This book should be available now, so this is the last Snippet.
At The End Of The World – Snippet 29
Carbs had been a problem from day one, even though we left South Georgia with more than our fair share. Willow was confident that if she and Johnnie didn’t get infected, the food the Captain had seen on the pirates’ trawler — mostly dry and canned goods from King Edward Point — would last a long time. Willow even had a solid plan for getting to those supplies in a few weeks: douse the compartments with water and wait for it to freeze. That would entomb anything harboring the virus in ice that could then be broken up and tossed overboard. It was a typical Willow plan: practical, smart, elegant. But even with those supplies, and her having identified the edible seaweeds on South Georgia, getting the right foods (and enough of them) was still gonna be dicey. At best.
We were in pretty much the same situation. We’d rationed our carbs but, after more than a month at sea, had already gone through ninety percent of them. Vitamins weren’t as big a worry; we had enough tablets to hold us through to the new year.
But humans need nutrients and minerals that you don’t find in over-the-counter supplements. Which is why, if we had lost only the carbs from our diet, we might have been okay. Yeah, we’d have found out what full-blown ketosis is like (I’d never heard of it until Willow explained it), but we could’ve managed that. What we couldn’t manage was a diet that was just protein and fat. That kind of malnutrition would prove fatal. Most likely because of being woozy and making stupid sailing mistakes long before our bodies physically shut-down.
The Saints were even more unwilling than we were to admit what they needed most. But one old guy finally got impatient, grabbed their megaphone, and howled: “Prophylactics!”
He shouted it three times. And then, maybe because we didn’t reply right away, he made it even more clear:
Rod was the first to snicker. “So I guess asking us for rubbers was . . . was really hard.”
I managed not to roll my eyes.
Jeeza giggled, added, “Yeah, they sure were . . . beating around the bush.”
And then — yeah, I’ll admit it — so did I.
Look: you had to be there. First, imagine five teenagers alone in the post-apocalyptic world and punch-drunk with early-stage ketosis. Now add a bunch of veddy proper Englishfolk called “Saints” who start bellowing through a bullhorn that their most desperate need is a crate of Trojans.
Right out of Monty Python.
But once we shook off the brief reversion to really bad tween-aged sex jokes (wait: is there any other kind?), the locals’ need for condoms actually started to make sense. It was all about surviving their own greatest danger: a baby boom and major population spike.
Clearly, the Saints had come through the plague by learning to subsist on what they could grow and catch and by avoiding both community meltdowns and unwanted visitors. The mail ship moored way off shore had been their only outside contact and, with just one lifeboat missing and a lot of the portholes and doors open to the wind and the rain, we could fill in its story. The virus had broken out during its cruise up from Capetown and the Saints hadn’t let anyone off. So RMS St. Helena ended her days as a permanently quarantined plague ship. Otherwise, the Saints would have stripped her.
But the same isolation that had kept them safe also made it impossible to meet needs they couldn’t supply locally: in this case, birth control. After they hushed the old guy howling about rubbers, the other Saints explained that they would not survive a population increase until they found ways to make the arable parts of the island more productive and determined how and when to safely venture out into the world again.
We explained that we had no solutions to those long-term issues, but that we did happen to have a lot of condoms. For which we were, once again, in the Captain’s debt. Other than guns, ammo, and food, the only thing he dragged off the pirate trawler was a small crate of condoms.
We never learned why. Maybe it was foresight, ensuring that a bunch of scared teenagers didn’t add babies to the other challenges of their post-apocalyptic existence. Or maybe the Captain was just obeying decades of military reflex: always grab the major consumables. Food, water, booze, smokes, ammo, and rubbers. Not always in that order.
Why did Argentine pirates have a crate full of condoms? No way to know. However, since they had chosen a profession without health benefits and where a pension would be pointless because you’d never live to collect it, I don’t think they were concerned with safe sex. My guess is that they just grabbed every box they could carry out of some farmacia, figuring that one day they’d have a use for most of it.
It took twenty minutes to arrive at a deal with the Saints: a couple hundred condoms for about a hundred kilos of fresh produce, exchange set for the following morning.
The next day, I almost drooled (for real) when they showed up with crates — crates — of pumpkins, bananas, yams, tomatoes, and — my personal favorites — onions and hot peppers. No garlic, but hey, at last I had a chance to make something other than bland gringo food.
They topped us up on fresh water, too: as much as we could carry in every empty container aboard Voyager. It’s not just that it would give our condenser a break; it was the taste. You might not believe it, but something as simple as the taste of fresh water can be a huge morale boost when you’ve been living on what comes out of a purifier.
We asked about radio parts but got nowhere with that. The few of them that had our particular model refused to trade even the smallest components. Which made sense: none of that stuff will be manufactured again in our lifetimes.
After several hours of moving all the food and water through the choppy waters to Voyager, we waved farewell and set sail. We had more than half a day of light left and wanted to get a good start. The Saints seemed both sad and relieved when we weighed anchor and started west for Ascension Island. Where, it turns out, most of the civilian population hails from St. Helena.
By the time that high rocky loaf of an island finally dropped below the horizon astern, our excitement over the new food and fresh water had faded. Quiet followed. Not until we were sticking our forks into our first fresh meal in weeks did we discover we’d all been reflecting on how far we’d come in the past month. For us, the new food symbolized our success as sailors and survivors, so we felt pretty pleased with ourselves. Chuffed, as the Captain would have said.
And he would have been laughing as he said it because soon after celebrating how mature and capable we were, the ocean reminded us that we were just as small and vulnerable as ever.
Two days out, the wind began to rise and clouds started gathering to the southwest: right between us and St. Helena. So no going back. Two days after that, the storm hit. And toward the end of it, the wind came in and took away the complete story of our journey since leaving Willow and Johnnie at Husvik.
Fortunately, the Captain proved right again. He had told us that major storm systems don’t often form in the South Atlantic. The region’s strong vertical wind shear pretty much tears them apart. I guess that’s what happened with this one. It slowly got worse over thirty-six hours and then just died away.
Still, even though we didn’t lose any sails or spars, we’d never seen waves that big. But thanks to the Captain’s training, we knew when and how to put our bowsprit into those curling walls of water and ride them. Now we’re about two days out from Ascension Island, which, the Saints warned us, has been radio silent for months.
They also warned us that Ascension is a very different kind of island. Far more barren than St. Helena, but far more trafficked, also. The Brits share (well, probably shared) a base with us there. A communications hub and tracking for space missions, according to the mostly crap references we have on board. So, it’s likely that the base will have at least some workingradios.
Assuming that the plague didn’t drive everyone there into a frenzy of total destruction.
I guess we’ll find out which it is soon enough.