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By Lumley, Brian
Tor Books Copyright © 2002 Lumley, Brian
All right reserved.
THE SUN, THE SEA, AND THE DRIFTING DOOM
At some 35,000 tons and just over 700 feet from stem to stern, the Evening Star was a Mediterranean cruise ship without peer. Her eight public decks were all served by elevators, and with her casino, gymnasium, outdoor pools, bars, gift shops, sports deck--all the usual amenities--the Star was the pride of her line. Of an evening, her 1,400-plus passengers could choose to relax in the Moulin Rouge lounge or the All That Jazz show bar, dance the night away in the Sierra Ballroom, or simply sit and be serenaded, watching the sunset from the panoramic sundeck.
This being the Star's last voyage of the season, however, last night had been a little different. A mid-cruise "extravaganza," the extra glitz of its shows and its grand finale--a fireworks display from the stern, lighting the Aegean sky with dazzling spirals and brilliant, thunderclap bomb-bursts--had been one of the highlights of the voyage; the locals ashore in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos had enjoyed it as much as the passengers aboard. Add to this cuisine straight out of a gourmet's dream of paradise, and it was easy to see why the onboard partying had gone on and on through the night, and why the run on the champagne locker had seemed unending...
But all good things do come to an end.
Now...it was early morningof a Monday in October, and in the galley breakfast was being prepared for those who still had the stomach for yet more food, while those who didn't slept off their excesses. A few younger passengers were up and about, making the most of the pools while yet they had them to themselves, and as if emulating their energy a pod of dolphins, like so many silver minisubmarines, played chicken on the bow wave, crisscrossing the prow just beneath a sparkling surface that was so flat calm it might well be a horizon-spanning plate of diamond-etched glass. While the sun had risen no more than half an hour ago, already the deck rails were warm from its rays.
So thought Purser Bill Galliard where he strolled the main deck for'ard, having risen early to prepare the shore excursion roster for the Star's midday visit to the picturesque island of Límnos Thus far the cruise had gone precisely to plan, without a hitch, and Galliard had wanted to do his bit to ensure things stayed that way. Now that he'd finished with the Limnos documentation, he could take it easy for an hour or so, at least until the bulk of the passengers were astir and those who desired to go ashore were readying themselves for terra firma.
Now in the very prow of the ship, forty feet above and forward of the spot where the knifelike stem sliced the water, he leaned on the deck rail and looked out across the vast curve of the ocean. No land in sight, but Galliard came from a long line of deckhands; he knew how quickly land masses could take shape on the horizon, especially in the Aegean, looming up as if from nowhere into cloud-capped mountain ranges. And with the cooling breeze of the vessel's forward motion in his face, and the hiss of parted waters in his ears, he reflected on the trip so far.
Most of the passengers were middle-aged, comfortably well-to-do, generally easygoing Brits, and the crew was composed of a British captain, officers and senior stewards, supported by a largely Greek Cypriot body of deckhands, engineers, chefs, and an "international" lineup of entertainers. The passengers had flown out from England to Cyprus, joining the cruise in Limassol. After a week of sailing they would return to Cyprus before flying home.
Sailing from Limassol on Thursday evening, the Evening Star had cruised all day Friday, providing an ideal opportunity for the passengers to get to know the vessel and fellow holidaymakers. Saturday it had been "all ashore who's going ashore" in Vólos on the Greek mainland, and Purser Bill had taken time out to visit friends in their villa at the foot of Mount Pelion, also to pick up some gifts in Vólos's bustling bazaar for the folks back home. Sunday they'd cruised to Lesbos and Mytilene, where the sightseers had gone ashore again, and last night had been the food and fireworks fest.
That brought Galliard up to date. The next port of call in some four hours' time would be Límnos's new deep-water harbour, and tomorrow they'd be through the Dardanelles on their way to Istanbul. But that was to look too far ahead, and cruises such as this were best taken one day at a time.
As he thought these things through, Galliard had been idly scanning the forward horizon. A moment ago--if only for a moment--he'd caught sight of something in direct line ahead. The fact hadn't made a great impact on him; shipping of one sort or another can be found any time in Mediterranean waters, and just about anywhere. Anyway, it had been a flash of white on a glittering surface...maybe a dolphin had leaped clear of the water and the splashdown had caught his eye. But--
Purser Galliard stepped to one of two telescopes mounted on the rail and focussed ahead. For a while there was nothing, but the...now what was that? A Greek caïque? Just sitting there, all these miles from the nearest island? Nothing peculiar about the boat itself; the islands were full of them--like gondolas in Venice--but they usually stuck pretty close to shore. This one looked becalmed, and it simply shouldn't be here.
The canopied boat was maybe three-quarters of a mile ahead--but dead ahead--and it definitely wasn't moving!
Galliard took out his on-board communicator and pressed 1 for the bridge three decks higher. His call sign was recognized, and a voice answered, "Bridge. What can we do for you, Purser Bill?" It was Captain Geoff Anderson, informal as ever.
"You might try swinging her a tad to port and calling full stop on all engines," Galliard told him at once. "We're about a minute and a half from running someone down!"
"Wait," came the terse answer, and ten seconds later: "Well done, Purser Bill. We would have seen and cleared her okay, but if they need help we'd have had to slow down and come about. So you've saved us some time and a little embarrassment, possibly. Now for your trouble you can arm yourself with a hailer and get down starboard onto B deck, okay?"
"Aye, aye, Cap'n," Galliard answered with a grin, heading at the double for his office amidships. After only a few paces, he was gratified to feel the gentle shudder of a sudden deceleration, the barely noticeable shifting underfoot as the Star began veering a few degrees to port...
* * *
From just below the surface of B deck (the vessel's basement) a section of the hull had been rotated outwards to form stairs. And from the bottom step, Purser Bill Galliard threw out a line to the tattered-looking man in the shade of the caïque's canopy. Accompanied by three stewards and a deckhand, Galliard watched as the figure of the man in the caïque made fast the line, then began to haul his boat in alongside.
"That's okay," Galliard called out. "I'll do that. You just sit tight."
"Water," the shaded, crumpled-seeming man answered him, his voice a dry croak. "The lady and I...we're burning up."
A lady? That must be the second figure, lying supine between the thwarts. Even as Galliard drew the caïque alongside, he saw her jewel-green eyes flicker open to fix his own, in the moment before a luminous glow suffused her face, making it indistinct. And:
God, she's beautiful! he thought...before wondering where that idea had come from, since as yet she was barely visible in the shade of the boat's canopy, which made a jet-black contrast with the blinding sunlight.
"Shade," said the gaunt, ragged figure of the man, standing hunched under the canopy. "The sun. We have...suffered!"
"We have juice," said Galliard, passing a pitcher down. "Sip a little. It will ease your throats, give you strength. But how long have you been out here?"
"Too long," said the other, sipping and passing the pitcher to the woman, then reaching out a hand to Galliard. "Help me to get her up there."
The purser took his hand, and felt its chill. Strange, on a day as hot as this to feel a hand so cold. Stranger by far that the hand seemed to smoke in the sunlight! But Galliard was much too busy, too concerned, to wonder about the apparent contradictions here. The woman was heavily muffled; wrapped head to toe, she seemed almost mummified as she struggled to her feet, tottering where she emerged into the light. Galliard leaned forward, held to the rail with one hand and caught her round her slender waist with the other. She stepped--was lifted up--from the boat to the stairs, and her man-friend close behind, apparently eager to enter into the shade of the ship.
"But what on earth happened here?" Galliard enquired, as he and the stewards assisted the pair up into the ship and towards the elevators, and the deckhand left to go about his business. "I mean, that you got into trouble, adrift way out here?"
"We ran out of fuel," said the man, throwing off the jacket he'd been using to cover his head. "We were taken by an unusual tide off Krassos. We used up our fuel trying to get back to the island. A little jaunt turned into a nightmare."
His story sounded incredible: that even in this mad El Niño summer they'd been lost in the Aegean--adrift and going unnoticed through all the regular shipping routes--long enough to have become so dehydrated and so badly burned. But on the other hand it must be true, for the condition of the pair admitted of no other explanation.
Galliard looked sideways at the tall, dark, would-have-been handsome man; "would-have-been" because the skin was peeling from his blackened face, and his sunken cheeks were pitted almost as if by small meteorites. The woman's condition...was harder to describe, similar yet different. She was burned, too, blackened in places--as if by real fire as opposed to strong sunlight--and yet that strange glow obscured most of her facial ravages. She had thrown off some of her upper wrappings, revealing her face, and now breathed so much easier in the electric light of the ship's bowels. But despite that she was close enough to lean on Galliard, still he couldn't make out her features.
And riding the elevator up through four decks to the fifth, the bridge deck, Purser Bill frowned and shook his head. He continued to support the woman (also to wonder why, like her companion, she felt so cold) but was aware now of something weirder far. Despite that he somehow "knew" she was beautiful, she felt decidedly unlovely. Her waist where his arm circled it, and also her body where he supported it, they were hard, angular, bony!
But now, breaking into his thoughts as Galliard shrank back a little from these far from ordinary people:
"Take us to the Captain, Purser Galliard," the man growled, his voice firmer now and commanding. "And don't let the details concern you. All will become clear--shortly."
"You...you know my name?"
"But of course I do, just as you told it to me," the other answered (despite that Galliard was sure he'd told him no such thing.) And through all his burns, somehow the enigmatic stranger managed to smile a leering smile.
They left the elevator and headed for the bridge, at which the purser's weird sensation of suspended reality--of all of this not really happening--eased off a little. Then, releasing the woman and drawing farther apart from her, he turned to the stewards, saying, "Lads, there's something not quite right, in fact totally wrong...here?"
And far more so than Galliard had suspected, or so it appeared. For the stewards--all three of them--seemed dazed, in a world of their own. Having taken the woman's weight, now they were wholly intent upon her, unable to take their eyes off her. And they weren't listening to Galliard at all!
Just beyond a sign saying OFFICERS AND CREW MEMBERS ONLY, Purser Galliard came to a stiff-legged halt and turned to face the man he had so recently rescued. "What--?" he started to say, and stopped. For the tall stranger had moved so quickly, taking his face between his cold, burned hands, that the purser hadn't been able to avoid the contact. Following which it was too late anyway. And:
Your knowledge of the vessel, the words flowed like a river of ice in Galliard's trembling mind, freezing him solid. Of its Captain and other officers. Of anything that might be dangerous to me and my...companion. I need to understand your communication capability with the outside world and other ships--ahhh! your radio room, yesss!--and the location of any weapons that you are carrying. Do not think to deny me, Purser Galliard, for the pain I can cause you will not he denied! Give me everything I want and suffer no further, or suffer all that I can bring to bear in the knowledge that I shall still get what I want!
Galliard fought--or rather, he fought to move, to cry out, to break free--but it was useless. The icy power of this creature, the alien nightmare of his sucking hands, feeding on the purser's knowledge, held him rooted to the spot. But he sensed what was happening to him, felt the flow of his thoughts--in fact his memories--going out of him, and knew that the chill they left behind them was the emptiness of a mental vacuum, as cold as the spaces between the stars.
You are correct, the Thing (surely not a man) told him. My mind is a great storehouse of memories, only a small number of which are mine. But knowledge is power, Bill Galliard, without which I'm at the mercy of a strange environment. So don't hold hack now, but let me have it all, everything. Then, as I "remember," so you shall forget--even how to hurt. For as Nephran Malinari reads a book, so he tears out its pages!
"You men," Galliard gasped, swiveling his bulging eyes to stare at the three stewards, at the same time trying to shrink down into himself away from his tormentor, but held up--held fast--by the monster's hands. "You men...you have to...to do something! You have to fight it! Fight them!"
One of the stewards had heard him. His eyes focused as he staggered back away from the woman and looked at the purser in the hands of the demoniac stranger. "Purser Bill?" he mumbled, blinking rapidly. "I mean, what the hell...?"
The woman at once went after him, seemed to flow upon him, her slender hands reaching out like long, raking claws. And as for the first time Galliard saw her actual face...so his jaw fell open. Beautiful? But she was the worst possible nightmare hag! Her eyes were green as jewels, but they burned crimson in their cores, as if lit by internal fires. And her jaws...her teeth!
Her face closed with the steward's shoulder in the joining with his neck, and Galliard heard her lustful snarl as she bit him there. Then he knew what they were--monsters out of myths and legends, but real for all that-and fought harder still. A mistake, for he left the man-creature no choice. And:
You have a saying, said that one in Galliard's mind, which has it that the eyes are the windows of the soul. It may be so, I who am without a soul cannot say for sure--but they are most certainly a means of entry to the brain! And likewise the ears: routes of access to the inner mind, these organs. The ears that hear--(his index fingers extended themselves, projecting deep into the purser's ears, their knifelike nails slicing a way in through flesh and cartilage)--and the eyes that see. (Now his thumbs turned purple, vibrating as they elongated and dislodged Galliard's eyeballs, penetrating the soft tissue behind them to sink into the purser's brain.) I want to know what you've heard and all that you've seen. Painful, aye--but didn't I warn you not to resist me?
Galliard's screams were thin, high-pitched wailing things--more like the whining of a small child than the agonized denial of a tortured man--as his mind was drained and he "forgot" all that he'd ever known about the Evening Star. And with his face hideously altered, he crumpled to the floor as Lord Malinari of the Wamphyri finally withdrew his brain-slimed fingers.
By then Vavara, Malinari's "partner," if only for the time being, had dealt with the second steward. But the third was recovering from her hypnotic spell. Blinking his eyes and shaking his head, he peered slack-jawed at his shipmates where they had slumped to the deck in blood that fountained from severed arteries in their necks; also at the spastically twitching, crumpled figure of the purser, his eyes flopping on his bloodied cheeks, while his cries turned to a vacant moaning as his cruelly depleted, crippled brain closed down his survival systems one by one.
But already muffled enquiries were sounding from beyond the reinforced door to the bridge. Someone in there must have heard the purser's strangled, inarticulate babbling, and Malinari saw at least two outlines in motion behind the frosted glass of the door's upper panel. With no time to waste on the third steward, he grabbed him and swung him out through a hatch and up against the deck rail. And stiffening his hand and arm to a ramrod, the vampire slammed bone fingers into his victim's chest, rupturing his heart. Then, after yanking his hand free, a push was sufficient to topple the steward backwards over the rail, sending him plummeting to the promenade deck twenty feet below.
Down there, a half-dozen or so early risers were leaning on the rail, taking in the view. As Malinari snarled his hatred of the seething sunlight and snatched himself back into the shade, he saw their startled, horrified faces glancing up at him. Hah As yet they hadn't the slightest notion of what real horror was. But they'd know soon enough. Oh, yes, they would know! And gritting his awesome teeth against the agony of his seared forearms and face, Malinari returned to Vavara--
--In time to see her trying the handle of the door to the bridge. As Malinari had learned from the purser, however, this was a security door with a voice-activated lock; Vavara's hiss of frustration wasn't a voice or code that it would recognize. But she wasn't much known for her patience, either, and before he could caution her against it she'd balled a fist and struck furiously at the pane of frosted glass.
Fortified against ordinary shocks or blows, still the pane caved in, shattering as if struck by an axe. Vavara's hand continued on unhindered, caught at the throat of a blurred figure on the far side, and drew him headlong through the razor-sharp, dagger-rimmed frame. Deeply cut about his face and arms, shouting his pain and shock, he was sent skidding along the deck in his own blood, only coming to a halt at Malinari's feet.
Malinari dragged him upright--scanned his bloodied, wide-eyed face, his tattered, spattered ship's uniform--and said, "Not Captain Geoff Anderson, no. Merely his underling. But you are going to take us to him, aren't you?" And he propelled him back towards Vavara at the door.
Vavara's guise was down now; furious, she showed herself in all her horror. Her forked devil's tongue wriggled behind teeth like twin rows of knives; her eyes flared red; her clawed hands brooked no resistance as she sank fingers like rusty fishhooks deep into the First Mate's cheek, lifting him up onto his toes. And:
"Open this door," she hissed, "lest I'm tempted to toss you through it. For I refuse to climb in the way you came out!"
"It's voice-activated," Malinari told her. "Let him speak."
"Speak, then," said Vavara. "Speak now, or lose what's left of your face"
"D-d-door!" the man gasped, and a buzz sounded from within, followed by a series of clicks. When the clicks stopped, Vavara turned the handle, thrust her shoulder at the door, and when it sprang open hurled the Mate ahead of her onto the bridge.
Captain Anderson was there; he was using a telephone at the traditional, mainly ceremonial wheel. Taking one look at Vavara and Malinari where they stood framed in the doorway, he dropped the phone and made a clumsy run for the radio room in a soundproofed, glass-walled wing of the bridge. Calmly following him, Malinari caught up with him just as he uttered the command that opened the door. And taking Anderson by the scruff of the neck, he thrust him ahead into the radio room.
An operator sat at the console with earphones on his head. With starting eyes he glanced around, saw the Captain hurtling towards him, was slammed back into the console. Winded, he toppled from his chair as Anderson rebounded from him, and in the next moment Malinari stood over both men.
Grabbing the radio operator by the hair, Malinari drew him to his feet and almost casually enquired of him, "Have you sent any messages? About a becalmed caïque, perhaps, and a rescue at sea?"
"N-n-no!" the radio man gasped. "I...I was waiting on the Captain's orders."
"Eh?" said Malinari, raising an eyebrow. "What's that? This one's orders, do you mean?" Grabbing Anderson by the throat, he exerted the massive strength of a Lord of the Wamphyri and tore out his windpipe. The Captain died in a crimson welter of blood and mangled gristle, which Malinari draped over the bald, sweating head of the radio operator. And as that one shrank back and down, the Great Vampire effortlessly took up the Captain's body by the shoulder and hip, hoisted it overhead for a moment, then slammed it down onto the radio console with such force that the entire bank of dials and switches flew apart under the impact. Then, as a sputtering shower of electrical sparks ensued, and a whiff of acrid smoke drifted from the wreckage, Malinari said:
"Thus you have a new Captain. You may call me Captain Malinari. Or better still, Lord Malinari."
"The...the radio!" the other sputtered hoarsely. "You've destroyed it! And not just the radio but navigation. Satellite navigation was routed through these controls!"
"Oh, I know!" Malinari nodded. "So now we're not only dumb, but we're blind, too--that is, unless we go to manual. Can you by any chance pilot this vessel?"
"I'm not q-q-qualified." The man wiped blood from his face, his hand trembling violently. "But y-y-yes, I think so."
"Excellent," said Malinari. "The purser thought so, too. So if you'd told me otherwise...well, that would have gone quite badly for you. So perhaps you'll now consult the charts, find a suitable rock, and dock us?"
"A rock?" The man looked this way and that. "Dock us?"
"Wreck us," Malinari nodded. "Bring us up aground."
"But first he must see us under way again," said Vavara, as she entered the room. Seeing her in close proximity, the radio operator shrank down more yet.
"So then, things to do," Malinari told him. "You have your orders. But try not to fail me, or 1 may put you over the side where you will be drawn into the propellers. And whatever else you do, do not think to disobey me. That would prove even more...unfortunate."
Hooking the man under the chin, Vavara drew him upright and let him see the gape of her jaws and smell her breath. And, "Very well, then," she glared at him. "Is all understood?"
He couldn't speak, and so simply nodded his head.
Releasing him, she turned to Malinari. "I think I hear running footsteps. Are they coming to their senses, do you think?"
He shrugged. "Very possibly. As you'll recall, the Captain was on the phone speaking to someone when we broke in. Also, I killed a steward and hurled him down a deck. That should definitely have alerted them to the fact that something is amiss."
"Then perhaps it's time we introduced ourselves," she said. "To the rest of the crew, and then to the passengers."
"Aye," Malinari agreed. "To all of them eventually. Myself, I am sorely in need of refreshment, and I've heard the cuisine aboard these pleasure cruisers is superb."
"Cuisine?" she laughed throatily. "Then you shall have your choice. What's your preference, blonde or brunette?"
"Redhead, I think," Malinari leered. "There are bound to be a few among the fourteen hundred on board. But first there's an arms locker we should see to--just a few small arms--in the purser's cabin on the main deck. We should heave that overboard, I think. Our leeches have work enough with all our burns, without that they're overtaxed healing bullet holes, too!"
"I agree," she answered. "As for the rest--the passengers and crew--it won't be long before they discover that the only safe places are on the open decks, out in the sunlight."
"Safe while it lasts," Malinari nodded thoughfully. "And at least until tonight. By which time--if we're assiduous in our work--we shall have a good many thralls to instruct, vampires in the making."
As they left the radio room and made for the shattered door to the bridge deck, the radio operator came staggering in their wake. Malinari glanced at him, reminding him, "Now don't let us down, will you? If in five minutes' time this ship isn't making headway, I'll know where to come looking for an answer. Oh, and as for that rock I mentioned: the Aegean has plenty of them, as I'm sure you're aware. So find one on your charts--the nearest one will do--and take us to it."
He pointed at the telephone dangling over a varnished spoke of the wooden wheel where the Captain had let it fall. A second spoke supported the First Mate's limp body; it was sunk deep in the socket of his right eye, having got stuck in his skull when Vavara had slammed him facedown onto it. Now he hung there like a wet towel, with his blood pooling around his knees.
But the phone was squawking like a tiny strangled chicken, making shrill enquiries. And: "Carry on, then." Malinari pushed the radio operator forward. "Do something--speak to whoever it is--tell lies and live. But remember, if you intend to survive this, don't do or say anything too rash." And with a final monstrous smile, he followed after Vavara out through the door and into hell.
Hell for the passengers and crew of the Evening Star, but to the Wamphyri a way of life and of undeath which they had kept mainly suppressed for far too long...
Copyright 2001 by Brian Lumley
Excerpted from Necroscope: Avengers by Lumley, Brian Copyright © 2002 by Lumley, Brian. Excerpted by permission.
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