The Ship of Screams


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The Ship of Screams



26 May

Site DE-16: The Salzhaff, Bay of Wismar, Federal Republic of Germany


Karen hadn't thought to specify that her ideal romantic partner would not be a sopping wet milquetoast. She hadn't thought it necessary. The AIC which ran the Foundation's internal dating service had asked for her personnel file, and she had provided it. That should have been sufficient to weed out any spineless bores who might swipe right based entirely on looks — despite the death glare in her profile picture — and thereby sign up for an evening full of hurt. If not, her self-description ought to have done the trick. She'd been brutally honest: she was doing this so her Site's top psychologist could check a box on a form that Karen herself, as that Site's chief administrator, needed to submit to the Director. The form attested that Karen was emotionally healthy, and could be relied upon to continue her decades of faithful service without risk of a sudden mental breakdown.

The psychologist had refused to sweep her pen across the page, because unfortunately she knew Karen socially and not well enough to lie on her behalf. In retrospect, she should have alternated between doing paperwork in her office after hours and doing it in the little bungalow she owned in Grand Bend, allowing her to claim that she was entertaining gentlemen on occasion. As it stood she had no excuse, and so had been forced to place the fate of this enchanted evening in the digital hands of Hiemal.

She would have done better to grab someone off the street. This had to be some sort of joke.

"More wine, Dr. Elstrom?" her date simpered.

She mentally added an 'h' to the noun, and responded "No thank you, Dr. Stoica." The tall, lean, grey haired man slouched over the seawall railing in defeat, bottle of cheap red three quarters full beside him. He couldn't have been a worse fit for his own name. She fiddled idly with the silver necklace around her neck, and fought the urge to sigh. She wasn't all dressed up for nothing, since dressing up was something on its own, but she'd expected at least some entertainment this evening which she hadn't brought with her.

They stared out over the cloudy Bay of Wismar, an eagle's talon of channels servicing the Foundation's wet and drydocks. She nursed her still-full glass, idly rotating her right thigh and stretching out the long leg to strike a more striking pose. She wasn't doing it consciously, though of course she did notice. At least one of them was making this look good.

"Would you like to see the perimeter?" Stoica asked, not turning to face her. "Or, uh… take a tour of the underground facilities?"

Karen had no intention of entering an interior space with him. His intentions were noble, she had no doubt; he lacked the imagination to be lascivious. But she wasn't about to reward him for depriving her of interesting company, even if the warm breeze off the bay was moderately pleasant. "No thank you," she repeated. "In fact, I think I should be—"

The outline of his sagging face was seared into her eyes as a bright white light filled the air around it, and then he was on top of her, and the warm breeze was hot as flame.


Her ears were ringing.

This wasn't the first piece of sensory data to reach her brain after the explosion, because she hadn't passed out, but it was the first to really stick because it was still relevant when she was no longer in imminent danger. On well-trained emergency autopilot she had towed Stoica across the manicured green while falling bombs punched deep impact craters all around them, bursting in brilliant flashes of light but no heat, as warning sirens wailed and engines roared overhead. She was almost to the warehouse before she really saw it, had her ID card in her hand before she saw the reader on the door, had the door open before she felt the impact of plastic against the screen. She didn't even feel the strain from hauling her date behind her until the door was closed again, so instinctual was her response to the attack. You didn't reach your fifties at the Foundation without acquiring swift and decisive disaster reflexes.

"Oh my god," Stoica wheezed. This was his first reaction to what had happened; apparently he was the exception to the rule. He doubled over, gasping for breath. He wasn't overweight, but in a way Karen had never remotely been, he was certainly out of shape. "I didn't even see it start. Are you a first responder or something?"

She shook her head. "Don't qualify. I have DPHF." This was still a sore point for her all these long years later, but they had moved well beyond the coy little dance of teasing out personal details in return for agreeable flirtations. This was life or death.

"I don't know what that is," he responded predictably. Karen had already defined him as a man who didn't know things. She resolved to tell him later, when they had more time.

"It doesn't matter. Find the lights."

He unbent, face pale behind his bushy grey moustache and bushy grey eyebrows, and cast about uselessly on their little island of illuminated concrete. Only an emergency bulb over the door was lit. "I've never been in this sector," he muttered. "I only started work here last week."

This tracked. Hiemal had given her a date who lived halfway across the world, in flagrant violation of her set preferences. That apparently sometimes happened when personnel transferred from station to station, when the system didn't have time to update. She'd only agreed to meet Stoica after realizing that a long distance relationship would take less effort to fake, achieving her goal with a minimum of socializing. "Look anyway. I'm trying the comms." She took out her pager, and began hitting buttons.

"I could try comms." Stoica patted the grey brick walls sullenly.

"And don't speak. Hello? This is Dr. Elstrom, L4. Instructions?"

A calm male voice responded. "Seek cover. If possible, evacuate the area. Prioritize the bay."

"Copy." She winced as the floor shook; another of those curious non-explosions, just outside by the sound of it. Stoica whimpered in the dark.

The lights came on.

They were standing in a large concrete boathouse, dominated by what looked to Karen's maritimeless eye — when on boats, she preferred to sunbathe until the ordeal was over — like an old timey harbour tug. There were signs and consoles everywhere, all smashed to pieces. There was a hole in the roof far above, and fallen masonry and structural steel every which where.

"This place isn't safe." Karen turned to the door. "We'll be flattened when the roof comes down."

"I'm not going back out there!" Stoica whined without conviction.

"You'll do whatever I tell you," she snapped, and then as though in punctuation another blast went off, closer than ever before, and the wall shook and the door visibly buckled.

Stoica reached for the handle, and Karen slapped his hand away. "Don't touch it now, you idiot! You could bring the entire wall down."

"What should I do, then?" the grown man sulked at her.

"Anything I ask, and nothing more. Don't touch anything, don't say anything, don't back talk me. I'm in charge." She didn't wait for a response, instead walking to the end of the pier and assessing the state of the twin boathouse doors. They seemed undamaged. "Hmm." She headed for the gangplank, miraculously still in place.

"We're taking cover in there?" Stoica asked dubiously, against her instructions. "It doesn't look like it can take a beating. More like it already has."

She stepped daintily onto the rusty deck with her black Manolo Blahnik shoes, adjusting her dress for longer strides. "It won't have to take much more. We're taking it out."

"How is out better than—"

She turned to present him with the glare that had already failed to deflect his interest, hoping it had more effect in person. "Dr. Stoica, you have no expertise relevant to this scenario. I do. Furthermore you lack both the courage and the ingenuity to react appropriately to an emergent situation. If you don't stop talking right now, I will render you unconscious with my taser as though you'd gotten handsy with me on the seawall. I have made myself clear." She considered the scene for a half-second more, not wanting to see the man's face fall further. "Go around back," she gestured at the wheelhouse, "and check for an anchor line. If there is one, haul it up. We're leaving."

He disappeared behind the wall of the cabin. Karen busied herself with undoing the high strength mooring lines on both sides; the concrete formed a staple-shaped arc around the stern of the ship. There was a wet sort of snapping sound from the stern as she started on the starboard side, and she called out: "What was that?"

"I don't know. But there's no anchor," Stoica called back. His voice had lost the shell shock of moments prior, likely due to her expert dressing-down. She hoped he remained pliable until she could ditch him with the security staff.

She glanced over the edge of the hull, and blanched. Two figures in labcoats, a man and a woman, and four male agents lay face down in the water below. If they'd been there the entire time, they were either breathing water or long dead. The ruby cloud enveloping them was another clue.

"Whatever hit this place killed everyone inside," she called out again without looking away. "All the more reason to get the hell out."


She nearly jumped out of her skin to find Stoica standing beside her. His face was even paler than before, and he did not look over the rail. She'd been too intent on the carnage to hear him approach. "Yes," he agreed again. "We should leave. Now."


Stoica disappeared into the bowels of the boat while Karen familiarized herself with the controls. By the time she thought she had it all figured out, a deep rumble rose up in the planks beneath her feet. Red dust billowed outside the wheelhouse, revealing oddly shiny metal underneath. Perhaps the rust was a blind, hiding the vehicle's true nature from curious civilian eyes? The old tub might get them out of here after all.

"Ready to go." Stoica emerged from the hatch to the lower decks.

"Where did you learn how to start a tugboat engine?"

He chuckled. His voice had dropped at least an octave since their flaccid waterfront picnic. "I've done a few crossings in my time. Once piloted a sailing ship to shore all my lonesome. This is nothing."

She granted him an appraising glance. He was standing taller, footing more sure, shoulders back, head cocked curiously to one side. He seemed more self-assured, more comfortable in his own skin. Had his challenges to her leadership been a test, or was he simply more in his element on a boat? If it was the latter, so much the better for their chances.

She'd fished the remote control for the doors out of the pile of rubble on the pier. They were lucky it hadn't been in the hands of one of the dead scientists or guards. When she pressed the big green button, the thing actually fizzled audibly in her hand. As the doors swung open grudgingly against the pressure of the water within, a thin wet trickle emerged from between the button and its depression to roll down her wrist. It must've been doused when the ceiling fell into the berth. She tossed the remote aside, not wanting to get electrocuted.

She eased the tug out. There was a hideous scraping sound from the bow, and she hurried out to the rail to see what they were dragging. A strange wooden shape like a keel turned upside-down slid along the hull, disentangling itself from a nasty gouge just above the waterline. The damage didn't look bad enough for them to start shipping water. There were pieces of corrugated steel from the roof on top of the bizarre wooden spar, suggesting that the roof falling in had also dislodged this strange alien component from the bow scar. Strange.

The boat made it out of its house regardless, into the waters of the bay. South in the harbour they could see an aircraft carrier painted in curious livery, launching planes toward the Site. More of the invisible explosions were levelling outbuildings and shooting down fighter craft scrambling from the airstrip. The latter flew apart soundlessly and bloodlessly, parachutes deploying every time. It was a curiously non-fatal fracas.

The radio crackled. "Unknown vessel. These waters are now under the authority of the," and Karen thought she heard 'Temporal Anomalies Department', though something didn't sound quite right and anyway that didn't make sense. "You will reverse your present course, or suffer the wrath of the Boxer. Please respond."

"We can outrun them," Stoica declared confidently. She was still getting used to the idea that he could do anything with confidence. "Pour on the gas, and let's take a pleasure cruise."

She barely suppressed a smile as she pushed the lever forward, her injunction against his speech forgotten. "Awfully bold all of a sudden, aren't we?"

"It's a dramatic day." The ship's bow began to rise and fall in the choppy water. "And we're both dressed for theatre, so why not give them a show?"

The assertiveness did wonders for him. What had just minutes before been a sunken-cheeked vision of middle aged surrender now seemed noble, almost imperial. Stoica had obviously missed his calling as a ship's captain.

There was nothing but open water ahead. Stoica set down primly in a couch behind the conn. After a moment's consideration, Karen joined him. "This is one of the more eventful dates I've been on." She didn't say it was the most, because it wasn't. She also didn't mention how much time had elapsed since she'd enjoyed even a dull romantic excursion.

"Have I made a good impression?" Stoica's grey eyes gleamed with both high interest and an unsuspected mirth.

"Not at the outset," she admitted. "But you're improving."

"Ah." He nodded. "Well, perhaps we should start over again, Karen." He hadn't called her anything but 'Dr. Elstrom' up to that moment.

She shrugged amiably. "If you like, Karl. We've got nothing but time."

He folded his hands in his lap aristocratically. "Then we are both incalculably rich."


Stoica had become such an expert conversationalist that Karen wanted to check him for head trauma. He regaled her with stories that under normal circumstances couldn't possibly be true. A Romanian village nearly flattened by a tentacular beast only thwarted when it broke into the local silver mine and poisoned itself. A prolific serial killer stalking Indonesia during the Krakatoa eruption of 1883 who had never been caught, having disappeared into thin air when the ash clouds finally lifted. A ship which had inexplicably sunk after its hold was filled with garlic, only to re-emerge from the deeps with the entire cargo disgorged. Stoica's relationship to these tales was unclear, but Karen didn't much care. He told them well, with a mellifluous baritone and a strong sense of moment. His delivery was hypnotic.

"But enough about me." If he'd yet offered a single scrap of information about himself, Karen hadn't caught it. "What about you?"

Karen considered. She'd spent twenty-plus years in one of the world's most fascinating workplaces, but when asked to relate any of it herself… well. There was one story she could lay claim to, but it was rather personal, and she hadn't brought it up a single time since it had occurred. She glanced her date up and down, calculating, then made the decision. She was getting too old to be hung up on the past.

"Werewolves." She felt very vulnerable starting this story, like she was baring her jugular. "I was placed in charge of my Site before I was ready, and we were handling an anomaly exchange. These werewolves—"

"I don't care to hear about werewolves," Stoica barked. He stood and disappeared down the stairs to the lower compartments, leaving Karen alone on the couch in shock. She sat there for a moment, left eye twitching, feeling very foolish and exposed before leaping to her feet and storming after him.

"Where do you get off?" she shouted at the back of his tuxedo.

"I don't," he replied over his shoulder. He was heading for the engine room.

"Turn around when I'm speaking to you!"

He spun in place, one finger raised in a regal gesture of protest. "I am unaccustomed to taking orders."

She shook her head in disbelief. "The hierarchy here is very simple, Karl. I'm in charge." She advanced on him, matching his finger with one of her own. Hers were longer.

"I don't answer to you!"

"I'm a full clearance level higher!"

"I'm the one who understands the boat!"

"I'm the one with a consistent personality!" The sound of vibrating pistons, amplified by the hull, surrounded them. They were screaming at each other to be heard over it.

"My secrets are my own," he growled. "You have not earned the privilege."

It was hard to change tack in this cacophony, but Karen made a college try. "You don't get to pick me up in an Audi, playing Michael Bolton on CD, then play the sexy and mysterious card!"

"You think I'm sexy?" He bared his teeth in a predatory grin. She nearly busted them for him when she realized she could hear the sound of the blood in her ears.

The engines had stopped.


"What's going on? Are we out of fuel?"

They were both very badly dressed for the engine room. It was sleek and shiny, but still unmistakably industrial.

"Not as such." Stoica removed his suit jacket, and rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt. "There's plenty more, but it needs loading."

"Loading," she repeated as the man removed a wide, flat ended shovel from a wall mounted tool rack.

"Yes." Stoica walked over to what Karen now recognized as a coal hopper. "You mind opening the boiler door, or are menial tasks beneath you?"

She placed both hands on her hips, a gesture which an entire generation of employees at Site-43 had learned to dread. "There is absolutely no way this tug runs on coal."

"Believe what you want." Stoica opened the boiler himself, and started shovelling. "But if you don't help me warm up this old boat's heart, that carrier is going to catch us."

She watched him stoke the flame until she could feel the heat from the back of the compartment. She watched him strip to the waist, taking care to place his clean white shirt out of reach of the rising cloud of coal dust, and she wasn't sure whether to be more intrigued by how much more physically fit he seemed than she'd thought — posture counted for so much — or his concern for the state of his wardrobe. She liked a man who kept up appearances.

When it became apparent that he wasn't going to be able to get the boiler up to full blast without help, despite making a near-heroic go of it, she headed to the fore compartments for a moment. She returned in her underwear, plain and utilitarian; she hadn't expected anyone, least of all Stoica, to see them today. As means of disrobing one's date went, this was surely novel.

He made no effort at all to disguise the fact that he found the achievement agreeable.


O we are damned to die below
As off to war the triremes go
Through strain and spit the music grows
The whip that cracks, the oars that row

She was surprised to hear him sing, and astonished to find that he was good at it. He hit every ominous note with practiced ease. They timed their motions to the steady rhythm, and before long the fuel was heaped high and the fire was stifling hot. His muscles shone with sweat, and her underwear soon left nothing at all to the imagination. If either of them had been inclined to find it titillating, the accumulation of black dust on their wet skin baking blacker took the shine off rapidly. They were both in complete and total coalface by the time Stoica slammed the boiler shut, and declared the job well done.

They staggered back onto the bridge, then onto the deck. Karen could barely feel the wind through her protective layer of grime. The carrier was a distant stretch of detached horizon, heaving to, abandoning the pursuit. A small flotilla of angry-looking frigates, bristling with guns, was approaching from the Site. Bigger fish to fry. They'd made it.

Stoica went back down to stop the engines while Karen walked to the stern, where an access ladder led to and from the waterline. She stripped off her filthy garments, piled them neatly on the captain's console, then climbed down. The water was warm, but felt ice cold in comparison to the slowly abating heat of the engine room. She fancied it sizzled as the coal armour coating her body ablated in sticky sheets while she hung from the ladder and felt the tug gradually lose its head of steam. When the boat had slowed to a backcrawl, she let go the ladder and dunked her head underwater. A few vigorous scrubs cleaned her face and hair of the worst of it; when she surfaced, the water was filthy but the filth was floating back toward the bay. She repeated the action, completing her ablutions just in time to see Stoica two-hand sliding down the ladder towards her. She nearly shouted a warning, but the man neatly sidestepped at the last possible second to catch the stern's narrow lip. He bent down to smile at her.

"All better?" He was still caked with grime.

"It's an improvement." She scrubbed at her arms and legs, conscious that the water afforded precious little cover but not wholly uncomfortable with that fact. Against all odds, the milquetoast had earned himself a little intimacy.

"You are a thing of grace," the man remarked mildly as he squatted down. "I think you must have been a queen, in a past life."

She wanted to snort, but snorting was undignified. She scoffed instead. "Royals are rarely beautiful. 'Good breeding' is just a euphemism for 'inbreeding'. I'd be a hag by now if I were a queen."

Stoica laughed. It sounded nothing like any sound he'd made on land. "And you know you're no hag. I like that you see yourself so clearly, Karen. Is that one source of the authority you project?"

Something about what he'd said set a bell ringing in the back of her brain. She knew from experience that it would resolve into words eventually, and figured she could afford to wait. "Authority comes from making mistakes until you know how to stop. That's all."

He inclined his head. He'd done that a lot since crossing the gangplank. "Hardly all. There's also knowing your own worth, and the worth of those around you. I could tell when you spoke with," and he shifted his position as the boat rocked suddenly to port, "me in the boathouse, that ruling comes naturally to you. You were in the presence of a peon, and acted accordingly."

She narrowed her eyes. "You're not much of a peon anymore, Karl. Was that all an act?"

He shrugged. "I leave it to your interpretation. Things are not always as they seem." He leaned forward, no doubt getting a better look.

"You're not wrong." She bobbed up and out of the water, like a mermaid, and planted a quick kiss on his soot-stained lips. The taste was sour.

She looked down as she sank back in, and suddenly realized what was wrong.

The words rang out loud and clear.

Stoica was leaning out over the water.

He has no reflection.

And that wasn't the worst of it.

Neither does the boat.

She didn't cover up. That ship had long since sailed, and there was anyway little modesty in her makeup. Instead, she simply asked: "Who are you? Really?"

Stoica blinked, then seemed to realize his error. He sighed. "I'd hoped we'd have more time to get acquainted before you noticed. I suppose you'll get all professional on me, now. I'd almost be disappointed to be wrong."

"You're connected to the boat." It wasn't a question.

"I am the boat."

It was her turn to blink. She suddenly remembered the timing of his transformation from wilting violet to regal rose, and cursed herself for not seeing it sooner. "You took Stoica when I sent him for the anchor."

The thing in Stoica's body nodded. "He's not bothered, if that's what's bothering you. Your little assignation was going very poorly for him, and I've been doing much better."

"Will you let him go?"

"I could, but that would deprive us of our best means of communicating."

She placed both hands on the ladder rail experimentally. He made no move to interfere. "You're not going to drown me? Or leave me behind?"

He laughed again. It still sounded genuine. "If I had wanted you dead and gone, Karen, you would never have made it this far. Once the doors were open, I didn't need you. No, this is all about desire now."

There was nothing in her training about self-defence against boats, but she was sure she could improvise. She hadn't been lying about the taser before, though she'd left it with her necklace and clothes. "If I'm going to come aboard… you, again…" She saw him smirk. "…I'll at least want to know your real name."

"That is only fair." He stood, looking almost majestic despite taking the form of a barrel chested middle aged man with too much moustache, a receding hairline, dusty dress pants and sweat-soaked cast of coal. "My name is Vampire Boat."

He didn't hear her burst out laughing, because another bomb burst right beside them and showered the ship with an almighty roar.


The radio was blaring as Karen scurried nude across the deck. There were planes in the sky, ugly boxy things with bright red bulbous noses which barely looked capable of flight, and they were dropping those strange percussive devices willy-nilly. She'd been drenched twice by the spray while climbing the ladder, and nearly lost her grip.

"Dr. Elstrom!" She'd left her pager on the console with her underwear, and the dispatcher was shouting. "Hostiles have targeted 6426." Four digits, an SCP number. The one she was standing on? "Attempts at negotiation have failed. We cannot assure your safety. Take cover."

"I can assure it," Stoica — she didn't have time to think of him as anything more complex — declared. "Get below. I'll handle this."

"That body is as vulnerable as mine." She knew her duty. "I'm staying up here to make sure you don't ruin it."

"Fine." Stoica took the wheel, which gave her all manner of strange thoughts. "But stay out of the line of fire if you can. This is bound to get messy, and I don't want you hurt."

She had a strange feeling that the body-hijacking sapient boat was finally telling her the truth about something.

A trio of the ugly jets growled overhead, their payloads splashing down and splashing up in the tug's path. "Vampire Boat," the voice from earlier returned over the radio. "You have been identified. You will be pummelled. Do not resist."

"I am going to resist," Stoica murmured.

"They're bluffing. If they were going to blast you, they wouldn't bother threatening first. They want you to surrender."

"You have witnesses on board," the voice continued. "By order of the Tempura Anomalies Department," and this time Karen heard it loud and clear, "this is unacceptable. Neutralize them, and you will be shown mercy."

"Okay," she said. "Maybe they aren't bluffing. How do you know these people? Who are they?"

Stoica sighed, and opened his mouth to answer. The radio cut him off. "You will now be boarded. Sock. Pummel. Combat."

"They're from where I'm from." Stoica gripped the tug's wheel tightly, which Karen found intriguing but didn't have time to muse too closely on. "They're weirder than I am, but I am worse."

The planes were coming in for another pass. A shape detached itself from the lead craft, falling toward them. Two more followed suit from its wingmen.

"That's not much of an explanation."

He pointed out the wheelhouse window. "If you can't figure it out from that, the answer won't make sense anyway."

The first of the shapes crashed down on the bow, splintering wood momentarily obscured by a cloud of red dust. It was humanoid — an exoskeleton, painted teal, with thick fists on both arms and both legs. The feet-fists mercilessly pounded the deck as it advanced, hand-fists pumping at the air with pneumatic anticipation. There was an insignia on each shoulder, a distorted Foundation emblem with fists instead of arrows.

"What," Karen said, "is that."

"My past returns to haunt me," said Stoica.

"That normally means an old girlfriend showing up. Not…" She waved at the window. "Whatever—"

The other two attackers landed, flanking the leader. Karen opened her mouth to finish her interrupted sentence… and the first attacker closed the distance between them in a single bound, a single instant, launched by its spring loaded fist-feet. It struck the window and shattered it with one mighty blow, filling the wheelhouse with powdered glass. One mechanical hand pulled back, clenched, then struck at her like a pile driver.

It didn't connect.

A wall of red gristle shot up from the floor, the boards bending aside to let them pass. Suckers on the end drilled into the cabin roof with tiny teeth, like limpets, a dozen thick strands screening her from the incoming fist and redirecting its kinetic energy like a rubber band. Or a slingshot. The owner was flung back toward the bow, and the filament curtain immediately dropped back away so that Karen could see the deck plates under a second attacker collapse, reforming again once it had fallen in. A sequence of squeals, not all of them metal, echoed up from the open hatch, then a sound like a giant swallowing hard, then silence. The glass on the window grew back into place like ice sheeting out on a lake, and the air filled with dissipating rust.

It's eating them, and healing itself. She remembered, Vampire Boat.

The third attacker raised both fists to strike, but the tendrils struck it first. They crept across the gunwales, out of portholes down below and smokestacks up above, pulling its arms taut across the deck and binding its feet to the shifting boards. When the motors in the exoskeleton whirred to life, they tore its arms clean off. The hungry red feelers shot through the new armour gaps, and devoured the man inside. She knew it was a man by the tone of his screaming.

"Won't lose her again," Stoica murmured. He was standing unsteadily. Karen placed one hand on his back, to brace him.

The lead attacker had righted itself, and kicked its feet-fists up into the air. Rockets kept it hovering in place as it pointed all four fists at the bridge, the springs sprang…

…and a hundred organic harpoons cris-crossed its body, shredding it in midair. A solid curtain of wet human and twisted metal smashed into the window, and was gradually absorbed.

When the glass was clear again, Karen could see the deck was immaculate. Not a spot of rust to be seen.

The planes came around for another pass.

The horizon… disappeared.

Karen walked out of the wheelhouse, ambled around the back like she was on a Sunday stroll — It's Friday, she thought dreamily — and looked over the bulb of the stern. They were rising into the air, the surface of the water rapidly retreating. Already they were dozens of feet up. How did that work?

She turned back to see the distant specks growing nearer. The deck rose up to meet them. The bow split open in a horizontal maw, and she gripped a stanchion to chance a look down through it.

Three hundred feet, four hundred, five hundred feet below, the lower hull was squirming on the Baltic Sea. It was still under power. The upper decks were suspended at low flight altitude by straining, pulsating pillars of angry red flesh.

"Hold on," a voice from the wheelhouse told her unnecessarily. It wasn't remotely human.

The jaws opened so wide that they formed an almost straight line. Karen clutched the stanchion until her fingers ached. The planes plunged toward her. They were shaped like boxing gloves.

The ship snapped shut.

And they were gone. There was an explosion. She was blown up off her feet, and something soft and slimy caught and slid her back down to safety. The hull rumbled. It rocked. It roared, literally, like a tyrannosaur enraged or engorged or in heat.

It sank, sank, sank, until she could see the horizon again. The sun was approaching it, tentatively, as though rubbernecking at the inexplicable carnage below. She stood in the middle of the deck, stock still, stark naked, and watched the contrails above melt into the evening cloudscape.

Stoica stumbled out of the wheelhouse. All the ash had been washed off of him by bucketloads of sweat. Except for his soaked hair, he was as pristine as the tug he was an extension of.

"Ask me again how you're doing," she said. Her voice sounded high and frantic. "What kind of an impression you're making."

He shook his head. "I'm well aware."

She pushed him over.


"Who was she?"

"Who was who?"

Karen prodded him in the stomach. He didn't react. "You said you wouldn't let it happen to her again. During the battle. Who did you lose?"

"I was out of it. Strained. Just babbling."

They were laying on the deck as the sun crept lazily to the ends of the Earth. She'd ended up sunbathing after all, though the distant ball of fire was barely visible behind the cloud cover. He was breathing very shallowly beside her, and he wasn't very warm. "Skip to the part where you relent, please. Who knows how long this interlude lasts? Let's not waste it."

He squirmed. "A love from a past life. My bride. Andreea."

"How did she die?"

He pretended not to hear. "She was magnificently arrogant," he mused. "A true queen. Despised her lessers, acknowledged no betters. Held herself like no man or god had claim on her. Contempt for all the world at once, my god, she was a vision. I saw her in you, the moment you crossed my plank. Felt her certainty in your tread, and the quality of your shoe leather. She fired my heart, as you do."

"This was mostly before you were a boat, I imagine."

"Yes, long before. I lost no more humanity by taking this form than when I lost her."

"How did you lose her?" she tried again.

Still he ignored the question, affecting a faraway look as though lost in thought. She considered pinching something sensitive. "Her eyes were cobalt blue, like yours. Hair like honey… like yours, in an earlier day?" She nodded. "Your nose is more presumptuous, and your nostrils flare like an Arabian mare's. You could drive a man to war for that nose."

"Was she killed by werewolves?" It was all falling into place, now.

He turned to stare at her, surprised. "No. Do you know what a garderobe is?"

She shook her head.

"Well, she fell down the garderobe in our castle. Took the servants a week to figure out what smelled different in the shit pile."

She knew what a garderobe was, now.

"Werewolves are just over-rated," he added. "People and their dogs, am I right?"

They stayed that way for a few minutes more before Karen sat up, massaging her aching back. As a Level 4 administrator, she had access to the best healthcare paranormalcy could buy. This meant at age 57, she was only physically ten years too old to be engaging in the gymnastics of the past few hours. "I knew someone back at my Site," she told the emerging sun as it sank. "About the age I am now. Hated her job. Always wanted more out of life. Something magical." She shook her head. "Ended up falling in love with a talking dragon, and flying away with it. Probably still out there, somewhere."

"Is that what you want?" Stoica asked. "A dragon to sweep you off your feet?"

This time, Karen did snort. It was a little late to be playing dainty. "No, I'm too old to elope, and I've had my fill of the sky today. But I could be convinced to take a three-hour cruise."


She stepped over the bow railing without the faintest trace of caution. She knew he would catch her, one way or another, if she fell. She felt his hands probing around her waist as she imitated Hollywood's most romantic T-pose, channelling the flush of embarrassment into a wide and careless grin.

She hadn't grinned in years.

They were dressed to kill again — she'd left only the necklace behind, not wishing to accidentally imitate Kate Winslet in that manner as well — and sailing into the sunset a perfectly matched pair. She could only imagine what a splendid sight they were.


"Queen of my world," he whispered in her ear.

She turned her head, and muttered almost into his lips: "That's a different scene entirely."

"Scene from what?" he replied, and the last rays of the setting sun — finally shining bright, at the close of the day — played upon his face.

His face changed.

His posture shifted. His colour worsened, except for a nasty purple bruise where his head bent hard against his shoulder. She saw the broken bones and tendons where his neck had been viciously snapped beneath the paper-thin and ghastly white skin — that was what she'd heard when he'd gone behind the wheelhouse — and saw his tongue lolling senselessly from his mouth. The sun had revealed the truth, because of course it had. The boat was a vampire.

And Karl Stoica had been dead the entire time.


"I've changed my mind."

The corpse didn't manage to look offended. Now that the bubble had been burst, she simply couldn't perceive the illusion anymore. She hoped Stoica, or rather the thing inhabiting him, wouldn't notice. "You want to cut the cruise short? It hasn't even been an hour."

"No, I want to extend it. Let's fuel up the boiler again, get you a red hot belly full of flame, and you can be my dragon."

He led her to the engine compartment with one clammy hand, head still cracking and popping as it gimballed around on his shoulders. She didn't have it in her to gag. This time they'd dressed in spare stokers' clothing, light and airy, their formal outfits neatly folded in the captain's bunk. She suspected Stoica would need his for the funeral; the Foundation's sentimental expenditures budget was tight near to nonexistence. She knew that better than most.

She maintained the illusion of helping heap the coal on until the sweat was in both their eyes, then reached into her pants pocket to palm her necklace. Her silver necklace. She tossed it in.

The effect was instantaneous. Stoica leapt off the floor as though lightning-struck, then fell to his knees with the squishy crack of pulverizing cartilage. He screamed. He clutched at his chest. He pounded his ribcage. The hull rattled and shook. Rivets popped. The corpse bellowed. "My heart! Faithless witch, you've poisoned my heart!"

"I'm not a witch," she snarled. "I'm a bitch. Everyone says so." She picked up the shovel Stoica had dropped, and slammed it against the corner of the boiler. There was a crack, but the handle held. "Call me queen bitch, if you like."

"My queen." Stoica reached out for her with one hand, clutching his throat with the other. His mouth didn't move when he talked; it never had. The boat had barely been able to make the body toddle around, shovel coal and turn the wheel. Everything else had been in her head, thanks to the congenital inability to recognize reality distortions which had disqualified her from first responder status. "Why? I would have given you the world! I would have gifted you life eternal! Why?!"

"Because you murdered him," she spat. "Like you murdered those guards, and agents, right? In your containment chamber, SCP-6426. Smashed up all the signs and consoles so we wouldn't notice, then snapped my date's neck. None of that was self-defence. You're a monster."

"Not self-defence?" The corpse was now shaking like a puppet on a string, broken knees against sackcloth pants rubbing the coal-streaked floor clean. "They locked me up! They drove a stake into my heart! They imprisoned me, ruler of the waves! They wounded the dignity of VAMPIRE BOAT!"

"That," she said coldly, "is a fucking stupid name."

"YOU are a fucking stupid name!" the voice screamed in her head. "And you are in my power!" The corpse reached out with both hands now, twirling its fingers like a second-rate magician. The eyelids opened wide, the eyes rolled all the way back in its skull, mesmerizing milky orbits penetrating deep into her soul.

She blinked, and the connection broke. She blinked again, and it died in the dial-up phase. She laughed. "You really should have asked me what DPHF stands for." She swung the shovel again, and this time the handle snapped in half. The shovel head skittered away. "Dyspercipeal Hyperferoxia."

"Meaning what?" the vampire spat, as the corpse masticated its own tongue. There was no blood left to draw.

She raised the makeshift stake. "It means my subconscious is an easy mark, but my heart is mine alone."

It seemed sufficiently pithy for a deathblow line. She felt reasonably good, under the circumstances, about her delivery of both.


"Near as we can tell, it's catatonic." The featureless containment specialist gestured at the creaking hull as a team of workmen re-inserted the naval ram which had once held Vampire Boat immobile. "The cost of pouring all that energy into one vessel, if you'll forgive the pun, then having it destroyed."

Stoica, it turned out, wouldn't be needing his suit after all. He'd disintegrated the instant the shovel handle breached his heart.

"You're lucky you can't be mind controlled," the man added.

"You all are," she agreed. She gave him the chance to react; he let it pass without comment. "And the Shark Punching Center?"

She hated saying the words out loud.

"We're filing this under 'miscommunications'," the man sighed. "Like, actual miscommunications, not the Department of. They mistook our containment for collaboration with a refugee from their timeline, and Tempura Anomalies takes a dim view of harbouring fugitives. What?"

She had begun to smile at the word 'harbouring'.

"Nothing. Do you need anything further from me?"

The man shook his head. "We have your statement. Sorry you had to go through that ordeal."

Had it been an ordeal? She should have felt horrified, betrayed, traumatized. The thought of what could have been…

Of course, she could have stayed sat at home, filling out form letters and rubber stamping personnel transfers. Perhaps her psychologist had had a point. A little misadventure now and again couldn't hurt.

You only just now stopped almost dying every five minutes or less.

"Yes, well," she murmured to her self as she left the specialists to their work. "Definitely fuck that boat, for sure." She shook her head. No, specifically do not fuck that boat.

Once through the repaired door, she took out her work device and activated the Hiemal app. Her own exasperated face stared up at her. She flicked on the camera, expecting to see herself even more obviously frustrated and exhausted now.

After about a minute, she flicked back to the app. It was easy to find the button to delete her account, since nobody was getting paid to retain her. She pressed it.

A warning popped up. She had an open romantic connection which had to be closed before she could cancel the service entirely. Stoica's mincing, manipulable, unthreatening face appeared in front of her. Fifty-six years old, probably never had an interesting moment in his sad, pathetic life until today, and he'd been dead for nearly all of it. Dead as she'd felt swirling that glass of red on the seawall and counting the minutes until she could beg off and go home.

She neither felt, nor looked, dead now.

She cancelled the account deletion. She did swipe left on Stoica first, though, for the symbolism.

She didn't care for vampires, dragons, or for that matter, werewolves, but if there were queens left in the world, might there not still be kings as well?

Princes, she amended with a smile. A prince would know his place — and if not, well, then she could enjoy reminding him.

For an alternate take, see What does B stand for? by Crow-CatCrow-Cat!

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