Those lucky souls, human or otherwise, who’ve read Fifty Feet of Trouble have encountered Merry Celestial and its intrepid crew. To give more background on this much-storied vessel, Justin Robinson has written a special companion story to City of Devils and Fifty Feet of Trouble. Fans of Captain El Acerico and Ensign Pulverized, rejoice and dive in!
by Justin Robinson
-a City of Devils/Fifty Feet of Trouble companion story-
It wasn’t easy to read a ghost’s thoughts, even when there wasn’t much of a skull standing between you and his brain. The expression was a little more helpful, but even that was subject to cause of death. In the case of Ensign Pulverized, having only half a head meant that he was harder to read than most; it helped at cards, even with his lousy poker face. Right now, though, his face was openly wistful as he turned a section of metal plate over in his hands. It was the only thing in the room, including the ghosts sitting in it, that was not glowing faintly, and thus the only thing that was definitely solid, with the exception of an extremely confused fish, presently swimming through the surface of the deck, suspended in place by the fishy power of disbelief. Or possibly ectoplasm. No one was investigating too closely. The Merry Celestial often picked up unintentional hitchhikers as it plowed through the water.
“It could be,” Steady Pete said uncertainly, staring at it. Steady Pete wasn’t certain about much. He’d died when he was three sheets to the wind, and therefore hadn’t sobered up for better than two hundred years.
“It looks like the Nevada,” Pulverized said. He pointed to a brown stain along the metal. “And that could be my blood.”
Pulverized had lost a lot of blood, back when he’d had blood. Head wounds are like that, even when they don’t take most of your skull, and that included one of his eyes. He still had the other, but it was mostly exposed, the upper part of the socket simply gone, showing off a smooth wet expanse of sclera. It always made him look faintly surprised.
“How much of you does that make, my friend?” asked the captain, El Acerico.
“Not very much, Captain.” Pulverized paused, then muttered, “If this is even me.”
“What did you pay for it?” Pete asked.
“Too much. But a man can only play so much cards.”
“Aye. Heard that rumor somewhere. Never quite believed it.”
“Gotta make the best of shore leave, you know?”
Shore leave wasn’t as often as they’d like, and it wasn’t really on shore. Like every crewmember of a ghost ship, all five of the Merry Celestial’s complement had been lost at sea, their mortal remains never recovered. Meant they could never set foot on dry land again, at least until their bodies had been recovered in full. Palatine, the ersatz nation of sea-born ghosts, was the only option for them.
Now Palatine was behind them and they were heading back to their jobs. Shore leave, though, was a good time to get some unfinished business done, the only kind ghosts ever really cared about. Pulverized had just finished telling them about the piece of deck, which would join a few bone fragments and a chunk of waterlogged meat in his footlocker, now repurposed as the only coffin he’d ever had.
“Midshipman Easy, he was on the same ship as I was. Got killed by the same plane even.”
“How do you know the blood is not his, Ensign?” asked El Acerico. He sat back, his body taking up even more space than it might otherwise, as no one wanted to touch the arrows pincushioning him,
“He wouldn’t have sold it otherwise.”
“Sterling logic,” El Acerico said with real approval. “When you do acquire your remains, I will miss your company and keen intellect.”
“I don’t know that I’ll leave. I just want my bones.”
Pulverized had gotten to like the Merry Celestial ever since he’d joined the crew. It’d be nice to have all of his bits back together, but he wasn’t certain he liked the idea of heading ashore. Heck, the ship even had the propeller from the Nevada; it was just like home. If home had ever been an ectoplasmic rendition of five dead people’s opinions on what constituted a ship.
Unlike ghosts, ghost ships could be read like fingerprints. Every one was a patchwork vessel, created from the memories, fantasies, and subconscious of her crew. To landlubbers they usually looked fine, if a little more antique and glowy than your standard ship. Any real sailor could tell there was no way an individual ghost ship should be able to ply the waves without sinking like a stone.
They mostly flew a few feet over the top of them anyway.
The Merry Celestial was not unusual in the slightest. It even looked like it might have been designed with its eventual vocation in mind as the ferry between Los Angeles and Catalina Island, but the truth was it was blind luck. A death-powered erector set had managed to get something precisely right without trying.
Beyond the steel decking and massive propeller from Pulverized’s battleship, one of the masts and a good portion of the hull were those of a Spanish frigate from the early 16th century, fresh from plundering the New World.
The silhouette, fat and round, came from a pirate galleon that sailed more than two hundred years later. It had a few portholes from that time, too, which included several ghostly cannons. They could send an ectoplasmic cannonball over the waves if they were so inclined, but the first mate had been explicitly instructed not to shoot at anything unless it proved hostile. After several misunderstandings, El Acerico finally made Pete understand that under no circumstances were flying fish to be considered hostile.
A large mechanical armature dated from the 1830s, and it was cutting edge. It included both a bellows for air and a system of pulleys to bring a diver back to the surface. The rigging could also be dated to this time, though the ropes had a tendency to move on their own and tie whatever knots they felt were needed. Occasionally they were even right.
The quarterdeck and one of the masts were clear evidence of someone on the crew whose knowledge of ships came largely from stories; it wasn’t quite obvious how they even stayed standing.
“We are all of us one with the sea,” said the White Lady, “including my Roland.”
When Pulverized first joined the crew, he’d nursed romantic notions about the one woman on their ship. She was lovely, as long as “pale,” “consumptive,” and “drowned” were watchwords of beauty. Pulverized let the whole thing go when he found out she was married. That she hadn’t seen the fella in over a hundred years hardly mattered. It was the point of the thing.
“The melancholy’s seized ye again, lass?” Pete said, throwing back another mug of grog.
She nodded, weeping sea spiders. They scuttled away into the shadows to rejoin the ectoplasm of the ship.
“Do not trouble yourself, corazon,” El Acerico reassured her. “These philistines have not drunk from the cup of love the way we have. What news on your Roland?”
The White Lady brightened, her face momentarily turned into a grinning skull, picked clean by crabs. If there had been any humans, or even other monsters, around, they would have fled screaming from her.
“Drowned Danny from the Eliza Doobattle told me he saw a man with sandy hair and a mustache like the one Roland wore. He arrived on Palatine from the briny not two weeks prior.”
“But it wasn’t him!” Pete said happily.
Pulverized rolled his remaining eye hard enough that it tumbled out of the socket. He searched for it on the floor while the other ghosts continued to talk.
“It wasn’t,” the White Lady sighed.
Big Daddy let out a mournful moan, somewhere between whalesong and the metallic creaking of a battleship. The huge man in the old-timey diving suit barely looked at the cards. Or perhaps he did. It was hard to tell, what with the light streaming out of the portholes in his helmet.
The White Lady gave him a grateful smile. It looked ghastly.
“Danny directed me to a new section of Palatine. A cruise ship that capsized off Alaska, I believe, now lashed to the HMS Prince of Wales.”
The ghosts nodded. As more ships were lost, Palatine was growing larger by the night. It was possible to trace the evolution of nautical technology by heading inward to the core of the ghost nation. The very center was little more than a raft.
“Searched it top to bottom, calling Roland’s name. He was nowhere to be seen. I searched the Prince of Wales, just to be thorough, and then the Yamashiro.”
“Did you find the sandy-haired man?” asked El Acerico, leaning forward. One of the arrows in his chest touched the table and bent nearly double.
“Yes,” she said sadly. “A poltergeist from the Lusitania who had only just found his way out of the waves.”
Pete nodded. “Had a devil of a time myself. Got all turned around in the Sargasso, did I, to say nothing of the sea serpent who devoured the lion’s share of me mortal remains.”
Pulverized sat back up, doing his best to fit the eyeball back into his shattered skull. “Sea serpents! No such thing.”
“Still wet behind the ears, you. Or ear, I suppose. Sea serpents are very real.”
“Of course. Now. We’ve all seen King Humboldt.” Pulverized was referring to the self-styled King of the Pacific, a leviathan. A huge fish-squid thing dwarfed only by his own ego.
“No, these things were never human! Been in the deep for thousands of years! Biblical they are. Biblical!”
“And you,” El Acerico asked, “how did you spend your shore leave?”
“Mermaids,” Pete said, finally plucking his finger from the hole in his skull. A bit of gray-green flesh wiggled on the grimy fingertip.
“No mermaids on Palatine,” El Acerico said.
“No such thing as mermaids,” Pulverized said. “Sea hags, certainly.”
“Sirens,” the White Lady amended.
Big Daddy moaned.
“Nay, not a sea hag nor a siren. I knows the difference, do I,” Pete said. “Mermaids. Saw ’em when first I came to the West Indies as part of Calico Jack’s crew.”
“You never knew Rackham,” Pulverized said.
“Knew of him. Once said to me, ‘You there, get out of the grog!’ And I climbed from that barrel, quick as you please.”
“Yeah, you were close.”
“Anyway, I seen mermaids. Dusky-skinned maidens atop, fish beneath. Lovely, all, with their assets dis—”
The White Lady coughed. A fiddler crab crawled from her lips and into her wet curtain of silvery blonde hair.
“Sorry, love. Forget you’re carrying a different set of tackle sometimes. Me point was that they be topless, and a welcomer sight this old salt has yet to behold. When I sees them the first, Rackham’s mate, you know her as Anne Bonny, she tells me, ‘You there, stop that unholy business with the hardtack.’ And I knows, from that day to this, I would return to the sweet embrace of the mermaid.”
El Acerico nodded. “A wise decision. And you spent your leave…”
“Finding more stories of the maidens of the deep.”
“Ah, yes. And we will return to the Indies to find your maidens.”
“To you, Captain,” Pete said, toasting the captain with a pewter mug perpetually half-full of grog.
“And you, my large friend,” El Acerico said, turning to Big Daddy. “How did you spend your time in Palatine’s fair port?”
Big Daddy responded with a long string of moans, wheezes, groans, and drawn-out notes. The ghosts stared at the bobbing diver’s helmet, the bright streaming light betraying nothing. Finally, the large ghost went silent and he sat back in his chair.
“Did anyone catch any of that?” El Acerico asked.
“No, Captain. Sorry.”
“Ahem, yes. Well, I have some good news for everyone. I have reached the culmination of my life and my death. I have located the Fountain of Youth.”
They all leaned forward. There was no sign of disbelief even from Pulverized. The captain preened in the bath of attention.
Finally, Steady Pete broke the silence. “Where’s it be?”
“Aha!” El Acerico blurted. “During my life, I thought it would be in the land now called Florida, but I was wrong. I have known it would be in California for some time. Why did you think I agreed to captain this ferry for Kong?”
None of the crew had anything to say. They had heard this part before.
“Yes, well, I purchased a map with the location clearly marked upon it. It is in a place called…” El Acerico swept them with an imperious gaze. “Needles.”
Silence greeted him.
Then, from Pulverized: “Needles? As in Needles, California?”
“Yes! You know of this place?”
“Sure. It’s right on the border with Arizona.”
“Excellent! When next we have a day off, we’ll sail right up the Strait of California and—”
“The Strait of California. The waterway separating the island of California from the mainland,” El Acerico chuckled, appealing to the rest of the crew. Steady Pete nodded uncertainly, while the White Lady squinted, as though trying to remember something. Big Daddy moaned.
“California is attached to the mainland, sir,” Pulverized said. “Needles is around two hundred miles from shore.”
El Acerico frowned. “You are sure?”
“That California isn’t an island? Very.”
Image: Illustration from The Ghost Ship by John Conroy Hutcheson, circa 1901 (source: The Project Gutenberg; illustrator, Henry Austin; the file is free of all restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights)