A Disease of the Flesh
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Report_of_the_cruise_of_the_U.S._revenue_cutter_Bear_and_the_overland_expedition_for_the_relief_of_the_whalers_in_the_Arctic_ocean%2C_from_November_27%2C_1897%2C_to_September_13%2C_1898_%281899%29_%2814765927524%29.jpg

Today we buried Mikhael in the sea. There was not enough space on the stern for us all, but it didn’t matter. The passengers stayed below. Our little funeral party all knew why. It wasn’t the cold. Even under the tarp they’d wrapped him in, we were still afraid. We’d had to draw lots on who would have to touch him to wrap the body.

The captain removed his cap and bowed his head, staring at a point just to the left of the body. “I didn’t know Mikhael,” he said, bluntly. “None of us did. He came to us with no family left, and now he has gone to God too. Michael faced His final challenge with grace and dignity. We owe him respect for that.”

Liar, I thought. Mikhael had been taciturn to the point of rudeness, and had hidden his symptoms for as long as he could, feigning a fever. It was only when we caught him trying to tie a bandage around the feelers poking holes through his temple that we’d found out. It had taken three shots to kill him, and he’d still been alive after the second, still trying to spit at us with a half-formed proboscis jutting from his throat. The captain had considered quarantining the hold, but if the infection had spread there, there was no point. There were two hundred and fourteen people down there, packed tight as rats. It was a miracle they weren’t already dead of mundane fever.

It spread fast. Europe was gone, and so was most of the States. Maybe it spread slower in the cold. That was all we knew.

Harry and Walt grabbed the wrapped corpse and slid it over the back railing with only a cursory attempt at dignity, grunting at the heft of the weights they had tied to the body. Partly for decency, partly because they worried that the corpse would come back, somehow. It was, of course, inconceivable, but that word didn’t hold the same weight it once had.

It smacked against a lump of ice and then vanished into the dark blue water. For a moment, I thought that the body spasmed as it sank, but I couldn’t be sure and forced myself to dismiss the idea. The thin trail of bubbles were quickly lost in the waves, and Mikhael was finally gone.

The captain snapped his cap back on and started towards the prow, gesturing for the crew to disperse. There was nothing more to be said.

As the sun sank into the sea like a white paper lantern falling into the deep, I caught the Captain having a hushed conversation with the ship’s doctor, Erenson. I didn’t hear what they said, but even in the Arctic quarter-light I could see the strain on the Captain’s face, the tight-lipped mouth of someone watching a friend walk death row, drawn tight in the knowledge that however slowly they walk the end result is the same. Erenson… her expression was clear enough. Fear, guilt, and acceptance. The face of the unwilling executioner. They stood in silence, then she walked off without a word, made her way below deck. Something was clenched in her fist. Something small. I couldn’t tell what it was.

Little over an hour later and the Captain called us together on the prow. We stood, muttering furtively to one another, as we waited for him to speak. But he just stood with his back to us, watching as the waves became clogged with ice ahead of us. Eventually, over the low susurrations of the wind and the creaking of the rigging, he spoke.

“They’re infected. All of them.”

The smoke from the funnel breathed downwind like black down. Like crow feathers. Like an omen of something already past.

“…According to doctor Erenson, at worst they have a day left. At best two. It’s best… to start preparing ourselves for being the last people on this ship.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Walt take a tentative half-step forward. I could tell that he didn’t want to speak, but knew that he had to. “Is there… nothing we can do?” he said, forcing the words out past a barrier. “Ending them quickly?”

“Not enough ammunition,” the Captain replied bluntly. “And even if we did, we can’t go into that hold without risking infection ourselves. As for mercy, Erenson is tending to them. Making sure their passing is as easy as it can be. She reckons that she can h-” He cut off abruptly, squeezed his eyes shut, forced them open again. “Hold on for long enough to see most of them out. And as for the walking cysts on nature that are killing them, we will starve them out. She brought up enough food to last us for a few weeks and has locked the store room. We’ll bar the door, but I doubt that they’ll even try it.” He straightened, looked us each at a point just below our eyes. “We’ll be sleeping in the cold for a while, but we’ll get through this.”

We were silent. There was much- too much to say, but it had built up and built up until it formed a barrier that none of us dared to breach.

He was wrong. They scratched at the door all the way through the first night, gargling chitinously while the screams and fevered moans of those still turning leeched into the wood like a bloodstain, staining this ship white with pain. People are- were, wrong about white. It isn’t the colour of innocence, or purity. It’s the colour of blindness, of fever, of hate from things that have never known a thought. It’s the colour of burning without fire. The colour of things too dead to rot.

The next day we were woken with a gunshot and Maxwell was gone. The Captain said that he’d had a fever. That he’d asked for mercy and then fallen into the sea. And true, his body floated in our wake for some time, a dark iceberg on a darker sea. But the bent railing and the Captain’s panting told a different story.

That night we ate in the cold and listened as the scratching at the door was replaced by rhythmic thumping. The next morning Harry and Sam woke with a fever. The Captain convinced Harry to go quietly, but Sam would not stop screaming. “I never touched the body! It’s just the cold, you bastard! You’ve made us sleep in this for two nights straight! I can’t feel my fucking fe-”
Captain dragged him overboard himself, heaving and wheezing though he tried to hide it. It looked like he was coming down with something.

There was a string of gunshots while we slept. When I awoke it was just me, Philip and the Captain. “We can’t let those inhuman shits win,” he wheezed. He had the only gun.

I held in a cough.

Soon it was just me and the Captain, alone on our white ship.

That night, I went down to the door. They’d stopped banging… I don’t know how long ago. It was hard to get the boards off and harder again to force the lock with the crowbar but I got it open, stumbling, wheezing, numb and buzzing with fever. I cut my arm on a stray nail stepping through and felt it grate against something smooth and half-formed beneath my skin.

They weren’t dead, but they were close. The cold, the hunger, breathless in clothes they did not understand but were too afraid to remove… A few slumped before me. Those who did not have the strength to crawl down to the warmth of the many in the hold. It was here that I got my first look at the thing under my skin. There was something in the wide caprices of their heads, the alien mouthparts twitching feebly and the proboscis handing limp, that was… not human, but deeply melancholy. It was their eyes, most of all, that struck me. Not compound eyes but deep, brown eyes with narrow pupils that looked up at me, too sick to do anything else. I went further down.

The hold-

There was order, here. Here, they had a few dregs of life left. One pulled themself to their feet and dragged themself towards me. I saw that they were lame in one foot, a bandage wrapped around their ankle. I don’t know what they wanted from me. I don’t think they knew either.

They hadn’t touched their dead. At least, not to eat them. They had precious little in the way of space but they were laid out one by one with their eyes covered.

I stood in the centre, surrounded by the dying.

I knew the Captain had come down by the way their quiet chittering stopped, and by the sound of the revolver clicking. I turned around. The gun wasn’t aimed at me.

“I’ll do it,” he panted, the half-filled sack of blasting powder shifting in his grip with a sound like sand. “I’ll take this ship down, kill all of these sick fucks. They- took-” he coughed, wretchedly. “FUCKING CHILDREN!” he screamed. “ALL OF THEM CAME INTO THIS WORLD THROUGH-” he panted, unable to find a word vitriolic enough to describe his hatred, unable even to voice it. Instead he let out a whistling moan, furious, animalistic, almost insectile. His revolver shook, but I did not feel fear. Not for myself, at least. Perhaps it was the fever, rotting my mind from within. Or perhaps I was just seeing without the white.

“They’re alive,” I said. “They could keep living. If we let them.”

“They’re not like us,” he said, almost whispering. “They don’t feel joy, or love, or hate. They can’t ever feel a mother’s love. They don’t know what it is to have a family, to have a nation to die for. They’re animals. Vicious, horrific animals. God’s light was never meant to shine on them. He made us in His image, not in the image of a bug. So they will die- like bugs.” He hefted the bag again, jammed the pistol into it with such force that it might have gone off from that alone. But it didn’t.

His infection must have progressed faster than mine, or else he simply had had it for longer. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, if he hid it or not. In the end it just came down to a matter of strength. And there was something in him- maybe some frantic hope that I would see things his way, that all we had was fever, that we could go back up to the deck, see the sky, shut the door and starve out our hold of devils. So he took a bullet. In my sleep-deprived, feverish state, I can’t say how the gun went off. But by then, the end was the means. I didn’t have the strength to attempt a justification.

I brought them food, the things- the people- who had, unwillingly, perhaps even unwittingly, brought a tortured, visceral, bloody end to every human life on the ship, on… everywhere. They thanked me. Not in words- they didn’t have language, not yet. They were children, and I was their bizarre shepherd. I wondered how they viewed me. A cocoon, waiting to spring into life? A fellow being dying unwillingly for the birth of another, one like them? What was I worth to them? Something so different, the last of the old, cruel world, full of the simple justice of hunger and the locked door and punctuated by gunshots? What was humanity to them?

Just a disease of the flesh?

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