Shakespir Edition | Copyright 2016 Katie Mineeff
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Table of Contents
He rubbed his thumb over the arch of her eyelid, smudging the lead into a shadow. He placed the pencil softly on the bench and stared at the face before him. The soft roundness of the nose was in stark contrast to the slanted cat eyes that stared back. The full lips pressed together revealing her contempt at being captured this way. It was wrong. Something was not right with her expression but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He lifted the portrait carefully and fumbled for a tack in the chipped bowl sitting to his left. He looked at the wall in front of him with the hundreds of sketches scratched into its surface. There was little space for this portrait. He pierced the paper reverently and pushed the tack into the wall covering an old sketch of the magpie that sat on his windowsill every morning waiting for scraps. He picked up his pencil and softly ran his palm over a new piece of the textured delicate paper in front of him. He would get this right.
Max is finally asleep. It takes less time on board the ship but still too long for an eleven year old. To prepare for the nightmares he will have of finding our parents dead, I lay out blankets on the floor so he won’t hurt himself if he falls out of the bed. I can see the curve of his head as it peaks out of the itchy blanket. His light brown hair is in a messy knot after his earlier thrashing about on the pillow. Whatever way I look at it, I can’t shake the feeling that I have done the wrong thing bringing him along. I could have left him with Sadie, our neighbour, but I couldn’t bear it, leaving him behind, not knowing if I will return and it’s certain death for him eventually there anyway. Like all of us.
I have at least two hours before it’s my turn on deck for sentry duty so I start to record the day’s events in the journal I agreed to keep for the Committee members at home, but really what is the point? How is it going to get back there if I don’t? I guess more scouts, or ‘volunteers’ can find it after and bring it back with the story of the end of our lives.
Besides that, I don’t really even know what they want me to record, my personal experiences? How it takes me almost two hours to get Max to sleep at night? How we all crave some information about what is going to happen so badly that it’s not uncommon for arguments to break out at some point every day? Maybe I can record how I can’t stand one more story about Renka’s heroism at home or Mickael’s ongoing battle to discover how to play the game called ‘chess’.
I settle for a short description of Mayther’s fishing attempt and our cooking experiments with seaweed we found that morning. Four of us tried small portions of the seaweed at two hourly intervals to see if there were any side effects. The idea is if no one’s tongue shows signs of swelling or falls off completely within twenty-four hours, we’ll try larger amounts then eventually add it to our tasteless repertoire of salted or preserved meals. As if another salty item is needed on the menu. At least it is fresh and found in abundance, if the state of the surrounding water is anything to go by.
A knock at the door interrupts my journal writing. I hope it isn’t Renka who I’m on sentry duty with. I open the door to see Fiona smiling shyly at me. I smile tentatively back in relief. I like Fiona. She’s quiet, efficient and doesn’t need to fill in every silence. She is nearly an exact opposite to me in appearance. Her personality seems to have seeped through to the surface, everything about her is soft looking but somehow efficient. Her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes are exactly the same light blonde colour and never seem to move out of place. She never pushes stray strands of hair off her face or ends up with tousled eyebrows after spending time on deck. Her skin is very pale as to almost be translucent but doesn’t make her appear vulnerable like other people with skin as pale as hers. It took a few days for me to realise why I noticed her skin so much. Unlike the rest of us she is completely without scars or blemishes. Communal bath water and meagre rations often shared with younger siblings had left most of us with sores at different times that took ages to heal and left blemishes on what can only be described as dull skin anyway. Not to mention the cuts, scrapes and burns you inevitably get from pulling apart BAS – Before Age-Sickness – furniture to use for fire. She is completely blemish free and seems to hold herself gracefully, there is no wasted effort in any of her movements.
I like Fiona because she seems to intuitively understand how I am protective over Max and doesn’t join in when the others try to encourage me to stay in the common cabin when he goes to bed. I don’t really need her, or anyone else for that matter, to protect me from that type of peer pressure, but I appreciate her understanding.
She nods a greeting and says Karther has already relieved Mickael on starboard side but she was enjoying the cloudless night so stayed a while longer on deck. I secretly think she wanted to be sure Max was asleep before she came and got me for my shift. It isn’t as if everyone doesn’t hear him yelling at night. I’m uncomfortable with this, I don’t want to have to rely on anyone or owe them a favour.
I follow Fiona along the narrow platinum lined hall passed the common cabin, the largest meeting space on board besides the deck. It’s supposed to be an environment conducive to socialising but I find it claustrophobic with everyone inside, even though it’s at least five times the size of the cabin Max and I are staying in. What is the point of getting to know everyone and pretending to be on a holiday? I’d rather keep it Max and me and just get to this so-called ‘Refuge’ without the facade of being ‘happy friends’.
Fiona veers to the left and up a set of narrow stairs leading to the deck. Every time I’m up on deck I remember all the nights I spent burning books with my Dad. In some rare lucid moments Dad had, he and I would read snippets of books we found interesting, almost fairytale-like to us, though once real to many, before we tore them up to burn for fuel. One book had us both enthralled. We happily froze around a dwindling fire for the days it took us to read it. It is the only book I really feel guilty about tearing up so ruthlessly. The cover was ruined by mildew so I never knew the title, but it was about a girl who was the sole survivor of nuclear fallout. It appeals to me on so many levels. After the initial grief of losing your family and community, the sense of freedom that came with the lack of responsibility would surely be refreshing. Of course, the girl eventually longed for other people and left her refuge in search of them.
I should be really grateful for these reading sessions because they were how I learnt to read while others in my commune had to sit with their parents or neighbours strategically going through each letter and sound, sometimes scratched in the dirt, until it was drilled into their heads. I guess this is one aspect of my parent’s apathy I can claim as a benefit. The thought of either one of them dedicating so much time to alphabet drills to enhance my literacy development is laughable. I always wonder why literacy is perceived as so important a skill to pass on in the scheme of things. There are the select few who have knowledge of BAS technology who might need to read information but really for the rest of us life expectancy is so low and basic necessities like food so hard to come by. Who cares if we can’t read what’s on the communication board? It must be some throw back to our great-grandparent’s generation that held literacy in high esteem.
The deck reminds me of one of the books from BAS that survived ‘the burning’, showing ships that sailed many thousands of kilometres across oceans and seas. I was always fascinated with the sails and masts that caught the wind to power the ship and keep it balanced. To describe this vessel as a ship seems so contrary to the images I have seen from the BAS book.
This ship is without masts or sails. Instead, a flat deck stretching into a streamlined ‘V’ at the front and spreading into a fish tail shape at the back put this vessel in a league of its own. The whole stern of the ship comprises of metallic cylinders that hold the supplies we need once we get to the potential refuge. We were told to expect very little in the way of civilisation even though others have travelled there before us. Lined up next to the cylinders are rows of tall metallic machinery sitting in human-like poses with claws and pincers ready to grab at unseen prey. The long hours of training to use these cylinder transports was fun at first but became tedious in the extreme when we had to repeatedly pick up, carry and put down cylinders on surfaces that varied from smooth, to rough, to downright cliff-like. This was all in preparation for the journey through the ruins after we left the ship. Because the ‘Refuge’ is a good hundred kilometres from the port where we plan to dock the ship we’ll need the transports to carry the supplies.
The middle part of the deck is the reason two of us have to do sentry duty around the clock. There is a large dome-shaped encasement that has a diameter of about 10 metres and height of about 3 metres tall at its centre. I can only guess at these measurements, but after having walked around it for three hours at a time every second day for the past week, I think I can claim to be as close to an expert as there can be. The very annoying thing about this encasement is that none of us know what’s inside, despite each of us repeatedly asking the Committee members. Our instructions were simply that it must be guarded twenty-four hours a day. I secretly think it was put here to give us a sense of purpose and stop us from strangling each other with unrelieved tension before we get to ‘The Refuge’.
This is another reason I stay away from the common cabin. How many theories about what’s in the dome will I have to listen to before I go insane? Surely the idea that we’re being shipped off to a relatively unchartered land to see if we die is enough of a distraction from the ‘Mystery of the Dome’.
I remember watching the official announcement being aired on the large communication screen outside the Rations Office. The Commune K elected committee member, a girl who looked about fourteen with an air of authority about her simply stated:
There will be a Great Quest to The Refuge. The eldest person in each commune is required to volunteer for this journey. Please report to your commune Communication Office on:
Commune A – September 30th
Commune B – October 1st
Commune C – October 2nd…
Then all of our images repeatedly flashed up on the screen. I was sick of looking at my face. It was the same photo that had been used the whole ten months I’d been the eldest, the only photo I’d ever had taken. It was taken just after I turned seventeen. It annoys me that I’m so identifiable, that everyone in all the communes recognises me on first sight. What an achievement, staying alive! It isn’t like I have done anything to be here, who knows why Age-Sickness hasn’t reared its ugly head yet.
My commune, G, was to meet on 6th October, only one week from the announcement. The very public display of the word ‘Refuge’ was enough to ensure all ‘volunteers’ would show up. Word of ‘The Refuge’ had travelled quickly among the communes. For anyone contemplating ignoring the notice or actively evading it, the pressure that would come from everyone in your commune alone would make you think otherwise. The violent banishment of the Pro-Sickness campaigners a few years ago set the precedent for anyone who questioned ‘The Refuge’ or didn’t actively appear to be supporting its potential for colonisation.
No one would ignore the call to be a ‘volunteer’.
Reading between the lines, everyone could see that the eldest were required to ‘volunteer’ because they would be the quickest to show signs of Age-Sickness. We are the tools to discovering if there really is a refuge in the shortest period of time. We may provide the answer to whether Age-Sickness is coming from inside us, lying dormant and then attacking when our cells reach a certain use-by date or whether it lives among us, in the air, in the very dirt under our feet or the walls of our houses. I am a prize volunteer; with my age and record for being the eldest making it essential I am on this quest. Like I have a choice.
On top of this guinea pig status, there are rumours about the perilous journey to the place that was once a desert with an underground sea but has now evolved into a water-enriched environment. Dangers that range from sea-dwelling monsters to vicious Ruins-marauders and everything in between are whispered about among the communes.
For me, Max was all I could think about when I heard the announcement. He was both the impetus to go and the pressure to run and hide. I want nothing but a future where he can live without Age-Sickness hanging over his head but I was determined not to leave him. In the end, I had no qualms in using my age and my easily identifiable image as the bargaining tool to get both.
Fiona knocks me from my reverie with a slight touch on my arm. She has obviously called my name a couple of times because she’s frowning in confusion… or is it concern?
“I’m heading back down now, Pia, will you be alright up here?” she says in her quiet level voice.
“Yes, of course, I was just thinking about what’s in the dome”. That seems a reasonable response to my obvious distraction. I’m not sure Fiona is fooled.
Fiona turns and heads towards the stairs leading to the cabins below. I watch her go thinking that she is far more intuitive than I usually give anyone credit for. I can hear Karther singing to himself on the opposite side of the deck and dread a whole three hours of listening to him. Maybe singing is his way to block out what is happening, a way to loosen his nerves. Similar to the ‘Mystery of the Dome’, which is just another way everyone is taking their minds off the situation, to constantly wonder what is coming and when is both terrifying and exhausting.
Either way, I don’t think my nerves can handle hearing Karther nonsense singing for three hours. I start walking past the dome towards the control room. It’s called a room but really it’s like a clear shelf sheltered by a thick laminate screen that seems to repel everything from sun, wind and rain to insects, bird poo and salt crust. Whatever it is made of, the dome, cylinders and transports are made from something different because they’re covered in white sloppy bird poo and splattered insects that for some reason met a horrible death on their sides.
The control room is not vacant. I can see a dim light that seems to radiate from the floor. It’s probably Vonteuse and Diego, both their father’s had skills in operating BAS technology and they passed it on to their sons before they died. It has allowed Vonteuse and Diego to work out how to input coordinates into the control panel of this ship. Most parents try to apprentice their children from a young age in the skills or trade they had themselves. It’s the best way to pass on practical knowledge after so much was lost in the early days of the Sickness. Vonteuse and Diego can often be found looking intently at the control board and sometimes experimenting with what it is capable of. I am slightly nervous about this. As far as I can see, as long as it kept us on the correct course, and provides the luxuries of light when it’s dark, fresh drinking water and hot water for a shower, I’d rather it not be messed with. But they seem to think it is capable of so much more if only it can be unraveled. Well, Vontuese and Diego are the ones to unravel it if any. I just hope they don’t lose the capabilities it already has in the process.
I round the corner of the deck and step up onto the shelf. The material it’s made from has a weird way of looking clear but not letting you see through it unless you are inside. It’s like a really foggy glass bowl of water, everything seems slurred and contorted, just arbitrary shapes or light patterns until you step on the shelf and everything becomes clear. I’m surprised to find Tomas crouched in the corner with a pencil and notepad in his hand. Another one of those luxuries we don’t have at home that seems to be in abundance on the ship. I nearly fell over when I was handed the journal to write what occurred on this journey. It took all of my restraint not to tear it up and save it for fuel when I got home. Then I realised I probably wasn’t going home.
Tomas has a delayed response in recognising I’ve stepped up on the shelf. He looks momentarily surprised that it’s me there like he was expecting someone else.
“Hi”, he says. Once the look of surprise has left his face he bends back down to his work.
Initially I thought Tomas was someone I could easily get along with, but I am increasingly finding him disconcerting. He is generally composed and realistic in his approach to things but seems to have an opposing creativity that I’ve glimpsed once at training and again now as I step closer to see what he’s doing.
“Hello”, I say in return, wondering why I sound so stilted. Tomas carries on with his work, which appears to be a very detailed sketch of the same old lady I saw him create at training. What is it with him and this lady? It seems like such a weird thing to do. We had all seen pictures of aging and how a person would look in their fiftieth or even sixtieth year. To me that is as fantastical an idea as little green men called leprechauns were BAS.
A silence stretches out between us. I’m usually quite comfortable with silence from people around me, most of the time I prefer it, but this is not a comfortable silence. Not for me anyway. I turn and stare intently at the control board, looking busy. I’m just about to say that I should be out on sentry duty with Karther, as lame as that sounds even to me. I mean what are we protecting the stupid dome from all day and all night when we’re in the middle of the ocean? We hadn’t heard or seen anyone or anything besides the odd seagull or fish for the week we’ve been cruising. Before I can give my excuse Tomas starts singing in an exaggerated mimicry of Karther’s voice. I start to laugh and immediately the tension is broken.
Tomas looks up laughing. I notice he has a small scar on his lower right cheek and when he smiles it creates a dimple. It gives his face a homely look and makes me wonder why I allow him to unnerve me.
“Please don’t you start, I came in here to escape Karther’s rendition of ‘It is Sentry Duty and the Stars are Shining’”, I comment sardonically.
“I don’t know why, it’s an improvement on the entertainment in the common cabin tonight, ‘101 Theories of The Dome’ and ‘What Can We Do with This Miniature Knight?” replies Tomas.
I laugh again and sit down opposite him.
“What are you drawing?” I ask casually.
I think I see a flicker of something in his eyes before he answers and wonder if he is uncomfortable talking about it.
“Just an old lady I saw in a photo once”.
“Can I have a look?” I ask reaching my hand out for him to place the book in it. He doesn’t hesitate, just hands it to me without looking up.
It is definitely the same lady I saw at training. She has that same slant in her eyes and the shadow of once full lips that lift on one side to give the impression that she knows a secret you really want to know. But I notice something else about her in my longer assessment of the image. She has hardness around her eyes; something in the way the lines of her skin frame them that suggest she was strong. I didn’t see this in his previous construction of her image. Maybe I just didn’t get a chance to examine it long enough.
“It’s really good”, I pass it back to Tomas. He seems relieved to have it back with so little fanfare.
“So how is Max?” he asks. Immediately I feel defensive. Is he paying me back for putting my nose into his personal business?
“He’s fine, asleep at the moment”, I hope he can hear in my voice that I don’t want to talk about Max.
“I heard what you did to get him to come. Everyone was talking about it in my commune”, Tomas starts glimpsing at me from the corner of his eyes.
He obviously didn’t get the hint. I know all the volunteers know how I got Max on this journey, I’d heard them talking about me at different times. It is also in the way they look at me, like it’s possible I could crack at any time or might suddenly grow another head. The truth is I took a calculated risk. Yeah, I could have overestimated my importance to the mission when I held a knife to my throat to stop the Committee members from taking Max away. I could have been restrained and transported to the training centre against my will leaving Max alone which was exactly what I was trying to prevent. Maybe I just value my life a lot less than his. Would I have gone all the way? I still don’t know.
Tomas is staring at me, obviously waiting for a reply to his statement. I just shrug, I don’t want to prolong this line of discussion and I’m angry that he can’t detect that in my tone.
“I think you did a good thing”, Tomas comments as he goes back to the sketch of the old lady.
“Which commune did you come from?” I decide to turn the discussion back to him.
“F. This is a very different environment than I’m used to”.
All I know of Commune F is that it is further inland than my commune so I guess he’s referring to the ‘landscape’ being nothing but water, which really is a change of scenery for most of us. Most BAS ruins are situated around the water and commune settlements tend to avoid the ruins. There’s a feeling that perhaps the Sickness somehow dwells in the structures, it is probably more superstition than fact.
“Yeah, it’s odd to be surrounded by so much water”, I say.
“It is, but that’s not what I meant. It’s the amount of people I’m not used to”.
“Don’t you have many siblings?”
“None, I lived with my parents until I was nine and then on my own”.
I’m shocked that Tomas had not then lived with neighbours. In this world of orphans it’s not unusual to have children from three or four families living in one dwelling. It’s easier to combine rations and share them out, not because it means more food, often the older kids give a little more to the younger ones, but sometimes one person might need more of a particular food or nutrient so you can divvy out what people need. Also, the extra hands are good to bring in any extra meat caught in the form of rabbits, birds and fish. Not to mention the warmth factor, more bodies means more heat. For some reason it makes me feel sad imagining Tomas on his own during cold winter nights.
“Why didn’t you move in with your neighbours? It would’ve been easier for you, surely?” I’m aware of the unfairness of expecting Tomas to tell me his life story while I intend to keep mine to myself.
“My parents wanted me to, even before they died, as if I’d leave them at the height of Age-Sickness, but I like my house and my own company”. There is no sadness in this speech, just acceptance. He seems so self-assured. I can’t help comparing my life to his. I spent as much time away from my parents as possible. They didn’t notice really, and in the early stages of the Sickness I nursed them grudgingly. Of course there were only early days of the Sickness for my parents. I realise I’m breaking my own rule of keeping everyone at a distance by being so interested in Tomas’ background and am about to end the discussion when I notice the absolute silence around us. Something is missing – I can no longer hear Karther singing. A loud grunt followed by a gargled cry sounds from outside and I run and jump off the shelf with Tomas following behind me. I run towards the dome looking for Karther but can’t see or hear him. I lean over the starboard side of the ship just in time to see a flash of metallic silver and a splash of blood-red water lap up against the ship.
I stare frozen into the water mesmerized by Karther’s mauled body that is slowly undulating in the ships wake. It has a gaping neat wound down the front of the torso and a deep scratch running from the forehead to the cheekbone. How quickly I refer to his body as ‘it’ instead of him, as if the fibre, spirit or whatever it was that made Karther him is already gone, leaving only meat behind. The thought repulses me more as I see the body violently tug to the right then submerge before bouncing back to the surface with the left leg missing. ‘Meat’ it is for some ocean dwelling creature that saw an opportunity for a meal in the body of the boy I cursed for his annoying singing habit only an hour ago.
Death is not something new to me. I’d seen many people waste away with Age-Sickness. I had cut the ropes that held my parents by the neck from their bedroom ceiling after Max found them hanging. Death I am familiar with. But this is the gruesome murder of someone who I was supposed to be doing sentry duty with. I should have been opposite Karther on the other side of the dome. I could have heard something unusual and stopped Karther from being dragged overboard into the murderous clutches of… what? I know for certain it was not an animal. The silver I saw wasn’t the underside of a fish. It was man-made, it had an artificial perfection to it and in the quick glimpse I had I saw what looked like a seam where two parts connected. If that isn’t enough, a ravenous animal could not have made the precise cut down the torso. It was a sharp blade and a sure hand. I can’t think any further than that before guilt washes over me in uncomfortable waves. If I wasn’t so arrogant to dismiss the need for sentry duty and seek the company of someone other than Karther, if I just did the job I had agreed to do and guard the dome, Karther could now be singing about a close call with whatever or whoever it was that so brutally mutilated him.
Tomas raises the alarm and alerts the others about what has happened. I can’t bring myself to move away from the wall of the ship. I know there are people gathered around me, trying to retrieve what is left of Karther’s body with some sort of net. I can hear Renka and Fiona talking about there being no signs of damage to the ship or clues as to how Karther was pulled overboard, but it isn’t until I hear a voice behind me mutter Max’s name that I snap out of it and run towards the stairs that lead to the cabins below. I feel my whole body tense with the instinct to protect Max. Irrational as it is I feel Max is in danger when really he is probably in the safest place on the ship.
I barge into my cabin to find Max curled up fast asleep on the pile of blankets on the floor, he must have had a nightmare and gone back to sleep. My body starts to shake, a response born out of frustration at being called into action only to be deemed useless. I walk softly across the cabin and lift Max back onto the bed, brushing aside his scruffy fringe, then leave for the common cabin.
Tomas is the first one I see standing in the middle of the group explaining the events that led up to Karther’s murder. Really there’s not much to tell. I decided to skimp on my duties because I was arrogant in my opinion that they were stupid, and intolerant of Karther, then we heard a noise and found the body.
Tomas stops what he is saying when he sees me, and the others look my way. It looks like everyone is there except Mayther and Isabella who I assume are taking up sentry duty and maybe dealing with what was retrieved of Karther’s body, if anything.
I describe what I saw a hundred times, answering the same questions over and over. Tomas had been just a second too late to the side of the ship to see the metallic shine of silver in the water so he isn’t bombarded with as many questions as me. He didn’t miss the bloodied water sopping up against the ship and the slow rise and fall of Karther’s body though, and that is enough for me not to question my sanity about what I saw. I don’t get any questions about why I wasn’t at the dome with Karther so I assume Tomas had cleared that up before I got here.
The discussion turns to speculation about why and who and what our course of action should be after I exhaust my internal thesaurus for the words ‘silver’ and ‘metallic’.
“I think we should assume the dome was the target, I mean there’s a reason why the Committee wants us to guard it twenty-four hours a day and it can’t be a coincidence that Karther was attacked at night when the deck is at its most deserted”, suggests Mickael.
“I agree, what about beefing up sentry duty, having three of us at a time?” Renka puts in enthusiastically. He must come from Commune C, he has that sturdy musculature that I saw in the guards at my commune Communication Office and his immediate response to army style tactics seems akin to the nature of that commune.
“Wait a minute, it’s a bit drastic to jump to the dome being the target, maybe it was just some sea creature that smelt a meal”, says Linton. He is a small snivelly boy who looks about thirteen and has the appearance of a mouse, squinty eyes, a tiny nose that seems to be able to move independently from his other facial movements and the biggest buckteeth I have ever seen. The callousness of this statement reverberates around the cabin, with Gerla, who had apparently struck up a friendship with Karther, turning her previously quiet weeping into a loud sobbing. Fiona moves to her side and puts an arm around her shoulders.
Renka is the only one in the cabin who seems to take what Linton said as a strategic suggestion instead of a completely ill timed distasteful comment.
“Does it matter if it was a creature? Either way more eyes on deck are what are needed. I say we stick with an extra sentry duty, maybe leaving two on the dome and one doing the rounds on the outskirts of the ship wall”. Renka says with an enthusiasm that seems a bit off in light of what happened only hours ago. The others don’t seem to think so because there is a general hum of agreement among them.
For my part, I feel like I have no right to take part in this decision-making. For one thing, I haven’t really interacted with the others since we left and don’t know what the group dynamics are. After two weeks of training together and a week living in close quarters, I assume they have fallen into some sort of rhythm that allows everyone to get along together without killing each other. Who are the dominant personalities? The ones who pretend they are involving others in decision-making when really they direct everyone to their opinion? Or the submissive members of the group who just follow what everyone else does?
But more than that I am so wracked with guilt that I slackened off on my sentry duty and Karther has died as a result. If I am honest with myself the others never really take sentry too seriously either. I’ve seen Mickael sleeping on duty and both Diego and Vonteuse spend most of their duty in the control room. In fact, the only one who really takes the whole sentry thing seriously is Renka, who will march up and back along the side of the dome the whole three hours he’s on duty. Maybe our attitudes would be different if the stupid Committee told us what exactly we are guarding. I know all of this but it doesn’t make a difference because it was on my duty that Karther was killed.
I contemplate suggesting we release one of the homing pigeons the Committee has sent with us to let them know what has happened. They are kept in Mayther’s cabin. He volunteered to look after them for the journey. That will take a bit of pressure off everyone in deciding what to do from here, but we were only given two pigeons with strict instructions to release one with a message when we get to the docking port and the other when we get to The Refuge. Besides, didn’t we all expect something bad to happen, some dangers along the way? Maybe that’s why the Committee wanted one volunteer from each district, to ensure some of us get there? What can they do to help us anyway?
“I think Diego and I should be relieved from any extra sentry duty to spend more time working out the control board. We think we found a sequence of codes that are somehow linked to the ships defence mechanism. If we can work it out it might be useful”, Vonteuse says in his newly deepened voice.
“Wait a minute, who knows what you two are doing in there. It could be a complete waste of time and none of us would know about it because the codes, switches, buttons or whatever it is that you use to operate the board mean nothing to us. You could just be trying to get out of the extra work for all we know”, Linton accuses waving his mousy hands to emphasise his point.
“Why would we do that? Do you think we have so much to do on this stupid ship that we need more rest? We’re not so stimulated by the company to want to spend more time with you. The control board is working nowhere near its potential, if we could find out what else it’s capable of our time would be much better spent there than on your stupid sentry duty”, Diego roars back.
He obviously has a propensity for hotheaded responses. I did see him fly at Mickael on the first day of training. Mickael knocked over Diego’s cylinders domino style in an attempt to impress Gerla and Merva who were looking on so Diego dished out an impressive verbal bashing Mickael’s way. When Mickael flippantly told him to ‘get over it’ Diego charged at his mid drift, head down like a charging rhino.
Diego’s speech obviously offends a few people because an argument breaks out with most of the group yelling over the top of each other. Since I haven’t spent much time socialising, I’m not sure if this is the usual direction a discussion takes or a result of emotions running high after what happened to Karther. Either way, it is completely counterproductive and I don’t want to buy into the maelstrom of voices that collide with each other. I do think that Vonteuse’ suggestion has some credit and even though Diego’s manner is a bit out of line – although, a verbal bashing seems pretty much in the order of what Linton needs – I agree with him. If the control board can offer something else in the way of defence then maybe more time put into working it out is what is needed. We’re only at the beginning of this sea journey after all. Surely any defence mechanism from BAS will be far better than one extra person on sentry duty.
“I’ll take Diego’s and Vonteuse’ extra sentry duties”, I call over the top of the noise causing the cabin to fall into silence.
“You? You couldn’t even manage the duties you had, why should we put our safety in your hands?” Merva hisses through her teeth. I’ve had very little to do with Merva and now I know why, she is a bitch.
“Don’t act like we all haven’t bludged on sentry. It could have been anyone who was on with Karther tonight”. Mickael quips at Merva, before winking at me.
“I said I’d do the extra duties. I’m going to bed. Discuss it amongst yourselves”. Exhaustion and annoyance at the conversation get the better of me. I turn to leave. Just before the door closes behind me I hear someone, I think it’s Fiona, say that I can’t do all the extra duties myself, but I don’t stay to hear the rest.
I wake the next morning with Max’s arm sprawled across my face and a bad headache, probably because I only had four hours of restless sleep. My movements wake Max and he jumps up calling my name.
“I’m here, Max, how was your sleep?” I ask in a voice I reserve just for him.
“Okay, how was your sentry duty?” he responds sleepily.
Max has a way of asking questions about the one thing you don’t want to talk about. It’s like an uncanny sixth sense that some people find unnerving. It’s this forthright way of talking, coupled with his preference for introversion that alienates him from the volunteers. Attempts to befriend Max during the two weeks of training were met with silence or awkward comments. Then of course the close quarters on the ship allow everyone to hear Max screaming at night, nothing makes you more unapproachable than the belief that you’re damaged. I read a story once about an eleven-year-old boy from BAS in one of the read, rip and burn sessions Dad and I had, I couldn’t believe how the boy was treated and how he behaved. At one point in the story the boy chased all the family chickens out of the hutch to see if they could fly then his dog ran into the hutch and ate or cracked the freshly laid eggs. The boy’s mother was understandably fuming but when she spoke to her husband about it he said “let kids be kids”. It was one of those times that I was struck by how different things are now, what it means to be eleven now compared to BAS. Max couldn’t be less like the boy in that book if he tried. On looking at the whole picture he is pretty much equivalent to middle-aged and that’s how he acts. Because of this I’m always honest with him.
“There was an accident. Karther was killed. We don’t know how or why, only that he was pulled overboard. But we’re doing extra sentry duties and working out what defences this ship has, so we’re safe and there’s really nothing to worry about”, I reply.
Middle-aged or not, he is still my younger brother so I can’t help but tack on that last part even though it’s something I can in no way guarantee. Max frowns and stares at me searchingly as if I’m confusing him.
“Where were you when this happened?”
I should be relieved at this question, it reveals a calm response to what happened, but once again Max has hit on the question I don’t want to talk about.
“I was in the control room”, I respond.
I don’t know why I leave out who I was with, only that it seems more wrong to have skimped on my duties to talk to Tomas rather than just wasting my time looking at the control board.
“Were you on your own?” Max asks.
“I was talking to Tomas”, I respond looking down at my chipped fingernails..
“Tomas is nice”, Max replies matter-of-factly.
It would be easy to think Max callous in his dismissal of Karther’s death, but it’s not that at all. He has seen or heard about death so many times he is desensitised to it. It is normal to hear of the death of neighbours or someone you stood behind in the Rations Office. I think that it’s some mental survival mechanism for Max to take in the information and do nothing with it, no analysis, no questions, just acceptance. Or maybe it is a deeper understanding that there is no point dwelling on something you can’t change. In the case of Karther, Max didn’t see the gruesome nature of the death, he wasn’t close to Karther and the only relevance it really has to him is that his safety could be affected. But I did give him the changes we had made to ensure safety, so to Max, all is being done that can be done, therefore no point dwelling on it. I wish this were his approach to our parent’s suicide.
Mum and Dad had me when they were fourteen. They were part of the strategy to breed the sickness out with the next generation by having kids as early as possible. They had Max after Mum had started to get sores. Dad got them not long after that but for both of them the signs would flare up, and then go away again. This was a bit unusual. They were twenty-three when they took their own lives.
They were not good parents. The saying that ‘they only had eyes for each other’ was pretty accurate with them. I would often catch them sharing a private joke just by staring at each other across the room. It wasn’t the type of look I’d seen some parent’s use, the one where they think their child has done something really cute or funny so they look at each other with soft eyes and curvy lips. Their look was not about me. It was an exclusive private conversation that no one else was privy to, certainly not their five year old daughter. But when Max was born they were besotted with him. He was a gorgeous baby and extra special because he was born when they had already shown signs of the Sickness. He was like some sort of hope for them and for a few months the symptoms were held at bay.
When it was clear they were not going to be spared the Sickness they increasingly turned into their own little world. I would put Max to my Mum’s breast to be fed, but eventually I just got goats milk for him by trading my rations or fish I’d caught in the stream. There were few attentive moments but there were enough for Max to love his Mum and Dad. When Max turned three he walked into my parent’s room in the morning to wake them but instead found them hanging from their bedroom ceiling, their faces a sick swollen parody of themselves.
Was it fear of the pain and suffering they knew was inevitable? Was it a need to take control of their bodies and lives by not empowering the Sickness with the timing of their death? Or were they terrified at one leaving the other behind?
To me none of these questions are relevant. The most important question is, why did they willingly leave their children orphans? Other parents spend as much time with their children as possible, giving knowledge and skills, setting up relationships, living arrangements and trading opportunities with neighbours in preparation for their deaths. But mine selfishly took their lives and left a small boy who loved them to deal with the aftermath.
It’s the swollen faces of his Mum and Dad that Max dreams about. Sometimes he tells me that other people’s faces are replaced with our parent’s. He has bad nights when it is mine.
Max goes up to have his unappetising breakfast on deck where he likes to watch the sea bird’s dive for fish, while I have a shower to try and ease my now pounding head. When I first got on this ship I was hesitant to have showers, it was too much of a luxury and I was worried the fresh water would run out before we got to the docking port. I cringed when I heard the others talk about how many hot showers they were having and imagined us all dying an agonising death from dehydration. But on the third day I heard Vonteuse telling Renka, who obviously shared my concerns, that the water came from a recycled process where the ship sucked up the salt water, somehow turned it into fresh water and heated it by using solar energy. So as long as someone doesn’t pull the plug on the ocean or black out the sun we’ll be fine. Since then I’ve been having two and sometimes three long hot showers a day.
After I drag myself out from under the hot water I roughly dry my long brown hair and twist it into a bun off my face and neck. I push my mother’s hairpin in at the base. It’s the only thing of sentimental value I own. I think of it as a link to the women in my family who contributed locks of their hair over many generations to create the intricate pattern that is woven into the clip. My mother wasn’t a strong woman but I take strength from a line of women who came before her.
I sluggishly get dressed in a blue shirt and brown pants I got as a hand me down from Sadie. She has a completely different body shape from me so they don’t fit very well. Sadie is short and small all around, whereas I am tall with broader shoulders and hips so the shirt is a bit too fitted and the pants more three quarter than full length but that’s why I chose these clothes, the weather has been really nice so far.
When I walk past the common cabin Renka calls out to me and hands me a piece of paper with my revised sentry duties. It doesn’t seem enough to cover both Diego and Vonteuse’s extra duties. I’m due to be on duty in five minutes any way so I’ll find out what happened after I left last night.
The sun is hot in the sky when I get up on deck, I’m grateful I chose the ill-fitting pants. I head straight to the dome, trying to avoid looking towards the wall of the ship where Karther’s body was mauled the night before, although I notice a collection of small paper flowers scattered at the base of the ship’s wall. I guess they are the work of Gerla who seems honestly distraught at Karther’s death. Ironically I don’t feel any less safe after what happened, instead I feel a sense of relief, as horrid as that sounds, that something finally happened to give us an indication of the ‘perils’ that were rumoured to occur on the way to The Refuge.
In fact, most of the others are up on deck. Merva and Mickael are leaning against the supply cylinders talking and enjoying the sun. Beside the control room Isabella, Gerla and surprisingly Linton are making the paper flowers I saw earlier. It seems such a waste of paper to me but due to the absence of any flora on board, there is little else they can use to mark Karther’s death. Back at home we would pick flowers, vines and shrubs to decorate and then burn with the bodies of loved ones who had died. Besides its value as fuel, paper seems a colourless substitute to me but is better than nothing.
Unsurprisingly Diego and Vonteuse are in the control room, probably deconstructing codes or pressing buttons to work out just what this ship is capable of. I can see the blur of their outlines through the strange laminate. They could almost be brothers or perhaps cousins. They both have dark wavy untamable hair with an overall stocky appearance. No one is fat, how can you be with the measly rations we have available to us, but these two have a fullness that hints at unseen strength.
And there is Max, leaning against the side of the ship opposite the dome. He’s staring at a large bird circling above the water. When I see him from a distance I always think he looks bigger than I think of him in my head. Maybe it’s that I don’t want him to grow up.
At the dome prowling on sentry duty is Tomas. He is obviously taking his duty more seriously even with Fiona walking beside him talking animatedly. Looking at everyone, it’s clear that something has changed. There is an overall sense of relief, or a weight lifted from our shoulders. How bizarre that a gruesome murder is what was needed to relieve the tensions that existed for the last week. Waiting for disaster is what evokes terror, once it occurs you get into work mode and feel useful or at least have the knowledge of what you might be up against. Whether this atmosphere will last or not, I don’t know, but I want to enjoy the reprieve.
I walk over to Max and he hands me an oat biscuit. It’s so like Max to know I won’t get my own breakfast after I remind him to get his. I smile and start chewing on the tasteless meal.
“Hey, Pia, come and have a look at what Tomas has done”, Fiona calls over to me.
Tomas looks up when Fiona calls my name and a shadow of dread or maybe resignation crosses his features. I walk over to them and wonder what evoked such a reaction from Tomas.
“Look, show her Tomas, it’s really good. I told him to bring it to Karther’s memorial this morning. I thought it would be a fitting idea to have a bit of a send off, especially for Gerla”, she explains to me.
Fiona is trying to pull Tomas towards me and I can see a notebook in his hand. I wonder if we were all given a journal to record what happens. How egocentric of me to assume it was just me.
“What is it?” I ask reaching out for the book, a flashback to last night comes to mind and I wonder if it will be another sketch of the old lady.
“It’s nothing really, just a sketch I did, don’t worry about it”, Tomas says trying to turn back and continue on his purposeful pacing for sentry duty.
“Can I see?” I ask.
Tomas turns to me handing over the journal without looking into my face. I flip open the cover and see a sketch of me. I can’t believe the likeness. It is a snapshot of me pushing Max’s fringe off his forehead, although you can’t see Max’s face, just the top of his head. My eyes are squinting into a smile, giving them an even more slanted cat-like look than usual and my lips are spread over my teeth in a carefree smile, showing the extent of their fullness. The bun in my hair has come loose so that wavy tendrils fall around my face, exaggerating my cheekbones. It is me but not the ‘me’ I see in the mirror. There is no frown or sad determination in my eyes, just happiness… or love? It’s confronting to be captured like this in such an unguarded moment. I don’t know what to say. Fiona saves me from this uncomfortable moment by telling me to turn the page.
“They’re all really good, Tomas has done everyone, but look at the one of Karther”, she urges.
I flip the pages to find sketch after sketch of all the volunteers. They are amazing, Gerla in the cylinder transport with a smirk on her face; Renka standing statue-still at the side of the dome but with a big bird-poo splattered down the front of his shirt, unseen by him; Fiona staring in wonder over the side of the ship with dolphins jumping out of the waves in the distance; Mickael looking lewdly at Merva’s bum as she bends to pick up an oat biscuit she dropped on the floor; and finally Karther in the common cabin bending over a miniature knight with a look of exaggerated concentration on his face. I can see what Tomas is doing; he is recording this journey in images. But he’s recording the human moments, happy times. Is this how he sees the world? How in contrast is his journal to my account of this journey? Is he blind to the realities around him or is it me who is blind?
There are more sketches, I feature in a few and so does Max. I notice that there is none of the old lady I had seen him sketch. Obviously he prefers to keep that one out of formal records. There is one sketch I take a particular dislike to, it is a close up of Merva, she’s laughing at something unseen and she looks beautiful. Her long straight black hair frames her face and her thick eyelashes curve to almost touch her brow bone. Her lips are full and even though the sketch is done with lead pencil you just know they are pink and rosy. I don’t know why I dislike seeing Merva captured this way in Tomas’ journal, probably because I find Merva to be a nasty piece of work. I turn the page back to Karther’s sketch and stare at it for a moment longer.
“These are amazing. I think Gerla would really appreciate seeing the one of Karther. You should show the others, you have a great talent, Tomas”, I say returning the book.
“Yeah, thanks. I’ll think about it”, Tomas mumbles looking away.
Is that why Tomas looked at me with dread, because he knew I would agree with Fiona? Max must have overheard because he comes over to my side peering at the sketch of Karther.
“Hi, Max. It’s a great sketch of Karther, isn’t it?” Fiona asks, not the least bit tentative like some others are with Max.
“Yes, did you do it Tomas?” Max asks not taking his eyes off the sketch.
“Yes I did, there’s one of you in there, Max, take a look”, Tomas encourages placing the book into Max’s hands.
I am surprised that Tomas isn’t sensitive about showing Max his work and even more surprised that Max compliments Tomas on it. Max flips through the journal of sketches pausing on the one of me on the first page. He looks up at me with a small smile and turns to Tomas.
“I like this one”, Max comments angling the book towards Tomas.
“Yeah, but look at this one”, Tomas turns the pages to a sketch of Isabella. It’s a cartoon-style sketch with Isabella in the middle of the page surrounded by fairies dancing around her head. Each fairy has the face of one of the volunteers. There’s one for all of us and they have some characteristic of our features or personality exaggerated, like the Renka fairy has a military uniform with a sword, but instead of a blade there is a feather, and the Linton fairy has mouse ears, whiskers and a tail. I notice that the fairy-me has an enlarged, very intricate version of my mother’s hairpin and a long frown line between her eyes. Tomas has obviously chosen this one to make Max laugh because the Max-fairy has hair so long that it covers everything, waves of it flood the page.
“Yeah, that is a good one”, Max says with a chuckle and a flip of his untamable fringe.
“I have a pair of scissors you know”, Tomas says as he nudges Max’s shoulder.
I’m shocked that Max doesn’t stiffen at the contact or rebuff Tomas in some other way. How has this easiness come about between them? Max usually isn’t very comfortable in social situations, in truth neither am I. But he always prefers to be alone. Whether it’s me discouraging him to form close relationships, and there has been plenty of opportunity over the years with the different kids we’ve lived with, or Max intuitively protecting himself from hurt by avoiding them, I’m not sure. Either way, this interaction between Max and Tomas is uncharacteristic and unnerving.
“Did you get the new sentry duties list?” Tomas asks when he catches me staring at him in confusion.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t seem like I have enough to cover both Diego’s and Vonteuse’s extra duties, what happened when I left last night?” I ask.
“You don’t, most people thought you would have too much on your plate, I said I’d take Diego’s”.
“Oh, thanks, I guess, they probably thought it was safer not to put their lives in my hands any more than was really necessary. So is it you I’m supposed to be relieving?”
“No, I just got here a bit earlier for Renka; he took an extra duty last night and didn’t get much sleep. You’re relieving Fiona”, Tomas nods his head in the direction of Fiona.
I look at Fiona in confusion. Doesn’t she think the murder of one of us is enough to take sentry a bit more seriously? Shouldn’t she be on the other side of the dome patrolling not chatting to Tomas?
“Everyone thought it was better to combine the two sentry guards on the dome so they can do circuits around it instead of up and down on either side”, Fiona explains accurately reading the confusion on my face.
It makes sense to me, two pairs of eyes and no one alone if something does come up. But I enjoyed the peace and solitary nature of sentry. I certainly don’t relish making conversation with someone for three hours straight. But that someone would more often than not be Tomas because he took Diego’s extra duties and Diego and Vonteuse had their sentry duties together. That doesn’t seem too bad, considering Tomas is fine with a few silences, better than sharing with Mickael who never stops talking and asking questions that he never waits for the answers to. Besides, maybe I could ask Tomas a few questions about him and Max.
“Okay, sounds like a good idea to me”, I say to Fiona.
“Yeah, I thought so. I’ve got to go and help get some things ready for the memorial. It will start in about half an hour just over there so you two will be able to take part too”, Fiona points to the side of the ship where Karther was taken.
I wonder what she has to get ready, what is there to do for a memorial where most people attending know nearly nothing about the deceased and who are in the middle of the ocean?
I fall into step beside Tomas and notice Max gazing intently at a sea bird flying low above the ocean. It has caught a wriggling fish in its claws. The bird is huge and its movements graceful. It’s easy to understand why Max is enjoying watching it. Flying over the ocean in a peaceful yet predatory way is such a celebration of freedom that I find myself being envious. Things are pretty bad if I’m jealous of a bird. I smirk at the thought.
“It’s really beautiful isn’t it?” Tomas interrupts my thoughts.
“I think so, but it was its freedom that I was thinking about. Imagine taking off in flight, with no baggage to hold you back or cares for what the future holds. Your view of the world being almost omniscient but with no worries about what happened below you. That would have to be pretty close to utopia don’t you think?” I ask looking back at the soaring bird.
“If by utopia you mean living on your own with God-like knowledge of the world and no responsibility for it, then yes, but that’s not my idea of utopia. Besides, I think that sea bird has chicks to feed at home, see how it hasn’t eaten its catch but is headed to the west, back to land I’d guess”, Tomas states as he squints up at the bird in question.
“What is your idea of utopia?” I ask intrigued despite myself.
“A place where we can grow old surrounded by our grandchildren”, Tomas mutters softly.
He doesn’t miss a beat in his response and it is such a window into his feelings of our situation that I feel intrusive. I also feel pretty shallow, my idea of the perfect world is so selfish compared to his. The bad part is I don’t really think those things are the most important aspects of utopia. I certainly don’t want to escape my lot by running – or flying – away. I want a better life for Max, a longer life and I would do anything to get that for him. I’m suddenly angry at Tomas for making me seem shallow, for not realising it was just an absent-minded comment, not a deeply thought out life plan.
“Isn’t that why we’re here?” I respond a little bit too harshly.
Tomas seems to think this a bit funny because his lips turn up on one side in a smirk. That makes me angrier.
“Why is that amusing to you? Are you here for a holiday?” I snap.
“It’s just that you get angry very quickly, you take offence when none is meant”.
“And that’s funny to you? Maybe if you know me so well, you should think about what you say before offending me. How do you know I was offended anyway? Maybe I was just annoyed at your obvious response”, I retort trying to sound haughty instead of angry but failing miserably.
“Maybe”, the lift of Tomas’ eyebrows and shrug of his shoulders indicates that he doesn’t believe his comment for a second.
I let the silence stretch out after his inadequate response and quicken my step so that we patrol around the dome at an almost uncomfortable pace. So sentry duty with Tomas isn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be, he is obviously a frustrating person. The following twenty minutes passes in awkward silence until Tomas comments that the others are ready for Karther’s memorial.
They’re all gathered right next to Max so that by turning away from the sea bird he is among their group. He doesn’t look uncomfortable there but I think I should be there with him. It’s an awkward situation being at a memorial for someone you barely knew with a group of virtual strangers.
I begin to walk towards him when I remember sentry duty.
“Don’t worry about it, Fiona and the others are expecting us, with all of us on deck we won’t miss much. It will be over quickly anyway, then we can get back to our riveting conversation”. Tomas has obviously seen my hesitation and recognises it for what it is, doubt about leaving my duty again. I realise he is teasing me with his last comment and chose to ignore it… for now.
We’re all gathered in a semi-circle facing the wall of the ship. Fiona places a material bag, it looks like a crumpled pillowcase, filled with the paper flowers I had seen Gerla, Linton and Isabella make, in the centre. Gerla steps forward to stand next to it.
“Karther told me that when someone died in his commune everyone who knew them would bring something that reminded them of that person. They would burn the items with the body. I thought we could do something like that here”, Gerla says in a shaky voice.
Fiona steps forward and puts her hand on Gerla’s arm in a show of support.
“We know you probably don’t have an object that reminds you of Karther so we thought we could each write a memory on these paper flowers and throw them into the ocean with Karther”, Fiona adds.
I think that’s a nice way of putting it, ‘into the ocean with Karther’, as if he floated gracefully overboard on a fine misty morning instead of being dragged to a brutal death. Fiona really knows what to say in each situation, I’ve come to the conclusion that she is a different person for everyone. She knows I don’t appreciate idle chit chat so she never forces it upon me, she knows Tomas needs encouragement to share his talent and she knows Gerla needs her support so she gives it to them. My initial assessment of Fiona as quiet isn’t exactly right, it’s more that she gives people what they need.
After taking a step forward to be directly in the centre of the semi-circle Fiona takes something small out of her pocket and holds it up. It’s the miniature knight from Tomas’ sketch.
“Karther liked to make fun of Mickael and his obsession with the game called chess”, Fiona calls out in a clear voice, then places the miniature knight on the floor of the deck with a paper flower that she has written on.
“Karther made funny figurines out of fish bones and used them to do singing concerts”, Merva whispers and bends to pick up a paper flower to write on.
Gerla looks at Merva then down at her hand and steps forward. She opens her hand to show all of us what is in it and bends to put one of the figurines Karther apparently made next to the knight.
“Karther practised drills with me”, Renka declares clearly and proceeds to pick up a flower.
“Karther loved fishing”, Mayther bends to pick up a flower.
It goes on like this until almost everyone has a turn. Karther snored really loudly, Karther talked about his sisters back home a lot, Karther learnt carpentry skills from his dad and older brother before they died, Karther spent a lot of time talking about what else he thought this ship could do. Fiona passes lead pencils out to write on the flowers. I’m a bit taken aback that everyone seems to know personal details about Karther after only three short weeks of having known him. Am I the only one who avoided him and found him slightly irritating? Asking myself this question makes me feel awful. Maybe I just see the bad in people and ignore the good.
When it comes to Tomas’ turn he says nothing, just tears out the sketch of Karther in his journal and lays it on the floor face-up for everyone to see. Gerla lets out a breath of air that she must have been unconsciously holding and a murmur of appreciation of Tomas’ talent travels around the group. I am selfishly envious that Tomas had something to give and didn’t have to say anything.
It’s my turn and the only thing I can think of is how Karther sang responses to everything, which seems a little hollow given what everyone else had to say, especially because it is that very trait that lead me to avoid him as much as possible. I’m surprised no one else mentioned this quirky and annoying habit of his and wonder if I’m the only one who found it irritating. Then I remember Tomas impersonating him on the night of his death and, disgustingly, it makes me feel a little better.
“Karther sang his responses to questions”, I say in a small voice, hoping that it isn’t an entirely inappropriate memory to send off with Karther. I pick up a flower and Max hands me a pencil. I suddenly feel worried for Max, what is he going to say? Should I give him a prompt? I wrack my brains frantically and bend to whisper something about Karther enjoying sentry duty into Max’s ear when he steps forward.
“Karther always smiled at me when I looked at him”.
I feel simultaneously proud and sad for Max. It is a courageous thing to say in front of everyone, I want so much to hug him but think that might be embarrassing for him.
Gerla steps forward next with watery eyes and looks down at the pile of flowers. I think I know what she is thinking, that Karther’s life has amounted to such a small insignificant pile of memories on paper.
“Karther spoke to me a lot about his family back home. He was the second eldest boy of five sisters. He loved them very much. He listened to my stories about home and always asked interesting questions to show he cared. I think his family would be happy to know we sent him off like this. It might be hard to understand because I hadn’t known him for very long, but Karther was my best friend”. Her voice cracks on this last part and Fiona steps forward to direct her away but Gerla shakes her head and continues in a brittle voice.
“Karther believed he was part of something really important with this journey, he would want us all to do everything we can to get to The Refuge for his family”. Gerla picks up a flower with shaky hands and begins to write on it.
I was wrong, Gerla doesn’t see an insignificant pile of memories that amount to Karther’s life, she sees a way to send Karther off in the fashion he was used to, a way that would make his family proud, proud of their brother who had an impact on the lives of people he had known for such a short time.
Tomas picks up his sketch and walks to the side of the ship where he lets it fall from his hands to the water. Merva and Mickael follow with their paper flowers. Tomas turns and heads back towards the dome for sentry so I follow the procession to the side of the ship and wait to throw my impersonal memory of Karther into the soft breeze that is blowing. Gerla has started crying again after her show of strength earlier. It makes me wonder what these people would do for me when it is my turn. The reality is every single one of us could be dead from Age-Sickness within a year or even a few months. I suddenly have an image of Max burning the last of our bodies, standing on his own looking into the flames. I feel tormented by the image and an irrational urge to grab Max and run pulses through my body. With these thoughts I let my paper flower drop over the side of the ship. It flutters in the breeze before gracefully falling to the water. It reminds me of the sea bird earlier and my feelings of relief or weightlessness. They no longer exist. It is freedom I yearn for but not the running away kind, freedom from a life that will be so short lived, freedom from the image of my eleven-year-old brother dying alone. Yes, the earlier feeling of relief is gone.
I fall back into step with Tomas, thinking about Gerla’s comment that Karther felt he was part of something important. I never really think like that, if anything I’ve been critical and skeptical the whole time, expecting to die. That little spark of hope I hold for The Refuge being the place to save us is either so small as to be insignificant or has disappeared completely.
“Do you think The Refuge has something to save us?” I surprise myself by asking Tomas.
“I believe we’ll find the answers we need there”, he replies eyeing me with interest.
“How can you be so sure? Do you believe it or just hope it?” I’m intrigued.
“What’s the difference? If you hope something will happen isn’t that implying belief that it can?”
“That’s just words, you know what I mean, if you really believe it has the answers then you should see yourself as a pioneer, a saviour for all people, ‘volunteering’ for this quest. But if you just hope it, there is room for doubt”, I argue, trying to get Tomas to see the distinction.
“Don’t you think people who believe something have room for doubt?” he responds with raised eyebrows.
“I guess so, but people give up everything if they believe so strongly that something will happen, like the Pro-Sickness campaigners, their belief lost them their homes, their community”, I argue.
“It’s easy to give up everything if you have nothing”, Tomas replies with a shrug of his shoulder.
I think about this last comment. How much have I missed being away from home? Not much at all, I barely think about it. Is Tomas implying that to believe something whole-heartedly or make a statement against the majority is easy if you feel you have nothing to lose? It wasn’t that long ago I made a statement to get Max to come along and didn’t care if I lost everything. This all makes sense to an extent but I still can’t equate being officially and violently outcast from my community like the Pro-Sickness campaigners to nothing to lose. Maybe I’ve missed the point. I can’t help but think Tomas is referring to himself. Does he believe that his life won’t be a sacrifice because there is no family at home for him? Does he really believe The Refuge is the place to save us or is it much of the same for him wherever he is? For some reason this thought makes me sad for Tomas and I find myself studying his profile. He looks young and vulnerable to me. I don’t know if that’s because I feel like I just had an insight into his life or if it is his thick brown hair falling over his eyes like Max’s does. I suddenly have an urge to brush it away from his face. I link my hands together in case they betray me in that action.
His eyelashes are really long and thick,. His nose has a sharp angle to it that gives him an inherently masculine look and his lips are full and red. It is his jaw line that is most striking from this view though. It is a defined line with a stark curve towards his ears that has a pulsing beat where his top and bottom jaw meet, as if he is grinding his teeth. I notice his ears are a little big and that makes his vulnerability all the more apparent. He has olive skin, much the same as mine that scars easily, with one short line that looks like it was once a deep cut.
Tomas turns to me and I’m caught staring at him intently, I look away embarrassed and stare out towards Max who has made his way back to the side of the ship where he continues his observation of sea birds. As if he feels my gaze, Max turns around and smiles at me. My answering smile is big and true. Max is what I can’t lose, no matter how much I believe in something. He starts to walk towards us much to my relief as I’m not sure how to recover from being caught staring at Tomas.
“Hi, Max”, Tomas greets him before I can.
“I’ve got something to show you”, Tomas takes out his journal from the back of his waist belt. It occurs to me that he keeps his sketching journal in the same place I keep my knife, what an apt metaphor that is for our personalities.
He flips to one of the back pages of the journal and hands it to Max. Max stares at the page for a long time. I can’t see what it is but I can tell that Max really likes it in the way his brow furrows in concentration.
“Can you teach me to do this?” Max asks without looking at Tomas.
I’m shocked that Max would ask for something from someone else, especially someone he doesn’t know very well. For as long as I can remember he has never even asked me for anything, I usually pre-empt what he wants or needs. I look at Tomas to gauge what his response will be. Can you even teach that type of talent? Tomas looks fleetingly at me and back down at Max.
“Sure”, he replies simply.
The rest of sentry duty is taken up by Max asking question after question about sketching and Tomas giving detailed responses. I’ve never heard Tomas talk so willingly and passionately before, not to mention Max asking so many intricate questions. I reach across to take the journal from Max’s hand to see the sketch that provoked such a response in him. It is almost an exact replica of the scene that played out that morning with the sea bird. The ocean is still but there’s the hint of a breeze in the shape of the bird’s wings, the sky is cloudless and the sun shines almost blindingly behind the soaring bird. It is amazing how Tomas captured so much without colour. He can make a single lead pencil create so many shades of grey as if there are infinite possibilities in the one colour. The sea bird itself is so intricately detailed that you can see individual feathers as the breeze brushes passed them. It is not hard to see why Max was so inspired by the sketch. Perhaps it’s Tomas’ obvious appreciation of something Max finds so appealing that compelled Max to step outside of the usual barriers he set up for himself.
Tomas agrees to sit with Max after sentry and show him a few techniques. I’m not sure why, but I feel a little uneasy about this. I feel like I should be there to help Max in his interactions, just in case he’s uncomfortable or something. Just as I’m about to suggest I tag along an ear-splitting noise cuts through the air, reverberating through my chest cavity. I instinctually push my hands over my ears and look up to see everyone on deck doing the same. It hits me then what the noise is – an alarm coming from the ship.
I reach for my knife and automatically turn towards the side of the ship where Karther was pulled overboard. I see Gerla, Linton and Merva bent over double in what looks like an attempt to make themselves as small as possible. Tomas and Max are in a similar position next to me. Only Renka has responded to the alarm by running the perimeter of the ship. They really train them well in Commune C. It makes me wonder what horrors they are expecting.
I see movement in the control room from the corner of my eye. I take one more look at Max and see that Tomas is looking at me in confusion and panic. He has seen what I have and makes to move with me. I shake my head trying to indicate he stay with Max. I hold up my knife to show him I have a weapon and motion for him to stay. I hope he understands all my attempts at mime. He seems to settle back down with Max but doesn’t look happy about it.
Just as I get to the control room Diego runs out frantically waving his hands and yelling something at me. I can’t make out what it is but assume there is some sort of problem so I step up on the shelf. I hold the knife out in front of me viewing the whole room from the entrance. The stool in front of the control board is rapidly spinning in circles as if someone has jumped out of it quickly, but everything else looks normal. It’s a bare room with two stools and the long complicated-looking control board. Vonteuse is hurriedly tapping buttons on a panel looking frustrated and excited at the same time. A bright red light is flashing across the laminate shield in time with the excruciatingly loud alarm.
Suddenly the alarm stops. My ears are ringing with the echo of the noise. I can’t make sense of Vonteuse’s face. He looks elated and it’s a direct contrast to the physical response of my body. I have sweat dripping down my forehead into my eyes and I’m gripping my knife so hard my fingers are stiff and white at the knuckles. He looks up at me with a big smile and mouths something that I can’t hear. I wonder if I have permanently lost my hearing and frantically push my fingers in my ear rubbing around to clear the ringing sound.
Diego joins Vonteuse, clapping him on the back and pointing at the panel with the buttons. I see their excitement and realise what has happened. They have discovered the ships defence mechanism and it just happens to be an annoyingly loud alarm.
After all the commotion, Diego and Vonteuse explain to everyone what has happened. Isabella has a fit of hysterics after the alarm stops and surprisingly it’s mousy Linton who calms her down by suggesting Diego and Vonteuse show her how they can turn the alarm on and off. My ears protest against the repetitive assault and I wish Isabella would just get over it. She seems to understand she isn’t going to get attacked and starts rambling about some fairy story she once heard. Much to my relief Linton leads her below deck.
Max is standing close by my side. He left Tomas and started yelling my name with his head turning frantically looking for me after the alarm stopped. I was deaf to his yelling but saw his panicked expression and my name in the movement of his lips. He couldn’t hear my attempts at calling out to him so I ran towards him until he saw me. Then relief washed over his features and he caught me in an embrace. He hasn’t left my side since.
“We’ll have to work out how to set the alarm so that it goes off when something tries to board or attack the ship”, Diego is saying. I’m concerned at his use of the word, ‘when’ instead of ‘if’. Is it just assumed more attacks will come?
“We think there are invisible light rays that cover the ship in a dome shape starting from the top of the ship’s walls and meeting at about four metres above our head. If something larger than a seabird penetrates this barrier the alarm sounds, but we aren’t sure how to set it yet”.
“So how long do you think it will take to work it out?” Renka asks.
“I don’t know but we’ll probably have to set the alarm off a few times before we get it”, Vonteuse responds with a creased brow.
The thought of that ear splitting noise penetrating the ship over and over is awful, but well worth the level of security an alarm to alert us to intruders would provide. The idea that an invisible barrier will surround us is both disconcerting and awe inspiring. I have seen and heard of many BAS devices that can do almost anything. But most of them have fallen out of use, becoming redundant when fuel sources diminished and the select few who knew their inner workings died. The ruins are literally littered with gadgets, vehicles, appliances and various apparatuses that are worthless. The fact that someone has figured out how to power and control the ship, and we are lucky enough to have two among our group who hold some of this knowledge, is miraculous. Even more so considering the criteria to be a volunteer was simply being the eldest in your commune and had nothing to do with your knowledge base. It seems a little too convenient to me and I wonder if any of the other volunteers have questioned it. In the circumstances, having two among our number who have knowledge of BAS technology is priceless. I decide to mention it in my next journal entry so that by the off chance anyone from the Committee do get to read it they will know it was questioned.
I don’t think my ears will ever stop ringing and I can see most of the others are suffering the same fate as they continually have their fingers rubbing around their ear holes. I’m secretly glad I’ve finished my sentry duty, maybe the noise isn’t as loud below deck.
Renka asks a few more questions of Diego and Vonteuse while everyone else disperses. I lead Max down to our cabin where I intend on having a long hot shower to wash away the sweat and ease my tense muscles. When I walk past the common cabin Max stops and begins to push open the door.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m meeting Tomas in here”, he responds creasing his brow.
After the chaos with the alarm I have completely forgotten about Tomas and Max’s plans.
“Oh, okay, I’ll see you later then. I’ll just go and have a shower and meet you back here”, I say in as casual a voice as I can muster.
“Okay, you don’t have to though, Tomas is just going to show me different ways to shade, it might be boring for you”, Max replies as he puts his hand on the door handle.
“Oh, alright, I might try and catch up on my journal entries then”.
Max says goodbye and walks through the door. I have a glimpse of Tomas sitting away from the others in a corner bent over a scattering of papers, before the door flaps closed.
My shower does nothing in the way of making me feel better about Max. I can’t believe he could feel so comfortable in the common cabin surrounded by everyone. I worry that the others will crowd around trying to look on as Tomas shows him different techniques. I imagine Max freaking out and running off. I try to write in my journal, for once there is quite a bit I can write that may have some significant impact for the Committee but I can’t get into it. My mind is with Max and Tomas in the common cabin.
After I write a short entry in my journal and tidy up the few belongings we I decided to bring with us I go down and check on Max, just in case. In case of what, I don’t really know but I can’t shake the feeling of unease.
When I open the door to the common cabin the first thing I notice is Mickael and Mayther playing with the miniature chess figurines much to the pleasure of Merva and Isabella who are watching on. I scan the room looking for Tomas and Max and find them huddled in the corner. Max is watching Tomas’s hand move across a paper, then copies the movement on his own paper. The scene is surreal to me. Max is so deep in concentration it’s hard not to see his enthusiasm for this newfound medium of expression. Maybe it will be beneficial for Max to use the skill as a means to rid himself of his demons. Ironically this thought isn’t as satisfying as it should be. I have always envisioned myself being the one who can help Max out of his night terrors. I shake away this selfish thought and walk towards them.
“Hi, Pia, came to join us, hey? Have a look at this, Mayther and I’ve found a way to use the chess figurines”, Mickael calls out to me when he notices I’ve entered the very room I try so earnestly to avoid.
“Maybe later”, I respond with no intention of ever sitting around watching them play kids games.
“Hi, how’s it coming along?” I ask as I sit down next to Max.
“It’s really great. Tomas has shown me how to get dark and light definitions using angled strokes and different pressure on the pencil. Look, it’s an eye”, Max smiles broadly and turns his paper to face me. I am impressed at his progress in such a short time. The eye is fairly amateur in appearance, it doesn’t come to life like Tomas’ sketches do, but the variance in colour is pretty amazing, given he only used a lead pencil. I notice that their fingers are stained with lead and Tomas has a big smear across his cheek. I can’t help but smile and again have to restrain myself from reaching out my traitorous hand to wipe away the smudge.
“You’ve got lead on your cheek”, I say to Tomas when his eyes meet mine.
“Oh. Do I?” he mumbles embarrassed.
He starts rubbing the wrong cheek. I shake my head and point to my cheek on the opposite side, my smile growing wider. He becomes a little flustered as he attempts two other spots and still misses it. I eventually take pity on him and wipe away the smudge with my thumb while I laugh at his his discomfort. My laughter dies away and is quickly replaced with embarrassment when I realise I’m touching Tomas’ cheek and he’s staring at me. Even though I have olive skin, red flushes of emotion, like embarrassment and anger still show through. I hate having my emotions on display. It seems like a weakness to me. I quickly look down at Max’s sketch again and pat him on the shoulder in recognition of a good job.
“You’ve done a great job, Max. I really like the length of the eyelashes and how half of the eye looks like it’s in shadow”, I comment brushing my finger over the areas of the eye as I mention them.
“Yeah, it’s Tomas’ eye. See how long his eye lashes are and how they curve, and see how the left side is in shadow because it’s facing away from the window”, Max points at the features of the eye in question.
I’m forced to look up and examine Tomas’ eyes, his discomfort at my scrutiny is obvious. He looks down, making his eyelashes seem ridiculously long.
“Yeah, I do see that. Look at your fingers, they’re covered in lead. I’m surprised it’s not all over your face too”, I quip in an attempt to ease the tension between Tomas and I.
Before Max can respond, the ship’s alarm sounds blasting through small boxes that line the ceiling, red flashing lights accompanying it in perfect unison. Everyone’s hands fly to their ears. Obviously the alarm is just as loud down here as up on deck, probably a good thing, given that most of us are down here at any given time. Even though I’m sure the alarm is just a test for Diego and Vonteuse my body reacts to the noise and prepares to pounce on any danger that comes my way. The noise stops pretty quickly and I vaguely worry that we’re training ourselves to ignore it. Maybe we should be working out a system for when it goes off for real. If the response from everyone on deck this morning is anything to go by, having an early warning won’t be helpful if we all curl into a ball and block out the world. I think about suggesting this to Renka, he seems to be the best person for the job, given his reaction to the alarm and his military-like approach to everything. I dread starting a conversation with him. I’ll have to listen to hours of how the structured regiment he set up for his siblings would be running smoothly in his absence. Unfortunately, in this case I think he’s right. I’ll just have to deal with his blatant self-congratulations.
I leave Max and Tomas to their sketching, I no longer feel uneasy about the situation. I’ve long held anger against my parents for their apathy in relation to teaching me their skills. Mum was an outstanding seamstress, she could take old rags or clothes that were too small for anybody and make them into practical durable items of clothing. She also collected herbs and other plants that were useful in healing, but she never explicitly taught me these things. I was nine when she killed herself and anything I knew in the way of sewing or healing plants was what I had picked up by secretly observing my mother. As for Dad, he taught me to read but never showed me how to hunt for big game or skin the animals he caught. His unmarked pelts were renowned throughout our commune and he was able to use them in trading. Even though Max was too young to have been taught these skills when our parents died, I could have passed them on to him if I knew them. Even better, my parents could have chosen life with pain and more time with their children rather than death. If Max can be taught a skill, even if I think its value in survival is fairly useless, I’m happy about it. Seeing how enthusiastic he is about the one lesson he’s had is more than enough for me to forget my reluctance in the matter. If I’m honest with myself, the sense of unease was probably more of a reflection of my feelings of protectiveness for Max rather than his social discomfort. Having Tomas be his mentor in the skill is unexpected but Max is comfortable with him and that is enough.
I make my way up on deck in search of Renka. It’s a waste to spend such a nice day below deck and now is as good a time as any to get my idea out there. Mayther and Merva are doing sentry, although it doesn’t seem like much of a ‘duty’ to walk around the dome at midday enjoying the sun. I turn in a full circle to see if I can see Renka on deck, if not I’ll grab one of the fishing lines from the ship’s stock and try my hand at fishing.
Unfortunately, I spot Renka’s blurred outline through the laminate of the control room. He’s pretty hard to mistake with his bulky size and unusual height. When I enter I notice that Fiona is there as well, apparently she and Renka want to learn how to operate the control board. Diego and Vonteuse are demonstrating how to input information into the panel to get something to happen. It seems pretty straightforward to me: use the keys to write an instruction and be as explicit as possible. The problems arise when instructions can’t be followed because codes are needed to unblock certain functions.
“This input style was only intended in an emergency. The whole system was supposed to activate with voice recognition, but that voice was someone’s from BAS and finding the code to change it is near impossible. If we can work out how to check the alarm setting we’ve changed we’ll be sure it’s working”, Vonteuse is saying as he taps away at the keys.
“We need to penetrate it at different areas to be sure it works?”, Renka asks.
“That shouldn’t be necessary, it’s one connected barrier, although we can’t see it, if something activates it at one point we can assume the whole defence mechanism works”, responds Diego whose pacing the small area.
“We need to consider what we use to penetrate the barrier. It has to be something that can reach the four metre height and preferably not something thrown so we can see exactly when the barrier is hit”, adds Renka, completely dismissing Diego’s comment.
It seems an obvious thing to me to get one of the cylinder transports to hold a cylinder over the side of the ship, or even straight up into the air. The transport holding a cylinder would reach four metres easily and because we’d be in complete control of its movements we’d be able to identify the exact time the barrier is breached. I suggest this to the group at risk of offending Diego. There’s no doubt he knows more than most of us about invisible barriers from BAS, but it can’t hurt to check all avenues even if it is just peace of mind for those of us who are technologically deficient.
“Fine, we’ll do that. I’ll go and organise it now”, Diego huffs in frustration. As he turns to leave I remember the cylinder transport disasters he instigated at training. I quickly suggest that I go and test it, Renka is obviously of the same opinion because he too has jumped up at Diego’s suggestion.
“I’ll come too, I want to see if there’s any visible sign of the barrier when it’s breached”, Renka calls after me.
I decide to use the opportunity to bring up the idea about creating some sort of system for when the alarm goes off, but Renka beats me to it.
“What do you think about the alarm?” he asks.
“I think it’s not much use if we can’t react in a way to defend ourselves when it goes off”, I look at at him out of the corner of my eye.
“That’s what I was thinking. I saw the knife you pulled when the alarm went off the first time, is that the only one you have?” he probes.
“No, it’s the biggest one though. I have two more that I use for skinning pelts, filleting fish and small jobs”, I respond while speculating why he’s asking about my knives.
He appraises me intently for a few seconds, making me feel exposed in some way, like he’s evaluating my potential for something. I feel angry at his scrutiny and decide to tell him so but he leans in closer to whisper in my ear.
“I’ll show you something after we do this”.
The whole time I’m operating the transport I’m wondering what Renka wants to show me and why he’s secretive about it. Why has he decided to let me in on the secret after I told him about my knives? He’s obviously noticed my reaction to the alarm just like I noted his, but what does that have to do with my knives? I hope he doesn’t think I can train anyone on how to use them. I only have the three and two of them are so small as to be useless against… what, an underwater machine? Who knows? When I thought about organising a system for when the alarm goes off I didn’t mean a fighting and attacking one. I had protection and safety on my mind, maybe deciding on a place to meet to be sure everyone is accounted for. What is it about these Commune C people? Do they have some enemy that keeps them on guard all the time? The only enemy we’re concerned about in G is Age-Sickness and if there’s anything to be done about that, it’s being done on this mission.
I move the lever and feel the transport jerk as the cylinder rises above my head. I hope I’ve estimated the height correctly because we’d have to come up with another way to penetrate the top of this invisible barrier and that would mean I’d have to wait longer to be let in on Renka’s secret. The lever hits the extent of its movement and to my relief the alarm sounds. I have to fight every instinct to keep my hands on the lever and accelerator and not cover my ears. I’ll pay for it later, this is the second time I’ve heard the alarm without the shield of my hands in half an hour. The first time I nearly dropped the cylinder I had suspended over the side of the ship when I automatically reached for my ears. It runs through my mind that the alarm is all we need to protect us from any intruders; we can deafen them into submission.
I get the signal from Renka who can see Diego just outside of the control room to lower the cylinder to the deck. I stack it next to the other cyclinders, hoping that whoever packed the supplies in there did it with heaps of padding. Renka waits for me to dismount the transport and nodds for me to follow him. We pass the control room and congratulate a proud Diego and Vonteuse on their handy work with the alarm. They’re already fiddling with the control panel when we leave with Fiona watching on intently. I hope the next thing they work out is some sort of machine that makes fresh hot dinners.
Renka leads me across the deck and down the stairs. I have the thought that we’re on the way to the common cabin to look over some military-style strategy he’s worked out using the chess figurines and inwardly groan. I’m not about to listen to him in all seriousness as he manoeuvres little toys around. To my relief he walks straight passed the common cabin and down the narrow stairs at the fish tail end of the ship. I’ve only been down there once before and that was when we first boarded. At that time I had investigated every part of the ship with Max to see what we were spending the next couple of months on. Max had found this bottom level very dull. It’s empty room after empty room. I assume they were used for BAS supplies and wonder why we don’t just put our supplies down here but then we’d have to carry them all up on deck and load the cylinders anyway.
Apparently, Max and I are not the only ones who have done a little investigating, Renka leads me with purpose to a room that looks completely deserted. I get a strange feeling that maybe I’ve walked into a dangerous trap. There are many stories of rape among the communes. Fear of contracting Age-Sickness before being intimate leads many young men to take what hasn’t been freely given. The decreasing life expectancy only increased the number of these stories among the communes. Flashbacks to the guards at the Communication Office flood my mind. Just like then I’d be no match for Renka’s bulky form. I’ve got my knife on me and could probably cause a bit of damage before he overpowered me but I’ve lost the element of surprise. He saw me draw the knife on deck and knows where I keep it.
He had stepped aside and allowed me to enter the empty room first so now he blocks the doorway behind me. I feel so stupid. Every part of my body pulses with energy. I turn to face him, I’m not sure if he’d attack me from behind like a coward and I want to gain any advantage I can.
While I consider my options for attack, Renka’s waving his hand in front of a clear tile on the far wall from where I’m standing. I would’ve found the sight funny if my body wasn’t shaking with tension. What is he doing? The image of him as a vicious villain who lures his prey into a trap is so contrary to the guy in front of me slowly rotating his hand in purposeful movements in front of the wall. I consider the possibility that’s gone insane, but quickly quash the idea when the wall suddenly slides across and reveals a hidden room.
I gasp in astonishment. All I can see is floor to ceiling of shiny new weapons. I step into the room without consciously willing myself to do so. The shelf closest to where I stand holds ferocious looking knives. The whole room seems to ooze violence. While there’s no doubt these objects are dangerous weapons they are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We have bows and arrows, sling shots, knives and other tools that can be used as weapons, like axes, back home, but they don’t compare to the sight in front of me. Massive bow-like weapons that’re made of some sort of steel material with arrows that look lethal line the walls. Other arrow-like things that are clearly not meant to be shot out of a bow shine under the piercing lights of the room. They’re at least fifty centimetres in diameter and over two metres long and are attached to a reel of thick wire mesh. I have no idea how they could be fired off, only that it’s not human hands that could do it, but some sort of mechanical device. There are rows and rows of knives of all sizes, some with serrated edges and others with nasty hooks on the end that would make it near impossible to remove from the poor victim who receives its jab.
I turn to the back wall. It holds something I do recognise, anyone would, not that they are useful for us given the lack of ammunition. Guns of every size and shape, some with ridiculously long nozzles, others that are so small you could hide them in your hand glare down at me. I turn a full circle to get the big picture of what we’re dealing with and glance at Renka who seems to be enjoying my dumbstruck look.
“Amazing isn’t it?” He says proudly.
“That’s an understatement. How did you find this?”
“I knew where to look”, he replies with a cocky smirk.
“What do you mean you knew where to look, behind a wall in an empty room?” I narrow my eyes at him.
“Let’s just say I have some experience with these BAS structures”, Renka boasts infuriatingly.
“No, let’s not just say that, how did you know and why did you choose to show me?” I demand through gritted teeth.
“Look, I can’t tell you exactly how, I just wanted to show you we aren’t completely defenceless on this ship”. Obviously not expecting me to focus on this aspect of his discovery, Renka becomes agitated.
“No, you look, I have no reason to trust you or your discretion in telling me only half of what you know. I don’t know anything about you and everything you’ve shown me here is more likely to ring alarm bells rather than acceptance of a half-arse explanation”, I argue, equally as agitated.
His face turns an angry shade of red and I can see he wishes he hadn’t shown me. I wait for him to come to some conclusion. He turns away and groans in frustration, he’s obviously trying to find a way out of telling me something important.
Renka spins around to face me and spits angrily, “I’ll tell you, but only because I think your chances of ever getting back are slim to none and if something happens to me maybe one of us should know this, it could be helpful if…when we get to The Refuge”.
I’m intrigued to say the least and amazed at how quickly he seems to relent. It makes me a little suspicious but I want to let him speak before I decide whether he’s lying.
“A few years ago, one of my neighbours’ houses burnt down in an accident”, he begins.
“All except one child got out alive. When the people of my commune went in to clean up the mess they found a trap door of sorts. It was more of a hole in the ground that opened into a tunnel. Of course they went in to check it out and they found the tunnel just kept going and going”, he starts pacing and running his hand through his hair as he explains.
“It eventually ended in what appeared to be a solid thick door that had ‘Quarantine’ written on it. They knew they had found a BAS structure and some of them just freaked out and left, but my Dad went down with three others. They were able to open the door and found room after room filled with beds and built-in cabinets with personal belongings, photos, identification cards, jewellery, that sort of thing. The problem was that none of the rooms looked like they had been abandoned, they were lived in”, Renka pauses and looks at me with raised eyebrows satisfying himself that what he said is sinking in.
“My Dad decides to go back up and find a few others to come down, thinking the four of them was not enough. When he came down with a bigger group they found the three he had left behind dead, all shot down by guns. Someone was alive and living down there”, I draw in a quick breath at this revelation and Renka stops again with a slight nod of his head as if to reassure me that I heard correctly.
“My Dad and the others were armed with the knives, axes and batons, basic stuff, no match for firearms, but they went further in anyway, not wanting to let their friends’ death be for nothing. Dad didn’t tell me all of the details of how it unfolded, being so young as I was when he died, but it’s well known in our commune that many were killed that day by the hands of BAS survivors. It’s said that the survivors were old, I mean really old and had no chance at face-to-face combat. Their strength was in their firearms, but they needed to be reloaded and the survivors were slow, plus there were not enough of them”, again Renka pauses, this time with a slight slump of his shoulders as if he still feels the pain of losing so many members of his commune.
“After the encounter, the bodies were taken up and burnt and everyone voted to close the thick steel door and fill in the tunnel, but not before investigations were carried out. When they were down there my Dad and his friends saw the survivors getting a door to slide open by waving their hand in front of it. Of course, the most important thing they looked for was some sort of medicine for Age-Sickness, but all they found was a group of old people running and hiding from it, with just as much knowledge of how to stop it as us apparently”, Renka concludes with a touch of bitterness.
I thought I was dumbstruck before, but that does not even come close to describing what my reaction to this information is. The first thing I think is why don’t I know about this? Why weren’t the Committee members told and the incident shared among the communes? Renka must see the question written on my face, or it’s just the most logical thing to ask after hearing about a secret subterranean home with old people in it!
“Our Committee member told the Committee but it was decided to keep it quiet because it was right at the height of the Pro-Sickness campaigner’s riots and they feared there would be a complete loss of order. If everyone knew it at that time especially that the BAS survivors fought back, who knew what could happen? People might have began randomly digging up whole areas of land looking for hideouts, pouring into our commune, the Campaigners might have fought their way back in to have a piece of the action. It was too unstable. We’ve all sworn to keep the secret, our parents tell us before, well you know how it goes”.
What am I to make of this? I never really thought of the Committee as a body who makes really important decisions. The member from my commune seems like such an insignificant person, not someone who is privy to information withheld from the people, assuming the knowledge still remains in the Committee. I realise that it’s the Committee who organised this ‘quest’, but that was strongly backed-up by the public, it was well known that someone had to make the trip to The Refuge. It’s nothing like what Renka’s talking about, withholding information that could potentially help us know more about Age-Sickness. How many of these places are there? The irony of us travelling on an obviously dangerous voyage to get to a place we call The Refuge when there could be one at home under our feet is not lost to me. Then I realise the implications of this, why didn’t Commune C move into the BAS refuge? They could have saved their own lives.
“Why did they block up the tunnel? Why not move down there and live?” I ask in exasperation.
“Don’t you get it? It was quarantined; their first reaction was to kill us. They were scared of being infected and once the place was opened it couldn’t be a safe house from Age-Sickness anymore”, Renka replies in anger.
The information strikes with such force that I literally take a step back. Is he saying that Commune C have known all this time that Age-Sickness is air born, or passes between people who share the same environment somehow, not something that exists inside of us, ready to be activated at a certain age? How could they keep that information from everyone? All this time we could have been moving away from home, from each other. But aren’t we doing just that? Leaving our home to find a place where the Sickness can’t follow? Is that possible? Are we already infected? But there is hope isn’t there? It isn’t born into us, lying dormant waiting to pounce, is it something we can evade? Maybe the Committee is far more knowledgeable and powerful with that knowledge. If they know all that Renka has told me then maybe they’ve been manipulating things for years, trying to get this mission underway. Despite the newfound hope I’m feeling I’m angry, angry that I was denied all of the information.
“How dare you make agreements to keep such important information secret! Do you know we could have saved lives? We could have moved away from each other, moved to new places far away, maybe someone could have broken the age barrier”, I yell angrily at him.
I know he’s not to blame, the decisions were made before he was old enough to have a say, but I remember his cocky statement before ‘let’s just say I have some experience with BAS structures’ and it infuriates me.
“Okay, calm down. You have a right to be frustrated but not at me, the decision was out of my hands and besides we’re doing exactly that now aren’t we, moving to a different place, moving away from the people?” Renka asks as he raises his hands in surrender.
“Yeah, but what about everyone we left behind? What about Karther’s sisters or Isabella’s brothers? We all have family and now it will probably be too late for most of them”, I argue, refusing to be calmed.
“It would be stupid to bring everyone, you said it yourself, we need to move away from each other, having just one from each commune – I mean except for you and Max, is the best chance we have”, Renka responds.
My first instinct is to agree with him, I said that myself, then I think about the people involved, the loved ones who have been left behind and I feel awful. First because I’m flooded with relief that Max is with me and secondly because Renka is right. We couldn’t just bring everyone along. Not much has changed really. We’re still checking out this place for its potential as a refuge from Age-Sickness, we’re still going to have to travel across some dangerous ground and don’t know exactly what we’ll find on the other side. The earlier scouts have information about the environment and potential food sources but little is known about whether Age-Sickness will exist there. Then it hits me, this knowledge makes a huge difference, The Refuge has never been occupied before, BAS or now, it is fresh, new, innocent, if we know for certain that Age-Sickness isn’t living in us from birth, then environment is the answer. If we don’t have it yet and it isn’t at The Refuge then maybe we won’t come in contact with it at all. Hope rushes through me, is it really possible? Can we really find a way to evade Age-Sickness?
I look up at Renka with a ridiculous smile on my face and he smirks back knowingly. This quest means so much more to him. If there’s a distinction between belief and hope, I can tell that Renka is on the belief side of things.
“Wow. This changes everything”, I whisper dumbstruck.
I take stock of where I am for the first time since hearing Renka’s confession. The weapons stare at me with expectation, that they are dangerous, there is no question.
“So what do you intend to do with these?” I ask trying to push away the giddy feeling of hope that swims through my veins.
“I want to arm all volunteers and drill them in their use in case of another attack”, Renka states as he straightens his shoulders and raises his chin.
I can’t say that I’m surprised by his answer but I still look at him in shock.
“Arm everyone with these, are you kidding? We’re more likely to kill each other than cause injury to an opponent. We don’t even know the name of half of these things, let alone how they operate”, I respond in disbelief.
“I’ve been coming down here regularly since we’ve been on board and I think I have a working knowledge of most of the weapons in here that can be lifted without strain. With practice and a degree of discipline we could set up a system of armament where we’ll be impenetrable when the invisible barrier is breached”, Renka disputes.
I have to smirk at his statement of being impenetrable after our defences had been penetrated, but it seems lost on him. I suddenly have an insight into his life; a commune who had experienced the killing of many of their people from BAS survivors may become slightly more ‘careful’ than the rest of us. The drills and general order of that commune make far more sense, they’re always expecting something, or someone and who’s to say they’re wrong? There could be plenty of underground safe houses that could be on the verge of running out of resources. Would they break through and attack us? I’m becoming paranoid thinking about it. I feel a new found affinity to Renka, his prior ramblings about regiment and structure don’t seem so annoying now. Even so, there’s no way I’m going to agree to giving everyone onboard a weapon. Before we know it Isabella would shoot off her foot and Linton would amputate his mousy ear with a knife. Not to mention Max, he’s handled knives plenty of times of course, most of us probably have, but it’s one thing to skin an immobile animal or gut a dead fish and something completely different to knife an attacking opponent.
“No. You don’t know what their life experience is, they’ve more than likely handled weapons, but not in combat, we don’t all come from ‘C’. It’ll bring more disaster than it’s worth”, I argue staring Renka directly in the eyes.
“Don’t you see the advantage these weapons give us? We could outdo any opponent with this stuff. I thought of everyone you would see the benefit of what I’m talking about. Wasn’t that what you were saying earlier?” Renka beseeches.
What does he mean ‘of everyone’, why did he target me as being different? I guess I’m the one who pulled the knife when I thought we were being attacked but that doesn’t do much for the self-esteem. He’s implying I’m different from everyone else because I don’t have the reactions they have. What does it matter what Renka thinks? When did I start caring?
“I disagree, any advantage you see will be turned into disadvantage if we’re up against anyone who has a weapon, even a basic weapon, that they know how to handle”.
“That’s not true, what about the old people in the safe house? They took out heaps of our people before they were overrun”, he counters.
“And you said yourself that they were no good in face to face combat, that the weapons needed to be reloaded. There would be nothing but face-to-face combat on this ship. Look I disagree, okay, if you want we could let the others in on this and decide together”, I try to end the discussion.
He thinks about it for a second. Why does he think it’s his right to keep this to himself and decide who is be allowed to know about it? Before I can further my argument, he nods in agreement, well I assume it’s agreement because he turns and walks out without shutting the door to the secret weapons room. I’m not sure how to shut it so I just follow him. As soon as I step out of the room the door slides across and once again it looks like a simple wall. I’m extremely thankful it didn’t do that when I was in it, I imagine being stuck in there and feel immediately claustrophobic. I quickly follow Renka down the hall and up the stairs. The stairs are a weird shape because they’re set up against the fish tail end of the ship, so they narrow excessively at one point and I find the sense of claustrophobia coming on again. By the time I reach the top I’m flushed and hot, it isn’t entirely the climb, I’m still experiencing the glow of newfound hope. This mission means something different to me now too.
I enter the hall leading to the common cabin a second after Renka to see Tomas leaving with Max. He looks in our direction and freezes when he sees us. I can’t interpret the look on his face, only to say he looks disappointed or maybe hurt in some way. I smile broadly at him, I feel really happy to see them both. I now see possibilities for Max, and that’s exhilarating. Tomas just gives a tentative smile in return says something to Max and walks away in the opposite direction. It confuses me, what have I done?
“Hey, Tomas, come back, we have something to ask everyone”, Renka calls after him.
Tomas flinches at the word ‘we’ and I realise what he saw when he came out of the common cabin; Renka and I, flushed and excited coming up from the deserted lower level of the ship. I’m shocked he would think I would be doing something with Renka that would require us to hide. Of course, that is exactly what we were doing, secretly meeting in a hidden room, but not for the reasons Tomas’s look implies. I’m disgusted that he would think so low of me. What is it to him anyway? Who is he to judge me? More importantly, why do I care so much?
Tomas turns around to face us but doesn’t look me in the eye; he just nods Renka’s way and walks back into the common cabin. Max heads towards me with humoured confusion on his face.
“Where have you been?” he asks.
I ignore his question and try to redirect him by asking about his lesson with Tomas and to my utter surprise it distracts him. Usually he’s impossible to distract, this enthusiasm for sketching could come in handy if it lasts.
When we’re in the common cabin Renka announces to those who’re there that we have something important to say. We wait until the others who are scattered about the ship are gathered up, except for Linton and Gerla who’re on sentry; they’ll have to be told about it later.
Not one for flowery speeches, Renka gets right in and tells them what he’s found. He leaves out how he knew where to look and I wonder if it’s my responsibility to tell the others about it. I was angry about not knowing so how can I justify keeping it from them? I was told in confidence but I didn’t enter into any agreement or sworn oath. I settle for leaving it at the moment and thinking about it later.
Of course, Renka goes on about his role in his commune and how structured training and regimented living will enable everyone to learn the basics of the weapons to protect themselves against an attack. I realise he’s convincing everyone that it’s a good idea when heads nod in approval and people start suggesting which weapons they’re familiar with. The mention of axes, batons and knives tells me that they have no more idea of what this secret weapons stash really holds than I did. Damn Renka, from what he’s told me, he’s had about two weeks to work out those weapons, even if there are guns in ‘C’ taken from the BAS safe house that are used in drills, I’m not about to trust him with free reign of the weapon’s facility.
“I disagree with Renka. I’ve seen the weapons in this room and you can’t even imagine what they’re like. They bear no resemblance to the weapons you’ve just mentioned and are absolutely lethal. Even the knives are vicious replicas of what you probably use. They’d easily become more of a hazard in our inexperienced hands than an advantage over an opponent”, I raise my voice to get over the hum of agreement in Renka’s favour that’s emanating from the group.
“But I’ve spent time working out these weapons, and I have a lot of experience training people for combat”, Renka counters confidently.
“And why is that?” I can’t help myself. Renka looks at me with such loathing that I almost regret saying it, almost.
“My commune uses combat techniques as a sort of sport, everyone learns it once they turn four”, he answers through gritted teeth.
He’s very good; except I can’t imagine anyone in any of the other communes thinking sport is a priority. Most of us are struggling to keep fed and warm; the others don’t seem to question it though, not verbally anyway.
“Can you make us proficient enough with a gun in six weeks so that we don’t shoot off our own foot or someone else’s? And who’s to say the alarm won’t be triggered tomorrow or the next day, or even a week from now? Are we to have weapons we don’t understand on us then? We’re more likely to give whomever or whatever it is after us an advantage because if they have weapons they intend to use on us we can be certain they know how to use them well. Do you remember what happened to Karther?” I question looking each person in the eye.
It’s a low blow, but I’m passionate about this. Can he really be serious? Just imagine little Isabella with a long bladed knife, or macho Mickael with a loaded firearm, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
“You assume no one here knows how to use a weapon”, Renka responds waving his arm to encompass everyone in the group.
“No I don’t, I’m sure everyone here has used a knife or bow and arrow to bring down an animal, an animal running away from them not at them. I bet they have skinned and gutted all sorts of animals with a variety of implements. But has anyone here ever used a weapon against a person, someone trying to attack or kill them?” I ask.
I let the question hang there. Renka does too, I’m unsure if I’ve said something to convince him or whether he’s coming up with a counter argument. Much to my surprise it’s Tomas who breaks the silence in support of me.
“Pia is right about us all having weapons we’re not confident in using. They will endanger us more than protect us. But Renka is not wrong, we need to organise ourselves to prepare for when the alarm goes off, we can’t sit around with our fingers in our ears waiting for it to go away anymore. We need to be more regimented”, Tomas addresses the whole group in a commanding voice.
He doesn’t say much publicly but when he does, Tomas obviously knows just what’s needed to keep everyone on side. He effectively took away the Pia versus Renka element with his speech and made it seem like we’re saying close to the same thing.
We end up having a vote about the weapons after we all go down to have a look, with Renka making up some story about accidentally discovering the secret door. It’s decided we shouldn’t hand out the weapons. They all pretty much have my response on seeing the extent of weaponry, the weapons are way out of our league. But a few modest looking knives are considered not much of a threat to us and are chosen to be kept in a cabinet in the common cabin, which is to be our meeting place if the alarm alerts us to an intruder.
Renka is clearly disappointed, but mollified when it’s suggested he show us some of the combat drills he does back home. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we draw up a roster for drill practice. Mickael and Fiona are going to train with Renka to instruct as well, that way Renka doesn’t have to be at every practice. I reflect on having so much of my time accounted for now, with the extra sentry duties and now drills practice I’ll probably have to cut back on my three shower a day habit.
After the long negotiation process involved in organising the group rosters, almost everyone moves to leave the common cabin. Renka goes to talk to Linton and Gerla about the roster. We’d arranged runners to give them information throughout the whole process so they are pretty well informed as it is. I decide to go in search of Tomas. I want to thank him for supporting me in there. Max left a bit earlier to practice his sketching back in our cabin and I told him I’d be there soon.
Tomas is on deck looking out over the water that by now has the reflection of the moon glistening on it in a wavy line. I look at his peaceful form and question whether I should interrupt him. Maybe he’s sick of company. I know I am after having spent more time interacting with the others over the last twenty-four hours than I ever imagined I would. I decid to approach him and read his response at seeing me, I’m pretty certain I can distinguish between a ‘not you again look’ and a ‘great, you again’ one.
He hears my approaching steps and turns his head to see who it is. I can’t see his expression; his face is in total darkness with the moon glowing behind him. I have no choice but to join him at the wall, turning around and walking away is a bit rude. He doesn’t say anything to me, just goes back to his gazing into the night. It gives me time to think about what to say and why I’ve come in search of him. I could have waited for our next sentry duty together tomorrow instead of invading his alone time. I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit distressed about the assumptions I saw all over Tomas’ face when he saw Renka and I together. I want to clear it up somehow, the fact that we took everyone to the weapons room didn’t seem enough to convince Tomas I amin no way involved with Renka.
Why do I care about what Tomas thinks of me? I never would have made the effort to thank him now if it wasn’t for that look I saw on his face. I’m suddenly really angry with myself for caring about this stupid situation. Of all the things I’ve learnt today, this is not what I want to focus on. I’m not going to address the assumptions Tomas made about me, if he wants to discuss it he can bring it up, I’m not going to explain myself to a virtual stranger.
“I just wanted to thank you for stepping in and supporting me before. I’m not sure the others would have agreed with me, Renka was quite convincing”, I say with detached formality.
Tomas looks side-ways at me and I can see he finds me amusing again. His lips are curled up on one side. This seem to direct my anger away from myself and towards him.
“What’s so funny?” I almost growl.
“I just think you should say what you want to say when you think it. Why did you come and find me tonight? You could have waited till tomorrow”, Tomas asks still looking at me sideways.
“And how do you know what I’m thinking? I came to say thank you and I just did”, I respond curtly.
“Well, you’re very welcome, then”, he says after a short pause with that infuriating half smile of his.
“For your information I was reflecting on your obvious assumptions about Renka and me this afternoon”, I say tilting my chin up, daring him to deny it.
That seems to sober him a little, at least he’s no longer smiling.
“Oh, you noticed that did you? I guess I owe you an apology then. I shouldn’t make assumptions about people, or at least not show them so clearly on my face”, he mumbles turning his body to face me.
I’m not sure this wis a real apology; the word ‘sorry’ never actually came out of his mouth. It doesn’t make me feel better about the situation at all and he didn’t say that he believed I didn’t do anything with Renka.
“Thank you for your apology, you’re right, you shouldn’t assume things, you don’t know me and in fact I am not the type of person to steal away to the depths of a ship with a virtual stranger to have some sort of interlude”, I respond with stilted formality and a further rise of my chin.
He stares at me for a second and we both start laughing. The very nature of our meeting in the dark on the ship just proves my statement wrong and the word interlude makes me sound like some ancient prude. The tension between us evaporates, Tomas seems to have a way of doing that. I feel the weightlessness of hope run through me again after the day’s events and relax against the ship’s wall.
“Max has shown some real potential, I’ll feel like a fraud taking any credit for what he can do in a few weeks, he’s a natural”, Tomas comments lightly.
“That’s really great. I’m happy that he’ll have something to occupy him on board for the next six weeks. When I got him out of sentry I hadn’t thought about how his sanity would suffer having so much free time.”
I mean it light-heartedly but my reference to Max’s sanity brings his night terrors to mind and I can tell Tomas wants to talk about it.
“How is Max going?” he asks tentatively.
“If you mean sleep wise, he’s much better onboard than at home. Maybe he just needed a change of scenery”, I think it’s a lot more complicated than that but I don’t want to discuss it with Tomas.
“He told me he dreams about your parent’s death”, Tomas states matter-of-factly.
Max has never spoken to anyone about our parents except me. I don’t know what to make of it, is it a good thing that he’s talking to Tomas?
“He’s never spoken to anyone about it before, what did he tell you?” I ask.
“Just that he dreams about your parents faces. I think it’s a good thing he’s talking about it, maybe it’s a step closer to dealing with it outside of his subconscious in dreams”, Tomas responds thoughtfully.
I can tell Max has told Tomas a bit more, probably a few more gory details, he is skirting around it, likely to avoid upsetting me. He obviously doesn’t know what I think about my parents. I think he’s right about it being a good thing for Max and I’m surprised I don’t feel affronted by his offering an opinion on the matter.
“I hope so, it’s been too long. His enthusiasm for sketching can only help too, thanks for taking the time to teach him”, I say looking away from his face.
“Yeah because I have so little free time on this ship”, Tomas quips sarcastically.
“Well, with our extra duties and now drills practice you’ll have your plate full”.
“I’ll manage. Max is great, I like spending time with him. He has a very straightforward manner. It’s refreshing to know someone who is what they seem to be”, Tomas says as he turns his attention back to the water.
I’m not sure if that last comment was a dig at me or not, but I choose to ignore it. I don’t want to ruin the easy conversation. This new feeling of hope relaxes me allowing insinuations that would usually anger me to roll right off my back.
“Talking about sentry duty, I better go, I’ve got another one later tonight and I want to have a shower and a nap first”, I say turning away.
“I’ll walk you back, I’ve got to do some work in my journal, with the way it is now who knows what earth shattering event will happen tomorrow”, Tomas smirks in reply.
I smile at his sarcasm; he has a dry humour that I find really funny. Sometimes the only clue he’s joking is the small curve of the corner of his mouth.
We start walking back across the deck, it’s such a beautiful night, the stars are so bright and there’re so many out here on the ocean. It’s hard not to feel insignificant in the scheme of things. My problems and I are so miniscule in a universe filled with billions of fireballs, planets and whatever else is out there. It is a comforting thought to know there is more than what is happening in my life.
“It’s really beautiful isn’t it?” Tomas interrupts my thoughts.
I look at him and see what I assume is a replica of the look on my face, absolute awe and a sense of peace. I wonder if he feels put in his place like I do.
“Yeah, it really is”, I mumble softly.
We walk in silence until we get to the stairs where I ask how long it takes him to sketch an entry in his journal.
“It depends on how detailed I want to make it”, he says. “Sometimes I get carried away with some small detail and it becomes really intricate and time consuming. I often rub out what I’m not happy with and start again, or sometimes I use the eraser to add a more textured look, that can take a while to get right. Usually, I get so absorbed in it that I lose track of time. It’s difficult to find a place here where I won’t be interrupted unless I want to spend heaps of time in my cabin”.
He’s so passionate about his sketching and I envy his passion, it seems to consume him and give him a different view of the world, as if he alone can see things that others are blind to.
We stand outside of my cabin for a few minutes before I even realise we are here. I enjoy talking to Tomas, which is more than I expected after the initial anger I felt towards him and his assumptions.
“How do you choose what to draw? It’s hard for me to know what to write sometimes, what to put in or leave out and I think writing is a more expressive medium in terms of content”, I ask.
“No way, I disagree, drawing is very expressive, you can capture so much in one scene, just look at the sketch of the sea bird, what Max got from that. He looked at that and felt all the same things he did when he was watching the sea bird in real life and it gave him a passion for sketching as a form of expression. Or the sketch of Karther and the chess piece, it told the story of his personality, just like the one of Isabella and the fairies. I think writing encourages people to get bogged down in details that are not meaningful. Writers think they need to spell everything out –excuse the pun – for the reader, whereas I can draw something I see and another person can look at it and see something completely different”, Tomas argues enthusiastically.
I think about this for a second and remember all the times I tediously described events that occurred on the ship. Tomas has a point, there is a freedom in his chosen medium, it offers everyone something different, it is more creative and meaningful. I no longer see the skill as useless, it brings something to people that is important, something I never considered important before.
“You really love it, don’t you?” I look up at Tomas and ask.
Without consciously realising it, Tomas and I had leant in closer to each other while we talked. Now that Tomas stopped and is looking directly at me I notice he’s close enough for me to feel the warmth of his skin. Tomas is leaning his shoulder against the wall and I’m mere centimeters away from him. I immediately flush with embarrassment but I can’t break our eye contact. He must realise at the same time I do that we are so close because I see the pulse in the hollow of his neck quicken in my peripheral vision. He too holds our eye contact, as if reading something in my eyes. His penetrating stare and proximity bring a stirring deep in my belly that I’ve never felt before. It washes over me with a force that makes my cheeks flame brighter and my breath come in small gasps. I turn my body a fraction to face him without willing myself to do so, it’s as if my body is making decisions I don’t consciously think about. I see Tomas’s pupils widen as he leans in closer, I want him to kiss me. I want to feel his full lips on mine. He seems to read my body because he reaches out and gently places his hand on the small of my back. He moves me closer and I tilt my head in anticipation, the feeling in my belly is excruciatingly wonderful. Then Max opens the cabin door and we both jump out of our skin.
I plaster a ridiculous smile on my face and imagine Tomas looks the same because Max glances back and forth between us a few times with a quizzical look on his face. I hope with all of my being that he won’t ask the obvious question as he always does and embarrass me further. Whether he’s somehow developed some telepathic powers or just a little social awareness since the last time I saw him I don’t know but he seems to dismiss what is going to be his initial question and asks Tomas to come in and see his shading attempts so far. Tomas gracefully declines saying he has to get back to his cabin and murmurs goodnight before he turns to leave.
I have the biggest anti-climatic feeling course through my body. Only minutes ago my whole being was set for Tomas to kiss me, the stirring in my lower belly is slowly subsiding leaving behind an awful emptiness in its wake. I tell Max I’m going to have a shower and gather the things I need. I want to be alone for a while to think about what just happened.
As the water beats down on my head I realise I’m not unhappy about what almost happened. I’ve never felt those feelings before, there is no one in my commune who I could have any feelings for. Well, that’s not entirely true, there are guys who’re my age and pretty good looking too but I never had time to think about them in that way. I was always looking after Max and the kids next door with Sadie, making sure we had enough food, fuel for fire and generally keeping the run of the house in order. Any time I had left outside of that I was hunting, trading. It’s not a lifestyle conducive to late night trysts even if I wanted one. And always at the back of my mind was the question, what is the point? How much longer would they or I have? Why get close to someone, start something when we all knew what’s going to happen in the end. There are a few people my age who have married only to have to nurse each other to their deaths after a couple of months together. Why put someone through that?
But after today, with what Renka told me I feel different, I feel like I might have a chance, that if I haven’t shown any signs yet maybe I’m not infected and because I’m moving away I never will be. I have always just waited for it to start, thinking that I had the Sickness inside of me, laying dormant, getting ready to invade my body, cell by cell. Now I no longer believe that, I might be able to leave the Sickness behind. If none of us have ever shown signs of Age-Sickness and we’re moving to a new place away from everyone maybe we really do have a chance. It is more than hope, it’s a belief that I can live.
I feel wonderful. The afterglow of what happened with Tomas flows through me and I imagine what I’ll say to him tomorrow. I’m so excited about having three hours of sentry duty with him and wonder what we’ll talk about.
I squeeze the flower-scented liquid soap out of a dispenser on the wall and lather up my body, revelling in the feel of the foam against my skin. I notice a sensitive spot just above my hip and feel a bit of a bump when I wash my hand over it. I look down and see it. It’s round and red, with crustiness on the edge. It is an Age-Sickness sore.
I sink to the floor of the shower. The moment is surreal. I have been waiting for this for so long, expecting it to happen, but it is an immense shock after all that I’ve learnt today. I am going to die.
I don’t know how long I stay in the shower, I vaguely notice my crinkled fingertips and somewhere in my mind I think to turn the water off. Recycled salt water or not, it seems like a waste. I rub myself down avoiding any contact with the sore. I don’t want to look at it. I’ve seen them so many times before, I’ve wiped away the pus that seeps from them and shaken out the crusty scabs of them from clothes before I washed them. I don’t need to look at mine to know what’s next.
All of my movements are mechanical, it’s like my mind has been emptied of any thought, and my body is taking over. I dress in a loose nightdress, plait my wet hair and for some reason put in my Mum’s hairpin. I hear Max call my name and something about Mickael waiting for me to go out on sentry duty. It brings me to the present for a second. I can’t go out there. I’m infected. I could contaminate everyone. The seriousness of the situation dawns on me. Before I knew what Renka told me, I would not have thought about contamination. None of us ever separated the sick. We nursed the dying while we lived among the healthy. We visited those coughing up blood and offered to wash the dirty cloths soaked in it. But now, everything is different, the BAS survivors lived in quarantine. They tried to kill the people who infiltrated it for fear of infection. We have been living like the Sickness is inside us, like we have no choice, we’re going to die from it, no one ever abandons the sick for fear of infection. Now here I am, on a ship with a disease that could infect everyone, kill everyone before we get to The Refuge. Why did the committee send the eldest of us, why didn’t they send younger volunteers who may not have contracted the Sickness yet?
I’m frantic, I consider asking Max to take my sentry duty, writing him a note and jumping overboard. That could give the others a fighting chance, give Max a chance. But how can I be sure I’d make it on deck without seeing anyone? What about the air system down here, it’s some sort of electrical air purifying, cooling and heating system from BAS. Vonteuse explained that it probably recycled our air. It seemed to be the fashion back then, recycle everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if our drinking and shower water is the same water we flush down the toilet systems on this ship. Maybe I’ve already infected everyone. I curse Renka and his stupid commune for keeping this information to themselves. How could they continue to let so many people die? And why would they do that?
Max’s insistent knocking on the bathroom door forces me back from my thoughts. I scramble for a way out of sentry.
“I don’t feel well, Max. Can you please get Mickael to ask Fiona to cover for me? I’ll owe her back”, I call in a surprisingly calm voice.
“What’s wrong? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine; it’s just a bad headache. I’ll go to bed and be fine in the morning, don’t worry”, I respond quickly.
What a stupid thing to say, of course he’s going to worry and how am I going to keep him away from me? Just then something Renka said slams into my consciousness with a force that shakes me from within, ‘I’ll tell you this because the chance of you making it back is slim to none’. I didn’t even give it a second thought at the time, I knew what my chances were of ever seeing ‘G’ again, and I wouldn’t have put my best pelts on slim. But why would he say that after what he knew? It doesn’t make sense. Did he know I was already infected? How could he, I didn’t even know. Something does not fit; I need to talk to Renka. He obviously didn’t tell me all that he knows.
Questions start to flood my mind, why didn’t the people of his commune move away, separate themselves from the rest? Why didn’t they quarantine the infected or, callous or not, kill and burn them as soon as signs of the Sickness were visible? More importantly, why did Commune C’s population suffer the same desolation in numbers as the rest? I know this because the communication screen outside of the Rations Office displays the numbers of the dead at the end of every week. I would have noticed if ‘C’ had significantly lower numbers than the rest. Of course, it could have been rigged, who knew what the Committee were capable of anymore.
The rush of questions brings on a pounding headache, it seems Max won’t be telling a lie about why I skipped sentry. I break out in a sweat. I can feel it trickle down towards the sore. I’m not sure if I am just extra sensitive to that area now or if sweat is really dripping off my skin. It seem that my hip is warmer than any other part of my body. I have to lie down.
I open the bathroom door and find Max staring at me from a sitting position on the bed. He’s sporting a concerned frown, right between the eyes. It is exactly the same as mine. When I see him with it I think we look like brother and sister, otherwise there isn’t that much resemblance between us.
I muster as much confidence in my voice as I can and tell him it’s just a headache and I’m going to bed. I don’t think I fool him for a second. He fusseds over me even though I try to keep him at a distance. The truth is I feel terrible. I am hot and start to shiver violently. I know I have to get to bed quickly if I want Max to believe I’ve only gota headache but I’m a bit shaky on my feet. I plop down on the bed and look down at the foot of the bed where the crumpled blankets are in a heap and feel an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. I can’t even muster up the strength to lean over and pull the blankets up. The next thing I remember is Max talking frantically to someone at the side of my bed. From then I live in a world of dreams.
I am a little girl picking wild garlic from near the stream. The green leafy stems are brushing past my legs as I walk past them. I smile as they tickle me, but when I look down they aren’t stems, they’re thousands of cockroaches crawling up my legs. I scream and squirm, hitting my legs but they just kept coming, an endless supply of cockroaches. Then when I hit my leg my hand goes right through it, I have no substance, I am made of water or something similar. A tormented sound tries to rip out of my mouth only to dissolve in a watery gargle, I am silenced.
It keeps on like this. I don’t know what is real and what is a fever dream. I hear snippets of conversations around me and see concerned faces but I cringe away because they turn into horrible masks, or huge mouths laughing cruelly at me. I’m vaguely aware of my body moving uncontrollably and Max calling my name. He is trying to put a wet cloth on my forehead and I try to smile in reassurance at him, but the cloth suddenly turns into a stick and he is trying to hit me with it. I push him away and try to get out of the bed. Hands hold me down, hands that are streaked with blood.
I wake to an empty and quiet cabin. I’m lying in the foetal position in the moisture of my own sweat. I wonder why I amleft alone. Surely someone would want to be by my side in case I wake or have a seizure from the fever. I feel a little sad about being considered so unimportant, even by Max or Tomas. It is daytime. The room has a shiny quality about it that hints at the sun shining outside. I uncurl myself and sit up, assessing my body as I go. I’m covered in pussy sores; some have crusted into scabs that show the signs of being repetitively scratched. I remember Richard, Sadie’s older brother frantically scratching his sores till they bled and became so badly infected that we had to tie his hands down. I vaguely think that he only got that way after months of the Sickness, has it really been that long?
I try to swallow and let out a groan of agony as I feel my throat constrict in pain. I run my tongue around the inside of my mouth and feel my teeth move. I press against them experimentally with my tongue and they fall out, filling my mouth, rattling together. I open my mouth to scream for help but my teeth just keep on falling and falling out onto the blankets. I frantically try to push them back into my mouth, clawing at my mouth till I taste blood. I am calling for help, for anyone to help me get my teeth back. I feel a sting across my cheek and a second too late hear the clap of a slap. I register that it is supposed to be the other way round before I fall into a deep dreamless sleep.
I wake again and know this time it is real because that shiny quality to the room; that I now realise can’t exist below deck without a window, is not there, and next to me sits Tomas with his journal sitting opened on his lap. I realise it’s the scratching of his pencil that has awakened me. He sees me stir and looks up. He looks so different, older or scruffier or something. He has deep purple circles under his eyes, like he hasn’t slept in days. He doesn’t smile at me, just stares as if confused or wary , expecting my head to suddenly spin around on my shoulders.
I attempt to say hi, but it comes out in an incoherent croak. I clear my throat waiting for the bite of pain I felt the last time I thought I woke up, but there is only a dry parched feel to it.
“Hi”, I try again with some success. He knows what I am trying to say because I see a flicker of acknowledgement in his eyes, but he still just stares. I look around the room and notice Max sleeping in the corner on a mattress that I haven’t seen before. He’s frowning even in his sleep and I want to go and comfort him but I can’t move anything, my body is wracked with exhaustion, as if I’ve just finished chopping wood for every house in my commune.
“What time is it?” I ask.
“What day is it is probably the more important question”, Tomas responds.
“What do you mean? How long have I been in this bed?” I’m was scared he is going to say I’ve been out of it for months or something.
“It’s Tuesday, you’ve been sick for eight days”, he answers slowly.
I let that sink in for a little bit, eight days. I wonder vaguely about my sentry duties and who has been covering for me, and about the drills practice and how that’s been going. I look up at Tomas to ask him about it when Max stirs.
“Pia?” He murmurs as he rubs his eyes and looks around.
“Yeah, it’s me Max, I’m awake”, I say huskily as I try to raise my voice a little.
It’s as if he has been struck by lightning. He sits bolt upright on the mattress and stares at me in utter disbelief. I lift my head a fraction and smile at him. He jumps up and runs over to me crushing me in a hug that squeezes the air out of my lungs.
“You’re alive! You’re alive! I can’t believe it! Tomas, she’s alive!” Max is calling out in excitement over my shoulder.
“Of course I’m alive, you Wally, what did you expect? Eight days and I’d be gone, you know it better than that”, I respond with a smile.
“You were really sick, Pia. You went right through to vomiting up blood in three days, you haven’t eaten in five days and we’ve been forcing small drops of water into your mouth but you weren’t keeping it down”, Max says with the look of someone who isn’t sure if they’re dreaming.
Like everyone else, Max knows the course of Age-Sickness. If you get to vomiting up blood stage you’re very close to the end because you can’t keep any liquids down. Although plenty of people suffering from the disease don’t eat very much and the little fat they have wastes away from their body, they hang on because of the water they consume. Most people can live for months between the first sore and blood vomiting stage. I am shocked that I could have deteriorated so quickly yet am alert and interacting with those around me straight after I awake. I look up at Tomas for confirmation that what Max said is true, he nods his head and continue staring at me in confusion.
I pull myself away from Max, exhausting my movement quota for the day and look down at my body. The blankets, which had been changed from our usual scratchy ones that Max complained about, are gathered at my thighs and my nightie is nowhere to be seen. Instead I have on a singlet top that does not belong to me. I suddenly feel very self-conscious with Tomas there staring at me. The top is longish so it covers my thighs but this is not the usual outfit I’m seen in by anyone except Max and usually not even then. But besides that, I’m disgusted at the way I look, I am rake thin, my ribs protrude at sharp angles through the material of the singlet, my hands, that are now laying on the blankets are so thin as to be alien-like, the rounded knob of each knuckle is defined against the skin and my wrist is so tiny that it doesn’t look like it can support my hand. Even then, it isn’t so much the wasted flesh that is my body that disgusts me, or the pastiness of my skin, it’s the hideous sores that I have scratched and picked at so much that they join together as if they are my skin. There is dried blood and crusty pus residue smeared all over my skin and the singlet top. Somewhere in my mind I think about how I’m going to get this top back in order for the person who lent it to me but dismiss the idea, who would want this thing back after what I’ve done to it? It suddenly dawns on me that I’m not wearing the same clothes I had on when I crawled into bed eight days ago. Someone has changed me. If I was capable of blushing at this moment I would flame a bright crimson, who has undressed me? Who nursed me?
I look back up to see Max smiling at me in what can only be described as unimaginable relief. I don’t know what he ses but it isn’t the alien being that I see when I look at myself. I notice that he has a long scratch that starts at the corner of his eye and spreads down his cheek to the jaw-line. I reach up to touch it and have a flashback to the dream I had of Max hitting me with a stick. I feel sick, have I done this to him? Tears well in my eyes and the smile is wiped from Max’s face.
“No, don’t cry, don’t worry about it, it doesn’t hurt, you didn’t know what you were doing, don’t cry”, he begs frantically.
Max is back in my arms squeezing me. I feel the frailty of my body afresh because Max seems bigger than me. That thought brings on a new rush of tears and I find myself crying uncontrollably. Any dignity I had maintained during the last eight days in front of Tomas is now gone. I can’t stop crying great wracking sobs that do not sound even remotely human-like. Max is patting my back and murmuring soothing noises that I use on him when he wakes from his night terrors. I think about the reversal of our roles, I never wanted this for Max, I never wanted him to have to nurse me the way I had nursed others. If it’s possible my crying reaches new heights until I have tired myself out. The last thing I remember is Max lowering me down to my pillow.
I wake up some time later and Fiona is sitting beside my bed. She looks tidy and efficient as always but she has the same deep purple rings under her eyes as Tomas. I’m relieved to see her there, I fervently hope that it was her who changed me and tended to my sores and other bodily functions. I smile at her and she smiles back.
“It’s good to see you awake”, Fiona comments softly.
“I’m starving”, I croak, it’s the most urgent need of my body.
“I’m glad, that’s a good sign and lucky too that I brought this down for you”, Fiona responds with a small smile.
She move to the small drawer set next to the bed and picks up a bowl covered in a cloth. It is then that I notice the most glorious smell I have ever smelt. It must have been that delicious scent that caused me to awaken with food on my mind.
“What is that?” I ask trying to sit up.
“It’s a fish broth Mayther cooked”, Fiona explains.
I am so grateful to her and Mayther and anyone else who had a part in this meal. I don’t think I could have stomached a dried biscuit or salted meat as my first meal, a nice piece of freshly cooked rabbit would have gone a treat but there isn’t much chance of that and since I haven’t eaten in days a light meal is probably all I can stomach, despite what my brain is telling me. We had had steamed fish when it was caught but no one had ever thought to make a soup from fish, simply because it would be fish water with no seasoning, we had no access to herbs or spices here. Fish itself is a much more fulfilling meal than soup anyway, why would we waste any part of it for a broth.
“Here, let me”, Fiona says as she moves her chair over to my bed and proceeds to spoon-feed me the soup. It is as delicious as it smelt but I can’t even get through a third of it, my stomach must have shrunk to the size of a pea. As that thought crosses my mind I feel I need to pee and move to get out of bed to make my way to the toilet.
“Oh no you don’t, stay there”, Fiona admonishes.
She puts slight pressure on my shoulders to push me back down, not that there is any fight in me to deny her. I relent with good grace and she reaches under the bed and pulls out a chamber pot. I look at it ruefully and am about to protest but decide my chances of getting to the toilet without collapsing and breaking a bone are fairly slim.
After the business is taken care of I feel much better than I did the first time I woke up. I shy away from thinking about that time in case a fresh flood of tears comes on.
“Have you been nursing me the whole time?” I ask.
“Yes, with help from the others”, Fiona responds looking at me sideways.
“What others?” I cringe internally at the image of Tomas holding a chamber pot for me.
“Gerla, Isabella, Merva, Max and Tomas”, Fiona replies matter-of-factly.
I wince as she lists the names. The thought of those people seeing me in the state I was in is just horrifying. I can’t even imagine how Merva found herself at my bedside unless she had intended on using the freaky show I put on against me somehow. I mentally chastise myself for being cruel. She has obviously done something very nice for me; I can at least give her the benefit of the doubt.
“Oh, thanks”, I mumble.
It is nowhere near enough for what they would have had to deal with over the last eight days but how else can I thank her, or them. I guess I can start by not thinking badly of them as soon as I’m lucid enough to put two thoughts together.
“It was all of us really, the rest of them were covering for sentry duties and teaching the drills to us at different times in the day”, Fiona adds.
“Who changed my clothes?” I have to ask, it’s something I can’t get from my mind. I don’t want Tomas, or Max or Merva for that matter to see me naked and most likely thrashing around in a fever-induced rage.
“I did that part”, Fiona answers looking me directly in the eyes.
Thank God for that, for some reason it doesn’t seem as bad to have Fiona see me like that. I can imagine her going about the business with the ease and efficiency she does everything else.
“Thanks”, it escapes my mouth in a relieved sigh. I hope it conveys the deep gratitude I feel towards her.
“No problem, we’ve all done it before, you would have done it for any one of us”, Fiona waves her hand in dismissal of my thanks.
My initial response to that is, yes of course I would have. I’ve had plenty of experience in dealing with the symptoms of the Sickness. But after a split second I think I wouldn’t have gone near whoever it was after what Renka had told me. Thinking about Renka brings back all of the questions I had when I found the sore. He is keeping something from me, nothing makes sense. The fact that I believed every word of it is an embarrassment to me. I should have questioned him further, I should have thought critically about it. Jumping straight into believing him makes the fall from the heights of hope that much more painful.
“You look really tired, get some sleep. I’ll wait here until Max comes back”, Fiona says in her no-nonsense-yet-caring sort of way.
“Yeah, I feel so tired, was I really as bad as Max and Tomas said I was?” I want clarification from Fiona, she isn’t one to exaggerate the facts and it seems slightly farfetched to me that I went from one sore to a full-blown case of Age-Sickness on the brink of death in only eight days. Fiona studies me for a minute, looks me straight in the eye and nods.
“You were in the final stages of the Sickness, you had not passed water for two days, you were losing blood through all of your orifices, Isabella and Linton have sewn a shroud for you and we have all folded a paper flower in preparation”, she states.
That’s a little too much information. What Fiona describes could not possibly have been me, it’s too hard to fathom, impossible.
“How can that be? How did I suddenly wake from that? What happened?” I ask frantically.
The questions are running around in my head, I can’t understand, I can’t put the person Fiona describes anywhere near the ‘me’ who is talking coherently to her in this moment.
“Tomas said you were burning with fever, calling out and moaning, he tried to cool you down with a wet cloth and you pushed it aside. Then you fell silently asleep and Tomas assumed you were going to pass peacefully, he let you be for some time, intending on waking Max before you breathed your last breath but you stirred and said hi to him instead”, Fiona explains calmly.
Although Fiona speaks matter-of-factly there’s an undercurrent of disbelief or confusion in her voice. I can’t think of a response to this. It is unbelievable. By all rights my organs should have shut down due to dehydration at least, not to mention loss of blood and no nutrients.
I just can’t think about it anymore. It’s all too much too soon, my mind is scrambling with exhaustion. Thankfully, Fiona reads the look on my face and tells me to go to sleep, she excuses herself to use the bathroom and I close my eyes losing consciousness almost immediately.
Max is sleeping on the mattress in the corner the next time I wake so I assume it’s nighttime. There is no one else in our cabin and I’m relieved, I need time to think. My sleep was fraught with dreams about the BAS safe house and Renka. Even in my sleep my mind is not satisfied with the story he told. I can’t drop the idea that the very first response to a sickness that is quickly becoming a fatal pandemic would have been quarantine and research into what it was and how to stop it, if quarantine had worked we wouldn’t have the problems we were having now. Even if people still contracted the disease because they weren’t careful we would know not to come in contact with them. That type of knowledge does not die, no matter how many people die over how many years. But we don’t do that, somewhere along the line people must have written off quarantine as a means of stopping the Sickness. There’s heaps of stuff that we no longer know, how to use a lot of the BAS technology, for instance, but any knowledge about stopping Age-Sickness would have been engraved into our ancestral psyche. Renka either made up his story or left out some pretty important parts. I need to speak to him as soon as possible.
The first time I attempt to get out of bed I crash to the floor bruising my hip badly. After that, I decide to concentrate on getting healthy before I confront Renka with my accusations. My body is healing fast but I’m nowhere near my pre-sickness strength and I seem to lose my train of thought frequently. I fall asleep in seconds and have at least three naps in the day as well as eleven hours at night. I started to eat more textured meals and my appetite is growing steadily but I can’t eat large quantities in one go so I’m eating small meals every hour or so. With my schedule of eating and sleeping, with a few toilet stops in between, there really isn’t much time to do anything else. The healing process is not as rapid as the development of the Sickness which is very annoying to me, it seems pretty unfair, although on seeing the response I get from everyone who comes to visit I’m lucky to be alive and shouldn’t complain. And I know it to be true.
The ironic thing is that I se more of the others during my healing process than I ever did before. They come and talk to me as if we are great friends who have known each other for years. Merva is a surprise. She is still her catty self but I see another side to her, she says really condescending things that would usually drive me crazy but the sting is taken out of them as she fixes the blankets around me, puffs my pillow and tidies away my food scraps. She is motherly or at least nurse-like. I start to ignore her jibes and concentrate on the nice things she is doing.
Linton is not a surprise. He always comes with Isabella and is constantly snivelly and contrary about everything. I’m relieved when he leaves after each visit. Mickael comes often and brightens up the cabin with his jokes and stories about what has been happening while I’m stuck in bed. He makes a boring fishing story into something hilarious and I find myself looking at him a little differently. I found him a bit annoying and over the top before; someone I’d avoid because I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. But after his frequent visits I can see he is just a happy person.
It isn’t just Mickael who I look at differently. Everyone else seems to reveal a different side to themselves. It might be that I’m paying more attention or it could be that I’m grateful to be alive and have leant a gloss to everyone around me.
The visits from everyone make the absence from one more pronounced – Renka. He is nowhere to be seen. Fiona always explains that he’s doing drills with someone, taking on my extra sentry duties, fishing or something else, anything but coming to talk to me. I have a theory about that. He knows I’m going to confront him about his story and is avoiding me. It can’t be for fear of getting infected from me because he’s come in contact with everyone else on board and they are in my cabin all the time. I intend to seek him out as soon as I can walk further than a few steps. I’ve asked Fiona to get him to visit me a couple of times, just to see if he’ll come, but there is always an excuse. It’s probably better this way anyway; I don’t want him to be able to walk away from me.
Overall, I’m content with having visitors, I never would have thought this of myself but when you’re spending twenty-four hours a day lying in a bed you take whatever entertainment comes your way.
The only person I don’t really look forward to seeing is Tomas. Things are strained between us, I think it’s more from me than him, I can’t get over him seeing me at my most vulnerable, my most ugly, my most insane. It certainly takes out any romance that could have occurred between us. I can’t look at him without feeling exposed, so I just don’t look at him. Until you try not to look at someone who is sitting in front of you, you can’t realise how hard it is and how obvious it is that you’re trying to avoid looking at them. The whole situation is very uncomfortable, I’m relieved when Max is there with us because then they mainly talk about their sketching. On the fifth day after I woke up Tomas sat beside my bed sketching in his journal. I was having one of my daytime naps and woke without him noticing. He had his journal angled so that I could see what he was working on. Without realising it I had inhaled sharply at what I saw alerting Tomas to my state of wakefulness. He looked up at me but didn’t try to hide the sketch. It was of me in my worst state while I was sick. I had the singlet top on but one strap had fallen off the shoulder revealing the sharp angles of my shoulder and collarbone. My face was distorted in a tormented mask of agony, with blood trickling from my nose and mouth. I was covered in grotesque sores that wept pus and blood. I was the most disgustingly frightening thing anyone could ever see. I had avoided looking at myself in the mirror up until that day so this sketch was the first I had seen my new sore-covered face. I am appalled that Tomas has not only seen me this way but has captured it in so much detail in his journal. I want to confront him about it but I can’t find the strength to string together an argument against it without sounding completely vain. I just closed my eyes again, but I couldn’t stop a traitorous tear from running down my cheek.
Ever since then I haven’t really said that much to Tomas, we mostly sit in silence or speak about the general goings-on around the ship with very little enthusiasm. The ease of conversation we had experienced the night I found the Age Sore is gone and I don’t think it will ever return.
As for everyone else, the only topic that never comes up with anyone is why and how I have come back from such a serious case of Age-Sickness. I will happily forgot all about it myself, who knows when the next bout could come along. I’d rather try to get as healthy as possible before then, not dwell on the why’s and how’s anymore. At first I couldn’t let it go, I didn’t believe it was possible that I was as bad as everyone said but my body didn’t lie. In the end I decided that the only thing I really wanted was to get Max to The Refuge. I don’t know if it is an answer to our problems but I can’t handle the thought of Max having to watch my body being thrown overboard then spending his days and nights alone in this tiny cabin. At least by the time we reach The Refuge he would have gotten to know the others better, he won’t be as lonely. I might be able to set him up a shelter with some others so he’ll be protected and supported.
It is the Sickness and the way it’s ravaged my body that has forced me to realise keeping Max to myself is wrong; it isn’t good for him. He should be closer to the others, learn to get help and comfort from them. If I’m honest with myself, this realisation was thrust in my face when I saw Max interact with the others who came to do things for me. He was polite more than comfortable, but he was very grateful for their help, just unsure how to show it. The only people he seems to relax more with are Tomas and Fiona. It’s understandable. I mean they are the ones who make me feel comfortable, well up until the Sickness struck anyway.
I venture out further than the hallway outside my cabin after recuperating for eight days. I desperately want to see the sun and water and breathe air that actually comes directly from the Earth’s atmosphere. Max helps me climb the stairs, it is a tedious task but once I’m on deck I feel it’s well worth it. Tomas has brought up a high-backed chair from the common cabin for me to sit on, sheltered by the dome from the breeze. I recognize the gesture but am a bit annoyed at being treated like an invalid, which I know I basically am, but does he have to make it so obvious?
I sit staring out to sea without talking to anyone for an immeasurable amount of time, it’s so beautiful, breathtaking really. I did my research before this little excursion, I found out that Renka is on sentry this morning, he’ll begin his shift very soon because Mayther just replaced Gerla and Diego is looking around for his replacement. It will be a perfect opportunity to finally talk to Renka. I’ve gotten everything I need to say straight in my mind. I’m ready to confront him, more than ready; I’m desperate to know why he lied and what exactly he lied about.
Hurried footsteps shuffle to an abrupt stop behind me and I know it’s Renka, probably shocked to see me on deck. I stand up from the chair and turn to face him, my movements alert Max who is leaning against the ship’s wall and he quickly walks over to me. Max knows me well enough not to help me secure my balance on the gently swaying deck; instead he stands beside me facing Renka. With a look of resignation Renka squares his shoulders and starts to walk towards me, it’s slightly comical that I, a frail, weenie, pockmarked girl, can halt someone like Renka in his tracks. The thought makes me smile and Renka responds with a tentative smile of his own.
“Hi, Renka, how have you been?” I ask, innocent enough.
“Good, thanks, you’re looking much healthier, I’m glad you’re feeling better”, he replies uncertainly.
“I am, thanks, can I talk to you for a minute please?” beginning pleasantly seems like a good idea.
“I can’t right now, I’m on sentry, sorry, maybe another time”, Renka says regaining his composure.
“Don’t worry, it won’t take long and Max will cover for you, right, Max?”
“I don’t mind”, Max responds and walks straight over to relieve Diego without waiting for Renka to agree.
“So, I guess you know what I want to talk to you about?” I ask, hoping Renka will just spill the beans without me having to ask question after question and decipher what is a lie or not.
“I have a fair idea”, he responds curtly.
Well, that approach didn’t work, so I start with the most important question.
“Is Age-Sickness contagious or not?” I ask looking him directly in the eyes, daring him to lie.
Renka gazes around the deck immediately uncomfortable, he glances either side of him to see if anyone is in ear shot and turns back to me with frustration written all over his features.
“Now is not the right time to talk about this, can’t we do it in a more private setting?” Renka hisses through gritted teeth.
“I did ask for you to come and see me in my cabin but you refused, so answer the question please”, I refuse to lower my voice.
“Look, I don’t know okay, I can’t talk about this here, I’ll talk to you later. I’ve got to go”, Renka responds hurriedly.
At that he starts to walk towards Max and Mayther, I don’t have the speed to reach him so I call out the one thing I think will stop him.
“I’m going to tell everyone what you told me in the common cabin tonight after drills practise”, I holler across the deck and watch Renka’s back stiffen in response.
Everyone goes back to the common cabin after drills to return the knives they use so I’ll have a full audience. Renka turns towards me abruptly, red-cheeked and fuming. He walks back with a long purposeful stride and I nearly flinch at his closeness, but I’m determined not to let him think I find him even remotely intimidating, especially not when I’m physically so depleted.
“You can’t do that”, he pushes through gritted teeth.
“Yes I can, you have no right keeping information like that from us. We have left our homes and families and deserve to know everything. After drills tonight…” I warn and turn to walk away, mainly for dramatic effect. I don’t really think Renka will leave it like that and I’m right. He reaches out and grabs my upper arm then cringes back in what looks like disgust. My bones sre so close to the skin, I’m like a baby bird, everything about me screams breakable. I’m offended by his response but fight to keep the emotion from my face.
“Alright, I’ll come down to your cabin after sentry, three hours, I promise”, he says resigned.
“Good, if not I’ll see you in the common cabin tonight”.
At that last statement I walk towards the stairs leading to the lower level, Max catches up to me before I get there and begins to chastise me for not waiting for him but I silence him with a look. The whole interaction with Renka has utterly exhausted me. I want more than to sleep until he comes to visit.
I’m dragging my feet along the hall outside our cabin when it occurs to me that Renka cringed when he touched me, maybe it wasn’t my wasted flesh that repelled him but the sores that are scattered over my arm where he made contact. Does that answer my question?
I try to work through this idea as I lay down in bed but fall asleep before I can consider any other options.
I wake to soft voices, they sound like they’re arguing about something. When I open my eyes, I see that Tomas and Max are talking to Renka. He’s outside the cabin door peering through the slit that Tomas has opened and is now trying to close.
“She’s asleep, she doesn’t want to see you”, Tomas hisses in aggravation.
“She asked me to come and see her, she’s expecting me”, Renka argues back in frustration.
“I doubt that, you haven’t cared enough to see her the whole time she was sick, why would she want you anywhere near her?” Tomas spits angrily.
At this I clear my throat and sit up patting down my sure-to-be fuzzy hair. All three of them look my way and Renka uses the opportunity to push his way into the cabin.
“Hey”, Tomas calls out trying to block his entry with his shoulder. I would have thought that Renka would have it all over Tomas but their physique isn’t that much different. I’d always perceived Renka to be brutish in appearance and Tomas to be softer or something.
“No, Tomas, he is right, I did ask Renka to come and see me today”, I call over the ruckus they’re making.
The words have an immediate effect on Tomas’ stance. He angles his shoulder away from Renka and visibly slumps as if completely deflated. He looks at me and nods, then turns to Max mumbling that he’ll see him later before he walks out as quickly as he can manage. Sadness at Tomas’ reaction floods my senses but it doesn’t completely wash out the feeling of anger that Tomas somehow appointed himself as my personal security guard. I never asked him to do that and I certainly don’t need it.
“Max, can you please leave us alone for a few minutes, I need to talk to Renka”, Max responds to this in much the same way as Tomas. He reluctantly agrees to leave and I hear anger directed at me and a warning directed at Renka in his voice when he states that he’ll be with Tomas drawing.
As soon as he leaves I get out of bed, straightening my clothes and excuse myself to go to the bathroom, a bit of time freshening up is what I need. I also want Renka to understand that I’m doing this on my terms not his. I don’t want him thinking me as frail as I look. He had just had three hours, well nearly three weeks really, to get his story sounding as reasonable as possible and I need to be able to question him at every turn.
When I come out of the bathroom he’s standing looking intently at my mother’s hairpin in his hand. I walk around him and sit on the small chair in the corner, it seems a better vantage point than the bed. Invalid is not the impression I want to leave him with, it’s bad enough he came when I was having a day nap.
“It was my mother’s, a family heirloom”, I comment motioning for him to take the seat in the opposite corner.
“I know”, he mumbles placing it back down on the bedside table before sitting down.
“What do you mean you know?” I’m confused at his response.
“I know a lot about your parents, maybe more than you do”, he quips nonchalantly.
What do my parents have to do with this? Is this something Renka said to distract me? I stare at him and sense a level of smugness in his demeanour causing a fiery anger to swell in my stomach.
“Stop making statements to get a reaction out of me, Renka and tell me the whole story. Nothing you said makes sense. As far as I can see you have two options, you can tell me the truth and I will make of it what I will, deciding whether I will tell the others or not. Or you can tell me half truths or total lies and I will take it to everyone so that you’re pressured not just by me but by everyone on this inescapable ship for the next month,” I spit at him.
I practiced that speech while I was stuck in bed for the last week and although I still expect him to leave out as much as he can get away with, I have every intention of bringing everyone else in on it if I’m less than satisfied with what he says.
He looks at me, assessing the truth to my words, I stick my jaw out and stare back at him. He has no idea how stubborn I can be. This seems to have some effect because he sits back in his chair, links his hands and lets out a long breath through his teeth.
“What don’t you believe of what I said?” he asks in a sigh.
“I think it would be more prudent if I ask the questions and you answer them honestly. I’ll start with the one I asked you this morning. Is Age-Sickness contagious, will quarantine stop its spread?”.
“I don’t know”.
“Well, you implied it very strongly the other day, if not outright stated it, why did you do that if you didn’t know?” I ask not masking my annoyance at his deception.
“Because I could see you wanted to believe I had answers; that you needed to have some faith in this journey. Do you think we can’t see how negative you are about the whole thing?” he accuses leaning forward.
This throws me a little, until I realise he had intended on doing just that, have me reflect on myself instead of question him. He’s extremely frustrating and I’m sick of his roundabout responses. I’m going to tire out before I can get anything out of him. I chose to ignore that answer as one that gives no information of any consequence. If anyone knows how negative I am about this whole thing it’s me.
“I’m not interested in your thoughts on my mental state, if you’re going to be purposely elusive then just leave right now and I’ll talk to everyone tonight like I planned”, I’m not bluffing, I don’t have the strength to deal with his wordplay.
“I just answered your question”, he responds arrogantly.
At this I stand up, walk over to the door and hold it open for him, indicating with my head for him to walk through it.
“Leave please. I’ll leave the questions up to everyone else to ask you”, I say curtly.
“Alright, alright, just sit back down, I’ll tell you what I know but you have to promise to keep this between us. I shouldn’t have told you what I did before and I’ll be implicating a lot of people in what I have to say”, Renka grumbles in resignation with sagging shoulders.
“No, I won’t promise that, I’ve given you the conditions, it’s your choice to tell me or not but I won’t promise to keep it from everyone if I think it’s in their best interests to know”.
I’m not going to let him set the boundaries. What can he possibly tell me that would have to be kept from all of the volunteers? It’s ridiculous; we’re so far from home with no way to contact anyone, except the committee once we arrive at the dock. What is he worried about, not being liked anymore? I’m not sure he’s well liked now.
Renka sits for a long time with a calculating stare as if he can change my mind with his eyes. I look down at him from the doorway and meet his stare with stubborn determination. I hoped we were over these stupid games.
“After the people from my commune had killed the BAS survivors they found one still alive. He was hiding in some sort of sealed room in the safe house, they really thought of everything. They were able to get some information from him before he died”, Renka says holding my glare.
“What do you mean get information from him before he died?” how much more is there?
“If you’re going to ask questions every three seconds this will take a lot longer and can you shut the damn door and sit down”, Renka responds angrily.
I think about reasserting my control over the conversation and my earlier condition but I decide to keep quiet and let him talk. Hopefully I can keep a store of my questions for the end. Taking my seat I nodded for him to continue.
“He was really old and they said he died of heart failure, that’s all I know. I’d like to think he offered information freely, why wouldn’t he?” Renka questions with a shrug of his shoulders.
Probably for the same reason his friends tried to kill you all, I think, but don’t say aloud.
“Anyway”, he continues, “he told them about how they all came to be down in the safe house and how they had escaped the Sickness. He didn’t know how it was passed on or if it existed inside of us, because people were getting it in and out of quarantine centres in the early days. But they thought they had found a way to stop it. Before they could help everyone, it all fell apart and they locked themselves away”, Renka explains as he paces the width of the small cabin.
This sounds farfetched and way too convenient but I’m going to let him continue to see if he can reel it back into the realm of reality. I motion with my hand for him to give more details.
“My dad told me that the man’s story was verified by things they found in the safe house. It was… basically a vaccination against Age-Sickness”, Renka reluctantly says this last sentence and pauses to look at me, gauging my reaction. I can’t help but fire questions at him.
“If that’s true why didn’t they give the vaccination to everyone? How did they come up with a vaccination in the first place, the research was unfinished, the scientists died? And why did they kill the people from your commune if they weren’t scared of contamination?” These are just the very beginning of questions I want to ask about this piece of information.
He gives me a disdainful look, frustrated at my interruption, but proceeds to answer my questions anyway.
“It wasn’t the scientist’s who found out about the vaccination, it was a normal person like you and me, and they would have vaccinated everyone but the immune donor died. For you to understand any of this you need to let me tell you what the survivor told my dad and the others”, Renka grumbles through gritted teeth as he looks at me in warning.
Once he’s satisfied I’m not going to interrupt again he relaxes into his chair and describes what he knows.
To call the person a BAS survivor isn’t exactly accurate, Age-Sickness had already decimated the population, the only difference Renka describes to now is that the people were scared, really frightened of the disease, the fear made them do crazy things, as opposed to now where everyone is resigned to the fact that unless they’re killed in some freak accident they’ll most certainly die of Age-Sickness. The survivor explained that his neighbour contracted the disease and got really sick really quickly. By this time they knew quarantine didn’t work. There were places built underground in earlier years but those who retreated to them died of Age-Sickness anyway, so the survivor helped his neighbour through the Sickness. The neighbour was a twenty-year-old woman who had a child and whose husband had died a few months before. The symptoms didn’t take the usual course they did for everyone else. They were worse and came on all at once instead of coming at different times. But the most unusual aspect of it was that she woke up as if she had just been asleep after a week. Her family had prepared for her death. Her son was living with his aunty already. It was too distressing for him to see his Mum in the later stages of the Sickness. Everyone was shocked that she survived after such extreme sickness, but they assumed she would be hit with another bout soon and that would finish her off. It took a few weeks for her to heal enough to get back to normal life. She waited for the telltale sore but it didn’t come.
It was the blood from this woman that was mixed with pus from someone infected with Age-Sickness that created the vaccine. Renka explained that he didn’t know how long they waited for the woman to show more symptoms of the Sickness, only that the survivor and a small group of others used themselves as guinea pigs, scraping small amounts of pus from the sore of an infected person, mixing it with the woman’s blood and putting it in cuts they made on their skin. They did this over the course of many weeks and all of them showed signs of Age-Sickness, but only one got really sick and died. They wanted to wait and see if it definitely worked, but questioned what difference it would make if everyone was going to die of it anyway. They told the people in their community about it and had planned to vaccinate anyone who wanted it, but before they got to that stage the woman whose blood they needed died in a hunting accident. There was some of her blood left but only enough to vaccinate a small group.
Renka describes a scene that was not that much different to the Pro-Sickness Campaigner’s riots. Everyone wanted the last of the vaccine; things became violent when a group of people kidnapped a vaccinated girl to get blood from her. They were cruel in their methods and she died. It was then that the vaccinated people escaped to the underground quarantine zone.
At first I try to absorb this information critically. It’s a very detailed story and there’s a lot I don’t quite understand. But there’s one factor that is glaring me in the face; the woman who developed immunity had gotten really sick, really fast, then suddenly woke after a week. This isn’t a coincidence, surely. Renka has obviously told me this because he thinks I’ll grasp hold of the idea that I could have immunity now. He’s working on giving me hope again, to try and get me to leave him alone, stop asking questions. How dare he make up such an elaborate tale? To say I’m furious is an understatement, my whole body stiffens in response to the anger that burns through me. Any thought of Renka’s story being true leaves with the arrival of my fury.
“Do you expect me to believe that? You think I don’t know what you’re trying to do? Creating a character in a story that parallels me so that I get my hopes up again! Get out! I don’t want to hear anymore of this. I’ll speak to everyone later and you can deal with them instead”, I yell at Renka feeling the heat flush to my face.
I’m so angry with him. I stand up and with shaking hands hold the door open for him for the second time in the conversation.
“I knew that was your mother’s hair pin for the same reason that I know she and your father committed suicide before Age-Sickness got them. That before they died they both had unusual symptoms that came and went. That you had a girl called Sadie living next door to you who had an older brother who you helped nurse before he died”, Renka says clearly and calmly, a direct contrast to the emotion in my voice.
His words shock me out of my anger. How can he know these things? Had Max spoken to someone on board and Renka overheard? But why would Max talk about our parent’s getting sick or me helping with Richard, Sadie’s brother? I’m frowning at Renka and he must take it as a sign that I still don’t believe him because he starts up again.
“Your Mum’s name was Sara and she was the younger of two sisters, her sister didn’t die of Age-Sickness but from a cut that got infected when she fell from a tree. Your Dad’s name was Antonio; he was an only child and a good hunter. He had a scar on his left temple from where an arrow grazed past him during a hunting trip with his friend. You were their first child, born on the seventh of December and Max came five years later on the third of December”, Renka continues reeling off the facts he knows.
I had forgotten about Dad’s scar. He did get that in a hunting accident when I was four years old. I remember my Mum boiling up some herbs in a tied cloth and placing it on his temple. In a daze I close the door and walk back to my chair. I stare at Renka and my mind is blank. He must be waiting for me to ask more questions because there is silence between us for at least five minutes until he leans forward and tells the rest of what he knows.
“I said there were things in the safe house that verified the survivor’s story, things that we could use if there ever was someone else who showed potential of developing immunity. The committee placed a person in each commune to observe its members and report back if there was any sign of unusual symptoms. Richard Preston was the most recent person in your commune. He and others before him reported your parent’s symptoms to the committee and their observations were recorded. When they died, Richard was to keep an eye on you and Max to see if either of you showed any potential. The thought was that maybe there was some hereditary component to immunity if it existed at all. The fact that you held the record of being the eldest made you a prime candidate. There were a couple of others in Commune E and J who were also candidates but one died after only two months of the Sickness and the other is still being observed. When Richard died six months ago the committee had already decided on this quest and knew you were going to be a volunteer. They gave me the file on you and your family to learn before we left. I was to take up Richard’s role and observe you and Max”, Renka finishes with a sigh.
I am gob smacked. The blankness in my mind from earlier clears way for a billion questions and denials. If this is true it leant a different meaning to the Committee agreeing to let Max come along with me. Not only am I the eldest, they believe me to potentially be immune to Age Sickness. One thing I can’t get out of my head is that if my parents knew they could have been candidates for immunity they might not have taken their own lives. No good could come from secrets like these. People can have hope, lives can change. Then I remember what Renka said about the people the survivor described. The ones who kidnapped the girl to get her blood and I imagine our house being stampeded by frenzied people. Hope can be a dangerous thing.
I question if I’m jumping in too fast, believing what Renka says because I want rather than because it is true. What proof do I have? There is the information about my parents, a lot of that he couldn’t possibly have known without someone close to my family telling him. I guess he could have known someone in my commune who may have known these things, but I’d have found out if someone were asking about my family. Still, I want something more, something concrete before I allow myself to believe wholeheartedly what Renka is offering me.
“I need more proof. What you are saying is unbelievable. I need more”, I croak with barely restrained emotion.
Renka looks as if he isn’t expecting this response. What did he think that I was going to jump up and down with excitement, or fly on the wave of hope he set me on earlier with a lie? He lets out a breath and I can read his thoughts all over his face. They go from anger at me asking too much, to frustration at having to answer to me, to resignation in the fact that he had already said so much. So what is the point in leaving out the little that is left? He squares his shoulders and looks me straight in the eye.
“The proof is in the dome”.
“You have known all along what’s inside the dome?” I ask stunned.
How much has Renka kept to himself? I remember thinking Renka is just an annoying egotist who loves talking about how good he is; maybe that’s all a cover, although that would make him a brilliant liar. To think I listened to so many theories about the stupid dome, and Renka providing some of them, makes me annoyed. How much more will Renka reveal? And what will he keep to himself?
“The committee sent some of the objects from the safe house and instructions about how to use them in case someone showed potential as an immune donor”, Renka says, wiggling his eyebrows at the word ‘someone’.
I cringe at the thought of people talking about me and making plans about my future ‘potential’ for anything. Who knows if the Sickness will show up again? I can get another fresh sore at anytime and all of what Renka believes will go up in smoke. On top of that, the evidence to confirm Renka’s claims is conveniently located in the apparently impenetrable dome. Unless… maybe Renka knows how to open it too. I ask Renka just that as soon as I think it.
He shakes his head in response claiming, “No, I don’t know how to open it. I was only told that the dome would open automatically when we reached the docking port, it’s something controlled by the ship itself”, with a scowl on his face.
“Well, that’s awfully convenient. The only hard evidence you have to support your story is locked away in the only part of this damn ship we can’t access. You expect me to believe everything you have said based on a few facts about my parents even though I have caught you lying. I’m not that easily convinced”, I spit sardonically.
“Look, it’s not my job to convince you of anything. I don’t know what possible gain you think I could get from making this stuff up. Believe it or not you can’t ignore some of the facts. One, you got really sick from Age-Sickness and then miraculously woke up. That in itself is unheard of, well by most people anyway. Two, your parents both had symptoms that came and went in a very unusual way for the pattern of the Sickness as we know it. Three, I know so much about your parents that I couldn’t have found out on my own. I’ve never been to your commune and I haven’t spoken to you or Max about them. And finally, four, I knew how to open the BAS door which seemed like magic to you, that is proof of the safe house existing in my commune. As for anything else you think you need justified, work it out yourself. I don’t have all the answers. But after what I have seen of your sickness and your recovery I believe you are the immune donor and I intend on treating you that way”, Renka responds angrily thrusting his finger towards my chest to emphasise his point.
After this passionate speech Renka stands up and makes to leave but I block his way. I need a few more answers to some of the things that don’t make sense to me and while I have him in my cabin I intend to make the most of it. Although, I can feel exhaustion seeping into my body and my vision is going a little fuzzy around the edges so I have to work quickly before I lose my train of thought altogether.
“Wait, I have a couple of questions. Why did the survivors kill the people from your commune if they knew they couldn’t die from Age-Sickness? If there was a small group of people with apparent immunity why didn’t they just organise to give their blood to the others before people went crazy? And why did the committee choose you to ‘watch’ me and send some really important instruments along with you then not give you access to them or a way to communicate with them?” I fire these questions at Renka, who stands close to the door, because these seem like the most important ones to ask, not the only ones by far. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath then lets it back out again in frustration. When he opens his eyes again he’s glaring at me as if I infuriate him.
“I don’t have all the answers to those questions. My Dad’s theory about why they attacked was because they had gone a bit insane after being locked underground for so long, but your guess is as good as mine. As for why they didn’t just give their own apparently immune blood, it was described to me as chaos, no governing body, everyone frightened to the point of violence, it just didn’t work. And isn’t it obvious why the committee chose me? I’m from ‘C’, I was the eldest and I already knew so much about it because of my Dad, I was the perfect choice. I’ve been wondering the whole time why they didn’t give me a way to contact them and why I don’t have access to the dome, so you’ll have to work that one out yourself. Satisfied?” Renka hisses.
No, I am far from satisfied but I have pushed my body, and obviously Renka, too far already. I need to eat and sleep, there’s no point in going on with this right now, for all I know my brain will distort facts or miss key details because I’m refusing it what it needs.
“I’ll think about what you’ve said and talk to you again”, I say barely masking the weariness I feel.
I don’t want to thank him for speaking with me or for his honesty because the first one was done in sufferance and the second one may not be true. He simply nods and leaves the cabin, shutting the door behind him. I notice that there are some biscuits and fish soup on my bedside table, probably left there by Max earlier. I hardly notice how cold the soup is or how tasteless the biscuits are because I’m absolutely famished. I make a mental note to thank Max for being so thoughtful and feel a pang of guilt for getting rid of him without much of an explanation. I crawl into bed and expect sleep to come straight away, but I can’t stop my mind from working. I try to relax my whole body with slow breathing, something I heard Sadie suggest to Richard when he was sick, but it doesn’t work. I decide to let the thoughts run their course and hopefully I’ll drift off to sleep at the end. The thought of Richard makes me feel a little creeped out, to think I helped nurse him through his worst hour when he was spying on Max and me. What a horrible thing to do. He betrayed my trust.
My thoughts are interrupted by the squeak of the door opening. I roll over and see Max enter holding his sketching book. I smile at him and he walks over to sit on the bed.
“Hey, how did the sketching go?” I ask holding my hand out for the book.
“Good, what did you have to talk to Renka about?” he wastes no time in asking, levelling me with his stare.
I didn’t expect to have to talk to anyone else about this stuff just yet. I haven’t even thought about the implications for myself if everyone knows what Renka believes. But I can’t lie to Max either. What was I thinking? I should have just pretended to be asleep when he came in.
“I can’t tell you just yet, Max, I’m sorry. I will tell you I promise but now isn’t the right time, alright?” I say calmly wishing I wasn’t the cause for the frown between his eyebrows.
He looks at me for ages and I half expect him to say that it isn’t all right and demand to know exactly what Renka and I spoke about, but instead he nods and places his book in my hand.
I flip to the first page and se lots of shapes and lines where Max has practiced different shading techniques. Even this looks artistic to me, abstract but creative none-the-less. The next few pages are human and animal eyes, similar to the first sketch Max had ever shown me, but these are really good. They have expression and depth. I’m really impressed and tell Max so. I wonder how many sketches he did on paper before he got hold of this book. It occurs to me that if we were back home, he never would have been able to do this, with no paper to do it on. It makes me think of Tomas, how did he pick up this skill or practise it? As far as I know paper shortages are common in all the communes. Most have none at all.
I pause at one of the sketches in Max’s book, it is a mirror image. One side is obviously done with Tomas’ skilled hand and the other by Max’s. It’s Max looking in a mirror, he is frowning and he looks tired, almost sick. It must have been done when I was sick because I’ve never seen Max look this way. He must have been so worried and I wonder why Tomas would capture Max like this. I thought Tomas only sketched happy things. That he sees the world differently to others, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Or maybe I made my judgment of him too early, like I did with Renka.
There are no more detailed sketches, only a few where different techniques are experimented with. I hand the book back to Max and give him a hug, I am so proud of him.
“Great job, Max, you have got real talent”, I say over his shoulder.
“Tomas is a great teacher”, Max responds.
“I’m sure he is but Tomas told me that he couldn’t take credit for what you’re capable of because you were meant to be an artist”, I respond releasing Max from my hug.
“He wouldn’t have said that. He doesn’t think of what he does as art and he never calls it that”, Max ducks his head hesitant to accept the compliment.
“Well, not in exactly those words but the meaning was the same”, I stifle a jaw-cracking yawn.
“Go to sleep, Pia, you look awful”, Max pushes me back onto my pillow.
I smile at this and my eyes close before I can respond.
I catch up with Renka a couple of days later only by chance. I’m walking down the hall on my way up on deck when his cabin door opens and he walks out in front of me. I call to him and he turns reluctantly. I want to ask him one more question. I had thought about our conversation a lot and still don’t know if I believe what he said. It was so much to take in and too good to be true for the most part. But worse of all, I can’t be sure I’ve been told everything. Renka’s tale could be a whole series of carefully selected half-truths. At first I thought the idea that my family had been watched for years was crazy, creepy too, but mainly crazy and absolutely unbelievable. What a boring job, nothing ever really happened in our family. Day to day life was pretty similar to everyone else in terms of the chores and routines that were necessary to life. To think a series of people agreed to live for years next door or close by observing us is ridiculous. But the more I thought about it I started to remember things, like how when my parents got bouts of sickness, even when they were mild, the man down the street would come over every day and talk to them about it, asking a lot of questions. This is a childhood memory which could be a little distorted, and in truth could just be a kind neighbourly thing to do, but in light of what Renka said, it made me think. I also remember him at the funeral of my parents, crying way too much for just a neighbour, as if their deaths meant so much more to him. The neighbour died a little while after that. Could he be one of the spies Renka spoke about or am I looking for something that just isn’t there?
“Hey, Renka”, I greet him kindly enough.
“Hi, you’re looking a lot better”, he states as he looks me up and down repeatedly, not in a lewd kind of way, but in a doctorish kind of way, equally as unpleasant as far as I’m concerned.
“I wanted to ask you one more question about what we spoke about the other day”, I say.
Renka looks up and down the hall then nods for me to go ahead.
“Why don’t you want everyone to know? What difference does it make to you?” It is one thing I just don’t get. Why does he feel that he has to keep this a secret from the others? Who are we going to tell? It’s the question I need answered so I can make my mind up about what I’m going to do. Renka looks a little frustrated at the question and answers it with venom in his voice.
“Can’t you work it out? I have sworn not to tell and if everyone knew this there would be chaos, people would see immune donors everywhere. It would be chaos. On top of that, imagine what their reaction to the committee would be? We need to keep it quiet, know for sure before we make any announcements, we don’t want to make the same mistakes they made before”, Renka responds vehemently.
On the surface this seems pretty reasonable, if we were back at home, but how is it relevant here, in the middle of the ocean on the way to isolated ruins then onto unchartered land? There must be something else to this. Can it be that Renka feels tied by the oath he made? He didn’t need that much convincing to tell me the story at first, even if it was only half the story. That doesn’t strike me as someone concerned about their honour.
“That would make a lot of sense if we were back at home, but why can’t we tell the others here? What are you scared of?” I ask narrowing my eyes at him.
“I’m not scared of anything. Think about it, Pia, how did you feel when I told you that Age-Sickness could only be caught, that it wasn’t something inside of us that we would all inevitably get? Great, right, hopeful, looking at a future of possibility, I bet. Then I shattered that dream when you realised it wasn’t the whole truth. Can you imagine everyone’s reaction if we told them that you might be immune to Age-Sickness and could possibly give us all immunity? What happens if it turns out that you’re not?” Renka says a little too passionately.
“You expect me to believe that you are so concerned about the feelings of everyone on this ship and that’s why you don’t want them to know? That’s very altruistic of you, Renka. I hadn’t pegged you as someone who considered the emotional state of near strangers as a priority. Are you sure it’s not because you’re worried that they might blame you for keeping this to yourself, for being part of a cover-up that could have changed the lives of the family we left behind? Or maybe it’s some misguided attempt to keep your honour intact, you did swear to keep the conspiracy under wraps after all”, I counter angrily barely constraining the bitter sarcasm in my voice.
Does he really think I am so naïve that I’d believe such obvious lies? I’m offended and angry.
“I don’t care what you think, Pia, but know this, if everyone on this ship thinks you have immunity your life will change forever, you will be priceless and if you think you’ve been smothered now while you’ve been sick, you don’t know what smothered is. They’ll want to wrap you in cotton wool and lock you in a padded cell to keep their ticket to health safe. Think what you want about my motives but it’s in your best interests that they don’t find out about this”, Renka spits at me then storms off down the hall leaving me staring after him.
I have avoided thinking of myself as having immunity. It seems impossible, why would I be immune to the Sickness that has killed billions of people? Me, an insignificant seventeen year old from Commune G? Besides the impossibility of it, I don’t want to believe it. I’ve experienced the letdown of hope on a minor scale, but it is enough to know that to fall from this would be disastrous. I haven’t even let myself think too much about how my life will change if it is true, but Renka paints a pretty clear picture that seems fairly accurate to me.
A door opens behind me and I start walking down the hall again. Standing frozen in the middle of the hall doing apparently nothing doesn’t look good for the person who is on a mission to prove she can start up her sentry duties again. I’ll have to leave the question about telling everyone to another time. It seems that I’m all too willing to block it all from my mind. I feel immediately guilty, I accuse Renka of having selfish reasons for keeping all of this to himself and here I am doing the same thing.
“Hey, Pia, wait up”, Fiona calls from behind me.
“Hi, Fiona. Heading up on deck?” I ask as I turn to face her.
“Yeah, it’s a really nice day, I just ran back down to get my fishing stuff. Do you want to join me for a fish?” she asks enthusiastically.
“Sure, sounds great”.
We walk down the hall and up the stairs, I’m aware that Fiona is slowing her step for me so I quicken my pace. I’ve improved heaps in the last few days. I am nowhere near as out-of-breath from walking as I used to be. I really am ready to get back into the normal day-to-day stuff on the ship. I had come up to watch some of the drills over the last few days and am itching to try them. Some of the others look pretty skilled, either they have come a long way under Renka’s instruction or I’ve underestimated their potential as fighters. The drills are basically self-defence stances and knife attacking techniques, a lot of the self-defence stuff is really valuable. I like the deflecting of arm blows that turn into a twist to the wrist bringing your opponent to the floor. I saw Isabella bring Vonteuse down with that move and he didn’t seem to be going easy on her.
“What about over there?” Fiona asks pointing towards the area of the starboard side that is sheltered from the sun by the dome.
Tomas is on duty with Gerla and I don’t really want to be in earshot of him, still being a bit angry about how he tried to stop Renka seeing me and he hasn’t spoken to me since. Max’s spent most of his time drawing with Tomas in his cabin or on deck, not in our cabin anymore. If that isn’t a clear statement that he doesn’t want to talk to me then I don’t know what is. I don’t want to make him uncomfortable with me fishing right next to him or force a conversation that neither of us is interested in having.
“What about here, Mayther usually knows what he’s doing”, I suggested as I pointed to where Mayther is sitting in a chair watching the steel reel that fits snugly into a brace in the wall of the ship. There are a lot of them around the ship’s wall, it doesn’t take us long to realise the small lines we brought from home are not going to be very useful onboard a sea-faring ship. The reels have thick sturdy lines attached and once the sinker attached to the line hits the water, the movement of the ship and the weight of the sinker takes the line a fair distance out so there isn’t much you have to do except wait.
“Okay, you’re right about Mayther, yesterday he caught a huge snapper”, Fiona replies happily.
We set up next to Mayther and talk about normal things, the weather, drills practice, the potential of getting a big enough catch to feed everyone, it’s nice. I wonder if I hadn’t have gotten sick would I be able to interact this way with Fiona and Mayther? I still preferr my own company and to a certain extent my mission is to get as many people as I can to see how much I’ve improved so I can get back on sentry and start drills, but in truth I feel relaxed and comfortable with them. A few weeks ago I never would have thought that possible or even desirable.
The reel in front of me spins rapidly and I stand up to push down the lever to stop the line from pulling out, this is the equivalent of me tugging my small hand line at home when I have a bite. I release the lever after a second and the reel goes crazy, I let whatever is on the end take it for a couple of seconds then press the lever again and begin turning the handle that is attached to the brace on the wall. It takes out the heavy work of pulling in a big catch but in my not-fully-recovered state it’ss still tiring. With the line high enough out of the water I see the fish wriggle free and splash into the water as my line recoils at the break of tension.
“Damn, it took my hook and bait too, do you have spares?” I asks Fiona and Mayther.
“Yeah, in the box over there”, Mayther points to a small wooden box that looks very out of place on this ship, he must have brought it from home, maybe he thinks his hooks are better than the ship’s supplies. I remember him saying he’s from ‘F’ which is surrounded by an inland lake. This explains Mayther’s skills in fishing. F is one of the communes that are built close to a BAS ruins site. There are plenty of superstitions about ghosts and unusual activities associated with it but that isn’t uncommon for ruins anywhere.
As I got to work attaching a new hook and sorting through the fish guts to bait it the conversation turned to the dome. I hadn’t thought about the inevitability of being involved in this conversation when I know what is inside the dome and I become a little flustered at the prospect of having to lie.
“I’ve been thinking that the dome is some sort of super weapon from BAS that the Committee are trying to keep out of the hands of an enemy”, Mayther says with exaggerated intrigue in his voice and Fiona laughs. I laugh too late and it sounds a little off to me. I think Fiona sends a curious look my way, but am not sure.
“Maybe, Mayther, but I was thinking that it’s an impenetrable vessel that holds the tools to cure Age-Sickness. That this ship’s control board is the only thing that has the power to open it and no one knows when it will happen, not even the Committee”, Fiona says this in a fake conspiratorial whisper with a smirk, but I’m floored. Can she possibly know or is it a lucky guess? I realise I haven’t laughed like Mayther is doing. Instead I sit staring at Fiona in silence, until she looks at me in concern and her features twist in to a solemn mask.
“I’m so sorry, Pia, I didn’t mean to offend you, I just meant to joke”, Fiona pleads anxiously.
She looks so sincere and I realise that she thinks I’m upset about her mentioning Age-Sickness when I am so clearly still getting over my bout of it. I’m relieved I have that as a cover for my stiffness in this turn of the conversation.
“No, don’t worry about it, I’m not offended, just impressed at your imagination”, I hope that’s sufficient enough to get me out of this uncomfortable conversation.
“You’re looking heaps better, Pia, how do you feel?” Mayther asks eagerly, as if this is the discussion he has been waiting to start.
“I feel so much better, I can easily start doing my sentry duties and drills practice now, I’m sure everyone is sick of covering for me by now”, I respond thankful for the conversation change.
“Not really, Tomas and Max have been doing most of it. Tomas has been running himself to exhaustion doing so many duties but refuses help from anyone”, Mayther wiggles his eyebrows suggestively.
Obviously embarrassed at Mayther’s insinuation, Fiona saves me from my discomfort by jumping in before I can say anything.
“Yeah, that’s because Tomas knows Max is really only comfortable with him and he didn’t want to make Max do sentry with anyone else”, she explains quickly.
That sounds true, Max is more comfortable with Tomas and really enjoys doing sentry with him so they can talk about sketching. But, Max had taken a lot of pride in being able to do sentry duty. I don’t think he’d have refused to do it with anyone. I was going to have a hard time getting him not to do it anymore once I am back on the roster. Although grateful to Fiona for saving me embarrassment from Mayther’s suggestion, I don’t like talking about Max with anyone, it seems a betrayal.
“Oh, alright, that’s nice of him”, Mayther responds with some reluctance to talk about Max, for which I’m relieved.
The talk turns to fishing after Fiona pulls in a good-sized fish – a bonito, Mayther thinks. I stay for about an hour and catch nothing, then say goodbye and venture over to watch Mickael, Merva, Diego and Linton do drills practice with Renka instructing each move. I have to admit that Renka is a good teacher, or should I say commando? Teacher implies a sense of rapport with a student and I can’t say the way Renka speaks to everyone resembles rapport.
Mickael notices me watching and calls out for me to join them. I really like Mickael at that moment. I’m expecting to have to convince people that I’m fine before they let me join in with stuff but Mickael had just made it so easy. I jump up with a big smile on my face and walk over to where they’re all standing.
“So what are we doing now, more self-defence stuff or knife work?” I ask enthusiastically. I want to show them that I’ve watching and have a bit of knowledge about what they’re doing.
“No, you can’t join us today, Pia.” Renka states with authority.
My face falls with disappointment but then anger takes over. Who does Renka think he is telling me what I can and can’t do? When did I decide that the others on this ship would have a say in what I do? Turning my body so that I’m facing Renka head-on, with shoulders squared I look directly into Renka’s eyes.
“And why is that Renka? If it’s about partner numbers, I can partner with you. I’ve seen you do that with most of the others”, I challenge.
“It’s not about that and you know it. You are not well enough yet to be doing this physical training”, he argues and begins to move away and continue instructing the others as if the discussion is over.
Mickael and Diego hesitate to follow Renka with a look of apprehension on their faces.
“I am perfectly fine to do this training, Renka. I am the one who determines if I’m well enough to do something and I don’t intend on being a defenceless dead-weight on this ship if we get attacked again because you think I’m too fragile”, I call this out to Renka’s back and he freezes.
We both know what he’s really objecting to. He doesn’t want the potential immune donor to get hurt. He is treating me the way he said everyone else would treat me if they knew.
“She’s right, Renka, she looks fine to me, just let her join in”, Mickael says while Diego nods in agreement.
I would have smiled their way but I’m too angry with Renka to take my eyes off his back or move the muscles in my face to form a smile.
Renka turns slowly and glares at me, ignoring Mickael, he is furious that I suggested this in front of the others. He comes to some decision and determination flitters across his features. He walks quickly towards me showing no signs of stopping what is considered a respectable personal distance away, but marches on with fierceness like he is going to attack or at least physically intimidate me. My body tenses in readiness for some sort of confrontation and I automatically reach for my knife at the back of my waistband but it isn’t there. I grope around ridiculously for a second and my face falls when I see Renka smirk and come to a halt.
“Do you still think you’re ready?” he asks in a cocky voice.
He planned the move to show me I’m not ready because I’m not wearing my knife all of the time. Do I think I’m ready? I’m ready to kill him that I know for sure. I close the two-step gap between us and feign to kick him between the legs then just as he bends to protect himself I swing my right hand around in a wide arc and punch him in the eye. A comically high-pitched sound escapes his open mouth and he grabs at his face.
“Yeah, I think I’m ready”, I hiss at him and march away, struggling not to hold my now injured hand.
It feels like I broke something but it was well worth it for the noise that escaped Renka on impact. That little stunt he tried to pull backfired in his face, literally and I feel on a high because of it. At least he now knows that he has no hold over me. I am not going to play up to his stupid arrogance. He might like to think he is empowered with everyone else because of the information he has or the defensive and attacking skills he teaches but I’m not going to bow down and treat him like some sort of God.
I reach the stairs, just out of sight of Renka and the others doing drills practice before I see the fallout from my punch but I’m too angry to stay and watch. Besides, my hand is throbbing in agony so I hold it close to my chest instinctually exerting pressure to ease the pain. Just as I get to the bottom of the stairs I bump into Tomas, actually bump in to him as he’s rushing back up on deck carrying his fishing gear. He must see the pain in my face because he drops what he’s carrying and leads me by my elbow down the hall to my cabin frantically asking what’s wrong.
“I punched Renka in the eye”, I say with leftover anger in my voice.
Tomas has the grace not to look surprised, pleased or confused by my response. He just opens my cabin door, sits me on the bed and proceeds to get a cold wet cloth from the basin in the bathroom.
“It’s alright. It’s not that bad”, I say rather lamely because by this time my fingers are swelling pretty fast and I can’t close them anymore.
Tomas leans over and takes my hand from my chest, searching my eyes for permission. I nod my head and he proceeds to lift my injured hand. He is very gentle and reminds me of the time I saw Richard approach an injured stag in the forest surrounding our commune. The stag had fallen down a steep incline and broken a leg. It was kicking wildly, frantically trying to get away from us. But Richard looked at it in the eye and spoke in gently swaying tones until it calmed. He slit its throat as soon as he got near enough and I remember the look on everyone’s faces when we hauled it home. I hope Tomas isn’t planning on such a tactic with me, the thought makes me chuckle and Tomas looks up in concern. He probably thinks I’m delirious or insane.
“I think you have broken these two fingers”, he says pointing to the unrecognisable appendages on my hand.
“Yeah, it feels like it”, I respond in a hiss of pain.
“Keep it cold for a while to see if the swelling goes down. Then I’ll have to splint them together. It’ll be a while before you can use them again I think”, Tomas has genuine sorrow in his voice.
Great, there is no way I’m going to be able to join in with drills practice now. Renka got what he wanted after all. How frustrating! How could I be so hot headed? With two broken fingers I’ve just proven that I am as fragile as I still look.
“Don’t worry about it, you’ll still be able to do stuff, just with your left hand”, Tomas consoles.
I look up at him, momentarily having forgotten he was there and see real concern and affection on his face. It halts my angry thoughts and the earlier question I wanted to ask him comes to mind.
“How did you learn to sketch without paper?” I blurt out.
It’s clearly an unexpected question because Tomas looks at first befuddled then contemplative, as if he is waiting for me to ask another irrelevant question in my delirium. When I just wait for a reply he sits back on his heels and looks down at his hands.
“My father used to make paper. He’d collect flowers, leaves, seeds, pieces of rag or cloth, anything organic really and soak and grind them then press them into big sheets with a stone press before he dried them out in the sun. The people in our commune thought he was crazy, who would waste their time doing that when they could be collecting food and making something valuable, right? Dad got everything else done as well. It was just something he wanted to pass on to me”, Tomas looks up with a touch of sadness in his eyes.
In that moment I have a real insight into Tomas’ life. My first impression of his skill as a useless waste of time is obviously something he has heard before. I imagine him living among people who consider his family weird and wonder if that is why he didn’t live with anyone in his commune when his parent’s died. What is it about Tomas that makes me feel sad for him? Everyone’s story is one of death and hardship but Tomas just seems to reach that part of me that registers empathy. It is an uncomfortable feeling.
“It sounds like hard work. How do you feel seeing the piles of paper stored on this ship? I know I was amazed that it was untouched after all of this time. I virtually had to handcuff myself from hoarding it to take home with me”, I comment trying to lighten the mood.
“It’s different to what I’m used to and I know what you mean, I didn’t stop myself though. I’ve got stacks of it in my cabin”, Tomas says with a grin on his face. I had forgotten what it looks like to see him smile, it’s been so long. I respond with a smile of my own and resolve not to talk about him trying to stop Renka from seeing me. I value our friendship and I don’t want to wreck this newfound ease with a convoluted question about Renka.
“I’ll go and see if I can find something to use as a splint for your fingers, do you want anything while I’m gone?” Tomas asks as he stands up to leave.
“I’m really hungry actually. Could you go past the supplies room and get me something please?” I wouldn’t usually asks but I’m suddenly so tired, the injured hand is sapping my energy. It is probably more the emotional incident with Renka.
“Sure, what do you want, roast pork, baked potatoes and beans served with a buttered bread roll?” Tomas asks in his deadpan humour.
Thinking of one of the BAS cookbooks I burnt I respond, “Yeah, that’ll do, but can I have a side dish of asparagus soaked in butter too please?”
“I’ll see what I can do”, he smirks as he turns to leave.
I lie down on the bed and fall immediately asleep only to be awakened by a pain in my hand that shoots up my wrist like fire. I jump up and try to pull my hand away. It’s Tomas trying to splint my broken fingers while I sleep. He has done a fairly good job; I can’t believe I’ve slept through it.
“Sorry, I couldn’t leave them till you woke up, they might set at the wrong angle”, Tomas says apologetically as he maneuvers my third finger so that it rests up against a sawn-off lead pencil.
I wonder if he can afford to use his pencils for this but am in too much pain to put any words together to ask. I concentrate on my breathing and scrunch my eyes closed so I don’t have to see my swollen fingers. Tomas wraps a cloth over his work then he taps my arm to communicate it’s finished. I look at my hand and am surprised to see a neat job. My two middle fingers are dead straight and wrapped tight with a chequered cloth. They feel much better already and I’m extremely grateful that I ran into Tomas when I did. The extent of my medical knowledge does not extend to broken bones. I would have likely ended up with two useless crooked fingers.
“Thanks, where did you learn to do that?” I ask Tomas as he packs up the tools he used – a pair of scissors, the scrap of chequered cloth that looks like an old shirt and a few more of the shortened pencils.
“My Mum was a healer. I used to help her when people came to our house. These are not the first broken bones I’ve set to a splint”, Tomas answers with a small smile on his lips.
I thought about how I had felt sad for him before when he spoke of his father but now I feel like Tomas is the luckiest person I know. He had skilled parents who worked hard to pass on their knowledge so he could survive without them. I was wrong to pity him, I envy him and I’m not sure which emotion is worse.
“You’re lucky to have healing knowledge, it comes in handy – excuse the pun”, I comment lamely as I flourish my hand in the air. The movement makes me wince, which brings on a chuckle from Tomas.
“I think you should rest it for a while, maybe retire from boxing for now. What did Renka do anyway?” Tomas asks flippantly but I can tell by his exaggerated and precise movements as he packs and re-packs his equipment that it’s more important to him than he is making out.
“He tried to tell me what to do, or what I couldn’t do actually, in the cocky arrogant way he has”, I reply with anger in my voice at the memory.
“Oh, so why didn’t you just ignore him and do what you wanted anyway, you might still have the use of your fingers”, Tomas comments as he turns to give me his full attention. It’s as if he is looking for something important in my response. All I hear though is him trying to teach me the error of my ways – it’s annoying to say the least.
“Thanks, I’ll remember that for next time”, I say, thick with sarcasm.
“Sorry. I just did the very thing Renka got a black eye for, should I duck about now?” Tomas jokes as he holds up his fists to cover his head and looks at me from behind them.
I have to laugh, he looks really funny. It’s hard to stay angry with Tomas when he disarms me this way. I wonder why it has been so strained with him recently and remember the sketch I saw him doing of me at my sickest. The smile dies on my lips and I feel immediately exposed. How am I to move on from the fact that he saw me so vulnerable and disgusting? Can I ask him about it now?
“Tomas, the day I woke up I saw you were drawing me when I was sick”, I mumble.
I can’t form it into a question. I just want to get it out there. I want him to know that I have an issue with it. That it was wrong and intrusive but I don’t want to have to tell him these things.
“Yes, I was. You didn’t like that?” he asks letting his hands drop to his sides and creasing his brow questioningly.
That’s putting it lightly. Did he really need me to spell this out? I was embarrassed, ashamed at my loss of dignity in front of him and angry that he had to record it on paper where he could look at it anytime he wanted or show it to anyone. I settle for a nod in the affirmative.
“Why, you know I sketch to record in my journal?” he replies tentatively.
“None of the other sketches I’ve seen in your journal have anything remotely as disturbing as that drawing. I thought you recorded the other side of things, the happier side”, I respond fighting to keep the emotion out of my voice but failing miserably if Tomas’ reaction is anything to go by.
He looks at me with deep sadness in his eyes before his cheeks flush and he returns to fumbling with something in his hands. He responds in a soft voice that I have to strain to hear.
“There wasn’t another side… a happier side at that time”, he whispers.
I don’t know what to say, I hadn’t really thought a great deal about how it was for everyone when I was sick. The first time I saw Max when I woke up gave me a hint as to his suffering but I didn’t think that way about Tomas. I thought he just supported Max and did extra duties to cover for me and that was why he looked so awful. I never considered that he suffered because of my sickness. I stare at him for a long time until he becomes uncomfortable with the silence and begins to speak again.
“I’m sorry if you’re uncomfortable with it, I can rip it out if you want”, he offers in a shaky voice as he looks up from his hands.
I feel terrible that I just forced him into an apology for recording what happened in the only style he is comfortable with. There would be gruesome descriptions in everyone’s journal no doubt and I would never consider asking everyone to rip them out. How vain do I sound?
“No, I’m sorry I brought it up, it was just a shock to me. I hadn’t seen myself before then and I was embarrassed that I looked that way. It’s your journal and your right to put anything you like in it”, I respond quickly trying to undo the damage I’d just caused.
Tomas contemplates this for a while then looks up with a semi smile.
“By your reasoning I should punch you in the eye right now”, he says mischievously.
I laugh aloud and go to shove him as he mimes warming up his punching arm, but I use my sore hand and feel a painful jolt up the length of my forearm as I make light contact. Wincing in pain, Tomas quickly holds my hand between both of his keeping it still and adding a bit of pressure right where it’s needed. The door swings open and Max walks in freezing in the open doorway. He looks between Tomas and me, then walks in like it is a scene he sees everyday and shuts the door behind him.
“Everyone is talking about what you did to Renka”, he comments matter-of-factly.
Tomas lets go of my hand and I lean it against my chest where it feels safe and would remind me not to use it.
“Yeah, what are they saying? That I’ve gone insane?” I ask sardonically.
“Some of them think the Sickness went to your brain, that you have a mutant strand of it that makes you crazy and the rest think Renka deserved it”, he responds blandly.
“Huh, I’m not sure which one I like better.”
I get out of the bed and start picking at the soup and biscuits Tomas brought for me. Soup is now on the menu almost every day because we’re catching a few fish and we have enough leftovers after filleting that make a good broth with the seaweed we’ve added to our diet. It isn’t bad at all, but eating the same thing every day, sometimes more than once, becomes more of a chore than an enjoyment despite how it tastes.
“And what do you think?” I ask Max out of curiosity.
“I think you have a bad temper and don’t like to be told what to do”, he answers a little too quickly for my liking.
Tomas laughs at his response and goes to leave. I suddenly have the unreasonable feeling of loss at his going. I’ve had a good time with Tomas and am relieved we’ve broken through the discomfort from earlier, even if it took a few broken fingers to do it.
“Wait”, I call a little too loudly then don’t know what to say when he turns to look at me.
“Um, thanks for my hand. It feels much better already”, I mumble lamely, flushing a little in embarrassment.
Tomas nods and smiles widely enough to show his scar/dimple.
“I’ll see you both later”, he says as he walks out of the door, closing it behind him.
I feel Max staring at me and concentrate very hard on my dry biscuit until he looks away. He shuffles around and I look to see what he is doing.
“I’m getting a jacket, it’s getting cold on deck and I have sentry”, Max answers my unvoiced question.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine to get back to my duties now, you have a break”, I stuff the last of the biscuit in my mouth and walk to the bathroom to get a drink from the basin. When I get back Max is dressed in a jacket and is just about to leave.
“What are you doing? I said I’m going”, I ask looking at him incredulously.
“With broken fingers, I don’t think that’s a good idea”, Max responds confidently as if he tells me what to do every day.
“I don’t know what you do on sentry but as far as I can remember it involves walking around the dome or the ship, not very demanding on the fingers”, I don’t want to argue with Max and usually he never feels strongly enough about anything to go too far against something I say, or maybe he knows I have a bad temper and tries to avoid it.
“And what about all the questions and looks you’ll get from the others?” he asks raising his eyebrows daring me to deny the truth of his words.
He is clever, of all the things that could deter me from doing what I set my mind to it’s having to deal with unwanted attention from questioning people. I falter for a second but decide that it’s better for everyone to see me now, before too much time passes and they think I’ve seriously hurt myself or really gone insane.
“I’ll deal with it. Come up if you want but I’ll be doing sentry”, I say to Max as I carefully and rather clumsily pull a jumper over my head with one operational hand. I hide my wince of pain as I move my injured hand through the sleeve so Max doesn’t use it as an excuse for me not to do the duty.
We walk up on deck in silence. I know Max is thinking about how to stop me from doing sentry and I find this beyond annoying. When we get to the dome Tomas takes over for Vonteuse and I see Renka taking up his characteristic march around the outskirt of the ship wall. I think everyone except for Renka has become a little slack with that part of sentry, I’m pretty sure that Mayther throws lines in when he’s on duty and just strolls around occasionally checking his lines as he goes. He was probably on duty when Fiona and I were fishing with him this morning. I guess you can only be diligent for so long. When there’s been no sign of problems for over two weeks and we have a deafening alarm to alert us to any it’s understandable. I look closer at Renka’s face and I can see that he has red swelling around his eye. I’m secretly glad that I left a mark, even if I am the one worse off.
“What are you doing here?” Tomas asks just as Isabella spots me and relief that she can go washes over her face.
“It’s my duty. Bye Isabella”, I comment to her retreating back before walking past Tomas taking up the route.
Tomas catches up to me with three big strides and Max falls into step on my other side. I sense him feeling a little smug and can guess why, he expects Tomas to convince me to go and rest.
“Pia, you should be resting, you just broke your fingers and you’re still not completely recovered from the Sickness”, Tomas argues in frustration, perfectly on cue.
“I’m perfectly capable of walking around the dome for a few hours, Tomas. Besides, someone did a good job on my fingers, I can’t feel a thing”, I wave my hand about in front of him to prove my statement.
“This is ridiculous, just let Max do it and you can sit and watch if you want, what difference does it make to you, Max doesn’t mind, do you Max?”
Max smiles slyly at Tomas’ question. They’re ganging up on me. They’ll have to tackle and restrain me if they want to stop me walking around the dome and I don’t think they’d go that far. I decide to try for humour; two black eyes and more broken fingers won’t look good for me.
“Sorry, you’re both stuck with me, unless you want to take me on of course. Renka can attest to my skills in physical combat”, I jest, keeping a steady pace to prove I’m fine to do the duty.
“Your hand can attest to your skills in physical combat”, Tomas mumbles grudgingly.
Max visibly slumps with the realisation that he’s not going to get his way. I wonder if it really is about me or if he just wants to talk sketching with Tomas. Either way, after two laps with us he mumbles about going to do some drawing in the cabin.
It turns quite cold and I’m glad I put a jumper on but a shiver rocks my body as the wind picks up and rips through my clothes anyway. The water looks choppy around us and sprays of salty water occasionally brush across my face. The weather has been really nice weather so far. I wonder how this ship will fair in a storm, the thought bringing with it a feeling of unease at possibly having to live through huge swells. I didn’t get sea sick like some of the others did the first few days we were aboard, but that’s not a great accomplishment when the ocean was dead quiet.
“How has Max been sleeping lately?” Tomas asks. He clearly isn’t too bothered by the change in weather.
“Not too bad actually, did you hear him the other night? That was the first time this week. It’s a huge improvement from what it was like at home.”
For some reason I don’t mind talking to Tomas about Max anymore, it doesn’t feel like a betrayal because Max likes him.
“I did, but I don’t think the others would have, I just got used to waking up to him when you were sick”, Tomas replies.
I haven’t even thought about Max’s night terrors since I’ve gotten better. I’ve been too wrapped up in dealing with everything Renka told me. I haven’t even asked Max about it, I just assumed he slept in our cabin on the mattress on the floor in between looking after me and doing sentry. Had Tomas slept in there too or did he come in from his cabin down the hall when he heard Max?
“How bad was Max when I was sick?” I ask tentatively with embarrassment colouring my cheeks, he must think I’m so selfish not to have asked earlier.
“He was pretty bad, night terrors every night. He didn’t get a lot of peaceful sleep the whole eight days. The day you ‘woke-up’ to Max sleeping on the mattress he had been dead asleep for sixteen hours, his brain probably just shut down. I wondered if it was that bad all the time or if it was just …the circumstances”, Tomas cringes on the last word.
“He used to be that bad when he was younger. I guess it was the stress of the whole thing that brought him back to it. Usually he falls asleep and has screaming fits while he’s still sleeping. It takes some time to calm him down, but here he has been great, well while I’ve been lucid that is”, I say feeling guilty about how Max and I disrupted Tomas’ life while I was sick.
Tomas is quiet for a while and I want to know what he’s thinking, I also want to know if he slept in our cabin with us.
“Did you hear Max from your cabin when I was sick?”
A roundabout way to ask the question but he’ll know where I’m going with it.
“No, Fiona and I took it in turns to sleep on the chair in your cabin, between you and Max though, there wasn’t much sleeping. We tried to get Max to sleep in one of our cabins when we weren’t using it but he wanted to stay with you”, Tomas replies matter-of-factly.
I should thank him but the words are nowhere near enough for what he and Fiona did for Max and me. Discomfort worms its way through me as I struggle to find the right thing to say Tomas’ revelation that he basically gave up sleep for a week and babysat my brother and me. To think I’ve been angry at him for seeing me in the state I was in and haven’t really made an effort to be nice to him since I’d woken up, in fact I’ve actively pushed him away and avoided him where possible, is abhorrent. I stop walking, Tomas takes a couple of steps before he realises I’ve stopped then turns around looking at me quizzically.
“Thank you, Tomas, for everything and I’m so sorry I haven’t shown how grateful I am for what you have done. I’m just not used to accepting help from people”, I say looking directly in his eyes.
It is as honest and sincere as I can be. I make a mental note to seek out Fiona and do the same with her, it’s the least I can do.
“No problem, you’d do the same for me”, he replies with a shrug of his shoulders.
I shudder at the thought of Tomas covered in Age Sores and shaking violently from fever. Hopefully I will never have to see him that way. I quickly erase that last thought from my mind, it sounds a little too much like I believe what Renka said about immune donors and I’m not going to start thinking about that. With that thought I look more intently at the dome as we walk around its circumference. It really does look impenetrable, I mean there are no handles but given that they didn’t seem to use them BAS that doesn’t mean much. The whole surface of it is smooth, except where it’s been soiled by bird poo, but there are no differences in texture that indicate there could be a panel or window or something to wave my hand in front of. I assume that Renka would have tried everything he knows to open it, and he knows a lot more than me about it.
“Hey, Pia, how’s your hand?” Mickael jumps out in front of me and asks.
I shrug the question off and try to hide my splintered fingers from view but am a little too late.
“Whoa, did you break your fingers? I always suspected Renka had a hard head”, Mickael laughs hysterically at his own joke and I smile remembering him backing me up before I punched Renka.
He seems really genuine to me, a bit over-the-top but genuine and that is a quality I respect.
“Yeah, well I’m not so sure it wasn’t my style of punching, I got a bit carried away”, I reply.
I don’t want everyone to think I’m some sort of hothead who goes around hitting people whenever I feel like it. Although, I might as well have said nothing because Mickael has his own story to tell, he isn’t listening to me.
“You should have seen him after you stormed off. I’ve never heard anyone swear so much and so loudly. When I asked if he wanted us to do the drills on our own he told me to stick the drills and went to follow you I thought, but he changed his mind and turned the other way. Gerla offered to get him a cold compress but he just glared her down and growled like some sort of animal before he stalked away swearing under his breath. Everyone has been talking about it”, Mickael recounts excitedly.
“So I’ve heard”, I mumble, maybe I should have stayed in the cabin.
Gerla walks towards us as well and I dread hearing her version of events, or worse her enquiries into my injuries. She stumbles and falls onto the dome wall when a big gust of wind picks up. I hadn’t noticed just how bad the weather is getting but I look around and see that the deck is mostly empty. Everyone who doesn’t need to be up here, or who doesn’t want a gossip, is down below.
“Hi, Pia and Tomas, how’s your hand Pia?” she asks eagerly.
“It’s fine”, I respond with little expression, hopefully she can tell I don’t want to talk about it.
“Well, Renka isn’t fine, he is furious, he’ll probably have a black eye tomorrow. You obviously got him a good one. I think he’s just embarrassed that he didn’t see it coming, I mean considering he was instructing us on self-defence moves and all, you’d think he let you hit him on purpose or something. I’ve seen him block moves like yours a few times in practice. But who knows, he really wasn’t expecting it I suppose. I’ll just warn you now, Merva is saying that you punched him because of some sort of pent-up sexual energy you and Renka have. I think he heard her say that and it made him more angry”, Gerla says with the air of someone relaying vital top-secret information.
She goes on and on, oblivious to my increasing agitation. Could Renka have let me hit him on purpose so that I am out of action? Are we giving him too much credit? Maybe he isn’t as good as he makes out he is. But I’m not very good either, he is surely be better than me, I’d punched only one other person in my life and I ended up with a sprained wrist because of it. The thought that he planned to get me riled up so that I injured myself is infuriating. It also suggests that he knows me better than most people, to know how far I’ll go to prove a point, or at least how far my temper will take me. Was this more proof that he has information about my family and me? Could it be so detailed to involve personality flaws? Why would Renka be so angry if his plan actually worked though? Question after question runs through my head. I’m not even going to address Merva’s stupid comment about the whole situation, obviously any feelings of friendship or loyalty that may have passed between her and I when she helped nurse me are gone, or maybe this is how she treats a friend. As for Gerla, this is a side of her I haven’t seen, I thought she was generally a timid nice girl, but she is thoroughly grating on my nerves.
I look over at Tomas to see if he can somehow get rid of Gerla, he has spent heaps more time with her than I have with all the sentry duties he’s covered, not to mention drills practice, but he just has a vicious scowl on his face. He must feel my gaze because he looks at me out of the corner of his eyes, there is anger and some other emotion in them, is it pain? I frown in confusion at him and he quickly turns away. Something draws my attention over Tomas’ left shoulder. Squinting so I can get some focus in my vision with the wind causing splashes of salt water to wash pass my face, I work hard to see clearly what has drawn my gaze. My mouth drops open and my eyes widen impossibly when I realize what it is I am seeing. A great wall of water heading directly for the ship.
Mickael must have seen it a few seconds after me because a squeaky sound comes out of his throat as he tries to say something. This alerts Tomas, who looks back at me, takes one look at my face and turns to see what disaster awaits us. He is the first to respond by yelling for everyone to get below. His frantic cries knock me out of my stunned state and I start yelling for Max, I haven’t seen him up on deck and he said he was going down to draw but I want to be sure. I turn a full circle to see if he is anywhere on deck. Renka is running towards us and Gerla has grabbed hold of Mickael, both of whom are standing stone still staring out at the gigantic wave that seems to grow as it nears. Just then a droning buzzing sound bursts forth from somewhere on the ship, it isn’t as loud or irritating as the defence alarm but it is clearly a BAS invention. Even though I know it isn’t the intruder alarm I reach for my knife with my injured hand, knowing I’ll pay for it later, and do another full circle looking for any danger. What I see is the capping on the top of the ships wall open as if it is a lidded box that opens all the time. I stare at it in confusion, wondering what it is going to do. As far as I can see along the length of the ship, my view of the fishtail end is blocked with the cylinders and transports, the capping is opening up everywhere and clear screen panels are moving up from within the wall.
Someone grabs my arm and pulls me along with them, my instinctual response is to fight them off but this just results in a tighter grip and another arm grabbing me around the waist. I wriggle to face whoever it is and see Tomas like I have never seen him before. He is wet all over which I think strange until I realise I’m wet too. But the most striking thing about him is the look of utter determination on his face, there is no room for anything else. I know that he doesn’t even feel me trying to pull away from him. His strength is far beyond my own and my fighting is useless so I try to relax my body a little and he responds by looking down at me as if he doesn’t know I’m there. I try yelling at him to stop and let me go but he doesn’t seem to know what I am saying so I point at the wall of the ship to show him what is happening. I follow my own hand and am astounded to see the screens stretched nearly all the way over our heads, melting together seamlessly when each panel connects. It is going to cover the whole ship. It is going to stop the wall of water hitting us.
Tomas lets go of me and stares dumbfounded at the screen, it connects noiselessly at the top in a complete replica of the shape of the ship itself. It is a real fish shape now with the screen completing the look, I half expect the ship to flick its tail and submerge, forcing us to finish off the rest of the trip underwater. But instead eerie music sounds all around us. I have never heard music like this before. It flows and sounds relaxing, which I guess is the purpose of this noise but it’s slightly off sounding as if age has somehow distorted it.
All of this happens in mere seconds. My mind registers everything in exact detail as adrenalin pumps through me preparing for the massive wave to hit. I look back at the wall of water through the screen. It has grown as it approaches sucking more and more water into its depths. Renka reaches us and is yelling for us to go down below, I look at him and see movement at the stairs behind him. The others have come up on deck to see what is happening. They follow everyone’s frozen stares and their mouths form small ‘o’ shapes in unison. It would have been comical any other time but somehow doesn’t bring a smile to my face in this moment. Tomas and Renka grab hold of each of my arms bracing for impact, I’m not sure if they think I’m their anchor or buoy or they are mine.
It is surreal, the wave hits the ship with a force that should have smashed the vessel apart and sent us to watery deaths, but instead the water disperses along the surface of the screen and washes over us as if we are an insignificant cork in a tub of disturbed water. My senses are confused, my body has tensed for the ship to rock wildly or tip completely, my eyes scrunched expecting the screen to smash and water to rush in and more disturbing than the rest, my ears await a deafening noise that befits a wall of crazed water hitting a ship and crushing its contents. But they are met with the eerie slightly off-kilter piano piece that lends the whole scenario a dream-like quality.
The wave doesn’t miss a beat, it continues over the ship, barely losing any of its power or massive size to meet with whatever obstacle it will find further along. Our ship is left bobbing about wildly in the aftermath of the swell. Tomas and Renka let go of my arms and spread their arms out to balance themselves against the ship’s movement. Without consciously thinking about it I do this too, maintaining my body’s centre of gravity with my arms spread out like the span of a great seabird. It is a stance that repeats itself with everyone on deck and this time a smile spreads across my face as its comic value hits. We all looks like birds in the middle of mating season doing a fancy dance to attract a mate. A wave of euphoria hits me as I realise the danger is gone and I laugh out loud letting my body rock a bit more with the roll of the ship.
I look at Tomas who is laughing as well and it makes me laugh harder until I am bent over in hysterics. I glance to my left to see Mickael and Gerla celebrating with an exaggerated twirling dance to the absurdly off-key music. Merva, Linton and Isabella who had burst up the stairs from below just in time to see the wave hit are spinning around in a circle holding hands and laughing wildly. To my right Renka sports a look of disgust as he surveys the same scene I do. He looks down at me hunched and still making post hysteria hiccup sounds and his look turns to fury. He then marches off towards the control room where the shadows of movement suggest Diego and Vonteuse are working to understand what has just happened. I guess the ship just revealed another one of the defence mechanisms it has.
The aftermath is not as exciting as the event itself. Renka gathers everyone in the common cabin and rants and raves about how all the drills practise that had us meet in the common cabin in an emergency to check everyone is accounted for before grabbing our weapons is useless if we’re all going to run up on deck at the first sign of something unusual. He does have a point, but I feel like a little kid getting in trouble from a parent and I donn’t recall giving him the right to take on that role. I look around at the others who just take it from him. I’m not about to let Renka treat me this way. I’ve done nothing wrong, I don’t remember seeing him running straight down to the common cabin, he stood staring at the wave like the rest of us.
“Did you run to the common cabin when the buzzing sound went off, Renka?” I ask loudly so everyone can hear.
Renka looks at me with hatred in his eyes and I hold his stare with righteousness in mine.
“I was trying to get everyone else down from the deck to the meeting point”, Renka answers, articulating every sound with gritted teeth.
“But that isn’t part of the emergency drill, is it? I thought we were to look after ourselves and make our own way to the meeting point”, I reply smugly and notice Gerla, Isabella and Mickael look down to avoid what they expect to be an explosion from Renka.
“Yes, that is the protocol, but I assessed the situation and noted that nearly everyone was up on deck so I altered the plan to suit the circumstance”, Renka responds having the grace to look a little sheepish. He probably guesses what my next comment is going to be.
“Well, maybe that’s what everyone else did”, I quip back. He set himself up for that one.
“Not everyone was on deck, Mayther and I were in the common cabin”, Max calls out in a firm confident voice.
I can’t believe it, not only does he stand up in front of everyone and state his purpose confidently and loudly, he also confronts the one person in the room most of the others don’t dare go up against. I am astonished and a little uneasy in the change I’m witnessing in Max. First he argues to do my sentry, now this.
Renka is just as stunned as I am by this admission, everyone else seems to be as well. Most of them probably see Max as an extra, and a damaged one at that, just coming along because I argued for him. Apart from their initial attempts at including Max, they hadn’t really paid him much attention and are a little uncomfortable around him. I assume this is because of the midnight screaming and his inclination to be alone. I can see on their faces that to hear him suddenly stand up and talk against Renka has made them change their initial assessments of him. The only one who doesn’t look perplexed or surprised by Max is Tomas. He is sitting back just watching the proceedings as if this type of thing happens every day. I suddenly feel angry with him for sitting back and just letting Renka talk to everyone the way he did. Why doesn’t he stick up for himself? He did the exact same thing as Renka after all, tried to get everyone below deck, even to the point of physically dragging me down. I give him a dirty look that he catches the end of as he looks my way. I turn my head but not fast enough to see the look of confusion on his face.
“Well, at least there were two of us who followed the drill. We’ll have to practise more or if you don’t think there is any point to it we should just stop wasting our time now”, Renka replies, his anger unable to complete mask his embarrassment.
It makes me see him in a different light, he wants to be in control and acts confident but he isn’t as self-assured as he makes out. His arrogance hides his uncertainties but the slight flush on his cheeks reveals more than the set of his shoulders and his cocky voice ever could.
After this statement, silence fills the room. Everyone is waiting for someone else to speak. Of course we should still practise the drills and maybe do some fake emergency scenarios to help us get it into our heads. Renka knows that but is trying to get someone else to say it, a clever tactic after the way he was just shown up. I am not going to help him along. I sit back and look around the room. Mayther is the only one who looks pretty pleased with himself and no wonder, Max has just revealed him to be one of only two of us who followed the training when put to the test for the first time. Mickael is looking slightly amused at this turn of events, eyes flashing around the room waiting for the next one to talk. I don’t think he can hold any emotion besides excitement for too long. Most of the others are sneakily peaking out of the corner of their eyes to judge who will speak up or whether they should be the ones to talk. Not surprisingly Merva and Linton sit slouched in their chairs looking about with a smirk on their faces as if they’re in some sort of power struggle – which if I’m honest is pretty much what I’m doing. I feel a little ashamed to be placed in the same category as them and decide to talk up only to be beaten to it by Tomas.
“I think we should keep up the defence practice and maybe do some emergency drills to put the routine in our minds”, Tomas offers clearly and calmly.
His reiteration of my exact thoughts throws me a little, Max is able to do it to me a lot but I’m not too comfortable with being on the same page as Tomas, it seems to be happening a bit lately. Tomas’ breaking of the silence at all makes me feel petty, he seems to rise above the stupid squabbles and power struggles on this ship every time.
Heads nod and a few people call out that it’s a good idea. Mayther suggests that he come up with a few emergency scenarios and Diego and Vonteuse say they don’t have a problem activating the alarm when it’s needed. Everyone breaks off in to their own little groups to talk and some leave the cabin. I notice that Fiona stays by herself. She didn’t seem too involved in the discussion we just had. She looks concerned about something that’s occupying her mind. I remember the promise I made to myself to seek her out and thank her sincerely for the help she gave Max and me when I was sick and walk over to her to do it now.
She doesn’t hear me approach even though I bump into a chair leg that someone left sticking out in the walkway, I have to call her name to get her attention. She looks up at me and smiles a too-big smile a second too late.
“Are you alright, Fiona?” I ask concerned.
“Yeah, sorry I was just thinking. What’s up?”
She turns her body to give me her whole attention and I think that movement represents her really well. She is kind, caring and attentive, even though she doesn’t know what I’m going to say and she obviously had worries of her own she is going to listen to me wholeheartedly and help if it’s needed. Between her and Tomas it is no wonder I give myself a mental lashing every time I’m around them, they’re too nice.
“I just wanted to thank you again, I mean really thank you for helping Max and me when I was sick. Tomas told me you gave up a lot of sleep and I wanted you to know that we’re really grateful”, I say sincerely.
“You already thanked me, don’t worry about it. It’s not like we all haven’t helped someone with the Sickness before. Max already thanked me as well”, Fiona says in her kind efficient sort of way.
I think about Max seeking Fiona out and thanking her, it was just natural for me to thank Fiona for him. I hadn’t done it with Tomas because I assumed Max would have thanked him himself, but with Fiona I thought he’d be a bit reserved. Maybe I’ve underestimated how close Max became Fiona when she was helping.
Fiona and I talk for a little while about the wave and how amazing it looked approaching then just washing over the top of us. We come up with a few crazy ideas for fake emergencies, like a pod of whales attacking the ship. But through it all I get the impression that Fiona’s mind is elsewhere and wonder if I should ask her if she wants to talk about anything. I don’t want to pry and if she wanted to tell me about something she was worried about she’d tell me when she was ready. I always liked that about Fiona, she knew when to ask and when not to. At the very least I should give her the same courtesy, besides, I’m not so sure I’m equipped to offer advice to anyone, I just solved one of my problems by punching them in the face.
After saying goodbye to Fiona I head to the supplies room. I am really hungry and want to eat something before I go up on deck and look more closely at the ship’s wall. I have never noticed any groove or hinge to suggest that it would open and spew forth a very handy screen. I open the door to the supply room and see that I am not the only hungry one. Mayther is throwing some dried seaweed into a large steel bowl. I assume he’s going to take it on deck to cook some soup. There is a kitchen cabin on the ship but nothing seems to work in it. Vonteuse fiddled in there when we first came on board but he got only so far as to turn on a fan over a stove, the stove itself was out of action. Mayther has been cooking our soup over a fire in a huge cooking bowl that he fuels with paper and inedible seaweed he fishes out of the water. It is a waste to have an unworkable kitchen. No one ever goes in there anymore as far as I know, all the utensils and the food we need are in the supplies room so there really isn’t much need to go into the kitchen. But, what use is a high-tech kitchen when you have no food to cook anyway, maybe if we had some red meat to roast it would be a different story. I don’t think anyone really notices its loss, it’s not as if any of us are used to luxurious cooking supplies at home, a simple wood stove and range are all we use and with the measly amounts of food we have to share there are few ways we can cook to make it stretch out.
“You hungry too, hey?” Mayther asks.
“Yeah, I know these biscuits and the salted meats are supposed to keep us going nutritionally but it’s getting to the point where the piles of paper are looking tastier”, I answer sardonically.
“Well, you’re in luck. I caught a turtle this morning and I’m going to boil the whole lot in a stew. I’m guessing it will be more tasty than paper”, Mayther replies with a big smile.
“Really, that’s great. Do you mind if I come and watch you cook it?” I ask enthusiastically. It isn’t everyday you see a sea turtle, let alone get to eat one.
“Sure, grab a few biscuits and I’ll crush them in the soup, it can’t hurt nutritionally”, he answers with a smirk.
We walk up the stairs and on to the deck juggling our stash, I wonder where Mayther has kept the turtle and if it’s still alive. The small crowd of people kneeling in a circle outside of the control room answers one of these questions. I quicken my pace to join them and have a look. I notice Max among the number, he’s smiling at something Isabella has just said and she looks pleased with his reaction. Looking away from Max I am quickly dragged in to the conversation when I squeeze through the circle and see the turtle lying upright in the centre. It looks a gruesome sight. I guess that Mayther didn’t really know how to dispose of a turtle the right way, if there is one. Its neck has been slashed and it has bled out on the deck. It’s about sixty centimetres from head to tail and the shell is laced in an intricate pattern of brown, green and yellow. It has green weed and an occasional marine creature attached to it. It is beautiful and easy to imagine its grace in the water. There would be a great deal of soup from this animal, even once the shell is removed. I’m unsure how turtle tastes but assume it’s similar to fish and any new addition to our diet is welcome.
“It was hard yards pulling it in. It must weigh forty kilos at least. I had to use the BAS net”, Mayther explains as he goes to work with a gutting knife.
He sets apart whatever he thinks will be useful and uses a bucket of water to wash out the now empty abdomen. From that new angle I can see there is quite a bit of flesh and my stomach grumbles at the prospect of some fresh protein other than fish. I notice a couple of the others are having the same reaction as I am. Gerla is licking her lips with her eyes bulging and Diego, who had stepped out of the control room to watch this unique event, rests his hand over his stomach as if reassuring it that food will soon come.
I move my position to get a better look at what Mayther is doing and notice a flash of movement from the corner of my eye. I look directly at the spot where I glimpsed the movement and recognise Fiona’s blue striped jacket. The weather has calmed a little from the earlier tumultuous seas and the protective screen is doing a good job of protecting us from what’s left of it, but it doesn’t seem to block out the temperature and it has dropped enough to cause a chill in the air. Fiona has clearly left the common cabin for the deck like most of us, but something about the movement caught my attention. It could have been the speed of the flash of colour or it could be that I still feel uneasy about her obvious distraction earlier which has peaked my curiosity. Either way I follow her.
I back out of the little crowd that has formed around Mayther completely unnoticed by the others. They are too intrigued with what is happening. A sea turtle is a rare sight. Even sentry has gone to the wayside – that probably has more to do with the enormous screen covering the ship than the turtle Mayther dragged in though.
Fiona has moved to the bow of the ship. The control room is positioned quite close to the bow but there’s about six metres between it and the raised area of the deck that stretches to the rail at the apex of the ship. I walk around the front of the control room, noticing that it’s empty and see Fiona heading for this raised deck area. She is walking really fast, almost running and it seems so out of place on a ship where it doesn’t matter how fast you move you aren’t getting to your destination any quicker. Everyone pretty much moves at the same slow, relaxed pace around the ship, there is very little rushing and running unless we’re doing drills. I don’t try to conceal my pursuit of her. I’m concerned more than anything. It seems out of character for efficient, calm Fiona to be rushing anywhere. Something has to be wrong. She jumps up onto the raised deck area and speeds up to reach the neck high rail that surrounds the fish head shape of the ship. I hesitate a second, and move behind a storage chest that is secured to the deck. I expect to have to talk about something that is emotional for Fiona and that is a conversation I am not very good at. I need time to prepare myself. Maybe I am intruding on time Fiona wants to herself, for the second time today. This thought nearly has me turn around and walk back to Mayther’s turtle soup, but it is just an excuse for me to get out of what is likely to be an uncomfortable conversation.
In the time it takes me to contemplate walking away and deciding to stay after all, Fiona has climbed the rail and is hanging precariously over the edge. Instinct kicks in and I bolt out from behind the chest and run toward Fiona screaming ‘no’ in one long agonised voice. It isn’t until I get to her, yanking her back from the rail and seeing her confused expression that I realise she couldn’t have fallen over because the protective screen is up. Embarrassment floods through my body and I flush all over, probably a response to the hit of adrenalin as much as making a complete fool of myself. What did I think, that cool efficient Fiona was suicidal? No wonder people are questioning my sanity. This little stunt has me doing the same.
I sit on the deck puffing from the sprint with Fiona sitting in front of me looking bemused. At least she has the courtesy not to laugh that would be a bit much for me. But I have a vision of myself from Fiona’s perspective, a wraith-like scar-ridden girl collapsed on the floor in front of her and only seconds before running to save her from leaning onto a clear screen. A smile spreads across my face and it quickly turns into a giggle then outright laughter. Fiona takes this as licence to let loose and we both end up in hysterics on the floor of the raised deck. Tears are streaming down our faces and we start choking out imitations of my ‘no’ scream. I don’t know if it is our laughter or the scream from before but when we calm down enough to stand and straighten ourselves out, the small crowd that had gathered around Mayther’s turtle are standing staring at us with a mixture of concern, confusion and amusement on their faces. This brings on a new fit of the giggles and most of them just shrug and walk away, probably annoyed that they were dragged away from the turtle soup. Mickael and Max walk up to join us, Mickael with a huge smile on his face always out for a good time, and Max with a frown of confusion.
“Share the joke?” Mickael asks.
“Nooooooooo!” Fiona answers in mimicry of my frantic call to stop her jumping overboard.
This sets us off again and we curl over, grabbing our stomachs with one hand and supporting each other with the other hand.
Max eventually drags me away with Mickael following to look at the progress of the soup and Fiona goes down to the bathroom. It isn’t until much later, when we sit in a big group enjoying Mayther’s delicious turtle soup on the deck, protected from the worst of the weather from the screen that I realise I never found out what Fiona was in such a hurry to see.
I am woken from my sleep very early the next morning by a loud buzzing noise. In my state of semi-consciousness I scramble to get my clothes on and shake Max awake. He is slow to respond at first but we’re both ready to make our way to the common cabin in under five minutes. I vaguely wonder if this is some sort of drill for when the alarm goes off or any other noise on this ship alerts us to a problem, there doesn’t seem to be any urgency in the buzzing noise to me. Doors open along the hall as we pass revealing the others in the same dishevelled condition Max and I are in. I hear Linton say to Merva in a voice that s obviously meant for everyone within a fifteen metre radius to hear that this is just a planned drill by Renka and Diego, nothing to rush about. His drawn-out relaxed tone gets me angry, he clearly enjoys having knowledge he assumes no one else has and relishes shouting it to the world as if it gives him a sense of power. I quicken my pace to open the distance between us. Max and I open the door to the cabin. Renka, Fiona, Mickael and Mayther are already here. I feel sorry for the person who forgets, if there is one, they wae going to cop it from the others. This makes me think of Tomas, I don’t remember seeing him in the hall, it crosses my mind that I should have knocked on his door to make sure he came to the congregating area, but I dismiss the idea because it implies that I think him incapable of remembering himself.
By the time the last stragglers come into the cabin the buzzing noise is really getting on my nerves, if this really is just a drill couldn’t they turn the stupid thing off now? There are a couple missing, Tomas is one of them and I wonder if I’m supposed to be on sentry duty, I have a fleeting feeling of worry in my stomach thinking that if something is wrong we really just meandered in while there are some of us on deck. Then I notice the relaxed demeanour of Renka and the others who were here before Max and me. I hope that if this is just a rehearsal we don’t act so blasé when it comes to the real thing. To my surprise it’s Mayther who clears his throat to quieten everyone and starts talking, Renka stands to his left and a little behind him. I smile at this because Renka has obviously imposed this ban on his control over the meeting as a punishment for him not following procedures before, I can’t imagine Mayther suggesting he do the talking. Ironically, this just shows how much control Renka actually has, not the opposite, it is a little disconcerting.
“Well, it’s good to see everybody bright eyed and bushy tailed on this fine morning”, Mayther says with too much energy and enthusiasm. It’s met with more than a few groans.
“Fiona and Renka were the first here and have already been up on deck to check that the sentries are okay. Even though unplanned this was a good practise for everyone”, Mayther smiles a sly smile, meeting the eyes of Max who smiles tentatively in return.
A glance at Linton reveals an angry scowl on his face, being wrong or ill informed doesn’t quite sit right with him. I can’t stop one side of my mouth curving in a smirk.
At this statement, Renka steps forward and says the buzzing noise is the ship’s senses reporting that the waters have calmed and the screen is receding. I’m frustrated that I didn’t get to see it for myself. I wanted to see how the apparently seamless connections come apart. I regret coming to the meeting area first now.
The meeting splits up after that, Mickael and Gerla, who both look like the sleepwalked down the hall announce they’ll be going back to bed. The rest of us head to the supplies room or the deck to check out the screen-less view. I look at Max and feel sad that I haven’t spent much time with him at all recently. He’s always sketching with Tomas or on his own and I’m either on sentry duty, fishing or searching someone out to have heated discussions with, usually Renka. I’ve been preoccupied with all the stuff Renka has told me and guilt washes over me as I think about how I have neglected Max. I’ve noticed a change in him and wonder if it has to do with me not telling him about what Renka said, he didn’t seem to mind at the time but maybe it is grating on him. I contemplate the effects of telling him everything but cringe away from the idea. He would run away with the ‘me having immunity’ idea and would be severely let down if I broke out in sores again.
“Hey, Max, do you want to do some fishing with me? Mayther set aside some Turtle guts that might be good bait”, I ask Max enthusiastically.
I look forward to the idea of having Max to myself for a couple of hours before my sentry duty. I’d been rostered on to do the rounds this morning – but swapped with Vonteuse who prefers the peace to the shared dome duty. I thought I owed him after he covered some of my duties when I was sick. Now that the screen is down we would have to be diligent again.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll go get our stuff, can you get me something to eat and I’ll meet you on deck”, Max answers happily before quickly walking off towards our cabin.
I grab a couple of biscuits, some salted meat and notice some dried seaweed, it is thin and crisp. Mayther and Isabella have been experimenting with it, trying to dry it out so that we can take some of it with us across the ruins. I decide to take a couple, there are heaps there and they’re out in the open so I guess they won’t mind if I taste-test. I fill my canister up with water from the small sink that s huddled in the corner of the room. It seems a funny place to have a sink but it’s pretty convenient for us, maybe that’s why this room was chosen instead of the others on the lower level. I throw it all into a bag and go in search of Max.
Max is on deck and we find a secluded spot at the stern of the ship where the transports and cylinders block us from the others. Max has brought along his sketchbook and I’m eager to have a look at what he’s done so far.
We get to baiting our hooks and casting the reel lines. We have four between us, there are quite a few fishing supplies on board, plenty of rods and nets but everyone prefers the large steel reels, they’re easier to use and the holders at different sections of the ship mean you can leave them for a while, which is handy when you’re on sentry duty. Max and I brought some of our own stuff that we used back home but we’re saving that for when we’ll need it on land, they’re more suited for that style of fishing anyway.
“Can I have a look at what you’ve done so far in your sketch book?” I ask Max feeling genuinely excited to see his work.
“Sure, just grab it from the box”, Max indicates the box he used to carry the bait, spare hooks and knives we were using.
I wonder why he isn’t a bit more precious with it, throwing it among smelly fishing gear seems a bit too lax. I want to say it, to tell him to take better care of it but something stops me. This is the change that I’ve been feeling, the hesitation to say things like that to Max. I don’t know if the change is from him or from me.
I flip through the book and gasp at some of the sketches. They are amazing. Tomas wasn’t kidding when he said Max would come a long way in a short time. He has captured some amazing scenes. The most striking is the turtle. He clearly observed Mayther when he pulled it in, killed it and of course gutted and cooked it. There is a sequence of sketches depicting each stage, they’re slightly off-skew, like he’s viewing it all through a glass bowl, but it seems like he meant it to be this way. It doesn’t take away from the work. It makes it unique and creative. I’m astonished at how in such a short time Max has developed his own style separate and completely different to Tomas’. He’s sketching events and scenes he witnessed on board but he takes the reality out of it where even though I know the things he draws happened I question whether they are real. Tomas sketchs the feeling into people, he sees deeper within everyone and memorises snapshots that represent a person so exactly, there is no room to question the reality he portrays. I’ve never seen value in art, there is so little around for me to appreciate any way or the time to stand around looking at it. I think about what Max said about the work not being art, that Tomas doesn’t like to call it that, I have to disagree. What I am seeing of Max’s work and what I have seen of Tomas’ work can only be described as art. It certainly isn’t equivalent to my boring journal entries. This is on a completely different realm.
I turn to Max who is staring out to sea and follow his gaze to a seabird circling above looking for prey. We both stare for a long time. I wonder if this is the same bird that Tomas captured in the sketch that inspired Max to try his hand at drawing. Could it be that I feel intimidated by this newfound talent of Max’s? Is that what I sense has changed between us, why I stop to think about what I’m going to say to him? I look back at Max and try to see him objectively, not as a big sister. It takes a lot of concentration and I’m glad that he is intently staring at the seabird to give me time to do it. He looks older, his hair flops over his forehead, but it doesn’t look cute from this objective perspective, it makes him look dark or mysterious. His full lips and soft nose are so familiar to me, I could lose my eyesight and still recognise them if I traced the features of a thousand people before I got to him. But now they are coupled with a jaw-line that is defined by a hard straight line, it takes the softness out of his facial features. And his eyes that have appealed to me to fix things, to make things right so many times over the years now hold knowledge in their own right. What has happened? I see him as a chubby faced boy, my little brother who needs protection. I feel sick to my stomach at the thought that I have been blind. Did this change occur while we’ve been on board or has it been going on at home only to be missed by me? Both of our birthdates have come and gone while we’ve been away from home, it isn’t something anyone celebrates, another year closer to Age-Sickness. Is it that Max is twelve now and physically changing? The thought strikes me that I am the one who needs him to rely on me, to depend on me for protection not the other way around. Maybe the insight I had credited Max with since he was a tiny boy was really him seeing what I needed and giving it to me. Anguish at the idea that I’ve burdened him when all I ever wanted was to take his burden away rushes through me. I’m certain it spills across my face for all to see, there is no way I could stop it. I turn back to the seabird and as I do I glimpse Max’s hand sitting on his lap. He still has the dimples at the base of each finger, which give his hand a baby-like appearance. Each dimple is a little spark of hope, a message that could mean all the questions that had just run through my mind are void. I imagine that his elbows also have the dimple instead of the floppy skin part you get when you’re older, but I can’t check because he’s wearing long sleeves.
While I’ve been staring at Max the seabird has caught its prey, a sizeable fish wriggled in its beak trying futilely to escape. We watch as the bird flies away gracefully then Max’s spinning reel brings us back to why we are here.
After about an hour-and-a-half Max and I have caught three good-sized fish, one is a bream, one I can’t identify, I just hope it isn’t poison and the other is a taylor. I’m happy that I can easily identify two of the three fish caught all thanks to Mayther’s teaching who seems to be a wealth of knowledge on anything animal. My fingers are aching and even though I try to de-hook my catch, Max sees my difficulty and does it for me. We put the fish in a bucket of fresh seawater and start back towards the dome. I have sentry in half an hour and want to get the fish ready for steaming before then. Max seems to be in as much of a hurry as I am, maybe he has a sketching lesson with Tomas planned. We pass Linton and Isabella who are fishing on port side of the dome and compare our catch. The turtle guts is good bait it seems, we’re going to get a filling meal out of it. I mention that I have sentry as a means to end the conversation and Isabella offers to gut and clean our fish with theirs. Linton has a sour look on his face but he isn’t going to go against any suggestion Isabella makes. I wonder again why she spends any time with him; they have such opposing personalities, if anything I would have picked Isabella’s idiosyncrasies as making her one of Linton’s targets. I mentally check myself; I’m supposed to be withholding judgment on people after my experience with the Sickness. Maybe I am only privy to one side of Linton.
I start to thank Isabella for offering and say that Max can deal with our fish but Max jumps in and accepts graciously. I look at him sideways and wonder why he’s done that, he used to love cleaning the fish. From the time he was three years old he would squat next to me with his head so close to the fish I was gutting, his nose almost inside the fishes belly. He was so proud the day he pulled in his own fish and gutted it, there wasn’t much to it but I cooked it anyway and said it was the juiciest fish I’d ever eaten. The memory makes me sad as I contemplate my earlier thoughts about our relationship.
Max hurries along beside me after we leave Linton and Isabella. I’m not going to have time to wash up after fishing and the biscuit and dried seaweed I ate nearly two hours ago aren’t doing much to satisfy my now grumbling stomach. I reach into my bag to grab a drink of water and offer it to Max. He takes a few big gulps and gives it back. Even though the fishing alone-time hasn’t gone exactly as I had thought it would, I’m happy that we can be silent together, that I can offer him water and he accept without words, that we can sit and appreciate a great flying seabird without talking about it to death. Comfortable silence means shared experience and deep knowing, I’m happy that Max and I have that.
Merva and Renka come into sight as they round the dome, they’re probably the two people who I least want to see right now or anytime in the near future but I don’t make up the roster. I can’t remember who I’m doing duty with, it could be Tomas, it usually is. I nod to Renka in a stiff greeting and smile at Merva.
“You’re right to go Merva, it’s only five minutes”, I say dropping my bag at the base of the dome.
“You too, Renka, I’m taking Tomas’ duty”, Max directs at Renka confidently.
I turn around in time to see Renka nod and walk away, Merva stares at me curiously. I don’t want her to see the shock and anger that is probably clearly on my face, it would just give her and Linton fuel for their ongoing fire of gossip, so I smile sweetly and start walking briskly away from her and Max.
I hear Merva make what sounds like a sly comment to Max but can’t make out what it is exactly. Max falls into step next to me shortly after that and it’s almost funny that this silence is so charged after I recently mentally congratulated us on our comfortable silences. I turn to Max and se that he is frowning. We probably look very alike in this moment.
“So why did Tomas need you to take his duty?” I ask without preamble.
“He didn’t, I wanted to take it, I’ll be taking his share of Diego’s duties from now on”, Max answers matter-of-factly.
“What, but why? You don’t need to do any duties, no one expected an extra person”, I retort.
“I’m not an extra person anymore, Karther died”, Max responds dryly.
This stumps me a little, I don’t know why but I don’t want Max doing sentry, maybe it’s because it has proven to be dangerous after all, with Karther and the freak wave. I’ll take on extra ones if Tomas dioesn’t want to do it anymore. I had planned on doing that anyway. Max is the youngest on board and he isn’t expected to do sentry, he’s here because I brought him, not a so-called ‘volunteer’ like the rest of us. Maybe he felt pressured to do some work when I was sick because we were down two then but now I am fine to take the load.
“Don’t worry about it, I can take over from now, Max, you don’t have to do Tomas’s share, I offered to do it all myself in the beginning anyway. Besides you’ve come such a long way with your sketching, you should have as much time as you want to work on it”, I say soothingly as I place my hand on his shoulder.
Max stiffens at my touch and I drop my hand from his shoulder. We both stop walking at the same time and face each other. Max has anger written all over him, I’ve never seen him this way.
“I don’t need you to cover for me, Pia, I’m capable of doing sentry duty myself”, Max states in a clear determined voice as he looks straight into my eyes.
It seems like he is saying much more than the few words that have escaped his mouth.
“I didn’t say you weren’t capable, I said you could use the extra time for your sketching. You’re not a volunteer, you don’t have to take on the roles everyone else does”, I talk in a calm and restrained voice because I find this new Max unpredictable and I don’t want him to think that I’m being confrontational.
“That is not your real reason”, he states as his stare penetrates deep into my mind and my heart if I was honest.
He is right of course, why did I try to lie to him, I know better than that.
“You’re right. I think it’s too dangerous for you to do sentry duty”.
“Why is it too dangerous for me and not for you?”
“Max, you’re only twelve, you know what happened to Karther, and the wave, imagine if the screen doesn’t work next time”, I plead for understanding.
“Karther was twice as big as you and without the screen the wave would take out the whole ship. The real reason you don’t want me to do sentry is because you want to keep me a little kid forever, you want to protect me from everything but you can’t, no one can”, Max says this with a mixture of passion and frustration in his voice.
Again, he’s right, except about the part where I can’t protect him. The only thing I can’t protect him from is the Sickness and now I might even be able to do that.
“You’re right, I do want to protect you from everything and I’ll always want that no matter what age you are. You’re wrong about me not being able to do it, Max, I can and I will, if I have to talk Tomas into doing the duties again then I will”, I know I am pushing it a bit, dismissing Max to get what I want but what I want is what is best for him.
The reaction to this speech is drastic and instantaneous. Max turns a bright red and leans in closer towards me, it surprises me that he isn’t that much shorter than I am.
“I will make decisions for myself, Pia, I organised this with Tomas, he doesn’t see me as the baby that you do, in fact no one here does. You are not my mother”, he spits at me.
The last words were a slap in the face. I gasp and take a step back. Max has never spoken like that to me before. Mentioning our parents like that is taboo, we never do it. We don’t talk about them or refer to them in conversations with others unless it is completely necessary. Max is angry, really angry, his words bring up all the questions I had in my mind from fishing. Am I smothering him, being unfair in my assessment of his ability or babying him? Has he been pandering to my needs all along or is this an epiphany he had while on this ship? I don’t know what to say so I just turn and start walking again. Max falls into step beside me and neither of us speaks for the next three hours.
I look for Tomas in his cabin, the common room, the supplies room and all over the deck. The only place I haven’t looked is the control room; I just assume Diego and Vonteuse are in there, a silly assumption given that Tomas said it was one of the places where he can sketch uninterrupted. I trudge back up the stairs to the deck, feeling tired again. I’m sure it is a mental tiredness not physical, a morning of fishing and walking the same few metres over and over isn’t to blame for the type of fatigue I am feeling. The tension between Max and I was almost tangible. I was tempted to wave my hand through the distance between us while on sentry to see if I could feel some static. I am certain he would have felt sorry for what he said and try to take it back but for the whole three hours he remained quiet. I’m not sure I know him well anymore and that makes me feel an overwhelming sadness. Unusually, I feel like I have to talk to someone about it and the only person I can think of is Tomas. So after I showered and changed I went in search of him, a fruitless search it has proven to be so far and my sadness is quickly turning to frustration.
I walk briskly up to the control room and step up onto the shelf expecting to see Diego and Vonteuse working hard on the control panel, but instead the room is empty except for the far corner where Tomas is bent over his sketchbook on the floor. He looks up at my entry with frustration on his face that turns to a welcoming smile when he sees it is me. That takes a little of my annoyance away and I feel a pang in my stomach that he is prepared to be frustrated at anyone else but is happy to see me.
I can’t help but smile as I walk over to him and huddle in the opposite corner just like the first time we met in this room.
“Working on something spectacular?” I ask casually trying to keep it light.
I am a bit scared that we might lose the newfound ease we rediscovered when he fixed my broken fingers and fall back into awkwardness.
“Always”, he answers, curving one side of his mouth up in a smirk, although I see a knowingness flash in his eyes, as if there is more to say that he keeps to himself.
“Can I have a look?” I ask reaching out my hand for the book.
Tomas closes the book quickly and shakes his head, smiling slightly to soften the blow of being refused. It’s the first time he isn’t prepared to share his work with me and it makes me burn with curiosity and rejection. What can he be drawing that he doesn’t want me to see? To make it worse the smile he plastered on his face is an attempt to cover something else, some other strong emotion hidden in his eyes. It looks like fear, as if I have caught him out in something. I stare at him trying to work it out for a second until I sense that Tomas is becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I let it go; who am I anyway, the journal police, I wouldn’t just hand over my journal if he requested it.
“I was looking for you, I have to ask you something about Max”, I get straight to the point.
Tomas looks simultaneously relieved and concerned at the change in topic.
“What’s up?” he asks as he straightens up and stretches his legs out in front of him.
I am distracted for a second at how long they are laid flat out on the floor like that. He really is quite big, tall but not slight in any way. It’s deceiving because he doesn’t use his size to dominate or attract attention, like others I know.
“Have you noticed a change in Max since you met him at training?”
All the feelings of sadness and anxiety come flooding back as I voice the question. Tomas looks at me trying to read the emotion in my voice and I can tell he is thinking about constructing an answer that won’t offend me.
“Give it to me straight, Tomas, what?”
“When you were sick, Pia, Max was really worried, frantic really. He went from never leaving your side, not letting anyone near you, to doing every single one of your sentry duties without help, to fits of rage and violence. At one stage he tackled Renka around the waist knocking him to the ground. He apologised to everyone on board when you got better and has had their respect since”, Tomas says this in a tone that suggests it was going to be a nasty shock to me, which in truth it is.
I stare at him for ages, not really seeing him, trying to see this person he described as Max. It just dioesn’t gel with my Max, why hasn’t anyone told me this before now? Does everyone think I am too fragile, too weak to know what happened to my brother? Am I? Tears well up in my eyes and before I can stop them they spill over onto my cheeks. In my living memory not once have I cried in front of another person, not at my parent’s funeral or the funerals of anyone else I knew, but in this short time, Tomas has seen me cry twice. I am disgusted with myself for letting him see my weakness – it’s Max, it always has been. Poor Max, how could I be so stupid to think, or even say that morning that I would and could protect him from everything, when all he needs protection from is me? I thought I was doing right by Max, doing everything for him but instead I was blinding myself to his needs, to how he has changed from the ordeal of my sickness. Silent tears continue to fall down my cheeks, dropping onto my hands as they curl and uncurl in my lap. I’m vaguely aware that Tomas has stood up and is walking towards me. He kneels down and wraps me up in an all-encompassing embrace in one gentle movement. I rest my head on his shoulders and let the tears fall onto his jumper.
I’m not sure how long I let him hold me like this but eventually I take a huge steadying breath and let it out in one big sigh. Tomas takes this as a signal that my pathetic emotional display is over and lets me go. I look up into his eyes and am struck with how penetrating his stare is. He looks right inside me as if he’s searching whether the damage is core deep. His pupils widen when he notices me staring back and resolve sets in his features, there is no hesitation. Maybe that’s because my body is working under some unknown code, giving off every possible signal that I want Tomas to kiss me. He leans down holding my gaze and presses his lips lightly to mine. The pang in my stomach from his welcoming smile earlier explodes into a raging fire that spreads down my legs and up through my chest. His lips are soft and full against mine; I’ve felt nothing like this before and don’t want it to stop. He uses his lips to open mine and gently deepens the kiss before pulling away slightly then leaning forward to press a soft peck on the corner of my mouth to end it completely.
I keep my eyes closed for a second after Tomas’ lips leave mine; I want to remember everything I feel in this moment. My whole being is centred on my mouth, like all the nerve senses have made a dash to that central place. I lift my fingers to my mouth and caress my tingling lips. When I open my eyes Tomas is looking at me with concern on his face. A small smile curves my mouth to reassure him that I’m okay. He responds with a tentaive smile, I giggle a little at this shy person in front of me who has just been confident enough to comfort me while I cry my eyes out then kiss me so thoroughly. He must read my mind because he seems to see the contrast and find the humour in it as well.
I straighten up and sort myself out, patting down my sure-to-be unruly hair, suddenly feeling a bit self-conscious with Tomas staring at me, my cheeks flame in response. I sense more than see Tomas reach out and push a few stray strands of hair behind my ear, letting his hand caress my cheek before it falls to his side. The motion is so intimate, more intimate than the kiss we just shared and I don’t know how to respond. Tomas saves me by taking a step back and smiling in reassurance.
“I like your hair”, he comments simply.
I’m not used to accepting compliments. In fact I can’t remember ever getting one, accepting graciously isn’t going to come naturally. Especially since I’m well aware that I’m not looking my best. I have healed almost completely from the sores but there are shadows left on my skin and my body still doesn’t have the fullness it had back home when we had fresh red meat and our rations allowed us to make some bread. Maybe that’s why the compliment was about my hair, there isn’t much else to admire unless you have a liking for pockmarked rake-thin girls with a bad temper and overactive tear ducts.
I continue to fiddle with my clothes, straightening them out and looking intently at them until I’m forced to look up at Tomas. He’s staring at me with a smile on his face enjoying the spectacle I’m making of myself. He likes seeing me uncomfortable and this makes me angry. That is enough for me to square my shoulders and look him directly in the eye with my chin sticking out at an angle.
“That’s better”, Tomas says with a smile and I can’t help but smile back.
He knew how to bring the situation back into the realm of normality. In this moment I’m not sure there ever is going to be ‘normal’ again. Everything has just changed between Tomas and me and I don’t know how to deal with it. I liked kissing him, I really liked it, but what am I doing getting involved with someone in ‘that’ way? I have just been sick, I could get sick again if I assume what Renka said is the fairytale it sounds like, and getting attached to someone in that way is only going to lead to a lot of pain. Besides that, a rush of guilt overwhelms me, I had come here because I was upset about Max and wanted help sorting out my feelings about him and then I feal into a wonderful kiss with Tomas and completely forget about Max. I really am a selfish person. Did I seek Tomas out to talk to him about Max or did I just want to see him and used that as an excuse? My face must have contorted into a tormented expression because Tomas, who had just straightened up from picking up his sketch journal walks over to me, puts his hands on my shoulders and looks searchingly into my eyes.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“I was just thinking about Max. I only wanted to protect him but I’ve been thinking about myself more than him. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?” I ask Tomas pleadingly.
“He asked us not to. He didn’t want to worry you when you were working so hard to get healthy again”, Tomas answers compassionately.
“And there it is, he was the one protecting me, he has been dealing with so much and I should have been there for him. I should have asked how he handled it, how he was going, instead I got better and ignored the changes I noticed in him”, I almost groan in response.
There is so much more I am feeling about it, so much more that I need to say but I have to say it to Max.
“Do you think I treat Max in a way to satisfy a need in myself instead of what he needs?” I ask quietly.
It’s the question whose answer could change the way I thought of myself. I had always seen Max as intuitive, cutting straight to the point of every issue. Maybe he has seen me for what I am all along and reversed our roles. I hate the thought that I could have been a burden for him, holding him back some way. That’s what I have been noticing, Max coming into his own, interacting with everyone else without encouragement or guidance from me. I always answered for him, was there to make sure he wasn’t socially uncomfortable but maybe I was forcing that role onto him. When he was truly alone, when I was sick and incoherent he broke down and came out the other side a different person, but maybe he was always that person and I chose not to see and he let me ignore it.
Tomas has that look that shows he is contemplating just how far he can go before he offends me. That is answer enough to my question. I nod my head in understanding, turn and walk out of the control room. Tomas doesn’t try to stop me and I am grateful, it’s Max I need to see.
Max is in our cabin laying belly-down on the bed sketching. He is idly swinging his legs in the air making him look so young and carefree, both of which he isn’t. I close the door with more noise than usual to get his attention but he ignores the gesture and continues sketching so I walk over and sit on the end of the bed.
“Max, can we talk?” I ask, to which he nods and puts his book and pencil down moving into a sitting position.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t been treating you the way you deserve, sometimes it’s hard for me to see you as anything other than the three year old who wouldn’t let go of my leg”, I try a bit of humour to see where Max’s mood is but get no response out of him.
He sits quietly waiting for more.
“I need to ask you something… what has changed?”
“We both have”, Max answers aggravating me with his allusiveness.
“Max, Tomas told me what happened while I was sick. He said you didn’t want me to know, why wouldn’t you tell me something like that? I’m so sorry you had such a hard time when I was sick and I wasn’t there for you and I’m sorry that I didn’t talk about how you were going after I woke up, it was self-absorbed of me”, I blurt out in a rush.
“Tomas shouldn’t have told you what happened. It’s none of his business. It’s not your fault that things have changed they just have”, Max says with a little more feeling and a softening of his posture.
I feel like I’m burdening him again with my emotions, making him feel sorry for me when it should be the other way around.
“Don’t do that, it’s not your job to make me feel better, just accept my apology, you deserve it”, I respond.
“I accept your apology”, he mumbles.
There is something else. Things are not easy between us.
“What’s wrong, Max? Why won’t you tell me?” I plead.
“I’m not the only one who is keeping something to themself”, Max throws back at me.
I can’t believe he is holding that against me, it seems malicious, so unlike him. Can this all be about me asking him to wait before I tell him about what Renka said?
Max waits to see what my reaction to this is, but I simply stare at him in confusion.
“Renka told me everything, Pia, I know what you are, it can’t work the way you want it to anymore. Out of the two of us you are the one who needs to be kept safe. This isn’t something you should have kept from me”, Max blurts out with accusation in his voice.
I am furious that Renka dared to tell Max! How am I supposed to explain to Max that it is probably all a lie, that Renka doesn’t tell the whole truth, that it’s a dangerous hope to have and mostly that I don’t want it to change the way we are. He still is the most important one.
“Max, you don’t know Renka. I know you would want to believe what he said but it is probably all a lie, or at least half truths that don’t amount to what he says it does”, I try to say this with confidence instead of pleadingly but I don’t think I fool Max. He looks me straight in the eyes and shakes his head.
“Pia, it doesn’t matter if what Renka says isn’t true because we have to act like it could be. If it is, you are more important than anyone else in the world and need to be kept safe. We need to do this until we work out how to use the vaccination stuff or until you get sick and…” he trails off at this last part, his eye twitches at the thought of me dying and I realise how hard it is for him to maintain this confident façade.
He is trying to convince me that he is more than capable of dealing with everything on his own, that he doesn’t need me to protect him instead he’ll be there to protect me. He sounds like Renka, I imagine them talking about me and Renka telling him that it is his job to ensure I am safe because he is the closest to me. I am furious at Renka for putting this on Max and wonder what proof Max asked for and what Renka gave him.
“Max, I don’t know exactly what Renka told you about my possible immunity but I think it’s dangerous to believe him or even hope it’s true. I could get sick tomorrow and die then what will happen to you? You need to understand that the same fate awaits me as it does everyone else unless we find something miraculous at The Refuge”, I state confidently.
“Why can’t you believe that we have already found something miraculous? You know everyone thinks there is something different about you, that you’re special. Who else is as old as you and who else have you ever known has gotten so sick then recovered so completely in only a week? If we told everyone right now that you have immunity I don’t think they would be surprised. It’s not about us anymore, Pia, it’s about everyone, you talk about hope, what is it that’s so dangerous about it, what are you scared of?” Max responds passionately.
“It’s not only me I’m worried about. If you really believe I am the answer to stopping Age-Sickness and you live your life with that hope imagine what will happen when I die from the very sickness I’m supposed to be immune to? You broke down the first time, you have to acknowledge that I will get sick again and that time I might not get better”, I answer.
“No, Pia, you have to let yourself believe something good can happen, you spend so much time being negative about everything. The truth is you’re scared to hope, you’re scared to let yourself get close to people, you feel safe when you’re in control and things are familiar around you. It just happens that what is familiar is hard work with little gain and plenty of death”, Max retorts almost angrily.
Suddenly my earlier self-reflection about me needing him more seems petty compared to this. Of course I am a negative person, who wouldn’t be in my situation? But then, there are lots of people who share similar circumstances who see goodness and hope for the best, who allow themselves to get close to people – everyone else on this ship to start with. Do I just feel sorry for myself? It suddenly hits me that the worst part of this is that I have forced Max into this state of negativity with me. I haven’t let him develop relationships with anyone else except me. Even Sadie and the kids we had lived with over the years were not allowed in our inner-circle, if a group of two could be a circle. I look at Max who is staring up at me with expectation in his eyes. Just what he expects me to say or do is beyond me. My instincts tell me to yell denials in his face and say we are just going to forget what Renka has told us and go on like normal will not go dow well with this new confident, driven Max. He has determination written all over him, determination to protect me, to be heard and to convince me to believe in myself. I have no power to change his mind. Who am I to even try? It was only about an hour ago that I was kissing Tomas in the control room. Isn’t that the action of someone with hope and a belief that enjoyment and good exists in the world? I let out a long exhausted sigh.
“So how do you think this changes things exactly, on a practical, day-to-day basis, I mean if we are to believe Renka?” I ask reluctantly.
“Well, I don’t think you should be doing sentry, at least not as many as you’ve signed up for and I think you should stay out of drills practice too, messing around with knives could end badly”, Max says confidently.
“Huh, well weapons training’s out now anyway, remember?” I wave my hand in front of his face “but what do you think everyone else on this ship would say if they saw me bludging while they all have to do their share of the work?” I ask, as if I am going to abide by these stupid boundaries anyway but I want to know just how far Max has thought this through.
“We’ll just say you’re still too weak and haven’t fully recovered from the Sickness, they won’t mind. It’ll be Tomas and me covering for your duties anyway”, Max answers with the air of someone who has planned for this contingency thoroughly.
“Does Tomas know too?” I ask frantically.
That would change everything, I’d have to question if he kissed the girl with immunity rather than just plain old Pia.
“No, I haven’t told anyone else, Renka doesn’t want anyone to know, but Tomas wouldn’t mind if we asked him. I’m pretty sure he’d do anything you asked him to do” Max looks sideways at me and I flush crimson.
“I’m sure he wouldn’t, what do you mean?” I ask nonchalantly.
“You know what I mean; you two seek each other out all the time. He talks more about you than sketching techniques when he’s teaching me”.
“Really, what does he say?”
I feel excited and foolish at the same time. What has happened to me, to us? This is a complete role reversal and I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with it, but my curiosity wins and I listen intently to Max’s response.
“He mainly asks how you’re feeling, if you’re sleeping and eating, stuff like that”, Max says looking at me with curiosity.
“Oh, he’s probably just worried that I’ll get sick again and he’ll have to help out”, I mumbled\ dismissing Max’s comment.
I wonder if there is more to it, if he really is concerned with my wellbeing, if he’d be really upset if I got sick again. I refuse to take this idea any further, for one I am sitting next to my younger brother who is watching me intently and secondly, I don’t want to look too deeply into any feelings Tomas has for me.
“Yeah, maybe”, Max replies with no conviction in his voice at all.
“So about this sentry duty thing, I’m going to do my part, I won’t sit back and let everyone cover for me when I’m perfectly fine to do it myself. I won’t compromise on that. But you can take my share of Diego’s duties, I’m not happy about it but it’s only fair, you did it while I was sick and it’s not my job to tell you what you can’t do”.
It kills me to say this because I don’t believe it. It is my job to tell Max what is good and bad for him, I don’t want that to end because of some stupid idea Renka put in to his head.
“Pia, it has always been your job to tell me what to do and you did a good job of it but I’m twelve now, what were you doing when you were twelve?” Max asks knowingly.
By twelve, I was looking after Max and the rest of the young kids we lived with at the time, hunting for them, collecting their rations, teaching them to prepare and cook food, treat basic illnesses. But it was my circumstances that forced me into that position. Max doesn’t have to be that person, he is so lucky to be twelve and the youngest among a group of eleven others.
“You’ve made your point. I’ll try and back off a little from telling you what to do and talking for you. It’ll be hard for me though, Max, you are my little brother. But I want you to back off from this protecting me stuff. I don’t want you treating me like I need to be wrapped in cottonwool. I get what you’re saying about acting like the immunity thing is true to stay on the safe side but I’m quite capable of looking after myself on a ship in the middle of the ocean”, I declare with determination.
Of course the events that have occurred already on this ship make this last comment a stupid one to make, it seems plenty of things can happen in the middle of the ocean. But he understands what I mean.
Max nods his head and I lean down and hug him. It feels so good to feel his familiar shoulders under my arms and despite what he said about what being twelve means he still feels like my little brother who can always do with a cuddle.
I have sentry tonight again, Max and I rewrote the duties roster and stuck it up in the common cabin. I tried to renegotiate me having a few more than him but he wouldn’t have any of it so we divided it up equally. I’m on with Isabella and she has been describing the paper animals Linton has been making for the last week. She’s really impressed with his paper folding skills and is going on about how intricate the animals are. What a huge waste of resources, unless they are going to use the paper to fuel fire at some stage, but I don’t say this to Isabella. I let her talk and talk while I think about my time with Tomas in the control room. I haven’t seen him since and wonder what he’s doing. I’m not sure how it will be with us the next time we see each other. I imagine a few scenarios in my head, ranging from complete awkwardness to long kissing sessions but I doubt anything I come up with will resemble the reality.
The night is really beautiful and I’m glad the screen has receded back into the ship’s wall. The stars are spectacular, there are so many you can’t see the sky between them in some places. The temperature is cool but not so much that a jacket won’t keep you warm and the swell is non-existent, everything radiates a calmness that spreads through my senses. I feel like so much has been resolved in one day, I had no idea that Max has been weighing on my mind so much until we talked it out. There are things I’ll have to get used to. I am not much of a fan of Max doing sentry and weapons practice but there is little I can do about it besides restrain him and lock him in the cabin until we get to the dock. Although, I’m sure someone would notice his absence and he wouldn’t be too impressed when I finally let him out. It seems to me that we both inherited a bad temper and a penchant for stubbornness. That our temper manifested itself in violence against the same person, Renka, is pretty funny. So I can imagine the scene if I did lock him away.
In all honesty, I have a lot of confidence in Max’s ability to deal with situations. When I reflect on the recent past and things Max has had to confront in his life, I can see he is levelheaded and forthright in his approach to problems. What I thought was him being reserved and uncomfortable with people is more likely him choosing what to make a fuss over. Unlike me he has proven to be a bit more discerning in that area. It’s difficult for me to accept that I was reading him all wrong, that I had labelled him one way and treated him according to that label instead of seeing him grow and mature, changing into an independent thinker. I think the night terrors and the vulnerability associated with him when he thrashed about in his sleep, screaming and crying had a lot to answer for in swaying my perception of Max. The thing that bugs me the most about this change in Max is the idea that he will not hesitate to put himself in harm’s way in my place if he saw I was in danger. We spoke about it and I got an agreement out of him that he wouldn’t consider himself my self-appointed protector, despite what Renka asked of him. He reluctantly agreed but I suspect it was just to appease me. We’ll have to see what happens in the moment, if there ever is a moment.
Before I can take these thoughts any further, Fiona walks up from the lower deck and heads purposely in our direction. I smile warmly at her, after the mistaken suicide attempt incident I feel like I have a closer relationship with Fiona than I have with any of the others, besides Tomas that is. I still haven’t asked her what exactly she was in such a rush to see, but if she hasn’t offered the information maybe she doesn’t want me to find out. It’s weird that she isn’t asleep or at least in the common cabin at this time of night, even though it is a nice night, staying warm below seems a better option than walking up on deck in the middle of the night, especially when we all have this late sentry duty at some stage.
“Hey, Fiona, what are you doing up here? I certainly wouldn’t be if I didn’t have to be”, Isabella calls out to her before she reaches us at the dome.
Fiona doesn’t respond until she gets close enough to us not to call out. She looks sideways at Merva who is doing ‘the rounds’ tonight. I wonder if she has a message for Merva and just came over to say hello to us.
“I came to get Pia. Max is having a bad night, Pia; I can hear him from my cabin. I’ll cover for you for a bit while you go and check him out”, Fiona says looking between Isabella and I.
As soon as she mentions Max I head towards the stairs. I mumble my thanks to Fiona and pick up the pace. Max has improved so much recently, there is barely a night anymore where he has night terrors. I wonder if it is our earlier conversation that has triggered it and mentally berate myself for bringing it all up.
I jog down the hall towards our cabin, too frantic to notice that I haven’t heard Max yelling. By the time I get to the door and push it open I’m huffing and puffing, more with adrenalin than the physical effort it took me to get here. The scene that welcomes me is in such stark contrast to what Fiona reported and I stand staring into the cabin in utter confusion for a few seconds. Tomas and Max are sitting on the floor surrounded by papers with varying stages of penciled sketches on them. They both look up at me when I enter and have matching questioning frowns on their faces, as well as lead smudges across both cheeks and foreheads.
“What’s wrong?” Tomas asks.
I stare at him for a second, still not computing what I’m seeing with what Fiona said. Max is clearly fine and has been for some time if the amount of paper on the floor is anything to go by. I can’t imagine that Tomas and Max would be making loud enough noises to arouse Fiona at the end of the hall doing what they’re doing. Something does not fit. Flashes of Fiona hurrying to the bow of the ship while everyone was occupied with the turtle, her worried expression and distracted air after the screen went up and her sideways almost nervous glance at Merva just minutes before run through my head. On their own they mean nothing, but with this tonight, they all seem suspicious, something isn’t right and it doesn’t have anything to do with Max.
Without answering Tomas’ question I turn around and run up the hall, I vaguely hear footsteps behind me and assume Max and Tomas are following. I know there’s something wrong as soon as I get to the top of the stairs. The whole feel of the night has changed. I look first towards the dome, looking for Isabella, already not expecting to see her walking casually beside Fiona. Both are nowhere to be seen near the dome, I start towards it to check the side that is out of view from where I stand but movement from the area of the control room catches my eye. I turn sharply in that direction just in time to see Fiona sprint towards the side of the ship. I have no doubt as to her intentions. Before I can bring words to my mouth or place one foot in front of the other to chase her, Fiona reaches the side of the ship and dives into the night.
My body kicks into gear and I run to the side of the ship. I know the water itself is calm but it would be freezing. I can’t imagine that she’ll last long floating around in the dark cold water with her clothes weighing her down. Tomas gets to the side of the ship at the same time I do. We fling ourselves as far over as is safe to see if we can spot Fiona. I look frantically left and right but the darkness makes everything just seem black, with no whitewash it’s like we’re floating on a black satin cloth, absolutely depthless. Tomas grabs my arm and I look over at him. He’s pointing out away from the ship with his mouth hanging open. I follow his finger and see a large vessel that is almost completely submerged. It’s only the light from the brilliant stars that reflect off the metal sides of the vessel that allow us to see it at all. It is about half the size of our ship but obviously functions completely differently. From the little light available to us I can see that it is entirely enclosed and rapidly on its way underwater. Before it disappears completely I glimpse the seam of metal panels, just like on the night Karther was killed.
“You saw it too?” Tomas asks with the air of someone who is questioning their sanity.
I am so relieved we have both seen the submersible vessel it is something that just would not be believed by the others if only I had seen it again. They already think I am a bit crazy and mixed with my recent sickness and the lateness of the hour, there is no way they would have believed me.
“Yeah, I did”, I answer Tomas still looking at the spot where the vessel disappeared.
It’s as likely to see something like that, a BAS machine in the middle of the ocean, as it is to see the sun stop shining tomorrow. Nothing seems to fit. Who is Fiona really and what was she hoping to achieve? Seeing the vessel at the same time Fiona jumped overboard could not be a coincidence. I have to assume she was either met by whoever controlled that submersible, which would mean she had a way to communicate with them or she was suicidal.
I turn away from the water when I hear fast approaching footsteps. It’s Max running towards us with Merva following closely behind.
“You have to come and have a look at something”, Max calls before he reaches us. He is already turning back the way he came assuming we would follow.
Tomas moves to follow before I do and I jog to catch up to him. We’re led directly to the control room. It has a small light that spreads across the screen and illuminates the whole room so the sight before us is unmistakable. Everything has been smashed to pieces, leaving only a shell where once stood the wall length control board. There are bits of wire, metal, plastic and all sorts of BAS parts that I can’t name collapsed in the cavity. What I assume was the offending weapon is thrown on top, I recognise it from the weapons room, it’s a long thick arrow-like object that when swung around with force could easily have inflicted the damage that is before us. Fiona has smashed the control board and fled the ship before we can catch her. I can’t reconcile the Fiona I know with the girl who I saw leap overboard. Fiona is the intuitive, resourceful, kind and calm person who I feel comfortable with, who I had let go with. Why would she do this?
“Isabella, where’s Isabella?” I ask frantically remembering I had sentry with her and she is nowhere to be seen.
“I thought she’d be with you”, Merva answers looking around the room as if Isabella would suddenly appear.
I run out of the room squishing some tiny objects under my feet as I go, I doubt even Diego and Vonteuse can fix this mess so I’m not too concerned that I might have made it worse. I run straight for the dome with someone, I’m not sure how many or who, following behind me. It takes only a few seconds to circumnavigate the dome. Isabella isn’t anywhere to be seen. I stretch the search out further, looking up and down the ship. It doesn’t occur to me that Isabella could have jumped overboard with Fiona. I saw her surprise when Fiona approached us on deck and it was genuine. I run towards the transports and cylinders, they’re the biggest obstacles on the ship besides the dome itself. About a metre from reaching the first transport I see a shoe sticking out from behind it. I freeze where I am, making sure what I think I see is right. Merva pulls up next to me, probably in response to my sudden stop. I see her head follow my gaze in my peripheral vision. Before she can react further I run towards the shoe. I round the side of the transport so I can get a full view of Isabella laying face down with her arms above her head. It is clear she has been dragged to this position. I wonder why Fiona would bother doing that when she had a quick escape route, maybe she was worried about being found out before she got the job done. I lean down next to Isabella’s head and gently brush her hair aside so I can see her face. It’s sticky and matted with what I guess is her blood. The light isn’t good enough for me to see properly. I wave my hand under her nose to see if I can feel any air flowing out and rest my other useless hand on her neck to feel for a pulse. The two broken fingers stick straight out unnaturally and I nudge her ear as I try to place my working fingers where I know to feel for a vein. The movement brings a moan from Isabella that scares the hell out of me, making me jump with a little scream. I have obviously been expecting her to be dead, it’s enough of a relief that she isn’t that I don’t feel embarrassed at my ridiculous scream in front of what is fast becoming a crowded little spot. Merva, Max and Tomas have squashed into the space where Isabella lay, making it an uncomfortable squeeze. I look around the faces for Tomas, knowing he has some healing skills and see that he is way ahead of me, pushing past Merva to get to Isabella.
He starts talking to her, calling her name and asking if she can hear him. This gets an immediate groan in response, which I guess is a very good sign.
“We’ll need something to carry her down. She shouldn’t be stood up yet until I can see what damage has been done to her head and neck”, Tomas states not taking his eyes or hands off Isabella.
His hands are roaming all over her head, neck, back and sides, looking for further injuries.
“I’ll go down and get something”, I say and stand to get up only to be stopped by Tomas pulling me back down.
“No, I’ll need you here to help me”, he declares with authority.
It crosses my mind to ask what type of help I can give him in this situation with one hand out of action but I don’t question him.
“Max, you and Merva go down, there is a light-weight trundle bed folded up behind the cupboard in the common cabin. Get at least two others to come and help carry Isabella and three more to take up sentry”, Tomas orders.
This is an unexpected side to Tomas, he is confident and calm, his mind completely in the moment. Asking for sentry to be covered brings me up to where his mind is at, with the control panel out of order we have to assume we no longer have an alarm system. The very fact that Fiona was able to jump overboard without triggering it is enough to prove that theory. Now with all of us occupied with Isabella the ship and the dome are not being guarded, we’re more exposed now than we have ever been. To make it worse, Tomas and I saw what exactly we are exposed to, a BAS vessel that travelled undetected below the water. For all we know it has been following us the whole time, could still be somewhere near the ship now, waiting for the right moment to board or attack.
“Are you alright?” Tomas asks, looking across at me. He is searching my face looking for something I can’t name.
“What are we going to do? It could be out there now, right now? We need to tell the others, we need to find a way to protect ourselves quickly”, I blurt out, looking left and right as if I expect something to jump out at any moment.
“I don’t think we have anything to worry about tonight. Whoever it was must know that we’re alerted to them tonight. It would be stupid to do something now. Besides, Fiona will be reporting to them I guess, they’ll want to debrief and find out what she knows before they do anything else”, Tomas answers with certainty.
I am stunned with his response, when did he have time to think this over, only a few minutes has passed since we came up on deck, although it feels like a life time. He makes sense though, what we saw was the vessel heading away from the ship. They were obviously expecting to be seen, or the possibility was high enough for them to retreat after collecting Fiona. It occurs to me that we assume Fiona is with them. The only proof we really have is that we saw her leap overboard and couldn’t see her anywhere, instead we saw the submersible. Of course the smashed up control room and Isabella also provide strong evidence that Fiona isn’t all she appeared to be.
“I guess you’re right, but that really only applies to tonight, we would be better off preparing for the worst than believing that we’re safe. What do you think they want?”
As I ask this question it all falls into place, I know exactly what they want, what is the most valuable thing on board? The vaccination equipment and information in the dome are probably the most important objects that exist in the world. I hear my sudden indrawn breath when I remember the conversation I had with Fiona and Mayther the other day. I thought she guessed what was in the dome but now everything points to her knowing exactly what it contained. Has she really sabotaged the ship so that people can come aboard undetected to get at the dome? I am vaguely aware of Tomas calling my name but I can’t respond to him, the implications of what I have just thought are running through my mind. If these people, whoever they are, know about the possibility for vaccination and they now have Fiona then they would know about me. Even if my immunity is just something they think is a possibility and not a certainty that would mean I am just as valuable to them as the equipment and the knowledge of how to use it.
The overwhelming feeling from this conclusion isn’t fear or concern for myself, it’s the fact that I am putting everyone else in danger, Max, Tomas, everyone. If it was just the dome these people were after it’s in plain sight, they could easily overpower a couple of inexperienced guards to get to it. The fact that they know how to operate a BAS vessel implies that they have some knowledge about how to get into the dome, but to get me they’ll have to come looking and who knows how far they will go and how many people they will hurt.
But it doesn’t fit, Fiona had me, she could have easily lured me over to the edge when we were on duty together and pushed me overboard, why would they risk coming aboard and face a group when they could just have me soaking wet and probably frozen into submission? Maybe I am overestimating my importance, maybe I’m not the only one with a funny history with the Sickness, or maybe there are others on board who have me in their midst already.
The thought that anyone else on board could be working with the people in the submersible, the ones who killed Karther, the ones Fiona is obviously friendly with, brings goose bumps to my skin. The faces of everyone I have lived with for the last two months runs through my head, who can I trust? Can I trust my instincts at all when they were so wrong with Fiona?
Tomas has me by the shoulders and is calling my name, he’s saying something about shock and I start shaking my head to tell him no, it isn’t shock, it is fear, fear borne of clarity. Before I can get my head together and tell him, Renka, Linton, Merva and Max rush into the now tiny space between transports. Renka takes in the scene and pushes forward, grabs my arm and spins me round to face him. He looks closely at my face and then pushs me back to arms length and searches my body up and down with his eyes. It all happens so fast but my body instantly recoils at Renka’s touch and I try to fight him off. What does he think he is doing manhandling me like this? Before I can wriggle free of his grip, Tomas swings his right hand in a low wide arc and punches Renka just below the ribs. Renka’s hold on my arms immediately loosens and I push him off. He is bent over gripping his side groaning in pain. Surely being hit for what is the third time in a few weeks would make anyone reflect on their methods of communication, but obviously not Renka. When he regains his composure, he gives Tomas a deathly stare before taking in the scene around him. He ends with a look at me that says ‘you know why this has happened’. I look away before I can give anything away in front of the others, I’m not known for my subtlety and Tomas is clearly very astute.
“We need to roll her gently onto the trundle so it will need to be tilted to take her without us having to pick her up and bend her neck or back”, Tomas is back in his healer mode, easily dismissing the incident with Renka.
It tak esa bit of maneuvering and Renka, Max and I have to leave the small area to let Linton and Tomas do the job. Linton refuses to leave Isabella’s side, even though Renka’s size would have made the job lighter work. It’s weird to see him like that, almost like seeing him naked because he is completely stripped of his usual demeanour. It’s uncomfortable and fascinating at the same time.
By the time Isabella is safely in the common cabin being looked after by Tomas, everyone has heard that something has happened. They all gather around waiting to hear all about it. I look around at their faces searching for any suspicious reactions. They all seem genuinely concerned and eager to hear what has occurred. But who am I to judge, Fiona would have been the last person I would have picked for a spy, if you can call her that. The same question has been beating its way around my head since I realised what they’re after, who are they? My head pounds to the point of explosion and I dread what is sure to be a long discussion session.
Unsurprisingly it’s Renka who stands up, obviously taking the lead again. I guess someone has to do it. The rest of us sit staring around waiting for it to happen.
“Merva, I think you should tell us what you saw first, you were the only one besides Isabella who was on deck when Fiona wrecked the control room and jumped”, Renka gets straight to the point.
I am interested in why Merva didn’t hear anything. It seems strange that Fiona could knock out Isabella, drag her across the deck and completely destroy the control room without Merva being alerted to something wrong. She is a prime candidate as a spy as far as I am concerned and my stare indicates as much as she stands up, obviously nervous. I remember her comments when I had slackened off on my sentry and Karther was killed, I wonder if she expects the same treatment.
“Um, well I saw Fiona come up on deck and talk to Pia and Isabella, then Pia ran downstairs and Fiona and Isabella took over the dome duty. I didn’t think much of it really, so I kept on ‘the rounds’. I was heading towards the bow of the ship when Fiona came up and by the time I came down the port side I didn’t see Fiona or Isabella doing a loop of the dome. I, ah… just assumed that they were sitting on the other side, chatting or something and I kept walking down towards the stern of the ship. By the time I got around the transports and cylinders and back up the starboard side I saw Max, Tomas and Pia run up from below and I followed Max into the control room. Um… and that’s all”, Merva relays uncertainly.
I can imagine her cursing Fiona and Isabella for bludging when she was doing the boring rounds without stopping, if she had just had a look around when she didn’t see either of them we might not be in the mess we are in.
The extent of our problems didn’t hit me until I went to wash my face and hands in the supplies room and the water didn’t flow out of the nozzle before coming to the common cabin. The control room literally controls everything on this ship, including water supply, with it destroyed who knows what we can expect. Certainly not hot showers every day. But worse of all is the idea that maybe our course is no longer set, maybe the damage to the control board has altered our course or deleted it completely and we’re doomed to starve to death in the middle of the ocean. I look over at Vonteuse who is huddled in the corner couch. He and Diego are absolutely desolate. Renka forced them to leave the mess in the control room, Vonteuse to come down and listen to what has happened, and Diego to do ‘the rounds’. Otherwise I an imagine them curled up in a ball on the floor surrounded by the bits and pieces of what was left of the control board.
“You didn’t hear anything?” Renka asks, ignoring her obvious discomfort.
“No, I guess when Fiona was in the control room I was behind the transports and cylinders, too far away to hear”, Merva answers.
“Pia, why did you leave sentry?” Renka turns abruptly to me.
I’m taken aback at the accusation in the question. I didn’t see this coming, although it’s a logical direction I guess, it was my sentry duty again when something major happened. Even so, I don’t appreciate Renka making assumptions about my ability to carryout my duties.
“I left my sentry duty in the hands of Fiona for a brief time because she told me that something was wrong in my cabin and offered to cover for me while I checked it out”, I state clearly and concisely, emphasising the point that I left only when I was covered.
The fact that the person who covered for me turned out to be some sort of crazed spy doesn’t bode well for my sense of judgment, but I’m not going to let Renka think I have to answer to him, the group maybe but not him personally.
“What did she say was wrong in your cabin?” he asks.
I don’t want to answer this question in front of everyone with Max sitting next to me. It isn’t a fair or relevant question to ask anyway.
“Just that she had heard noises coming from my cabin and I should have a look”, I respond vaguely.
At this response Renka looks fleetingly at Max and lets that line of questioning go. So he does have some tact after all.
“So what did you find when you went down to your cabin and what did you see when you came back up on deck?” Renka inquires further.
I detail exactly what happened and what I saw. Tomas and Max verify where they can and everyone wants to know more about the submersible Tomas and I saw. Tomas has bandaged Isabella’s head by this stage and declares that she has a concussion but should be all right. He’s sitting by my other side and I am eternally grateful for the support. He answers the seemingly never-ending questions about the submersible when I faulter and he clearly got a better view than I did. We both guessed it was about half the size of the ship in length but it is hard to say because it was so dark and heading underwater. Vonteuse has pulled himself out of the depressive stupor he was in in the corner and joins the group when we’re talking about the BAS vessel.
“It sounds like something that was called a submarine BAS. They were used for stealth. That there’s one out there working and someone to control it is amazing”, Vonteuse comments in awe.
How he knows these things I don’t know, maybe his dad has a secret stash of BAS books or something. I would have argued that BAS knowledge of that type was a complete waste a few months ago but recent events have proven me wrong.
“So do we assume that Fiona was somehow communicating with the people who were in the submersible… ah submarine, and got picked up by them when she jumped?” Renka asks the now close circle of us who are trying to figure out what has happened.
There is a general hum indicating that, yes that is the logical, if anything was logical about this, conclusion to come to.
“Any ideas about how she was communicating with people off the ship, then?” Renka asks the circle.
“Wouldn’t be that hard surely if they were following us unseen, a few signals thrown overboard, maybe coloured pieces of material, or even waterproof canisters with written messages in them, why not? They obviously have access to BAS equipment and know how to use it. I think it’s more important to worry about why she did it, why they’re probably following us and why they wanted to sabotage the ship so we had no way of protecting ourselves? They clearly have intentions of coming back for something”, Tomas says intensely, looking at everyone in turn.
He has thought about this while working on Isabella and his conclusions are pretty spot-on as far as I am concerned. Who cares how she communicated with ‘them’, the question really is why? Although, if I was to follow my earlier thoughts about someone else onboard being involved maybe if we knew how she communicated I could watch out for any of the others who might be doing the same thing. As much as I hate to admit it, I need to talk to Renka privately, maybe he has some ideas about what’s going on, maybe the Committee warned him something like this could happen.
“Well, the dome is the obvious answer isn’t it? They were probably the same ones who got to Karther and we assumed it was the dome they were after then, why not now? The only difference between then and now, to stop them straight-out attacking is the alarm we have, they would have a fight on their hands if they boarded and we knew they were here, and they’d know it if Fiona had been communicating about our drills practice and how sentry worked”, Mayther says.
I look purposely at Renka who avoids my stare but shakes his head ever so slightly to indicate I keep quiet. When will it be time to tell them? Their life could be at risk now, surely they have a right to know what it is they are protecting and why. I’m surprised that they continue to feel it is important to guard something they have no understanding of, even when their safety is at risk. Don’t they question what they are doing it for? Why are they so willing to blindly follow an order, I just don’t understand.
“Was the alarm, not is. The control room is destroyed. There won’t be an alarm anymore, that was the reason Fiona did it, to open us up to attack without warning. The alarm won’t be the only thing we’ve lost either”, Tomas says intensely.
“He’s right. The control board operates everything on this ship”, Vonteuse backs Tomas up with this doomsday statement.
“The water isn’t working in the supplies room anymore, or wasn’t when I tried to use it about an hour ago”, I add.
Why not choose that moment to throw the dying of dehydration theory out there?
Mayther stands up and looks around looking for some solution to this newest problem as general panic sets in among the group. Linton, who has sat by Isabella throughout the whole conversation, walks over and joins the circle of distressed expressions.
“That doesn’t mean there is no working tap in any area of the ship, it could be that one section of the ship works and another one doesn’t. I don’t know how the control panel was programmed. It might have different units controlling different areas of the ship, instead of one unit controlling all water supplies. The only way we can be sure would be to systematically check every tap”, Vonteuse states steadily, bringing calm to the group.
“The biggest problem as far as I see hasn’t even been discussed. Weren’t the coordinates to the docking port inserted into the control panel? How do we know if we’re still heading in the right direction, we could start doing loops of the one area or head back the way we came for all we know”, I add, throwing another log on the panic fire.
The truth is that between dehydration, violent attacks from the outside, sabotage from the inside and being lost eternally at sea there really isn’t much hope for the ‘Great Quest of the Volunteers’. We could add to that list, potential starvation, – maybe self-imposed after an extended diet of dried biscuits and fish with a dash of dried seaweed on the side – and the inevitable Age-Sickness. We would probably be begging for it to take us after a few more months of this.
This claim really gets everyone going, even Max grabs hold of my arm and squeezes a little. I feel a bit guilty for being so dramatic and causing him distress but it does need to be considered. Linton starts to babble nonsensically that that isn’t possible, we can’t be stuck out here forever doing loops, someone would come and save us. I almost laugh at the prospect. It is unbelievable that there is a working BAS ship out there besides the one we’re on, let alone a spare one sitting back waiting for rescue missions to come up. Unbelievable but not impossible in light of the recent events though. Even stony-faced Renka has a reaction to this. He lets out an agonised groan and puts his head in his hands rocking back and forth. I am surprised to see him show any form of emotional display.
Tomas looks at Vonteuse who is staring at nothing in particular, thinking this latest bit of information through.
“What do you think, Vonteuse? Is it possible? Could the coordinates have been changed or erased completely and how would we know?” Tomas asks him.
“The short answer is we can’t know. I don’t think that destroying the control board would erase or change the coordinates because they would have many layers of protection being very important information and the physical destruction of the control board shouldn’t affect that. But the truth is we will never know, unless we stop entirely or do an obvious turn, even then how do we know it wasn’t supposed to happen. The only thing we can do as I see it is count down the days until we’re supposed to get to the docking port, I’m sure we’re all doing that anyway and we’ll deal with it if the time comes and goes without us seeing land”, Vonteuse answers thoughtfully.
It is a logical approach to a situation that is out of our control. The water and the possible, or inevitable, attack from outside the ship are the most important problems to deal with for now. The water thing is a problem but I think we can stave off dehydration because the cylinders hold large containers of water for the trek across the ruins. We aren’t supposed to delve into the cylinders while we’re on board because there are such limited supplies all around, but in this case we’;; have to make an exception. Besides, the chances of finding water when we leave the ship are pretty high, even a bit of rain is likely given the cooler turn in the weather.
Tomas then suggests we all go in pairs and check the taps on the ship and report back in twenty minutes. Everyone agrees and we divide the ship up into sections. Mayther and Linton are going to do the deck and let the others on sentry know what has been said. Tomas and Renka, an unlikely pair after the incident on deck, go to check the cabins on the opposite side of the hall and the storage rooms on the lower level, if there are any taps down there, I can’t remember seeing any. I go with Max to our cabin and the cabins on our side of the hall, including Fiona’s, and the supplies room again just to make sure. We check first the shower and the basin tap in each cabin with no success. I can’t help but have a look around Fiona’s room, unsurprisingly there is very little in the way of personal items. Her cabin was kept just as tidy and efficient as her personal appearance. It is irritating to me because I wanted to find clues that led to why she would do something like this, or maybe indicate someone else on the ship as being involved with the people in the submarine too.
When we meet back in the common cabin the adrenalin from all the drama has worn off and I am having trouble keeping my eyes open. My hand is aching and pulsing agonisingly up the length of my forearm and I can’t stop rubbing it to try and ease the pain. I’m not the only one who is finding it hard to stay focussed and awake, Vonteuse is drooping in his chair and Max’s head is slowing leaning against my shoulder. Not one tap or shower is working on board, so we have no running water and discussion turns to where we can get it from. There is talk of collecting rain water, which would be great if we could guarantee it would rain at least every second day, given that the water we were using before this happened was just recycled sea water there are no big water storage tanks to hold heaps of water so we would have to collect it regularly. Mayther comes up with a pretty ingenious system where we could set up plastic sheets on deck that would collect condensation over night, then when the sun comes up it would drip into buckets under the plastic if we have a dip in the centre of the plastic sheet. I can see it working but we’d need so much plastic and it would have to cover large parts of the deck probably for very little water. Using a bit of Mayther’s idea, Tomas suggests that we might be able to just get the seawater and boil it continually collecting the steam that rises out of the pot because it should just be water without the salt. Both ideas are pretty ingenious but I can’t see either of them providing enough water for the ten of us, not unless we work all day and night to collect the steam, and that would be thirst invoking labour, probably defeating the purpose in the end.
“We could just break into the cylinders and get a few containers of water. I know we’re not supposed to but that would be a stupid rule to follow if we all end up dead from dehydration. I’m sure we’ll be able to find fresh water when we reach land anyway”, I argue, adding ‘if we reach land’ mentally, I’m not so sure we will at this rate, how many things can go wrong?
Tomas looks at me and laughs. I don’t know what to make of this reaction and feel a bit offended that he doesn’t respect me enough to at least pretend that my suggestions aren’t ridiculous to him. I look around the circle of tired faces and se smiles forming on their lips too and even a few shaking shoulders. I start to say something about respecting everyone’s suggestions but am stopped by Tomas pulling me into a quick hug. I feel a little flare up of the fire in my belly at this sudden contact and stop what I was about to say.
“Here we all are coming up with ridiculously complicated ways of collecting water and you suggest the very simple one that’s staring us in the face. You’re great, Pia”, Tomas says in between chuckles of laughter.
I am stunned that it hasn’t occurred to anyone else really. I thought they were avoiding the land supplies like we’d been told to, just like they blindly follow the order to guard the dome, although I have found out that that was for a good cause. Maybe if we do reach land I will regret ever suggesting we break into the water supplies, but I wasn’t going to worry about that now.
The meeting breaks up after that, we just can’t stay awake any longer. Renka, Mayther and Vonteuse agree to take over for the others on sentry and we are all going to meet in the common cabin again in the morning to talk about what we would do about the submarine people. I hope we aren’t being lax about an attack occurring tonight, I have to trust Tomas’ idea that they would want to gather information and make it a surprise attack so we are safe for the time being. But if they are getting prepared they must know that we will be too, it makes me think that they have something special that makes them confident they would succeed in their task, whatever that is. I can’t think about it anymore, my brain is slowly shutting down and I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow with Max sleeping alongside me instead of on his mattress on the floor.
After only four hours of sleep the intense discussion I wake to in the morning is hard to take, although there are some who have no sleep at all so I can’t complain. We decide to congregate on deck so everybody can be involved and we don’t neglect sentry. Isabella has woken up some time in the night. She is pretty upset apparently but Linton, who slept next to her calmed her down. She claims not to remember anything except Fiona taking over from me and csn’t bring herself to come to this meeting, still too distraught Linton said. I think it’s a bit much myself and question whether she really can be in on it with Fiona. What a brilliant cover to be the one injured when the sabotage takes place. But I can’t shake the image of her surprise on seeing Fiona up so late on deck. It seemed so natural and genuine.
“She must have gone down to the weapons room without anyone seeing her and stashed the weapon on deck somewhere during the day or the night before”, Renka concluds after asking Merva and I if we’d noticed her carrying the oversized arrow-like weapon she used to smash the control room up. It isn’t something we were likely to miss.
“We need to decide how we’re going to protect ourselves, I don’t think just keeping watch is enough and running to the common cabin to count heads won’t work anymore without the alarm”, Linton adds a bit impatiently, probably eager to get back to Isabella.
“I think we should use the guns, if some of us are armed with more than knives maybe we have a better chance of fighting them off”, Mickael adds.
“Wait a minute, we don’t know that they want a fight, we are assuming they want what’s in the dome, why not let them take it if it means they’ll leave us alone, we don’t know what’s in it, what does it matter to us?” Tomas says quite reasonably.
My heart jumps up into my throat as I frantically search for an argument against it. It is after all exactly the argument I would make if I didn’t know how valuable the content of the dome was. I feel Max stiffen beside me and see Renka shoot a death stare at Tomas, they obviously have the same thoughts running through their heads.
“We were told not to let our guard down with the dome, we haven’t questioned why before now so why do it when it is obvious the order was given for a very important reason”, Renka argues.
“Talk for yourself, I’ve questioned why I have to guard the apparently useless structure taking up room in the middle of the ship and when my safety is put at risk I think it’s my right to refuse an order that has not been explained to me”, Tomas quips back.
He’s mimicking my exact argument and I can’t fault him. Renka gives me a pleading look, or as pleading a look as his arrogant face is capable of. He is dreaming, I am not going to help him with this one, I think we should tell everyone, even if it disadvantages me. I try to convey this with my eyes but I’m not sure what he gets from the look, instead of persisting with me though, he moves to stare at Max.
“I think the Committee chose to send you all on this quest with the hope that you would be the ones to stop the Sickness killing us all. With that as their main goal they wouldn’t give you a job that wasn’t important, especially if it endangered you, so I think we should stick to protecting it”, Max says looking directly at Tomas.
I don’t know exactly what type of interaction Renka and Max had when Renka told him about the vaccination equipment but I don’t like how Max seems to do Renka’s bidding, first by trying to protect me and stop me from doing sentry and now with this argument against a logical and fair point made by Tomas, who he respects and likes. I glare at Renka and resolve to talk to him about this later. It’s no longer his decision alone to keep this from everyone.
Tomas is surprised at Max’s comment but looks at him thoughtfully, he respects Max and his opinions and will give this idea some thought before making a decision for himself. Renka is clearly far more clever than I give him credit for, he effectively has a tool in Max to bring otherwise more difficult people around to his opinion, I find him despicable.
“Maybe we should vote on whether we still guard the dome. My opinion is that the order was given for a good reason and already one of us has died in following it. I don’t want to be the one who makes his death worth nothing by sitting back while unknown enemies come aboard and take whatever is inside”, Renka declares passionately as he raises his hand.
I hate him for making me do this. Of course I have to vote to keep protecting it against what Tomas says and my better judgment. Even worse is the fact that he is manipulating everyone by mentioning Karther, whoever didn’t vote to keep protecting it will be seen as heartless now.
After some hesitation everyone except Mayther and Tomas have their hands up in the affirmative. I feel embarrassed that I am put in the group that is supporting Renka’s opinion. I can’t wait until I get to speak with him alone, the sooner I do that the faster I can clear it up with everyone, especially Tomas who is working hard to avoid my eyes, probably so offended by my choice.
The conversation turns to the use of guns to help us. I am just as opposed to the idea now as I was before, for all the same reasons and now one more. The thought that someone who is working with Fiona and her friends could have a gun makes me feel very uncomfortable. The group are talking like it is just a given that we use guns now and are deciding who wants one instead of a knife. I don’t like the way the conversation is going, if I was a spy I would opt for a gun and straight away I would have not only the advantage of surprise when I turned on the person next to me but the power behind it to cause real damage.
“Wait a minute, I don’t think it’s a good idea to give anyone guns, haven’t we had this argument before?” I argue in agitation.
“Things are different now, Pia, we don’t have an alarm system and we know for sure that someone or more than one more likely will attack us and they know how to use BAS equipment. It would be stupid not to give ourselves more of an equal footing”, Mickael answers with a bit of sympathy in his voice, as if he feels sorry for the girl who is obviously going to lose this argument.
“If I remember correctly, we didn’t have the alarm when we decided not to use the guns and the fact that ‘they know how to use BAS equipment’ is the point I’m making, we won’t be on an equal footing, we will be disadvantaging ourselves using weapons we know nothing about. Having a powerful weapon means nothing if we don’t know how to use it properly, using something that we’re skilled at will be more dangerous to our opponent than a gun we can’t operate fast enough or in a sudden attack”, I respond, I refused to be swayed on this one.
“You’re forgetting that we have knowledge of this ship, Pia, we know where we can hide and get cover, where a good vantage point would be to hit a target. That would be our advantage”, Renka adds to Mickael’s argument.
“Yes, that would be really useful, Renka, if our underwater enemy left a note saying what date and time they planned on boarding our ship, we could all find a secret hidey-hole and target one enemy each. Even in the unlikely event that we could get to any good position when we’re being boarded it would be killing in cold-blood to shoot someone who was sneaking onto the ship unaware that they were being watched. Who here would be comfortable sending a bullet through someone they didn’t know for a crime they didn’t even understand?” I address the question to everyone in the group as I stare at them all in turn.
“I understand what you’re saying, Pia, but if it came down to me or them I could do it. We voted to protect the dome, you did too and with that we’ll need to protect ourselves too. Renka says he can teach us how to use the guns, I think we should use whatever we have available to us”, Vonteuse argues to nods of agreement.
I look around at Linton, Diego, Gerla, Merva and Mickael, who still has the sympathetic look on his face, and see they have no intention of listening to any argument I have. I don’t need to see Renka to know what the look on his face is.
“Have any of you thought that Fiona may not have been alone? That maybe there is someone else among us, or even more than one, who could be working with these submarine controllers? What would Fiona have done with a gun in her hand? Linton, maybe Isabella wouldn’t have gotten away with just a bump on the head. We saw what they did to Karther and Fiona weaved her way in our group with no hesitation, I for one don’t think anyone working with them would hesitate to use a gun if it was in their hands”, I counter-argue.
Two can play at this manipulation game and I have no qualms in targeting the weaknesses of any of them to keep the guns locked up.
My words have an immediate reaction, everyone looks around at everyone else, assessing if the other is a spy. The suspicion that seeps into the circle of people around me is virtually tangible, the atmosphere changes and I watch everyone close themselves from their neighbour. I have hit the right chord because now anyone voting to use guns would be seen as suspicious. Although I am proud of myself for clearly winning everyone over to my side, I have to wonder what damage I have done in the process.
The damage becomes clear a few hours after the meeting ends when a fight breaks out between Gerla and Merva. Tomas is on the rounds and I am on duty with Linton, what I would give to swap the two for that three-hour duty, it is tortuous. Linton jumps between his obnoxious, annoying self to long periods of mopey monologues about ‘poor’ Isabella. I nearly signal to Tomas to do a swap so I can do the rounds and get away from him, but I stop myself from committing a seriously selfish act. It makes me wonder if Tomas really would do anything I asked him like Max said. I have a feeling that he just might, to a certain degree at least. He doesn’t strike me as someone who can easily be walked over, quite the opposite really. He speaks his mind when he believes it is important enough and stands up against the whole group if he thinks they are wrong and I respect that.
“So I know Mayther thinks he is really good at fishing but does he have to leave trails of fish guts on the deck wherever he fishes? I think he does it so no one else fishes in that part of the ship, a bit selfish if you ask me”, Linton complains. He is in the middle of one of his obnoxious and often just mean, tirades of which no one is left unscathed. I can only imagine what he says about me when I’m not around or even whispers in someone’s ear when I am. He is interrupted by a shout coming from the direction of the control room. Without even thinking about it I run towards the noise and am followed by calls from Linton to keep on sentry no matter what happens. Usually I would agree with this advice but it is broad daylight and there are people all over the deck, I don’t think me running a few metres to the control room will seriously affect our level of safety at the moment.
By the time I get there I see I’m not the only one who ran to see what the noise is, after what happened the day before everyone is a little jumpy. Tomas came to the same conclusion as me about the importance of sentry at that moment and is staring at the scene in front of him in confusion. Gerla and Merva are in the midst of a vicious screaming match, both with chests heaving and it looks set to move from a verbal fight to a physical one.
“How do you explain it then? I’ve never seen you take an interest in this stuff before”, Merva spits at Gerla.
“You can talk, you were spying on me, if anything is a bit suspicious here it’s you taking it upon yourself to snoop around”, Gerla responds with venom.
“What exactly are you accusing me of, Gerla? It sounds like you are quite the actress, all that crying about Karther, what a great cover, no one was ever going to suspect you”, Merva taunts with an evil curve of her lips.
Gerla responds as if the words are a physical blow. She takes a shaky step back and her mouth hangs open in shock. Merva took it a bit far with the Karther comment, I can’t quite figure out what it is exactly that they are accusing each other of but it isn’t hard to see it is the seed of suspicion I planted that is the trigger.
Gerla recovers from the shock of Merva’s comment and with a flash of her hand slaps Merva hard across the cheek. Merva’s head whip-lashes violently to the side and it is her turn to be stunned into silence. I can only imagine the sting of her cheek, the slap is still resounding in my ears. At this point, Linton bursts through the small crowd gathered around the two and pushes himself between them facing Gerla.
“What do you think you’re doing? What’s your problem?” he yells into Gerla’s face.
Gerla has the look of someone who has just been shocked by their body, like her hand worked on its own accord without any conscious decision made by her brain. She looks from her hand to Linton repeatedly, not comprehending what he is saying to her. Linton acts the coward in the way he tries to sway an argument he knows even less than me about in the favour of the person he is friends with. I imagine it to be a typical move for someone like him to step in when he perceives himself to be more dominant over one party. I can’t see him doing it if Renka was in Gerla’s place.
“Maybe we should just calm down for a second and talk about this properly without all the aggression”, Mickael steps forward with a smile on his face and his hands up in a parody of the surrender sign in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“You’d like that, Mickael wouldn’t you, you seem to spend an awful lot of time with Gerla, what is it that you two talk about all the time, or should I say who is it you two are talking to?” Merva leans around Linton’s shoulder to direct this accusation at Mickael.
“What do you mean, Merva? I’m just trying to calm this situation down, I don’t even know what you’re talking about”, Mickael replies, smile wiped from his face.
“I think it’s pretty clear what she’s saying, Mickael, you and Gerla have been acting a bit suspicious if you ask me and Merva is the only one with the guts to say it”, Linton directs at Mickael straightening his shoulders and placing a hand on Merva’s shoulder to show he respects her courage.
“Are you trying to say that Gerla and I are some sort of spies? You must be kidding! Who do you think you are making accusations like that? You don’t know anything about me, or her for that matter”, Mickael yells half in disbelief, half in anger.
By this stage it is Linton and Mickael facing each other with Merva and Gerla behind them. Everyone is gathered around now, some of them are contemplating whether they should step in. Mayther is rocking on his feet in indecision. I feel a little awkward being the one to stop the argument when it was me who started this whole suspicion thing. I don’t regret it now, although there is already so much for us to worry about, if we start fighting among ourselves we’ll have no chance against any enemy who infiltrated the ship. We are more likely to stab each other in the back, literally, than cause any damage to the submarine controllers.
Mayther finally makes the decision to jump in and stop the mess turning into something bigger than it already is. He steps forward and addresses Merva and Mickael by looking at each of them in turn.
“It’s stupid to keep on like this, accusing everyone, we don’t even know what Fiona was really doing or why, we can’t go assuming there are more like her on board, we need to keep together to stand up against any attack that might come”, Mayther pleads.
I agree with what he says but see his mistake immediately, showing any sympathy towards Fiona right now is the worst thing he could have done.
“So you think Fiona was innocent of destroying the control room, even though three people saw her run out of there and jump overboard? I think the mess that’s left is evidence enough of her handy work, don’t you? Or are you too friendly with her to say a bad word against her? Maybe you’re still talking to her, I’ve noticed you’re up before everyone else in the morning and awake the longest too, what are you doing then?” Diego yells into Mayther’s face as he pushes through the crowd and stands in front of Mayther with his chest thrust out and fists curled at his sides.
“Hey, you know that’s not what I meant. I just meant that we don’t know enough about why Fiona did what she did and who she was working for to accuse anyone else of being in on it with her. Take it easy”, Mayther calmly says to Diego with his hands up in surrender.
“Yeah and what about accounting for your time? What are you doing early in the morning and late at night, it’s a bit suspicious I reckon”, Diego continues, losing some of his anger but still intent on pursuing his line of questioning.
“Where do you think the fish you eat comes from, while you spend all your time fiddling around with the buttons in the control room I’m catching your dinner. I could ask you the same question about your time, I haven’t seen much gain from all your time in the control room, you’d think this ship would have grown wings and flew us directly to The Refuge with the way you and Vonteuse are in there almost twenty four hours a day”, Mayther answers angrily, stepping closer to Diego.
The seed I planted has clearly grown into a vicious weed wrapping its tendrils around everybody. In the end it is Tomas who steps in and calms the situation down, Renka stays surprisingly quiet. Tomas’ confident, non-confrontational tone as well as his reputation as someone who is fair and generally keeps to themselves works for him in this heated situation.
“You are all right. We don’t know each other enough and if we’re to stand together against an enemy that could attack any minute we need to get to know each other better and trust the person who is going to stand next to us when the time comes. Why don’t we all agree to meet in half an hour on starboard side and share a bit more about ourselves?” Tomas says looking between everyone in the crowd as well as the four involved in the confrontation.
He then turns and walks away, giving no room for a response or objection. Amazingly, a few of the others follow, Mickael and Gerla being among their number. It’s clearly over for now. Tomas used just the right amount of flattery and fact to stop the situation getting any worse. But now we are all going to have to tell our life story and I dread being put in that situation. I have to wonder if giving everyone a gun is a worse evil after all.
It is still my sentry when the group gathers around the dome half an hour later so I have the advantage of standing just outside of the group and occasionally walking around the dome making sure everything is in order. This suits me perfectly, even if Linton joins me some of the time. There is an overall feeling of reluctance, no one wants to begin and any closeness that has been forged up until this point seems to have withered and died. Even Mickael and Gerla keep their distance from each other sitting at opposite ends of the circle. Any coupling can be looked upon as suspicious. Mayther helps Isabella up from below and Linton can’t keep his eyes from her for longer than two minutes.
Tomas clears his throat and looks briefly at everyone in the circle before beginning.
“I’m from ‘F’ and I have no siblings. My parents died when I was ten and I lived in our house on my own. I was the second eldest in my commune up until five months ago. I like sketching and I know a bit about healing, both I learnt from my parents”, Tomas says clearly and concisely, setting an example for the rest of the group.
I’m not sure if this type of information will be enough to stop the suspicion that has weaved its way through the group, but it doesn’t seem too invasive to give the type of details Tomas did. I relax a little at this thought.
“I’m from ‘A’ and have a brother and sister left, my older sister died last year, she was sixteen and a half. We live with the three kids from next door, one of them is deaf so I know how to do a bit of sign language”, Mayther stops here and makes a series of deliberate signals with his hands and fingers as he moves his mouth in a mime of what he is communicating.
“That was ‘we are stuck on this ship but the fishing is good so that’s okay’”, he finishes with a smile.
This contribution brings smiles to a few faces and the tense atmosphere relaxes a little.
“My real name’s Gerlatana but my parents always called me Gerla and it stuck. I’m from ‘D’ and I have two younger brothers. We used to live with cousins but that didn’t work out so we live on our own, or did until I became a ‘volunteer’, now Anthony and Francisco are living with our neighbours until I get back. Francisco fell out of a tree when he was four and broke his leg, it wasn’t set properly so now he has a limp but he is the best yabby catcher in our commune”, Gerla says as she looks straight ahead.
There are tears in her eyes and it is clear she misses her brothers a lot. I wonder when her parents died and how long she has been the eldest in her commune but don’t want to ask. The last thing I want to do is open this sharing time up as a discussion, who knows what I will be asked.
It falls silent for a bit after that and I take the opportunity to walk around the dome. Tomas makes to stand up and do his part of the rounds but I motion for him to stay, indicating that I’d do it for him. It’s important for him to stay for the whole sharing thing, it was his idea in the first place, but I also want a break to figure out exactly what I am going to say. I hate talking about my business to anyone, let alone a whole group of people, but to refuse will be like screaming from the rooftops that I am a spy.
I make my way around the dome quickly and do the rounds in record time. I want to hear what the others have to say. I never would have thought I’d be at all interested in the lives of the rest of the ‘volunteers’ when I started this voyage, maybe it is being trapped at sea, my brain seeking stimulation in whatever form it is offered.
When I get back to the group Linton is in the middle of his turn, of all the people here he is the one who I don’t care about missing information on.
“…my last brother died as a baby and now I live with the five kids next door, none of us are related”, Linton ends.
It sounds like the ending to a sad story but he holds himself as if daring anyone to judge him. I wonder what it is exactly that he says to everyone who seems to look everywhere except at him. Silence falls over the group again and I work my way up to breaking it with my life story when Max gets in before me.
“I’m from ‘G’, I have one sister, Pia and our parents died when I was three. We’ve lived with different people over the years, mostly a girl and her brothers and sisters next door called Sadie. Pia’s really good at hunting and fishing so we get a bit of meat to share at home. I wasn’t a volunteer for this quest, but I didn’t want to be left behind when Pia left. I feel really lucky to be here and going to The Refuge where I hope we’ll be able to find a safe place for everyone to live”, he relates clearly.
I’m surprised at Max’s version of our story. I never thought of him as having a separate story to me but the way he describes us is so different to what I would have said. I like how he said that he didn’t want to be left behind, I distinctly remember the conversation we had when I saw the announcement about the Quest and it was me who repeatedly argued that I would not leave him behind and if he wasn’t allowed to come then I wouldn’t go. His version makes me sound less crazy, he didn’t mention the scene in the communication office to start with and he made it sound like it all came from him. I smile at Max, I’m relieved and proud. He is the first one to bring it all back to why we’re here, The Refuge and finding a safe place, an honourable reason and reason enough to stop all this craziness. The others seem to agree because there is a general straightening of shoulders, a sense of purpose and a clear vision as to where we are headed. A common goal is the key to bringing us together again and leaving the destructive suspicion behind. I am aware that ironically I was the one who introduced the problem and my brother the one who introduces the solution, what a team we made.
“I’m an only child and I come from ‘E’, my mother didn’t die of the Sickness, she died giving birth to me because she was too young. My dad didn’t want to hang around after that so I lived with my aunty who was ten when I was born. She died a while ago and I’ve been living with different groups of kids from my commune ever since”, Merva says with much the same tone about her as Linton when he told the group his story.
After my sickness I assumed she had a mother who doted over her because she seemed to take on a motherly type of air, fussing over small details like the position of my blankets. Maybe it was her aunty who modelled that behaviour, although I doubted that she could have lived past Merva’s sixth or seventh birthday. Merva’s story isn’t that uncommon really, there are whispers about women dying in childbirth all through the communes, it happens when children give birth to children. It’s one of the reasons many people don’t know if they are actually related to their ‘siblings’. When parents died so young their kids moved in with kids of all ages from the time they were too young to remember, so the orphans from one street may grow up together and whether they’re related or not becomes unimportant. But the part where her dad left is pretty sad, usually people have such respect for the hope a new baby brings, especially in our parents generation when the ‘breed out the Sickness’ mentality started. I wonder if Merva is as reluctant to tell the group her business as I am to tell mine. It definitely makes me look at her differently.
“Well, I’m from ‘I’ and I’ve been the oldest in my commune for six months. I’ve got two younger sisters; we’re all just fifteen months apart, like Merva my mum died when my younger sister was born. We live by ourselves and do well with rations because hunting is really good in my commune and my sister Portia grows vegies in our back yard. She’s really good at collecting the seeds of wild plants and stuff; we trade a lot of the stuff with a few of our neighbours. We’ve been trying to get one of our neighbours to trade their goat but all the meat, skins and vegies we offer aren’t good enough. What I wouldn’t give for some of that goat’s cheese right now…” Mickael stops here and rubs his stomach and licks his lips, groaning in pleasure as if he is enjoying a wedge of the cheese right at that moment.
Laughter rumbles around the group and the mood lifts again. I have to give it to Tomas, I was skeptical at first after hearing his contribution but this little idea of his is working wonders, everyone is far more relaxed and honestly interested in the lives of everyone around them. I can’t sense any suspicion amongst any of them. Even I can’t imagine any of these people stabbing me in the back anymore. Although, I am yet to hear Renka’s story, I doubt he can say anything that will soften my attitude towards him.
I decide I better say something so I’m not the last one, there are only Diego, Vonteuse, Renka, Isabella and I left. I’m not sure if any of them spoke when I did the rounds so I could be closer to the end than I think, I hope I didn’t miss Renka. I straighten up and clear my throat to begin and all eyes turn to me.
“I’m from ‘G’, like Max of course. You already know most of it from what Max told you, except he didn’t mention that he was great at gathering anything edible in the bush around our commune, he knew what was poisonous and what we could safely eat from the time he was four. I hope The Refuge has similar foods around it because Max will be priceless if it does”, I say staring at Max the whole time.
I didn’t plan on saying any of that but it seemed like the right thing to say. The rest would have been repeating Max.
“And you’ve been the oldest in all the communes for a year now, you threatened to take your own life to keep Max with you and you have survived a really bad dose of the Sickness which is unheard of”, Mayther adds smiling to take any offence out of his finishing off my own story.
Everyone continues to stare at me as if I am a puzzle for them to solve. I feel my cheeks flame red and curse Mayther for having a mouth to form words with and Tomas for coming up with this stupid idea in the first place. I should have just kept my mouth closed and let them shoot each other, at least then I wouldn’t have to face the embarrassment of being on show like some sort of freak.
“Mm, yeah and that”, I mumble looking at my hands.
Vonteuse takes pity on me after what seems like a few hours of silence, recognising my very obvious discomfort and starts in on his story, capturing the attention of the others. I don’t hear a thing he says, instead I count to one hundred as slowly as I can so it don’t look like I’m running away and stand up to do the rounds again.
I am furious and my stride doesn’t hide the fact. I march around the dome taking no notice of anything and go straight past the transports and cylinders to the back of the ship to start the rounds there. I am on the port side of the cylinders heading towards the front of the ship when I hear footsteps following me and I guess it’s either Max or Tomas. Not in the mood to talk to either of them I pretend I don’t hear them and walk faster to get some distance between us. This has the opposite effect, the footsteps quicken to match mine so instead of taking part in a stupid game of chase I stop suddenly and turn to give whoever it is a mouthful. To my utter surprise the person following isn’t Max or Tomas, it is Renka. I am shocked into silence for a few seconds, which gives him time to catch up.
“Thanks, any excuse to get out of that nightmare. Your duty’s over, it’s my turn, you can go back”, Renka says with a heaving chest.
So he isn’t here out of any concern for me, I’m not surprised really but I feel a pang of sadness that no one bothered to see if I was all right. Maybe I did a good job of covering up my discomfort, or maybe they all think I am stupid to care about Mayther putting me on the spot like that, I probably am. Either way I am not about to walk back there and join the group so they can all stare at the spectacle I’ve become.
“That’s not happening, I can do the rounds, you go back and do the dome”, I say and turn away from him continuing on my angry stride.
“What couldn’t handle the attention back there? You better get used to it if you want the others to know about your immunity”, Renka calls out scornfully.
“Unlike you, Renka I’m not that self-absorbed, everyone should know what they’re about to put their life at risk for, despite what it will mean for me personally”, I spit at him.
He found me at the wrong time, I am furious and on some level glad it’s Renka who is going to get the brunt of it and not Tomas or Max. Of course I’m not exactly telling the truth, I am self-absorbed enough to worry about what telling everyone will mean for me personally, my own private hell is what it will mean. I will have to separate myself from the others, I couldn’t stand being wrapped up in cottonwool by them and that will be exactly what would happen.
“Oh really, it didn’t look like you were that unconcerned about Mayther’s comments back there, imagine how much worse it will be, I’d be surprised if they even let you up on deck, you might catch a chill and then where would we be?” Renka states mockingly with a smile on his face.
“What’s it to you, Renka, I know you’re not so worried about what I will feel if they’re told, what are you trying to hide or protect?” I turn it back on him; he’s trying too hard to rile me into keeping quiet.
He keeps his face passive at my question but he can’t hide the look in his eyes, I’m sure I see a flash of fear before he turns away and takes up the rounds. I’m not going to let him get away that easily so I follow him, happy that the goading has turned to him.
“It must really kill you that you have no control over me, Renka, I can see that you have been in Max’s ear but I’m his sister and he will listen to me over you any day. I’m telling everyone because they need to know and if you lose the respect you seem to think you have with them then that’s bad luck”, I call to his back.
“Have you even thought of the implications of what Fiona has done? Do you have any idea who she was working with or are you too busy thinking about what’s right and wrong by your narrow view of things?” Renka turns to argue angrily.
He has me there, I intended on talking to him about who he thought could be after the dome but he caught me off guard and goaded me into an argument. Even though it offends me he is right about my limited knowledge, all I know is from him, I have no one to reference it with or any physical evidence to support what he says. The truth is I need him to clear some things up about all that has happened. I’m not sure if the knowledge is worth the dignity I lose relying on Renka for anything though.
“And you know who she’s working with do you?” I throw back in his face, a way of asking without having to change the tone of the discussion.
“As a matter of fact I have an idea”.
He isn’t going to make this easier on me and I hate him for it. I am about to stomp back to the others when he surprises me and offers the information.
“I think it’s the Pro-Sickness campaigners, they’re the only ones I can think of who wouldn’t want this quest to The Refuge to go ahead and no one really knows where they went when they were pushed out”, Renka says thoughtfully.
It makes sense, but how could the Pro-Sickness campaigners have involved Fiona, were there still sympathisers in her commune? It is hard to understand that anyone who witnessed the death of so many people would go to such an extent as Fiona did. Something didn’t sit right with this theory, if they just wanted to stop the quest why didn’t they do it from the beginning? We’ve been on the ship for over two months. Why are they targeting the dome? Fiona’s guess when we were fishing ran through my mind, I haven’t told Renka about that, it seems unlikely that it was a guess in light of what has happened since then.
“Fiona guessed what was in the dome. When I was fishing with her, she and Mayther were coming up with theories about what was in the dome and she guessed right, maybe it wasn’t a guess, maybe she knew all along”, I tell Renka.
I look into his face and see that he isn’t a surprise. He doesn’t look shocked or worried enough. He looks resolved or something. He must have known about this, something else he kept from me, what else isn’t he telling?
“You knew. What else do you know, Renka? Do you know how to get in the dome? How many people Fiona is working with? If anyone else on board is one of them? How much have you kept to yourself?” I yell angrily.
Before Renka can form a response we are thrown up into the air by a blast that is so loud I feel my ear explode in pain.
I roll over onto my back, I have been thrown hard down onto the deck on my hip and I can feel a throbbing in my side that hints at a nasty bruise if not something worse later on. I try to raise myself up on my elbows but I’m shaking uncontrollably and can’t get my arms to hold my weight. I start to breathe heavily with panic when I realise that I have lost my hearing. I can’t make sense of what my eyes are seeing because my ears aren’t sending information through. I reach up my shaking hand and notice my splints have broken and my fingers are standing out at odd angles. Surprisingly I can’t feel any pain and I vaguely wonder if that is a good thing. Slowly turning in a circle taking in my surrounds, Renka comes into view, on his stomach coughing violently trying to get his legs up under him in a crawling position. He is bleeding from a cut on his head and it looks like he crashed into a cylinder before hitting the deck, there is a slight dent in the usual curve of the supply container.
As if my body registers the need to cough after seeing Renka, huge wracking coughs rip through my chest. I suddenly make sense of what my eyes are seeing. Something is on fire, there is smoke everywhere. I remembered the explosion that sent me flying before I crashed to the ground and I immediately think of Max. My brain refuses to acknowledge any shortcomings in my body in that moment. My movements become quick and purposeful as opposed to the slow shaky ones from only moments before. I run over to Renka and start pulling on his arm, trying to get him to stand. I motion to the smoke and pull harder on his arm to indicate he has to move from here. The urgency in my movements and the frantic look on my face works to get him to wake up and move on his own accord. Something dawns on him, just as the thought of Max knocked me into action, Renka has a similar epiphany and he starts toward the bow of the ship.
I run after him trying to call Max’s name but it is muted because of my hearing and my burning throat. I give up thinking it’s a pointless task, if I can’t hear, chances are Max can’t hear either. I tug my sleeve down over my hand and put it to my mouth to create some sort of barrier between my air intake and the smoke. It isn’t hard to see where Renka is heading; he races toward the dome when we pass the transports and cylinders, limping badly on his left leg. There is a long rip down the side of his pants and I wonder if he can feel any pain.
When I look up, squinting to see through the smoke, confusion is my first response to what lay ahead of me. The dome that once dominated the whole centre of the ship is decimated. One whole side of it has been blown apart, leaving only half a shattered shell behind. After my initial shock I think about Max, Tomas and the others sitting around the dome sharing their stories only minutes before. An agonised wailing sound cuts through my numbed sense and I look around before I realise it has come from me. Renka stares at me with desolation written all over his features, who is he thinking about? I run towards what remained of the dome, the smoke is so thick I can barely see my broken hands reaching out in front of me to stop me banging into any obstacles. My foot steps on something soft and I try to walk around it but I keep on stepping on it. Bile rises to the back of my throat when I realise I am stepping on a person. Jumping to the side I crash into what I assume is Renka. Without acknowledging him at all I throw myself onto the ground and start feeling around for the person I walked on. Debris from the dome is scattered on the floor and I cut and scrape my hands and knees a few times in my search before I touch an item of clothing. I run my hands along the body until I recognise the features of a face. I take a smoke filled breath that my body immediately repels and turn my head to vomit. When I stop heaving I turn back and lean as close as I can to the face to see through the smoke. Relief washes over me when the bloodied features of a girl come into view. Sickened at my initial response, I can’t help the relief that floods my body at it not being Max or Tomas. I don’t recognise the girl on the ground before me and I don’t want to waste any more time with her. I turn to see if Renka is anywhere near me searching for people too but can’t see him through the smoke.
I continue to crawl along the deck, not wanting to step on anyone else, it occura to me that I didn’t even check to see if the girl was breathing and I feel disgusted with myself for being so callous but I can’t think like that when I have to find Max, the more time I spend with anyone else I find could mean death for him. I try calling out his name again but my throat constricts in protest. Disoriented and unsure if I’m crawling in circles or heading in the direction I last remembered everyone sitting I start to lose hope. My head suddenly butts into what is the remaining wall of the dome and I know that if I follow this around I will eventually get to where everyone was last sitting. I’ll find Max and Tomas.
I increase my crawling pace, ignoring the protest in my hands and knees. The distance I have travelled should have taken me to where everyone was sitting, I start to doubt my earlier reasoning and stand up to see if I can see better through the smoke. It seems to be clearing a little. A breeze has picked up and is blowing it to the back of the ship. I feel sick.
Just as I get to my feet an arm grabs me and I spin around to see who it is. A sob wrenches forth from my body as Tomas looks over my face and body, I throw myself into his arms and squeeze my relief. I pull away and mouth Max to him, he nods his head and points towards the bow of the ship. No where near satisfied just with the knowledge I have to see him for myself I pull away to run in the direction Tomas has pointed but he pulls me back, miming something with his hands that I can’t make out. I don’t want to waste anymore time so I run in the direction he pointed, Max is the only thing on my mind. I take about four steps when I crash hard into something at my feet and land on top of a soft mass. I jump back repelled by the thought of falling on a dead body. Tomas grips me by the waist and lifts me to a standing position. Turning to meet his eyes, seeking reassurance that Max is safe, that Tomas hasn’t pointed out a body for me to find, I let out a deeply held breath when Tomas shakes his head, understanding my need without words. It is not Max at my feet. Tomas drags me in another direction and this time I let him lead me. He is the best chance I have of finding Max.
We break through the fog of the smoke after only a few steps, I have obviously been circling in the area where the smoke was thickest. We are heading to the bow of the ship, where I caught Fiona hurrying to see over the side. How easily I dismissed any suspicions of her that day. If only I knew her actions would culminate in this decimation.
Movement ahead of me catches my attention before I hear muffled cries and shouts that resemble my name. Max pushes through the group who are rapidly descending on Tomas and I and crushes me in a bone-cracking hug. I return it with no inhibitions, I can’t care less that everyone is there witnessing the tears running down my face and the wailing sound that keeps escaping my body.
I’m not sure how long we stay there like that but eventually Max lest me go and holds my face in his hands looking for signs of injury. I run my hands over his body doing the same and find a wet patch near his hip. I pull away to investigate it further and find a rip running down the full length of his thigh from hip to knee. My stomach lurches at the thought of what his torn pants are hiding and I instinctively reach for Tomas to help. My hands find empty space and I turn to see Tomas has left. Max draws my attention back to him and points to my left ear, miming that something is dripping from it. I brush away his hand and point to his leg, moving to pull aside his ripped trouser leg. A deep graze that covers the whole side of Max’s leg causes me to gasp. His skin has been torn away leaving oozing flesh that has bits of cloth stuck to it in so many places. My stomach churns at the sight and the thought that it must be causing Max so much pain. Images of the bodies I fell over flash through my mind and I cringe at the thought that they could have been Max. I pull him into another hug and don’t let him go until I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Tomas motioning for me to follow. I lip sync for Max to stay with the others while I follow Tomas. He refuses at first, shaking his head emphatically, but I motion to his leg and he looks down at it with a pained expression. Before he can argue further I turn to follow Tomas.
He takes me to what remains of the dome. The smoke has cleared a lot, the wind taking it away from the scene where it originated. Tomas stops suddenly and faces me in the middle of a sentence, I indicate my ear and shake my head raising up my palms to show I can’t hear him. He brings his face only centimetres from mine as if he’s about to kiss me. My stomach somersaults in eager anticipation at the thought, even though my brain says this is not the time, but he veers to the side of my head and looks closely at my ear. I feel him wipe away at my cheek and neck and assume that I’m bleeding. He pulls away investigating what he wiped away, I hope I’m not leaking brain fluid or something. After a few seconds of intense staring Tomas seems satisfied so I assume I’m not going to collapse any time soon.
With the absence of verbal communication Tomas takes hold of my hand, I am conscious of how his hand seems to dwarf mine, it’s an odd feeling. I have always been the older, bigger one in my handholding experiences, mostly Max and other little kids. I can’t remember a time when either of my parents, or any other adult for that matter, held my hand. He leads me right into the shell that remains of the dome and indicates a heaving mass in the corner. I take a few steps closer to have a look at what it is exactly and am absolutely stunned when Renka’s face pops up and stares back at me.
He is curled in the corner sobbing. When he hears us approach he looks up with no qualms, he doesn’t care that Tomas and I see him in such a state. I stare fascinated, what could possibly have brought Renka to breaking point? What has happened is traumatic but it’s not like he has family on board or anything, he hasn’t even checked to see how everyone is. In all the time I have known Renka I haven’t seen him show an ounce of preference for any of the volunteers, he always seems controlling and distanced in his superiority. The only thing I ever see him be passionate about is his role as guard. Then it hits me. The dome is destroyed. What was in the dome is destroyed. I look around the hollow shell and find only useless debris, there is nothing else. No books with knowledge about how to vaccinate someone, no equipment, box of medical supplies or anything that looks even remotely useful for the purposes of vaccination. I look back at Renka and see him nod, answering a question I don’t voice. My hand flies to my mouth and I sink to the floor. It was all for nothing, me getting sick and recovering, Renka convincing and persuading Max and I about the vaccination possibilities, Renka arguing to get the dome extra protection. There is nothing left. It is all over.
Tomas comes to my side. He doesn’t reach to help me up but stares down at my face with a mixture of confusion and accusation. I am envious of him, he has no idea what we had so can never feel the loss the way I do, or Renka does. Something snaps inside of me, I can’t accept that this is it, our hope is over. I throw myself into a crawling position and start moving bits and pieces around trying to find even a remnant of something that can help us, a clue as to how to go forward from here. I never thought that I wholeheartedly believed Renka about me being a donor, having immunity and being the key to stop the Sickness but as I crawl through the mess on the floor cutting and grazing my hands and knees I realise I did. Without having recognised it I had taken for granted that I would give my life-saving blood to everyone and we would find refuge, not at a designated place but anywhere we wanted to be. My hopeless search is cut short by a muted yell. I look up to see Renka standing over me screaming.
“It’s over, there’s nothing left, what use will you be so far away from home with nothing to help us vaccinate? It’s over, over!” he repeats as he waves his fists around.
I let my head drop and try to think. What have we lost here? Information and equipment, but if I am immune there is still hope, Renka knows a little about the process, he told me so, even if it isn’t a lot we can work it out surely. He said they took scrapings of sores from sick people and blood from an immune donor the first time it was done, we could do that. All hope isn’t lost, it will be trial and error, with the error meaning death but that’s what is waiting for us all anyway. Why hasn’t Renka thought any of this through? Is there something else he isn’t sharing?
I rise from my kneeling position on the floor and walk away from the crazed Renka and the confused Tomas to get some fresh air. I need to get out of the enclosed space, the smoke has mostly cleared but the smell of burnt materials has an awful chemical smell that I instinctively know is very bad to inhale. I walk over to the side of the ship, purposefully avoiding looking around me for fear of finding bodies scattered on the deck. I couldn’t deal with that right now. From my earlier reunion with Max I saw most of the familiar faces of the volunteers but I don’t want to face who lay on the deck, not when there is nothing I can do to change their situation anyway. There are so many questions that need to be asked and answered. Renka is the one who can provide most of them but I can fill the others in on the most important. I’m confused and all of the injuries I’ve obtained since the explosion choose now to ache in unison. My body feels like one pulsating bruise, I hurt everywhere. My broken fingers are now so stiff and swollen they don’t even resemble a human appendage. My hip aches so badly that every step I take reverberates up the length of my body and causes me to limp in a pitiful attempt to ease the pain.
I jump when I feel a hand on my arm. There is a slight buzzing sound in my right ear but nothing from my left. I hope my hearing isn’t permanently damaged. It is Tomas who has come to join me. He turns me around and mouths the words, ‘What’s going on?’ I search his face for anger or accusation but find only concern. I let out a great big breath that blows the tendrils of hair that have escaped my braid, off my face.
“Let’s go to the others and I will tell you all”, I say, resigned. By the wince on Tomas’ face I yelled my response and I have the completely inappropriate urge to laugh hysterically. Maybe I have lost it like Renka. I gulp back the laughter that threatens to explode out of my mouth and follow Tomas.
When we reach the others they are pretty distressed at how long we’ve been gone. They obviously agreed not to leave their position until we returned. Max is pacing up and down the length of the raised platform, a feat that causes him lots of pain by the look of his limp. I notice that there are two bodies covered by a couple of jackets off to the side and cringed at the idea that two of our number have been killed. I want to be ignorant of who they are but it is too easy to see that Isabella and Linton are unaccounted for. I am thankfully distracted from looking at the bodies when everyone descends on us in a gabble of noise, well not so much noise for me, more like muted mumbling, but I get the gist of what they’re talking about. They all want to know what has happened and what is damaged.
Tomas leads them all back to the platform and everyone sits in a circle. Mickael is hugging a crying Gerla and Diego is shaky and jumpy, moving from a sitting position to a kneeling and then to pacing across the platform. Everyone is understandably highly strung, it isn’t an environment conducive to rational listening but I have no other option.
Tomas gives a brief description of what we saw and what has been attacked. He motions for my benefit that the two attackers died in the explosion, but that Renka and I are not seriously injured. He then turns to me and motions for me to take it from there.
I take a deep breath and look around the group, they are fearful of what I have to say, I hope that it will be a mixture of relief and hope for them, not all loss.
I explain all of what Renka told me. I give enough information to make sense of the situation, for them to understand Renka’s reaction when they see him. I hope they won’t turn on me and accuse me of being as bad as the committee, of keeping secrets I had no right to keep. That is exactly what I would want to say to me if I was in their position. I look from one face to another. Diego has stopped pacing and shaking and is just staring at me, Gerla has shrugged Mickael’s arm off her shoulder and is sitting slack jawed. It’s Tomas’ reaction that is the most shocking to me. He stands next to me with a knowing smile. He isn’t shocked or angry or even hurt that he was kept out of the secret, he looks happy and vindicated. I can’t understand why he’d feel that way.
After I’m finished the questions pour out. How long ago did this happen? Who were the spies? Are you an immune donor? Did the committee know you were immune and that’s why they sent you away? Does the vaccination only work if we move away like the BAS survivors did? Why did they attack and not welcome the Commune C members? Why didn’t you and Renka tell us? Is everything wrecked in the dome? Does this mean there won’t be any vaccination? Do you know who attacked us? Did they have something to do with the vaccination stuff? Did Fiona know? They keep on throwing question after question that I can’t hear and have to get them to repeat and mime at different times. My leg gives way at one point and I sit down with a thud that jolts up through my body. It’s then that Tomas puts a stop to all the questions and starts giving out jobs to everyone. They all listen with no hesitation. Although I can see they still have so many questions. I am absolutely exhausted and can’t focus my mind. I have no idea how much time has passed since the explosion threw me in the air but it feels like I haven’t slept in a week. Before I realise what is happening I’m getting led away by Tomas to the cabins below deck. I have no idea what the others are doing and I don’t care, I need to lie down and sleep. I suddenly remember Max’s injured leg and turn to Tomas in a panic.
“Max’s leg, you have to help him. It could get infected”, I call out frantically.
“Don’t worry about it, Merva knows about healing and she is dealing with it, she knows what she’s doing”, Tomas reassures.
I want to argue more, having more faith in Tomas’s healing ability than Merva’s but I just don’t have the energy.
I let Tomas take me to his cabin. He says he has a few things in there that can help me. Dazed and nearly incoherent, I don’t care if he takes me to a lion’s den, I just want to sleep.
He gently lays me on his bed and I note the subtle smell that is uniquely Tomas. I turn my head and bury it in his pillow, I can sleep soundly here and start to drift off when I feel a shooting pain in my hand. I jump up and groan.
“Déjà vu hey? Just try and relax, I need to get the swelling down and reset these fingers or you could be left with a useless hand”, Tomas says smiling down at me.
I smile sleepily back at him and a question floats to the surface of my mind unbidden.
“Tomas, why weren’t you and the others at the dome when the explosion went off?”
“We saw the submarine surface at the bow of the ship and ran to have a look and see what we could do to stop them boarding. Isabella was too slow and Linton was helping her along, they didn’t make it far enough away”, Tomas answers with sadness in his voice.
All I can think is ‘thank, God’. Maybe Fiona requested the submarine act as a diversion to avoid as many deaths as she could. The last thought I have before I drift off to sleep is that it sounds like something Fiona would do. Maybe I do know her a little.
When I wake it is to Tomas moving around his cabin busying himself with bowls of water, cloths and other instruments I can’t get a good look at. I watch him move while I lay still. He is graceful and lithe in his body and he moves with self-assurance and confidence. He occasionally runs his hand through his dark hair and I find myself yearning to touch his hair in the same way. He turns to walk to the other side of his cabin and catches me staring. I smile up at him and notice the tired lines of his face. He probably hasn’t slept at all, given I am in his bed.
“How are you feeling?” he asks returning my smile.
I do an inventory of my injuries and find that I ache in almost every part of my body, which I guess should be expected from a person who was thrown into the air in an explosion. My hearing has almost completely returned in my right ear, but there is still a muted sound in my left ear, like it is filled with water or something. It’s annoying and I hope it doesn’t last. I look under the blankets at my body and am embarrassed to see that I have been undressed and have bandages on my hip and knees. I quickly pull the blankets back down to my body and look up at an apologetic Tomas. He seems just as embarrassed as I am and tries to look everywhere except at me.
“I’m sorry I had to take your pants off to dress your hip and knees, your hip has a nasty cut and your knees are covered in small grazes and cuts. I had to clean them or they could get infected. I didn’t mean to embarrass you but there was no one else to do it and I couldn’t just leave them…” he trails off in his explanation and my embarrassment ebbs away at his discomfort.
“Thank you, don’t worry about it. Have you had any sleep? I should get out of your bed, how long have I slept?” I ask.
Tomas is relieved at the change in subject and walks over to me feeling my head for a temperature as he answers.
“You slept the rest of the day and all last night, I got a few hours in my chair but I had to help out on deck after I set your fingers and…ah you know”, Tomas answers, embarrassing himself again.
I feel really privileged knowing Tomas as the efficient, levelheaded leader, the kind healer as well as this uncertain embarrassed person in front of me.
“Here, you should take your bed and have some sleep. I’d like to go on deck and see what I can do to help”, I reply as I sit up wincing at the pain in my hip.
“No, no, you can’t, you have to rest. Your hip is really bad and you can’t move your hand at all if you want it to heal properly. If I want a bed I’ll go to one of the other cabins. The others have sorted out everything on deck”, Tomas says as he pushes me back down onto his pillow.
I note the worry in his eyes and wonder if this isn’t an overreaction. I mean a cut on the hip and a couple of broken fingers aren’t life threatening. I’m well rested and feel like I can be of some help clearing up the mess on deck. Tomas stops and looks at me every few seconds, checking if I’m alright and it occurs to me that his reaction might have something to do with the immunity thing. I am determined not to get started off on the wrong foot with that. I thought about it the last couple of days when I considered telling everyone what was in the dome and I decided that no one was going to control what I could or couldn’t do. I’ll reassure everyone that I’m not going to put myself in harm’s way on purpose but I’m also not going to allow myself to be wrapped up in cottonwool.
“Where are my pants?” I ask Tomas.
He looks flustered at the mention of my pants and walks across the room to retrieve them from the chest that sits at the end of his bed. He hesitates when he gets there and looks back at me.
“You know I could just refuse to give these back to you and you’d be stuck in bed where you should stay to recover”, Tomas warns only half in jest.
“I assure you that having no pants on would not stop me from walking out of here and that would probably be more embarrassing for anyone I ran into, including you”, I call his bluff.
He stares at me a moment longer, judging whether I mean it, which I do. I don’t relish the thought of leaving Tomas’ cabin with no pants on but I’m stubborn enough to wear the gossip rather than be held to ransom. He picks up my pants and turns to hand them to me. They’re neatly folded, which seems incongruous with the condition they’re in, ripped, bloodstained, dirty and dusty. I looks up at Tomas who realises at the same time that they are probably unwearable. He smiles apologetically and goes back to the chest to pull out a pair of his pants. They are going to be really big for me around the waist but preferable to my ruined ones.
“Are you sure you can spare them, do you have enough left for yourself?” I ask concerned.
I’d be surprised if he has another pair besides what he has on. I only have two pairs myself and now that we don’t have the luxury of fresh water on tap I’m not going to be able to clean the one pair I have left. I don’t want to leave Tomas in the same situation.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Here, take this you’ll need it”, Tomas replies as he hands me a piece of twine to use as a belt.
I resolve to go straight to my cabin and get changed when I leave here so I can bring these back to Tomas. Despite what he claims I know that clothes are precious and not to be handed out carelessly. I clear my throat to indicate to Tomas that he should turn around so I can have some privacy. He quickly busies himself with something on the other side of the cabin. The act of putting the pants on is far more difficult than I anticipate. My broken fingers and cut hip make it painful and clumsy. I eventually pull them up stifling the groans of pain that threaten to escape my mouth not wanting Tomas to have any ammunition about why I shouldn’t go on deck and help out.
I eye the length of twine I’m supposed to use as a belt. There is no way my misshapen fingers are capable of threading it through the trouser loops and tying a knot. After attempting just that three times I grumble in frustration. My neck is stiff from looking down at the twine so intensely, as if I can will it through the loops with my glare. I throw my head back with closed eyes and stretch my muscles. My gaze falls on Tomas as I lower my head and open my eyes. He is walking towards me sporting an indulgent half smile. I bite my bottom lip to stop it returning the smile. How many times will Tomas have to help me? He gently removes the twine from my hands and lowers his gaze to my waist. I clumsily hold up the trousers for him, our fingers lightly touching as he threads the twine through each loop. Tomas reaches both hands behind my waist to reach the loop furthest from the front bringing my lowered head only millimetres from the side of his neck. I scrunch my eyes closed in an attempt to fight the urge to graze my lips across his neck. When I open my eyes Tomas is staring intently at me, close enough that our breath mingles. My face and neck flush red under his gaze and I lower my gaze in an attempt to break the intensity of the connection between us.
Looking down at my attire I can’t deny the humour in the overall effect of these huge pants. They are ridiculously big and with the twine they are bunched up at the front and sides so that they balloon out making me look huge down the bottom. I can’t stop the broad smile that spreads across my face. Tomas chuckles and I lift my head to see him appraising my new outfit from a safe distance away. His hand covers his mouth as he unsuccessfully tries to stop the laughter fighting to escape.
“Very attractive”, he quips unable to keep the smile from his face.
“Very funny”, I respond straightening out my jumper and hair.
I notice the absence of my mother’s hairpin immediately and run my hand through my hair a second time to make sure that I’m not mistaken.
“What’s wrong? I was just joking”, Tomas says anxiously as he steps forward to hold my shoulders.
“My mother’s hairpin, it’s gone. I have to find it”, I frantically turn to leave.
“Wait, I’ll come with you”, Tomas grabs a jumper and puts it over his head as he follows me out of the cabin.
We get up on deck after what seems an age, my hip sends jolts of pain up the side of my body and muscles I don’t even know I have ache with every move I make. I head straight to the transports and cylinders where I was thrown into the air. I don’t take any notice of what is around me. I just want to find my hairpin. The crunch and crack of debris under my feet suggests that while there has clearly been some clean up of the bigger items that litter the deck, it is going to take longer to clear up the smaller stuff. I round the first transport and focus my attention on the ground, sweeping my eyes from left to right until I reach the side of the ship. Tomas is doing the same at my side but we have no success.
After twenty minutes of randomly scouring the area I decide to follow my trail from yesterday. Tomas follows without being asked and we continue the search over to what’s left of the dome. The whole thing seems hopeless. There are tiny bits of metal and plastic everywhere, all with the ability to conceal my hairpin. I eventually plonk down on the floor and let out a big breath. There is no question that I can go on looking, I am shattered, emotionally now as well as physically. Tomas continues looking for a few more minutes, picking up bits and pieces but eventually he too sits down among the rubble and gives up. He doesn’t try to console me with some stupid saying like, ‘it’ll turn up’, which would have annoyed and angered me. Instead we sit silently until I make to stand and he quickly jumps up to help me. Usually I’d refuse but I am stiff and sore and grateful.
I try to push away the hollow feeling in my stomach to take more notice of what is around me. There is a big pile of debris pushed up against the control room and smaller piles at different intervals up against the side of the ship. A full turn reveals the dome, literally cracked like an eggshell with a jagged break right across the middle. It actually looks very unstable as if it could tumble down at any moment. Mayther and Mickael are rolling a big drum of water from the back of the ship to the stairs leading below the deck, I wonders how they think they’ll get it down and want to suggest that they just leave it up here for us to collect when we need it but can’t find the energy to say something.
Renka is leaning against the side of the ship looking out to sea. It is so unusual to see him idle I have to look twice before I believe my eyes. The attack has affected him more than anyone else can know. They have most of the story now and I guess Max and Renka were called upon to give it in more detail while I was sleeping. But they probably don’t know that Renka’s dad was among the first group to search the safe house. That he was the one who passed on the knowledge that Renka needed to fulfill an oath he took. In a lot of ways Renka’s loss is similar to my hairpin, this task was a link for him to his father and that was broken when the dome exploded. I feel more affinity to Renka in this moment than ever before and wonder if I should go over to talk to him. I decide against it knowing that I wouldn’t want to be interrupted if I were in his position and head towards the stairs.
“Hey, Pia, how are you feeling? Tomas said you broke your fingers again”, Mickael calls out as I pass him.
He and Mayther have given up on getting the water drum below deck and are rolling it toward the bow of the ship.
“Yeah, I’m fine”, I answer not wanting to prolong the conversation.
They’ve stopped rolling the drum and stand staring at me. Should I say anything else, the silence is uncomfortable.
“Ah, see you later”, I mumble as I walk away with Tomas still beside me.
“Yeah, let us know if you need anything okay?” Mickael calls after me, a glance over my shoulder reveals Mayther nodding in agreement.
I groan inwardly, so this is what it’s going to be like. I secretly hoped that because the vaccination equipment is no longer around I’d get away with very little attention, like maybe they think me not so valuable after all. But it seems that isn’t the case.
I descend the stairs slowly hiding groans of pain at each step. Tomas restrains himself from reaching out to help me. I hadn’t really thought that much about the idea that the ship might be off-course because of Fiona’s vandalism, but right now I want nothing more than to see land and be off this stupid ship. I want space around me where I can get away from everyone, even though I know it’s kilometres of being trapped in the transports before I can get any freedom.
We make it to my cabin door and I turn to say bye to Tomas and thank him for setting my fingers again. When I look up at him he has a pained expression and I feel bad that I effectively ignored him since we left his cabin where he spent a restless night after fixing up my injuries.
“I’m really sorry about your hairpin, Pia. I wish I’d of noticed it missing earlier, I could have searched for it before everyone cleared the mess off the deck”, Tomas jumps in apologetically before I can voice my thanks.
“Don’t worry about it, Tomas, it’s not your fault, I shouldn’t have been wearing it. Um, I wanted to say thanks for setting my fingers again and everything else, maybe you should get some sleep now that you don’t have an invalid in your bed”, I try to make light of the situation.
Really I am so upset about the hairpin, the possibility that I am stuck on a ship with a bunch of people who think I’m a freak and the fact that I don’t even have the pleasure of a hot shower to look forward to anymore. I want to scream into my pillow and that’s with me forcing the thought of Linton, Isabella, Fiona and Karther to the very recesses of my mind.
Tomas runs his fingers through his hair and it sticks up at funny angles, he still looks pretty upset about the hairpin. It’s funny really, that I am consoling him about its loss. I smile brightly up at him and he’s taken by surprise at the turn of emotion.
“What’s so funny?” Tomas asks, my smile echoes on his face.
“Nothing, just you, go and get some sleep, you look awful”, I say turning to open my cabin door.
Tomas touches my arm before I get to the handle and I look over my shoulder at him expectantly.
“Um, Pia, I’m really glad you’re okay, that you weren’t badly hurt in the explosion”, Tomas whispers with a depth of feeling that shocks me.
I turn so that we’re facing each other and look into the tired shadows under his eyes and the messed-up hair standing at funny angles. He looks so good, even exhausted as he is, I want to pull him into a hug and keep him there so I know he’ll have rest before he goes back out to help someone or do some task that will benefit the group. He seems to have read my mind, or maybe my eyes tell the story of what I’m thinking, because he steps forward and pulls me into his chest, burying his head in my neck. I put my hands around his waist and breathe in his scent. I feel so safe and secure in his embrace. I want to stay here forever. Tomas lets out a big breath that tickles my neck and lets me go. I look up into his eyes, wrinkling with a little smile. He leans forward and kisses me. His lips brush mine, softly and slowly, as if I am breakable, my stomach does a mighty back flip and my body pushes itself into Tomas’. He deepens the kiss in response, his body responding to me just as mine does to him. I pulls my hands through his arms and away from his waist to reach up and put them in his hair. Tomas reacts immediately by pulling me by the waist in closer to his body, my hip gives way a little and I let out a small groan of pain. I regret it straight away because he pulls back before the groan is all the way out and puts me at arm’s length looking me up and down to see if I am all right.
“I’m sorry, did I hurt you?” he asks anxiously.
“No, quite the opposite”, my bold reply shocks me.
After the last twenty-four hours it seems wrong to be thoroughly enjoying myself with Tomas. Isabella and Linton are dead and our vaccination hopes are severely damaged, but I can’t help it.
Tomas’ mouth curves in a small smile, showing his dimpled scar and he leans in to place a soft kiss on my forehead.
“Well, I think you should get off your legs and lie down. I’ll see you later”, he say reaching past me and turning the handle to my cabin.
I take a backward step inside and watch Tomas walk away down the hall. Without really having tried, he has slipped past my defences and has become someone who is very important to me. I’m both scared and excited about this revelation. I am a different person around Tomas, happier and lighter somehow. But I’m not entirely comfortable with the way I seem to lose control around him. My body responds to him in a way it never has to anyone else and my brain just forgets everything else that is going on. I am scared I’ll lose focus of the important things – getting to the refuge, setting Max up in a home there, working out this vaccination stuff, maybe even finding a way to stop Age-Sickness. All of these things are on my mind when I’m not around Tomas, but they just disappear as soon as I am near him.
I turn around and see Max sleeping peacefully on my bed with a lead pencil mark across his forehead where he has brushed away his fringe. His sketchbook is lying open on his chest and his pencil had rolled out of his hand that hangs over the side of the bed.
Tiptoeing in so as not to wake him I pick up the book and pull up his blankets. I can’t help but smile at how vulnerable he looks. Remembering his leg wound I’m tempted to pull the blankets down and see if Merva has done a good job but don’t want to risk waking him. I settle for touching his head looking for the telltale heat of a fever and find he is only slightly warm to the touch. Max stirs when I lift my hand away from his head and smiles when he sees my concerned expression.
“Not worrying about your poor defenceless little brother again I hope”, he croaks sarcastically.
“Me? Nooo”, I respond with a smile.
He sits up and stretches out as if he has been sleeping for some time and feels refreshed. He must have been tired to have slept completely still not allowing his book to fall off.
“How’s the leg?”
“It hurts”, Max answers matter-of-factly.
“Do you need me to get you anything?” I ask in an attempt to get him to stay in bed.
“You’re equally as impaired as me at the moment. I think I can manage without the help of a fellow invalid. How’re the fingers?” he asks raising one eyebrow to emphasise his point.
“Not giving me as much pain as my hip. I guess we can be sloths together for a while”, I answer as I lower myself onto the end of the bed.
Max scoots over in the bed inviting me to sit next to him. I stand up limping in exaggerated fashion and get the intended laugh out of him. I still have his sketchbook in my hand and open it to have a look when I’m settled under the blankets.
I flick through with Max watching over my shoulder and offering comments about what he has sketched and why. He is always more talkative when his drawing comes up and I love hearing the passion in his voice, it’s something else I can credit to Tomas. My breath stops short when I turn a page to see a sketch of the old lady that I’ve seen Tomas. It’s definitely the same lady; she has the same slant to the eyes and high cheekbones. Besides, it is so unusual to see modern images of old people like this for this one to be different to the one Tomas drew. I look over at Max with raised eyebrows, waiting for an explanation.
“You don’t recognise it?” he asks with amused confusion.
“Well, I’ve seen Tomas sketch it before”, I answer equally as confused.
“Look at the bone structure, the eyes, can you see the small scar between those two lines, don’t you recognise it?” he points out the features as he names them.
I have a similar scar to the one Max points out, but the rest of the face isn’t familiar at all, how am I supposed to recognise an old lady? Is there something I am missing? I look back over to Max shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders. He reaches over and traces my cheekbones, then gently brushes his index finger across my eyelashes, highlighting the slanted shape of them. The scar is mine. I have high cheekbones and a slant to my eyes. The once full lips could be mine in fifty odd years too, I guess. Is this me, is that what Max is saying?
“Yes, it’s you, can’t you see?” Max answers the question before I can ask it.
I can tell, now that I have been told and have the luxury of staring at it for any extended time. What is going on? Tomas created this image before he ever really knew me, then again after we started to interact more. Why would he do this? I start breathing heavily. I am very uncomfortable with this and can’t explain why.
“Why did you draw this? Why does Tomas?” I whisper.
“It’s the future”, Max states as if I’ve missed the point, as if there could be any other way.
“What are you talking about? What did Tomas say to you and when?” I ask suddenly frantic.
“Nothing, Pia, calm down. He said he used to draw you from the photo that’s been around the communes, before he knew you. It’s just a sign of hope, don’t you see? It’s almost prophetic now that we know you have immunity, like Tomas knew all along”, Max says in awe.
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. This changes everything between Tomas and me. Does he see me as some sort of symbol for the future and not even think of me as a normal girl? Am I like a trophy to him? I can’t stop the bile from coming up into my throat. My lips still tingle from our kiss outside the door and my fingers itch to touch his hair again. I dropped all of my defences with him and only to find out he is like everyone else, he sees me as a freak, an outsider, something other. I feel trapped in my skin and want to confront him straight away. I jump out of the bed, forgetting the aches and pains that ripple through my body, too hyped up to care. Max tries to catch Tomas’ baggy pants but misses and I am at the door before he crawls out of the bed with his book in hand as proof. I turn the handle and yank hard on the door releasing some of my energy in the movement. To my complete surprise Tomas falls into the cabin and sprawls on the floor at my feet. My first thought is that he has been eavesdropping on our conversation, how do I know what he is really like, but then it makes more sense that he was about to knock and come in.
He rolls over and smiles up at me on the verge of laughter but it catches in his throat when he sees my expression. I glimpse the dimpled scar before it disappears and a niggling doubt that Tomas is as calculated and cold as I have just concluded halts my temper. I turn Max’s sketch of me over and regain my momentum. What other conclusion is there to come to? I forcefully shove the sketch toward his face.
“I know your little secret, happy are you? Prophetic was the word Max used, how astute of you. I’m glad I was able to help give some close up material for your project, maybe now you can get those finer details down of the freak who probably won’t die, congratulations”, I spit at him sarcastically, I get angrier with each word and have to stomp out of the cabin before I get too upset.
My anger ebbs and feelings of betrayal and sadness take its place. When Renka warned me about how things would change for me if everyone knew about the immunity thing I didn’t imagine it could be worse than he described. The overwhelming feeling is of loneliness, I don’t even have Max anymore. I can’t stop thinking that Tomas has somehow planned this relationship with me all along, something that I thought grew out of time shared together and things we have in common. I want to be off this ship and away from everyone more than ever. If, and despite my thoughts in the ruins of the dome I still thought it was a big ‘if’, I have immunity I will do my part in the vaccination thing if it ever becomes possible but I won’t be the side-show freak who lives among the people to be stared at. I’ll find a quiet place and live out my life alone, grow old and wrinkly like the image Tomas and Max seem to capture so well.
I make it to the stairs before I hear Tomas calling my name. I don’t stop or look behind, just quicken my pace to get away from him. There is nothing he can say to fix the damage that stupid sketch has done and I don’t want to hear his attempt anyway. I get up on deck and head for the transports, figuring I’ll get some privacy there if anywhere. Unfortunately, my hip makes me sluggish and Tomas grabs my arm before I even get past the dome ruins. I yank my arm free violently and spin around to yell at him to leave me alone but see Diego and Merva staring at us and imagine the gossip if I create a scene right in front of them. I take a deep breath instead and continue marching towards the back of the ship. Tomas keeps pace beside me not talking yet, he’s obviously thought the same thing when he saw Merva and Diego watching us. I’m very annoyed that he isn’t going to give me the time alone I need and plan to tell him so when we have a little privacy.
Once we round the first transport I stop abruptly and turn to face him ready to accuse him some more and demand he leave me alone, but once again he beats me to it.
“I’ve got your hairpin, it was stuck to my pillow”, he mumbles holding out his palm with my hairpin glistening in the middle.
I’m so shocked to be brought back down from the ferocious serving I was ready to dish out that I stare at the hairpin slack jawed and lost for words. Tomas moves his hand closer to me, indicating for me to take it. I reach out and finger the intertwined pieces of my family’s hair and feel like the anger I felt only seconds before is unimportant. That’s what this hairpin does to me, it puts me in my place, it pust all of my thoughts into perspective. I lift the hairpin and carefully push it into my still messy braid where it feels like home.
“Thanks”, I mumble and turn to go, thinking Tomas got off pretty lightly compared to what I had planned for him moments ago.
“Pia, wait, um, I’m sorry I upset you. I didn’t plan for any of this to happen. I just saw your photo so much over the last few months and thought you were beautiful. I wanted to draw you so much and the more I did the more I wanted you to be the one who lived, and then when I met you, you were intriguing and smart and kind and strong as well, I couldn’t imagine you just not ‘being’ anymore. That’s all there was to this, nothing more”, Tomas blurts out pleadingly.
I pause and reassess my previous thought that Tomas couldn’t say anything to make this better. I’d have to be cold-hearted not to respond to that speech. The words alone have my stomach doing cartwheels and his face when I turn around dissolves any leftover feelings of anger I have. He is genuinely distressed and upset. Can he really think those things about me? Could that stupid photo of me the committee flashed over the screens back home have inspired him? It seems so fantastical to me I find myself arching my eyebrows in disbelief.
Tomas’ reaction to my disbelieving face is devastating. His whole body slumps forward giving him the look of someone utterly desolated. I want to reach out to him in response to some innate feeling to nurture him, just like outside of my cabin before the kiss. But I can’t get passed the idea that he sees me as some sort of symbol and that is what the attraction is. The photo of me that flashed up on every commune’s screen was a far cry from the now scrawny girl covered in Age-sore scars. My body responds to what he said but my mind can’t let go of the conclusions I came to before. Now that the anger has subsided I feel completely superficial, with everything else going on, the ship possibly being off course, the lack of running water, the loss of the vaccination equipment, Renka’s breakdown, it seems ridiculous that I should be focussing on Tomas. It is an emotional response that I seem to have no control over. My body and an assortment of hormones simply take over whenever I am near him and it makes me feel powerless. Now more than ever I need to avoid getting close to anyone in ‘that way’. Not only is Age-Sickness a risk but obviously this journey is wrought with dangers and there is so much further to go. I was so stupid to let my guard down right when I need it the most. I can’t let this go on anymore, especially if I can’t be sure it’s actually me Tomas likes and not the oldest girl around who has the potential to be an immune donor and is the living symbol of hope. Even thinking that sequence of qualities that equates to me makes me cringe. It makes me sound vain, as if I’m suffering from a God complex or something. I don’t want to be reminded of those things and Tomas has changed everything with his sketch so that I won’t be able to forget.
After getting no further response from me, Tomas mumbles something incoherently and turns to leave. I don’t want him to go on that note. After watching him walk off dejectedly I take a few steps to follow him and call him back, but before I can get his name to my lips I glimpse something over the side of the ship that has my mouth hang open in complete shock.
In the distance is the clear outline of land, rocky cliff-like land.
“Tomas…” I breathe out in what sounds like exasperation.
He turns around slowly to the stunned look on my face and takes an uncertain step closer to me. I slowly raise my hand to point at the sight before me and Tomas follows it with his eyes, turning his head to get a better look at what has captured my attention.
After staring gob smacked for what seems like an age we turn towards each other. I reach for his hand staring at the ridiculously wide smile on his face that mirrors my own and we whisper in unison, “Land”.
Read on for a Taste of Book 2, Ruin
Tomas watched Pia leave her transport cylinder. She moved with a purpose like no other. Tendrils of her soft hair fell around her face and she brushed them away, annoyed at their insubordination. Tomas couldn’t help but smile. She tried to control everything and God help anyone or anything that got in her way. The smile dropped from his lips. If only she would let go they could have a chance. If only he hadn’t sketched her image.
Pia frowned in concentration at what could be left behind and what was essential to take. She turned at the sound of gears crunching. Max was clumsily operating a transport to her left. Pia never let Max too far out of her sight. Her lips curved into a soft smile. Max fought with the machine to manoeuvre an empty cylinder over to the dump pile. He brought out a side in Pia that no one else could, one that she preferred to keep hidden.
The others laughed and joked their way through the supplies from their cylinders. Yet, there was a weight to their shoulders. It had emerged days before when the explosion on the Before Age Sickness or BAS ship they’d been travelling on killed two of their friends. Tomas felt it himself and shuddered at the memory of the thunderous noise and throat-searing smoke. To find out after the explosion that Age Sickness vaccination equipment and information was destroyed made that weight all the more unbearable.
Tomas’ eyes searched for Renka who stood staring out at the ship; he couldn’t let it go. The Age Sickness vaccination equipment was gone and there was nothing to be done about it. He wondered if the Committee would think the mission to The Refuge was a failure now that the volunteers had failed to protect the sacred vaccination equipment. He didn’t think so, not if they knew or even suspected that Pia was immune. To think! She would live, even if the rest of them withered away from the Sickness before they could get out of their teens. She would live! The thought brought another even wider smile to his face.
Tomas turned away from Pia to face the ruins.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead before it falls into my eyes and curse the unventilated transport for the hundredth time today. The temperature is ridiculously hot outside but at least three degrees hotter in the BAS machines. I look over to Max to see him struggling with the heat too. Although, he can’t hide the proud expression he’s wearing as he clumsily manoeuvres his transport nearly losing the tenuous grip he has on the supply cylinder. Mickael, Gerla, Tomas and I gave him a crash course on how to use the transports after we docked at the port. If it wasn’t for the three days we had to spend taking the contents of thirteen supply cylinders and making it fit into ten and training Max up we could possibly be out of this concrete-ridden hole and into a cooler climate among something green.
I look down at my hands as they start a slow, sticky decline along the control sticks. Once again I have to lower my supply cylinder and rub my hands on my pants to dry off the sweat that seems to pool there every few minutes. What should be a simple task is made more difficult because the two middle fingers on my left hand are still bandaged after being broken twice on the ship. They stick straight out and are denied the luxury of curling around the control stick. Why don’t these stupid machines have some sort of cruise control? Sadie, my neighbour back home told me about cruise control late one night while I prepared the skins of three rabbits I’d caught and she let down the hem of Max’s pants for the last time. She had read about it in a book about BAS vehicles. At the time I thought for the millionth time about the extravagant and unnecessary luxuries afforded to people in the past but I have a completely different opinion after having suffered the transports for three days straight. My legs ache from simulating an exaggerated walking style to operate the lower half of the transport and my arms are seizing up after having to hold the same position for so long.
You only have to look around at the ruins to see the sorts of machines that were in operation BAS, if they were so smart surely they could see cruise control was essential for these heavy, unventilated machines. When I complained to Vonteuse about the poor design he said the transports weren’t made for any long distance travel, more for moving large items around factories for short periods of time. There was no need for cruise control. I initially thought that was unlikely because the transports were solar powered and if they were in buildings all day they wouldn’t get the power they needed to operate. Vonteuse said that they were probably docked outside when they weren’t used to charge the batteries or maybe they had some sort of artificial sunlight indoors BAS. I decided to drop the subject. Sometimes BAS technology sends my head spinning. Why anyone would want fake sunlight when there is perfectly fine sunlight outside I’ll never know.
I can’t help but think that dumping the whole lot of the cylinders and travelling light is a better idea than this. The Refuge is supposed to be surrounded by an inland lake so I assume it has trees. I know we can put something together once we get there using the resources that are available. At the rate we’re travelling we’ll all be dead from Age Sickness before we even get there. The thought makes me look down at my arms and examine the marks left from my bout of the Sickness. The sores are nearly completely gone, only shadows on my dark skin remain. I have mixed emotions about seeing them disappear. While they are still there I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be alive, to have escaped death when I was right in its clutches. On the other hand, every time I see them I think about how long it will be before I find a fresh sore. I know the others think I have immunity because no one else has ever recovered from Age Sickness the way I did, but I can’t bring myself to completely believe it. I don’t have room in my head to think about it,. I just want to get to The Refuge and set Max up. I refuse to plan any further than that and honestly feel lucky to think I can make it that far.
Mayther moves his transport out in front of the rest of us and turns so we all have a front-on view of his face. After placing his cylinder down rather clumsily, he holds his hands up in the time-out symbol we learnt at training. This is the third break today, it’s no wonder we’re making such poor progress. I drop my cylinder to the ground with more force than is really necessary and slip my feet out of the foot straps before sliding open the clear shield and jumping to the ground. As much as I hate these constant interruptions I can’t help but soak up the cooler air on my wet skin and the opportunity to stretch the muscles in my back, arms and legs. I notice Gerla, Diego and Mickael doing the same.
I step around my transport to see how Max is going. He often has trouble staying in our formation of three, four, three and causes us to stretch out further than is ideal. He’s supposed to be next to me in the middle but Mickael has stepped up to his position leaving Max at the back with Renka and Vonteuse. Max is struggling to get his feet out of the foot straps in his transport. I walk around the side of his transport, about to climb up when the leg flicks out the front quickly then swings around and slams into my back. The air is pushed out of my lungs with a whoosh sound that ends when I crash to the ground. I roll over onto my back and try frantically to suck air in through my mouth. Panic settles in when I realise it is not going to happen and I grab at my throat as if that’s going to magically make air fly into my body. I look left and right appealing for help. This is ironic and almost comical, to think I’m going to die from suffocation. Suddenly Tomas’ face is in front of mine instructing me to focus on his eyes. I look up at him begging him to help me with my whole being.
“Relax, you’re just winded, breathe through your nose”, he says calmly.
I close my mouth and suck air in through my nose with ease. Once the oxygen floods my lungs I open my mouth gasping for air.
“That’s it. Relax and breathe slowly and deeply”, Tomas instructs as he moves his forearm under my shoulder blades and gently lifts me into a sitting position.
My body relaxes with his calming words and my breathing returns to its normal rhythm. Tomas’ hand moves down my back pressing into each rib checking for tenderness. I flinch when he finds his way to my lower left side. He gently traces the outline of the offending rib and sits back on his heels in front of me.
“You’ll have a bruise tomorrow but nothing’s broken”, he says trying not to look directly into my eyes.
I turn away as I thank him for his help and curl my legs under me to lift myself off the ground. Tomas starts to reach out to help me then thinks otherwise and lowers his hand. He turns to leave and I watch him go. Things are very tense between us. After the initial excitement about spotting land, then the packing and planning that followed I avoided him. I want to talk to him about why I can’t let anything more happen between us. I want to tell him that it is more than the sketch of me I discovered. That my mind can’t function around him, it takes all my priorities and puts them out of order. That I can’t trust my body when I’m near him, it reacts to all the traitorous hormones that seem to go on overdrive whenever he is around. And, that we all have to put our energy into getting to The Refuge and finding something to stop Age Sickness. We can’t be selfish; we are here for a reason. But I can’t find the words. Instead we’ve fallen into a stilted formal rhythm of interaction that is extremely uncomfortable.
“Pia, are you okay? I’m so sorry, I got my foot stuck again”, Max calls out from the top of the transport as he climbs down the side.
“I’m fine, Max, don’t worry about it”, I reassure him.
He looks me up and down searching every square inch of my body with his anxious eyes and raises his hands to do a physical inspection too. I glare at him, warning him to stop before he starts. Max is a true believer in my immunity and what it means for everyone. He argues that my safety and health are more important than anything if we are ever going to find a vaccination for Age Sickness. He is overprotective and annoying as a result of this belief. He promised me he wouldn’t be that way when I confronted him with my concerns about it but clearly that was not a promise he could keep. He lowers his hands and settles on asking if I’m sure I am all right. I brush his question away with my hand and head to the front of the formation where everyone is gathered.
My mind flashes back to the second day of sorting through the supply cylinders and I almost growl aloud. I had been deep within one cylinder as it lay horizontally on the ground reaching to the very back for a piece of canvas that had lodged at the top. I was stretching my body as far as it could go and using my knee to propel myself further forward. I felt a sudden lurch in the cylinder and rolled over onto my injured hip. It was on its way to recovery after the explosion on the ship but I sensed it would be set back in the process as I continued to roll over and over onto it. I realised that the cylinder was rolling at a pretty fast pace and started to scrunch myself into a ball trying to put all of my body weight into one spot to slow it down. This only resulted in me banging my head several times before I lurched to a dramatic and painful stop. I crawled out of the cylinder groaning and was swarmed by everyone who could run fast enough to meet me at my exit. Their hands roamed my body looking for injuries as tears welled in their eyes and dripped down their cheeks. Gerla was a sobbing mess and even Mickael was hiccupping back cries that tried to break free. I pushed myself up and away from them all looking at them in complete bewilderment. I took in my surroundings and noticed that the cylinder had rolled in the opposite direction to the cliff edge stopping only when it hit one of the boulders that were spattered around the landscape. We had moved all the cylinders and transports away from the docking area and on to a sloping open field area via a steep winding road that connected to the port. It had more space to lay the cylinders horizontally and sort out the most essential supplies. In hindsight it seemed a stupid thing to do given we were working with equipment that rolled so easily. It was pretty funny that I had just gone rolling in a cylinder and I started laughing, I couldn’t help myself. I doubled over in hysterics and after taking a few deep breaths and wiping the moisture away from my eyes I straightened up to see six faces glaring at me in a mixture of anger and bewilderment.
“At least I didn’t roll off the cliff”, I mumbled when I straightened myself up.
“Tomas, maybe you should check her out and see if she’s hurt”, Mickael directed at Tomas, ignoring my comment.
“Yeah, I think her hip has opened up again”, Diego said pointing at the offending area that was quickly soaking my pants in blood.
“Her fingers should be checked too, she must have rolled onto them the bandage looks a little loose”, Vonteuse offered.
“Are you all right, Pia? You look a bit pale”, Max asked from my side.
I looked down at his concerned face and back up at the others who were talking about me as if I was a specimen, not a person standing in front of them. If any one of them had been in that cylinder it would have been funny. This was exactly the reaction I dreaded. Renka was so right when he said they would want to wrap me up in cotton wool if they thought I had immunity. I was no longer a girl to them, if I ever was just that after they had been inundated with my image that was flashed around the communes for the last ten months publicising me as the eldest person. I was a means for them to survive, a symbol of hope that needed to be protected at all costs. I was the refuge we were sent to find. I could see it all over their faces. All except one. Tomas was looking at me in sympathy, unsure of how to proceed. I stared at him willing him to dare touch me before turning and storming off leaving shouts of concern behind me. Before I found my pack that had spare bandages in it I saw Renka staring out over the cliff’s edge and for the first time I thought I preferred his despondent company to any of the others.
Tomas’ calm voice reassuring Max I was okay brings me back to the present.. I look over at them in warning. The last thing I need is for them to tell the others what has happened. Tomas gives a small nod of acknowledgment indicating he knows what my death stare is all about and edges closer to the group to hear what the delay is. Max walks over to join me and we make our way to the group as well.
“Can’t you see? Look around you, Tomas knows what I’m talking about, it’s not right”, Mayther is saying emphatically.
Gerla, Merva and Diego are looking at our surroundings, turning their bodies in a full circle to understand what Mayther is indicating. I do the same thing, unsure what exactly I’m supposed to be seeing. We’re in the middle of a deserted road that is lined with tall buildings. That isn’t anything unusual, for the past four days travelling through the ruins we’ve stuck to the deserted roads that are surrounded by buildings of various sizes in different states of disrepair. Sometimes we have to head off the road to get around BAS vehicles that are blocking our way. Other times we use the transports to move debris of some sort; both major time-wasters that slow our progress even further. Before I complete a full circle it hits me that I haven’t seen a BAS vehicle or any debris for some time. I stop suddenly and turn back the way we came. The transports and cylinders are blocking some of the view but I see enough to know that there has been nothing blocking our path for as far as the eye can see. Given that the road is pretty straight that is far enough to assume a pattern is taking place. I stand on my toes to see over the heads of the others looking in the direction we’re heading. There is nothing blocking our way that way either. It is completely clear. I spin to my right and lean my head back looking up at the building nearest me. It has the same look as all of the other buildings we’ve passed in the ruins. Tall, almost completely glass, reflecting the sun’s rays, making it so much hotter than it has to be and entirely without character. But the building in front of me has one major difference. The bottom floor is impeccably clean. The many windows are not broken or covered in so much grime they resemble dirt panels, they are shining and blindingly clear. My breath starts to come faster as I realise the situation we are in. Ruins these are called but they no longer resemble what the word implies and I have no idea how long this has been the case. An eerie silence falls around us as we turn back to face the middle of our near perfect circle. Even Renka has found his way into the group and shares the same look of befuddlement and fear that the rest of us have. I glance over at Max who is now so close our shoulders are touching. What does this mean?
About the Author
The Cargo Trilogy is Katie Mineeff’s first foray into writing. She is a primary school teacher and a mother of four. She lives by a stunning lake in Wollongong, NSW Australia. When she’s not organising a household of six she spends her time creating imaginative worlds for interesting people to have extraordinary adventures.
Cargo, is the first book in The Cargo Trilogy, followed by Ruin (Book 2) and soon to come Refuge (Book 3).
Other books by this author
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The Cargo Trilogy
Cargo (Book 1)
Ruin (Book 2)
Refuge (Book 3) Coming soon!
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"Something is missing - I can no longer hear Karther singing. A loud grunt followed by a gargled cry sounds from outside and I run and jump off the shelf with Tomas following behind me. I run towards the dome looking for Karther but can’t see or hear him. I lean over the starboard side of the ship just in time to see a flash of metallic silver and a splash of blood-red water lap up against the ship". In a world of orphans one girl holds the secret that could break the age barrier... At nine, Pia cut the ropes her parents swung from. Left alone with her three year old brother, she becomes fiercely protective and self-sufficient to a fault. Eight years on, Pia is summoned to 'volunteer' as one of a ten person crew to seek out The Refuge, a rumoured sanctuary free of Age Sickness. The volunteers embark on a sea voyage and soon realise they are not the only cargo onboard. Early in the journey the vicious murder of one volunteer ignites suspicions among the crew and sparks a series of events that leads Pia to unravel dangerous truths. Unsure of who to trust and fighting her feelings for fellow 'volunteer' Tomas, Pia walks a fine line between truth and lies. One shocking discovery changes everything leaving Pia questioning her past and hiding from her future.