Today's Reading

ONE

AUGUST

The ship of the dead, that was how it had begun. Hopper remembered that later.

This one looked like it had been drifting for decades. It hung low in the water, its former use impossible to tell: the paint on the hull was almost all gone, the lumps of iron scattered on the deck rusted beyond recognition. Even the barnacles around the waterline had shriveled and died. On the railing, a pair of gulls that had never seen a human stared out like absurd sentries.

That was how they found it on their arrival.

Their own boat was smaller, faster, pummeling across the water; the drone of its outboard motor was the loudest noise for miles in any direction. There were seven of them inside. They wore bright-orange overalls, and at their sides they carried masks with huge eyes and grotesque blunt snouts.

They docked with the larger vessel, levered a ladder up, and six of the seven climbed onto the deck, leaving a guard behind. Hopper's colleagues all wore black boots; she wore faded white trainers. Her colleagues all carried rifles on their backs. She did not.

The condition of the ship—not a ship after all; maybe an old fishing boat, she decided—was even worse up close. The deck's planks had shrunk in the heat of the sun; the railing was missing in erratic sections. The wheelhouse door was slack on its hinges, and creaked back and forth in the breeze. And there was a faint sour smell, stronger around the cracks where the hatch led down to the hold below.

Two of her colleagues climbed the steps to examine the wheelhouse; two more crossed the deck in a slow loop, testing the rails. And she and the final soldier walked to the hatch in the middle of the deck. It was padlocked shut, but eventually they pried it open, donned their masks, and clambered down, fumbling for flashlights as they went. The odor grew stronger as Hopper descended, even through her mask. She was beginning to feel the usual distress, her breathing quickening.

The boat's hold was no bigger than a shipping container. It was dark: apart from their flashlights, the only slivers of light came from between the shrunken planks of the deck above. At the back of the low-roofed chamber a few hooks hung from the ceiling, and bundled nets dangled from them, unfilled.

At the front of the hold was a huge pile of empty food tins, a dozen mattresses, and, on top of those, thirty human bodies, rotten almost beyond recognition. Above them, the gaps in the deck striped the scene with floating motes of dust, and the strips of light swayed to and fro with the wallowing of the boat.

Her colleague turned, uninterested, and started searching the back of the hold. Hopper shone her flashlight onto the bodies and forced herself toward them, eventually so close she could nudge the rags aside to better see the skeletons. Mostly men, from the shape of the pelvises: a few women, and, resting in the starboard corner a little way apart from the others, two smaller bodies, their sex impossible to tell. She could feel the familiar fingers of panic encircling her throat, and reminded herself: Stay calm, stay calm. Appear calm.

The bones filling the rags were dark, not shining like bones supposedly did. Not clean. Most of the skulls still bore patches of stringy hair. She knelt and rested the beam of her flashlight on the smallest body; down the line of the arms, onto the tattered fabric wrapping the torso, back up to the skull. Its second teeth had not come through yet. On the floor beside it was a little amulet: a primitive spiral of metal, pierced by a string.

A minute later, her colleague appeared beside her and gestured: he had found a cache of unopened tins. They loaded them into his blue canvas sack and moved to the stairs. As he climbed, Hopper darted suddenly back to the smallest body and plucked the amulet from the floor.

Back on deck, all six clambered back down the ladder to the smaller boat. One of the soldiers attached a lump to the larger boat's side, just below the waterline, and jammed a short stick into it. As the engine coughed into life, he tore off a strip from the edge of the stick, and it began to fizz and smoke, bubbling under the water.

A minute or two after their departure, the fuse had burned down, and there was a dull thud as the hull was breached.

Five minutes later, the boat was noticeably lower in the water. Ten minutes after that, it was gone.

She was the only one in the smaller boat who had turned back to observe the process. Above them, the pale sun gleamed down upon the ocean from its spot near the horizon, as, at this latitude, it did every hour of the day.
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