The Return

Submitted into Contest #149 in response to: Start your story with the flickering of a light.... view prompt


Fiction Historical Fiction Mystery

The lights flickered again as if some unseen hand were signaling for help in Morse code.

"What in the name of Jesus and all his carpenter friends is that?" Michael Castellanos hollered down to the captain, who was making his way back from the deck to the flying bridge. He had been the first to spot it but felt he couldn't trust his eyes without getting a little closer. Castellanos raised the enormous GeoVid binoculars to his eyes, blinked a few times, and was again taken aback by what was approaching the port side of their vessel.

    Captain Bravern dogged the heavy hatch closed before proceeding to the bridge. A storm was approaching on the horizon, and the wind was beginning to whip through every open porthole and crack in his ship, adding to the chill running up his spine from Castellanos' call. 

    Donovan Hale, navigator on deck watch, let out a low whistle. "Ya see that, man?" he said in a honeyed southern drawl. "Sorry, of course ya see it. What in the hell do you suppose happened to that thing? It seems like she's moving under her own steam from here, but how when it looks like the sea could claim her at any moment?"

    The distant ship glided closer as more crew members made their way to the deck and bridge for a better look. Word spread fast by some busy body that a ghost ship was on the horizon.

The newly-minted U.S. Coast Guard cutter, "Emperor Neptune," out of Sector, North Carolina, was going on day 7 of a 10-day "shake-out," or training maneuvers, scheduled to break in the new crew and ship, when the foreign vessel was spotted riding ahead of the approaching storm. Multiple attempts to contact it over the ship-to-ship marine band radio yielded no response. 

"She's old, that's for sure," Bravern said, approaching the forward viewing windows from behind Castellanos and Hale. "Castellanos, see if you can catch her hull number, and we'll see who or what we're dealing with."

The old ship continued on its northern heading, moving slowly, but moving nonetheless. The ancient sodium vapor lights mounted around the ship cast long shadows over everything the light touched. They gave the old ship's battered and rust-streaked hull an ominous and ghastly look.

“AC-4, Cap’n,” Castellanos squawked. 

"Zuri, call it into the mainland and see what you can find out about that number."

"Aye, captain," said Raven Zuri, the "Emperor's" communications specialist, then turned back to her station to raise the radio team back onshore.

"Tordano," Bravern turned to the helmsman, "swing around and bring us alongside her. Keep a little distance, but put us on her starboard side. She looks to be making about 3-4 knots. Drakos," he now turned to the radar operator, "how long has she been pinging on our screens?"

"Sir… you're not going to like my answer, but she isn't even pinging right now!"

"Excuse me, son? What do you mean not even showing right now? Is there an equipment malfunction?"

"No, sir. Everything is showing active, and all lights are green, sir. I see 4 more vessels in the distance heading away in a circular pattern. I just don't see the ship in front of us on the radar."

"Alright, then. Castellanos, call down to medical and have Sherburn put together a small team. When we board the vessel, there could be personnel in need of medical attention, and I want her standing by and ready. Judging by the look of that thing and the radio silence, I'm getting a bad feeling of what we might find."

Braven turned to go collect his own boarding gear. He wanted to see for himself what this hulk in such poor condition was doing in his waters. "Oh, and call down to engineering too. Have Whalen's assistant engineer come along, just in case."

It took a total of twenty slow minutes to position the cutter along the starboard side of the old ship. A collective sigh of shock could be heard throughout the bridge as she approached. An enormous gash running nearly two-hundred of the five-hundred-and-fifty-foot long vessel could be seen clear as day. It was as if a giant can opener had cleaved right through the hull. Bravern and the bridge crew thought it almost inconceivable how she was still afloat. There were no scorch marks or tell-tale signs of damage that could have been caused by a torpedo or missile. The jagged metal edges were pushed in, which indicated that it was neither an internal rupture or explosion that had caused the damage either.

"Alright, bring us in and prepare the Zodiac. Zuri, give it a few more tries to hail the captain and crew. Castellanos, you're X.O., so you're in charge while I'm gone. I'm going to meet the boarding team now, and we will be in touch every 10-15 minutes for sit-reps," Braven said, referring to operation situation reports.

"Wait, captain," Zuri chimed in," I'm getting something over the radio. It sounds like moaning mixed with incoherent low shouting."

"Put it on speaker."

Zuri turned to her station and piped the noise through the bridge speaker system. It indeed sounds as she had described it, only more sorrowful. The last time Bravern had heard a sound like that, he was still a coast guard rescue swimmer. He was dispatched to pull the crew from a sinking fishing trawler during a storm off the coast of the Aleutian Islands between the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. The crew was trapped inside and went down with all hands on board. He fought furiously to save them, but the old rust bucket had sealed itself so tight from the water pressure that he couldn't get the hatches open, nor was he successful in breaking any windows, either. So, he swam there with them as the crew stared back with horror and fear in their eyes, screaming as he heard now. It was soul-crushing, and a lesser fellow would never have set foot in the ocean again, or so he told himself. Snapping out of his reverie, Bravern made his way to the boarding party. 

Ten minutes later, they were marching their way toward the bridge. Half the boarding team would search the ship's holds while the other spoke with the captain and crew.

Empty. Bravern and his team found the bridge completely empty. The engines were running, the electrical system was working, if a little dodgily, but there wasn't a soul around. The search team reported finding the holds brimming with what appeared to be tons of manganese ore aboard. Manganese is a crucial element used in steel production for hardening, Bravern knew. His father and grandfather had been lifelong steelworkers in Pittsburgh. 

A crackle sounded over Bravern's hip radio, and Zuri's voice could be heard calling.

"Bravern here," he replied.

"Sir, um, well, I have an answer to the inquiry about the ship's "AC-4" numbering. Bravern could hear a slight tremor in her voice as it trailed off in a hiss of static.

"Well, Zuri, who is she? Maybe that will shed some light on why the hell she is under steam with no one aboard."

"Well, sir…" she trailed off again.

"Spit it out, Zuri. I don't want to tell the brass we have a ghost ship on our hands. We'll all look like idiots, and I'm not having my crew get any letters of admonition for their files because we missed something.

"The USS "Cyclops," sir.

"What did you just say?" he responded.

"It's the USS "Cyclops," sir, according to the registered hull number and cargo you reported. Sir, the radio crew on the mainland are already having a laugh.

"What in God's name is going on here. This isn't some damn joke. Have them rerun it."

"Already did, sir. It came back with the same information."

Bravern's head began to spin a little. There was no way in hell this could be the USS "Cyclops." Someone had to be screwing with them. Every sailor in the U.S. navy and coast guard knew of her. Why, and, more importantly, how did she come to be here. If this were indeed the "Cyclops," she's come back from a hundred-and-four year sailing mission…

As the story goes, the USS "Cyclops," an American navy bulk cargo ship, was tasked with ferrying manganese ore from Brazil to Baltimore in 1918. It played an essential role in the war effort as the United States was engaged in World War I. While sailing through the Caribbean toward her final destination, she vanished with all hands on board. 306 sailors, and the ship itself had simply vanished. No debris, no SOS call, nothing. To this day, she remains one of the navy's greatest mysteries. "Well," Bravern thought to himself, "she remained a mystery. Now she's back, and there has to be a story here."

As the boarding team completed their search, still finding no signs of the crew, the gail winds began to whip up a frothy sea. The storm that was once on the horizon had now reached them.

"What do you want to do, sir?" one of the crewmen asked Bravern.

"Cut the engines and drop the anchor. I don't want to be tied up with her when that downpour hits full force. The water is just shallow enough in this part that it should help her weather the storm while keeping us safe aboard the "Neptune." We'll radio when back aboard and see what the mainland wants us to do.

The team began procedures for powering down "AC-4" and anchoring her. Bravern was proud of how the new crew was coming, and his report of the incident would reflect just that.

"Sir, all compartment hatches have been secured, engines off, and she is set for riding out the storm." the young officer reported to Bravern.

"Roger that," he turned to the rest of the party. All crew back aboard the "Neptune" on the double. "Zuri," Bravern called over his radio."

"Yes, Captain."

"Report back to H.Q. Let them know we have secured our mystery ship and will be returning to the "Neptune." We'll ride out the storm nearby and wait for them to send a tug. If this is indeed the "Cyclops," we're not going to be responsible for losing her a second time."

Back aboard the "Neptune," stories were already flying of the Bermuda Triangle spitting the "Cyclops" out again. Bravern was not a superstitious man, nor did he believe in such things as a mysterious ocean portal to another dimension, but he had to agree that this was one of the strangest damn things he has come across in his long career on the sea.

The storm was now reaching a frenzy. Lightning tore the sky apart as heavy rains beat down on the two ships. Iron gray clouds gave way to a rolling blackness. While storms and hurricanes were a natural and all too common occurrence in this area, this was not one of those weather breaks. The sky was far too violent in such a short period, not to mention the greenish-blue glow from the ocean. It wasn't much, but if you trained your eyes long enough on it, you could see it. This storm, this phenomenon, was something else, and Bravern didn't like it.

The two ships remained near each other as the coast guard cutter fought to maintain a steady position in the now rising swells. Every crest and trough seemed to drive the two further apart.

"Zuri," Bravern called to the communications operator from his post near the helm, "anything new from H.Q.? Anything we have to go on with this mystery ship?"

"Sir, no, sir. Only increasing laughter about our excursion into "Never-Never-Land," as the operators on base are calling it. Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Yes, what is it?"

"Sir, we have no radar signature, no verifiable evidence of what this ship is, only eyewitnesses and the boarding parties' report. They think we're off our nut on this one, sir.

"I'll see every one of those on shift receives a documented reprimand in their files," Bravern scowled.

As the sea grew rougher, so did the tension aboard the "Neptune." The ships, once driven apart, were now closing in on each other as if two bath toys were brought together by invisible hands. Helmsman Tordano did his damndest to maintain a steady position, but it was a losing battle.

"Tordano, why in the hell are we getting closer?" Bravern hollered to the helmsman.

"Sir, I'm fighting it, but the controls are becoming less and less responsive. As the storm gets worse, it's pushing us together!"

"Damn it to hell," Bravern fumed. He couldn't blame Tordano or any other crew member. They may be a new crew to this ship, but he knew everyone was doing their best right now.

Another 20 tense minutes passed. The crew fought to steady the "Neptune," but it did little use. Mike Castellanos swore they were now so close to the "Cyclops" that he could look in the portholes and use a mirror mounted in a bunk to shave with. Bravern knew the inevitable; they were on a collision course with the old vessel.

A klaxon alarm was sounded, and crew members were ordered over the speaker system to prepare for impact. Bravern prayed the hull bumpers would ease the impact and not batter the hull too terribly. They were now only moments away.

The coast guard cutter rose on a massive swell. Bravern knew this was it and stood with bated breath. Like a dream, the "Cyclops" hung there on her own wave, waiting like a lover to receive the other ship as the swells threw them together, and then, she simply wasn't. The crew of the "Emperor Neptune," wincing and closing their eyes to the inevitable collision, now opened them to a calm and sunny sea.

"Jesus…" a pale Bravern turned to Castellanos, cold beads of sweat running in rivulets down his brow. "Is it me, or was it something we ate last night?"

June 04, 2022 19:45

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J.C. Lovero
23:31 Jun 16, 2022

Hello Clay! A friend recommended that I check out your profile, and I'm glad I did! Always enjoy a historical fiction piece since that genre is intimidating for me. I liked the references you used to ground us into the time period, right before WWI. One note to make the story stronger: you've got a great cast of characters, which I loved. Consider finding ways to help the reader orient to who is speaking during dialogue. This can be done with dialogue tags (don't overuse if you can avoid it), mentions to other characters (which you did wel...


Clay Harker
14:23 Jun 22, 2022

Hello J.C., and thank you for reading my work! Thank you very much for your feedback. It helps me greatly because dialog is one thing I absolutely love to write. Thank you again and hope to have some more for you to read soon!


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Clay Harker
14:23 Jun 22, 2022

Hello J.C., and thank you for reading my work! Thank you very much for your feedback. It helps me greatly because dialog is one thing I absolutely love to write. Thank you again and hope to have some more for you to read soon!


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Katy B
02:49 Jun 15, 2022

I really enjoyed the historical aspect thrown into the ghost ship story! The descriptions were excellent, especially of Bravern's failure to save the drowning men.


Clay Harker
19:35 Jun 15, 2022

Thank you for the feedback, Katy, and I am glad you enjoyed my story!


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