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Authors: Rod Serling

Night Gallery 1

BOOK: Night Gallery 1
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Rod Serling's
Night Gallery

 

The Sole Survivor

Ponderous yet stately; a giant floating city and yet with her vast decks converging into a single point at the bow, there was a suggestion of gracefulness and speed. Her four funnels spewed out trailing black columns of smoke against the cloudless sky. Far off in the distance little patches of fog blurred the horizon, but the visibility was almost unlimited.

The Lookout spotted the object first and called down to the bridge. "Object in the water," his metallic voice rasped through the speaker, "two miles ahead."

On the bridge the Officer of the Watch and the Quartermaster peered through their binoculars. A black dot bobbing in the gentle swell of the ocean, but clearly visible.

"Damned odd," the Officer of the Watch said, lowering his binoculars. "A lifeboat is what it is." .

The Quartermaster kept the binoculars to his eyes. "Appears to be . . . appears to be one survivor."

The Captain of the ship entered the bridge and moved to the ship's telephone on the wall, unhooking it and putting the mouthpiece close to his own mouth. "Lookout. Any signs of life?"

"I thought I saw a movement, sir," the Lookout's voice responded, "but I can't swear to it."

The Captain put the ship's telephone back on its hook and turned toward the two men flanking the wheel. "Starboard, five degrees," he said tersely to the Helmsman.

"Starboard, five degrees, sir."

The Captain turned to the Officer of the Watch. "Three long blasts, Mr. Wilson," he ordered.

The Officer of the Watch pulled a cord above him. There were three massive resounding blasts of noise. Then the Captain looked through his own binoculars. The black dot grew larger.

"Officer of the Watch," the Captain asked, "who's our best small-boats man?"

"That would be Mr. Richards, sir."

The Captain lowered his binoculars. "Ask him to come to the bridge."

"Mr. Richards to the bridge," the Officer of the Watch said into the ship's phone.

The Captain moved across the bridge to stand next to the Helmsman. Again he lifted the binoculars to his eyes. "I'll be damned," he said soffiy. "Looks to be a . . . a woman." He chewed on the end of his moustache as the binoculars dropped; then he turned to the Officer of the Watch. "No reports of ships in distress in these waters?" It was a statement with just a shade of questioning inflection.

"No, sir."

"And yet," the Captain said musingly, "that's a ship's boat. There's no mistaking it."

A young Junior First Officer entered the bridge and saluted the Captain.

"Mr. Richards," the Captain said, "I want you to take starboard sea boat. I'm going to drop and recover you underway. Take a Signalman with you."

He mined to peer through the glass in front the crow's-feet lines contracting with the habit of years. "We'll be making about five knots when we bring the boat abeam," he continued. "The fireboat is about two miles away." He made rapid silent calculations inside his head. "This will give you seven minutes to water-line. I'll give two short blasts, which will be the executive for unhooking the forward falls and shearing off. I'll circle ship to port and pick you up in the same position. Understood?"

"Aye, aye, Captain," Mr. Richards said, with a salute.

"Then carry on." The Captain had already turned to the Quartermaster. "Stop engines," he continued.

"Stop engines," the Quartermaster repeated the order, but turned toward the Captain as he did so. Any slowing down, let alone going dead in the water, was a deadly serious business.

"You heard the order," the Captain said.

The Quartermaster nodded, then reached forward to turn an iron handle. "Stop engines," he repeated again.

"Starboard, two degrees," the Captain said to the Helmsman.

"Starboard, two degrees," the Helmsman repeated the order, turning the wheel slightly.

The Captain and the Officer of the Watch moved out to the open deck in front of the bridge. Again binoculars were raised. The black dot now looked about the size of a fist.

"Make out a name yet?" the Captain asked.

The Officer of the Watch shook his head. "Bit of a

fog dead ahead, sir. And that lifeboat—or whatever she is— keeps moving in and out of her."

Again the Captain chewed on the corner of his moustache. "Bloody puzzlement," he murmured. "Ship's boat when there's no ship around. One survivor—and a woman at that. A bloody puzzlement." Then his voice took on the crisp tone of command. "Check seaboard," he continued.

The Officer of the Watch peered over the side railing. Halfway down the vast expanse of ship's side, a boat was being lowered. "Lowering away handsomely, sir."

The Captain stepped back inside the bridge. "What's our speed through water?" he asked the Quartermaster.

"Down to seven knots, sir."

The Captain turned to the Officer of the Watch, who'd followed him in. "And the range of the ship's boat?"

"Approximately a mile and a half now, sir," the Officer of the Watch answered.

"All engines slow astern," the Captain ordered.

"All engines slow astern."

"Check your sea boat again."

The Officer of the Watch went back outside and again looked over the railing. "At waterline, sir after falls unhooked," he called out through the open door.

"Stand by," the Captain said. "Two short blasts."

The Quartermaster repeated the order.

"Speed?"

"Five knots, sir."

The Captain felt perspiration on his face. "Stop engines," he ordered.

"Stop engines," the Quartermaster repeated.

Again the voice of the Officer of the Watch came in from outside. "Ship's boat almost abeam," he announced.

The Captain wiped his face. "Two short blasts," he ordered.

"Two short blasts," came the Quartermaster's voice, and once again the pulsating crescendo of noise blasted through the stillness of the day.

"Sea boat's sheared off, sir," the Officer of the Watch informed him.

The Captain nodded. "Slow ahead, Quartermaster." Then he turned to the Helmsman. "Port, ten degrees.''

"Aye, aye, sir," the Helmsman said, turning the wheel.

The Captain lifted up his binoculars, and already those gray little ghosts of doubt marched across his mind. The small and insignificant act of compassion, standing alone and embattled against the giant enemy that was war. Stop a ship that size on a clear and waveless day. God—the risk. The miserable risk. But there were laws of the sea that transcended the improvised callousness that passed for security in wartime— laws and customs that dated back to sails and oars; codes of human behavior that had to be honored.

The Captain shook his head as if clearing it of the extraneous little ghosts. "Have Signalman report condition of the survivor," he started to say, then broke off abruptly and frowned. "Mr. Wilson," he barked.

The Officer of the Watch reentered the bridge. "Sir?"

"On the bow of that ship's boat—do you make out something?"

The Officer of the Watch squinted through the binoculars. "Very faintly, sir," he said softly. "A name . . ."

The binoculars fell. He stood there, mouth open. "That's quite impossible," he said to no one in particular. "Quite impossible."

"Impossible," the Captain said grimly, "or the product of someone's perverted sense of humor." He looked through his binoculars. "You'll be entering this in the log after the Dog Watch this evening, Mr. Wilson. I'll initial it." He lowered the binoculars. "Without my official corroboration, they'd have you up in front of a Board of Inquiry for drinking on duty."

He took a deep breath and moved toward the deck entrance. "I'll be on deck," he announced. "I want to be the first person to talk to that survivor—whoever she is."

He walked out on his little, muscle-knotted bandied sea legs, and his braided Captain's hat could be seen disappearing as he moved down the steps to the deck below.

"What did you see, sir?" the Quartermaster asked the Officer of the Watch.

He gestured toward his binoculars. "I can't make out anything now. She's turned in the swell, and her bow's to us."

"Well, I'll tell you, Q.M.," the Officer of the Watch said. "That is, I'll tell you what I think I saw and what the Captain thinks he saw."

The other men on the bridge stared straight ahead, but there was a sudden and absolute silence.

"On the bow of that ship's boat," the Officer of the Watch said, "it appears to read . . . it appears to read 'The Titanic'!"

They gently lifted the blanketed body of the woman over the railing onto A-deck and then placed it on a stretcher.

The small patches of fog had joined, and the sun was now blotted out. The scene looked funereal as passengers and crew surrounded the stretcher and stared down at it.

The Captain approached the group, and the sailors quickly moved aside as if in response to a silent command.

"Unconscious, sir," Richards said to the Captain. The Captain leaned down, gently pulled aside the blanket to reveal the face of the unconscious body on the stretcher. The face was gray, pale, and bearded.

The Captain looked up towards Richards.

"Unconscious . . . and also a man."

"But dressed as a woman, sir—" Richards said.

The Captain straightened, pulled at his moustache, then gestured. "Take him to the Infirmary."

Several sailors lifted the stretcher and started to trudge down the deck. The Captain moved as if to follow them. Richards touched his arm.

"Captain?" Richards said. "They're pulling the lifeboat in on C-deck. I think you'd best look at it, sir. One blanket, that's all I found. No rescue packets, no life jackets, no flares—"

"Could have been lost at sea," the Captain said musingly. "Swept overboard—"

Richards shook his head. "That's not all that's odd, sir. Her condition—"

The Captain turned to him and frowned. "What about it?"

"She's so barnacled, sir—all crusted up to the waterline. It's as if she'd been afloat for—"

The Captain interrupted him. "For how long? Go ahead, say it: Since the
Titanic
hit an iceberg? And if that were the case, Mr. Richards—what do you suppose the condition of that man would be?"

Richards looked down the length of the deck as the stretcher disappeared inside. "He'd be a skeleton, sir," Richards said softly.

The Captain nodded. "That's a reasonable surmise," he said, his eyes squinting.

Richards couldn't read humor or sarcasm.

"So we come to the obvious conclusion, Mr. Richards,'' the Captain continued.

"Which is, sir?" Richards' voice was soft and somehow apologetic, as if the conclusions were obvious and were simply eluding him.

"Conclusions as follows, Mr. Richards," the Captain said, and this time there was just a shade of a smile underneath the moustache. "The man's been at sea for a week or two. Possibly three at the outside. But that's all."

"And the name on the ship's boat?" Richards asked.

"I'll tell you what, Mr. Richards," the Captain said. "When the gentleman regains consciousness, we'll ask him!"

The man lay in bed in the ship's Infirmary as night shrouded the ocean outside. There was no sound save for the vast humming turbines of the ship's engines; and then the quiet, hushed footsteps of the ship's doctor, who entered the room, went over to the bed, and stared down at the man. After a moment the Captain appeared at the open doorway. The doctor moved quickly over to him, pantomiming his wish that they converse elsewhere.

They moved into the doctor's office alongside the Infirmary room, and the doctor closed the door. "Still unconscious?" the Captain asked.

The ship's doctor lit a pipe. "More like a . . . a coma."

"And his physical condition?"

The ship's doctor sucked in on his pipe, looked down at his desk, then up into the Captain's face. "Thin," he answered. "Obviously in shock. And his right foot—"

"What about it?" the Captain asked.

The ship's doctor looked grim and unhappy. "Frostbite," he answered.

The Captain studied the ship's doctor. "Frostbite?
In the month of May?
Let me ask you something, doctor have you been on deck recently?"

The ship's doctor nodded. "Yes, sir, I have."

"Have you seen any icebergs?" the Captain asked.

The ship's doctor shook his head and smiled. "No, sir. Not a single iceberg."

The Captain leaned over the desk. Not a sarcastic man, he dredged up sarcasm to cover his own bewilderment. "You'd
know
an iceberg if you saw one?" he asked.

The ship's doctor stifled an explosive anger, but even at that his voice came out cold. "I'd also know a case of frostbite, Captain—even if I stumbled across it in equatorial Africa!"

There was the sound of a man's voice from the adjoining room—just the faintest of outcries. Both men tensed instantly; then the Captain followed the ship's doctor toward the connecting door and on into the Infirmary.

The man in the bed was sitting up, his eyes open and staring. Very slowly he turned to look at the two men who'd just entered the room.

BOOK: Night Gallery 1
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