What’s a good book without a knockout follow-up?
I was extremely excited and pleased that the release of ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES went so well. Many downloaded the ebook and quite a few of you have added it to the “To-Read” status on GoodReads. So since there’s been so much interest, I’d thought I bait the line with a preview of the second story: NEPTUNE’S FURY.
I’ve been thinking about a second story ever since I finished the first. Zak, Lisabeth, the robots and the rest of the characters were so interesting that I couldn’t help myself. But I quickly put on the brakes. It’s better to polish the first story and make that as perfect as you can before getting too deep into a sequel.
I didn’t really want it to be a “sequel”, either. The events of the first story were fairly self-contained. So I considered a story that would allow me to let the characters grow. I wanted new challenges for Zak and Lisabeth, not only at a story level but at a personal level. They’re teenagers, after all, and with that comes a lot of heartache, confusion and feelings.
Before getting to Zak and Lisabeth and what troubles lay before them, it’s time to set the stage. There’s a storm brewing, in more ways than one.
The storm squall appeared directly ahead of them and the captain of the S.S. Neptune had no choice but to aim straight for it.
The steamship Neptune had been at sea for weeks, trawling the waters between Florida, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico in a pattern only distinguishable on a chart. To the sailors working the ship, it was a strange journey. They had no set destination, no port to hail. The Neptune was a cargo ship by trade, not a fishing trawler. Yet they traveled in one compass direction and then turned about to sail off in another.
The crew spent each day tossing buoys filled with equipment overboard as directed by the ship’s two passengers. The buoys would be towed behind the ship and then hauled back aboard before the evening meal. For weeks the ship had gone back and forth like this, coming with miles of an island or shore only to ignore it. It was almost maddening.
The crew had their suspicions about who their passengers were and the nature of their work. One was an older gentleman, the “Doctor”, clearly a wealthy man considering the clothing he wore and the aromatic pipe tobacco he smoked. He had no grime or calluses on his hands to suggest he lifted anything heavier than a pen. He chose to confine himself to his cabin for long periods at a time.
Their other passenger was a young man, Stephen by name. He was clever and always asking questions about working the sea. Fair faced and eager, he watched and imitated the crew as to proper knot-tying, hooking lines, and handling the winches which released and picked up the buoys and balloons. When asked, young Stephen explained that his elder cohort was not a medical doctor, but a man of research and science.
The Neptune had been contracted to carry them and their equipment on this extended voyage to nowhere for as long as the Doctor deemed it necessary. The captain said nothing to the crew about the purpose of their excursion either, only that each man aboard would be well paid.
On the sixth week, without warning, the storm hit. The beautiful balmy day turned savage, clouds thick with rain building along a massive front. The seas around them churned.
Standing near the topside of the ship, the Doctor did not have enough time to ponder the speed and ferocity of the storm or its abrupt appearance. His concern wasn’t the squall line in front of them, but another weather formation that was charging up behind the ship. This new weather was quite bizarre—a dreadful mist of swirling blue, yellow and red clouds.
“The buoys!” the Doctor shouted down to Stephen at the stern as he headed towards the wheelhouse and the captain. “Retrieve the buoys!”
While Stephen and the crew set to work tying the line to the winch to pull the buoys back aboard, the Doctor ran into ship’s wheelhouse. The winds had picked up drastically and were screaming across the length of the ship. It was all quite astounding. The seas had been calm just minutes ago! Waves, beset with whitecaps, lifted the ship and dropped it back down in a sickening fashion.
The Doctor found the captain at the ship’s wheel, clutching at the spokes with white knuckles, while the first mate was shouting orders into the voice tube down to the engineer. The captain pointed at the ship’s compass, mounted in a wooden cabinet with a glass top and set in front of the wheel. It was spinning like an out-of-control cuckoo clock.
“Twenty years at sea and I’ve never seen anything like it!”
The doctor too had never witnessed anything like it, but he had read descriptions of this effect from other vessels which crossed this area of the seas.
“We are inside some kind of magnetic anomaly, Captain!”
Neptune took a wave directly across its bow. Every man aboard had to grab hold of something or be thrown to the deck … or worse. The storm line in front had reached them and the ship was surrounded by driving pellets of rain.
“We’re dragging all of those buoys! We can’t make enough speed!”
“I’ve ordered Stephen to pull them up!”
“Damn the buoys!” The captain turned to the first mate. “Cut the line!”
“But captain!” the doctor pleaded. He tried to hold the first mate by his shoulder despite the bucking ship. “This is what we’ve been waiting for! Weeks of research and searching!”
“All for naught if we get dragged down to our deaths or capsized!” He snarled at the mate. “That’s an order!”
The first mate disengaged himself from the doctor’s grip and threw both hands on the outside railing to reach the stern. The ship was battered by waves that lurched over the bow and sent spray in all directions. The mate struggled to move aft, his feet sliding out from underneath him as the ship was raised and dropped like a child’s toy in a bath tub.
Unable to get the captain to change his decision, the Doctor headed off into another direction: his cabin.
Reaching the small stateroom and locking himself inside, the Doctor shakily produced a brass key from his vest pocket. The ship was rolling badly now. Thrown back and forth against the cabin walls, his clothing, books and writing materials flying everywhere, the doctor found what he was looking for.
Inside one of his steamer trunks were two small boxes: one made of an alloy that resisted the corroding effects of salt water, the other a radio receiver enclosed in a wooden cabinet designed to float. Ornately embossed on both boxes was a golden script:
The Unknown Worlds Society, 1921
Pulling the metal box out and placing it on his bunk, he inserted a brass key into a small protected keyhole and twisted it once to the right.
The mechanism inside began to work. The doctor checked the signal sent from the box with the portable wireless receiver. A brief series of tones came from the radio set. The device inside the metal box was working.
He wrapped the wooden box in a canvas sack, opened the porthole to his cabin and threw it into the heaving seas…
Pulling with both hands on the railing, the first mate reached the stern. The bizarre cloud was right behind the ship, lightning from within illuminated its frothy contents. To the man’s frightened eyes, it resembled a whirlpool tilted on its side. He had seen waterspouts on the ocean before, but nothing like this. Concentrating on his footing and the howling mad wind around him, the mate saw Stephen and several men laboring to get the first buoys aboard. Wind and rain made it almost impossible to talk, much less hear.
“Cut the line!” the first mate yelled at the closest man and pointed at the taunt length of rope that was stretched over the stern railing.
The seaman nodded and ran for an axe stored in one of the tool lockers. Meanwhile, Stephen and another man struggled with a buoy they had just raised. The rain was pouring down around them in sheets, slicking the deck. The mate got between them and shook his head.
“Forget them! They’re dragging the ship!”
“But the Doctor!…”
“The captain says we’ve got to cut the line!” the mate shouted. The seaman appeared with an axe in his hands.
“But it must be here! This is what we’ve been searching for!” Stephen shouted back over the wind.
Neptune suddenly pitched high into an oncoming wave, launching the bow and the rest of the ship towards the sky. The heavy buoy fell out of their hands and bounced back overboard. The line that connected the buoy to the next one had become looped around the young man’s foot. In an instant the buoy … and the young man … were gone. The line snapped taunt again as the rest of the rope was caught in the winch’s teeth.
“Man overboard!” the mate shouted.
Everyone surged to the stern railing. A figure appeared in the waves, kept on the surface by the buoy and the rest of the string lagging behind the pitching ship. The mate could see Stephen struggling to keep his head above water, his leg still caught in the twisted buoy line. The first mate shouted to the man running the winch. The electrical machine began pulling up the buoy and the man attached to it back towards the ship.
Suddenly, the tilted maelstrom cart-wheeled downward and stuck the surface of the rolling sea. A huge tunnel of whirling clouds and lightning flashes surged straight towards them. The first mate gasped. It was eating the buoys and the line … right up to the ship! The edge of the roiling monstrosity reached Stephen and the buoys bouncing in the water. Before their very eyes, the young man and the buoys were plucked from the surface. He and the devices were dragged into the cloud!
The first mate grabbed the axe from the shocked seaman standing beside him. The cloud would soon engulf the ship. With several swings, he hacked at the taunt rope on the deck. The wet line refused to cut. After several harried chops, the mate finally severed the line. Even so, the cloud fell upon the rear of the ship and them. Shouts and screams permeated the roaring air.
The cloud swallowed the ship in its entirety.
The seas calmed. The clouds dissipated. The noon sun emerged. All that remained on the surface were debris from objects not tied down: some smashed crates, a few unfilled weather balloons, a signal flag and the splintered remains of the ship’s radio mast.
A small wooden box, a portable radio receiver, swirled to the surface—a plaintive series of beeps coming from its drowning speaker.
Neptune knifed downwards to the darkest parts of the sea. Air bubbles and a few dislodged bits of wreckage popped up to the surface before the current and the sea scattered them away with a parting hand.
Although all life had been taken from her, miles below the surface, Neptune cried out in anguish.
The weak, intermittent beeps from the drowned radio were the only clue to her demise … and the mysterious monstrosity that lay underneath the waters.
(Copyright © 2012, Tony Russo. All rights reserved)
As a follow-up, future e-book editions of ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES will also include the NEPTUNE’S FURY preview.