- Published: 4 February 2020
- ISBN: 9781786331922
- Imprint: Hutchinson
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $32.99
The Last Day
The Sunday Times bestseller
Two thirty a.m., and no signal yet.
The American was waiting in his cramped little room; waiting for a pulse that would tell him London was calling.
The whole building was boiling hot tonight. The air conditioners had broken down again, and here he was, the last one left at his station, fiddling with transmitters just to pass the time before the call came through. He would have to sleep in the office. No chance of getting home before he’d have to turn around and come back.
He sipped his coffee, now only as warm as the air around him, and re-read the briefing document he’d received earlier today, the one that gave him and his department two months’ notice.
Eventually, fifteen minutes later, it came, the trademark rhythm of pulses that told him who was on the line.
‘Are you there?’ The voice was British, hurried and coughing.
‘Thank Christ. You’re two hours late.’
‘I’m sorry. I thought I was being watched. I had to wait. But I’ve got news. Good news. There’s something big on its way.’
‘What kind of something?’
‘Supposedly some evidence that could change the whole balance of power. That’s what my contact says. And he should know.’
The American sighed. He’d heard stories like this a dozen times before. They were never true; the contact always fell through at the last minute, or the secret documents turned out to be the junk from someone’s bottom drawer, a mishmash of garbled data that gave nothing away. A ‘top-level contact’ was generally some middle-ranking officer in the grip of a midlife crisis, wondering what life was like on the other side. But he was professional, so he asked the questions he should.
‘Any details? Where’s this information from?’
‘Someone I used to know very well. He’s qualified, though. More than qualified. He’s got something for us and he’s finally ready to hand it over.’
‘And has he said what he wants from us in return?’
‘He doesn’t want anything. He says he’s got nothing left to gain or lose. He says he wants to make amends – his words.’
The American thought of his family for a second: of the hot little house they shared with two other families, too crowded, and of the suffering land stretching for miles around him, the wilting crops. His children were thinner this year than they had been last year. They were lucky even to be here, when so many others were not; it felt irrational and ungracious to expect that things would ever be better. But calls like this one made it so much harder not to feel hope.
‘What’s your opinion?’ he said.
The voice at the other end of the line was earnest. ‘I think he’s telling the truth.’
He looked at the briefing document on his desk, the one telling him he and his colleagues had just sixty days until the world changed for ever, and in spite of the heat, he shivered.
‘I hope you’re right,’ he said. ‘We don’t have much time.’
The ship of the dead, that was how it had begun. She 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 shrivelled 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, pummelling 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 on to 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 prised it open, donned their masks and clambered down, fumbling for torches as they went. The odour 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 torches, 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 torch onto the bodies and forced herself towards 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 torch 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 burnt 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.
The Rig Rocket gathered pace. It was a sturdy little thing: used for maintenance, training, towing jobs, anything. It wasn’t always available unless there was an urgent need. As Schwimmer and his soldiers operated it, it tended to stay where it was until the iceberg alarms went off.
This morning, they had sounded at 5.07. They spat a thick, wailing blast, painfully loud, designed to ensure the listener could not stay in bed without discomfort. Hopper woke with shock whenever they sounded, even after three years on the rig. Still, she was fortunate – as a scientific officer, she had a room of her own. The squaddies were in rooms of four.
They were almost at full speed now. She looked around: Harv was at the engine, his long hair practically horizontal in the wind, his arm taut on the rudder. He caught her eye and winked. He had been calmer than her back in the hull. She had nearly fled on seeing the bodies; had nearly run back up to the deck out of that cool, foul air. Harv’s presence, massive and calming, had kept her there, although she had been grateful of the mask. She could taste bile in her throat even now. Her mother would have been in a boat like that.
Harv would be more used to bodies than her, of course, although she doubted even he had seen any for a while. No soldiers had died on the rig in her three years there, with the exception of Drax after his accident, and one foolish twenty-year-old, Lambert, who had ventured on deck during a storm and had been swept away. Once the weather had cleared they’d gone out and looked for her, driving in ever-increasing circles until Schwimmer decided enough petrol had been wasted. A week later, her beret had been discovered, improbably snagged on the iron palisade where the rig met the sea.
It was bitter this morning. Every time Harv gunned the engine, they sped up, and the cold was fresh again. Hopper looked across at the pale, glum soldiers on either side of the boat’s narrow aisle. Leeson looked wretched, hunched over the little craft’s hard orange rim.
He was only nineteen, Leeson. He’d arrived just a few months before and was clearly hating every minute. It could be a lot worse, she found herself thinking. He could be stuck in the Breadbasket, or patrolling the Highlands, or making hunting sweeps in the Kent marshes. At least here there were three meals a day and no chance of actual combat. Leeson didn’t know his luck: berths on rigs were rare.
Hopper twisted left in her seat, looking at their wake. Out here, in the North Atlantic, the sun hung low in the sky, lingering a few thumbs’ breadths above the horizon. A morning sun, a powerful yellow smear too diffused by the atmosphere to provide real warmth yet too bright to persuade oneself it was ever night. On the rig, it was always just after dawn.
The boat with its heaped dead wasn’t the only thing upsetting her, she knew that. She was still thinking about the letter she’d received a few weeks ago, dated a month before even that, thin yellow paper covered in a faint wavering scrawl.
Ellen, please do not destroy this letter without reading it. It will cause you pain even to hear from me, I know. But a great deal more depends on it than you could guess. There is not long.
Harv had done well finding the tins, she told herself, although she’d be much happier if he didn’t tell her when they were being prised open and cooked, as he had done the last time a boat had yielded anything. This was as close as they would get to the old world – eating fruit harvested decades ago, grown in sunlight few now remembered.
She would eat what they had found today, of course – she wasn’t principled enough to turn down extra calories – but she already knew she would spend the whole meal wondering about it. When had the food in those tins been picked, processed, canned? When had the cans been bought or looted, when had they been taken out of storage and packed behind the panel in the boat’s hold to fend off starvation?
Most of all, why hadn’t they been opened, and how had those poor people died? She guessed disease over violence, hence the lock on the hatch. Wherever the boat was from – South America, maybe southern Europe – there could be a whole zoo of conditions that showed no symptoms until the crew was at sea, making their way across the Atlantic with no doctors and little medicine. Maybe the crew had taken the lifeboats and abandoned their passengers?
She wondered which of them had been last to die, then told herself to stop. Whatever pitiful scene had played itself out in that boat, it was over now. Anyway, if the vessel had come from the other side of the Atlantic, the children in the hold were probably older than she was. All the boats from America had set out a long time ago.
There was the letter again, worming its way to the front of her mind, right behind her eyes. The phrases had repeated themselves; even two weeks after reading it, she could remember every word.
There is more that you never knew at the time of your studies – a great deal more. It is imperative that I tell you, and you alone, what it is. I am near the end of my life now. I can do you no further harm. But you can prevent a far greater evil being done. Please. You must read this. There is not long.
Forget it, she told herself. Forget it, forget it.
Boats were rarer than they had been, of course, but there were still thousands out there, an enormous fleet whose only admiral was blind luck. By now most of them had drifted into the dead zone at the centre of the Atlantic and were becalmed in an armada fifty miles across, an archipelago of rust destined to do nothing more than rot and sink piece by piece. She had read once that before the Slow, a hundred thousand ships were on the sea at any one time. It sounded impossible.
Ships weren’t really a threat these days; there weren’t enough people left in the countries that would have sent them. Icebergs were far more common. More dangerous, too: boats were no problem unless they were big, but even a small iceberg could be disastrous.
Still, they had the twenty-mile ring set up around the rig. Thanks to Harv’s electrical talents, whenever the ring broke, it notified the rig by radio which section was affected, to give them a bearing. Then they sent out the Rig Rocket to scout. If it was an iceberg, they’d dispatch the bigger boat, Gertie, to tow it onto a new course. But they were expected to deal with smaller vessels themselves.
Hopper’s job on iceberg trips was to calculate the direction of travel and the prevailing currents at the surface, and recommend how much force to apply and in which direction to avoid a collision. It was satisfying to perform a task with a tangible result, but it was a child’s job, and a distraction from her real work.
Her real work. And there he was again, the man who had first taught her all about what she was doing now. She could hear the words of his letter in his voice, apologetic and low, as it had been the last time she’d seen him.
I have done you great harm. I know that. But I also know exactly how I must atone. You are the only person who can help. I trust nobody else.
The rig was in sight now. The reactor towers were always visible first, and the wisps of steam from the heating system, little puffs issuing from chimneys designed for greater use. There it was, the closest thing she had to a home: an icy stack of radiation-riddled metal, parked in the freezing sea.
On opening, the rig had been heralded as a pioneer. Today it sat, abortive and decrepit, two hundred miles off the south-west coast of England: the first of a new species and the last of its kind. She knew from conversation with Harv that its reactors still produced enough energy to keep itself going, with some left over for the mainland. As soon as that slight functionality fell away, it would be abandoned, unlamented, like so much else in this rotting world.
And the final lines in the letter, that entreaty. Not for forgiveness, but for – oh, who knew what else? Some useless attempt to apologise, most likely, dangled with the bait of a secret. Hopper had no interest in secrets any more.
Please contact me discreetly at the address above. Ellen, do not attempt to come any closer. The risks to you are substantial. But contact me. Please. I have something you must see.
And then nothing but the shaky signature: Edward Thorne.
She had burnt the letter. She had taken pleasure in holding it at just the right angle so its beginning had burnt last. The last words visible were Ellen, please do not destroy this letter, then Ellen, please do not and finally just Ellen. She had deliberately refused to learn the address he had included, in case her resolve weakened later. She had sent no reply.
They were closer to the rig now. The whole thing was visible above the waves, sorrowful and weather-beaten. It looked like a titanic iron crown: the last remnants of some huge drowned king. The four legs were scurfed with rust, the anchor chains around them buffeted by spray and clanking in the North Atlantic breeze. At its base, the rig had turned green, furred with plant life that stuck doggedly to it, as though aware there was no better home for hundreds of miles.
Hopper unclipped her water tin from her side, poured some into her mouth, stared out to sea in case of an unexpected whale.
And then, as the boat coasted towards the rig, she looked back at it, and saw for the first time the large black helicopter squatting like a bluebottle on the deck.
Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification.
It began with the allocating of luck, our bodies pinballs inside a machine. It was the year of overlapping adolescences, when the girls started to faint and grow tall.
Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.
It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science. Our ambitions ran high and low – for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love.
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.