People were streaming onto the decks, faces alarmed, crew members shouted as they scrambled to their posts. The young man, jostled by the crowd, didn’t know the clanging bells and wailing horns were harbingers of an impending disaster that would forever change his life.
Confused by the commotion, helpless inaction overtook him. Instead of joining the scurrying hordes, he stood frozen against the deck’s railing, white knuckling the wooden veneer cracked by age and salt water. Trying to ignore the chaos, he buried his eyes into the tranquil blue that surrounded the vessel. This being his first time at sea, he’d never seen anything like it. Not the water itself, but the immensity of it. It was as if he was seeing the world as it really was for the first time. He found it overwhelmingly beautiful.
Still, nothing appeared amiss. The waters were calm, no waves higher than a foot or two. The only thing to look at was a tiny island, perhaps a kilometre away.
What could the fuss possibly be about?
“Darren!” a voice struggled above the racket.
He turned to greet the girl. Amanda. They’d met on board and immediately hit it off. He was certain she had a crush on him. He liked her too, but she was young. Probably too young. Although you’d never know it by how she acted and the crazy, outrageous things that came out of her mouth.
“What do you think is going on?” he asked when she was near enough to hear without him having to shout.
“The boat stopped moving you know.”
Amanda tossed a worried look overboard.
“It’s a party in the dining room!” a boozy voice sailed over the others.
The woman was in her twenties but looked much older. She wore a short, tight jean skirt and a tube top that didn’t quite fit. Dark tendrils of hair stuck to her sweating temples and neck like swirling snakes.
“Twila!” Amanda placed a hand on the woman’s arm as she passed by, causing thick green liquid to dribble over the edge of her plastic glass. “Do you know what’s happening?”
“Oh it’s nothing,” she responded with a phlegmy laugh, at the same time checking Darren out with a practiced eye. “Probably another friggin’ life boat drill or something. Don’t worry about it, hon. Grab a drink and join the party.” With an unsteady sway of her hips the woman winked at the couple and sauntered off.
Amanda searched Darren’s face for answers. “What do we do?”
“It doesn’t sound very serious to me.”
“Everybody’s going to the dining room. You coming?”
He smirked. “Nah, I think I’ll just stay out here, enjoy the peace and quiet.”
She stuck out her tongue. Something she did with irritating regularity. “Loser.”
“Hey. I’m the only one who’s not losing his head around here.”
“C’mon,” she urged. “Let’s go.” She turned, confident he’d follow.
But Darren hesitated. He didn’t want to be in that dining room. Where it was going to be loud. Where people were going to be shoving and pushing. Where the truth of what was happening would be told. He’d rather stay out here in the fresh air, look at the blue sky, the gentle water, and believe everything was going to be okay, even though his gut was telling him it wasn’t.
But he couldn’t let Amanda deal with this alone. She had nobody. Neither did he. They had to stick together.
Darren unfastened himself from the railing and went after her.
They joined the others streaming into the largest indoor space on the ship. Darren threaded his way through the crowd in Amanda’s determined wake. Never one to miss a thing, he knew she’d want to get as close to the front, wherever that was, as possible. The passengers’ chatter, growing increasingly rapid and agitated, was drowning out the ship’s incessant alarms. As they passed their shipmates, Darren was reminded that most spoke a language he’d never heard before. Until this minute he hadn’t thought it was a big deal. Now he wondered if understanding each other was about to become the biggest deal ever.
The young couple stopped near the edge of a stage meant for entertainers who’d never materialized. Two men were positioning themselves at the centre of the platform. One wore a white uniform, no doubt the captain. The other was a man Darren had met before, a man who looked like he’d be in charge wherever he was. His name was Smith. Hanging back in the shadows behind them was a third man, his complexion dark and rough as gravelled road. He wore a robe similar to the ones worn by many of the others aboard.
Suddenly the ship’s alarm died and with it the competing voices. The abrupt silence was almost as deafening, but lasted barely seconds before erupting again.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the man in white called out, his voice loud and forceful. “My name is Captain Rowley.” He made a gesture with his right hand and the noise began to wither. “I’m the commander of this ship.” He waited again. When a reasonable quiet was finally restored, he continued. “You may have noticed we’ve come to a stop and dropped anchor.” He exchanged a terse glance with the second man. “I’ll ask Mr. Smith here to explain exactly what’s going on.” With that short statement the captain stepped aside.
Darren tensed as Smith moved forward. The man stared into the crowd with serious intent.
Smith’s firm jaw tightened as he prepared to address the passengers. For a brief moment his solemn eyes settled on Darren. The effect was as if someone had opened a refrigerator door directly in front of him, a blast of cold shellacking his body. The young man shifted uncomfortably.
“Good morning,” Smith began. “I’m going to do my best to tell you what’s happening. But you need to be aware that, at this point anyway, we’re not entirely certain of all the details ourselves.” He cleared his throat. “At approximately nine o’clock this morning, roughly seventy minutes ago, we received a message from the Australian Coast Guard. They’ve ordered all sailing vessels off the seas.”
Darren nudged Amanda’s shoulder. “What’s this guy talking about? I didn’t understand a thing he just said.”
He was hoping for some of the girl’s characteristic wit in return. Instead, Amanda shushed him, her eyes glued to the imposing figure on stage. Even though she was younger than he, somehow she knew this was a time for paying attention, not playing smartass.
Smith nodded to the third man standing in the darkness. Hesitantly he stepped forward.
Darren was startled by what he saw. The man was trembling and his eyes were moist.
In an unsteady voice the man began to translate the words of both the captain and Smith into a language neither Darren nor Amanda recognized, a back and forth which would continue throughout the announcement.
When he was done, an audible rumble of alarm rippled through the crowd. The air in the room, already hot, grew stifling and reeked with sweat.
“A cataclysmic event has been forecast. This event,” Smith continued, “is massive in scale, with potential to affect every continent on earth.”
“Let’s go home! I want to go home!” someone cried out, quickly followed by others.
“We can’t go home,” Smith responded firmly. “All we can do…all we can do is hide and hope for the best. I know you must be scared. I wish I could tell you not to be, but I can’t.”
Darren felt his chest thump a quicker beat. His palms began to sweat and a hollow, sick feeling invaded his stomach.
“All we know is that this event is natural, an act of God. By that I mean it’s not man-made. This is not a terrorist attack.”
The word “terrorist”, even though he was making the point it didn’t apply to the circumstance, caused cries of dismay and drew worried looks. The crowd was growing increasingly unsettled with each passing second. Smith knew he had to get the information out fast.
He continued. “By now some of you will have noticed a land mass off our port bow. This will be our haven.”
As Smith waited for the translation and inevitable fearful reaction to subside, Darren felt Amanda move closer. Her warmth radiated through him. Despite the extra heat he didn’t budge.
Smith was back, his voice sharp. “Because of the shallowness of the reefs in this area, the Captain has informed me we aren’t able to get any closer to the island. For that reason, beginning immediately, we will begin abandoning ship.”
The robed translator did not wait for his cue, shouting the last words out to his people. Jagged screeches of concern punctuated the air like blasts from a shotgun. People began to jabber at one another, some yelling to get the attention of friends. Arms were flailing. A mini stampede was starting near the exit. The situation was running to boil.
Darren’s eyes moved wildly around the room. He thought to himself that this is what it must feel like to be in a riot. People got trampled to death in riots. He saw Twila, the drunk woman they’d talked to on the deck. Her mouth hung open and her face was dead white. On the ground her margarita glass lay overturned, its contents pooling at her feet. He pulled Amanda closer.
“Stop this!” Smith barked. “You must pay attention! It’s the only way to guarantee your safety!” He turned to the translator with a harsh look, wordlessly commanding him to get control of the crowd. The translator looked as if he was about to bolt. Instead he cleared his throat and began volleying words into the swirling mass of people.
It was no use. The passengers were at a froth.
The blast of sound that came next seemed powerful enough to blow out the windows of the dining room. All eyes fell upon Smith. Above his head he held a freshly discharged Klaxon horn.
A fitful peace was restored, for however long was anyone’s guess. Smith coolly continued. “We will begin by ferrying all passengers to the island in groups of twenty-five. There is only one operating tender, so this is going to take at least five trips.”
Smith’s final words disappeared as yet again the decibel level in the room grew exponentially. People were beginning to absorb the magnitude and severity of what was happening to them. This was more than simple fear or panic. Dread was taking hold.
Smith’s eyes grew wary as tinges of doubt began to seep into his brain. Would he be able to hold onto control long enough to get done what had to be done? “I’m telling you not to panic,” he decreed. “If everyone remains calm and does what they’re told, your chances of safety are much greater. We can get you to shore. Everything will be fine…”
“How do you know that?” someone yelled.
“You don’t even know what’s happening out there!” came an anxious voice rising above the din of foreign tongues.
“Is it a tsunami?” another passenger called out.
“What are we waiting for? Let’s go now!”
And with that a sea of people charged for the exit.
Daren felt a claw on his forearm. It was Amanda, her badly chewed nails red at the cuticles where cheap polish hadn’t yet chipped off. He tried to smile until he saw the look in the young girl’s eyes.
Amanda was usually so confident. To see her self-assuredness vanish was the most frightening thing of all.
In that instant, he knew what he had to do. He would have to step up. He would protect this girl no matter what.
“Amanda,” he said, turning her away from the crazed crowd clambering for the exits. “It’s okay. We’ll be okay. They do this kind of thing all the time.”
“They do?” Faint hope.
“I thought you told me you’d never been on a ship before.”
“Doesn’t matter. Don’t you watch movies?”
“Not really, no. I don’t have a TV.”
“You don’t need one. When we get home I’ll teach you how to sneak into a multiplex. It’s easy.”
He watched as her eyes shifted away, over his shoulder, and registered the mounting pandemonium around them. Until today they’d both looked at this trip in the same way, but what was once a crazy adventure had now become lethally ill-fated.
“We should probably get going,” she said, her voice no more than a peep. “Before all the seats are gone.”
Darren’s heart sank further. For the first time since he’d met her, Amanda sounded like the little girl she was. He was failing. He wasn’t making her feel any better.
Darren fought to keep his voice confident, soothing. “Don’t worry about that. You heard the guy. We have plenty of time. They only have one tender anyway. We’ll take the next one.”
“Yeah. How about I walk you to your room. You can pack a few things to take with you. There must be stuff you want while we’re away? Maybe a bathing suit? I bet that island has an epic beach.”
The girl’s lips trembled into a tentative smile.
Darren felt her little hand, warm and moist, clamp onto his.
“Okay. C’mon,” she said turning away, once again taking the lead.
Whatever came next, Darren knew one thing for sure: they’d face it together.
Hours later a total of one hundred and twelve people stood on a pristine stretch of sun-warmed sand. Some huddled together in groups, others remained solitary sentries. All eyes were fastened on the far end of the crescent-shaped shoreline.
Five times the Zodiac tender had appeared, making the trip from the ship, invisible behind the bend of the beach, and expelled its load of passengers. But for the last ninety minutes, nothing.
Gradual awareness of what must have happened stunned the onlookers into silence. The only sound accompanying their vigil was the sluicing of sea water as it rushed onto the beach, then just as quickly retreated.
The cataclysmic event had arrived. There would be no more survivors arriving from the ship.
Darren and Amanda, standing hip to hip, looked at each other, a silent question hanging between them: Was whatever it was coming for them next?