Story by J.A. Becker
Illustration by John Waltrip
There’s pain–like falling out of a tree and your bone bursts out of your forearm–and then there’s a grenade going off in your face.
There ain’t nothing like it.
The concussion is like getting kicked in the teeth by a mule and then firecrackers go off in your ears. Whole head throbs like a rung church bell.
I was lucky though.
Only half my leg got tore up by shrapnel. The bunk in front of me absorbed most of it, becoming a twisted pile of metal in the process.
There’s been another attack while I was out, the bunks in the infirmary are stuffed full of screaming guys, two to a bunk in some cases.
I’ve been out for maybe four or five hours they tell me.
A bit of madness is twisting around and gnawing at the lining of my guts. Cause, really, who cares in all this craziness. Who cares I’ve failed and let Bulldog down? Who cares if I let Winslow down? Getting sidelined isn’t my fault. Getting nearly blown up by a grenade is nobody but the killer’s fault. And the Japanese circling around and around us are their own damn fault. It’s all out of my hands.
But then why do I feel this way?
Why is failure rank within me? Why is it coiling itself around my guts and chewing out my insides? Why am I crying?
And, my God, why the hell am I getting up and off the bed?
I put my blue pants on, very carefully over my leg that’s encased in gauze.
A small mirror by my bed shows I’m a horror show. Black bags hang from my eyes and small cuts are speckled like stars across my face. A deep and still bleeding four-inch gash charges down my left cheek.
I twist off the metal handle of a mop and use it as a crutch, start hobbling down the rows of bunks.
The doctors are too busy with their charges to notice me as I shuffle right by.
It’s duty that drives me, I realize. Duty to all the things I hate.
How twisted is that?
I start down the staircase to see an engineer about some burnt grease.
— ♦♦♦ —
Twenty-two diesel engines spew cacophony and poison into the tight confines of engine hold.
The place is ventilated, but still, the guys down here need twenty-minute smoke breaks every hour or they’ll pass out from the engine exhaust.
Can’t polish all this to a navy sparkle, not possible. There’s black soot around the ventilation hoods and spiderwebs of pipes and wires that are an unholy yellow.
The noise of three-hundred pistons crashing up and down goes straight through you, vibrates the cockles of your heart.
Thank god I’m on a lot of pain-killers and numb to the world.
I started down here when I was drafted, but couldn’t take it. Too dumb with engines, sick as a dog from the fumes, and the tight confines of this awful hellish place sent me straight up the walls.
They had to turn me topside.
This is the only place on the ship I can think of where you’d get burnt grease like that on your fingertips.
But what the hell was signalman Winslow doing down here?
Probably for a poker game, I think. Engineers like to gamble.
Charles “Clunky” Miles is chief engineer and I walk up to his thick form that’s bent over an oily camshaft on a metal table.
He’s like a barrel stuffed in a dark blue sailor suit, big drum belly, and little stick arms. In his massive harry hands, are a pair of sharp looking calipers.
He doesn’t salute or anything; just stands up and looks at me. Seems shocked to see me, probably cause I look like such hell.
His men are crawling all over the place. One of the engines has gone down and a couple of the other ones are out of whack and making an awfully odd kaboom, kaboom, kaboom.
“That’s a hell of a racket,” I say by way of starting.
He doesn’t say anything, just stares at me.
Technically, I’m not over him with my rank, just beside him, so he doesn’t have to answer to me.
“Did you know signalman Bucky Winslow?” I ask.
He doesn’t even register that. Just stares at me with black beady eyes.
I was always afraid of this guy when I worked for him. When he was mad, he’d take a wrench and smash the hell out of an engine, completely destroy it. At the time, his rank was twenty-million miles above me, so all I could do was stand stone still and hope I didn’t get hit.
“Clunky! Did you know Winslow!?” Using his nickname gets a reaction, makes him tighten his fingers around the calipers’ metal shaft.
“Yeah! What about it?” He asks.
“Well…did you kill him?” I ask cause I’m trying to get a laugh and break the tension.
A grin splits his chubby, greasy face.
“Yeah!” he says. “Couldn’t stand that winning prick so I dusted him.” His hands relax and he puts the calipers back on the dirty table.
“Talk to Jacobs,” he says. “Him and his crew were always playing poker…playing and losing.”
So I pull Jacobs and his crew off the engine they were stripping and give them the third degree.
They knew him. They hated him. He always won. The man was a wizard and couldn’t be beaten.
That’s about all I get from them.
I hobble about looking for clues, but all I get is a hell of a headache from the kaboom, kaboom, kaboom of the sick engines.
— ♦♦♦ —
I figured Bulldog would explode when I came to report I had nothing.
And like Vesuvius, he goes.
Sitting at his desk, he pounds his thick, red hands down on the table and makes all the papers and pens jump.
“Goddamn!” He says. “Goddamn it!”
His thick jowls audibly grind together and the smoke at the end of his lips jumps as he swears.
“Well,” he says. “Is there anything you can tell me?”
And I tell him what I think because I need him to know that I am doing something to fight this, that I’m doing whatever I can.
He listens far more intently than I expected, sits back in his chair and smokes a blue cloud up into the ceiling.
“More than the gambling thing, eh?” he says when I finish.
“Yes, Sir. I think so, Sir.”
He lights another smoke and I force my hands to stay ridged by my sides, cause every part of me is dying for a drag.
He clasps his hands together and levels his eyes at mine.
It’s then I realize that he’s thinking this is more than just a gambling-debt too. That he’s always thought that. And then a couple of other things click into place.
“Sir, you don’t think the Japanese attacks and the murder are somehow connected…do you?”
For the first time ever, and I do mean ever, the man smiles, revealing a wall of perfect white teeth.
“I knew you were the man for this,” he says. “You’re a terrible mechanic and a sub-par gunner, but by God, there is a light there behind those eyes. I always know what a man is capable of.”
“But sir, if you believed that then why just have me on it? Why not put every officer onto this?”
“Goddamn!” he says and I cringe cause I’ve gone and said something wrong again. “And just when you rose a foot in my estimation you go and say something as stupid as that. Kopang! It’s a supposition based off no evidence; just a feeling, and that’s no reason to fly a flag up. Consider this, say it is true and I put everybody on it. The killer would go into hiding and we’d never get him. But with one man on it, it ain’t so noisy you see?”
And I do see.
I see he has me chasing down a guess and I’m expendable.
“You are making progress, Kopang. Real progress.”
Surprise slips across my face.
“How do you know that, Sir?”
“Cause he tried to kill you. You’ve got to try and get him to do that again.” And then he bangs his palms down on the table. “And then we’ll have him, by God, we’ll have him then!”
I go cold and struggle to stop my hands from curling into fists.
This is how you get to be where you are. At the top and looking down, everything is disposable.
“How do I get him to do that, Sir?” It takes a lot for me to say that without any bile in my voice.
“Well son, obviously you’ve come across him during your investigations. You’ve got to backtrack now. Go over the people you talked to cause one of them is him. Figure it out and by god let me know ASAP!”
And then I’m dismissed and there is no point in saying anything cause when the man salutes you, you can only about-face and exit.
— ♦♦♦ —
It isn’t lost on me that he’s sent me out again unprotected.
So I’ve decided to arm myself, which is well within the rights of my station. I strap on a leather gunbelt and jam a Colt M1911 into the holster.
There are seven man-stopping rounds the size of my thumb in its clip.
I feel just the slightest bit better having this.
I get two packs of Lucky Strike from the commissary and stuff them into my blue pockets.
I light one, sip on the terrible swill they think is coffee from a styrofoam cup, and consider the infinitude of everything.
Which is tough.
The medication is wearing off and the pain is beginning to interfere with my thoughts. Takes a lot to think around those sharp bristles in my head.
Either he was one of the men in Winslow’s bunk room that I interviewed or he was one of the engineers in the engine room.
That narrows it down to two-hundred and fifty guys.
It ain’t a random fate I’m sitting with my back to the wall and my eye on the canteen’s entrance.
He’s out there, waiting for a chance to kill me. And Bulldog is waiting too. And the Japanese are waiting. And I kind of start freaking out when I consider how many people are waiting for me to get killed.
I light another smoke, deeply draw on it. My lungs are raw at this point, but I can’t stop. I need it.
I finish the coffee, crumple the paper cup, light another smoke, and make a decision.
— ♦♦♦ —
Kaboom, kaboom, kaboom the sick engines go.
My medication has completely worn off and I’m defenseless against the engine’s assault. My head is about to split apart.
This was a bad idea, I think as I stand on the gantry, overlooking the mechanical mess of machinery below, trying to stop myself from throwing up from this head-splitting migraine.
There’s a hundred engineers running about in their dark blues below, trying to get all the engines to go right, and I’ve no idea which one of them it could be, or even how to determine that.
I can’t stand it anymore, so jam my fingers into my ears and puff angrily on my smoke.
Still, through the fingertips, I can hear the kaboom, kaboom, kaboom.
It’s unconscionable they haven’t fixed them yet. Bulldog should come down here and step on Clunky’s fat neck.
What’s worse is there’s a rhythm to the engines too, a certain kaboom, kaboom, kaboom, bang, bang, bang, that nearly shakes my eyes out of their sockets.
How can they stand it? How could Signalman Winslow play poker down here? How could he not be swept away by this symphony from hell?
A thought hits me and, startled, I open my mouth in surprise. My smoke drops out, falls ten feet, and then hits an engine below with a bloom of red cherries.
Those scribbles on Winslow’s signal books in his trunk weren’t him practicing. They were him figuring. He was a wizard with numbers and signals and that kaboom, kaboom, kaboom, bang, bang, bang could be a kind of code to let the Japanese know where we are. Underwater acoustical equipment set up on their battleships could pick this up. That’s why the attacks are so pinpoint and that’s why they keep coming, cause they know we’re not dead.
That means that son of a bitch Clunk is behind…
And he’s behind me, I realize. He’s coming down the gantry at my back. In his big hairy hand is a gun.
He fires and the bullet whangs off the railing right by my hand.
There’s nowhere to go but down, so I let out a yelp and leap over the railing.
I fall ten feet to the hard decks below. My shredded leg takes all the impact and I collapse to the ground, screaming in pain. Blood blooms up through my pant leg.
Above me, Clunky leans over the railing, his big barrel belly spilling over the side. He takes careful aim at me with his gun and fires.
I roll underneath an engine and the bullet whangs off the ground by my head.
“It’s him! It’s him!” Clunky shouts. “He’s the murderer!”
Nobody cares a whit though, cause they’re running every which way now, trying to get the hell out of here.
I’ve gone from the pan to the fire, as I’ve ducked into the crawl-space of a one-ton diesel engine that’s about 600 degrees. Sweat is already pooling in my pits.
I draw my gun and edge out a little to see if Clunky is still there.
A bullet ricochets off the ground by my ear.
Yep, he’s still there.
Can’t stand the heat. My chest is already feeling like it’s sunburnt.
I raise my gun up and around the engine and randomly fire until the clip runs dry. Then I slap another one home, slide the barrel back to cock it, and peak out.
The gantry is empty.
I edge out from beneath the engine. I can’t see him or anybody.
Kaboom, Kaboom, Kaboom, bang, bang, bang the engines go, drilling a hole into my head.
I don’t know why he’s done what he’s done or what’s happening above, but I make a quick decision and break the glass of the emergency stop button and plunge it down.
The engines whine down sounding like a horde of cats being strangled.
The intercom in the office suddenly starts ringing, probably Bulldog with an ear-load for whoever picks it up.
Where the hell has Clunky gone? There’s no escape on a ship like this.
Topside! The thought hits me.
He’s gone topside. Probably has a radio beacon-locator so the Japanese can pick him up if he jumps overboard.
I rush out of the room and blast up the stairs. The ringing COM echoes behind me. Bulldog will just have to wait.
I get halfway up to the decks when Clunky waylays me.
— ♦♦♦ —
Rounding a dead corner in the stairwell, there he is standing patiently with his gun drawn. Got me dead to rights.
“Clunky you son of a bitch!” I shout.
Then he says something in Japanese and I know I’m done for.
Suddenly two officers who are deep in conversation push past Clunky on the stairs and continue their way down, oblivious to the game of cat and mouse we got going on.
I use the diversion and duck behind the corner, then scream for the two men to take cover.
But it’s too late. Two gunshots ring out and two bodies hit the floor.
Then I hear the boom and clank of Clunky’s heavy boots making their way up the stairs.
The officers stare up at me from the floor in gobsmacked surprise, red holes blossoming between their brows.
I step over the bodies and rush after Clunky.
It’s a thousand stairs to the top deck and I feel every one of them run up my busted leg like fire.
At the top, I pause. Clunky could be right outside the door, waiting.
I take a deep breath and throw open the portal.
It’s a beautiful, cloudless day and a hundred or so Japanese Zeros are swarming down on us from the wine-blue sky.
A single-prop, F4F Wildcat fighter plane rips down the runway and past the door, filling my world with sound and fury. Then another plane follows. Then another.
I step out. Men are swarming over the decks, rushing to their guns, getting the fire hoses out, prepping the emergency craft.
At the one end of the carrier, a cluster of planes with spinning props await the signal to blast down the runway. At the other end, a line of rushing planes lifts into the sky to meet their fate.
The first of the Zeros dives in and drops two torpedoes from its wings, which hit the water and start merrily tunneling their way towards us.
And I’ve left us dead by shutting off the engines, so there ain’t no missing. I could kill myself for that, or better yet kill Clunky.
Then I see the fat bastard rushing down the gangway like a bowling ball, blasting sailors out of his way.
“Stop that man!” I shout in the best master-at-arms voice I can muster.
I fire two shots in the air to let them know I’m serious.
Men dive to the deck, leaving a clear line of sight between me and Clunky.
Clunky is quicker than me and he spins around and fires.
Bullets go buzzing by my head. A couple of men beside me get it and drop to the ground, screaming in agony and clutching their wounds.
I return fire, unloading the entire clip. But I’m a horrible shot and Clunky runs on.
Then the torpedoes hit the bow and a mass of water, fire, and metal erupts. The violence throws me to the ground and I hit my head and stars sizzle across my vision.
I get up and there’s a noticeable tilt to the ship now. We’re sinking. The bow is a wall of smoke and flames billowing into the sky. Not a single plane can take off through that.
Tracer fire zips between the Zeros and Wildcats in the sky as the planes engage. The men manning the 20mm, 30mm, and 40mm pour hot death into any Zero that comes too close.
In all this chaos, Clunky is making his way down the deck towards the cluster of waiting planes. He’s likely going to commandeer a Wildcat.
I rest my arm on a metal vent hood and take calm, careful aim.
I catch him right in his chunky shoulder and he howls and drops to the ground.
“Stop that man!” I shout again, but nobody is listening. They’re all rushing down the deck with white hoses in the opposite direction to put the flames out.
Clunky gets up. He’s bleeding bad, clutches at his wounded shoulder and stumbles towards an un-manned 20mm turret.
I scream again. “Stop!”
But it’s no use. Clunky has the emperor in his eyes and there’s no turning back.
He spins the turret towards me and pulls the bolt back. Then the twin barrels erupt in flames.
The metal vent hood I’m crouched down behind is chewed to pieces. A hundred invisible mouths take bite-sized chunks out of it and spit down steel confetti on me. I scream and scream cause this is it.
Then four sharp, clear shots ring out and the 20mm falls quiet.
Looking up, I see Bulldog way above me. He stands by the railing on the flag bridge. A smoking pearl-handle Colt .45 is in his hand.
He shoves it back into its holster, spins abruptly on the spot, and marches back into the bridge.
Then the day, the wounds, and the nonstop rush of adrenaline take their toll on me. I pass out.
— ♦♦♦ —
It’s kind of hard to figure out what I’ve done here. Whether I had anything at all to do with Clunky’s unraveling.
According to Bulldog.
He smokes a blue storm up into his ceiling, looks at me with an incredulous light in his beady, black eyes, and shakes his massively thick head.
No, according to him I’ve just stumbled along this thing. It unraveled by itself and he’s the one that finished it with four plugs through Clunky’s head.
I can’t argue with the man because part of that is true and the other part of it is I can’t argue with the man. He’s Bulldog. His word is final.
I leave his office, demoted back to Gunner but with grateful thanks, a purple heart, and a real hard clap on the back.
I take a slow walk around the stairs that circle the outside of the bridge. Stopping on the quarterdeck, I watch the men hosing down the runway, shoveling debris over the side, and pushing the twisted wreckage of Wildcats into the water. From the blown-off tip of our bow, five long cables run to huge fat red tugs that are towing us back home.
Bulldog put all the engineers under guard. He figures one of them had to know something. So they’re all in the stockade, awaiting death by court marshall.
And the mystery of Clunky died with him. Nobody knows why the hell he did what he did.
I light a smoke, take a drag and then another hard, long drag. Lucky Strike Milds just ain’t the same, but they’re helping me cut down.
My God, how are we gonna make it in all this insanity with men like Bulldog running the show?
A man who’ll put twenty engineers to death just to eradicate a suspicion. A man who put me out like a worm on a hook to lure a killer. A man who will sacrifice anything, and anyone, to win.
A cold shudder runs through me as I realize that, maybe, I’ve answered my own question.
I consider that as I suck hard on the smoke and watch the men below me scramble like ants over the deck.
— ♦♦♦ —
A’Khe’Na. By DJ Tyrer, Art by Bradley K. McDevitt
Aerial combat to take down an “old one” about to doom the entire planet? What more could you ask for? Oh yeah, throw in some hardboiled gumshoes with Tommy guns to seal the deal.