The coastline of Rio de Morte is speckled with the wreckage of tall ships, schooners and more steamboats than any one range of sea deserves. It is this place the young Mary Winghelm sits and waits for an adventure she does not yet know will take place.
Mary, in her sixteenth summer, sat in a wicker chair on a balcony of her grandfather’s estate overlooking the treacherous coast. She finds the site oddly comforting, not because of the destructive nature of the brutal shores, but the consistency. The same tattered sails and the same broken bows bob in the waters year after year after year. Her father, Dr. Darius Winghelm, traverses the globe in search of antiquities and oddities that will better his understanding of a people long forgotten to history. She is allowed to venture alongside, but has long suspected this is for nothing more than to carry bags.
Once a year during their travels, father and daughter find their way to Rio de Morte to stay with the father’s father. For a week, sometimes two, the three fill the family estate with the sounds of play and laughter before making way to another far off land.
Mary loved the estate. There was an apple orchard that grew the reddest apples she had ever seen, she wandered the gardens for hours without noticing the time, the staff was always ready to play a game and she loved walking the barns and stables to see the horses that called the grounds home. To her, it was the most splendid place in all the world. She hated leaving, knowing it would be another year of new places and faces before returning to the one place that remained the same.
She looked out over the coast, the sun setting behind her casting the horizon in darkness while lighting nearby clouds in a brilliant orange hue, and noticed three large ships heading to the dock. Tall masts, wide sails and bustling top decks on each of the boats were a sight quite irregular to the coastline recently. Rio de Morte had come by its name honestly.
“Wonderful day,” Mary said to herself, “the port will surely aflutter with activity getting ready for new arrivals.”
She hurried downstairs to grab an overcoat, a heavy, brown shoulder-to-floor jacket her father had won in a card game years prior, and raced out the front doors.
Her grandfather was reading in the parlor by gas lamps that he installed all over the house. “Where are you off to at this hour?” He called out to her in his slow, raspy speech.
“There are ships in the bay!” She was too excited to say any more on the situation and ran out the door.
She did not venture to the port often, anything worth attending so rarely happened in the summer months when trade was more vital than amusement. The port was more for decoration than other matters, but when she did she liked to make the most her time.
“Ships?” Grandfather questioned.
Mary huffed and stopped her run. “Three ships. Tall sails, they are moving so quickly,” she shouted back.
She ran as fast as her feet could move her before stopping at the carriage stable just outside the front entryway. She pulled open the stable’s door and hopped into the carriage her grandfather had built his fortune on. The ‘Winghelm Sedan’, an electrified personal carriage that required no horse, no coal, no fuel but that provided by the pedaling of a mighty human foot; it was her favorite of her grandfather’s creations. She hopped into the carriage’s seat and began to pedal. With each rotation the carriage hummed louder and louder as the engines in the back of the transport whirred to life.
With a bump and a shove, the vehicle rolled forward and her venture to the port truly began.
As the carriage made its way downhill and through the flat, green fields that filled the space between the estate and town proper, Mary kept stealing quick glances at the tall ships. Sails waved ferociously in the wind, but most quizzically, oars were outstretched from each of the mighty boats. The oars rotated in and out of the water at tremendous speed. It was quite a peculiar sight for ships heading to dock.
She arrived at the wooden shops and stands that had been built around the boardwalk of the dock. Townsfolk filled every bit of available space, carrying their buckets of local fruit and vegetables, fresh fish, trinkets and gizmos; anything that could be sold to sea wary sailors obviously glad to see land.
The carriage was slowed and the engine quieted. She parked it in the only available space large enough to fit it; behind a fish monger’s station smelling of yesterday’s unsold catch. It will take days to clear the smell out Mary thought.
She walked through the horde standing at the dock and watched the tall ships sail closer and closer, still at speeds that at this point seemed dangerous.
The ships had fallen out of line with one another. The tallest of the vessels now led the group, and the smallest ship fell behind. Mary watched the others at the port begin to murmur and whisper to their neighbors. She could not hear their words, but she was always a good judge of mood. Whatever the others were saying to each other, it was not good.
The sea was rougher than usual, even for Rio de Morte. Tall waves crested above top decks, but there was no wind near shore. If there was a source for the aquatic anomaly, it was coming from the sea. As Mary realized the waves made little sense, the assembled crowd erupted in frightened cries. Vendors turned away from the dock and ran for their homes. Fishermen ran to bring their boats ashore.
Mary looked at the water to the small ship bringing up the rear of the incoming fleet. Behind the ship, a column of water rose from the sea. The sound of the sudden eruption only now hitting the shore.
“What is that?” Mary said aloud. No one bothered to answer; no one could answer.
The water column returned to the sea, replaced with a much more unsettling vision.
Mary could not stop her feet from moving backward. She understood their fear, but forced herself nearer the edge of the boardwalk. She had to be certain of what she saw.
Replacing the column was a tentacle of a beast bewilderingly large. Brown, with rust colored splotches around the bits that moved most often, the tentacle slammed down. The smallest ship splintered in two. Its sails buckled inward. Mary watched with unblinking eyes and felt a new found terror wash over her. A moment later, the sound of the crew’s screams fell upon her ears.
“We have to help them! We must act!” She shouted into the crowd that remained. Still none responded.
The remaining ships kept their pace and their path. Behind them, more tentacles emerged from beneath the waves. Three, then four arms poked above the sea and took aim for the second ship.
Mary ran up and down the boardwalk searching for any means to help the sailors. The all too familiar sound of cracking lumber and snapping masts filled her ears. She looked out and saw the second ship began its steady sink to the bottom of sea.
She looked again at the monster’s arms, hoping one had gashed open or come upon some other injury. To her dismay, she saw the creature was not an animal at all. The rusted colored splotches were indeed rust. She saw rivets and metal were scales should be.
“It is a machine!” She shouted in a rage, stomping her feet against the boardwalk. She had been to every corner of the globe only to find that most problems were made by people. She had hoped Rio de Morte could avoid such a pitfall.
Her words were heard this time.
“Mary!” Her father’s voice called from above the ruckus of the fleeing townsfolk. He pushed through the crowd, dodging elbows and baskets as he made way to his daughter.
“Are you hurt?” He asked, kneeling to bring his egregiously tall frame down to be eyelevel with Mary.
“The ship is metal. It is under the sea and metal. How can this be? How can a ship be under the water?” Mary said. Her head shook and her hands moved erratically.
“It is possible because I, with great aid from your grandfather, made it so.”
Mary could not believe the words. Her father was responsible.
She clinched her fist and struck his shoulder. “You did this? You destroyed those boats?”
“We need to flee this coast. More are coming and I do not know if my machine will last much longer. Come now, your questions can be settled later. We must return to the estate. We have to leave now. They’ve found us, Mary. Our only hope of escape rests at the estate.”
Any other year, any other visit, Mary would have hated to leave Rio de Morte. This time, she wanted nothing more.
“Let us hurry. But I expect answers very soon.”