It was now well past midnight. Most of the crew of the Independence had settled into bed, leaving the ship’s nighttime skeleton-crew to their posts. The after-hours radio man, Horton, sat at his post with earphones clamped to his head. He repeatedly tossed a baseball into the air with his right hand and caught it with the catcher’s mitt on his left, all the while staring at the ceiling. The night was, as usual, dull and uneventful. The only sound in his headphones was the soft static of the quiet sea as his advanced radio-set automatically scanned through the frequencies.
Suddenly a noise blasted through the static: a staccato burst of rapidly-tapped Morse code beeps, beginning with the repeated pattern“… --- …”: “S.O.S.”. Hurriedly, Horton ripped off his catcher’s mitt and left the baseball bouncing forgotten on the floor, and he began to jot down the distress message pouring through the aether…
Sometime later, the massive doors on the Independence rolled open to reveal the ship’s flooded and ready docking-bay. A floatplane was the first to emerge from inside the huge vessel: the aircraft was a small and fast two-person plane armed with a machine-gun turret. After taxiing out into open-water, it picked up speed before lifting off from the water and heading into the west. From the cockpit of the craft, a yellow scarf fluttered in the wind; the helmeted and goggled visage of Diana St. Clair watched the dark waves below as she headed off toward the rough coordinates provided by the frantic distress-call.
The plane was followed soon after by a small and swift boat bearing a boarding party. From the bow of the craft, Clifton Storm led his party of adventurers out into the black night in search of what could be the latest victims of Poseidon’s curse. In his mind, the frantic last words of the distress message replayed themselves: “They want the ship… they want us…!”
From the air, the Aegean Sea was a vast and impenetrable table of blackness. Diana and her gunner scanned the waves as they got closer to the area that the signal had originated from. Their eyes were only met with darkness until at last the tiny glimmer of lights winked at them feebly from below. It was a small cargo steamer, an old rust-bucket of a ship. Circling the craft, they peered at it through the night:it seemed to be deserted, and no motion could be seen from the ship.
“We might be too late, Cliff,” she called into the radio’s microphone after she announced their location to Storm and his party. “This tub looks deserted.”
“Keep circling, Diana, we’re almost there.” Storm had the boat’s pilot adjust their course accordingly and he performed a last-minute gear-check. The party was outfitted with thick pea-coats against the strangely chilly night, but it wasn’t the temperature that iced Storm’s senses on this mission. Worry gnawed at his insides, along with a tingly feeling… He wasn’t sure if it was the mystery of what they were headed toward or whether it was something else… Rather than dismiss it, he held onto that feeling: sometimes his instincts helped to keep him sharp and had kept him alive on more than one occasion. His quiet energy increased, like a jungle-cat poised to strike…
When the speedy boat arrived they could see the dim glimmer of lights and could confirm what Diana had reported: nothing moved on the ship’s deck, and it drifted on the dark waves with no direction and no hand to helm it. The MARDL craft heaved-to on the boat’s port-side and the crew attached boarding-ladders to it. Storm, Brock, and a team of five other crew-members from the Independence climbed aboard and began to fan out across the deck. They began a search of the craft, Tommy guns at the ready for the first sign of trouble. Meanwhile, Diana’s plane continued to circle in the dark overhead as the boarding-party scoured the drifting steamer. No identification was evident so far on board- the craft didn’t even have a name, it seemed. It was a nondescript ghost-ship.
The group split up and moved throughout the ship, checking the cabins, galley, store-rooms… nothing turned up beside more emptiness. There were very little furnishings too, as though the ship had hardly ever been occupied in the first place.
“It’s all clear up here,” Storm announced finally. “We’re going below deck.” With that, they began to file down the stairs to the next level of the small steamship…
Although she wasn't onboard the derelict with Storm, Diana St. Clair was feeling anxious for the boarding-party. The eeriness of the situation was getting to her, and the long stretch of radio-silence wasn’t helping. Impatiently, she checked her gauges for what seemed to be the hundredth time… She was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder as her gunner attempted to get her attention. He pointed, and she returned her eyes to the waves below: something odd was occurring. A strange fog was beginning to sprout up all around the ship. In moments, the strange mist thickened enough that she could just barely make out the glow of the crafts’ lights.
Diana clicked on the plane’s searchlight and swiveled it to cast its beam onto the Aegean. The strange fog blocked the light, however, and she could no longer see the boats below at all. She grabbed the radio’s mic.
“Tyner,” she called to the speedboat’s pilot. “Tyner, what’s going on with all that fog?”
Silence was her only answer. Diana tried to hail Tyner again; far below and within the fog, her voice crackled unheard from the speakers of the boat’s radio. Tyner, a hardily-built sailor,slumped unmoving in front of the radio set. With blank and glazing eyes he sat dead, a deep and ragged wound oozing blood from his back…
Storm and his crew descended the steps and entered the boat’s engine room. The throbbing boiler and engine gave the men a little comfort: obviously it had been occupied relatively recently, and this knowledge helped alleviate some of the strange feelings of isolation and abandonment that was onboard. They hoped to find someone here, some remnants of the boat’s crew. They checked the chamber thoroughly and found yet again no sign of the ship’s inhabitants.
After their repeated non-discoveries, they made their way at last to the final place they hadn’t yet checked: the cargo hold. The door, they found, was unlocked and they steeled themselves for what they might find inside. Stepping cautiously into the hold, they found the lights weren’t working in the room, and they had to resort to clicking their flashlights on.
Yellow beams feebly pierced the dusty blackness of the hold to reveal the space to be nearly empty. At the far end of the hold sat the large humped shapes of a fewcrates. The group made their way forward, feeling the failure of what they had hoped would be a rescue mission. They hoped that at least the crates may hold some contents, some clue of what the ship had been hauling, and maybe who the crew may have been…
A sound, faint but insistent, came to Storm’s ears. He stopped, straining to hear it among the footsteps of his comrades: it was a strange, rhythmic sound: a hiss followed by an expulsion of air, accompanied by a faint gurgling. It sounded almost like… breathing. If it was breathing, then it wasn’t human, and it sounded like there was more than one source to this sound.
Suddenly from around the crates hulking black shapes appeared in the struggling beams of the crews’ flashlights. The dimly-seen forms crouched menacingly and raised their weapons at the crew from the Independence...
Below are Micheal Kaluta's sketches that accompany this scene from the book: from the original concept sketch, through refinement and completion.