The boiler room was Haruto’s own hell. Stifling air blazed with the heat of the furnace, whose fires somehow failed to light up the windowless room. Coal dust formed a thick, black mud in the sweat pouring across his skin. The crunch of shovels in the coal echoed around the chamber, a rhythmless percussion accompanying the engine’s roar and the distant thud of the ship’s guns.
The ship shook and a deep boom briefly eclipsed all other sounds. White eyes flashed in the darkness as the shovel men stared at each other, then at the walls around them.
Haruto’s finger trembled as he pointed at water spraying between the steel plates. Even as he watched, horrified, a rivet burst off and clanged against the opposite wall.
An emergency repair team rushed into the boiler room. As engineers tried to force wooden wedges into the gap, their officer turned to the shovel men.
“Keep working!” he shouted. “We have to keep moving.”
“Are we sinking?” Haruto asked, unable to tear his gaze from the water spreading across the floor.
“Keep shovelling!” The officer, eyes wide, pointed a pistol at them. “Half the lifeboats were lost. We have to try to reach land.”
Haruto shovelled with a new urgency, flinging coal into the fires of the boiler, giving the engines all the power he could.
As he shovelled, the water rose. The engineers had plugged one gap, but another had appeared, larger this time. The ship was listing to port, towards that gap in the hull. Even as the engineers hammered plates and wedges into place, the water crept up around them and the nearest shovel men.
There was another boom. The ship rocked as if hit by a vast wave. Water sloshed over the edge of the furnace. A man screamed as steam burned the skin from his flesh and left him writhing on the ground.
With aching arms, Haruto found a fresh burst of speed, flinging the coal in ever faster. But his attention wasn’t on the furnace. He was imagining what would happen if more water hit the blazing fires, how quickly it would fill the whole room with a fiery cloud of death.
He glanced around, judging which was the closest way out without running past the officer or through the rising water. He wasn’t going to wait around for a hideous death. Better to get over the side and risk swimming for safety.
The ship rocked again as another shell hit nearby. The deck tilted and a wave rushed across the room. Haruto flung himself down in the coal.
Steam shot past where he had been, hissing like a thousand deadly snakes. It caught the back of his arm. Pain flashed along his nerves, making him scream.
Reeling in agony, he stumbled upright. The other shovel men were still at work. So were the engineers, frantically trying to seal a breach that sprang wider every time they were almost done. The officer was among them now, holding up a sheet of metal for
others to weld into place.
This was Haruto’s chance. He just had to run. It was that or suffer his arm’s excruciating pain a thousand times over, his whole body blazing with that horror. The repair men had bought him enough time to get out. He should take it.
He laid the shovel down on the coals and looked for the nearest exit. He could see others doing the same.
Water burst suddenly from a new hole, knocking an engineer down. His head hit the deck with a clang. Somehow, he pulled himself to his feet, shook it off, and got back to work.
Haruto imagined the waves rising over the edge of the boiler, filling the whole room with steam, killing that brave man as he struggled to keep others alive. He imagined the ship tearing itself open as the boiler blew apart. He imagined his crewmates sucked beneath the waves.
Haruto picked up his shovel. The boiler room was already his hell. He couldn’t let it take other lives too.
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