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Authors: Colin F. Barnes

Salt

BOOK: Salt
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Contents

SALT

By
Colin F. Barnes

Colin F. Barnes’ Website:
www.colinfbarnes.com
Newsletter:
http://eepurl.com/rFAtL

Email:
[email protected]

All Rights Reserved

This edition published in 2014 by Anachron Press

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this work are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication maybe reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher. The rights of the authors of this work has been asserted by him/her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Chapter 1

They hadn’t expected anyone to leave so soon after the last one. Although each time a member of the flotilla took the fateful journey, it always felt too soon. With their numbers down to just one hundred and twenty-five, each lost soul had that much more impact on the group dynamic, the loss more keenly felt.

For Eva, this one cut deeper than the rest.

She pulled her windbreaker close around her neck, tasted salt on her lips from wearing the salt mask earlier that morning. Despite the bacterial infection on the flotilla, people didn’t wear them for these occasions. She ignored her hair as it blew in front of her eyes. She didn’t want to see his face, his expression.

She’d break, and then the truth would be out.

In the grey light of the afternoon, Mike Nelson turned his back on the flotilla and sorted through the meagre supplies piled on the deck of the small fishing boat. There, with the tip of the mountain, the Pico De Orizaba, jutting out from the single, world-spanning ocean, the little boat appeared as indefatigable as a piece of driftwood.

And when the storms returned after this rare, calm break, she feared the boat would be nothing more than wreckage.

All volunteers were given a month’s food and water, and enough fuel to last two days. If the harsh waves from the storms didn’t kill them, they’d have to survive on their own with whatever they could find. So far, in thirteen months, twelve volunteers, none had returned.

“It’s too soon,” Jean cried. Jean—Mike’s wife, Eva’s best friend. Eva placed an arm around Jean’s shoulder, unable to give her verbal support for fear the truth of her feelings for the woman’s husband would suddenly tumble out, cajoled by shame and guilt.

If Mike wasn’t to return, it would be better to let Jean think he loved her. Eva couldn’t wound her with the truth on a day like this. If Jean felt only half of what Eva did, she couldn’t put her through that pain.

Mike would leave as a loyal husband and doting father, a true hero in times of great need. That the odds of him returning were short only made his sacrifice that much greater, especially as he’d agreed to leave two weeks earlier than scheduled, on account of the sudden change in weather. Not that that fact had assuaged the anger of the crowd.

They had gathered on the deck of the British naval destroyer, the HMS Bravo. The flotilla captain, Jim Reynolds—captain of a cruise ship which made up the centrepiece of the flotilla—and his son and vice-captain, Duncan, stood by the winch and lowered down the last of Mike’s promised supplies.

The rest of the crowd, gathered on the bow of the Bravo, stared toward Jim, their silent majority making it clear what they thought of his decision. They only remained quiet for Mike’s sake. But Eva could feel the tension increase with every passing minute.

Standing proud of the group, her long brown hair blowing against her white robes, Susan Faust, the leader of a cabal of religious fundamentalists, held her arms aloft, flung her head back, and spoke in a babble of tongues, her German accent punctuating each syllable. Her flock of two dozen, seemingly understanding the garbled words, bowed their heads to their chests.

Eva had seen this ritual with each volunteer that had left. Whatever it was the priestess thought she was doing, it wasn’t working. And worse, it gave false hope to those left behind. Instead of concentrating on the here and now, making their survival top priority, Faust’s outburst undermined the cohesion they needed.

Individuals would perish in this new, drowned world.

Beside Susan’s group, Marcus Graves looked on. He wore his usual long, black coat, its collar protecting his ears from the chilled Mexican winds.

The solar storms that had instigated the drowning had continued to rage, sending the Earth’s climate into a chaotic tailspin.

There were no recognisable seasons any more.

Just day after day of dark clouds, rain, and high winds.

Eva caught Graves’ gaze. He flashed her a wolfish grin. ‘Grin’ was generous. It was more a baring of teeth. Marcus fancied himself as a leader. But unlike Susan, he did not have the charisma or religious fervour to attract a following.

His group numbered just four, all from his own family, or ‘firm’ as he called them in his east London accent. He kept his eyes firmly on Eva, even as she looked away.

She wondered if he knew about her and Mike, the latter having worked for Marcus on a number of jobs recently. She ignored the knotting in her stomach at the thought of that scumbag having something on her. If there was one character among this motley crew who’d use such knowledge for personal gain, it was Graves.

Eva moved through the crowd, wanting to get some separation between her and Graves.

That was what she told herself.

Being further away from Jean was just a coincidence.
Right
.

An unsettled murmuring broke out amongst the crowd as Jim brought up the empty winch. The time was soon. Everyone on the flotilla had their unique ritual when it came to these events.

Eva’s was to grip the railing of the Bravo and try not to be sick with hope. Hope that, somehow, this one would be the one to find help, other survivors… or… she didn’t know what, she just hoped.

Otherwise they were just sending these people, these survivors to their watery doom. Maybe that’s why they volunteered, she thought, to get it over and done with?

Life on the flotilla was getting harder week by week.

The hulls rusted and decayed, their makeshift wind turbines became less efficient, which made the fact Jim had decided to bring forward a launch that much more galling. Two days’ fuel for the boat could have gone to the running of the flotilla. Given the grumbles of the crowd, it seemed she wasn’t the only one who had figured that one out.

“Why, Eva? Why Mike?” Ade said as he stepped beside her, his South African voice carrying the characteristic pinched vowels. He looked alien to Eva then. Any time Ade wasn’t flashing his great white smile seemed like an abhorrent time. The old engineer had seemed to thrive since he came to the flotilla, half dead, dehydrated, on the wreckage of a South African military lifeboat. “He was one of the best here, ya know?”

“I know,” Eva said. She watched Mike strap the last of his supplies down and enter the small, half-open cabin of the boat.

Less boat, more floating coffin, she thought. They should have given him one of the larger vessels chained to the vast floating city of ships. They could have spared it. The flotilla stretched for nearly three-quarters of a mile edge to edge, and a half-mile deep. Hundreds of vessels and wrecks conjoined to form the last, as far as she knew, vestige of humanity.

The family who’d lived on the one he’d been given, the Tracer, had gone overboard the week before in a joint suicide pact during their fishing shift. She didn’t like the idea of Mike taking it. Felt like inviting unnecessary bad mojo. She tried to ignore the image of Mike splashing into the water like the fisherman and his wife.

Fishing was one of the few things that had prospered since the world drowned. Seven billion humans meant a lot of food for fish, including predators: eels, sharks, whales. Eva knew there was some irony in there somewhere, but couldn’t bring herself to finish the thought.

Jean was crying. Her voice the only one heard among the group now that Faust had finally shut up. Even the wind had died. Eva had never seen it so calm. The boats no longer rocked or rolled like before. It made her uneasy after spending the last two years used to getting around the vast surface of the floating ships in the near-endless storms.

Mike looked up to the group. Eva watched him out of the corner of her eye and gripped the railing so hard she thought her knuckles would split out of her skin. Her tears retreated.

From inside the cabin, Mike waved. For a moment, Eva released her grip, ready to wave back, but as she turned her head, she saw it was Jean who Mike was waving to.

A husband to the very last.

He caught Eva’s eye for a moment before she could look away. His expression said everything, and her chest tightened. When she looked back, he had turned away and started the engines.

A spluttering of diesel smoke hovered by the stern as the boat’s prop churned the water. At first it didn’t look like he was moving, but when Eva finally blinked, she saw the whitewater trail bobbing behind him as he headed towards the mountain peak.

He’d go round the east side and head north to Alaska, where Mount McKinley would be above water level, and where Jim and the others believed he might find survivors, it being higher than Pico de Orizaba, around which the flotilla was built. The other alternative was to go south to Aconcagua, a mountain in Argentina.

The last two volunteers had gone south.

The fuel wouldn’t last long enough anyway, everyone knew, but still they volunteered. Hope was a powerful motivator.

But not for Mike. He wouldn’t do this unless there was something else going on.

Eva wasn’t naive enough to believe his love for her would keep him from leaving. He’d have stayed because he was loyal to Jean and his nine-year-old son, Danny. Even though his feelings for Eva were clear, and vice versa, he had never betrayed Jean, was never unfaithful.

The Tracer approached the craggy peak and disappeared beyond it. When the trail of wake had dissolved into the ocean, the crowd seemed to take a breath and come to life. An explosion of emotion poured out. Eva turned to see Jean holding Danny close to her, his face buried against her waist. Tears tracked down Jean’s face. Yet more drips in the ocean. Her grief wouldn’t bring him back.

“I’ll miss him,” Ade said, rubbing his hand across his dark-skinned forehead. He smelled of grease and diesel. His overalls hung off his wiry frame and whipped in the wind that had seemed to pause during Mike’s progress before returning to batter the flotilla as it had always done. The ripple of waves increased, each one cresting that bit higher. White spray splashed against the peak and the hull of the Bravo that had run aground against the mountain’s ridges.

Ade turned from Eva and loped across the deck of the Bravo, then hopped down on the next level, a Chinese container ship carrying a multitude of now-empty containers.

The ones that had anything in them had long since been emptied, the items repurposed for use on the flotilla to grow food, set up fish farms, and produce drinking water from the ocean. Some of the survivors made their homes in the containers, the rigid metal boxes providing good shelter from the harsh weather.

With nearly a hundred ships lashed together, most of them run aground on the Orizaba’s various ridges, the survivors had set up a desalination system using both natural and fuel-assisted means: the latter would be no good within weeks, once the carefully rationed fuel eventually ran out. Only time and tight controls would tell whether natural evaporation-based desalination would be enough to sustain the current number of survivors.

Beyond the container ship lay a rolling city of smaller craft: fishing vessels, yachts, life rafts, a tug, and even a competition-level racing catamaran. She watched Ade expertly navigate the streets made from boards and pieces of wreckage. A maze of paths wove a complicated pattern throughout the flotilla, which seemed to grow and change organically as new pathways were found, and sections of the place came into the possession of different people.

That was Graves’ game: to secure segments of the flotilla when someone died, left, or committed suicide. He controlled almost a third of the deck space now. It was at the corner of Sweet Mary, a trawler, and the Slice of Life, a leisure craft, that Ade ducked below the makeshift streets. That was central Graves territory. Ade usually worked out of Jim’s cruise ship, the Alonsa, in the engineering department. They had set up workshops there to repurpose and salvage what they could.

A minute later, Graves and his firm followed Ade.

What did Ade have to do with that lot?

Yet another question on a day that seemed full of them.

Eva was about to return to her cabin on the cruise ship when she heard a commotion behind her. Someone—pushing through the crowd, running towards Jim and Duncan, who were tying off the winch—brushed past her, nearly knocking her off her feet.

A hand grabbed her, stopped her from falling.

“Careful,” Jean said, letting go of Eva’s hand as she righted herself. Jean’s face was puffy and wet, her eyes red. She looked at Eva as if she could see right through her. “I know,” she added. “Mike told me… before he…”

Eva’s mouth dropped open, the shock and confusion stealing her words. One of Faust’s followers screamed as they were slammed against the railing. Eva spun away from Jean, saw a hooded man rush towards Jim, a gaff hook in his right hand.

Before Eva realised what she was doing, her cop instincts kicked in, and she sprinted after him. She launched herself forward, tackling the man around his waist.

The momentum pushed him hard against the Bravo’s main six-inch-gun turret, now rusted and useless.

The impact winded Eva, and she lost her footing, taking the man to the deck with her. The gaff hook clattered beside her. The man reached out for it, but a foot stamped on his forearm. A pair of hands reached beneath Eva’s arms and lifted her up. She turned to face Duncan. He flashed a smile at her through his great, red beard.

Jim’s face was the complete opposite, despite the genetic similarity.

His foot pressed harder against the man’s arm, making him scream with pain. Reaching down, Jim grabbed the man by the throat and lifted him to his feet, slamming him against the side of the gun’s turret section.

“Nicely done,” Duncan said in his curious half-Scottish, half-English accent. “If you hadn’t tackled him in time, my old man would have taken that in his back.” He pointed to the hook with his foot.

The crowd had gathered round, wondering who the man was.

Despite his hooded face, Eva knew he was one of Graves’ firm.

Jim said something to him that Eva couldn’t hear.

“Really, thanks,” Duncan said before helping his father lead the man away toward the bridge of the ship.

“You’re welcome,” Eva said as they walked away. She rubbed her ribs, clearing the pain from her fall.

Before Jim ducked inside, he turned to the others and glared. “I think you’ve had your fill of drama today. Get back to work. This flotilla won’t survive on its own.” He gave a curt nod of thanks to Eva. She returned the gesture.

The crowd mumbled their response before dispersing to their various vessels and responsibilities. The question of the man’s motives became a fevered topic among the group. The citizens shared various wild and fanciful theories.

Eva had no ideas beyond an obvious assassination ploy, but wondered if it was part of something bigger. Like Ade, the man smelled of grease and oil, and Ade didn’t seem himself today, even taking into consideration Mike’s leaving.

Would Graves really be so stupid as to try to take out Jim like that? Sure, Jim wasn’t Mr Popular these days, but he still had the support of a good number of the group and most of the crew from the Bravo. She put the mystery to the back of her mind. The full details would no doubt come out via the grapevine soon enough.

BOOK: Salt
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