's 2019 Horror Write-off:

Let Them Eat

Submitted by D. Sierra (email)

Ocean Elite was not a well-known cruise line. One would have to travel in wealthy circles to really hear about it, and mostly as the subject of rumor. It offered a fabulously expensive carribean cruise, which openly boasted a final destination only the highest class of passenger would get to see. The promotional photos were almost too much to be believed, depicting joyful vacationers at a luxurious resort on a beach of white sand as the ocean glowed with some bioluminescent phenomena.
Most passengers would disembark at San Juan, and board the cruise line’s second ship to go on to the Bahamas and return to Miami. Only the wealthiest would go on to see the rumored island of Halhira. While Halhira wasn’t found on any maps, whispers about it abounded in affluent social circles, where someone would know a-friend-of-a-friend who paid a tremendous sum of money to travel to the paradisiacal island. The general consensus was that the island was kept a secret after it was discovered, lest the filthy hordes of common humanity sully the pristine beauty of the place. According to the promotional materials that a well-connected enough person might be able to acquire, the dock and the few buildings of the resort were the only man-made structures on Halhira.

The “Star of Adytum” was on the small side for a cruise ship, but lavishly outfitted nevertheless. The ship was less than a day out from port, and Matthew Ellis didn’t know what to make of his situation. He’d won a free ticket to a cruise so exclusive he’d never even heard of the destination. Stranger still, he didn’t recall ever entering a contest to win said ticket. He’d received a phone call one day telling him he’d won a ticket on an exclusive cruise, and he initially assumed it was a scam. When the tickets arrived in his mailbox two days later, he figured it was just a more well-put-together scam than most. But when he looked up “Ocean Elite Cruises” and called the number he found (not trusting what was listed on the tickets he assumed to be fake), they congratulated him on winning their ‘Lucky Days’ contest. At every subsequent step, he waited for there to be some kind of catch, some revelation that everything was a scam, or that he’d be on the hook for outrageous expenses. But he was almost a day into the cruise, and the closest thing to a catch was that he’d been instructed not to discuss his occupation with the other guests. This did strike Matthew as rather odd.

Especially given that he worked as a cashier at a grocery store.

When he’d first boarded, he was shown to his room by a rail-thin, mustachioed man who introduced himself as First Officer Savillon. He’d cheerfully congratulated Matthew on winning the contest, and told him that he could avail himself of the ship’s many facilities to his content. He explained that Matthew would essentially be treated as though he had purchased the most expensive kind of all-inclusive ticket the cruise line offered. He’d even be given a cash card with four hundred dollars on it to purchase whatever he liked when the ship was in port. He finished by explaining “The only thing we must ask of our lucky friend is this: don’t talk about your job with the other passengers. Don’t even tell them what you do for a living. You may hear other guests discussing their own careers, but we must ask that you specifically do not.”
At this unexpected request, Matthew asked “Why not? Seems like a weird rule to have.”
“The captain has been very clear on this, I’m afraid” responded Savillon “Perhaps the captain wishes to create an air of mystery around the special guest?”
“But I’m just a gr-”
“We know,” interrupted the first officer, “and perhaps it’s partly to improve your experience, as some of the other passengers on your level are… rather critical of those with less wealth.”
As Matthew was about to protest further, and ask how they knew what he did for a living, Savillon jovially exclaimed that Matthew should check out the ship’s spa as soon as he could, and that as First Officer he really needed to get going and attend to some things.

And that had been that.

As Matthew had gone about his first day onboard, he began to have an inkling of why he’d been instructed not to mention his job, as he slowly met the other passengers on his tier. For instance, while the spa had actually been closed for the beginning of that first day, on his way back to his room Matthew had run into a portly middle-aged man wearing expensive looking sunglasses and a hawaiian shirt. His neighbor on board the cruise, in fact. The man had looked him up and down briefly, then, in a thick Texan accent, chuckled “Well damn, you kids look shabbier every year.”
As Matthew, confused, began to ask what the man meant, he’d interrupted “Guess I can’t judge when it comes to vacation wear. Ha!” and gestured at his colorful shirt.
He thrust a hand out aggressively at Matthew and exclaimed “Chris Pearson! Pleased to make yer acquaintance.”
Matthew awkwardly shook his hand and said “Matthew. Likewise.”
Chris snorted, responding “Ain’t got a last name kid? Guess it doesn’t matter. So, how’d you strike it big?”
When Matthew (feeling extremely ill at ease) didn’t respond quickly, Chris laughed. “Take it easy kid! I gotcha, sonny. Not everybody wants to talk about how they made their fortune. Something shady, then, eh? Don’t worry, I don’t judge. See, some people would look down on me for it, but I’m proud of how I made my mark. When you’re so good at making weapons that both Uncle Sam and Moscow want a piece, you can’t help but take pride.” He beamed, as if that were the best and most natural thing in the world to have said.

Before the conversation could devolve any further, Matthew tried to change the subject. “Well, I’m pretty hungry, so I’m gonna go see what I can scrounge up in terms of lunch.”
As he turned to leave, hoping to escape the man, Chris exclaimed loudly “Great idea kid! I’m starved. Let’s go grab us some grub!”
He clapped Matthew on the shoulder, and confidently strode ahead in the direction of the dining room. So much for getting away from him.

When they reached the dining room and acquired some food, Chris made a beeline for a pair of men chatting together at a table. While they wore similar loose silk shirts, one looked to be five to ten years older than the other, and the younger had a well-trimmed beard while his companion was clean-shaven. Chris spread his arms (almost hitting Matthew with his plate) and shouted, “Well if it isn’t George L’amato! How’s it been, Georgie, you and that boy-toy of yours still together?”
Both men looked sharply at him. The older of the two responded curtly, “Pearson. I’m surprised to see you here, instead of in the Hague.”
Chris laughed uproariously and sat down, to the clear distaste of the younger of the two men. Chris motioned Matthew to come sit down as well, and waved at him emphatically, “George, George’s special friend, this is Matthew. He won’t talk about what he does, but you shouldn’t hold it against him. Matthew, this is George L’amato and his boy-toy. They’re a couple of homos, but you shouldn’t hold it against them either.”
The younger man responded angrily, “I have a name, it’s Cameron you-”
George cut him off “-Good to meet you Matthew, despite present company” he glared at Chris. “I guess you’ve already met Pearson, but he’s a bigot and a war criminal, and you should hold it against him.”
Chris chuckled and waved a hand dismissively as he began to shovel food into his mouth.

The lunch seemed to drag on for an uncomfortable eon, until Chris (who seemed oblivious, apathetic, or both to the other mens’ discomfort with him) loudly announced that he was ‘going to go check out the tail around the pool’ now that he’d eaten, and wandered off. Matthew waited until the crass man was out of earshot, and asked “...why choose to stick around, when he was being obnoxious to you?”
Cameron nodded, gave a wide grin, and turned to George “That’s a great question. Why didn’t we take our leave of that asshole?”
George held up a hand, and said “Now, now. We must keep up appearances. And besides, the man’s a boor, but at the end of the day I’d rather dine with him than with…” he gestured vaguely across the dining room, “...the masses, so to speak.”
Cameron shrugged, and George pressed on “ Can you imagine? Sharing your table with someone small, someone utterly unimportant? Someone who just toils away, rather than creating anything of value, or doing anything interesting with their life? No thank you. Pearson’s a rude, rude man, but at least his life’s worth a damn.”
George smiled winningly and gestured to Matthew, “I’m sure our new friend here understands. Even if he reaaaaally can’t tell us what he does, I’m certain he feels the same way. Don’t you, Matthew?”
Matthew laughed uncomfortably, assured George that he really couldn’t tell him what he did for a living, and excused himself back to his room.

Matthew spent the next while enjoying the luxurious room he’d been given. It was both larger and more richly appointed than anywhere he’d ever lived. There was an odd mark inlaid in metal, just below his doorknob, like a backwards C with branching squiggly ends intersecting a circle. For a moment, he thought this rather strange, but he reasoned it must be the trademark of some high-end doormaker and didn’t think more of it. The room featured a huge, soft bed, a separate living room with a private balcony, and a soaking tub in the bathroom. He’d always loved the sea, so he spent some time on the balcony just relaxing and staring out over the water. After a few minutes, he thought he saw a dolphin, or maybe even a small whale. Despite only seeing the dark outline of the animal, he felt lucky and at peace, watching the graceful shape sliding under the waves just off the side of the ship.

That evening, when Matthew went to eat dinner, he was waved over to a table by George L’amato. He and Cameron were sitting with a pair of people Matthew hadn’t met before. The first was a bespectacled blonde woman, wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a black and gold design. The second was a balding man with a neat goatee, wearing a dark tracksuit with the word “GUCCI” in red on both arms. George gestured at Matthew emphatically and said “And here’s our friend I was just telling you about! Matthew, will you please join us for dinner?”
As Matthew sat down, the man in the tracksuit chuckled and said “Thought you’d be older.”
He stuck a hand out, clearly intending to shake Matthew’s, and introduced himself. “I’m Daniel. Daniel Cooke. Of Cooke Industrial? You’ve ah, probably heard of us. We do a lot of stuff.”
And indeed Matthew had heard of Cooke Industrial. It was a multinational petrochemical corporation, frequently in the news for extraordinarily lax regulations and frequent oil spills. It was also rumored to be a major source of funding for some of the country’s most awful and regressive politicians. Matthew briefly suppressed a shudder, and shook the man’s hand quickly.

As Matthew drew back from shaking Daniel’s hand, the bespectacled woman asked him “So, is it true that you won’t talk about what you do?” to which he simply replied “Yup.”
“And whyever not?” She asked.
“I can’t.” He said, still taciturn.
“But why can’t you?” She pressed.
Matthew composed his next answer very carefully, with what he had gleaned of the type of people he was surrounded by: “It’s policy.”
The woman’s eyes seemed to light up at that, and she said “Aha! So it’s espionage!” She seemed content with this. Across the table, Cameron broke out into a grin and whispered something to George, who looked decidedly less pleased. Matthew raised an eyebrow, and as he was about to ask, the blonde woman said “Oh, they had a bet about you. Cameron bet you were a spy, and George bet you were a mafioso or some such nonsense.”
Matthew began to protest “But, I’m not a sp-” and she cut him off almost immediately “Yesss, I’m sure you’re not, or rather, I’m sure you have to say you’re not. Shall we eat?”
After he ordered food, Matthew asked the lady “So, who are you? You seem pretty interested in who I am, but I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”
She cocked an eyebrow, “You won’t even tell us what you do. Why should I introduce myself to a man who so rudely makes me deduce his line of work myself?”
Daniel snorted. “Oh please. Matty-boy, that’s Amy Goldacre. She does christ-knows-what in silicon valley.”
Amy glared icily at Daniel. “I run a company that specializes in proprietary productivity and time management software. We’re called Hyve, and even if you’ve never heard of us I’m sure you’ve met our products.”
George spread his arms, “Ok! And now we’re all introduced to Matthew, so we’re all friends. Let’s endeavor to have a great time, since we’re all part of the same club.”

The dinner went on in much the same fashion, with Matthew’s mild discomfort never leaving. He was surrounded by the ultra-rich. And they all knew each other. Was that normal? Did every rich person just know every other rich person? No, that couldn’t be right. Something strange was up, but he didn’t know what. This discomfort stayed with him into the night, even as he was luxuriating in his room’s soaking tub, and even while he tried to enjoy watching something on the room’s massive television. But as he was lost on these thoughts, watching an (admittedly very soothing) cooking show, there were several sharp knocks at his door. He jumped a little, startled by the sudden noise. He went to the door, but as he wasn’t expecting company, he didn’t open it. He just asked “Who is it? What do you want?”
A voice he didn’t recognize answered “Open up, Matthew. Gift from the captain!”
Through the peephole of his door, he could see someone wearing one of the ship’s uniforms. While it was odd that the captain would send him something, much less at what must have been eleven or twelve at night, he decided it was probably as legitimate as it very well could be, all things considered. He opened the door.

Waiting with an arm outstretched was a young woman with long, straight, black hair. Her uniform seemed fancier than most of the others Matthew had seen, with black and silver epaulettes on the shoulders, and buttons of bright brass. Held out towards Matthew was some kind of card. He idly mused that she looked a little like a young Japanese woman he’d met during his (admittedly short) time at college.
“Good evening, Matthew.” she said cheerfully. “Captain Barsamian would like to invite you to dine at the captain’s table tomorrow night.”
Slightly taken aback, and unsure how to respond, Matthew asked “Isn’t it a little late in the day for the captain to be sending invitations?”
She shrugged, and just said “He was very insistent! But don’t worry. There’ll be others there. You won’t be alone. Come join us at six o’ clock, ok?”
He took the card. It was a simple thing, just featuring the phrase “OCEAN ELITE” on a blue background on one side, and stylized ocean waves on the other.
The odd woman began to leave, then seemed to think better of it, turning to face Matthew and grinning broadly. “By the way. You’re doing well so far!” she exclaimed. And before Matthew could quite process what she’d said, she strode briskly away.
What on earth could she mean by that? Matthew wondered.

He kept wondering that for the rest of the night.

The next day, Matthew decided to try to check out the spa again, hoping by this point it was open. Luckily, this time it was. He was initially going to opt for just a massage, but apparently his status as the ‘Lucky Days’ winner meant that he’d be given more. The spa was decorated oddly, made up to look more like an ancient shrine than a regular spa. When Matthew asked the masseuse (who was a curly-haired, matronly woman) about it, she winked and said “Well you know how the saying goes: Your body is a temple!”
While it wasn’t a great joke, and dangerously close to a groanworthy pun, it put Matthew at ease somehow. The massage included a sweet-scented oil, which somehow seemed to make his muscles relax even further. After this, he was shown to a hot tub, which the masseuse sprinkled some violet substance into. When Matthew asked about it, she explained that it was a mineral-rich sea salt which would make one’s skin extra-soft. Incense burned in the corners of the room (“It’s aromatherapy!” explained the masseuse), and the hot tub was decorated with cheesy faux-egyptian hieroglyphs. As Matthew laid back in the tub, he noticed that one of ‘hieroglyphs’ on the rim of the tub was that same strange symbol engraved in his door. Growing slightly uneasy, he asked the masseuse “Hey, what’s with this symbol here? I’ve seen it somewhere else on the ship.”
She looked at it, furrowed her brows, and responded, “Well, I’m not one hundred percent sure, but I think it’s the mark of the company that made all the ship’s furnishings. I wouldn’t be surprised if it showed up in a couple different places.”
Matthew supposed that made some amount of sense. He thanked her for clueing him in, and enjoyed the hot tub.

After the spa, feeling refreshed and relaxed, Matthew decided to go to the ship’s bar to enjoy a glass of wine while trying to spot dolphins. However, he misread a sign, and ended up slightly lost. As he wandered disoriented through what seemed to be either a level of personal cabins or supply rooms, he began to hear an odd noise. A rhythmic thumping, just around a corner. He thought maybe it was the dull sound of music, coming from the bar he was looking for. He rounded the corner to find… more of the same hallway. But that rhythmic thumping noise was coming from one of the many identical doors. As Matthew got closer to investigate, he could hear a voice (or was it two voices?) coming from inside the room, too faint to make out. The thumping sounded like someone banging on the door from the inside. But not a frantic, discordant banging like someone trying to escape a locked room. This was a strange, rhythmic banging, like someone hitting the door in time to a metronome. But Matthew wanted to make sure no one had gotten locked in or anything, so he approached the door and said “Hello? Is everything ok?”
The voices inside the room continued murmuring, and the knocking went on, so Matthew tried again just to be certain, asking “Are you alright in there? Are you stuck?”
The words had barely left him when, from just on the other side of the door, a voice that sounded uncannily like Matthew’s own replied “Are you stuck?”

A chill raced down his spine, and with the rhythmic knocking and murmurs continuing, Matthew turned and walked as quickly as he could back the way he’d come from. The thumping continued, fading from hearing as he walked further and further away.
Eventually, he found his way back to the stairwell, and realized the mistake he’d made: he was one level below where he thought he was. The bar was on the next level up.

Matthew ordered a strong drink and tried to put what he’d heard downstairs in a rational perspective, gazing out over the ocean as he sipped his beverage. Maybe he’d just misheard. Maybe the voice didn’t sound as much like his own as he thought. And maybe the response had been a sarcastic one, rather than some odd mimicry. As he was going over this in his head, someone sat beside him.
“So, you’re the mystery kid.”
It wasn’t a question. The man who’d sat beside him had thin glasses and short blonde hair, just starting to go to grey. He wore a tan vest over a white leisure suit, and a coral-pink bowtie.
Matthew collected himself for a moment, before responding “I guess I must be.”
The man chuckled humorlessly. “The others seem to think you’re quite a puzzle. Why’s that?”
Matthew shrugged, “I imagine it’s because I don’t talk about my job. It’s policy.”
The man nodded. “Right, right. They think you’re a spy or something. Maybe non-disclosure’s a bitch, huh?”
Matthew nodded slowly, feeling a sense of unease at where this man might be going with these questions. The man went on “But you’re here. And if you’re here, you’d be the one writing the non-disclosures. Or at least having them written. So you know what I think?”
The pit of Matthew’s stomach dropped. Was he found out? Did he unknowingly break the only rule that had been imposed on him?
The man looked him in the eyes, and said softly “I think George was right. You made your money dirty. What kind of dirty doesn’t matter. That young, with clothes that cheap? You didn’t come up right.”
Matthew was dumbfounded. His concern turned to confusion and he just asked “Uh… what?”
The man kept speaking quietly, “You heard me. So I guess you’re enjoying the view from the top while it lasts. I can’t imagine what you must have done to strike it big enough to end up here. But if you want to stay at the top, and invest somewhere that makes your money legit?”
He reached into a pocket and held out a business card, “You give me a ring.”
And with that, he walked off. Matthew was absolutely baffled for a few moments more, before looking the card over. The black card simply read “PETER SMYTHE - CHIEF INVESTMENT BANKING OFFICER - SILVERMAN GRAMME” with a phone number beneath, all in white lettering.

Matthew considered what had just happened. This man, Peter Smythe, thought he was some kind of billionaire mafia boss. Thinking this was true, he’d come to Matthew to tell him privately he knew the ‘truth’. And then, having let slip he knew this, he’d offered him a way to make more money? And once more, he’d seemed to know the other rich people onboard, somehow.
These people were insane, Matthew decided. He’d always suspected, in the back of his mind, that extreme wealth made people go funny in the head, and this all confirmed it. And a group of people who all had a few screws loose, and more money and power than any human being should have? He was suddenly very thankful they thought he was one of them.
Or at least, that they seemed to. He hoped it wasn’t an act.

The rest of the day was uneventful, until it was time for dinner. He went to the dining room with the card that woman had given him the previous evening, only to find she was waiting for him by the entrance. She smiled pleasantly and said “There you are! Glad to see you. I was starting to think I’d have to come find you. Well, let’s not wait around, the others are all already here.”
She directed Matthew to follow her, and led him to one of the doors in the back of the dining room. This led to a smaller, private room, where a group of people sat around a round table of dark wood. He recognized Daniel and Peter, but not the other two. One was an older woman in a red gown, wearing an ornate diamond necklace. The other, a slender and almost androgynous young man, stood up quite suddenly as Matthew entered the room, exclaiming “Ahhh, the guest of honor! Good of you to join us, Matthew. Please do take a seat, I insist.”
Was this the captain? His attitude and his clothing would seem to suggest it. But he wasn’t at all what Matthew had been picturing. Matthew had imagined a ruggedly handsome older man in a stately uniform. The man before him was more pretty than handsome, with long dark hair that made him look more like a hair metal rockstar, or an alt-fashion male model, than a ship captain. He did wear a uniform, but it looked more like a ‘ship captain’ halloween costume than an actual captain’s uniform. The jacket seemed to be a size too large and draped over his shoulders like a blanket, as did the hat which kept tipping to one side and covering one of the captain’s eyes. And he looked to be no older than Matthew. In fact, it seemed likely he was a few years younger.

As Matthew sat down, the man held a hand out across the table. “I’m glad to finally meet you, dear and lucky friend. I must introduce myself as captain Barsamian, but you can just call me Noah.”
The woman who’d led Matthew here also took a seat, in the empty chair to captain Noah’s right. He smiled warmly, exclaiming “And you’ve already met Mayu! My assistant. Ah, I couldn’t do half of what I do without her. One might say she’s even more important than I am.” His smile broadened, as if this was some private joke, before spreading his hands magnanimously and saying “Well everyone, let’s eat, drink, and be merry.”
As a conversation started, the woman in the red gown leaned toward Matthew and whispered almost conspiratorially “We haven’t met yet, but I’ve heard the others talk. It’s very exciting to have a spy joining us! I’m Hilda Beaumont, of the Carolina Beaumonts, pleasure to meet you.”
Matthew shook her hand and muttered “Likewise” out of a general desire to not draw attention to himself.

The food at the dinner was sumptuous, with a few dishes Matthew couldn’t place at all. Peter took a bite of something and asked the captain, “Am I missing my mark, or is the meat in this alligator?”
Captain Noah nodded, grinning “It is! ‘Thou who devoureth heedlessly, be cast forth into the maw of the divine, that the faithful should feast’ ” The tone of his voice made it seem like he was quoting something, but Matthew couldn’t say what. Evidently Peter couldn’t either, as he frowned and said “Can’t say I recognize that.”
Captain Noah shrugged, “I make it a point to be a well-read man. I’m a particular fan of old legends and epics, and that’s from one of them.”
Peter smiled a thin, icy smile. “Can’t say I bothered with too many English classes at Harvard. Econ’s where the money’s at. And speaking of, how’re those shares doing Daniel?”
Daniel looked up from his food, responding “Well, as you undoubtedly know, after my father died-” he was interrupted by captain Noah’s sudden, loud laughter. He looked at the captain, clearly confused. The captain shook his head and waved a hand at Daniel, saying “No, no, sorry, do go on. Unrelated.”
Daniel began again, “Well like I was saying, a few years back when my old man die-” and once more he was interrupted mid-sentence by a sudden bout of laughter from captain Noah. He turned to the captain again, looking baffled and a little put-off, and Hilda arched an eyebrow, and said “Is there something you wish to share with us, captain?”
Noah shook his head, clearly trying to suppress a grin. “No, really, it’s fine.” He turned to Mayu, whispered something in her ear, and (to Matthew’s surprise) gave her a quick kiss before turning back to the rest of the table. “Do go on, Daniel.”

As the dinner went on, Matthew became more and more convinced that captain Noah was just as mad as the other rich people on board. When Hilda asked if the other elite passengers would get to meet him for dinner, and he confirmed they would, she asked how he chose who got to have dinner at the captain’s table first. He responded by saying, “Well, I’ll let you know just this once, but keep it a secret, ok?” then, in a loud stage-whisper “I put all the names in my captain’s hat, and pulled four of ‘em out!” At which he and Mayu both laughed. Everyone else at the table just gave them a blank look. The only further clarification he gave was that “Eileen didn’t have to come to dinner, since she was here last year”, and although that apparently made sense to the others, it meant nothing to Matthew. He guessed he’s probably meet this Eileen later. But it was one more example of all these rich people knowing each other already.
But that was another strange thing about captain Noah. He and his assistant seemed inappropriately close, for what must assuredly still count as a work environment. Besides that kiss, he would wrap an arm around her shoulders, or she would lean her head against him while someone was talking. Matthew was thoroughly weirded out by this, but this particular oddity seemed to go unnoticed by the others at the table. When Peter was going on about some new tax regulation his bank had a ‘clever workaround’ for, Matthew tried to ask Hilda if she’d noticed it. “You don’t think it’s weird, the way the captain acts towards his assistant? Isn’t that inappropriate?”
Hilda frowned at him, whispering back “Young man, if the captain fooling around with a staff member consensually is the worst thing happening on this cruise, it's much more above board than most other high end cruises I know of. Who cares if he has his little girlfriend on staff?” and turning back to the others as if that answered it. At this, Matthew noticed that captain Noah was staring at him, but the captain quickly looked away when Matthew looked at him. That was another thing Matthew noticed throughout the dinner. Several times when (he assumed) captain Noah thought Matthew wasn’t paying attention, he’d caught the captain staring at him. He’d also caught Peter staring at Mayu once or twice, but Matthew figured that was explicable enough. And later on, when Mayu was going to fetch a plate of desserts at captain Noah’s behest, Peter smacked her backside and said loudly enough for the rest of the table to hear “You’re a pretty thing, aren’t you. Come find me when dinner’s over.”
Matthew was pretty sure none of the others saw the look of absolute loathing that crossed her face for a split second when Peter did that. She was smiling again when she turned to Peter, but Matthew couldn’t make out her response. When she came back with the tray of desserts, she leaned over to captain Noah, whispered something in his ear, and Matthew saw his eyes flick to Peter briefly. The captain nodded, and nothing more was said.

Matthew left the dinner feeling odd, once more. He didn’t know what to make of the captain. He didn’t know what to make of anything. The people he was surrounded by all seemed insane. And what was up with that quick exchange between Mayu and Noah after Peter had been gross? Matthew went to the balcony in his room, just to unwind and admire the nocturnal ocean for a while. It was a clear night, and the stars were reflected in the water. As the waves lapped gently against the side of the ship, Matthew thought sleepily that it almost looked like there were more stars in the water than there were in the sky. As he gazed at the twinkling, dancing lights (did starlight dance?) he dozed off in the chair on the balcony.
He awoke hours later to a darker and colder part of the night, and hastily retreated to the bed, falling back asleep almost instantly.

The next day, the ship came into its first port of the trip. The guests would spend the day in St. Maarten, before boarding again in the evening. Matthew had an enjoyable morning wandering the tropics, enjoying some delicious lunch at a beachside food cart and picking up a few souvenirs to take home. He even got a couple things for his friends and family, since the card he’d been given had so much cash on it. After lunch and hanging out on the beach for a while, he checked out a museum with a bunch of neat stuff from the island’s history. All in all, it was a welcome change of pace from being encircled by weird rich people.
But when he tried to enjoy dinner at a local restaurant, he had the misfortune of running into one of the other guests from his tier. As he was enjoying some wonderful carribean food, he heard a voice with the unmistakable air of the people he’d just spent two days with shout “I don’t care if that isn’t what you heard, it’s what I ordered! I demand to see your manager, how dare you?!”
He turned to see a middle-aged woman in an expensive looking sundress sitting at a table with George and Cameron, in addition to a disinterested-seeming teenage boy watching something on his phone. George made an apologetic gesture to the waiter, saying “Now, now, Lisa, let’s not be too hard on the man. I’m sure he’ll make up for the mistake by comping our table’s food, isn’t that right?”
Lisa scowled, saying “He better, or I swear to God I’ll buy this place just so I can fire him.”
The teenage boy looked up from his phone at his barely-touched food, and said “You should do it anyway, mom. This place sucks.”

Matthew wanted nothing to do with these people if he could help it, so he finished quickly and left, writing in a large tip on his bill as he felt for the wait staff. He tried to enjoy the remainder of his stay on the island, getting some ice cream and picking up a few seashells, but the encounter he’d witnessed in the restaurant had left a bitter taste in his mouth. He knew that sort of person too well, all unearned entitlement and petty rage. He’d had to deal with too many of them at his own job. Frankly, not a month went by where at least one inflated jerk on a power trip threatened to have him fired over a minor inconvenience.
Eventually it was time to return to the ship. Matthew sincerely wished he could have stayed on the island longer than he had, but without the presence of these awful wealthy people. Back in his room, he couldn’t help but look at the luxurious surroundings with a new sort of disdain, having cemented in his mind the kind of people that they were really for.

The next day, much to his chagrin, Matthew ran into Chris at breakfast. The squat man waved at him, nearly shouting “Hey sonny! Long time no see! For someone stayin’ next door to me, you sure don’t show your face much.” He guffawed at this, as if he’d made a joke. Matthew said nothing, and Chris picked up his plate and drink and moved to sit at the same table, because the man was pathologically incapable of taking a hint. He started in on what he no doubt considered small talk (“Didja hear that Russia moved in on Crimea again? Great news for me! Yes, business gonna boom.”) but became distracted quickly, asking Matthew “Say, you seen Peter lately? We were supposed to play poker last night, but he never showed. I don’t wanna disparage him and say the man’s too chickenshit to play cards with me, but if I don’t see him soon I’m gonna have to!” Matthew shook his head. “Saw him two days ago, but not since.” As if by magic, a voice from behind Matthew replied “The poor dear wasn’t feeling well yesterday, from what I hear.” Matthew turned to see the woman who’d chewed out the waiter in the restaurant the day before, that same teenage boy in tow. Chris smiled. “Lisa! Good to see you as always! And Bradley! Gotta get off that phone son, it’ll rot your brain. Y’all met young Matthew yet?”
Lisa shook her head. “Hello Matthew. I’m Lisa Dalton, and this is my son Bradley. Charmed, I’m sure.” Matthew nodded politely, and for the second time felt some revulsion at a name he recognized. The Daltons were a wealthy family who made their money in pharmaceuticals before buying up several major retail chains. They were in the news sometimes because they seemed to always be tied up in lawsuits over pushing highly addictive painkillers, jacking up the prices of lifesaving drugs, and slashing wages, benefits, and jobs at the retail chains they owned.
“I’m sorry, but I promised someone I’d be somewhere.” said Matthew, getting up and leaving. As he walked away, he heard Lisa laugh and exclaim “Oh my! He is a mysterious young man, isn’t he?”

Matthew wanted to be out and about, but he didn’t want to run into more horrible rich people. He racked his brain, thinking of where he could go that he wouldn’t be around them. After a while, he thought he had a pretty good idea. The pool. There would be a lot of ‘normal’ people around, which they generally seemed to disdain, especially in such close proximity. He changed into his bathing suit, and made haste to the pool.

He was relieved to find that he seemed to have been right. None of the people he’d met were here. There was an assortment of what seemed to be completely regular vacationers, with nary a billionaire douchebag to be seen. He relaxed, happy that his plan had worked, and went about enjoying himself. He swam a few laps, relaxed on the side, and went back in just to enjoy the water. As he was swimming, he decided to dive down to touch the bottom at the deepest part where the drain was, just for fun. When he touched the bottom, it felt very strange. He was expecting concrete, metal, or even plastic, but what he felt was smooth, slick, and moving. He opened his eyes (despite the chlorine) in time to see something long, gelatinous, and mostly transparent retreat into the drain from beneath his hand. He yelped soundlessly, releasing a stream of bubbles, and raced back to the surface.
What the hell had that been? Had some kind of sea creature gotten into the pool? How was that even possible?

He exited the pool hastily, and toweled himself off. He was slightly shaken, wishing he’d gotten a better look at whatever that had been. Was it really possible for some kind of jellyfish or whatever to get into the ship’s pool? As he wondered this, he saw that a kid was climbing the fencing around the pool deck. No one else seemed to really be paying attention except for another kid the same age, who was laughing at them. The kid stood on the top proudly, but seemed to begin to lose their balance. Oh shit. “Hey!” Matthew yelled, trying to get someone’s attention, but it seemed it was too late. As the kid slipped, a figure in an oversized uniform dashed out from one of the doors leading to the ship’s interior. Captain Noah? What had he been doing here? The door was right near the kid, and the captain grabbed ahold of him before he could fully fall off the railing.
But Matthew noticed something strange. From the angle he was sitting at, he could see that the captain hadn’t actually grabbed him. He was ‘grabbing’ empty air a few inches away, and the kid had stopped falling. Noah seemed to realize this quickly, and grabbed the kid with his other hand, pulling him down. “Please be careful, child.” he said, smiling kindly. “My ship is supposed to be a nice place, so stay safe.” There was some commotion as the child’s parents thanked the captain, but Noah stared directly at Matthew and winked, grinning widely. When he strode off, Matthew saw something fall from one of his coat’s many pockets. When he was sure the captain didn’t notice, he rushed over to see what it was.
A silver chain, with a medallion bearing that same odd symbol on his door and in the spa. Matthew frowned, suspicion creeping up on him. Firstly, what the hell had he just seen happen? And second, if this was just the trademark of the company that outfitted the ship, why would the captain have it on a medallion?
What was going on aboard this boat?

Matthew spent most of the rest of the day in his room. Sometimes going to the balcony to try to calm his thoughts, sometimes watching TV, and at one point taking a nap in the soaking tub. He didn’t know what was happening around him. There were too many little strange things to all be coincidences. But what connected them? The strange voice in the lower deck, the super-wealthy people all knowing each other, the bizarre symbol? Whatever in the hell he’d seen in the pool, both the thing in the drain and what Noah had done. What had Noah done? How did you catch without using your hands?

Eventually Matthew decided he needed food and wine. He wasn’t cracking this mystery as it was, and if nothing else, it would help him calm down. So he headed to the bar, acquired fried food and a bottle of wine, and found a quiet spot to sit by himself. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t long before someone spotted him. “Hey spy-boy.” It was Amy, with a friend. The new arrival’s age was hard to place, but she wore an all-black outfit and had light, close-cropped hair. “You met Eileen yet?” asked Amy in a slightly slurred voice. It was clear she’d had a few drinks already. Matthew shook his head, not wanting to say anything or interact more than he had to. Eileen just stared at him. He stared back for a few moments, before she nodded, and just said “Hmmmm. Good to meet you.”
“Likewise.” he responded.
“God, you’re both so terse!” complained Amy. “I don’t know why I waste my time.”
Not wanting to seem ‘terse’ enough for them to draw unwanted conclusions, Matthew said “Did I hear that Eileen was already here once?”
Eileen, still staring at Matthew, nodded slowly. Amy said loudly “Yeah, she’s the one who told us it was real! How did you not know that? God, spy-boy, I’m starting to think you’re dumber than you let on. And what’s gotten into you, Eileen? This whole time, you barely speak more than a sentence at once.”
Eileen’s facial expression remained the same, and she kept staring at Matthew. “Just glad to be back.” she said.
Matthew made an excuse to leave shortly thereafter, taking his food and wine with him. To hell with it. He’d stay in his room the rest of the night. He was done interacting with these people. He put on a nature show, locked and deadbolted his door, and resolved not to leave until the ship was in Puerto Rico the next day.

This proved to be entirely manageable as, with the aid of the bottle of wine, Matthew fell asleep fairly early. When he woke up (mildly hungover, but glad to have made it through the rest of the night alone), the ship was in port, and he was welcome to go sightseeing. He took some aspirin, and made his way off the ship into San Juan. As with St. Maarten, the island proved a welcome respite. Matthew got to go around Old San Juan and see the city’s beautiful buildings. He had amazing empanadas at a nice little restaurant, and got a few more souvenirs. He checked out El Morro, the old Spanish fortress in the city, and took a bunch of great pictures on his phone. With this nice day away from the atmosphere of the ship, he cleared his head a bit, and came up with a theory. So everyone knew each other, there was an odd symbol everywhere, and there was weird nonsense in the periphery wherever he went? It was a cult. Matthew felt fairly sure of this. The noises in the lower deck were probably some kind of ritual orgy or something similar, and the voice had been mocking him after all. And captain Noah mentioned being interested in old legends. Weren’t there ancient religions where a random person would be selected to be treated as a king, and then sacrificed? Even the spa seemed sinister now. Whereas he’d initially thought of it as getting a massage and soaking in a hot tub, now he thought of it as being anointed with oil and ceremonially bathed. No thank you. Matthew was going to have none of it. Wasn’t there a second ship most of the passengers would be boarding here anyway? He resolved to just board there instead and leave all this insanity behind. Yes, his travel bag was still onboard the Star of Adytum, but if it was between losing some clothing and losing his life, he knew the loss was worth it.

This proved difficult, however. When it was time to leave, and he tried to board the Ocean Endeavor (the line’s second ship) he was intercepted by First Officer Savillon. “Matthew! Are you lost, dear boy?” the mustachioed man asked cheerfully.
Matthew’s blood ran cold. He couldn’t let them know he was onto them. He had to escape somehow, but if he couldn’t get to the second ship his only chance was to make sure they didn’t know that he knew anything. “I uhh… I guess so, yeah.” he responded.
Savillon nodded, an understanding expression on his face. “Just follow me, and you’ll be back onboard the right ship in no time. We wouldn’t want to miss Halhira, would we?! That would be a tragedy. Did you know you’ll be one of less than two hundred people who’ve ever seen it?” Matthew made an appropriately awed noise, and Savillon lead him back to the Star of Adytum.

Once onboard, Matthew went directly to his room and shut all the locks. He didn’t have a plan, but he’d think of something. The ship had to have lifeboats, right? Whatever they were doing was probably on the island of Halhira, and they supposedly wouldn’t get there until after dawn tomorrow. He set an alarm for an hour before sunrise, figuring that it wouldn’t help him escape if he was sleep deprived. But he resolved to try to steal a lifeboat and get out before anyone could know what happened. He went to sleep determined to escape before anything bad could happen to him.

Matthew was awoken by a loud knocking on his door. He looked around groggily. Had his phone not gone off? No. It was still dark outside. His phone put the time at just past three in the morning. The knocking came again, loud and insistent. A voice accompanied it this time. “Maaaaaatheeeewwww, open up! We’ve got something SPECIAL to share with you!”
It was Savillon’s voice, but it was strange somehow, as though he were singing as much as speaking.
“No, no, no, no, no” whispered Matthew. Savillon spoke up again “Dear boy, we do have keys, but we want this to be eeeeeaaassssy. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
When Matthew made no move to open the door, he heard a loud sigh from Savillon. “Fine. Be difficult.” There was the sound of a key entering the door, and the locks undoing. The door swung open to reveal Savillon, with what looked like a military rifle in his hands. But stranger still was his skin. Patches of it had changed from its natural deep olive color to a strange, almost cyan tint. Snaking up from under his collar were a pair of short tendrils, which swiveled around as though Savillon could see with them as well as he could his eyes. Matthew could barely believe what he was seeing, like something out of a bad movie. As terror washed over him, he began to cry softly, involuntarily.

“Hmmm?” said Savillon. “Please, do calm down. As I said. We’re friends. But I muuuust ask you to come with me.” Matthew, feeling numb and defeated, rose to his feet. He was going to die here. Not just to a group of wealthy cannibals or whatever, but to actual monsters. Some part of his brain was screaming bloody murder, but most of him felt deadened. And Savillon’s bizarrely singsong-y voice seemed to exacerbate this. He trudged out from the room, with the monstrous man following closely behind him. “Thank you, Matthew. Cooperation is key.” he said, almost conversationally. He led him down the stairs, and as they got closer to their destination, Matthew could hear someone screaming. They stepped out onto a wide terrace on one of the lower decks, and Matthew could barely process what he was seeing.

A small group of the ship’s crew, all armed with rifles and bearing strange, inhuman marks like Savillon, were loosely encircling the group of wealthy people from Matthew’s tier. In the center of the circle was the captain and… something. Daniel was curled in a fetal position before the monstrous creature, face red and streaked with tears. Matthew couldn’t believe his eyes. The creature was nearly seven feet tall, with smooth blue-white skin bearing luminescent yellow marks. The thing’s long arms ended in seven-fingered ‘hands’ of what were more like tentacles than fingers. It had thicker tentacles on its sides, where a fish or shark might have had fins, although its body did end in a sharklike tail, in stark contrast with its more humanoid upper half. With a shock, Matthew realized the creature’s face looked quite a bit like Mayu, despite the sharp teeth, and with anemone-like tendrils instead of hair. She was like some kind of horrifying, abyssal mermaid. She looked at Matthew and broke into a toothy grin. “Hiiiiii! Thanks for coming so quick!”
If Savillon’s voice was strangely musical, hers was an otherworldly chorus. It was so beautiful that Matthew found his body relaxing, his muscles untensing against his will. He fell to his knees, as captain Noah walked towards him. His eyes were glowing the same luminescent yellow as the marks that the Mayu-creature bore, and while his face was otherwise unchanged, his right arm was twice the size of his left, sprouting smooth, anemone-like tendrils. His hand was huge, and ended in fingers that were more like tentacles, also just like Mayu’s. A third limb, this one entirely inhuman, had sprouted from his right shoulder, curling in the air. Noah loomed over Matthew, and extended his still-human left hand. “Please, do stand for now. You’re the guest of honor.” This time, Matthew was unsurprised when his voice was oddly melodic. That seemed to be a running theme.

Matthew tried to speak, but nothing came out. He heard Amy yell “You can’t do this to us! Whatever you are, you won’t get away with this!” None of the ‘crew’ said anything, but Matthew heard the meaty thud of flesh on flesh. He imagined she’d been struck down. Captain Noah called out “Hey Juan? I think we’re almost ready. Will you get the others?” at which Savillon nodded, and walked back into the stairwell. After a moment, nightmare-mermaid-Mayu called out “She comes.”
Noah laughed, and said “Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?” And Matthew was aware of a huge, dark shape in the water, approaching the ship. If not for the light of the full moon, he’d have missed it. Whatever it was seemed unimaginably massive.
Savillon reappeared from the stairwell, holding a large bundle of cloth. It seemed to be making a strange moaning sound. Behind him came a gaggle of perhaps the most bizarre things yet. Matthew had never seen anything like any of this, but these were on another level. He could at least conceptualize the transformed Mayu as ‘a terrible abyssal mermaid’, but these were something wholly alien. Somewhat like huge worms, or jellyfish, or bugs, but not really any of those things. Totally transparent, and bearing an array of tendrils across them, they ‘walked’ on insectile legs still made of the same clear gelatinous substance as their bodies. As the shadow in the sea grew closer and closer, and these monstrosities writhed and wriggled in the periphery of the circle of people, Matthew found himself able to speak for the first time. He addressed captain Noah. “But… why me?” asked Matthew. “Why choose me to be sacrificed?”

Noah stared at Matthew, a confused expression growing on his face. “Sacrificed? Is… Is that what you thought?” he turned to Mayu. “My dearest… may I explain it yet?” She nodded eagerly “I think it’s about time, yes. Let’s let him in on the game.”
Noah lazily waved his inhuman hand towards the group of rich people, prostrate on the ground before Mayu. “They’re the sacrifice. Did you wonder how I could buy a cruise ship at age 22? I'm pretty sure I saw you notice it when I forgot myself and used telekinesis to stop that kid falling off the side. You didn't think anything of it? V'racyteth the unknowable demands sacrifices for all this magic power, and I figure 'eat the rich'. And speaking of!” He gestured to the ocean, where something enormous and luminous was rising towards the ship. Noah looked at Mayu, “Your mom’s joining us for dinner.”

Matthew had seen little creatures called sea-angels at a local aquarium once. The enormous thing that rose from the depths could very broadly have been said to have the same shape, albeit with four ‘arms’ rather than two, all of which were proportionally much longer than a sea-angel’s little wings. It was covered in rows and rows of undulating tentacles, with the same ‘anemone’ appearance as those of the other monsters. The huddled, kneeling people in the center of the deck screamed and pleaded anew when they saw it. The thing (probably the ‘V'racyteth’ Noah mentioned) was easily larger than the cruise ship, and as it lifted its bulbous head over the deck, an intricate series of lights danced across its surface. Mayu sang to it, not using any words Matthew could recognize, and lights raced across her skin as well. She turned to Noah. “She says you did well this year. She’s happy with us.” Noah grinned, and clapped his hands together. “Great! Then let’s let your cousins do their thing, and then we’ll be all ready.” Mayu nodded in agreement, and another pattern of lights flashed over her.
At that, the bizarre translucent creatures surged forwards towards the group of people. Noah walked to the bundle Savillon had brought and unwrapped it. To Matthew’s horror, the bundle contained Peter. Or at least, what remained of him. His arms and legs were gone, seemingly chewed away. One of the creatures approached him, and bizarrely, seemed to ‘melt’, shifting and stretching in unwholesome ways, until what stood before him was a mirror image of the man he’d been (intact, with all his limbs).
Noah walked back to Matthew and explained “See, this little scheme only works because of them. If you wanna lure a bunch of rich people somewhere, you need to tell them through someone they trust. These little buddies can mimic just about anyone, but they can only hold it for a long time if they get a taste. And the more of someone they eat, the longer they can hold it. We only need most of ‘em to last a few months, maybe a year, so for the most part they only take a nibble. Easy enough to pretend someone’s had a terrible accident or a heart attack.” As he said this, Eileen stood up in the middle of the group. She too seemed to warp and shift, becoming one of the creatures. Mayu slithered to it, and said “Great job. Go home for now, and let your siblings have a turn.” and it slipped over the side of the ship into the ocean.
Noah continued “But it serves our purpose to make sure one or two of them have enough to really last, and get the word out. So we let them get started on our friend Peter a little early. But they were polite! Left the best part for V'racyteth.”
Savillon walked over quickly, and asked in a low voice, “Hey, what about the kid?” he gestured to Bradley Dalton. “We weren’t really planning on him being here.”
Noah shrugged broadly, and said “ ‘Let the poison tree cast forth no fruit, lest the land become envenomed and the earth give way to rot.’ Better safe than sorry.”
Savillon nodded curtly, and one of the ‘mimic’ creatures was upon Bradley as well.

After a minute of an awful, groaning and screaming feeding frenzy, the mimics retreated, shifting into the forms of their victims who were now the worse for wear. Some were lucky and had only their hair eaten, but some were missing a good deal more. Apparently seeing this, V'racyteth lowered its head towards the deck, and to Matthew’s somewhat diminished surprise, the thing’s head ‘split’ like an alien flower, revealing four structures like bladed tongues, and unceremoniously scooped the moaning people into its mouth. It’s head closed back up and the moaning was cut off, leaving only the sound of the night air, and the mimics whispering amongst themselves in their new, human forms.
V'racyteth luminesced once more, the light even brighter this time. The light seemed to come close to becoming solid, coalescing like a fog and falling softly onto the creature’s gathered servants and children. After a final melodic exchange with Mayu, it slipped back into the ocean depths, leaving little trace of its presence.

Matthew was stunned. He didn’t know what to make of any of this. His entire understanding of the world was collapsing. And he still didn’t even know why he’d been brought here. He asked, in a loud and clear voice, “Why? Why bring me at all? Why did you want to show me this if not to sacrifice me too?”
Mayu slithered to him, and said in a remarkably gentle voice “You still don’t know? All your life, you’ve lived beneath their boot. You can’t think of any reason we might be interested in you?”
Noah, still standing by Matthew, nodded his agreement. “See, thing about a group like ours is it’s hard to find new recruits. So we did our research carefully, and picked someone we figured would understand our ah… mission statement. We brought you here to make you the offer of a lifetime.” Matthew couldn’t believe what he was hearing, didn’t even know how to respond. “Look at it this way: pretty much infinite vacation, cool magic powers, make friends with creatures most people don’t even know exist. And you get to fight back. In a real way, you’ll fight against the people destroying the world and profiting off that destruction. Now I can’t do the next part myself, but if we’re still in agreement?” he looked at Mayu expectantly, and she nodded, lowering herself towards Matthew. “I, Maaiulesh, youngest child of V'racyteth the unknowable, do offer you a place amongst my kind. The children of the endless deep welcome you. What do you say, Matthew?” she held out an inhuman hand. “Will you join us?”