30-foot waves came crashing over the bow of the USS Reuben James as she plowed her way through the South China Sea. Despite all efforts of the windshield wipers, the unrelenting ocean mist had dulled the windows of the bridge with thick layer of salt. Even with the bridge lights off, it was impossible to see the bow as it dipped deep into each passing wave. Several of the crew had never seen the sea quite so angry, and as a result, had grown unable to function; overcome by seasickness. Only the veterans, with their sea-legs in place, were able to perform at a semi-normal level. But even they were beginning to feel to strain of 3 straight days of sea-state five.
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One ladder down from the bridge, bathed in the blue lighting of the Combat Information Center, several crewmen tended their screens, looking for signs of another vessel.
The Reuben James had been on a 5-day port visit to Hong Kong when it received word that a Chinese cargo vessel, the Yi He Yan, had become stranded in the turbulent seas. As an act of goodwill towards the communist Chinese government, the US 3rd fleet ordered the Reuben James into to South China Sea to conduct a rescue operation.
"Contact. Bearing 1-6-4 degrees, range 4700 yards," shouted OS2 Melton, the track supervisor.
This seemed to jar Lieutenant Junior Grade Davies, the watch officer, back to life as he crossed the cramped space to verify the contact. He peered over the track supervisor's shoulder and asked him if he was sure. The crewman's nod sent the Davies to the phone. He had orders to notify the captain when the ship was found. Commander Jeffery Gilmore had been up for half an hour and stepped into CIC already wearing his uniform.
"Are you positive?" he asked, crossing to the track supervisor.
"Yessir, I am. The radar cross-section is a perfect match for the ship we're looking for," Petty Officer Melton said. "Besides that, sir, no one in their right minds would be out in these seas if they could help it."
"Tell me about it," Cdr. Gilmore said as he turned to face Lt. jg. Davies. "How long until we're in range to send a party across?"
"About 45 minutes, sir."
Gilmore let out a long sigh and looked at his watch; 5:15 in the morning. He stepped to the intercom and pressed the talk button. "Bridge, captain."
Instantly, the gray box squawked to life, "Go, sir."
"Pass the word for VBSS phase one. Let's wake 'em up."
"Will do, sir," the officer of the deck said.
"Now set VBSS Phase One."
The metallic sound of the ship's general announcing system, or 1 MC, pierced the dim passageways and berthing spaces as it summoned the Visit, Board, Search and Seizure Team into action.
One at a time, the six members of Sweep Team 1 began to crawl from their cramped beds and pull their uniforms on. Roy O'Neil, one of the ship's four electronic warfare technicians and Sweep Team 1 point man, rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he tried to focus on his watch. "5:20," he said to his teammate, Ryan Kipher. "Can you believe this shit? I just hit my pit two and a half hours ago, and now they decide to find this hunk o' shit."
Kipher shrugged off O'Neil's criticism, being too tired to get sucked in to one of his friend's characteristic rantings. He tended to be a little more laid back than O'Neil, but he did agree with him; the timing couldn't have been worse.
After rousing themselves to a state of near-consciousness, the members of Sweep Team 1 met in the passageway outside the 76mm gun mount to collect their equipment. Gun belts, body armor, and helmets were passed to each member. Once this had been completed and the entire team had their armor in place, GMC Masterson placed a call to the bridge and notified them that the team was ready for phase two.
"Now set VBSS Phase Two."
The team proceeded down two ladders to the armory. There, the task of handing out weapons and ammunition was taken care of. Each member received a 9mm pistol equipped with a tactical flashlight mounted under the barrel and five 15 round magazines. A small bottle of pepper spray, a collapsible baton, or ASP, and a radio were also passed out here.
The team busied themselves by stowing their gear as GMC Masterson began to brief them on the upcoming boarding.
"All right, listen up," he said to get the restless team members to calm down long enough to hear him out. After waiting a few seconds, he cut to the chase. "The Yi He Yan is a bulk freighter out of Hong Kong. She was due back in port eight days ago and the port authority lost contact with her 48 hours prior.
"Chinese aircraft spotted her 43 miles out sometime yesterday morning. She's dead in the water and none of the crew have been seen moving about the decks. All attempts to raise her on the radio have also failed. It's possible that she's been raided by pirates, so be really careful when we get over there. I don't want some Blackbeard wanna-be getting the drop on one of you guys."
"Now set VBSS phase 3."
The team headed out to the weatherdecks. Despite the rising sun being obscured by an overcast sky, it was already bright enough to make out the Yi He Yan far off the port side. They made their way to the boatdeck, where they were met by the 2-man boat crew. All eight men donned bright orange life vests and stepped into the rigid-hull inflatable boat, or RHIB.
The boat was lowered into the water by a giant winch hooked to a large, mechanical davit. As soon as the RHIB was waterborne, the boat engineer started the engine and the coxswain steered towards the Yi He Yan.
The large waves tossed the small craft as the eight occupants struggled to maintain their hold. After just a few moments and there was not a dry spot anywhere within the confines of the RHIB. Everyone gasped for air as the frigid waters blanketed them. The occasional obscenity was heard over the din of the ocean, but it was impossible to determine the source.
O'Neil thought to make a sarcastic appraisal of the grim situation, but decided against it as no one would hear him and he hated to waste a witty comment.
After a long, arduous few minutes, the hulk of the Yi He Yan loomed overhead. The rusted steel of her enormous body seemed to stretch on to the horizons. All eyes probed the hull as the coxswain circumnavigated the vessel, looking for a point of entry. Halfway around, a small landing came into sight.
The coxswain maneuvered the RHIB as close to the grated steel platform as possible without endangering the craft. Waves swallowed the landing at regular intervals and threatened to dash the small boat against the hull.
One at a time, the boarders leaped to the small landing. The first ones across moved a few steps up the ladder to provide a clear platform for their incoming teammates. Once all were across, the RHIB moved into a loose orbit around the ship in case of an emergency evacuation. The team started scaling the steps in a tight group.
Being the point man, O'Neil was first on deck. He immediately unsheathed his firearm and took cover against a rust-eaten bulkhead. He scanned the general vicinity for any sign of threat. When he felt confident there was none, he motioned for Kipher to join him.
Kipher sprinted across the short distance in a heartbeat and he and O'Neil teamed up to perform a quick sweep of the bow. A short time later, O'Neil grabbed the handset of his radio and depressed the talk key.
"The forecastle's clear, Chief; you guys can come on."
"Copy that, we're on our way."
Moments later, the entire team was assembled on the forecastle (pronounced focsle) seeking shelter against the decaying superstructure and shucking their life jackets. Masterson had no sooner discarded his when he started to bark out orders.
"Kipher and O'Neil, sweep the 01 level and then move up to the 02. Bronson and Miller, you two finish the sweep of the main deck. Me and Ens. Jones will head on up to the bridge. Let's set radio checks at 5-minute intervals. Everybody got it?"
The sea-soaked team all nodded or answered in the affirmative. Masterson nodded his approval as he ran the back of his hand across his forehead to stop a droplet of sea water from entering his eyes. "Let's do it."
The team dispersed and went about the task of securing the main deck and above. Team One consisted of O'Neil and Kipher, Team Two was made up of Alan Miller, a radar technician and Greg Bronson, the team's engineer, and Team Three, or the bridge team, was Ensign Scott Jones, the boarding officer and GMC Randy Masterson, the team leader.
Teams 1 and 2 started off down the port side together, but Team One headed up the first available ladder to begin their sweep of the upper levels. Team Two continued aft, staying close to the bulkhead for cover in case it was needed.
The bridge team, led by Masterson, took the most direct possible route up two ladders and into the dark, moist confines of the deserted bridge. Masterson shined his tac-light across the corroded walls in search of a light switch. He found what he was looking for in the form of a dull brass key switch. As he turned the switch, the bridge remained obscured by darkness. He repeated his efforts several times to make sure that the switch was working properly. It did no good, as there was simply no power.
He then removed the microphone of his radio from its resting place and keyed it. "All stations, this is the bridge team. Bridge is secure, I repeat, the bridge is secure."
O'Neil came first, as was the order, "Team One copies."
Miller was the next to respond, "This is Team Two, roger that."
Team Two completed their duty securing the stern portion of the vessel without incident. Looking around one last time, Miller grabbed the handset off of his lapel.
"Bridge, Team Two. The fantail is secure."
Masterson's voice crackled over the radio, "Bridge copies; break, Bronson, come in."
Bronson fetched his radio. "Go ahead, Chief."
"There doesn't seem to be any power anywhere onboard. After Team One finishes their sweep, I want all four of you to head down and see if you can get the generators online. Copy?"
"Roger that, Chief. Have Team One meet us on the fantail when their done."
"Will do. Team one, did you copy that?"
"Gotcha, Chief," O'Neil said into his radio. "We're almost done up here."
"Copy that; report in when your finished," Masterson instructed. "Bridge Team, out."
O'Neil and Kipher had crept along the sea ravaged decks, checking every space on the 01 level. There was no sign of life. They progressed on to the 02 level and worked their way forward.
They came to the first of eleven staterooms and took positions on opposite sides of the door. O'Neil, being left-handed, knelt down on the right; Kipher stood ready to open the door from the left.
Kipher forced the door into motion. Before O'Neil could enter, the smell of rancid meat hit both of them in the face. The stench forced both men back. Spasms of nausea seized them and sent them to the railing for support.
The raging seas did little to help clear their heads. O'Neil leaned over the rails as Kipher sat down to collect himself. O'Neil shook it off and stood upright. Pulling the neck of his T-shirt over his nose, he nudged the door open with his boot. What he saw almost sent him back to the railing.
The thick carpet was soaked with a crimson liquid that he took to be blood. He stepped in with one foot. The red liquid bubbled and frothed under his weight.
"Blood," he said, not taking his eyes off the carpet.
"What?" Kipher sprung to his feet.
"Have a look."
Kipher peered over his partner's shoulder. "God."
Without removing his makeshift mask, O'Neil entered the room. The narrow beam of his tac-light penetrated the darkness, scanning the walls. The painted steel was punctuated with splashes of red. The furniture was broken and scattered. Blood-soaked linens and clothing were strewn about the floor and dangled from fixtures. The small mattress had been shredded. Large piles of its stuffing laid on the floor and had begun to collect blood.
He moved about the room, being careful not to touch anything. The carpet made a squishing sound as he stepped and several times he found himself caught on a bloody scrap of cloth.
Kipher watched from outside. "I'm gonna call the bridge about this."
"Hold on, let's wait 'til we know what to call it in as."
O'Neil beamed his light in the far corner. He noticed a black spot in the vermillion-stained carpet. A small mass of something glistened. He moved in, trying to identify the substance.
Next to it, he found fragments of a ceramic cup. He picked one of the larger pieces up to examine it. It was lighter than he had anticipated; china perhaps. It was impossible to tell the original color as it had become permanently stained with blood. He turned the shard over in his palm. A wave of queasiness swept over him as he found hair and skin attached.
He dropped the fragment and retreated three feet with one jump. Droplets of blood leapt onto his boots as he landed.
"FUCK! FUCK!" he shouted as he stared at the broken skull and the black glob of what had to be brain tissue.
"What is it?" Kipher asked as he ran to the door.
"I think I found one of the crew." O'Neil looked from the floor to his hand. Even though he couldn't see anything on the black leather glove, he scoured it against his pant leg.
"Whaddaya mean you think?"
O'Neil motioned for Kipher to enter the room. Although he was reluctant, he did so. O'Neil trained his light on the floor.
"Someone's head, or what's left of it, anyway."
Kipher turned his head away and exited the room. He had to tell Masterson about this.
"Bridge, Team One. You're not gonna believe this."
Masterson's voice crackled through the radio. "What is it, Team One?"
"We found what looks like brain and skull fragments in one of the staterooms."
"Any idea what did it?"
"I dunno, an animal from the looks of things." Kipher went on to describe the condition of the room.
"Well, check the rest of 'em out and report in," Masterson said. "And Kipher, be careful."
O'Neil left bloody footprints on the rusty deck as he and Kipher continued searching the staterooms. All had been ravaged, five were discolored with blood. None of them contained the putrid mix of skull and brains found in the first. No clues to the crew's whereabouts were discovered. All that was left now was the captain's cabin.
The door leading to the captain's stateroom was unlatched and swung slightly with the rocking of the ship. Its motion suggested that an object had been placed behind it to keep it closed. Further inspection revealed a broken lock and bent dogs. It looked like something had tried unsuccessfully to gain entrance.
O'Neil motioned to towards the door with his head, signaling Kipher to take notice of the clues at hand. He nodded his understanding and took position on the right side of the door, the hinged side. O'Neil then moved to the left side of the door. He glanced over at his partner.
Kipher gave a single nod, stating his readiness to enter. Both men placed their pistols at the ready and O'Neil gave the door a thunderous kick. The thick door flew open, breaking whatever had been placed in its path.
Before the door had reached its apex, both men were in the room, scanning their surroundings with the tac-lights. Neither of them could believe what they saw.
With the exception of a faint, pungent odor, the captain's quarters were immaculate. Books were stacked neatly on their shelves, no clothes or linens laid scattered; there were none of the indications of struggle found in the neighboring rooms. Whatever had ransacked the others had not gotten in here. The two men glanced at each other in disbelief.
"What the hell is going on here?" O'Neil said, breaking the tense silence.
"I don't know, and I'm not sure I wanna find out," Kipher whispered.
O'Neil shined his light around the room once again. He stopped on a large, high-backed leather chair behind a mahogany desk. He gave a cautious look to Kipher and ventured forth.
Holding his gun at chest level with his left hand, he reached out to the chair with his right. He pressed his gloved palm against the brown leather at the top of the chair and closed his fingers. He took a deep breath and held it as he forced himself to spin the chair around.
"Holy shit!" he yelled as he jumped back.
The chair held a small Chinese man with a large, ragged hole where most of his head had once been. His right hand was clutching a Makarov pistol, and there was a crumpled piece of paper in his left. From the look and smell of things, he had been dead for several days.
O'Neil cupped his hand over his nose and mouth and stared at the cadaver in shock. Kipher composed himself as much as he could and reached for his radio.
"Bridge, Team One," he said, trying to suppress his gag reflex.
"Bridge here, go ahead." Masterson's voice came in loud and startled both men.
"We found the captain, Chief."
"Where is he?"
"In his stateroom, dead."
"Dead?!?" Masterson's disembodied voice cried through the radio. "How?"
Kipher inched closer to the captain's body and answered, "Looks like a suicide."
"Are you sure?" Masterson said. His tone suggested he didn't want to believe it.
"Pretty sure," Kipher said acknowledging the gun.
"Look around for a log or anything like that."
"Wait one, Chief, we may have something."
While Kipher had been relaying the discovery to Masterson, O'Neil had calmed himself enough to investigate the wad of paper in the dead man's hand. Looking away from the self-inflicted gunshot wound, he tried to pry the rigor mortis strengthened digits loose. It was no use. Finally, he was able to poke the paper ball free by forcing his finger into the hand, much like a teenager demonstrating sex.
Unfurling the yellow paper revealed Chinese characters scrawled at irregular intervals.
"Here," O'Neil said, handing the paper to Kipher. "See what you can make of it."
"Hell, I can't read Chinese."
"I don't think any of us can."
Kipher grabbed his radio. "Bridge, Team One."
"Go ahead, Team One."
"Chief, we found a note or something, but it's in Chinese. No one here can read it, can they?"
"Bring it on up here, I brought a phrase book in case none of the crew spoke English. Maybe I can figure it out."
"Roger that, we're on our way."
Seconds later, O'Neil and Kipher were on the bridge. The room seemed crowded with four people. Kipher handed to paper to Masterson. He gave the sheet a quick glance before facing them again.
"Team 2 is waiting for you on the fantail. I want you to escort them to the generators; Bronson's gonna try and get us some power. After they're settled in, check the spaces down there."
O'Neil and Kipher turned to leave, but were stopped short by Masterson.
"Tell them that I'm sending the RHIB home."
O'Neil immediately turned to protest. "But, the ship's not secured yet."
Masterson looked at him from beneath his brow. "You have your orders, O'Neil."
As he drew a breath to speak, Kipher placed a hand on his partner's chest and forced him out the door.
Outside, O'Neil's protest finally became verbal. "Is he fucking crazy? We have no idea what's down there."
"I know, but arguing with him is just asking for trouble. We'll deal with it when we get back."
"If we get back, you mean."
On the fantail, Kipher relayed the message about the RHIB. Miller and Bronson's reactions mirrored O'Neil's.
"Is he fucking crazy?" Miller asked as his jaw dropped.
"That's what he said," Kipher said, thumbing to O'Neil.
"Well, we'd better get some power to this tub," Bronson said. "We may be here a while."
"I'd almost rather try to swim back to the ship than spend another second on this fucking ghost ship," O'Neil said.
"Whaddya mean by that?" Bronson asked.
O'Neil spent the next few minutes describing the conditions of the staterooms and how they found the captain. By the time he was done, Bronson and Miller looked as if they were ready to swim for it as well.
"Look," Kipher began, "no one's gonna jump ship. You'd never survive those seas if you did. We could be here for a while, so let's just go down there and try to get the lights on."
"He's right," Bronson said. "The sooner we get the generators up, the better I'll feel."
O'Neil and Kipher were the first to enter the ship. They determined a safe route to engineering decks and retrieved the team's engineers. The four men entered the bowels of the ship and searched for the generator room.
Aside from the occasional groan of metal fatigue, the ship was silent. This silence, the blackness of the interior, and the thick, stale air created a claustrophobic environment for the ship's latest occupants. The men were as silent as their surroundings. It was as if every one of them was waiting to hear something.
Bronson was the first to break the silence. "I think this is it," he said, motioning to one of several doors in the dark passageway.
"You sure?" Miller asked.
"Yeah, it's gotta be."
Bronson pointed at a sign warning of high voltage. He undid the latch and opened the door.
The room was crammed with four large structures coming up from the decks. Bronson walked to the nearest one and shined his light into a small window. Kipher and Miller entered the room while O'Neil remained in the hall. They all watched Bronson and waited for his approval.
"Yeah, this is it," he finally said. "They seem to be in good shape, but I won't know for sure until I open 'em up."
Kipher shined his light around the room. "Whatcha need?"
Bronson crossed to a large red tool cabinet and opened it. "Looks like I've got everything I need here."
"OK, I guess we're gonna go check out the rest of the spaces," Kipher said. "We'll see you guys later. Radio if you need anything."
"All right, see ya," Bronson said as he produced a wrench from the cabinet.
O'Neil and Kipher checked the spaces in the area of the generator room first. They found the engine room, the oil lab, and what looked like a workshop, complete with a lathe. All of the spaces seemed undisturbed.
With the engineering decks secured, O'Neil radioed the bridge with a progress report.
"All right, proceed forward to the holds," Masterson said.
Kipher decided it would be best to check in with Miller and Bronson before moving on. They walked back to the generator room and Kipher stuck his head in.
"Everything all right?"
"Yeah," Bronson said. "These things are in great shape, so I should have them running in an hour or so."
"Cool. Well, we're about to head forward and check out the holds; we just wanted to check with you guys before we did."
"Everything's okay here. You guys have fun," Bronson said, turning back to his work.
Kipher motioned to O'Neil and the two of them headed towards the cargo area.
The passageway leading to the four cargo holds was barely wide enough for one man. It was flanked by two large garage doors on either side and ended with a doorway to the anchor windlass. All of the cargo doors were locked by a padlock.
O'Neil grabbed his radio. "Bridge, Team One."
"Go ahead, Team One." It was Ens. Jones.
"Where's Chief Masterson?"
"He's trying to translate the note you found. What do you need?"
"We're here at the cargo holds," O'Neil said, taken aback by the ensign's abruptness. "They're locked and I wanted to know if you guys found a key."
After a long pause, Ens. Jones returned. "Shoot them off. Out."
O'Neil looked to Kipher who shrugged.
"Fuck that," O'Neil said as he looked at the steel walls. "Let's go back to that workshop and see if we can find some bolt cutters."
"Good idea," Kipher said.
Five minutes later, with bolt cutters in hand, O'Neil and Kipher returned to the cargo bay. Each door emitted a hollow bong as O'Neil knocked on them, testing them for content.
"They sound pretty empty to me."
Kipher nodded and stepped forward with the bolt cutters. He chose the first door on the left. With little effort, the cutters pierced the lock. He removed the now-useless lock from the latch and it hit the deck with a pronounced rattle.
"Gimme a hand," he said to O'Neil as he began to open the door.
It took both of them to lift the massive door. Once Kipher was able to get his legs under him, O'Neil took half a step back and drew his gun. When the opening reached a manageable width, O'Neil rolled inside.
He rolled up on one knee and took cover behind a wooden crate. He looked back to check his partner's status. Kipher threw the door upwards and entered. The door slammed into its stops and teetered on its tracks, as if trying to seal them in. Both men peered up at the door and listened as it settled into place. Content that it wasn't going anywhere, they started investigating the hold.
The 40-foot-tall room contained wooden shipping crates placed at sporadic intervals. O'Neil moved about them in search of hiding crewmen. There were none.
"Hey, nobody's home."
Kipher stood upright and shined his light a crate.
"Looks like knickknacks from Taiwan," he said, reading the container's label. "Let's move on to the next one."
The entry ritual was repeated twice more. Both of the subsequent holds contained objects that were probably meant for the tourist shops of Hong Kong, nothing that would attract piracy. The search results were radioed to Masterson. Once again, it was Ens. Jones that answered. He showed little interest, being engaged in some other affair. He instructed them to investigate the remaining hold and only to report finds of unusual nature.
The fourth cargo hold was entered in the same manner as the others. O'Neil panned his weapon, illuminating small patches of the vast space. No crates or boxes were to be found. The hairs on his arm stood on end as a faint shuffling bore through the silence.
"US Navy boarding team," he said. "Step out where I can see you with your hands in the air."
Hearing this, Kipher drew his weapon and joined his partner in the room. The shuffling continued, growing louder. O'Neil identified himself again. No response.
Thinking it could be a Chinese crewman with no comprehension of English, he stood and sidestepped forward. "Cover me," he said to Kipher.
A pair of tattered shoes staggered into the illuminated circle. O'Neil moved the light upward. The pants were torn and stained with blood. The bare torso was covered with festering lesions and had the color of an old army jacket. Sores masked a face that was devoid of expression and the eyes were a milky white.
"Stay where you are," O'Neil said as he thumbed the safety of his pistol to the off position.
The macabre figure continued to muddle forward. O'Neil began to inch back as he repeated his warning. As before, it had no effect. The figure raised his arms, reaching for him. Flakes of dried blood cracked and fell to the floor as the creature opened its mouth.
O'Neil issued a final warning. It went unheeded. He now had no choice.
The report was deafening as it echoed off of the steel interior. Two 9mm found their mark in the monster's chest, sending it to the deck.
O'Neil stood with his gun raised and waited for the smoke to settle. He thought Kipher may had said something, but it was overpowered by the ringing in his ears. He looked back to see his partner relaying the events to the bridge via radio.
He turned his attention back to the body on the floor. He stepped closer for a better look at his attacker. The man appeared to be Chinese, but the condition of his skin made it impossible to guess his age. O'Neil studied the wounds. They were infected, oozing puss and semi-coagulated blood.
"Hey," Kipher said, breaking his concentration. "I can't raise the bridge."
"What about Bronson and Miller?"
"Nope, can't reach them either. I think something's gone really wrong."
Before O'Neil could respond, there was a sharp pressure around his ankle. He looked down and saw the man he had just shot grabbing at his leg. Acting on instinct, he trained the gun at his attacker's head. Two more gunshots reverberated off of the walls.
The steel deck was splashed with black liquid. The stench of rotting brains forced its way through the aroma of burnt gunpowder, invading O'Neil's nasal cavities. He forced his way past Kipher and into the passageway. His partner was right behind him.
"What the hell is going on?"
"I don't know," O'Neil said, still trying to clear his head of the stink. "C'mon, let's try to find the others."
Halfway to the engineering decks, O'Neil stopped short. "Do you feel something?"
Kipher stopped alongside him and scanned the walls with his light. "No."
"That's what I mean; the ship's not rocking anymore."
A confused look was passed between the two and they bolted to the nearest ladder. A dense fog enveloped them as they emerged from the depths of the ship. O'Neil walked to the obscured railing. Kipher found it difficult to follow his friend's movements after a few paces.
The rails made themselves apparent shortly before O'Neil collided with them. He leaned over and peered into the inky water below. What little he could see through the fog was as glass. He had never seen the ocean change its temperament so suddenly. A chill ran down his spine as he concluded that things had somehow gone very wrong.
No need to even try locating the James, he thought as he stared into the fog. He turned to speak to his partner, who was nowhere in sight.
"Yeah," the voice came from his left. "Right here."
O'Neil ventured back to the door. Kipher's silhouette appeared in the doorway.
"What now?" he asked.
"I think we should try and find the others."
In order to escape the fog, they began their search below. Heading straight for the generator room, Kipher made several attempts to raise the second team by radio. O'Neil walked point, as usual, but was more cautious after his previous encounter.
Bizarre sounds began to emanate from the ship. Surrounded by hollow steel, it was impossible to ascertain the source. They quickened their pace and soon were at the generator room door.
The door swung on its hinges, revealing a large pool of blood. Centered in the pool was a collection of bullet casings and body parts. A dismembered arm displayed a silver watch. O'Neil recognized it as Miller's. He shut the door.
"They're dead," he said to Kipher before moving on.
"Where are you going?"
"To find a way out of here."
"Let's try and find Jones and Masterson."
"Fuck them," O'Neil said, turning to face Kipher. "They're all dead!"
O'Neil stormed out of the passageway to the ladder leading to the main deck. "The water's calm, we can swim for it."
"Don't be crazy, man," Kipher said as he grabbed his partner by the arm. "You wouldn't even know what direction to go in this fog. Look, let's head to the bridge and try to find a flare gun or something."
O'Neil took a deep breath. "Okay, but I don't think we should stay any longer than absolutely necessary."
They wasted no time in reaching the bridge. As they entered, both took immediate notice of a small spray of blood on the chart table. There were no other signs of Masterson or Jones.
Mingled with the blood was the captain's letter and Masterson's partial translation. O'Neil picked the latter up and read:
We have sailed into the heart of Hell. My crew have all died, only to be reanimated as something unholy. I fear that I am next. Forgive us.
"We're leaving," O'Neil said as the paper slipped from his hand. Without question Kipher followed as he made a hasty exit.
"What are we gonna do?"
O'Neil slid down the rails of two ladders to land back on the main deck. He grabbed two lifejackets and tossed one to Kipher. "We're gonna take our chances out there."
Sliding the orange vest into place, he heard uneven footsteps behind him. The look on Kipher's face told him all he needed to know.
He spun on his heels and drew his weapon.
It was Masterson, with what looked like Ens. Jones in pursuit. "Save yourselves," was all he managed to say before Jones caught him.
O'Neil stared in horror as Jones sunk his teeth into the top of Masterson's head. The sickening crunch proved too much for Kipher and O'Neil could hear his retching from behind.
O'Neil leveled his gun at Jones' head and fired. The impact sent the Zombie Jones reeling before falling back onto the deck. O'Neil broke for the rails, grabbing the dazed Kipher by the sleeve as he passed.
As he assisted his catatonic friend with donning his lifejacket, he began hearing a dull thudding sound from within the ship. The tab of Kipher's zipper was slippery with vomit, turning a simple task into a struggle for survival.
The zipper finally slid home as the previous sound was replaced by the unmistakable chime of breaking glass.
Turning his head to the bulkhead, O'Neil saw the gaunt crew piling through open doors and portholes. Some were gnawing at each other in effort to break free. A few had escaped the melee and began to approach them.
O'Neil turned away from them. He bent down, grabbed Kipher around his thighs, and forced him over the side.
The plight to save his friend had taken longer than he thought. He could feel cold, damp hands tugging at his vest. He braced himself against the rails and sent a sidekick into the abdomen of the nearest zombie. The force knocked several of them over like bowling pins.
Looking back for an instant to survey the damage, he saw Bronson's now-pale features amongst the undead swarm.
Not wasting a second more, O'Neil vaulted himself over the railing and into the South China Sea. The rush of the frigid water sent him into a state of near-shock. He collected himself as quickly as he could and scanned the surface for Kipher.
The biting cold had woken Kipher from his panicked state and he was now swimming towards O'Neil. He took the lanyard from his vest and hooked to O'Neil's to prevent separation. Together, they paddled as fast as they could away from the malevolent ship.
Hours passed and the fog refused to disperse. The two of them made small talk to keep each other conscious and to disguise their diminishing hopes for survival. The strobe lights attached to the vests continued to blink brightly, but they seemed of little use in the haze.
"Listen," Kipher said, ceasing all conversation. O'Neil tilted his head and heard the sound. It was the RHIB.
Both of them began to shout and flail to attract attention. Soon, the boat was within sight. The engine was cut and the survivors hoisted aboard. A feeling of relief and exhaustion soon consumed both men and the ride back to the ship was a silent one.
The RHIB came along side the familiar gray hull of the Reuben James. The boat crew fastened the davit line to the boat and they were lifted to the boatdeck.
A large group had amassed to witness the homecoming. Kipher rubbed his nose as he stepped on deck. It seemed that the stench of the death had permeated his sinuses. O'Neil couldn't help but wonder why everyone looked so pale.
"It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything."