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At first the captain’s decision seemed wise, for the enforced truce, like the beneficent weather, held. For a week, then two, until the morning of the forty-first day at sea, when the Bermuda archipelago was sighted to the north. The winds, which had for days blown steadily from the east, abruptly shifted. The southern sky grew as black as coal, and the seas rose a foot in the next hour, then two feet, then four as the sun disappeared behind a shroud of swift-moving clouds; the Feronia pitched in the grip of the roiling sea while waves twenty feet high crashed over the rails. The wind began to gust to fifty knots, forcing the crew to lower the sails lest they be ripped from the masts. The rain fell in drenching sheets, a pitiless rain driven by the remorseless gale. For hours the men huddled on deck, exposed to the elements, while the man-eating beasts below stayed warm and dry, an irony not lost on the men, and the debate was born anew. Already a man had nearly been washed to sea by a breaching wave. With each passing hour the storm strengthened; lightning popped and spat around the mainmast; wind drove the rain sideways in blinding sheets, making even the smallest step an exercise fraught with peril; and, as the day aged and the temperature plummeted, there was the danger of hypothermia. All watches and patrols were abandoned. As night fell the crew of the Feronia huddled in a single mass of shivering humanity on the quarterdeck, their fear of nature’s wrath outweighed by their fear of her insatiable progeny.
“I know not who spied it first,” confessed Varner. “Our lamps would not stay lit; the lightning was the only respite we had from the storm’s black grip. ‘Something’s washed onto the deck!’ someone cried. We waited all of us with bated breath for the next stroke of lightning, but saw nothing when it came, just shadows stark and a pall of rain. A second flash, then a third, and someone else shouted, ‘There, see it there? By the mizzenmast!’ They raised their rifles, but I ordered them down-what but the luckiest shot could hit the mark in that maelstrom? In truth I swear to you, I did not think these leaping shadows could be the beasts that roamed below. The man had seen it come over the rail, and what successful passage could one of those things have made up the slick sides of the Feronia’s hull in a wind fifty knots or more? More than likely it was a fish washed from the bowels of the briny deep, a shark or a sailfish. It was impossible.”
“No,” said Warthrop quietly. “It is not.” He was leaning against the wall beside the headboard, arms folded across his chest, chin down, eyes closed, as he listened. I recalled his warning in the cemetery: Sharp eyes now, Will Henry. They are accomplished climbers.
“Through a porthole most likely,” ventured Varner. “And then up the side of the ship-but that is only my guess. I had seen a victim’s skull in Benin with a crescent-shaped pattern of holes where their nails had broken through the bone; as long as a sloth’s they are, Warthrop, and as hard as tungsten steel. Hard to believe now-impossible then-but up the side of the Feronia he must have climbed, punching hand-holds as he came, though why he chose to abandon shelter when the risk was greatest I do not know.”
“Perhaps hunger drove him forth,” said the doctor. “Though I doubt it. Fear, perhaps, either of those meteorological conditions utterly foreign to him… or, more likely, fear of his mate. They have that much in common with us: In moments of extreme stress, they have been known to turn upon each other.”
“Not that night, Warthrop,” groaned Varner. “That night he chose easier victims. Whether hunger or fear compelled him to strike, strike he did, quicker than the lightning itself, leaping forty feet from the deck below, landing square in our midst, and in the hellish racket that ensued-the screams and shouts of my startled crew, the snarls and roars of the attacking beast, the explosions on all sides of rifles and small arms, and the howl of the wind, the crash of the waves, the roar of the thunder-from that bloody bedlam I was shoved down the stairs and dragged to the door of my cabin.”
It was the navigator, Burns, the sole survivor of the first attack, who hurled the captain into his quarters and slammed the door, while the battle raged on above them. The captain, still befuddled and weak from his bout of tropic fever, collapsed upon the floor as Burns ripped the heavy wardrobe from the wall and heaved it against the door as a barricade. He returned to the captain’s side, whereupon, if he was expecting any thanks for his cool thinking and quick actions under fire, he was summarily disabused. The captain roundly cursed and berated him. He had lost his pistol in the forced retreat, and now they were trapped like rats- a bit drier than the poor rats above, but trapped nevertheless. Burns endured the abuse stoically and without remark, dragging his commander to the bedside and cautioning him to remain rooted to the spot. From this position they had a clear shot at the door and were hidden from sight should anything look through the windows behind the bed.
“In my closet,” yelled the captain over the din on the deck directly over their heads. “Quickly, Burns!”
Burns scuttled across the floor-fearing if he walked upright he might attract attention through the windows- to the closet, in which he found an elephant gun and some ammunition. Varner ripped it from his hands and laughed bitterly while he loaded.
“A gift from the king of Ashanti. Never been fired. Let’s hope we won’t need to test it this night, Burns!”
They sat side by side at the foot of the bed. Lightning flashed through the windows, throwing long, fleeting, hard-edged shadows across the floor. The ship continued to roll and pitch violently at the mercy of the wind-stoked sea as the sound of gunfire gradually dwindled to one or two errant pops. The cries of the crew ceased altogether. It was the smashing sea and the earsplitting thunder and the yowling wind… and that was all. They strained their ears for any sound of the men left on deck. Had the men fled the onslaught altogether, scattering to the deck below and finding what cover they could? How many had survived, or had any at all? And what of the monster? Surely it had to be dead or seriously injured. Not even a creature of that immense size and speed could overcome twenty heavily armed men in a close-quarters fight… Or could it? This they asked each other in hushed and breathless whispers, between the dazzling bursts of brilliant white light and its consort, the timber-rattling cannonade of thunder. Their teeth chattering, soaked to their skin, fingers nervously caressing the triggers of their weapons, they pondered and postulated but gave no thought toward what course of action they should pursue. Each moment that passed without incident was a victory; every second that ticked by uneventfully was a triumph.
But those seconds dragged, those minutes crawled, and they fell silent after a while, exhausted by questions to which they had no answers. Neither spoke, until Varner, in a grave and level voice, asked Burns how many bullets he had in his gun.
“I fired twice above, sir,” replied the navigator. “So there are four left in the chamber.”
“Save two,” said Varner.
“Fire twice if you must, but save the last two. One for me and one for yourself, Burns, should it come to that. I do not wish to share in Wilson ’s fate.”
Burns swallowed hard and took a moment to answer. Perhaps he had been trying to frame an argument, an objection appealing to either faith or reason, and, more likely than not, he’d failed, for he said, “Yes, Captain.”
“Tell me, Burns, are you a praying man?” asked the captain.
“I am a Christian, sir.”
Varner chuckled and shifted the gun lying across his lap. It was quite heavy and was cutting off the circulation to his legs.
“So am I, but the two aren’t always the same thing, Burns. Do you pray?”
“Never when I was young,” confessed Burns. “More so now, Captain.”
“Good,” said the captain. “Say a prayer, Burns, and put in a word for your captain.”
Dutifully Burns bowed his head and began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. He spoke it slowly and with great feeling. When he finished, both men were deeply moved, and Varner asked him if he knew the twenty-third psalm.
“’Tis my favorite,” Varner said. “‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’ Do you know it, Burns? Say it if you do.”
Burns did know it, and Varner closed his eyes as he recited. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… The words comforted him; they reminded him of his childhood, of his mother and the way she’d held his hand during church, of long carriage rides on warm Sunday afternoons, and the marvelous family dinners that had lasted long into the evening. He restoreth my soul… How fleeting are those halcyon days of youth! How strange it is that the future seems so far away, yet how upon eagle’s wings it arrives! In the batting of an eyelash, the chubby little boy sitting beside his mother in the family pew becomes a middle-aged man cowering in the dark. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…
“Good, Burns,” he murmured. “Very good.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Burns. “That’s better now.”
His legs jerked. His head snapped back against the footboard with a loud report. His eyes rolled in his head, and blood erupted from his open mouth, cascading down his shirtfront, spewing out between his shaking legs. His stomach bulged, expanding like a balloon filling with air. A button flew across the cabin. Then the hand, twice the size of a grown man’s, tore through the blood-soaked material, alabaster skin stained crimson, bits of shredded intestines clinging to the three-inch nails. The massively muscled forearm followed, rotated ninety degrees, and the next second found Burns’s head buried in the grip of the huge claw. With a sickening pop the beast tore his head completely off his shoulders and yanked it back through the hole punched through his heaving gut.
With a startled cry Varner hurled himself away, dragging the heavy gun with him. He took no time to rise, but swung the weapon toward the headless body of his friend. Shivering uncontrollably, forearm aching from the weight of the gun, struggling to keep his balance while the ship wallowed in the waves, Varner held his breath and willed his raging heart to slow. Light fought with dark; lightning flashed, then in an instant, darkness slammed back down.
But the beast under the bed was patient; she would wait for darkness to win the battle. She would launch her attack when her prey was at his most vulnerable, when his most precious sense was lost to him. A million years of evolution had prepared her for the moment. She was nature’s preeminent predator, unlike her prey, whose species had only in the past ten thousand years or so surpassed her kind as lords of the earth. Driven from their ancestral home of savanna and coastal plain, those Anthropophagi not killed or captured by tribes like the Benin for sacrificial sport had taken refuge underground or in the vast rain forests of the Congo and the Guinea coast, and her kind had dwindled with the passing years. Even so, humanity’s rise had benefited her, and not merely by providing her with an abundance of prey on which to feed: To survive in an ever-diminishing habitat, the Anthropophagi had become bigger, faster, stronger. When the pyramids first rose from the Egyptian sands, the average Anthropophagi male measured a little more than six feet from foot to shoulder; after a mere five thousand years, a blip in evolutionary time, he now towered more than seven feet. His claws were longer, as were his legs and his powerful arms. His eyes had grown to three times the size of ours, for we had driven him into the night, from his bower in the acacia tree to the cool forest floor or the dank caves of Kinshasa and the Atlas Mountains. Nature may have designed the beast beneath the bed, but the ascent of man had perfected her.