7 min read

Bare Metal | Chapter Ten

Bare Metal | Chapter Ten
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger / Unsplash

MS Glacial Adventurer
Somewhere in the Arctic Ocean

Simone staggered and weaved along the central corridor like an out of control drunk. Each step was a battle as she struggled to compensate for the rolling deck beneath her feet. The worst part was not knowing what was coming next. One moment it seemed as if she were scrambling up an endless mountain, and the next she would find herself racing headlong down the opposite side, completely out of control. Periodically, the ship would swing broadside into the waves and her entire world would seesaw violently as the ship struggled to establish its center of gravity. It was during these terrifying moments that she felt the most vulnerable, when she wondered if the next wave or the one after would be the one which rolled the Glacial Adventurer onto her side and sent her to the bottom.

She arrived at the foot of the grand stairwell a minute later and paused to catch her breath and to gaze at her destination, four decks above. Her thighs burned from the effort so far, and the idea of climbing stairs made her want to sit down and cry in despair. She cursed her pathetic lack of fitness and vowed to go to the gym more often if she ever got home. Once her heart finally stopped trying to escape from her chest and she was able to breathe again, she grabbed the hand railing and began to drag herself skyward.

***

Simone counted twenty-three other survivors milling about the bridge with her. If facial expressions were any indication, she wasn’t the only one who wished she were somewhere else. She scanned the room, searching for familiar faces, but didn’t find anyone she knew. Not Gemma. Not Scott. She supposed she should try to strike up a conversation, introduce herself, but this seemed like so much effort when all she wanted to do was lie down beside Chloe and forget the world existed.

She caught a whiff of cigarette smoke, and turned to locate the source. Just inside the door stood the man who had visited her cabin with Gemma a few days ago. The guy raised a half-smoked cigarette to his lips and took a long drag. He held the smoke for a moment before blowing it toward the ceiling in a thin blue stream. He was somewhere in his mid to late sixties, with a slight paunch, and shoulder length gray hair combed straight back. The door opened behind him and Gemma slipped in through the gap. She stopped beside the guy, stood on her toes, and said something into his ear before catching Simone’s eye and giving a slight wave.

Simone returned the gesture.

Gemma held up a finger instructing Simone to wait, then said something to the guy.

The man dropped his cigarette to the metal floor and crushed it out with his foot. He cleared his throat. The noise was like a motorcycle roaring to life on a quiet street. The buzz of conversation trailed off. “Thank you, everyone,” he said. “Thank you for coming.” He put his hands together at his chest, palm to palm, like he was praying. Simone almost expected him to say namaste. He didn’t. “May I please have your attention?”

Simone caught a hint of an accent in his speech she hadn’t noticed before, but she couldn’t quite place it. Scandinavian, maybe.

Silence poured into the cramped room, displacing the oxygen, until it was as quiet as a crypt.

The man gestured at himself. “For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Oscar Thorsen.”

“And why should we care?” A man on Simone’s left called out angrily. “I told you,” he said to a man beside him. “This is a God damned waste of our time!” The angry man began pushing through the crowd, angling toward the door. His compatriot looked like he wanted to follow, but remained rooted in place.

Oscar made a downward, calming motion with his hands. “Wait. Please. Don’t go yet, sir. I’m sorry. Let me start over.”

The angry man slowed up for a second, locked eyes with Oscar, then shook his head and left the room. The door crashed closed behind him.

“Is anyone coming to help us?” A woman in the back asked, her voice pleading. “I need to get back to my mother in Boston. She’s sick. She needs me—”

Oscar glanced at Gemma and frowned. Simone got the clear impression this—whatever this was—wasn’t going to plan. She guessed either he was going to become angry next and start yelling at people, or else he would crumble and slink back into the shadows.

He did neither. “Please,” Oscar said in a soothing yet commanding tone. “I don’t know much, but I do know about organizing people. And I think that’s what we need now—organization.” He made an expansive gesture at their surroundings. “I used to run a company making communications equipment. If you’ll give me a chance, I’d like to attempt to get the power running. If we can do that, I’m convinced we can call for help.” He locked eyes with the woman with the mother in Boston. “And then we can get you home to your dear mother.”

A murmur of excitement coursed through the room.

“I need your help, though,” Oscar continued in an almost folksy tone. He cast his gaze in Gemma’s direction. “We need your help.”

“How so?” a short man with a heavy black beard said. “What can any of us do?

“I think Ms. Mansfield can explain it better than I can.”

Gemma gave Oscar a quick nod, and began speaking: “I’ve spoken with many of you about the problems you’ve been facing since you awoke. Trouble reading. Problems concentrating. Trouble comprehending things you feel you should understand.”

Heads in the crowd bobbed in agreement.

Gemma continued. “Is there anyone here who has not experienced cognitive difficulties since waking? If so, please raise your hand.”

Simone looked first to the left and then to the right. She saw no raised hands. She swallowed hard. She had been plagued by strange headaches herself every time she tried to read, to the point where she had all but given up on the activity. She had thought it was just her.

Gemma gave the room time to process the news.

“So, what do we do now?” Simone blurted, surprising herself. “Does it really matter that we can’t read? Doesn’t an AI usually pilot the ship anyway? Why don’t we just activate the backup system once Oscar gets the power on, and have the ship take us home?”

“I’ll take this one,” Oscar said, sharing a knowing glance with Gemma. “The AI is no longer functional. We’ve already checked. And no, I don’t believe we can fix it. What I’m proposing is old fashioned navigation. No AI. No help from the outside.”

“But none of us can read the repair manuals.”

“Right,” Oscar said. “But none of us can understand the manuals.”

“So, how are you going to do this, then?” Simone asked steering the conversation back to Oscar’s initial proposal.

“I’m glad you asked. I want to start with the computers not connected to the AI. I have a good idea which ones we should check first. There are ways to troubleshoot them, even without documentation.” He eyed the crowd. “What I don’t have is enough hours in the day to do it all myself. I can provide the direction, but I need some of you to help me do the real work.”

“I’m in,” the bearded man said.

“Me too,” said another.

“Excellent,” Oscar replied, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. Soon, he had more help than jobs to hand out.

Simone remained silent throughout. Although she wanted to contribute, she didn’t want to do anything that would draw her focus away from Chloe. And besides, who had made this guy their leader? Who was he, anyway?

The room buzzed with a shared sense of purpose as people broke into groups directed by Oscar and began discussing their assignments. Somehow, Simone lamented, in the span of minutes, he had assumed complete control.

She had heard enough. She turned for the door, but didn’t make it a step before the pressure of a hand on her shoulder made her stop short.

“I’m sorry,” Oscar said, yanking his hand away as Simone spun to face him. “I was hoping to speak with you in private before you left.” He motioned for Simone to step away from the crowd, into an alcove where it would presumably be quieter. He nodded in the direction of Gemma, who was speaking to one of the first men to volunteer. “Nurse Mansfield tells me your sister is very ill.” His brow furrowed with what Simone could only interpret as genuine concern.

She tried to capture Gemma’s attention with a quick glance, but the woman didn’t notice her. It rankled her but it didn’t surprise her that Gemma and Oscar had spoken about Chloe without involving her. “Yes. She is,” she said reluctantly. “Although it seems she’s been doing a little better the past day or two.” The lie was out of her mouth before she could stop it.

Oscar cocked his head. “That’s wonderful news! I’m so happy to hear that!” His features softened. “I’m going to be very busy working on the ship. I was wondering if you would be able to assist with my wife, Marie? She’s not doing nearly as well as your sister, and she needs more than I can offer at the moment. Please understand I’m not asking for any special treatment. Nothing you wouldn’t do for your own sister.

The question caught Simone off guard. “I—uh—”

“I was thinking maybe we could even move all the sick people to one location to make it easier for you and Ms. Mansfield.”

“Move them where?” Simone asked. She hated being trapped in Chloe’s state room.

Oscar shrugged. “The infirmary has several rooms for the sickest of patients. Plus, there are empty staterooms nearby, for the others.”

Simone thought about it for a second. While she didn’t relish the idea of serving as a nurse for some stranger, it would at least keep her busy. And besides, Oscar was right. She was doing most of the same work already.

“How many others are you talking about?”

“Three, I believe.”

Simone considered his proposal for a moment. “Sure,” she said. “I’m in.”

Oscar put his hands together at his chest again, and this time he bowed his head, Buddhist-style, and said a few words to himself. When he was done, he extended his right palm. “Thank you.”

Simone shook his hand, and immediately wondered if she had made the right choice.

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