Reynir had never seen anything so enormous, so amazing, so alive as the sea.
It spread out around him all the way to the horizon, a rolling landscape of slate grey and brooding blue, flecked here and there with white wave tops and slowly staining red with the setting sun. It was like they were sailing across spilled paint. He shifted his gaze from the horizon to the waters near the prow of the Túnfiskurinn, marvelling at how the sea changed as his vision tracked across it. Out on the smooth horizon, at the edge of the world, it was as still and solid as cold iron. The boundary between water and sky looked sharp enough to cut something with. But move closer, look nearer, and you saw that it was all a random jumble of waves and spray. Little peaks of water jostled playfully around larger swells and gouts of foam leapt into the air where waves collided.
He grinned from ear to ear, barely able to help himself. Alright, fine, so if what Ólafur had said was true then he wouldn’t be seeing Bornholm after all. But this was still pretty cool! He’d never even seen the sea before getting that carriage a few days ago and now here he was, out in the middle of the North Sea with the sun at his back and the wind whipping through his hair, sending his braid streaming out behind him like a banner.
Ahead of them the water’s surface flexed upwards. A wave, bigger than most, muscled upwards and loomed towards him. He gripped the railings tighter and took an involuntary step backwards as the Túnfiskurinn shifted beneath his feet, the helmsman adjusting their course ever so slightly to meet the wave head on. The ship reared up as it met the wave and its dragon-head prow crashed through with a massive splash that sent water shooting up the sides of the ship, nearly drenching Reynir in his spot just behind the harpoon gun. He gave a startled laugh as the ship pitched back down, still grinning like a madman, saltwater on his lips.
“Oi! You there! Boy, what do you think you’re doing?”
At the sound of the voice behind him Reynir span around, squinting into the setting sun. He recognised the gruff bark of the ship’s first mate and started to stammer out an excuse.
“Oh! I, um, I was just… ah, I mean, that is…” He tried to think of a reason why he would be out here instead of slaving away in the galley. In a flash of desperate inspiration he remembered something one of his brothers had complained about when he had joined the navy. “Barnacles!” he shouted, a bit too loudly. “Um, yes. Barnacles. I heard they grow up the sides of the ship. Very annoying. Ólafur was complaining about them for hours, you, ah, you know what he’s like. So I thought I’d better pop out and check…” He petered off. Slowly, the first mate walked out from the doorway he’d poked his head out of and came to stand in front of Reynir.
The first mate of the Túnfiskurinn was a man called Patrek van Zanten and he was something of a legend amongst the sailors of Iceland. The last of a line descended from a family of Dutch holidaymakers who had been stuck in Iceland when the borders closed in Year 0, he liked to style himself as the last living Dutchman. Going to sea at the age of twelve and pretty much staying there for the next forty years, he had become a larger-than-life figure in the small, tightly-knit community of North Sea sailors thanks to his good humour, superb navigational ability, and seemingly endless repertoire of stories and sailor’s tales. Well, those and his inexplicable ability to keep his infamous pipe lit in even the most ferocious of storms.
He produced said infamous pipe now, putting it in his mouth and lighting it with one smooth motion that left Reynir faintly wondering where the match he had used had even come from. “Barnacles” he said evenly, meeting Reynir’s flustered gaze.
“Y-yes,” Reynir muttered, desperately wondering what a barnacle even was.
“So old Ólafur was complaining about these barnacles – a species famous for invading ship’s galleys, I hear – and you gallantly went out to have a look at the prow, on the other end of the ship no less, to set the old man’s mind at ease?” Van Zanten shifted his eyes from Reynir, coolly scanning the horizon, before suddenly flashing a disarming grin at the young man.
“Or was it that Ólafur acts like his favourite filleting knife left him for a troll, and you wanted out for five minutes?”
Reynir visibly relaxed. “Ah… sort of. Actually, yes.”
Van Zanten took a drag on his pipe and chuckled. “Got you thinking you were in trouble there, boy?” he asked, retuning his gaze to the sea.
“A bit, yeah-”
“Good. You are. Slacking off and wandering out on deck near nightfall when you’re not immune or even armed, those are two offences right there. I think you’ll need some suitable punishment for this, boy.”
Reynir began to splutter some apology, which van Zanten pretended not to hear. “Hmm… I distinctly recall you telling me how much you loved peeling potatoes, don’t I? Yes, I remember that conversation. Well, I don’t think you’ll be doing that any longer! As punishment for your actions, you are to accompany Stefán, Rakel and myself on first watch tonight, an arduous task which will involve sitting in the bridge until 1 a.m., not playing cards under any circumstances, and never even touching a potato.” van Zanten paused. “Well, unless Rakel saved us some mashed ones from the mess. Do you understand?”
It took Reynir a few seconds to realise what the first mate was getting at. “Oh! Ah, yes.”
“Um, yes… sir?”
“Good. Report to the bridge at sundown. In the meantime, back to the galley with you.”
Van Zanten chuckled quietly to himself as the boy scuttled off. By rights, he shouldn’t have been nearly as fond of the young man as he was – he was, quite frankly, an idiot, and idiots and the sea should never be mixed. But he couldn’t bring himself to be exasperated. Reynir was just so cheerfully enthusiastic about being at sea at all. It would have been like kicking a kitten.
Sundown had come and gone, the sun slipping quickly below the horizon and cutting off the ruddy light which had saturated the evening. The Túnfiskurinn sailed on into the night under a sky brimming with stars. The Milky Way struck through the heavens like a cosmic scar and the moon was beginning to raise its head in the east, as if in cold parody of the sun. Around the ship’s hull the waves still lapped, but hungrier now, more insistent. Across the North Sea, with the sun below the horizon, things that lurked beneath the surface could begin to rise.
All this went completely unnoticed by Reynir, who was sat propped up against the Túnfiskurinn’s bridge doorway and trying to work out how he had lost at cards again. Fortunately for his pride the other three crewmembers had put the deck away now and were sat once more gazing out of the bridge windows, watching semi-intently for any signs of a threat.
“Nothing but driftwood and kelp,” growled Rakel, sitting back and running a hand through her silvery hair, “and not much of either. Just like every other damn night.”
Reynir looked up at her. He still wasn’t entirely sure what Rakel actually did on the ship, only that it involved knots, ropes, those giant bedsheets on poles that were called sails and a lot of swearing whenever Captain Ása wasn’t around. He was a little bit frightened of her, if he was honest.
“What… what do we do if a leviathan comes after us?” he asked tentatively.
Rakel span around in her chair and fixed him with a mad grin. “We fight it, idiot! Turn the ship around, full speed towards it, man the harpoon guns!” Her voice grew louder and Reynir started to shrink back against the wall. “Captain Ahab, death or glory and all that! Kill or be killed, that’s the law of the sea out here!”
To Reynir’s right Stefán, the ship’s helmsman, snorted with laughter. “Rakel, stop scaring the new kid,” van Zanten smiled. He turned round to face Reynir. “In all seriousness? We put up the sails, pray to Ægir, and run for our lives. Radio the navy if we’re in range of a base, but other than that there’s not much this little ship can do against a leviathan. We can handle a small pack of draug, but anything bigger than that is a bit beyond us.”
Reynir frowned. “Draug?”
“Infected seals,” replied Stefán, still staring out at the night.
“Or dolphins,” added van Zanten, “who make their way up from the south. Seals are more common though. Draug’s sort of a catch-all term for any sea beast that isn’t a leviathan.”
“I’ve never heard of them,” said Reynir.
“Oh, you wouldn’t have. Draug is a nautical word, you almost never hear land-lubbers using it. Us sailors have a lot of names for the beasts in the sea.” Rakel smirked. “Some of them you could even repeat in front of your mother,” she added.
“How many different types are there?” Reynir asked.
“As many as there were animals to infect,” van Zanten replied. He paused, then smiled ever so faintly to himself and leaned forward in his chair. Rakel and Stefán looked over at him with mild curiosity, recognising the signs. Patrek van Zanten was about to tell one of his sea-dog’s stories.
“But there’s one every sailor fears,” he continued, his voice low. “Tell me boy, have you ever heard of the kraken?”
The bridge was deathly silent.
“N-no,” Reynir muttered.
“If you had you probably wouldn’t have gotten on this boat,” Stefán drawled.
“What’s the kraken?” Reynir squeaked.
Van Zanten ran a hand across his chin in pretend thought. This was a story he had told many times before – the trick was to make it sound like he’d only heard it yesterday. “Where to begin…” he mused. “Well, you know of leviathans, of course you do. Everyone’s heard of them, seen the photos and the woodcuts. Well, the kraken is much worse than leviathans.
“The first anyone ever heard of this thing, even suspected that it even existed, must have been back in 52. That was when the Swedes lost the Icerunner, I think. You see, the Icerunner used to be a great big cruiser ship that made the Baltic run, back when they did the whole trip in one go. I saw her a couple of times in Reykjavik when I was a boy, and she was huge. You think the ones they use now for the timber trade are big? They’re nothing. This ship, you’d think she was an island if you just glanced at her. And she was an odd shape, too – all long and flat, with a big bit at the back where all the crew lived. Apparently you needed bicycles to travel from prow to stern! Insane, I know, but there you go. I heard she was used to transport oil around in the old world, and she just stopped outside Skutskar in the first days of the Illness when all the borders got locked down. The villagers there fuelled their lamps and flamethrowers for four decades off the oil in her hold.
“So in about 48 the Swedes, like they always do every decade or so, decided they were going to have this big old ‘reclaim the old ways’ project and try and get Icerunner up and running again. Figured they could use her for general cargo and passenger transport. And for the first few years it worked. ‘The pride of Sweden’ they called her, sailing up and down the Baltic and then off to Reykjavik every few months laden down with timber and iron and passengers. I’m told it was quite a sight as she lumbered over the horizon and into harbour. I also heard that when they got to Reykjavik for the first time it turned out that the harbour was actually too small for her, because when the Swedes had sent her dimensions over we had thought its length must have been a typo and hadn’t bothered refitting the harbour. So the first passengers on this historic voyage had to disembark in the lifeboats, climb ashore on some beach half a mile from the city and spend two weeks in quarantine. Not the most dignified start to the new era Sweden was promising us.
“And then came the summer of 52, and it all went wrong. Her voyage started out like any other. Timber from Finland, passengers from Sweden, iron and salvage from Denmark and then off across the North Sea towards the Shetland Islands. She passed the outposts there, they radioed her, wished her a good journey. Everything seemed normal. To be honest, I doubt anyone back then thought there was anything out there that could really put a dent in the Icerunner. She was too big to sink, you know? Plus, it wasn’t as if she didn’t have defences. The Swedes put all sorts of guns on her when they refitted her. That was back when that crazy old Adolfsson guy was president, don’t forget – I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d secretly planned for her to be able to go to war with the rest of the Nordic Council if it came to it. Anyway, she passed the Shetlands, sailed off into the sunset… and that was the last anyone ever saw of the Icerunner.
“But it wasn’t the last anyone ever heard of her, oh no. Because that night, the navy in Höfn started picking up transmissions from the Icerunner. They wanted to know why they hadn’t been told about some other ship in their area. The navy checked their charts and timetables and radioed back saying there shouldn’t be anyone else out there. Icerunner got back on the radio and said yes there is, there’s another ship coming up behind us. Are you sure it’s a ship, not an iceberg or something like that? Sure as we can be, replied Icerunner, its coming up fast behind us and it’s all lit up with this weird green glow.
“Well now the navy was really confused and they started asking the Icerunner for any details about this mystery ship. They figured it might be some other cargo ship that had gotten lost and was zeroing in on the Icerunner for directions, although no other ship was reported missing or even late to port. But then things really started to get weird.
“The transmissions from Icerunner started getting full of black noise. At first it was just a few seconds here and there but it kept getting longer and louder until Höfn could barely hear what her radio operator was trying to say. They could make out that this mystery ship was getting closer and closer, and that there was something horribly wrong about it. And they could hear the guy on the Icerunner getting more and more frantic but there was nothing they could do. There were no ships in the area and the nearest naval vessel was a good five hours sail away. Icerunner was on her own and all they could do was try and get this guy to calm down and tell them what was going on. But it was no good – the noise was too loud and they lost contact a few minutes later. The last thing they heard over the radio, the last thing anyone ever heard from the Icerunner, was the radioman screaming something that sounded like “It’s eating us!”, and then… nothing. Even the black noise faded away like it was never there.”
Van Zanten paused, partly for effect and partly to let gather his thoughts for the next part of his tale. There was dead silence on the bridge, broken only by faint noises of the wind outside.
“So… what happened then?” asked Reynir quietly.
“Well, the coastguard went hell for leather trying to get to Icerunner’s last reported location. Made it in three hours instead of five and nearly broke their engines doing so, or so the story goes. But all they found was empty ocean. The Icerunner just vanished. Except… she did leave a few traces behind.
“Once the sun came up they started doing a proper search for her and a few kilometres from where she last said she was they found this big oil slick and a ton of wreckage. Timber logs all smashed up and floating in the water, bits of cabins and berths and stuff like that, all of it absolutely wrecked. The odd body too, from what I heard. All mangled and chewed up. Like something had been gnawing on them. So they dragged all this out of the water and put it in the cargo hold and head back home. Figured they’d found all they were going to find and they didn’t want to stick around in case what happened to the Icerunner happened to them. Wise move in my book. But that wasn’t quite the end of it.
“You see, a day after they returned back home to Iceland, everyone who was part of the salvage crew on that coastguard ship got sick. It was just the salvage crew, though – the captain, the gunners, the navigation and comms people, they were all fine. Just the people who handled the wreckage. And it’s not the Illness, either. It was some weird sickness that no-one had ever seen before. Their hair started falling out, they were constantly throwing up. Their skin blistered, but it wasn’t the Rash – it was more like they’d put their hands on red-hot metal. The doctors in Reykjavik did everything they could but within a week they were all dead. Of what, no-one knows.
“And that’s the end of the Icerunner’s story. Everyone just tried to forget about her, really. The Swedes in particular don’t like talking about it – it was quite a blow to their pride, and it lost Adolfsson the elections later that year. The sea lanes were closed for a few weeks, but all that accomplished was a series of shortages across Scandinavia. So the ships started sailing again, and everyone carried on like nothing happened.”
“So what did happen to her?” asked Reynir, wide-eyed.
“We’ll get to that, boy,” van Zanten murmured. “All in good time. Now, where was I? Ah, yes. So that was the first inkling people got that there might be something nasty out in the ocean,” he continued, “but it wasn’t the last.
“When was the next one? Hmmm… there were a few disappearances on the shipping lanes over the years, but most chalked them up to leviathans. Even so, there were some people starting to whisper about something else out there. But everyone just figured that the Icerunner was a one-off and that sickness was just some odd strain of Rash that had somehow gotten on board. If they just upped their decontamination procedures, everything’d be fine. Right?
“Then came 71, and they lost that timber cruiser off the coast of Norway. I actually remember hearing about that one. I was about thirty at the time, sailing on the Finnøya route, and we heard in the mess one morning from the radio guy that a ship had been lost. At the time we thought nothing of it, but I heard a great deal about it later. It was the same drill as the Icerunner. This cruiser started radioing late at night on its way up the coast that there was something out there. Another ship, all lit up and making straight for them. Then the black noise started up again and no-one could really make out what was going on. The last thing they heard from the cruiser was that this ship was pulling alongside, some screaming about how it wasn’t a ship at all, then silence. And that’s the last of the cruiser anyone saw – until it ran aground a few miles south of Selbjorn the next morning. That put it just within range of some scouts and they were able to get over to the wreck sharpish.”
Van Zanten made sure he had his audience’s full attention, then delivered his bombshell. “They found a survivor on that cruiser.”
“The scouts were just starting to get close when out of the wreckage of the hull came this ragged figure, stumbling towards them and waving its arms. One of them thought was a troll and nearly shot it before they realised it was a man. One of the crew, his uniform in tatters and covered in blood, his hair already starting to fall out and rashes and running sores up and down his arms and legs. Once they noticed those the whole scouting party must’ve had their rifles trained on this poor guy fast as you can blink. Apparently he started screaming something about a devil-ship, a monster that intercepted them and tore the ship open to get at the crew inside. He was getting closer all the while and no-one wanted to be the one who has to go over and try and calm this guy down, not with the Rash all over him like this – and spreading so fast, too, he couldn’t have been infected for more than six hours but already looked like a fourth-week case. The scout captain was bellowing at him to stop right there but he wouldn’t listen, and he started yelling one word over and over again: “the kraken!” he screamed. Over and over again, the kraken, the kraken, it was the kraken! By now every single scout had a bead on this guy’s brains and I guess one of them just lost it and pow – down he went.
“They got a hazmat crew out to pick up what was left of him and sent him off to Mora’s labs for analysis. No-one’s really sure what they found, but it was enough to put the lab in quarantine lockdown for a month. Of course, now rumours really started flying around, and the higher-ups came down hard on them. A few days later the Council reported that the ship had been officially lost at sea. I heard that those scouts who found the ship were all assigned to red-level zones and most of them didn’t make it to year 75. Nowadays, almost no-one’s heard of that wreck, or the Icerunner or any of the other disappearances.
“Now, if I’d told this story six months ago that’s where it would have ended. But over the last winter I met a military skald up in Reykjavik who was about to ship out to Norway, and I mentioned this whole business to him. And you know what? He said he’s heard of it before. Heard there’s a whole Council department trying to work out what this kraken is and how to stop it, how it’s got Iceland in particular worried sick because it might cut off sea trade at any moment – and for us, that’s be like cutting our throat. And he told me what they think it might be. Tell me, have any of you ever heard of an old world ship called a carrier?”
Reynir looked blankly at van Zanten. To his left, Rakel raised an eyebrow as two plus two started to make a very grotesque four.
“No? They’re these warships that used to carry things. Hence the name. I’m not really sure what they carried – the old guy said flying machines, but that just sounds ridiculous. But these things used to be massive. The numbers he quoted at me were frightening. Half a kilometre long, crews of thousands, that sort of thing. Floating fortresses, when you think about it. Now… imagine if one of those things became infected. Imagine what the Illness would do with a thousand bodies, plus any leviathans that show up to merge with it. It’d be the giant to end all giants, the king of the leviathans, swimming around the seas in an armoured metal shell. He said there were other things about these carriers, too. How they were so big that diesel wasn’t strong enough to move them, so they used magic machines called reactors instead – machines that, when they broke glowed green and did horrible things to anyone nearby. Most of the time when they broke they just killed people but sometimes they changed them, like the Illness changes people. Remember how the Icerunner said the ship was glowing? How the salvage crew died of a sickness that no-one recognised? How the cruiser survivor was succumbing before their very eyes? What if one of these machines, deep in the belly of this warship, has broken – and changed the Rash?
“So there you have it friends,” van Zanten wound up his tale with a grim smile. “When you sail the North Sea, you’d better hope the kraken doesn’t find you. Because if it does come sailing after us, flesh glowing in the dark and metal creaking on the wind – there’s no escape.”
There was a very, very long silence on the bridge of the Túnfiskurinn. The only sound was waves quietly lapping the hull as if in sarcastic applause, and the faint pattering noise of Reynir’s teeth rattling in fear. The young man had gone from slumped against the doorframe to curled up against the wall, face deathly white and eyes shooting quick, fearful glances out of the bridge windows.
Oh dear, van Zanten thought to himself. I hope I didn’t overdo it.
“Come on, Reynir,” said Rakel softly, getting to her feet and helping Reynir do the same. “Time to turn in for the night, yeah?” Gently, she led him out of the bridge and down to the crew quarters. Van Zanten could hear her murmuring vaguely soothing nothings to him as they moved away towards the young man’s bunk.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Stefán, sensing the first mate’s concern as he turned round and resumed his watch. “He’ll be doing his eager-puppy routine again in the morning, you’ll see. Don’t know where the kid gets the optimism from.”
Van Zanten made a non-committal grunting sound and glanced out of the window. For the briefest second he thought he saw something, out there on the horizon where the starry sky dove down to touch the black sea. Something glowing. He blinked, and it was gone.
The Túnfiskurinn hurried onwards across the silent sea, helmsman and first mate peering into the darkness. Below decks, Reynir slumped in his cot and dreamt fitfully of monster ships and old world horrors and watery graves. Gradually, his dreams morphed into ones of flight, of a dash headlong across the ocean’s surface. At first he ran out of fear of some unknown horror behind him but gradually that fear subsided and washed away from him and he ran simply for the joy of it, across dark waters and past thick banks of fog, the wind in his hair and the tang of salt on his lips, across a landscape all too similar to the one the Túnfiskurinn was traversing.
From far away, a noise like a shout and a splash mixed together reached him.