PORT OF HAIFA
The day broke with a savage pounding in my head. I fumbled for the switch on the wall above my bunk and flicked on the light. Squinting against it, I swung my feet to the floor. I could hear the old salt working overhead and I shook off the funk, hit the head then grasped after some clothes.
When I stepped up into the galley, the pungent smell of last night’s rum hit me and my stomach lurched. I noticed a bit of the amber liquid still in the bottle and I tilted it back. A little hair of the dog did me right.
I filled a thermos mug to the brim with black coffee and stepped onto the main deck.
Shielding my eyes from the sun, I followed the old salt’s noise-making, found him aloft, messing with one of the massive fish wire pulleys.
“Hell’s fire, Cap’n, let me do that!” I bounded to the raised deck and looked up the mast at him.
James paid me no mind, finished tweaking the pulley and wires then climbed down and slapped me on the back. “Doesn’t look like all that extra beauty sleep did you any good, lad.”
“Sorry about that, Cap,” I said. “What’s left to do?”
“Nothing,” he said. “We’re all paid up here and stocked to the teeth.”
Then his face darkened and he took hold of my shoulders. “Boy, you got to feel one hundred percent up for this journey.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout me, Cap, I—”
“C’mon inside, Steve,” he said.
I followed him into the wheelhouse. He pulled a chart from the rack and smoothed it out on the chart table.
“You’re not using the GPS?” I said.
James’ voice was stern. “We’re going to a place that doesn’t exist on any map, let alone on any navigational channel. See here.” He jabbed a gnarled finger at the map.
From a distance, it had looked like any other nautical chart, but when I moved next to James to study it, it was incredibly intricate with fantastical symbols and names.
James must’ve seen a whit of skepticism in my expression.
He looked me hard in the eyes, said, “Don’t be fooled, Steve. This is more real and serious than anything you’ll ever know. Trust me.”
“I do, Sir.”
“Good. Now, pay close attention.” He made a gigantic circle on the map with his finger. “This is the entire Realm of Caelusia. We’ll approach it via this portal here, the Dialuas. The Gate of Gods is way over here. And we are here.
“We’ll be trackable by the International Maritime Organization until we get to the Dialuas portal, and then we’ll disappear off the world map.
“Depending on the weather, wind and wave conditions, if we don’t make the portal by eighteen hundred hours, we’ll dock here, at the Port of Dar es Salaam and go through the portal tomorrow at fifteen hundred hours or so. If we do make it, we’ll start taking watches through the night.
“Our aim is to sail straight through so we don’t lose momentum, not just in relation to our journey, but to our mental states. The Straight of Caelusia is a gauntlet we must pass through.”
“What do you mean exactly, Sir?” I said.
“Dangers abound, lad. There are some that want none to reach the Gate of Gods lest they gain power for the good.”
James looked deep into my eyes, willing me to understand. “Once through the portal and into the Realm of Caelusia, expect danger and be surprised at nothing, for there are no limits to physical and intellectual strengths and powers there. You must be girded in all ways at all times.”
“Just watch and listen to me closely,” James said. “Now prepare to cut and run. I’ll fire this old girl up and radio Port Control.”
“Aye, Captain,” I said and made ready to untie the dock lines.
THE DIALUAS PORTAL
Ideal conditions had held all day long. I stood on the bow exhilarated, feeling a sense of power escalating as we closed in on the portal.
I was divided. I may have died, may not be human any longer, but so far I mostly felt the way I used to. Perhaps it was like an amputee feeling a phantom limb. I realized thinking about anything other than the heart and mechanics of our mission was dangerous, and yet I indulged this egoic sense of power, of importance in being involved in something so immense as to save the world.
I looked round and James was leaning out of the wheelhouse motioning like a madman to come.
“What’s wrong, Cap?”
“The air has changed,” he said. “I reckon we have twenty minutes, tops, before all hell breaks loose.”
“It’s a sailor’s dream out there,” I said.
James handed me the spyglass. “Look just barely below the horizon, dead ahead.”
I squinted through the glass. “I can make out a small, flat circular area that looks darker than the rest of the sea, yet there’s not a single cloud over that area.”
“That’s the Dialuas,” James said. “Double check that everything is secured.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said, and moved quickly and methodically about the trawler above and below deck.
By the time I’d returned to the wheelhouse, the sky was a roiling gray stew and the sea’s waves looked like ranges of heaving snow-capped mountains.
The weather intensified rapidly and the waves grew to be fifteen to twenty feet or so. The Zebedee bucked and rolled and water surged onto her deck, nearly submerging her before being sucked back into the sea. The captain was having a beast of a time at the wheel keeping her lined up right to take the waves, playing the throttle full-on to get the bow up to meet them and backing off on the slide down into the troughs.
I was getting a bit green around the gills and shouted to James, “I don’t think I can take much more of this.”
“Hold on, it’s coming up,” James yelled, “See there, that fifty-footer dead ahead.”
It was a massive wave, looked like a glacier coming at us so fast I instinctively squeezed my eyes shut for the impact.
“Here it is!” the captain hollered.
The Zebedee parted the wave like it was a curtain and we were sucked into what looked like an eyeball, a funnel of sea spray swirling from white down to a greenish-yellow color and into a black hole.
I felt the effects of spinning stern to bow and yet we weren’t spinning but watching, as from a window. We saw all manner of things fly by the wheelhouse: sharks, angels, the dead sea scrolls, stars, lions, the magna carta, demons, telescopes, jelly fish, thuribles, the holy grail, a throne, the tower of babel, seven golden candlesticks, satellites…
Then as abruptly as it had started, it stopped. And we were motoring through black, glassy water with occasional swirls of mist rising from it in macabre patterns.
I went down to the aft deck to be able to look all around me, at the expanse of water, and at the whole of the sky to see if there were stars in Caelusia. And then I saw it.
The small door at the stern that had been thick with gray paint was now red. But then, so was the water reddish from the ruby orbs in the sky. And amongst those were orbs of topaz, emerald, lapis lazuli, and more than I could name.
THE REALM OF CAELUSIA – THE STRAIGHTS
It was my watch. I sipped my coffee in the wheelhouse and scanned the horizon. The water was still calm but the mist rising from it was thickening. I could see no reason for this, since the air temperature hadn’t changed. I pushed the Zebedee to 15 knots and she cut through the water like Damascus steel slicing a falling silk scarf.
The night had become a glittering black. I could see no bright, multi-colored orbs as before. I turned the mast headlight off, left the running lights on and saw that there were still orbs in the sky, but that they had become like black gemstones: onyx, jet lignite, obsidian, hematite, beautiful black opals…
When I turned the mast headlight back on, I thought I heard a thump on the aft deck.
“Is that you, Captain?” I shouted.
I looked out the aft windows of the wheelhouse. There was a dark figure on deck, all in black and masked, moving swiftly toward the wheelhouse, and more dark figures were climbing soundlessly up the side of the Zebedee and onto the deck. They were as a swarm of black ants, spider men.
I opened the side door to the wheelhouse and slipped out, and instantly a man forced a gag between my jaws and tied my hands behind me. Another man took the wheel and pulled the throttle back while my captor forced me down to the aft deck near the drum winch.
I heard the Captain bellow and saw three dark figures come out of the galley door manhandling a bound and gagged, yet fiercely fighting, James. One swift move and they had him on his belly on the deck. They pulled his feet up behind him and bound them to his hands.
On impulse I threw my body weight toward James, to do what, I had no idea, and they tackled and bound me the same way. And while we rocked on our bellies craning to see, one of the men sent up a flare.
In seconds, from out of the mist, a massive black and warlike yacht built for speed, cut the roar of her engines and slid by on our port side. I could see what looked like gun mounts along her bulwark. At her stern a black flag flew, and on it was the figure of a sphinx with a skull between its front paws.
Once she’d passed, four cat-suited guards grabbed James and me with hands like steel grips and forced us over the aft bulwark and down into a great, long semi-rigid reconnaissance craft.
They jammed us into seats and strapped us down, and the man at the wheel gunned the quiet engine so that the craft fishtailed around to the starboard side of the Zebedee, then slowed to cut silently toward the massive black yacht.
I could see the remaining team of marauders manning the Zebedee’s deck, black and stone-still, like chessmen, and I wondered what they were going to do to her.
As we got closer to the sleek, black beauty, I strained to see the name on her archboard. It looked like “Jezebel.” I heard James gasp through his gag. Our eyes met and I saw a mix of fear and indignation.
The marauders came alongside the starboard side of the Jezebel and hooked the reconnaissance craft to davit cables.
We were raised to the Jezebel’s rails where two behemoths yanked us onto her deck and jerked us toward an elevator and down to a holding room.
It was a large, windowless room. Its floor, walls and ceiling were stainless steel. The floor sloped subtly toward a huge drain in the center of the room and there was one small, buzzing light on the ceiling.
The behemoths replaced the ropes tying our hands with steel cuffs, removed our gags, shoved us hard toward the center of the room, and left, slamming and bolting the door.
James and I fell in a heap onto the drain. It stank of every undead excretion you could think of, and I wondered who was running this nightmare? Who all have they captured and why, and what did they want with us, and are they going to destroy us completely?
James must’ve read my thoughts. “This is just a blip on the radar screen,” he said. “Baal’s princess is nothing to us.”
His tone wasn’t convincing. He sounded as beat down mentally as he looked physically.
“C’mon, kid, let’s get away from this accursed drain.”
He got up with great trouble and I followed him to one corner of this horrid room that must be a torture chamber. We sat.
“I let you down, didn’t I?” I said.
James hung his head. “It’s as much my fault as yours, Steve. I shouldn’t have tossed one of my kingdom’s coins to you, what is it, three years ago?”
“Four,” I said. “So you regret it.”
James gave me a tired smile. “Not at all,” he said. “I felt a connection to you which is why I did it…”
“And,” I prompted him.
“Well, the connection was the way I’d know who to choose for the kings’ mission, but I allowed it to become more… You became as a son to me and I found myself in the awkward position of wanting to save you from the dying you’d have to do to join us…”
“You’re like a father to me, old man, and I don’t regret any of it.”
James sighed. “I’m afraid you don’t know the whole of it.”
“I know what my role in this is,” I said. “I heard you and Josiah at the pub talking about it. And I felt the coin heat up in my pocket and a power surge through me so intense I knew it must be the Ultimate Invincibility you were referring to.”
James looked at me wearily and said, “Where is that invincibility now, then?”
I thought about the hijacking, how I’d just let the marauders tie me up and take command of the Zebedee, and I hung my head. “I let myself down as well,” I said.
“Steve, what do you think is going to happen at the Gate of Gods?”
“We’re going to petition the Master to reverse his decision to damn the world… I suppose like Abraham negotiated with God on behalf of Sodom: if just ten righteous people could be found within its walls—”
“Not we, lad, you,” James said, his voice shaking. “You are the one Josiah and I and all the kings of the world chose. You’re the sacrificial lamb, the one that will bear the full brunt of the Master’s wrath if He doesn’t find favor with you and your request.”
“And that’s where the Ultimate Invincibility comes in…”
“Aye,” James said. “And that’s where I should have pushed you more, toward the understanding.”
“First, you tell me what you think it means,” James said.
“Well, being unconquerable to the point even the Master of All can’t overcome or subdue me.”
“But could such a master be the Master of All if some entity lower than Him could possibly conquer Him?
I thought. “No,” I said. “No He wouldn’t…”
“So what does that mean?”
“He would have to allow me that power?” I said.
“What’s the point of that?”
“No point on His end, no victory on my end… I don’t know, James.”
“What’s the only other option an all-powerful being would have besides handing something over?”
“Offering it first?”
“Aye. It’s a gift that few in history have been given and yet you have been offered it.”
“What’s the point if He’s going to lose?”
“It’s not a given, Steve,” James said. “It’s still down to you. You can accept the gift of Ultimate Invincibility or you can believe you have it, two different things. And what you do will determine the outcome at the Gate of Gods.”
The bolt slid and the door burst open. A squad of six, mammoth bouncer-looking goons with six sixes tattooed on their temples entered. They stood in a “V,” their black Kiton suits impeccable, their light blue shirts starched and open at the collar.
The goon at the apex said, “Jezebel would like a word with you, Zedekiah,” and he jerked his head in my direction, “And your worthless sidekick.”
Worthless? I felt a red-hot, molten-like liquid shoot through me from feet to head and out through my eyes and into the goons’ eyes. They closed their eyes and regrouped. When they opened them again, I noticed that they avoided looking at me altogether, just moved toward us with sure, hard footsteps, mechanical.
They snatched us like pall bearers grabbing a coffin and forced us out the door and down the passageway to the elevator. We rode it in silence to the deck and the goons walked us to an elaborate gold door to the Captain’s chambers.
The head goon reached in his shirt for a key that hung on a gold chain and pulled it out. He held it in his hand and pressed his hand to the door which dematerialized revealing the most beautiful woman I have ever seen anytime, anywhere. I was expecting a witch and here was what looked like an angel.
Her hair was jet black and hung to her hips in loose curls. Her eyebrows were flawless and complimented her large, dreamy eyes with irises so dark brown they were as black. She had a duchess nose, straight with a little turn up at the tip. Her cheeks were high and soft, kissed with a golden pink. And her lips, they were so dark a pink as to be called red, but not. And so moist and plump, and I admit, I desired her. I was breathless. She saw her effect on me and instead of mocking me, she blushed and I was flattered.
The goons pushed us forward and chained us to a couple of stone pillars. Then they bowed before this rare beauty and in unison addressed her, “Your Highness, we bring you King Zedekiah and the once Steve, now raised from the dead as Abraham.”
Abraham? I thought they must have been listening to us in the hold.
Jezebel smiled softly and looked upon us tenderly.
“So, there is a coin with your likeness, then?” She looked directly at me.
“There is a coin…” My face flushed and my head spun.
“Welcome to the game of gods,” she said.
“How did you…”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” she said, and turned her lovely face toward Zedekiah with a doting look, like for an elderly father.
“And you, Zedekiah, why have you entered my waters knowing what you know?”
“The people are ready enough,” is all he said and he kept his head down.
I thought about this. I was so busy admiring Jezebel that I hadn’t noticed James had not once looked directly at her.
“Maybe,” she said, “But my question was two-pronged, as you are aware.”
“There is no need to address it.”
“Really?” she sing-songed.
“Come on, Jezebel… We both know it’s just a little power problem, but it’s all sorted out now”
Jezebel regarded me critically.
“He looks meek as a newborn lamb” she said, and she threw her head back and laughed.
“Well that’s just your wiles, isn’t it?” James said. “Show the lad your real face.”
I realized then that I’d been an all-out fool, yet again.
“That won’t be necessary now, will it?” Jezebel said. She turned her gaze on me and I looked down immediately. “You see?” she said to James, “He gets the picture.”
Then she looked back at me. I could feel her eyes burning the top of my head. “Anyway,” she said, “I was more powerful than Abraham by far—the Battle of the Vale of Siddim a case in point—and I am infinitely more powerful than this utter cretin.”
Cretin? I felt the lava shoot up in me and my eyes burn with it and I jerked my head up and glared at Jezebel. She took in a breath, sharply. “Oh!” she gasped, but she didn’t look away. And neither did I.
Green note (revised 1/25/15): This chapter 7 portion of the Beginnings collaborative project is a wrap at 3305 words, down from the unedited 3586 words posted on 1/22/15. It’s tightened up a bit and toughened up a lot.
Cindy Vaskova, fearless sea goddess of The Dorley Cycle fame, has spoken for the next portion, chapter 8, but after that, if you’d like to pick up a chapter, just click on The Beginnings Project badge for all the info.