From the author: The oceans are dead and the world is dying, but there is still hope...
As The USS Hodson cut through the dead ocean, I stared at the Captain, stunned into silence by what he’d just told me. The words had been like an anchor to force me into the chair before him.
The weathered old man was seated at his cluttered and computer-less desk. He had stared down at the mess while speaking, almost as if the failure of which he spoke was his own doing and he couldn’t bear to meet my eyes—nothing could have been further from the truth. He kept his head down now as the last echoes of his words reverberated around the small room.
Out through the tinted portholes, the ocean dipped and rose; an angry sky with swollen clouds threatening more acid rain, then deep dead waters, followed by sky again. I could feel my insides rolling with the motion, sinking with the troughs and riding the crests. The oceans were anoxic, filled with hydrogen sulfide. Even thinking about them made me feel sick.
“Jesus,” I said. It was all I had.
Captain Leahner looked up, his grey eyes rimmed with red and underlined in black. “I used to pray to him once,” he said as he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of dirty scotch. He unscrewed the cap and swigged from the neck, then offered it out to me. “But Jesus gave up on us a long time ago. This is the only God left that’s worth praying to.”
A long time ago, too many nights now to count, scotch had been my drink of choice. I’d had ten bottles sitting on my cabinet at home at last count; Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Penderyn, Chivas Regal, Glenfiddich—names now that meant nothing—or gave only the faintest of savoury memories.
This liquid made me cough. I wiped my lips and returned the bottle to the Captain. “New Zealand dome is at capacity so whoever goes will have to try and come back,” I said. “You know that, right?”
“How many people were lost on your way to The Hodson?”
“Enough. Too many.”
“More than half, right?”
It was my turn to look down. I could still see their eyes as they drew and then released their last breaths, the way they just, faded, went dull, then out. The memory will never go faint though, even after all I’ve seen. There’s no limit to the horror one can endure and recall with clarity.
“Don’t carry their deaths; it’ll wear you down if you do. Grind you into the dust. But get used to the feeling. You know there are no other options. That message has to get through.”
“Jesus,” I said again, looking down at my calloused hands, hands that had held so much death and now seemed destined to hold even more, because I knew he was right, damn him.
After the meeting, I walked back to my cabin through steel hallways but the sounds of the ship were different, more weary, exhausted. The creaking, the groaning. The echoes. The grim looks I saw on the faces of the crew.
I fell onto my bunk. I didn’t bother turning on any lights.
The Hodson was a prototype submarine-destroyer hybrid that ran on multiple power sources, capable of surface cruising as well as submerging. It’s multitude of large windows had made underwater travel especially scenic before things had died. Now those windows were kept opaque so the mortuary oceans didn’t crush those on-board under their oppressive weight. During surface travel, the windows were automatically turned from opaque to tint to allow a view outside while blocking the ultraviolet radiation that had killed so many, but most of us chose to keep them blackened—apart from Captain Leahner, who used the view to remind him of where we were.
I always made sure mine were blackened. I’d seen enough of that outside world.
Our survival had been sheer luck; there was no other way to describe it. When Portland Dome had gone, it had gone fast, far more quickly than any of us had believed possible. We’d thought we could patch things up enough to get us through to The Hodson’s next visit, but we’d been wrong. And with no way of getting long distance messages out anymore and nowhere else to go, we had headed to the dock in the impossible hope the ship would magically be there, outside of its bi-annual port call.
And it had been, looking for its own miracle—but how many miracles were left in the world? Perhaps they were all extinct, too, along with hope.
The tears took me by surprise, but the pillow quickly swallowed up the sounds of my sobbing.
The wind picked up during the night and became a wild turbulent mistress to the ocean, casting its surfaces into disarray. Ghostly voices wailed about the ship, distraught at not finding a way inside to chill the blood of the men and women cowering within. Those sounds left us with visions of the dead surging alongside the vessel—God knows there was enough death to make such a ruckus.
The USS Hodson had been made to withstand much of what the seas could throw at it but it was an elderly statesman now, with arthritic limbs and cataracts in her eyes. Her joints creaked and groaned with every movement, her decks shuddered.
Sometime deep in the night, I heard the engines shut down; their hum had been a constant, a steady calming influence, a reminder of past technologies. Even under the surging ocean and wailing wind, the thrum had been there—but now that vacancy churned my stomach as much as the storm outside.
The next day I met the Captain at oh-eight hundred in his office as arranged. I was tired. My eyes felt gritty. The little sleep I’d managed had been filled with the tormenting dead. Faces I knew had come to glare at me through the portholes as I’d sat on my bunk, staring back.
The boat still drifted with the currents but the wild motions of last night were gone. The swell remained a good several meters so the vessel rolled from side to side, with all of its aches and pains.
Captain Leahner’s weathered face was set taut this morning too, and his eyes were troubled. He swayed on well-built sea legs. “The engines failed again last night,” he said, and for the first time since I’d known him, I heard the exhaustion in his words. It was a frightening thing.
“They’re still down, aren’t they?”
“They’ve been down for the past five hours. My engineers are working on them. They're confident they can get them started again, but with the wind we had-”
“Are we lost?” I blurted, panicked by the idea of drifting endlessly in the dead oceans, being chased by howling ghosts.
“No, but we’re off course. Quite some way, too.” I saw his barrel chest rise as he drew in a deep breath. “Come on, let’s do what needs doing.”
Leahner fixed his worn out eyes on mine. “You choose them or I will, and then any deaths will be on you. You don’t want to live with those ghosts following you, believe me.”
“But they’ll never make it—we’ll never make it! It’s a suicide mission. It’s hopeless.”
“There’s always hope.”
“How can there be?”
The Captain’s eyes flared again. “Because it’s up to you to create it, and hold onto it, no matter what.”
I wanted to ask him how anyone could do that in a world like this but he ushered me from his cabin out into the swaying, creaking hallway and towards the long metallic room that was the Mess. I felt as sick now as I had last night during the worst of the storm. The only hope I had was his, and I hoped it was strong enough for the both of us.
The thirty-four men and women I had spent Armageddon with were waiting for us; the Captain had sent out word yesterday for them to meet us here. There were a lot of pale faces amongst that familiar rabble.
“Come close,” he called as he entered the room. My companions looked at us and in every pair of eyes I could see worry, more worry than usual. Those eyes had coloured in darkly since our trek across the mostly dead lands but there was more darkness within them now and that was some feat; I’d been certain they’d reached their limits of fear and terror a long time ago.
Some of the Captain’s crew had stationed themselves just within the two doorways, and even from this distance I could see the tension holding them rigid as they watched us.
“The Hodson is dying,” Captain Leahner said in his commanding voice. It was enough to still the restlessness filling the mess.
“It’s falling apart and we don’t have the equipment to fix it any more. We’ve replaced almost every inch of this ship over the years but we’ve reached the end of what’s possible. We’ve searched docks and cities, warehouses and wharfs across the world. We’ve done everything we could.”
There were murmurs but not much more from the ghosts of men and women before him.
“We’re heading for Cape Town Dome but will first dock at New Zealand Dome so they know what’s happening. We can’t leave them without word. But make no mistake; this will be our last journey. Once at our final dock, everyone on-board will disembark and head for Cape Town Dome, and there we will remain, probably forever. There will be no further connection between the three remaining domes of human civilization.”
It was obvious his words weren’t new to the crew as those impressive men stood tall and proud by the doorways, but my unwilling companions were faring differently; I could see the horrified expressions spreading as the impact of what his words meant struck home.
“But how can it be failing?” Andrew Evans asked in a frightened voice. His gaunt cheeks were splotchy red; they always got that way when the man was flustered. “It’s made of titanium, isn’t it?”
“There’s more to the ship than just the hull. Between the water, atmosphere, and the rain, it’s a surprise we’ve managed to keep afloat as long as we have.”
“Will we make it to Cape Town Dome if the ship’s that bad?” Someone else asked—Toby McDonald, late forties, grey hair, with prominent cheek bones. He’d once been a prominent mathematician and author of five Nature papers, too—not that it mattered anymore.
“Truth is we don’t know. But-”
“Then why try? Why not just dock at New Zealand Dome and stay there? You’ll save a lot of death that way.”
The Captain said nothing for a second and again, I caught a glimpse of the despair within him; it was a shadow in his eye, gone before I could focus on it. It was the slow breath he drew, released before his chest could swell appreciably.
Gone in a second but the impact was much longer lasting; I felt it swell within me, that despair, devouring the small morsel of hope he had given me back in his cabin, and leaving in its wake a bottomless dark that threatened to overwhelm me.
“If we did that,” Leahner said, “We’d overload them, wear out their supplies and doom everyone. Do you really think we’d save any deaths that way?”
McDonald went to say something else but the Captain held up his hand.
“The decision’s made. But you’re right; it’s not going to be easy. Our magnetohydrodynamic drives are on the verge of failing for good, and when that happens we’ll be left drifting in the middle of the ocean. We’ll have exhausted all available power sources by then.”
The Hodson had left port on its maiden voyage with ground-breaking and multiple energy sources, enough fuel to last decades, but the environment had changed since those days in ways no one had envisioned—and more quickly than the scientists had predicted. By rights, this damn ship should have drifted to a stop a long time ago.
“What about wind?” Toby asked.
“The weather’s too unpredictable. If the mast didn’t snap off through corrosion, who knows what the winds would give us. We could end up going around in circles until the bloody ship fell apart beneath us.”
The resolute old man stared around the room, meeting the looks of those before him and turning them away with his determination. There was no hint of the weight bearing down upon him anymore; whatever I’d seen was long gone. “There’s more,” he said.
I couldn’t meet the stares coming from my colleagues and friends. I couldn’t meet the Captain’s staunch look. I didn’t want to be here in this room that thrummed with silent tension. Hell, I didn’t want to be alive in a dead world anymore. What was the point?
“I can't afford to lose any of my crew or we won’t make it anywhere, so that means it will be up to you to take the message to New Zealand Dome. You will have to make it there and back again within three days if you want to re-join us. That’s the longest we can dock waiting for you.”
His words caused an uproar. Weary scientists caught in a freak of timing so long ago surged forward like an angry swell; mathematicians, geochemists and physicists, biologists and ecologists, they thundered their disapproval at the Captain, who stood unmoving before them.
“You can’t expect us to do this!”
“We won’t make it there and back in that time!”
“We’re not soldiers; we’re not trained for-”
“Enough!” Captain Leahner roared, and like that, the mess fell silent.
Right then, I wished the engines never restarted and the vessel did dissolve beneath us. I’d gladly open my mouth and drink the poisoned waters.
“Humanity is standing on the precipice and it will take the slightest of whispers to blow us over the edge. This ship is the last remaining means of transport between the domes. When it goes-”
Before he could finish what sounded like a well-used speech, one of his crew burst into the room. He was a thin wisp of a man topped with grey hair. “Sir! Sir, you’re needed on the bridge.”
The Captain glared at the man but the seaman wasn’t to be perturbed. “Sir, you have to see this, it’s, it’s-”
I wondered if I was about to get my wish.
I stood next to Andrew and Toby on the port side of the enclosed deck that wrapped around the bow; this would have been a spectacular dining room in the past, offering a one-hundred and eighty degree view of the ocean. Even now we stared out at an incredible sight. The Hodson cut through waters that had an unnatural oily sheen to them, and my first thought was that the engines had finally surrendered and bled to death and I’d get my wish—but I knew that wasn’t the cause.
“My God...” Andrew said next to me.
There were patches of green weed drifting alongside the vessel. Great clumps of the floating weed stretched ahead in the distance, sometimes so thick it rose up like low-lying land.
“But that’s impossible,” someone said from behind me.
It was Angela Jenkins, the one time lead biologist in the Mission to Mars project, now the failed Portland Dome. Her forehead was deeply gouged as she shook her head and stared at me. She had shaved off her grey hair long ago and kept it short. “The scale of recovery is too fast. Impossibly fast. You’d expect some seaweed, a few thin strands here and there maybe, but not this. It’s making a complete mockery of our science.”
“Who cares about science anymore? Science didn’t help when the world died, did it?” Ben Thomas, the dome’s ex-head engineer, with his thick beard and worn out eyes, he didn’t even afford Angela a look; his eyes were fixed on the ever-thickening weed. “From what I heard, extinction events like we went through should’ve taken thousands of years, hundreds of thousands of years. We sure as shit got that wrong so maybe we’re wrong about how quickly things recover, too.”
There were murmurs of agreement from the crowd gathering along the tinted windows. Most of those standing there had long since given up their science. They drifted as aimlessly as The Hodson right now.
“Look!” Toby pointed but it wasn’t necessary because the crabs were obvious, scuttling over the weed, dropping down into the waters. Their bright red and white shells were in stark contrast to the greenery of their world.
“What I’d give for fresh crab,” Andrew muttered, and his words caused a flashing cut of memory: sitting in a restaurant and being served crab curry; my wife opposite, smiling in delight at the sight of the whole crustacean sitting on a plate in a puddle of rich, spicy sauce-
But even as the memory once more seared my mind and grazed my heart, something caused the weeds to undulate; something big. The crabs froze, then darted in their curious sideways manner out of sight.
I tracked the hidden creature’s progress away from us until it sank deeper beneath the waters. Whatever it had been, it was huge. A shark? Or whale? Were there such creatures still alive in the oceans?
Or was it something new?
The Event hadn’t been as terrible as the Permian extinction but it had been bad enough. Things still lived on land and in the waters, but even over the decades since the atmosphere filled with hydrogen sulfide and the ozone layer filled with holes, those life forms had mutated into maddened blackened beasts. The oceans had remained mostly dead in that time; no plankton blooms, no sea birds flying just above the sickly waves, no fish either.
No one had seen crabs for a long time.
The murmurs filling the deck grew into excited whispering. Some of my people were crying again and their sobs were contagious. Even my throat constricted.
Was it possible? Was the world starting up again?
The weed continued to thicken until The Hodson, running on ocean currents alone, slowed to barely a crawl. The wind had died down, the swell flattening, and the floating matt of weed barely rippled. We all stood there staring at a sight none of us ever expected to see again, and the silence was complete; it was almost too much. All about us lay this mysterious weed, in places so thick it was like the banks of a massive river and we slowly navigated its course.
“I half expect to come across a derelict,” said Andrew. “I heard the Sargasso Sea is filled with them.”
I paid him no notice; he was always going on about old books no one else was ever likely to read again.
We looked around to find Jillian Armstrong, the dome’s ex-medic and staunch atheist, pointing into the distance. She was skeletal these days but then who wasn’t? Food wasn’t exactly abundant any more-except for here.
I looked where she was pointing and felt my legs grow weak.
The Hodson continued to drift, snagging every now and again on weed too thick to push past, its stern then swinging out and around until we were casting backwards. It was hard keeping the thing in sight, but as we drew ever closer, the trees became unmistakable.
“Trees. Living fucking trees!” Thomas cried.
He was the only one to make a sound because the sight stole the rest of our breath.
But the island never came any closer and we could only watch as it slipped by us on port side, swinging slowly out of sight as The Hodson navigated itself through the silent ocean of weed.
“Why aren’t we stopping?” Thomas grasped me. “We need to stop!”
I pushed him off and rushed aft in the hope of catching a final look but the view there was too restricted, and we must have passed by the thickest clumps of the weed because we didn’t become snagged again. Soon, the greenery drifted into the distance, leaving us once more in dead waters.
Not long after, we heard the familiar thrum of the magnetohydrodynamic drives as they came back online. The vessel picked up speed, carrying us on towards our final destination.
When we made port nine days later, I was last to leave. I stood before Captain Leahner and offered the weathered old man my hand. “Believe it or not, it was a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
I meant it. The man’s courage and dedication, not to his job but to the whole of mankind, was beyond me. Whatever power source he ran on needed to be spread out amongst the debris of humanity left on this ravaged earth. Maybe then we’d truly have a chance.
“God speed, son. I hope you make it to your destination without trouble.”
“So do I.”
“We’ll stretch it and give you four days, but after that, we’ll have to head on. We can’t afford to sit around when the vessel’s falling apart around us.”
“I understand, and don’t worry, we’ll make it back.”
As I turned for the re-jigged gangplank, the question I’d asked myself constantly these past few weeks flared brightly in my mind again. I paused at the top, knowing I had to ask it. “Captain, how do you do it?”
“Handle living. It’s kept me awake ever since you told me to choose. All I kept seeing was death for those I’d selected. How do you keep going, knowing that blood is on your hands?”
The Captain didn’t say anything for a long time. He looked past me, past my team organising themselves on the dock; he looked out across a desolate landscape where death ruled. His expression never changed; even behind the mask of his protective suit I could see his fierce determination.
I had the feeling that he kept a close watch on those small fractures I’d glimpsed, least they grew too big.
“You have to hold onto hope; it’s all we’ve got left. Hope that we’re more than this, more than we’ve been. That our best days are yet to come. We were shown what awaits us the other day, a glimpse of what we’d lost. Now we just have to prove we’re worthy of finding our way back there again.”
I looked down at the men and women waiting for me to lead them ten miles across the world towards New Zealand Dome. Ordinarily such a distance would be an easy day’s stroll but I knew there would be losses along the way. The trailer with the oxygen tanks would take some pulling but it was the most vital thing amongst us.
The heavy suits made them all look like astronauts but there was no relief from gravity on this world. That was one thing that hadn’t changed.
“God speed,” the Captain said again. Then he turned and headed back inside his ship, back to the myriad of tasks that needed doing before The Hodson would be ready to attempt its final voyage upon the dead oceans.
This story originally appeared in In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep.