Communications Officer Blake Travers had been bothered by the messages. They were coming in at regular intervals, static and garbled voices begging him to decipher. Every now and then, he picked up a word or two thanks to the noise cancelling headphones. Infect. Virus. Brain. They were just a few he could pick out but the truth started to seep through. On land, there was some kind of contagion. A virus infecting the brain. He had to know more.
He decided to go to Morse Code. There could be no mistaking those kind of messages. As long as the receiver tapped out the right letters the message would reach you accurately. So he sat down at the Morse Code desk and began tapping out his question. ‘Is it safe to dock?’
It took a few minutes. He ran his finger through his yellow blond hair as he waited. This was a nervous habit from childhood and though he’d shaken it in recent years, stress always seemed to bring it back.
He looked at his watch, starting to wonder if anyone would answer. He knew Morse Code was a bit outdated, and the only ones who were taught it nowadays was sailors he was hoping someone at the docks still knew how to use it.
Then it came. In a short burst. Two words over the archaic system. ‘Turn Back.’
Blake quickly tapped out his next question. ‘Why?’
There was no immediate answer, He waited a few moments and tapped again. ‘Need to dock. Have passengers.’
This time the answer was almost instant. ‘Don’t.’
Again he asked. ‘Why not?’
A slight hesitation. ‘No.’ Then, ‘Nuclear.’
Blake was taken aback. A deadly virus was one thing to contend with, but something nuclear? ‘Terrorists?’
The reply, when it came, was shocking. ‘Warhead.’
Despite his alarm, he felt he had to ask the next question, so he tapped it out quickly. ‘Intended for whom?’
There was a long silence. The military man Blake had once been was now on high alert. And then a new message was tapped out from the docks. ‘Who is this?’
Blake hesitated. He didn’t know why, but he could almost hear his old naval instructor telling him, Never reveal yourself to the enemy. He’d spent a tour of duty on a submarine, where stealth and silence was normal engagement. Perhaps that applied here as well.
A new message came through. ‘Is this the approaching cruise ship?’
Blake didn’t respond, but the Morse Code persisted. ‘Is this the St. Fitzgerald?’
Despite his better judgement, he tapped out a quick answer. ‘Yes.’
‘Come on in. You are cleared for docking.’
Blake froze. Hadn’t the first message been to turn back? Hadn’t the Morse operator said Don’t when he said he had passengers and needed to dock? So, why all of a sudden was he now messaging us to come in? Because it’s two different people, he answered himself. The first guy isn’t there anymore. This is somebody new. And with this thought came another one. If there was a contagion, chemical derived or nuclear, the military would be there. They silenced him. The first guy. They replaced him with their man. And now they want us to come in. But why.
This can’t be happening, Blake thought. There is absolutely no way this is real. Maybe it’s a training exercise. Some kind of war game with the marines and the navy to better prepare the country for things like this. But his mind screamed at him in his father’s stern voice, “This is things like this! It’s happening now!
He got up from the desk, picking up the sheet he had been jotting the code messages on. He crammed it in his pocket and headed for the door. He had to get to the bridge and show this to the officer on watch. He could bypass him and go straight to the Captain, but that wasn’t normal ship procedure. He knew the Captain was on inspections so locating him could prove difficult. All he knew was they couldn’t go into port without finding out what was really happening onshore.
Outside, he started heading in the direction of the bridge, but something caught his eye. On the open deck, an Indian girl being accosted by two men. He wasn’t sure that was entirely true, but one of the men was holding the girl by her shoulders and was leaning down in her face. The other guy, a boy really, seemed to be looking the girl up and down.
He headed toward them, but waited until he was nearly on top of them before alerting them to his presence. The man had let the girl go and the boy had a cell phone out. “Everything okay here, Miss?” Blake asked.
The man, who had been looking at the cell phone too, suddenly looked up. “Oh, Officer. I think we need to see the Captain.”
This was something Blake heard time and time again. On most occasions they didn’t need the Commanding Officer of the ship and Blake had gotten pretty good at deflecting them.
“The captain is a busy man. Anything I can help you with?”
“Yeah,” the boy shouted. “You can take….”
“Who are you and what’s your rank?” the older man interrupted.
This threw him off a second. “I…I’m Blake Travers, Communications Officer. “
The man smiled and held out his hand. “Ethan. This is Peter. And…” He looked to the Indian girl.
“I’m Prisha,“ she replied.
Blake took the man’s hand and briefly shook it.
“Since you’re in Communications, maybe you should look at this communication,” Ethan said.
Peter handed the cell phone to Blake so he could see. Looking at what was on the screen, he instantly wished he’d left these people alone and continued to the bridge.
“What…what is this?”
“It’s my Instagram,” Prisha said. “A friend sent that to me. She’s waiting for me in Charleston.”
Blake started thinking of the coded messages and how it applied to this. Contagion, the guy had said.
“I’m worried about Cherise,” the girl continued, bringing him out of his thoughts. “I haven’t heard from her since she posted this.”
Blake didn’t know how to respond. Normally, he would be trying to reassure passengers whenever there was a situation. But despite his training, he wasn’t quite prepared for something like this. Whatever this was.
“As the radio guy, you can call ashore, right?” Ethan asked. “Call her friend for her? Make sure she’s okay.”
“Yes,” Blake replied, distracted within his own flurry of thoughts. “Um, I mean no. No, I can’t. I have to get to the bridge. We’ll keep you informed..”
He handed the cell phone back to whomever would take it. Prisha took it from him, a dumbfounded look on her face that begged the question, why won’t you help us?
There was no answer forthcoming. The Communications Officer had stopped communicating and was now moving away from them so rapidly you’d think they were the ones with contagion.
From the direction of shore, the breeze softly blew…
TO BE CONTINUED
Zombie Drift. 2018 Paul D Aronson. All Rights Reserved