Icebergs and Growlers

If my jaw could have dropped off my face and rolled under the table, it would have. Holy shit. America is burning. I was stunned stupid.

I kicked off the slippers and reached for my shoes. Takeshi was talking to the guard, Kenichi, who had waited for us in the hall. His Japanese sounded sharp and authoritative, a flurry of syllables crackling through the air, as the boy nodded and bowed repeatedly in the shadow of Takeshi’s towering frame. When it was done, Kenichi turned to go, but before he did, he flashed me a furtive, worried glance. I cocked an eyebrow at him as I slid my boots on. He quickly turned away and departed. I took a breath, blew it out, and shoved my wet socks into my pocket.

“Follow me, Wayne,” Takeshi said with a wave of his hand.

No san at the end, just Wayne. Not a good sign. “Where to?” I asked.

“Your new room,” he replied hollowly. Behind his thick black eyeglasses, his eyes had become dull and wide, his polite smile and flash-bulb attentiveness utterly sucked out of him.

“Oh good,” I said.

We exited the captain’s quarters and took another passage down into the ship’s dimly lit corridors.  For the moment we walked in near silence, save a sniff of the nose or the clearing of a throat. I listened as the ship groaned and creaked, almost as if it were trying to stifle the noises it couldn’t help but exude. I followed Takeshi around a corner and down another flight of stairs, past a closed door which muffled the voices of a handful of sailors and a radio or a television set that chattered in the background. The smell of cooked fish seeped into the hallway. I replayed Captain Moriyama’s last words in my head. America is burning. America is burning.

It was impossible to imagine.  The United States embroiled in a foreign war on its own soil? For Americans, wars are something that happen somewhere else. In some far corner of the globe, somewhere you’d never even heard of, and if you have, you certainly couldn’t find it on a map. But a war actually inside our borders? Unthinkable. I had to get some answers.

Takeshi took a right and I followed him down another flight of stairs through a short hallway flanked by scores of gray pipes that hummed and sizzled with the sound of steam. I sped up and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Explain,” I said. “How bad is the war? What happened?”

Takeshi stopped and looked me in the eye. “Saiaku,” he said. “The Russian navy attacked the Americans at sea. Unprovoked, they say. The Americans responded, but they were outnumbered. When word of the battle got out, your government declared war. But the Russians cried foul, saying it was the Americans who attacked first. That they had given no order to fire on American ships.”

That’s not the way I’d heard it, I thought, remembering the Navy SEALs assertion that they had sunk the Russian battle group. But I kept it to myself. “Who’s telling the truth?”

“Who knows what to believe?” Takeshi replied, holding out his hands. “But it really doesn’t matter anymore. After the declaration, the Americans launched an attack on Moscow from their European bases. England, France, Canada, and Germany joined the fight. Russia was set ablaze. Your President thought that he could count on the whole world for support, but apparently the Russians had evidence that it was the Americans who were the aggressors. China, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea took Russia’s side.”

I gripped a cherry red valve sticking out of the wall. Steam hissed in the neighboring pipes. “It’s goddamn world war three.”

“Yes. It was.”

My mouth dropped. “Was?”

Genbaku,” Takeshi said with a heavy sigh. “Japan is no longer the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack. We are only one of many now. One of many.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I gasped. “Who shot first? How many fucking bombs have dropped?”

“Hundreds. Thousands. Who knows. No one is sure who fired the first one, and no one knows the extent of the damage,” Takeshi answered, shaking his head. He looked at the floor. “Everything is a blip of transience and impermanent.”

“Apparently,” I frowned. “But Japan? They weren’t involved?”

“No,” Takeshi said. His eyes brightened slightly. “Japan has stayed out of it. For now. Many countries have abstained, and they have been spared. But only the smaller ones. The major powers of the world have fallen.”

“There’s going to be fallout.”

“Yes, without a doubt. Our future, if we have one, is grim at best.”

“Jesus Holy Christ,” I said, dropping my face into my palms. Tears welled up in my eyes. “I have to see! I have to know what happened to my family, my friends! Do you have a satellite phone on the ship?!”

“Unnn,” Takeshi hummed. “But you will not reach any one in your country. All communications are down. I will show you what I can on the Japanese broadcasts. But it is best if you first get cleaned up and have something to eat.” He touched my shoulder. “Please follow me.”

Takeshi turned and continued down the hall. I followed, wiping the tears from my eyes. What in the hell would have caused all of this? Surely a little skirmish over a few LMOs and their little pods wouldn’t be enough to start a nuclear war. What the hell was so important that—oh. Oh god.

I suddenly remembered the paper thin, shiny golden computer that Spegg had let me play with while I was in the initial, mind-numbing throes of the Lilith. My memory is fuzzy, at best, from that time, but from what I do recall, it was something roughly akin to the Internet. A self-contained, mind-bogglingly comprehensive, two-hundred years into the future, database of everything. History, medicine, space travel, weaponry—it was all there. To call it a goldmine would be a severe understatement. It was a goldmine wrapped in a diamond mine wrapped in a shiny interstellar destroyer traveling faster than light with plasma weapons, robot doctors, and a side of bacon. Now that would be something to start a war over. One big, giant, motherfucker of a War. I worked my jaw hard, just imagining the magnitude of the thing. But most importantly, who had it now?

“This will be your room,” Takeshi said. I hadn’t even noticed that we had stopped. “You have everything you need here. Get showered and changed, we will head to the galley and have breakfast. Afterward I will show you the reports.”

“Thank you,” I breathed.

Takeshi unlocked the door with a loose key and pushed it open. I slipped out of my shoes and stepped inside. The room was larger than my previous quarters. It had two twin beds and a large desk with a paper lamp. The walls were the same ubiquitous green steel, and to my left was another door that opened into a tiny bathroom. On one of the beds was a fresh change of clothes: a white tee, a plain brown sweatshirt, and two sets of wool socks. On the floor was a pair of white slippers wrapped in plastic.

“We have a saying in Japan,” Takeshi said, leaning against the door. “Ame futte ji katamaru. After the rain, the earth hardens. Those of us who survive this will be stronger than before.” 

“I guess,” I shrugged, and he pulled the door closed.

I turned around and noticed a 2010 calendar taped to the wall. The art for April was a panoramic shot obviously from the Southern Ocean. I moved around the bed to get a closer look. In the photo were three massive icebergs surrounded by thousands of chunky growlers (what sailors call smaller, Buick-sized chunks of ice) spread out in a calm, glassy sea. The sun was rising behind the tallest iceberg, a sliver of brilliant yellow light that ignited the peaks of the three giants, while the remainder of the foreground ice loomed in shadow. After the rain, the earth hardens. I stared at the photo for a long moment, then turned and gathered the new clothes in my arms.

The bathroom was so small that I could touch all four walls without moving, including the shower. I shut the door and set the new clothes on the lid of the toilet. On a shelf above the sink there were a couple of small hotel-sized bottles of what looked like shampoo and conditioner, a tiny razor, shaving cream, and a thin bar of pink soap that smelled like laundry detergent. I undressed, knocking my elbows and knees against the walls and the sink, then stepped in the little shower with the soap and pulled the curtain. The water was hot and felt great.

I leaned on one hand in the shower, closed my eyes, and let the hot water pour over me. My mind drifted. Far away. The golden computer. Two-hundred years of science and technology knowledge at your fingertips. Jesus, if you could imagine a book of information like that falling into the hands of  Hitler or Napoleon. Or Mad King George of England. Or George W. Bush for that matter. Christ, you could forge the future any way you saw fit. You could be God. You could be the Devil. The possibilities were endless.

After a time, the water ran cold. I didn’t even soap myself. How long had I been in there?

I got out, stepping on my old clothes, dried off, and rubbed the fog off the mirror with the edge of my palm. I looked like a vagrant.

I shaved slowly, removing almost two weeks of growth, and by the time I was done the little razor looked like it had been used to scrape ice off of a 747. I dropped it in the trash. I clumsily put on my new clothes, again whacking my limbs against the walls, and opened the door.

“OK,” I said, meeting Takeshi in the hall. “I’m showered. But for the record, I don’t feel any better.”