Sarah L. King
We were on the ship when the bombs flew overhead. They weren’t meant for us, Mum told me. In fact, we didn’t know that they had been above us until we saw the news reports that evening. But they must have been, even if only for a moment. Even if only for the split-second it takes to blink. For those tiniest grains of time, all of that destructive power must have swept over us, and we didn’t know anything about it.
“They were so close, Mum,” I say.
Mum hugs me, comforting me in silent agreement. Like me, she knows the only thing which separates those two warring countries is an ocean. This ocean – once awash with natural splendour, now a watery road which leads only to hell.
I can’t stop thinking about the bombs. I lie in bed every night and I imagine these huge, powerful rockets speeding above the clouds, seeking their target like birds of prey looking for their next meal. I see them leave our atmosphere, cloaking themselves in the darkness of space before beginning their descent. I think about their shape, their colour. Their power. Their silence. I think about how they were able to sneak quietly over us, hell-bent on their destructive mission while we drifted around down here, enjoying our cruise in blissful ignorance. Holiday’s over now, of course. But we’re still on the ship. In a world destroyed, there isn’t anywhere to go.
The television fell silent several days ago, every channel engrained with a black and white fuzz, a hopeless vacuum spelling out one simple message: it is over. The world as we know it has ended. Sometimes I stand and I stare at that empty box, its technology extinct, and I feel conflicted. I am twenty years old and the world I knew was always troubled by something. Wars, terror, climate change. Inequality, greed, corruption. Real news, fake news, information overload. Everything always seemed to be so complicated. Well, the world is simple now. Simple in its nothingness. Tragic in its emptiness. I turn away from the television then, my blood running cold as I try not to think about everyone we have lost.
“What do you think it’s like out there, Mum?”
Mum doesn’t answer. I suppose she can’t bring herself to. I’m not sure why I asked – I have seen the pictures. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Mushroom clouds. Burning flesh. Radiation sickness. I know the history. I remember learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis at school. 1962 – before my mum was even born. All those years ago, the world found itself at the brink, teetering on the abyss of self-destruction. The world stepped back, we were told. That’s what nukes are for, you see; that’s why we made so many of them. Mutually assured destruction. The nuclear deterrent. Humanity split the atom; we honed the essence of physics to create so much of something so deadly that no one will ever dare to use them. Well, someone did. Someone stupid. Someone powerful. Someone who allowed themselves to forget history.
At dawn Mum and I venture along the deck, scarves pulled over our faces – just in case, Mum says, as though flimsy fabric could really protect us from the toxicity. We walk quietly, each staring out at the vast ocean as though its depths might reveal the danger which surrounds us. Out here, in these remote and isolated waters, it is hard to imagine that anything has changed – even the disappearance of the sun behind heavy cloud seems little worse than a bad summer. Sometimes I allow myself to pretend that all is well, that our ship will dock in a few days’ time and that Mum and I will fly home, back to our house, to her job and to my studies. Back to family and friends who are alive and well. Back to normal life. These are easy delusions. After all, I am surrounded by the luxury of a past life; electric lights, running water, comfortable beds. Bars, restaurants, swimming pools, cinemas. Materially, nothing has changed for us.
But we have changed. We are muted, restless, apocalyptic. We are like native Americans, watching in wondrous dread as European ships arrive; like Romans looking on in horror as our once-great Empire collapses around us. We know what surrounds us and yet we must sit in the midst of it, powerless to alter a course which has been set for us by others. As this realisation dawns we grow angry, we become reckless. We are like the doe-eyed mother, lying injured at the roadside, looking on helplessly as her young fawn wanders into the path of the next car. We don’t know what upsets us more; our anguish for everything we know we’ve already lost, or our dread of the losses yet to come.
We are what is left. We are the fallout. We are the ruins of civilisation.
“What will happen to us now, Mum?”
Mum shakes her head, tears tumbling down her cheeks. The answer is all around us, of course. As our world crumbles, humanity chooses to feast; drink, drugs, parties, orgies. The ship has begun its descent into chaos, crew and passengers alike abandoning all reason as they try to wash away their horror and pain on a tide of self-indulgence. Some try to maintain order, of course, but it is not enough. Tensions simmer. Violence is inevitable.
Mum stares aghast at a couple writhing together on the deck for all to see, their groans unabashed, their naked skin dull under the soot-filled clouds which linger high above us. The man sneers, a breathless ‘what-ya-lookin’-at’ flung in our direction like the spittle which flecks unsavourily from his lips. He glares at us, brimming with contempt, with challenge. With rage.
Mum takes me by the arm, trying to guide me away as though I am still her small child. I glance over my shoulder. The man catches my eye and I watch as his menace melts, pleas growing in the place which once harboured fury. Tell me to stop, his eyes cry out. Tell me that I cannot do this. Tell me that the world is intact. Tell me that there are rules, that there is order. Tell me this ship is not my refuge. Tell me it is not my prison. Tell me I am not a survivor. Tell me none of this is real.
I turn away. It is easier to face up to anger than it is to confront desperation.
We return to our room, the only place in all the world where we might be safe. The lights flicker and I wonder how long the façade of normality will be able to endure. Mum pours herself a large whisky, gulping it down in one mouthful before offering the bottle to me. I shake my head, frowning; I can’t remember Mum ever resorting to drink. It’s a bad habit, she always told me. One which helped my father on his way to an early grave. Perhaps that was just as well, I think now. At least Dad didn’t have to burn like everyone else.
Quietly I climb into my bed and bury myself in the stale covers. I am tired; I have slept little since we found out about the bombs, recurring nightmares plaguing me more than my waking thoughts could ever manage. I dream that we are the last of humanity, floating around on this ship in a world filled only with rough seas and raging fires. Eventually we resign ourselves to life on the polluted land, eating food grown in radioactive soil, drinking filthy water, breathing air so thick with ash that it chokes our lungs. But we don’t die. Instead, like the earth around us we mutate, we change and adapt, our eyes growing wild, our instincts becoming rabid, our skin peeling to reveal raw flesh, protruding veins, decaying muscle. Evolution is our master and our power, but in evolving we cease to be human. We become something else. We become death.
Another week passes on the ship. The weather worsens, storm after storm battering us with winds so overpowering that I am sure we will capsize at any moment. The storms are like nothing I have ever seen before, all rage and electricity and black dust. Even when they subside, the sky is so dark and angry that I could swear we are staring straight into the gloom of hell. Inside, we continue to shroud ourselves in an unrelenting hedonism, the distraction of debauchery seemingly irresistible to all but the most stoic of the boat’s inhabitants. Eventually I join Mum in succumbing to the temptations of alcohol and we lock ourselves in our room for hours on end, consuming untold quantities of gin, whisky, brandy – anything we can lay our hands on. For the first time in my life, I find that I like the effects of drink. After everything that has happened, and with everything we must still face, complete inebriation feels like medicine, giving my soul succour, easing my pain, putting me out of my misery. It occurs to me that it might be better to just drink myself to death.
Such enthusiastic consumption means that things begin to run short – food, drink, fuel. The captain’s voice crackles through a loud-speaker, telling us that we cannot stay here for much longer, that in addition to the shortages, the ship has suffered storm damage. If we stay here we will either starve or drown. Our best chance is to head for land, he concludes. His tone is soft with suggestion but I realise that his mind is already made up.
We refuse to yield, of course, continuing our mindless pursuit of pleasure, ignoring instructions, certain that one little voice will not dictate to us. But the captain is determined to have his way; order will be restored, he tells us, and land will be sought. Soft words through speakers are replaced by tougher actions, and it takes only a handful of gunshots to remind us of our place, to remove our fate from our grasp. Once again, someone has decided for us; someone in authority, someone with a ship and a crew at their command. Someone with words and threats and bullets at their disposal. Someone with power. They are telling us what to do and we, adrift in this ocean, have no choice but to obey.
Even in a world which has been obliterated, it seems that some things will never change.
My first glimpse of land shocks me. It is early morning and I have gone up onto deck, my eyes bleary and my head spinning after another night of heavy drinking. At first I think it is the sun I can see and for a moment my heart quickens. Perhaps it’s all over, I tell myself. Perhaps the sun has broken through the thick nuclear clouds, perhaps nature has fought back and won. Perhaps life will resume.
I am hopelessly drunk, of course; it is not the sun’s glow I can see. It is a land covered with fire, a country ablaze; gone are the greens and browns of the earth, the undulating curves of hills and valleys sitting patiently on the horizon. Those things have left this world now, usurped by the orange and yellow hues of flames as they consume the terrain, by grey plumes of smoke which billow victoriously upwards, smothering the sky, choking the air. Choking us, I think with a shudder. After all, what lies ahead of me is our destination. Our fate. And probably, our death. Instinctively I pull my scarf tighter, suppressing my breath – a futile attempt to protect myself but one which I feel compelled to try anyway. Nausea crawls over me and I realise that impending doom doesn’t mix well with vodka.
“Oh God, I can’t believe it!”
I spin around, surprised to see a familiar face standing behind me. Immediately I identify him as the fornicating man Mum had chastised the previous week. If he notes my recognition, however, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he stares open-mouthed over my shoulder, his eyes fixed in horror upon the raging inferno which awaits us.
“Oh God,” he repeats.
“I don’t think God has anything to do with it,” I quip. “This was the work of people. We should probably leave God out of it. I imagine he’s disowned us by now.”
The man nods, his gaze still locked on the horizon. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” he says. “Isn’t that what he said? The man who first created the nukes.”
“Yes,” I reply. “But I don’t think this was his fault, either. I mean, he made the weapons, but he didn’t do this. People did this. Rich people. Important people. Governments, Presidents, dictatorships. People who are probably out there somewhere, stowed away in bunkers while everybody else burns. Those people, with their money and their power, their vengeance and their hate – they did this.”
“And I suppose you’d change it all!” the man scoffs at me. “I suppose you have all the answers; you can tell us how it should have been done. Young people and your liberal ideals. You think you can change the world.”
I turn away from him, my heavy gaze coming to rest once again on the blazing scene in front of me. “Perhaps I did. But it hardly matters now, does it? There’s nothing left to change. Liberal, conservative, hawks, doves, war and peace – I think those are pretty meaningless labels in a world which is essentially over.”
The man stands by my side, grunting as he leans hard against the railings. Even under this toxic sky, I can smell the potent alcohol-laden fumes radiating from him; his breath, his skin, his sweat all reeking of ethanol rot. I realise that he is as drunk as me. “You’re quite astute, for someone so young.”
I shrug, deflecting the insult with a grim smile. I think again of the first time I saw him, indulging his primal urges with reckless abandon. I resist the temptation to call him old and foolish. After all, what are those words, apart from more pointless labels?
“So, what do you think happens now?” he asks me.
I look once more towards the fires and find myself unable to even ponder his question. Standing here on this ship, I am struck once again by our powerlessness. Powerless to prevent the bombs. Powerless to change it, powerless to fix it. We were always in the power of someone else, and now we are beholden to the earth’s power. The poisoned, burning earth, the earth which is no longer fit to ensure our survival.
“I don’t know,” I reply.
The helpless howl of an endangered species: I don’t know.
Sarah L King lives in West Lothian, Scotland, with her husband and young children. Born in Nottingham and raised in Lancashire, her books include the historical fiction novels, The Gisburn Witch (2015) and A Woman Named Sellers (2016), both set during the Lancashire witch trials in the seventeenth century. Her first contemporary novel, Ethersay, was published in 2017 and was inspired by the seismic shift in the Scottish political landscape which occurred during the independence referendum of 2014, and its impact upon ordinary lives. Sarah is currently working on the third installment in her Witches of Pendle series.