“The Kirik Deep. Not particularly deep when compared with some of the great oceanic trenches, but nevertheless the deepest part of the ocean that isn’t an active or former subduction zone.”

Jenny fiddled with her microphone. “And…you’re sending a robot down there? One you built for the purpose?”

“Yes. We hope to collect some specimens of creatures living there, as well as a bit of diatomaceous ooze.”

“So…you’re going to an unremarkable part of the ocean to send a robot down, and you think that this qualifies as newsworthy?”

“Not unremarkable, no. No part of the ocean floor is unremarkable, but the Kirik Deep is part of the abyssal plain, not a trench, so the creatures there are subjected to pressures only a few orders of magnitude less intense but whose ancestors have not been subducted to that depth.”

Jenny switched the mike off. “I see. Well, we’ll be sure to let you know if the story runs.” She sighed to herself, wondering how she could spin something with such a low sensationalism quotient to her editor, if only to get reimbursed for coming all the way out to listen to a marine biologist prattle on.

The secluded beach at Phak Trang was often the star of such expat stories, catering to tourists and thrill-seekers who craved an escape from the commercialized beaches that littered the South China Sea for something pure and undisturbed. Phak Trang was said to be the best-kept secret in the province, a sheltered cove with beautiful gypsum sands, calm waters near the beach, and surfable waves further out. It was a modest hike from the nearest access road, but cabbies in the various resort towns were always ready to arrange dropoffs and pickups, though none of the local guides would go there, forcing seekers to rely on hand-drawn maps circulated by expats.

Many people who had been swore by the place, but it also had a tragic air: swimmers and surfers who went to Phak Trang had a tendency to disappear. Certainly, the deaths–noted as hashmarks on a crude sign near the beach–lent an aura of danger to the place. The US Consulate in Surat Thani held that these accidents–which had accounted for 8 citizens 1960-2010–were due to treacherous features of geography, like the cove’s fierce riptide, and the occasional local banditry.

Ask a local cabbie, though, and a different story would emerge. Not shy about sharing it, with paying fares at least, they maintained that Phak Trang was a point at which spirits could enter the world of the living when the tides were right. People who vanished might sometimes have been killed by the riptide, the cabbies conceded, but more often they were abducted by vengeful spirits or fell through the pale into an otherworld beyond imagining.

The room must once have been the rig’s cafeteria. And it might well be said to have become a cafeteria of a different sort: the small room was coated in dripping gore, viscera, and offal and thick with the buzzing of flies. Gina could barely hold back the bile rising in her throat at the sight, the stench. None of the horrific mess was remotely identifiable as human; even the few slivers of bone peeking through were splintered and shredded.

Gina was frozen, overwhelmed. What could have possessed someone to mutilate their friends and co-workers so? Not even the most dedicated genocide she’d covered had been able to so thoroughly wipe away the victims’ humanity.

Something moved in the distance…the same shadow that had been flitting about since the party arrived? Gina’s hand trembled, rattling the flaregun Johns had given her as a makeshift weapon. She pulled back the hammer, assuming what she imagined was a threatening stance. “W-who’s there? Come out where I can see you, o-or you’ll get a bullet between the eyes!”

More movement, barely perceptible in the flickering fluorescent miasma of the rig’s innards. And then, a hiss–something that might have been language or just Gina’s fear-addled mind reading meaning where only menace existed.

We…ain’t got…eyes…

The message had been secured to the underside of Lee’s beach chair with string which–on closer inspection–was actually braided strands of fine threads from a sheet or blanket. He hesitated; there were plenty of other chairs about on the island beach, and an inviting day of gazing out over crystal-clear azure seas beckoned. Picking anything up, much less reading it, seemed like an unfathomable bother.

But curiosity got the better of him, and Lee retrieved and unfolded it. The writing looked faded and weathered in the tropical sunlight but was easily legible.

“Try to remember last week.”

Lee smirked. Of course he could remember last week. He’d swum out to the sandbar with Claudette, and…no. That had been two days ago. And the sand castle building…that had been last week, hadn’t it? No…the long lazy days and nights seemed to stretch out and contort in time even as Lee thought about them. The sand castles had been only three days ago. Lee felt a mild chill go up his spine.

He couldn’t remember last week.

The note continued. “Didn’t think so. Check under the bed in the empty room at the end of the hallway.”

The barrage was so precise that, when the powder-smoke cleared, the Ineffable‘s gunwhales and ports were clean, with nary a living soul to be seen. Those few survivors visible were rigging the sails for a getaway tack.

“Chain shot!” roared Black Ned.

“Chain shot!” the cry was taken up below, where the gunners of the Merciless Anne loaded their cannon with the lethal mixture of ball and chain. The deadly links exploded outward moments after, sundering the fore and aft masts of the Ineffable and leaving her dead in the water. Normally, a privateer with such a prize would be loath to destroy her–there were men who would pay good coin for a lightly-used frigate still in Royal paint–but Black Ned wasn’t interested in prizes.

“Hooks and planks!” he cried. “Make ready for boarding!”

Grappling hooks sailed out, drawing the two ships closer until Black Ned’s crew scrambled across, cutting down all in their path with ball and cutlass. Ned himself was at their fore, flintlocks blazing, and led the charge belowdecks. He burst into the captain’s cabin like an elemental force, unloading a miniature broadside of shot into its occupant, leaving him slumped across a Spanish treasure chest.

Black Ned kicked the man’s corpse aside and sundered the lock with a dagger. His eyes grew wide as he beheld the golden figure inside.

“Let that be a lesson to all who’d steal the captain’s rubber ducky!” he bellowed, holding the prize aloft and giving it an exultant squeak.

“My contact was very clear on this: the gold, mined from Tanganyika colony, was real, and substantial,” said Harrison.

Joy shrugged. “What of it? Any gold the Germans had would long since have been seized after the war.”

“Not quite. Gustav Bernhard, the German Colonial Secretary, was in the midst of retrieving that trove when war broke out in 1914. They say that it went to the bottom of the ocean when his cruiser was lost with all hands at the Falklands, but I have reason to believe they secreted the gold on a Pacific island during their trans-Pacific voyage.”

“Not this again,” Ishi moaned.

“The way I see it, we can either cut anchor and head out now–when no one else would think to look–or we sit on our hands and wait for the Japanese to sweep in. Unless you’d prefer that.”

“I was born in San Francisco, ass,” said Ishi. “To the Imperial Navy, I’m as American as Douglas MacArthur.”

Gather around, everyone, for I’d like to tell you a story.

Now, this was a very long time ago, when children stayed children until they were forced to grow up and anything was possible as long as you did it before lunchtime. A little boy lived in a little house on a hill under a great oak tree with his family. And, every night when his chores were done, he would sit under that tree and look up at the stars until it came to be bedtime. It was a very long way to anywhere, and anyone, else from that little house, and the boy often felt like the stars and the great fuzzy belt of the Milky Way were closer than anything, and anyone, else. He used to dream about what, and who, might be looking up at his little star from far-off cosmic hills under far-off cosmic trees.

Of course, there was no way for him to be sure–or so you might think! As it happens, the boy’s house had a very well-stocked library, and he would often take a book to read when the moonlight was at its brightest on hot summer nights. One of the books talked about a lonely castaway on a desert island lost in the seven seas, who had sat under a palm tree on an island hill and wondered the same wonders as the boy. The castaway had written a message and put it into a bottle, which he’d hurled into the vast ocean–not looking for rescue, since he’d come to love his little island, but rather looking for a friend. The bottle had returned bearing a message from a prince in the far-off orient, with the castaway and his new friend exchanging many such bottles in the pages to come.

The boy was enchanted by this idea, and one day he wrote a letter of his own, sealed it up tight in a bottle, and flung it into the sky with a little help from his slingshot.

It was many days later that he found his bottle under the great old oak, warm to the touch and bearing a message back. It was unsigned, but spoke of another child on another hill impossibly far away, sitting under the same sky and wondering the same wonders as the boy. That was the first of many bottles which came and went into the great starry expanse from beneath that old oak on hot summer nights, as the boy and his new friend wrote each other about their shared questions, hopes, and even dreams.

Then, it so happened that the boy’s last bottle went unanswered for a very long time–much longer than usual. When a bottle finally appeared, it looked as if it had been through a fire.

The message inside was brief. It read, simply, “help me.”