Kyle Manning awoke screaming, and then began to violently thrash about.
The four US Coast Guard sailors standing around him, including Petty Officer Sloan, a health services technician, quickly tried to hold him down on the padded table set up in the ship's infirmary. Tossed up and down on giant waves, the ship lurched from side to side. Rain pelted the glass in the portholes. Bolts of lightning that streaked across the black sky sent flashes of light into the room, momentarily illuminating even the darkest corners.
Each time Kyle freed an arm from the grasp of one of the sailors, he struck out with a fist, landing solid blows that rocked the sailor back on his heels.
"He's out of his mind," Petty Officer Holman bellowed, grabbing the hand that had just punched him in the neck. "Do something!"
"I'm trying," Sloan yelled back as he struggled to open his medical bag with one hand while holding onto one of Kyle's flailing arms with the other.
His eyes ablaze, Kyle frantically scanned the faces of the sailors, going from one to the other, then back again. "You're all doomed. We're all doomed," he shrieked at them.
Finally unsnapping the bag, Sloan reached in and pulled out a hypodermic needle, pulled the cap from the needle with his teeth, and plunged the needle into Kyle's arm.
Almost immediately, Kyle began to calm down. He laid his head back and stared up at the recessed lighting in the room's ceiling.
Loosening their grasp on Kyle's arms and legs, the sailors looked at Sloan for reassurance.
"That should keep him settled down for a while," Sloan told them. He looked into Kyle's eyes and saw them focus back on his.
"Where am I?" Kyle mumbled just above a whisper.
"You were holding onto a deck chair. We fished you out of the water." Sloan said. "Which on a night like this wasn't easy to do."
"What's today's date?" Kyle said.
"Twenty-four hours in the water and ... " he stammered and then his voice trailed off. He tugged at his wet shirt that clung to his skin. "Were there others?"
Kyle let out a guttural moan. "Oh, God."
"What happened to you?" Sloan said. "Were you on that missing cruise ship?"
Kyle closed his eyes and tears began to flow down his face.
* * *
The line of passengers standing at the steam tables moved slowly as the cooks and servers on the other side patiently served them, dishing out breakfast foods, from poached eggs au gratin with crab filled hush puppies to salmon wrapped in crispy bacon on a bed of herbed polenta. Kyle and his wife, Tammy, walked into the dining room, hand in hand, and gazed about, taking in the situation.
"I told you we should have gotten here earlier," he said.
"I'm in no rush," she said. "This is our first cruise. Why can't you just relax and enjoy it?"
"Because I'm hungry and there are nearly a thousand passengers on this ship wanting the same thing we want, to eat."
"You're such a baby," she said with a laugh.
"I'll just have some fruit and blueberry muffins," he said, releasing her hand and then turning to head towards the tables piled with all kinds of fruit and filled with baskets of freshly baked muffins. He reached a table of bowls filled with strawberries, cubed cantaloupe and slices of watermelon just as a slim, blonde, very tanned young woman in a summery floral cotton dress stepped up to him.
"Excuse me, but you're Kyle Manning, aren't you?" she said.
Kyle glanced over at the line at the steam tables and saw Tammy making her way to the end of the line. He smiled broadly and looked into the young woman's dark green eyes. "Do I know you?" he said.
"No, but I know you. Everyone does."
"Well, every girl who was in my high school junior class when you were an Olympic swimmer did," she said. "I still have that poster of you in those light blue Speedos. They were very revealing."
He blushed. "That was ten years ago," he said. "I didn't think anyone remembered me. I didn't even medal."
"That didn't matter," she said, gently placing her hand on his arm. "You were gorgeous. You still are. I'm in cabin 411 on C Deck if you ever want to stop in. My name is Carrie."
He held up his hand and showed her his wedding ring. "I'm happily married."
"That doesn't matter either," she said, winking at him, then turning and walking away.
He loaded two plates with fruit and muffins and walked through the open glass sliding doors to the patio on the stern end of the ship. He looked about and to his surprise found an empty table for two near the railing overlooking the choppy ocean water. He sat down, intending to wait until Tammy found him, but by the time she placed her tray of food on the table, he was almost done eating.
"Who was that blonde I saw you talking to?" she said.
"Oh, you saw that, did you?"
"Yeah, I saw that." She sat down. "I better not see it again."
When a large man with a white beard and wearing a white uniform with golden fringed epaulets and a cap with an anchor embroidered above the bill walked out onto the patio Kyle pointed at him. "There's Captain Sawyer, the ship's captain," he said. "If the ship goes down he goes with it."
"What a horrible thing to say," Tammy said. She stuffed a forkful of lobster omelet into her mouth. Chewing her food, she said, "He kinda looks like Santa Claus."
"We're in the Atlantic Ocean not the Arctic Ocean," Kevin said as he reached across the table and took a pinch of lobster from her plate.
* * *
On one side of the heated swimming pool, as a continuously chilly breeze blew across the turbulent ocean waves, a small group of female passengers, dressed in tights and sweatshirts, turned, twisted, and stretched, guided by the ship's activity director, Arlene. She delivered her instructions on what movements to make and how through a bullhorn.
Doing laps in the pool, Kyle cut through the water with ease and grace. He felt at home in the water, any water, but not on the ship. He wished he had told Tammy that going on a cruise was a bad idea. She was lying on a lounge-type deck chair with a blanket covering her from neck to feet, watching him through dark sunglasses. She had stuck to him like glue from the moment the ship left the port in Miami, which made being on the ship feel even more restricting. Nearing the international waters a hundred miles out from the coastal waters of Virginia, the air had turned colder, keeping those except the most intrepid inside the ship. The ship continued on its leisure cruising speed, heading to its first stop in Halifax, and then onto Iceland and then Northern Europe. Two months on the ship was beginning to feel like life imprisonment aboard a sea-faring prison. He swam by the women as they laid on their backs on their mats, raised their legs, and began to kick as if bicycling.
"C'mon ladies, move those legs. Imagine you're cycling through southern France," Arlene commanded.
I wish, Kyle thought.
He reached the bow end of the pool just as Captain Sawyer and the ship's purser, a tall, muscular, Nordic-type walked out of the passageway onto the deck. Their white uniforms gleamed in the bright afternoon sunlight. Walking almost shoulder-to-shoulder they slowly started around the pool nodding and smiling at the few passengers sitting in deck chairs, most wearing winter clothing, reading books. The two men seemed to say little to one another, acknowledging the passengers or pointing at this or that. What Kyle noticed from the moment he had stepped onto the ship was that if one crew member knew something, they all seemed to immediately know it, as if they were mind readers. There was an easy explanation for it. It was part of their training to always be on alert for the same things, but to Kyle, It was spooky.
When the Captain and the purser stopped where Tammy was lying and talked to her for a few minutes before walking on, Kyle stopped in the middle of the pool, treading water, watching, curious and a bit annoyed that he had missed the opportunity to complain directly to the captain about the poor water pressure in their cabin shower.
When he climbed out of the pool the first thing he asked Tammy was, "What were you talking to the captain about?"
"He said there was a storm heading this way."
"He stopped to tell you that? Why are you getting personal weather reports?"
She laughed heartily. "I asked him." She pointed at a fast moving wall of dark storm clouds on the Eastern horizon. "Because of that."
* * *
Despite the frequent flashes of lightning that lit up the twilight sky, many passengers gathered along the railings of the promenade decks on every level on the starboard side of the ship and watched as the black and green-tinted clouds rolled in like roiling thick smoke, filling the entire sky. Crew in white rain slickers with the ship's logo imprinted on the backs nervously paced back and forth behind the passengers. The purser, especially, had a worried expression on his face.
Eager to escape the claustrophobia of being in the cabin any more than he had to, Kyle left Tammy in the room reading a book, going out the cabin door before she insisted on accompanying him, and joined those who had congregated on the Main deck promenade. It only took a few minutes of standing alone watching a curtain of rain sweeping across the water with the ship in its path, that Carrie sidled up beside him and hooked her arm through his. Even before looking, he knew by the dizzying exotic scent of the perfume that the female standing beside him wasn't his wife.
"Fancy meeting you here," she said giving him a huge smile. "If I had known you were onboard when we left Miami we could have shared a cabin."
"My wife would have had something to say about that," he said, pulling his arm away from hers.
"Oh, is she with you?"
"Not right at this moment," he said, "but she's in our cabin and has sonic radar that has the ability to hone in on me at a moment's notice."
She slapped him playfully on the arm. "You men say the wickedest things." She then looked up at the sky. "Maybe it's just being this far out in the ocean, but aren't those the strangest color of clouds you've ever seen?"
Kyle looked up. They were strange. As they and the rain began to overtake the ship, they had turned a very dark shade of green that almost entirely erased the blackness seen from a distance. They had the same effect as night, turning twilight into complete darkness. What Kyle found even stranger was that there was no wind that accompanied the storm; for all the cloud movement and the passing rain, the air was still. Many of the other passengers noticed also. The occasional murmuring turned into a steady hum of, "Why isn't there any wind?"
When the golf ball-sized green objects began to fall from the sky into the water and onto the ship, everyone first thought it was hail, but no hail looked like what was raining down on them, or did what happened next. They unfurled from their ball shape into starfish-like creatures with five pointed arms that stretched out from a core body on which sat four marble sized eyes that independently darted about in every direction. Those in the water quickly attached themselves to the hull of ship and slithered up the side. Those that fell on the boat leapt from the spot where they had fallen onto the exposed skin of whoever was standing the closest to them, sticking themselves to arms, legs, hands and faces, of both passengers and crew. Everyone who had one attached to them frantically tried to dislodge it, hitting, pulling and scratching at it, only to pull their hands away covered in a resin-like substance.
Carrie shrieked when one of them attached itself to her cheek. She tried, and Kyle tried, to pull it off, but as the sticky fluid covered Kyle's hands he stepped back, and in disbelief, watched what happened next.
Just as happened with Carrie, the creatures slithered onto the faces of their victims, and then into their mouths. Once inside, even before the victim could scream, they bored a hole through the roof of the mouth of their new host and attached itself to the base of their host's brain.
Fighting with other passengers trying to distance themselves from the horror they were watching, Kyle made his way to the nearest doors. Before going in, he turned to see anyone he assumed was related to a host in one way or another, like loved ones and crew members, freeze in place, open their mouths, and await the invasion of one of the sticky things.
Once inside the ship, Kyle quickly realized what had happened on the decks, had also reached everyone inside the ship. Men, women and children, passengers and crew, were frozen in place, their mouths wide open. He passed hundreds of shocked passengers who had poured out of their cabins in the passageways, who like himself, had somehow escaped having someone else on the ship who had become a host. He saw Captain Sawyer standing in the Main Deck lobby, his mouth wide open, his eyes glazed over, staring blankly ahead. Kyle reached his cabin just as he smelled smoke. Somewhere inside, the ship was on fire.
He opened the door just as the fire sprinklers came on and the regular lights went out. Tammy had been sound asleep on the bed, but awoke with a start when water from a sprinkler began to spray her. She sat bolt upright and seeing Kyle in the doorway dimly lit by the emergency lights, she screamed, "What's happening?"
He rushed into the room and slammed the door closed. "I can't explain now, just do as I say, no questions asked, okay?"
She nodded, climbed off the bed, and stood by and watched as he dragged their suitcases out of the closet and took their snorkeling gear out. He had heard that snorkeling off the coast of Iceland was "a thing" although he never bothered to check it out, but the idea of doing something not onboard a cruise ship appealed to him. He handed her a snorkel. "Put this in your mouth and don't take it out until we're far away from the ship," he said. "I don't think one of those sticky things can get past it."
"Sticky thing? What's a ... " she started but was stopped from continuing as he took the snorkel and shoved the mouth piece into her mouth.
"Remember, I still have the stamina of an Olympic swimmer and can swim for both of us if I need to," he said, and then put the mouth piece between his teeth. He grabbed her hand, opened the sliding door to the small balcony outside their cabin, and without hesitating, jumped over the small railing, pulling her along with him.
Although Kyle had never been an Olympic diver, he knew enough to gauge how to position his body when hitting the water, but from A Deck to the water, was quite a leap, especially when holding someone else's hand, someone who had never even dived from a backyard swimming pool diving board. They hit the water like rocks of two different weight and masses, which they were. He went under the water feet first, losing the grasp of Tammy's hand. Tammy hit the water flat on her back, instantly snapping her spine. When Kyle surfaced, his wife's body was being swarmed by sticky things, seeming disoriented by attaching themselves to a dead person. Those passengers still on the ship and able to, panicking to escape the sticky things, tossed life preservers, life jackets, deck chairs and cabin furniture into the water to use to stay afloat. But as soon as the person entered the water, they were overtaken by the sticky things. Kyle grabbed onto a deck chair and began to kick his feet like he had never done before. He knew the coast was far off but reaching it felt like his only hope. He looked back once, to see the ship changing course, heading toward the Eastern horizon. He had already realized that the sticky things learned from their hosts. As the storm clouds followed the ship, he shuddered to think how much they had learned.
* * *
When the ship that the heavily sedated Kyle was on reached the Coast Guard Station at Cape Charles, he was flown by helicopter to the General hospital in Virginia Beach. Upon arrival there, and still in the throes of grief and shock, he told his story to numerous doctors and a psychiatrist.
"Have they located the cruise ship?" he kept asking, never getting an answer.
The storm that the Coast Guard ship had powered through all the way back to the coast, continued unabated for several days, lashing the entire east coast from the Carolinas to New York, letting up only to be followed by an oncoming wall of dark green clouds that the news declared may be bringing, "The storm of a lifetime."