Coast Guardsman Giles was the first to step aboard the ship. It was a massive vessel compared to Captain Liakos’ fishing boat. Liakos was the next aboard. As the rest of the men climbed the ladder, Liakos stared out toward his own boat that was dead in the water. It would drift aimlessly until it either ran aground or encountered a storm. That little fishing trawler had been his home for years. He had thought he would die on that boat, but apparently the universe had other plans.
“This is a much more worthy transport.” Zao said as he stepped aboard. Liakos unlatched his gaze from his meandering boat on the horizon and immersed himself in the present. His stomach churned with that icy heat he had often when downing too much coffee. He guessed that taking command of a Coast Guard ship would prove to be an ulcer inducing activity. He waited for Zao to give some instructions. The four Coast Guardsmen who had boarded Liakos’ boat stood in a small semi circle around Zao also waiting for his command. Zao spoke to his miniature crew.
“Go throughout the ship and relay to everyone what you have seen. They must know of the powerful things that are taking place in their midst.” Zao said to the guardsmen. He turned to address Giles directly, “As they are spreading the good news, I need you to bring us to the command quarters of this ship. We must speak with Commander—”
“Kalfas.” Giles answered.
“Commander Kalfas.” Zao repeated, as he gave Giles a nod to let him know he was ready.
The three guardsmen split off and began their mission of spreading the word as Giles lead Zao and Liakos toward the bridge. Liakos was so used to seeing rust, that it made him uneasy how clean and well kept the Coast Guard ship was. He hardly noticed the multiple sets of eyes that watched the three person parade heading toward the command center of the boat. Walking the length of the deck was a marathon compared to the trawler’s length.
Giles grabbed the railing and began to climb a metallic set of stairs. One level up there was another set and then another. The final ladder lead to a glass enclosed compartment; the highest point on the craft. Liakos surveyed the full length of the vessel as they ascended the metal granted steps. He admired the sleek lines of the ship as it glided through the Mediterranean waters with ease. The deep blue sky played a serene note of melancholy over the choppy fluidscape. Another storm would be on them by nightfall.
Giles was almost to the door. He was reaching out for it when Liakos spoke. “Do we have a plan?” He said, giving both Giles and Zao pause. They turned to Liakos and waited for further explanation. “I mean, we can’t just wander onto the bridge and ask to borrow the ship.”
“We are not going to borrow the ship.” Zao said, giving special emphasis to the word borrow. A friendly smile spread across his face but Liakos was not entirely convinced. Zao turned and gestured to Giles to continue the forward motion, giving Liakos no further reassurances. Liakos didn’t move; trying to understand what Zao had meant. He didn’t mean—
His attention was wrenched away from the thought by the sound of the bridge hatch being opened. Liakos reached for the railing and closed the three step gap between himself and the other two men. Giles and then Zao were through the hatch before Liakos. As he passed through the bulkhead he heard the aggressive sound of an authoritative voice.
“What is the meaning of this, Guardsmen Giles?”
“This is Zao.” Giles said in a calm that was unwarranted. He gestured to the tall stranger behind him. Liakos let his eyes soak in the tense scene before him. Seven uniformed crew members stood at various stations around the bridge, each with their eyes now trained on them. The most decorated of the men had the look of a career captain. A Coast Guard hat sat atop his close groomed head of grey highlights.
“Get these men off my bridge!” Commander Kalfas bellowed. Liakos began to turn and head for the door as instructed. He didn’t need much imagination to foresee what happened to those who disobeyed the orders of a commander used to being in charge. Liakos was surprised to find that Zao didn’t budge. Giles stepped in between Zao and the Commander.
“Commander Kalfas, this is Zao. He needs this ship.” Giles said, again too calm. Liakos, stuck between retreat and standing his ground, felt every muscle in his body flex. His breath broke off like glass in his throat. He had an intense urge to light up a cigar, but he had smoked his last one and he didn’t want to make any sudden moves at the moment.
“Remove these men from my bridge and detain them.” The Commander shouted. Two of the crewmen who had been manning bridge stations pulled their sidearms from their hips and began to close in on Zao. The tall stranger kept his gaze on the Commander. Zao betrayed no sign that he was nervous; at least none that Liakos could see.
“Agatha.” Zao said simply. It meant nothing to Liakos, but he immediately noticed the change to the Commander. Suddenly red in the face, Kalfas pulled his own pistol and pointed it toward Zao. As if he had been gargling acid, the Commander’s voice tore at everyone’s ears.
“Hold.” He said, pistol trained on the intruder. The commander was breathing heavily now. Something about that name had gotten under his skin. So deep under his skin, that Liakos wondered if the commander would shoot the Zao himself. Although he was almost sure it wasn’t protocol, it looked as if he were seriously considering puling the trigger. Liakos could feel the blood pounding in his ears.
“Why did you say that name?”
“Commander, I can see that you are perturbed. I have not come to cause you harm.”
“Why did you say that name?” Slower this time, his voice sounded like he was dragging a a piece of metal across a concrete floor. It felt like the room’s air had gotten incredibly dense.
“Commander Kalfas, I understand that you require proof that I am to be trusted. In order to acquire this proof, I request that you use the satellite phone and call your wife. Ask how your daughter is doing.”
“What is this?” The Commander barked. “Are you trying to blackmail me? Do you realize that I am a senior officer of the—” Kalfas trailed off, realizing that he had no choice. Whatever game it was that he was playing, even Liakos could see that Zao was the only one in the room that held any cards. The Commander shifted his weight, let his left hand hold his gun still pointed at Zao, and reached out with his other. One of the crewmen, presumably the first mate, placed a large device with a long antenna in the Commander’s hand.
“I swear if you’ve done something to her, you’re dead.” Kalfas said.
“I’ve been dead once before, and yet here I stand offering you a gift.”
“A gift?” The Commander repeated. With his gun still pointed toward the tall stranger, he looked down at the satellite phone and began to dial. A second later he put it to his ear and returned his angry stare to Zao. The waiting silence that followed was so heavy Liakos felt like he was going to be crushed.
“Hey—” Kalfas said, obviously a practiced master of hiding a dire situation from his wife, his tone gave no hint. Before he could say a word the voice on the other end was filling his ear. Everyone in the room could hear the high timbre of the phone’s speaker, but it was too quiet to make out what was being said.
Something changed in the Commander’s expression. He let his gun drop to his side and spun around. He put his back to Zao and the others. The crew waited as Kalfas continued the conversation.
“Wait? What do you mean healed?” He walked to the large wall of windows and laid his pistol down on the surface. He listened for a long few moments as his wife relayed what must have been good news. The Commander took his hat off and whipped his forehead. “We are talking about Agatha right?— That’s impossible.”
Everyone else in the room could have been statues. They waited, wanting desperately to understand the miracle that was taking place among them. The Commander’s voice was soft now, almost as if the man had become someone else. Whispering, as if not to be heard, “Tell her I love her too.”
With his back still to the crew, Kalfas sniffed and whipped his eyes on his sleeve. The harsh man had been transformed in a matter of seconds. Liakos finally took a breath as the tension in the room seemed to wash away. He leaned against the nearby bulkhead. He wasn’t sure if he could handle any more excitement.
“I can’t begin to imagine how you could have known— or how you did that.” The commander said as he turned back around. The powerful man’s eyes were red and his cheeks still slick with the recent advent of tears, something Liakos assumed was extremely rare. He handed the satellite phone back to his first mate and reached for the gun. Instead of pointing, he holstered it and gestured for his crew to do the same. “But, I’m in your debt.”
Liakos wanted to know the details, but it didn’t seem to be the time to ask. Zao stepped forward and spoke with the most gentle voice they had yet heard.
“I’ve come so that this world may be healed. Will you join me?” Zao said to the Commander. Kalfas shifted, displaying that he was still uncomfortable with the proposed arrangement.
“I would need to radio my commanding officer, I can’t—” Kalfas was saying, but Zao interrupted politely.
“Imagine, Commander, that every father’s daughter in this broken world be healed. Imagine every mother’s son could sprout in a new universe free of disease, poverty, and the blight of evil. That is the mission that I place before you.” Zao paused and stepped around a station, nearing the Commander. “I don’t ask that you give your allegiance to me only, but to this dream. A dream that you can see, taste, and experience within your lifetime. If you follow me, I give my oath that you will see greater things than these.”
A long moment passed as the Commander surveyed the face of the tall stranger. Zao did not push him, but waited silently for the Commander’s loyalty. Kalfas stroked his clean shaven chin as he thought about what he was about to do. Liakos could almost feel the change when the powerful man finally gave up his power. The gruff authoritative commander, was immediately replaced by a subordinate officer under Zao’s ever growing command.
“So, what would you have me do?” Kalfas said. Liakos nearly choked at the words. Zao’s intoxicating presence seemed to spill out and fill the compartment with new life. The change of command was something that everyone could feel.
“I appoint you admiral of my naval forces.” Zao said. “Do we have a craft capable of air travel aboard?”
“We have a helicopter, if that’s what you mean.”
“Ahh, yes. Helicopter.” Zao responded. “Take a helicopter and begin to conscript other ships. We will need many more before our mission is fully underway.” Zao did not portray that this task was nearly impossible. After all, hadn’t everything Zao had done so far been impossible. Admiral Kalfas saluted Zao.
Kalfas reached for his hat that was still sitting on the command surface. After placing it firmly on his head he grabbed at the radio receiver. He clicked a button on a nearby touch screen and spoke authoritatively into the handheld.
“Aviation, prepare the chopper.” He said as he returned the radio to its hook. He glanced around the bridge as a team captain might before picking his team.
“Giles, Mattas, Pardo. You’re with me.” Kalfas said. The men pulled away from their posts and stepped forward, ready to follow the newly appointed admiral. Kalfas saluted Zao once more.
“I look forward to hearing about your success, Admiral Kalfas.” Zao said. The admiral nodded and headed toward the door. Matts, Giles, and Pardo followed him through the bulkhead.
Zao turned toward Liakos. Without explanation he gestured to the central command post of the bridge. Liakos stepped forward but then paused, not sure exactly how this was going to work. It was clear that Zao intended Liakos to captain this ship, but he could hardly imagine taking the helm. He had no time to consider the strangeness of it all.
“Commander Liakos,” Zao said. “Muster your crew on deck. I will address them.”
“Yes, Sir.” Liakos said, saluting him as he had seen the others do. It was awkward, considering that Liakos had never saluted anyone in his life.
“As I address the crew, you will chart a course.”
“Civitavecchia Port.” Zao said with finality. Liakos recognized the name; who wouldn’t?
“Rome?” he asked as Zao departed the bridge. Liakos looked around at the men still left on the bridge. These were his crew. He considered what his first order would be.
“First things first,” Liakos said. “Someone find me a cigar.”