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User:Eirik/Ballad

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Ballad

Author: Eirik
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Visionary story universe

The bow dipped below the water again, looking for all the world like it would sail straight to the bottom. Then with a groaning heave it pulled itself out of the boiling water. White foam bubbled around the anchor chains and capstans on the forecastle. Even as the ship righted itself, the swirling storm that gripped the Mackay-Bennett tried once again to pull it under.

Captain Nofplot stood confidently on the bridge of his ship. A veteran of the sea, he had seen storms like this before, on ships both larger and smaller that the one that he stood on now. He had survived them all.

Yet he still felt a twinge of panic each time he went through one.

As the bow dipped slightly below the sea again, the door to the bridge swung open, and a figure stepped in. The Captain turned and looked at the dark clad man.

"Ah, Mr. Henson! I see that you've chosen to join us. Would you be so kind as to relieve Mr. Barbary at the helm? I'm sure that he would like to get some rest."

The young helmsman unbuttoned his rain gear. "Yes sir, Captain. I'm sorry I'm late. This storm..."

Nofplot cut him off. "Thats all right, Mr. Henson. I believe this is your first big storm at sea?"

The young man nodded as he strapped himself into the helmsman's chair.

"Well, son, get used to them if you can. Ive seen a number of them in my day, and if you stay at sea long enough, you'll see your fair share."

Henson nodded meekly and turned his attentions to the helm controls. There wasn't much for him to do at the moment. The Mackay-Bennett wasn't a new ship, but her systems were fairly modern. It was capable of holding a course without a heavy hand on the wheel. But he had to be ready in case the situation changed.

Nofplot grinned a little from behind the young man. Had he ever been so young? This kid looked like he only started shaving last week. He mentally nodded to himself when he remembered his own first assignment as helmsman. It was World War II, in the South Pacific. He was the helmsman of the light cruiser Shasta.

Those had been good days for him. Coming out of a tiny town in Nebraska, he had joined the Navy as soon as he came of age. He wanted to see the world, he wanted to see some excitement.

His first bout with excitement came in the form of a Japanese convoy, guarded by four destroyers. The Shasta had taken four torpedoes before withdrawing. It managed to limp into a dry-dock in Australia for repairs, and Nofplot was assigned to a new ship. A heavy cruiser, a ship so large and powerful that only a few ships could oppose her one on one.

That ship had been called the Indianapolis.

Nofplot grimaced as the memory of that ship surfaced. He had served on her for a year when he and about half a dozen other men were abruptly transferred off just before she made a secret run.

The Indianapolis never returned.

She was sunk by a lone submarine in the middle of the hot August night. She had gone down, burning, by the stern, taking some of her crew with her to the bottom.

But she had been alone, on the return leg of a secret mission. She wasn't missed for days. By the time a patrol plane spotted the wreckage and bodies in the water, she had been lost four days. More than half who survived the sinking died of exposure, drowning or by shark attack. Many were men that he considered friends.

Nofplot shuddered when he thought about that, about how close he came. By all rights, he should have been aboard. He never knew why he had been transferred off, and the executive officer who ordered the transfer didnt survive.

It wasn't the last time that Nofplot would miss a sinking at the last minute. After the war, he had been hired as an officer for a small cargo line. It wasn't much, but all Nofplot was interested in was the sea. A few years later, an old customs agent in South Africa refused to let him aboard his ship. He wouldn't explain himself, only he adamantly refused to allow him to leave the country. The Captain of the vessel was sympathetic, but he was also on a deadline. He made arrangements for Nofplot to be picked up by another ship later, once this mess was straightened out.

The ship sailed out of port, never to be seen again. There were no survivors.

Seamen are, as a rule, a superstitious bunch. Nofplot was more the exception. He felt that it was a coincidence that he had managed to avoid two tragedies. He also knew better than to tell anyone about it. There was more than one story of a person who managed to survive several sinking, only to be banned from sailing.

But, the next time Nofplot survived, it wasn't something that he could easily dismiss as a coincidence. He knew that something, some higher power, was at work.

She was the Harley, a large refrigerated container ship. They were four days out of Manila with a shipment of foodstuffs bound for Los Angeles. By this time, Nofplot had become second officer. It had been an absolutely clear day. The sea was calm, there were no other ships in the area. It was a day of absolute serenity.

The Captain had relieved him, and Nofplot had wandered back to the stern of the ship. The crew was small, only 25, but even on a ship this size it was hard to get privacy. He stood and looked back against the trailing wake of the ship and found himself lost in thought when a voice interrupted him.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

He turned and found himself looking at a man he didn't recognize. He was certainly overdressed, in a dark suit and hat. Despite the heat of the South Pacific sun, he had an overcoat with him, though it was hung over one shoulder. "Who are you? How'd you get on the ship?"

"Fair questions, Jeremy, but there isn't time to answer them. I'm here to warn you."

Nofplot took a long look at the man, and a memory clicked. "You... you were in South Africa. You're that customs agent. But, that can't be. That was years ago."

"Ive held many jobs and positions over the years, whenever they have suited me or my purpose. But there isn't time. You must be warned, this ship is about to sink."

Nofplot felt a pit in his stomach. He knew this man wasnt lying. "How? When?"

"It doesn't matter. It will be soon. Very soon. Just be ready for anything to happen. Do not be concerned about the present. You have a future."

The man abruptly turned and walked behind a cargo container. "Wait!" yelled Nofplot as he chased after him.

But he was gone.

He turned his head a few times, but the man was gone. Deciding to look for him later, Nofplot started running at top speed for the bridge.

He never made it.

There was no reason for the disaster. There was nothing out of the absolutely ordinary. But before Nofplot had run fifteen steps, he felt the deck lurch from beneath him. There was a tremendous noise as steel rubbed and strained against steel. It was as though a giant hand was slowly tearing the ship apart. The deck between him and the bridge heaved and buckled. The ship was going down.

Nofplot raced to grab a life jacket from a safety cabinet, but stopped as he reached his arm out.

It was slowly growing white feathers.

Even as he realized it, he found himself a bird. A seagull to be exact. He hopped about a bit, confused, on the deck. He opened his wings and looked at the parallel feathers in wonder. He tried to call out, but only heard the high pitched scream of the bird that he had always considered the rat of the sea.

The water started to flow across the weathered decking, and he instinctively took to the safety of the air. From that position high above, he watched the ship twist in two as it fell beneath the waves.

Not knowing what else to do, he flew. He flew in the general direction of the Philippine Islands. With every flap, he wished more and more to be dead. He didn't want to live out his life as an animal, at least not one of the air. He loved the sea, but somehow a seabird isn't the same. He toyed with the idea of killing himself, of diving into the water at full speed.

But the words of that old man came back to him. He had a future to think about.

After a few hours, and as he got steadily more tired, he came onto a tiny, uninhabited island. As he landed, he found that he was human again.

He survived two weeks on that tiny island before he was rescued. He told them part of the truth, that the ship had simply sunk around him. It was guessed that the ship had simply had a massive structural failure at an expansion joint. It had been known to happen, though it was typically only when the ship was in a storm.

They never were able to understand how he survived the sinking. After all, no one else did, and the wreckage had been found very far from the island. Nofplot simply never told another living soul what happened to him.

Nofplot brought himself back to the present as a wave crashed across the windows of the bridge. He had been the Captain of the Mackay-Bennett long enough to know how his ship was doing by the feel of the deck plates, and she felt solid beneath his feet. According to the radio man, this storm was supposed to break pretty soon, and it would be clear sailing.

Then the door of the bridge opened again. Nofplot looked at the figure. It was him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized that he had been expecting him.

The dark clad man stepped into the bridge. This time, he was wearing to overcoat and hat, but didn't seem to be bothered by the rain outside. He stood firmly on the deck, only swaying slightly on the pitching deck. He crossed the deck deliberately. He crossed to Nofplot.

"I must speak to you."

"Is my ship going to sink?"

"You remember me."

"How can I forget?"

The old man merely nodded, then looked away.

Nofplot felt a sinking feeling. "You're not here for me, are you?"

The man turned back. "No."

The Captain merely nodded. "Then, you have forsaken me."

The man looked grave. "You were never mine to forsake. You've done good, my friend. I may not be able to save your ship, but I can save your life."

"You mean, like the seagull you turned me into?"

The man shook his head. "No, it would be one way. You wouldn't get another chance. That is reserved this night for another."

The Captain looked across his bridge. It seemed that no one else noticed the old man. Which one is going to be saved?

And how could he abandon those who wouldn't?

"No. I'm their Captain now. Anything that happens is my responsibility. If this ship goes down, then I go with it."

The old man nodded and walked to the young helmsman. The Captain kept his distance as the two talked briefly. Then the man turned back to Nofplot. "Captain, if you don't mind?"

"Mr. Nelson, you are relived." He walked over as the bewildered young man unstrapped himself from the chair. "Captain, what's going on?"

Nofplot looked at him a moment. "Be ready for anything, and remember."

The old man led him off the bridge. The Captain turned back to the controls as he felt the familiar rhythm of the deck shift suddenly. There were shouts as he felt a pair of waves smash into the ship at an angle to each other. It was more than the tiny vessel could take, and her keel was snapped like a toothpick. The power flashed once, then died. The men on the bridge scrambled for the exits, but the Mackay-Bennett was suddenly two ships, and disintegrating.

As the water poured through the open door, Captain Jeremy Nofplot saw an albatross struggle into the sky.

And he smiled one last time.