various forums interacting with fisher-folk from around the world—Jake knew the purpose of most of the equipment on board. From bulkheads and slipknots to mooring lines and winches, Jake had acquired enough theoretical seamanship to fake it. And so far, despite the earlier debacle with his initiation, so good.
But in all his prep, he had unearthed nothing like this structure. It appeared to be more like a device of celestial intent than anything fishing related, and reminded him of the original timeworn observation building he’d seen on a tour of the Lowell Observatory back in his college days at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff.
Still partially wrapped in scaffolding and tangled in harsh shadows cut from moonlight and the countless mounted prison-yard bright spotlights, the contraption seemed to emit a weird poking secrecy that placed it somewhere between a mermaid and Area 51 on the mystery Richter scale. The fact that some of the materials used to assemble it had been flown in by helicopter had only added to its overall ambiguity.
Jake was enormously curious. But he had been warned early on by Brett that the area was off-limits, and that he was to steer clear until otherwise advised, or become fish chum. He was not about to risk such a fate.
Playing it cool, Jake lit a cigarette and nodded casually at the two workers as they passed by. Perfunctorily, one of them nodded back as they stepped through the bulkhead door, heading inside. It did not go unnoticed how they had stopped talking as they drew close. Interesting, Jake could almost feel the wheels spin in his head as he analyzed and filed the action. A little unusual, for sure, but not entirely unexpected, based on the way he’d been treated since boarding the ship. It was as if he had leprosy or admitted he didn’t vote because he felt it pointless, the way he’d been so roundly cold-shouldered.
But in truth, as he ran it up the flagpole of his mind to scrutinize further, given his limited maritime experience—six days on the Phantom Run and a stint on a Greenpeace cutter hounding a shark finning operation off the coast of New Zealand—it was hard for him to determine with any real accuracy if the crew’s behavior was in fact unusual, or typical. It could simply be a normal aloofness directed to all greenhorns. When he got chance, he’d try and speak with one of the other new guys, compare his experience to theirs.
After taking a few drags of his smoke, he nonchalantly made his way abeam, heading for the starboard rail, hugging the front of the towering bridge-castle so as to avoid being seen by anyone who might be looking out from the wheelhouse. As he walked he was distracted by a flickering light above. He craned his neck, following the rise of the bridge-castle; the flashing light came from the wheelhouse. He’d never been up there, maybe they had a TV—a large TV, it would seem. He was momentarily mesmerized by the light strobing into the night from the soaring 360 degree windowed tower, his mind reflexively drawing parallel to the castle of a mad scientist gearing up to jolt the primal seed-spark into some lifeless patchwork creation.
Along the bridge-castle, high above but beneath the wheelhouse, was what Jake could only guess to be a filtration system. Two inch diameter pipes connecting large canisters mounted against the wall reminded Jake of the reverse osmosis water system they had at the house back in Flagstaff, only several orders of magnitude larger. A narrow catwalk allowed access to the apparatus. Jake had seen a crewman up there earlier in the day working, apparently doing maintenance.
Pipework not only ran through the filter system but up and down the façade of the bridge-castle, one end elbowing perpendicular into the wall just below the wheelhouse, the other running all the way down and disappearing through the deck by his feet. Could it run all the way to the hull to suck seawater? He put a hand on one of the pipes. Metal, very sturdy, no flexion whatsoever. He leaned a little closer, listening as well as feeling for vibration, evidence of water movement. He felt nothing. No seawater being sucked up the bridge to sustain a secret incubation pod or IV feed primordial soup to a gestating genetic monster.
Shaking free of the impromptu investigation, he continued along the front of the main tower, rolling his eyes and mentally chiding himself for being such a dweeb. Reaching the starboard gunwale, he hooked a right and headed aft, working his way along the rail, doing his best impression of a guy out for a casual stroll.