When I first came up with the idea for writing Monday Mini Mysteries, the thought crossed my mind that it might not be easy. I expected to spend time staring blankly at a screen and scrolling through countless prompts in order to find the one that inspired me the most. I did not, however, anticipate one of my biggest challenge being that I am inclined to write too much! There is just so much that I can see happening, that it’s hard to find the ending! With that in mind, I’ve decided to make a two (or more?) part story. Today I am posting the introduction, and next Monday I will post part 2 which should be the conclusion.
Without further ado, here is “Exploration, Part 1”.
Prompt: You’re on a boat that should have reached undiscovered land days ago. Your compass tells you you’re on the right path but there is no land in sight.
Blue. Every direction I look is blue. Blue sky above me, blue water all around this boat, blue flag on this mast, even blue uniforms on every crew member. The brown hull of the Stormchaser is the only interruption. And this is all I have seen for the past two weeks.
Luckily, this is about to change. Any day now the lookout should glimpse land, and within a week of that day we will arrive at Nesaf Island. Not a very creative name, as I’m told Nesaf means “nearest” in another language, and this island isn’t terribly far from home, but that’s the way things are. You see, no one has actually been to Nesaf Island yet, and no one took the time to properly name it when it showed up on the latest topographical scans before sending us out to find and explore it.
I suppose I should explain who “we” are. Me, my name is Freya Alzarsi. I am assigned to the Stormchaser to learn about various naval tasks, but what I really want to study is the stars. Eventually I hope to prove I am capable of more than just manual labor and learn the science behind what goes on in the night sky: a tall order for someone born just below the middle class of our rigidly divided society. However, rising is not completely unheard of, nor forbidden as I have heard is the case in some places nearby. Someday, I will join the ranks of the scientists.
Unfortunately, this will not happen anytime soon. About three months ago we experienced the most violent earthquake in memory, causing the ground to rip open in some places and burst out with towering new structures in others. The topographical changes indicated by scanners are so impressive in some places that entire new islands began to appear in the middle of the ocean. A small fleet of ships similar to the Stormchaser are tasked with exploring these new islands. Some are vessels originally intended for exploration, but many, like the Stormchaser, are repurposed ships which are meant to watch the weather, trade with foreign lands, or even take passengers on luxurious cruises around the world, just so they can look at things! I’ve heard that those ships are fitted with velvet cushions, feather mattresses, and porcelain dinnerware. The Stormchaser, on the other hand, offers cramped cabins with triple bunk beds made of hard wood planks, few opportunities to sit on anything besides the deck itself, and plates made of tin. It is not meant for long-term habitation, but rather for brief journeys in harsh conditions, equipped with instruments I do not understand which apparently monitor weather conditions and store the information to be studied later. At least it has durability in its favor; the oceans have been all sorts of crazy since the earthquakes, but the Stormchaser’s reinforced hull and other extra precautions for outrageous weather have rendered it theoretically indestructible. At least, that’s what I have been told and choose to believe.
One minute I’m climbing numbly through the pitch black night into my bunk below deck, and the next I’m jolted awake by a sudden brilliant light and crashing sound. I slam against the wall as the Stormchaser is tossed nearly sideways by a series of waves and instinctively grab on to one of the handles protruding from the wall for such a time as this. I hold on so tightly my arms ache within minutes, or maybe it’s only seconds, as the boat careens from one extreme angle to another. This must be another storm, whipped up by the abnormal currents, disrupted weather patterns, and other lingering effects from the earthquakes, but even in my barely-awakened terror I think it strange that no one warned us something this big was coming. The last time a serious storm approached, we had at least a few hours warning.
Suddenly, everything stops. Strangely, there is no let down, no gentle bobbing or settling as the Stormchaser exits the storm. Instead, everything is still…possibly too still. I tentatively release my death grip from the handle and slide to the edge of my bunk. Apparently both of my cabin mates are on the night shift, because I am alone in the room. I can hear muffled voices coming from around the ship, and cautiously climb down from my bunk and open the door, ready to grab the nearest solid post if the rocking begins again.
I step out into the hall and see people emerging from the other two cabins nearby. We make eye contact briefly, but no one says anything. Mostly we shuffle around one another with silent wide eyes. The voices I heard earlier have also quieted, so the only sound is the wind. Wait, the wind? How can there be wind when everything is dead calm, I wonder? Still, the only sound I hear sounds like a whistling wind, high pitched and surely blowing right around the corner. I follow one of my neighbors, a fellow trainee, up the stairs to the main deck.
The scene on the deck is surreal. Nothing is terribly unusual: the nets, cargo, and other various items are mostly where they belong, although some have been knocked over or slid across the deck. It’s dark, and a heavy fog floats around, obscuring my view for a few seconds before clearing partially and then thickening again. Most of the crew is on the deck, making it crowded but not stifling. Several people brought lanterns with them, which I appreciate and wish I had thought of doing myself. Many people whisper, and attention seems to be focused primarily at the bow, but all I can make out is more fog, more stillness, and a persistent whistle which I now realize is not the wind, but I don’t know what it is. I try to tune in on the whispers:
“The Captain’s been taken.”
“Maybe it’s a hurricane.”
“It’s because we’re searching for something we’re not meant to see.”
“He’s been taken by God.”
“We’re in the Bermuda Triangle after all.”
“I must be dreaming. I’m going back to bed.”
People make assertions all around me, but nothing makes any sense. The whole situation does have a dreamlike quality, and I’m inclined to go with the last guy’s perspective and head back to bed myself, when I hear several people gasp and point to the front of the boat. Captain Banks emerges from a particularly thick patch of fog, making me doubt the validity of the statements implying he had disappeared off of the boat. The whistling stops, and the Stormchaser lurches underneath me, then settles back into a calmly rocking pattern. The ocean is quiet, as if the waves from mere minutes ago were nothing more than the violent outburst of a tempestuous child rather than a weather phenomenon.
Still, I remain on the deck a while longer, watching Captain Banks with everyone else and wondering if he will say anything. At first, he remains rooted in place, silent. Finally he shakes himself and looks around as if seeing everyone for the first time. One of the older crew members calls out to him, asking what happened and whether he is alright. The Captain just stares at the man, then mutters something and heads below deck. Murmurs start up around me the moment his head is out of sight. I opt to head back to my cabin, hoping the second half of the night will bring uninterrupted sleep.
Three days have passed since the overnight storm. The ocean continues to be unpredictable, but at least it has been manageable for a stretch. Captain Banks hasn’t said anything about that night publicly, and as one of the lowest on the chain of existence aboard this boat, that means I have heard absolutely nothing credible. All I know is that our course has been altered significantly. We were heading nearly due west, according to the stars and compass I keep hidden in my pocket at all times. Now we’re traveling north. I don’t know if that was part of the initial plan or not, just that it is definitely not the way that we were heading right up until the morning after that storm.
Suddenly the lookout calls out. I can’t make out the words, but I’m pretty sure it’s something much more complicated than the “land, ho!” I was hoping to hear. Still, maybe that’s what it equates to? First Mate Lee is at the foot of the mast supporting the lookout post in a flash. He climbs up into the lookout post and confers with the lookout, peering through various lenses and devices before climbing back down and scurrying off in the direction of the Captain’s quarters.
“The lookout saw Nesaf,” one of my fellow trainees, a tall girl named Maven who seems to catch onto everything instantly, appears beside me and says quietly, “but First Mate Lee is nervous. Strange, he wasn’t nervous when he was pushing to be on this specific expedition back home.”
I don’t have an insightful reply to share, so I just nod and say “I hope we get there soon, without any more strange storms.”
“I just hope that what we find is more welcoming than the sea has been,” Maven replies before walking away.
It takes another three days for the Stormchaser to reach Nesaf Island. Throughout these days the tension and anticipation felt by everyone on board grows; some people have become afraid of what might await us, while others can’t wait to go exploring. The odd nighttime storm of a week ago is not forgotten, but it is no longer in the front of anyone’s thoughts.
When we do finally reach Nesaf Island, none of the trainees are allowed to disembark with the crew. Instead, we are to put our recently-learned skills to use and manage the ship while nearly everyone else is gone. I have no idea why those in charge decided to handle things this way, but it means that most of us now find ourselves sitting together on the deck for the first time since being assigned to this unit.
“So what do you think is out there?” a talkative boy with dark hair asks.
“The same thing that’s on every other island,” snarks a girl with rust-colored hair pulled into a long braid who has climbed part way up one of the rope ladders used for checking environmental equipment, “Rocks. Dirt. Maybe lava, or a volcano. No vegetation. Nothing really worth studying or taking home with us, except maybe on a map.” She’s probably right, but the anticlimactic nature of her explanation is disappointing even to me.
“You’re probably right about the volcano,” Maven answers, “which, in my opinion, would be pretty cool to study. Assuming it’s calmed down and not active anytime soon.”
We sit around for a few hours, tossing out theories and inevitably beating them all down. Someone even suggests the lost city of Atlantis might be in Nesaf Island. All we can tell for certain from our vantage point on the Stormchaser is that a tall brown ridge surrounds what is assumed to be the main portion of the island. A single split, which appears very narrow but in reality must be several meters across, is the only opening we have seen. This is where the crew disappeared a few hours ago.
I have to wonder if whatever is on the other side has anything to do with the strange storm. The rest of the weather we’ve experienced is explainable, but that one remains set apart. What was the strange sound that came from it? Why did everything become so still for a while? And most pressing on my mind, what happened to the Captain? Did he really leave the ship somehow, or was the fog just so thick that some people thought he had disappeared?
Regardless, I have a job to do now which does not involve any more sitting around doing nothing. The Stormchaser must be in perfect order when the crew returns in two days. Perhaps, if I accomplish all of my responsibilities, I might be allowed to go along with some of the scientists on later trips to the shore. That is, assuming that they find Nesaf to be inhabitable, or at least worthy or further visits.
Come back next Monday to find out what is on Nesaf Island, what really happened during the storm, and whether Freya will get to pursue her dream of being a scientist!
Image credit: Brend Schulz via Unsplash.