Park counted fourteen bricks of cocaine on the merchant boat.
Fourteen duct-taped, condensed packages, tucked beneath fishing nets at the bottom of shipping crates. He laughed under his breath, holding the nets up and counting the bricks out once more. Fourteen. Enough to land him ten years in prison. He propped open the hull's storage and stepped back.
“Hey, Jin,” he called. “Do you think it’s too late to back out?”
The boat swayed as Jin hopped on. Park stood aside and brought his hand up against the sunlight. He looked around the harbour, relieved to see only seagulls listening in. In the waters, glass bottles and old cigarettes floated, and the birds fought over trash bags that drifted ashore.
Beyond it, children played in the slums. Their laughter carried on the breeze. Kids running between shacks, skipping stones, or throwing soda cans at the giant crabs twice their size down below.
Jin stood beside him and yawned, staring off into the distance.
“Even if we could back out, do you think you would? You know I can’t.”
He stretched his arms out behind him and turned around. Jin stepped over to the cargo trunk, pushed aside the fishing nets, and picked up a brick of cocaine. He flipped it over in his hands. Letters written across the duct tape read ‘이칸데’. Ikande. A day’s trip away from where they stood.
“Thought it’d be guns for sure,” he said. He replaced the brick, concealed it, and shut the storage. “Think we’ll make it past the coast guards?”
“We’ll have to,” Park said. He walked over to the bow, entering the roofed, windowed cabin. The merchant’s boat, nothing less than a miniature cargo ship, consisted of a storage hull, a semi spacious deck, and a coffin-like bed in an underfloor compartment—meant for merchants to take turns sleeping while transporting small goods.
Park twisted the key in the ignition. The gas engine rumbled.
“Think of it like this,” Jin said. “We wouldn’t have been trusted if we’d get caught the second we sail out. We’ll be fine.”
Jin untied the bowline knot from the hitching post, then leaned against the boat's side, his back to the water. Seagulls cawed and whined overhead.
Park maneuvered them around trash bags. The boat plowed through plastic cups and soggy pieces of cardboard with ease.
They passed by the slums, a series of wooden platforms built atop the waters, where children ran to the edge to get a glimpse of the boat. Some threw stones that fell short. Others stepped so close that their friends grabbed their shirts to save them from falling.
“They should really build fences,” Park said, “or a guardrail. Those kids are asking to trip and fall, then get snapped apart by a crab.”
“Ah,” Jin laughed, “but look at us! We were the same, weren’t we? We turned out fine.”
“Yeah, turned out fine,” Park laughed with him. “Buy two fishing nets, get a brick of coke free. If a kid trips, those crabs might be doing people a service.”
A black boat with stripes blew its horn from afar, signaling for them to stop so it could pull up beside them. Park slowed down and waved. A coast guard, rifle slung across his back, stopped their boat and leaned over to talk.
“Merchants?” he asked. “Where you heading?”
“Ikande,” Jin said. “Got crates full of fishing nets from the recent ban.”
“Yeah,” the coast guard said, nodding. “I’ve heard about that. Too much pollution, or is it too little fish?” he waved his hand. “Something like that. Ikande, though. That’s a day’s trip. Watch for pirates, alright? Heard they’re bad right now.”
Park nodded, and the soft rumbling of the gas engines started up. He led the boat out, the city in the wing mirrors becoming more and more of a blur as they sped along the waters. Red shelled crabs skimming the sea snapped their claws, far too slow to catch them.
Jin walked up and exhaled.
“Not bad?” Park said. “Man, that was a joke back there. Our coast guards look intimidating with guns but don’t know a thing about border patrol. Not that I’m complaining.”
He slowed the merchant’s boat down to a cruise.
“Do you know the people meeting us at the Ikande docks?” he asked.
“Uh…” Jin leaned his hand on the railing. “They’ll know us. My guy for this job didn’t tell me a thing other than the license plate number.”
“Well, shit, as long as we get paid, right? Eight grand each?”
“Eight grand each,” Jin said, clasping Park’s hand. “That’s sixteen grand between us! Take a second to breathe it in, Park Tae-young, we’ll be richer than everyone in the slums, combined. I’m getting my parents out of there by tomorrow night if I can.”
“Cheers to that.”
“Speaking of cheers,” Jin walked over to the cargo trunk, popped it open, and grabbed a can of beer. He tossed it to Park. “I asked my guy to pack us a case. Thought it’d be good to celebrate.”
Jin cracked open a can, and the two leaned over the starboard side of the boat. They watched red shelled crabs float around in search of a meal; the nodes protruding from their backs dipped down into the water—a glowing beacon to attract prey.
“What’re you doing with your eight grand?” Jin asked.
“Same as you. My dad’s sick, so I can pay for his treatment. Sister’s young with nothing to do, and I don’t want her to fall into the same crowds that we did, so I’ll pay for her education. Whatever’s left goes to getting them out of there.”
“Cheers,” Jin said. They tapped their cans together. “Next storm will be the one to wear the slums down. Those platforms are not meant for so many shacks, you know? The rainwater will build up and they’ll collapse.”
He drank the rest of his can, then threw it at a red shell. It clunked off its exterior and splashed into the ocean. The creature didn’t flinch—its shell as hard as stone. Park muttered a laugh and walked over to the bow.
“Let’s make some distance. We’ll drink the rest when we get there.”
After hours of coasting across the endless sea, the sun set, blazing like coal, sinking down over the horizon. Park leaned on the wheel and yawned. The sky darkened, and he flashed on the boat’s headlights.
A pair of headlights in the distance flashed back.
Jin snapped awake and ran to the cabin. Park switched the lights off, but it was too late. A black boat with white stripes flickered its light in return, flashing a silver beam toward them. Park squinted against it.
“That’s coast guard,” he said, “isn’t it? Since when do they patrol open seas?”
“Floor it,” Jin said, “if it’s pirates…”
“That’s…” he could make out their dark uniforms, “that’s definitely coast.” Park flashed the merchant’s boat headlights in return. “We’ll tell them capital cleared us, and we should pass right by. If we floor it now, they’ll chase and shoot.”
“These merchant boats are fast, Park.”
“Yeah, but they’re armed. We’re sunk if a bullet hits us wrong.” Park searched through the drawers for the registration, finding it in the last. He blew the dust off it as the coast guard boat slowed down beside them. Both engines rumbled softly over the waters. A red shell knocked against the merchant boat, swaying it from side to side.
Two coast guards jumped down to the merchant boat. Another waited behind, smoking a cigarette, rifle slung over his shoulder.
Jin greeted them with a bow.
“Merchants?” one asked. “You have a license for this?”
Park handed it to him. The coast guard read it over, nodded, then handed it to his companion. “Go run it over with him,” he said, motioning to their third on their black and white boat. “These guys should be clear. I’ll run a check on their cargo.”
“We got cleared at the capital,” Park said.
“Uh-huh, save it. Those idiots would clear a sinking car.”
Jin tapped Park on the shoulder and looked at the steering wheel. He read the, if push comes to shove, look on his face and handed him the keys, then followed the coast guard over to the cargo trunk.
It popped open to reveal a half dozen storage crates stacked upon one another. The coast guard unhooked a flashlight from his belt and switched it on.
“Where are you moving this to?” he asked.
Park hesitated, catching his breath before he could say Ikande.
“Wolfbrook. East of here.”
“Long trip for two people.” The coast guard opened the first box on the right. “Have to be wary of pirates nowadays. We’re working double-time cause of them.” He pushed aside the fishing nets and saw nothing but the wood at the bottom.
Park stifled a sigh of relief. Some of the boxes were just as they appeared, containing nothing but fishing nets. He brought the trunk down and the coast guard stopped it halfway.
He shone his flashlight on the remaining boxes and opened another.
“It’s just more nets,” Park said.
“Can never be too careful. There’s not a problem with me checking another, is there?”
The flashlight illuminated a mess of fishing nets—the box he and Jin had inspected earlier, then covered up. A silver gleam of duct tape reflected light in the corner.
The coast guard pushed the nets aside, muttered a curse, then reached back for his rifle.
Park shoved him. Jin started the boat up and the engine roared with life. The coast guard tripped from the push, sprawling over the side of the boat and splashing into the water.
“South!” Park shouted, “Go!”
The boat twisted around, catching speed, cutting through the water. One gunshot rang out and shattered the glass beside Jin’s head. Shards scattered across the deck. A second and third shot hit the hull with a clunk, neither low enough to sink them. Missed gunfire rippled across the waters.
A bullet struck Jin's arm. He cried out and dropped from the steering wheel. Park rushed to take his spot, speeding south towards the Blighted Swamps—their best bet at evading their pursuers and any backup they would call.
He looked to the wing mirror to see them firing their weapons at the red shells, gunfire echoing in the night, the beasts snapping their claws at the overboard coast guard.
Park kept the merchant boat at full throttle. The wind whistled around him; the pitometer ticking past seventy knots. Jin sat with his back to the cabin, bloody hand clutched against his shoulder. The waters melted into a murky green as they passed into the Blighted Swamps.
Clumps of algae and twisted seaweed floated in the waters. Shadows lurked beneath, circling the merchant’s boat before trailing off into the fog. Noises crept from below. A shushing sound, followed by pockets of air bubbling up.
A gust of wind carried thick spores, and Park coughed.
“Hey, Jin,” he knelt to him. The fog obscured his face. “How bad is it?”
“Bullet grazed me. Shoulder’s numb, but I’ll live.” He got to his feet, his hand leaving a bloodied print on the boat’s side. “Good thinking on the swamps. Now just get us out of here.”
A long eye-stalk, coated in grime, watched them from the right. The bulbous eye blinked, its yellow iris dripping with seawater as it opened.
“Yeah. We’ll kill our lights and move slow,” Park said. “Won’t disturb the wildlife. A couple of minutes out, then north to Ikande waters. Coast guard doesn’t have authority there.”
Jin nodded. “Good thinking,” he said.
Park set the boat into motion, the engine rumbling at a low speed as they trekked through mounds of algae. He couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead with the headlights switched off.
He held his breath against the air’s foul taste of mud and sulfur.
“It’s all rumors, you know?” Jin said. He had his sweater tied around his shoulder, his nose in his shirt. “This place. Sea creatures and diseases? The only reason it’s off-limits is because of how slow it is to travel through.”
“I believe you,” Park muttered. He maneuvered past a set of eye stalks floating towards them. “See if we have a map, would you? Wouldn’t want to get lost out here.”
Jin couldn’t find one. Without cell service, neither could he bring up their position on his phone. Park followed the compass further into the fog, counting the seconds off in his head.
After minutes of a slow crawl, the boat’s engine died.
“Gas is out,” Park said. “I think I saw a spare tank in the storage.”
“Hey, Park,” Jin motioned him over. He leaned over the boat, staring into the moss green waters. “Does it look shallow here to you?”
“Yeah.” Shallow enough that he could see the bottom. He leaned over beside Jin. The seafloor looked scaled, with a winding split down the middle. He could almost swear it moved…
“Get the gas,” he mumbled.
An eye opened beneath them. The sea shook and rumbled. The eye encompassed the entirety of their boat, and they stood at its center. A rust-colored iris darted from one end to the other—the boat swayed in the motion. Jin fell back, hitting his head against the deck, while Park grabbed onto the railings for balance.
He stumbled over to the storage, found the gas can, turned, and mouthed the word ‘drive’ to Jin. He refueled as the eye watched from below, its pitch black pupil staring up at them.
The engine started up. A second eye opened further off. A third followed. The swamp waters became spotted with white. Jin pushed down on the steering wheel, bracing against the motion, the boat rocking and nearly tipping over. Waves crashed into the hull as a fourth eye opened. Water and loose seaweed filled the boat, clattering from side to side. A tentacle broke the surface behind them. Park cried out, inaudible. It slammed down a foot away, drenching them in seawater, causing them to lurch into the air.
Park's vision blurred until the waters turned blue, far outside of the creature’s reach.
Neither he nor Jin slept on the way to Ikande’s port.
A group of men waited for them. They unloaded the cargo, not asking about the bullet holes, their soaked clothing, or their wide eyes. An envelope contained the sixteen thousand, which they split at a hotel room. A note slipped out with the paper bills. They read it over.
We’ve taken care of the coast guards. Your next job is tomorrow night, at sundown.
Once you’re in, there is no ‘out’, Park Tae-young, Jin Kwang-so.
If you refuse the job, your families suffer it. Accept and make the delivery, earn another sixteen thousand. Men will meet you at the harbor with more details.
There would be no backing out.