At The End Of The World – Snippet 07

July 20

I didn’t know I’d have trouble writing this entry, but when I finally got to my bunk and picked up my pen, my hand started shaking. This is the third try. I hope I can get it all down.

The day started normally enough. The captain was up first, as always. And he went to the place that was now his full-time station: the radio. With the exception of a short trip down to the condensers, he kept tuning through the dial, again and again. And every time he caught a scratchy snippet of some signal, he would drop the volume. As if the others didn’t know what that meant: that he didn’t want the rest of us to hear it.

But apparently, while the captain was down checking on the condensers, and I was busy giving a hand with the sheets, Blake slipped into the radio room. It was in the compartment at the bottom of the pilot house’s companionway. He hooked up the set, fiddled with the dial himself. Then, when the Great Ghoul of the Ocean-Sea came thumping up the companionway, he realized he couldn’t get out in time, so he ducked into the bridge locker, which was mostly empty except for signal flags, spare rope, buoys, and some chandlery odds and ends.

The first sign that something had gone wrong was Blake’s long scream: “WHAAAT? NO! That’s bullshit! That’s totally bull –” and then a thump and a long silence. I was the only one who didn’t come running.

Not like I missed a lot by walking, though. Blake was still sprawled on the floor, staring up at the captain in shock. “You bastard,” he whispered. “You’ve been hiding it from us. All this time.”

Chloe was frowning. “Hiding what?”

Before Blake could answer, the captain stepped between them. “That’s enough. This is not a bloody democracy.” He turned toward Blake. “Mr. Worley, you disobeyed my express orders about the radio. You will be disciplined. When I am done.”

Even Chloe looked worried. “Done with what?”

“Done explaining what has been going on back home and how it bears upon our voyage.”

Blake made a sound that was partly a bark of laughter and partly a sob of panic. “Yeah, it bears, all right.”

The captain’s eyes were on Blake. “One more outburst and I will confine you to your cabin.”

The pilot house was dead quiet.

The captain leaned upon the pilot’s console. “A little over three weeks ago, coastal radio stations started reporting the outbreak of some new strain of flu. It started in the U.S. — Los Angeles, in fact — but shortly afterward, began breaking out elsewhere. About twenty-five percent of all infections are eventually fatal.  Quite a few more never recover.”

“Jesus,” Rodney breathed.

“It spread through the developed nations first, but they have had better luck containing it. When it hit the less developed nations — such as those of Central or South America — it ran wild.” He paused, looked around the group. “There is no known vaccine, and it is racing ahead of conventional quarantine and isolation efforts.”

Suddenly, all I could think of, or see, or hear, was memories of my mom.

Rodney had raised his hand. At any other time, it would have just added to his image as a doofus and a loser, but suddenly, it seemed appropriate. The way we liked to envision ourselves — as adults — had just gone out the window. There was only one real adult aboard. He had the dope on what was going on in the world. Without him, each and every one of us were as screwed as a nymphomaniac mink. These were the simple facts, and right then, the only ones that mattered. The captain nodded at Rodney’s raised hand.

“Captain, you said that the virus is twenty-five percent fatal, but that even more don’t recover. What happens to them?”

The captain frowned. “I can’t tell you exactly because the radio transmissions have become so infrequent and . . . bizarre. It seems that more than half of those who survive suffer permanent brain damage that reduces them to mindless savagery. Including cannibalism.”

If the pilot house had been quiet before, it was tomb-like now.  And because at that moment death seemed to close in all around us, I found myself making note of all the other kids on the trip in a way I never had before: as if they might be the last people on Earth.

That in turn made me realize I have never even bothered to mention them all in this journal. Like the passersby we see in the course of any regular day, they were sort of like extras: faces that inhabit the movie of our lives without having any role to play other than populating it. Suddenly I had a sharp awareness of them as individuals, along with a tangle of feelings that mostly grouped around two opposed poles. First, horror at the thought that this handful of teenagers was going to propagate whatever grim new Eden the globe became and that I’d have to participate in that process. Second, a surge of manic relief that somehow, by the strangest of all coincidences, I happened to be among their number. That I, out of all the millions on Earth, might be one of the few who had chanced to survive.

I had to admit, looking around the group, that my first thought was, “We’re pretty lucky to have Chloe.” Yes, she has the disposition of a badger with a toothache, and yes, she might not be at the highest point of the bell-curve for smarts. But on the other hand, she doesn’t fall too far below that high point and she dwells at the very peak when it comes to nerve and aggressiveness. In short, the traits that had, thus far, made her a total pain in the ass now make her one of the stand-out members of our crew.

Rodney and Giselle might not be the most impressive physical specimens, but they are kind of a two-part brain-trust, and I got the feeling that both of their awkward social identities were about to slough off like old skins. Shit was real now, and neither of them were recoiling from it. They were leaning forward, attentive, late teenage angst dropping behind as fast as the grey ocean swells.

Blake was the one that worried me. His eyes were open a little wider than normal and he hadn’t blinked since the captain started explaining how the world was dying around us. His pronounced Adam’s apple was cycling regularly, and he simultaneously looked like he wanted to be anywhere other than in the pilot house and yet also wanted to dive back in the locker with the signal flags I doubted we’d ever use again.

Johnnie, Giselle’s former squeeze, worried me for the opposite reason. He just sat there, his habitual smile a little dimmer, his mouth hanging open a bit. Frankly, a little bit of anxiety or a sudden sharpening of attention would have been reassuring. But no, Johnnie’s good nature was there in part because he was disinterested in, and not particularly adept at, anything too complex or too serious. It’s fortunate that he is physically larger than average, because on the mental aptitude side . . . well, I guess you could say he seemed to be on the back slope of the bell curve and if the current situation didn’t sharpen his focus, nothing would.

Steve, the quietest of the group, is something of a wild card. Just like in all our other meetings, he sat cross-legged, eyes staring at the floor. It looked like he was listening very carefully, but I couldn’t see how the information was hitting him. In general, he was composed, competent, unremarkable: that kind of person who was likely to go through life never making a particularly big stir. In the world we’d left, he would have grown up to be that guy who’d do his job, get his paycheck, receive a minimum raise each year like clockwork. How that personality would translate into our new reality was a complete unknown. Maybe he’d just keep tick-tocking along. Or maybe he’d wig out.

Willow, the barefoot scientist, just listened to the captain while her eyes grew shiny and even bigger than they usually were. And then, in a few minutes, she was back to normal. Willow is like that. She’s one of those people who not only marches to the beat of a different drum, but doesn’t seem to hear or care about the dominant rhythm. She had become the most popular person on the boat because she clearly didn’t care about popularity and was always friendly to everyone. Willow’s default expression is a big, toothy smile with absolutely no agenda behind it. She knows what she wants, focuses on that, and is happy to encounter whoever and whatever else shows up along the way. Hell, she was the only one of us that really wanted to be on Voyager. So far, she had spent all her time studying fish, or studying books on the ecosystems of the Falklands and South Georgia like they were the coolest things on the planet. That she had now promptly grieved for the loss of all the people on that planet — and then, was ready to get down to business — was pure Willow. I suddenly wished I had spent more time getting to know her and not discount her as a weirdo flower-child.