Now, thirty years after it all ended, the Slow seemed the most natural thing in the world. It seemed quaint to imagine people reacting to it with shock.
Hopper knew she was one of the last ‘before’ children: born four years before the planet’s rotation finally stopped. She was a rarity. There had been plenty born since, of course, but the birth rate had plummeted in those final years. The world had paused, waiting for the cataclysm, and those children already young had been treated like royalty – fed well, treated whenever possible, as if in premature apology for a spoiled planet their parents could not mend.Hopper knew she was one of the last ‘before’ children: born four years before the planet’s rotation finally stopped.
But during those years new children were perceived at best as an extravagance, at worst a cruelty. Why bring a child into a world winding itself down? The chaos and shortages at the end of the Slow had kept the planet’s libido in check. Many pregnancies had been brought to an end, prematurely and inexactly.
The imprecision of timekeeping towards the final sunrise meant no child was formally identified as the final one to know the old world: the world of dawns, sunsets, cool clear evenings. Even if some great clock had been stopped exactly with the planet’s spin, and the hospitals of the world scoured for the last birth, it would be a pointless endeavour. Whoever the child was, the odds were it was now dead.
Hopper’s generation, consequently, was smaller than those on either side. Things were better now, on the mainland: more babies, more families, more weddings. In the old days there had been whole magazines devoted to weddings. Hopper had seen one in her father’s house, annotated in her mother’s beautiful handwriting – asterisks here, flower arrangements ringed elsewhere. It was hard, now, imagining having that much paper to waste. As she thought of her mother, she felt the customary stab of pain: dulled by time, still unbearable.
Regeneration. A new factory each month, she read in the bulletins. Each week more farmland under the harrow, each year more schools, more roads, more food. Two years ago a new railway line. The Great British Resurgence was well under way. Sometimes, from a rust-bitten rig frozen in a permanent autumn morning, it was hard to perceive. But the dispatches remained optimistic.
They weren’t strictly true, of course. Everyone knew there were patches of the country where governmental control was more honoured in the breach than the observance: up north, in the huge new grain belt across Scotland, in lots of places outside the big cities. There were riots, wearily suppressed; every so often the corpse of some blameless agricultural inspector might be left in a public square with a sign asking for collection by the government. None of this was officially known, of course, but it was remarkable how much could be known despite never appearing in either newspaper.
And now, appearing from nowhere, a helicopter. Its body was thick, squat, the glass bubble on its front resembling an insect’s eye.
The rig had a helipad, but this was the first time it had been used in her time here. Fuel was scarce, and was used for important governmental work only. The soldiers had spotted it too, nudging each other and gesturing. Hopper felt an unaccountable hostility to it.
For a moment she wondered whether they were coming for Harv, because of the sirens thing. Then she managed to laugh at herself. Last month, Harv had managed to discover Schwimmer’s birthday was coming up soon. So on the day, as the soldiers had lined up on deck for morning inspection – just as Schwimmer was about to open his mouth – Harv had triggered the rig’s sirens to play a strained, electronic Happy Birthday, off-key and wailing. She had laughed watching from the mess, the soldiers singing, Schwimmer’s face purpling as anger and amusement fought it out within him.
As Schwimmer’s adjutant, Harv could have been punished severely, but he had talked the CO round. That was Harv. Always charming.
If the government could spare enough helicopter fuel to fly out and talk to Harv over something like that, England must be a more peaceful and better-governed place than she had imagined.
The Rig Rocket had almost passed beneath the iron entryway, into the dock where it met the water. Just as it did, a figure appeared by the helicopter – in dark clothes, with the smudge of a white band on its arm.
The rocket puttered to a stop, coasting into the little bay, and the soldiers jumped out and started hauling it up the slipway. She climbed onto the platform and watched them.
What merited a helicopter? A change of commander? The new one would surely just come out on the supply boat. A medical emergency? It would have to be something really bad, and she’d heard nothing of that. Then again, she realised with a lurch, they could have come because of the letter.
Harv spoke in her ear, startling her. ‘You’ll find out soon enough’.
‘Find out what?’
‘Who’s come to play.’
She took a breath. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing.’
He grinned. ‘Suit yourself.’
The soldiers removed their orange suits, hanging them in the gunmetal lockers lining the bay. Hers and Harv’s would have to be cleaned. Hopper ditched hers, and the salvaged food tins, in the makeshift decontamination box – really just an equipment crate lined with lead plates, a home-made skull and crossbones glued on the top in fluorescent fabric. If the tins didn’t show any radiation, they could be cleaned and eaten. If they did, they’d be jettisoned, strapped to a waste container so they could poison the seabed instead of the rig.
The troops finished their work, numbered off and left through the metal hatch. The steel door clanged shut after them. She and Harv were left alone in the bay, the water bobbing black and tarry in the central square. The slap of the sea against the outer walls made her shiver.
‘I hate those ones.’ She still felt nauseous, remembering the sickly swaying of the fishing boat, angry with herself for revealing her weakness even as she said it.
‘The boats? Nobody likes them, El. You’d be a bit sick to like ’em.’ Harv’s deep voice still carried a touch of an accent: he’d been from Boston as a child, one parent English and one American. He’d moved here as a child, just before it all started, had been one of the last lucky ones unquestioningly granted full citizenship. Knowing him as well as she did, she sometimes noticed him burying his American side, trimming his vowels, determined to show enough loyalty that nobody could question his nationality based on his voice.
‘Where do you think they were all from?’
‘Best not to think about them. They probably haven’t been in a position to worry about anything for a while now.’
‘You can’t tell me you like sinking them.’
‘I’d rather be sunk than float around for ever. Come on’.
Hopper followed Harv through the door, to the staircase up to the deck. They hadn’t had that many bodies for a while. The last two boats had been almost unoccupied. But the one before that, a South American ferry three months ago, had been much fuller. She still dreamed about it two or three times a week.
‘What do you think it is?’ She couldn’t help asking. They had found out Thorne had written to her. They must have done. But how? And why was it important enough to send someone all the way out here from the mainland?
‘What, the helicopter? Probably just some jobsworth mainlander checking we’re not eating too many chickpeas, or making sure our blankets are the regulation thickness. Won’t be anything serious.’
He turned and smiled, showing his teeth. Harv had a tooth missing – knocked out by a club in a fight up near the borders, he had said. He was handsome, but Hopper sensed he was proud to have acquired some obvious mark of conflict in his appearance.
She thought. ‘Supply run?’
‘Helicopters that size can hardly bring anything. It won’t be that unless the last supply boat forgot the tin opener.’
Harv shrugged. ‘Everyone was healthy last night as far as I know. And Donaghy has every medicine he could possibly need for the next quarter, assuming all we get is syphilis and headaches. So: news, is my money. Either way, the chopper’s one of ours.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I recognised it. British model.’
‘Maybe the Scandis have invaded and we’re the final refuge of the British Empire.’
He snorted at that. They lapsed into silence, Harv’s heavy boots clumping up the iron steps, her trainers squeaking. The rig was several floors deep. Parts of the power station were non-operational these days: half of it was off-limits, full of old machinery useful only to be cannibalised for parts. On her day off Hopper sometimes went walking through the corridors to see how long she could go without bumping into anyone else. Her record was two and a quarter hours.
They reached the top of the stairs. Harv leaned into the door, and the cold air came rushing in. It was never freezing out on deck—it must have been grim in the hours of darkness, before the Stop—but it was usually chilly enough that coming back in was a relief. Hopper knew: she ran laps of the deck for an hour each morning.
Across the rig’s platform was the long, curved roof of the mess hall and rec rooms, designed to give residents a view over the ocean. They walked over, passing the helicopter. Leaning over the railings, facing the sea, was the figure Hopper had glimpsed from the boat—a man, with bleached hair cropped close to his skull. He looked like a motorcyclist – leather jacket, black trousers, high boots. He ignored them, staring out to sea, a cigarette burning unattended in his hands.
As they approached the mess hall Hopper saw, through the doors, Schwimmer’s bald patch, facing away. He was sitting on one of the long steel benches, and twisted at their approach.
Harv saluted. Schwimmer saluted back, murmuring ‘At ease’ as he did so, before adding, ‘Good morning, Dr. Hopper.’
‘Good morning, Colonel.’
‘Yes sir. Intercepted it about 0645. Small boat. We all went aboard, barring Drachmann, who kept watch. On boarding we noted…’
As he continued, Hopper took in the rest of the room, her eyes adjusting to the gloom after the brightness of the deck. Two figures sat facing Schwimmer on the other side of the table. A man, still in his overcoat, and a woman.
The woman was imposing – apparently taller than the man, although perhaps she just had better posture. She was in her middle forties, Hopper guessed, and looked like a Hollywood siren gone somewhat to seed. Her dark brown hair, tinged with red, was curled elaborately, and her mouth was bright with thick red lipstick, with a slight, built-in curl of satisfaction at the sides.
The man was a few years older. He was tall but gaunt, his hair greasy and receding, just starting to grey. His complexion was grey too, except round the jawline, where a blunt razor had left the skin angry and reddened. His shirt collar pinched his neck, making a vein bulge out a little. He looked tired and uninterested.
Before the pair, on the long steel bench, rested two cups of the rig’s appalling coffee. ‘Neptune’s piss’, Harv called it. No steam rising from the cups; they must have been here a while. She tuned back into Harv’s voice.
‘…ready whenever Fraser wants to step down and decontaminate, sir.’
‘Thank you, Captain. That’ll be all.’
Another salute, and Harv vanished back through the door to the deck. She watched his figure as he moved, and turned back only to realise she’d missed something Schwimmer had said.
‘I’m sorry, sir?’
Schwimmer was too urbane to note her inattention. ‘I was just saying, it’s fortunate you joined Captain McCrum, Doctor. You have visitors. From London.’ There was a ghost of mockery in the last drawled word – fancy, these Londoners coming to see you. He gestured to the table, as the woman stood and offered a hand. Hopper took it.
‘Good morning, Doctor Hopper. I’m Ruth Warwick. I’m from the Home Office. I thought I might wake you, but evidently you had were up even earlier this morning than we were.’ She smiled suddenly, a smile of bright, flat artificiality that left her face as quickly as it had arrived. She did not introduce her colleague.
Warwick turned to Schwimmer. ‘As discussed, Colonel, might we speak to Dr. Hopper in private for a few minutes?’
She sounded well-educated. Hopper thought she knew the type. Private school, then straight into the military as an extension of boarding school, rather than wasting three years at one of the few universities still going. A few years in the army, then a turn to the civilian, with a faint regret for simpler times and a residual love of receiving orders. Not much family, Hopper reckoned. She wore a wedding ring though, a thick gold band too masculine-looking even for her large hand.
Schwimmer nodded. ‘Of course. If you need anything, I’ll be in the office.’ Office. That was clearly intended to make the room – a six-by-nine-foot steel box overflowing with pointless paperwork – sound more impressive than what it was, which was somewhere for Schwimmer to sit apart from the men in the evenings. Schwimmer never had been especially good with people, for which Hopper liked him. He nodded at her, wearing his familiar crumpled-neutral expression, then turned and left them.
After the door shut behind him, silence filled the canteen for a few seconds. Hopper stood across the table from the two visitors, feeling like she’d been called to the headmistress’ study again, remembering the sympathetic secretary who sat in the outer office. Miss Vernon, that was it. She wondered where Miss Vernon was these days. Almost certainly dead.
Please. I have something you must see. The words from the letter returned to her without prompting.
‘Have a seat, Doctor Hopper. Thank you so much for sparing us the time.’ Now Schwimmer was gone, Warwick spoke informally, with a warm, well-cushioned timbre to her voice.
Hopper sat, feeling the cold of the steel slats through her thin trousers. ‘This must be important, if you’ve come all this way. Which part of the Home Office are you from?’
‘Technically, Security. But Inspector Blake and I’ – she gestured to her colleague – ‘are not here on security business. Dr Hopper, you’re the chief scientific officer here, yes?’
‘Chief is a rather grand word. I’m the only one.’
‘Rather a remote lifestyle you lead. Quite a self-imposed hermitage. Your commanding officer was telling us you spend your time lassoing icebergs.’
‘Only when requested.’
‘What do you spend the rest of your time on?’
‘Measuring the currents, water speed, temperature, salinity. Testing for DNA in the water, to see what fish we don’t know about.’
‘You’re an observer, then. Not a doer. Seems a rather abstruse path to follow when there are people to feed.’
Hopper shrugged. She did not want to explain her work to this woman any further than was necessary.
Warwick carried on. ‘But I suppose it affects the land, is that right? The water flow and so on?’
‘What’s this about, please? I’m sure you didn’t come this far for a job satisfaction survey.’
Warwick raised her hands in mock supplication. ‘Forgive me. We appreciate how busy you are. You studied at Oxford, did you not?’
Hopper’s muscles bunched, involuntary. She’d been right. They’d come because of the letter. ‘Fifteen years ago. Yes.’
‘You knew Edward Thorne, is that right?’
‘I…yes, I did.’ They remained silent. ‘Not very well. He taught me for a year.’
‘He seems to recall that you were friends.’
‘He taught me. I wouldn’t say we were friends.’ There it was, the first lie of the meeting. Or her first, at any rate.
‘Well, I’m afraid I have some bad news. He’s seriously unwell. He’s in hospital at the moment. We visited to see if there was anything we can do for him, and he asked to speak to you. We’re here to ask if you’re willing to come and see him. Any days you take will of course not be deducted from your annual leave.’
‘That’s what you’ve spent your helicopter fuel on?’ She could feel herself getting angry, now the shock was past. Angry with Thorne, for getting her into this, and angry at these strangers crashing into her new life and trying to drag her back to London.
‘He was one of the most important men in the country for many years, Dr. Hopper. We wouldn’t deny him a favour in his final days.’ Somewhere in there she detected another lie. Convincingly told, but a lie. ‘And the British government can still manage to get a helicopter airborne. Just about.’ She chuckled at her own witticism. The man by her side did not.
They hadn’t had a helicopter spare last year, Hopper remembered, when that boy Drax had lost a foot in an accident in the loading bay. They had radioed the mainland for a medical evac, and received only excuses. Drax had worsened. In the end, Donaghy had administered an injection to carry him off. They’d wrapped his body in a cheap plastic sheet and thrown him over the side. Warwick kept talking.
‘I’m sure you think our sudden arrival a little over-dramatic, but Doctor Thorne’s case is urgent, and important to us.’
‘I wasn’t aware Thorne’s reputation had recovered so far,’ Hopper said. ‘When I last saw him he was being sacked from Oxford as a liability. And he was only there after being sacked by the prime minister.’
Warwick ignored her and spoke a fraction louder. ‘You’re also overdue for leave. You didn’t return to London on the last boat.’
‘There isn’t much compelling me to return.’ So they’d looked through her personnel file for her leave history.
‘You really should. Progress all the time.’ There was that smile again.
‘Why didn’t you phone ahead?’
‘Well, Miss Hopper…’
‘…Forgive me, Doctor Hopper. Doctor Thorne only mentioned he wanted to see you last night, which is when we decided we’d come and collect you ourselves. And his life is drawing rapidly to a close.’ The man, Blake, had not taken his eyes off her since she had sat down, and a muscle in his face flickered as his colleague spoke.
‘I’m busy here. I was under the impression our work was supported by government.’
‘Of course it is. But Doctor Thorne expressed a strong interest in seeing you.’ She shrugged. ‘Many people would treat it as an honour.’
‘I don’t.’ Hopper felt Warwick’s surprise, quickly masked. ‘My work won’t allow me to visit him and frankly I don’t know why he would want to see me anyway. I can hardly believe I made much of an impact on his life.’
Warwick shrugged. ‘We can’t compel you to come, of course.’
‘No. He, of all people, will understand work comes first.’
Warwick sighed and spread her hands. ‘We did our best.’ Her tone brightened. ‘Your position here is up for renewal next year, isn’t it?’ She sifted the papers in front of her and studied one. Upside down, Hopper recognised her employment contract as Warwick continued. ‘It would seem wiser to take a few days from your work now than to run the risk of losing a permanent place here. If what you’re doing here is so very important.’
So they did want her back in England, badly enough to threaten her job. And her work was about the only thing that still interested her. Hopper sat back.
‘How soon could I return?’
Warwick looked relieved. ‘There’s a maintenance boat coming out in a week. That’s wonderful news, Doctor Hopper. Do you have anywhere to stay in London?’ She had already assumed Hopper’s acquiescence.
‘Yes.’ Another lie. She’d think of somewhere.
‘Good.’ Warwick looked at her colleague and nodded. ‘We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready.’
‘I’ll have to finish a few things here, hand over some notes to my colleagues.’
‘I thought you were the only scientific officer here.’
‘There are experiments they can keep running in my absence.’
‘How soon will that be dealt with?’
‘A few hours.’
Warwick looked at her watch, a dainty timepiece dwarfed by her large wrist. ‘Could you get it done by ten o’clock? Time really is of the essence.’ Her tone had shifted again, to that of a hostess determined to accommodate a difficult houseguest.
‘I’m sure Doctor Thorne will be very grateful you’ve made the effort.’ There, again, a smile where there had been none, and then nothing at all.
Harv was lingering in the doorway, his arms above the doorframe, a little crescent of his torso showing below his shirt.
‘How long will you be gone?’
‘I don’t know. A week, maybe.’
‘It’ll be boring without you here, Hop. I’ll miss you.’
She couldn’t help smiling, despite the lump in her throat. ‘Yeah. I tried to explain that to the grim civil servants, Harv, but they seemed to think some things are more important than how entertained you are.’
‘Very disappointing when people take that attitude.’ He stood there, balancing on the thin metal rim of the doorframe, wedging the door open with his foot as he watched her pack.
A lot of people mistook Harv for a tough man, because of his size. She supposed he must be tough, really; he was comfortably over six foot, and broad with it. Even so, she had never seen him actually in a fight, so all she had to go on was his conversation. He was funnier than his looks suggested, and more thoughtful. His hair was long, dense and black, barring one grey forelock.
For her first year on the rig, they had hardly spoken. She had hardly spoken to anyone, in fact: she was not long out of her marriage, out of everything, in an emotional state she could have stayed in for good without distress. The crew of the power station had shown no interest in acquiring new friends. They were perfectly happy not to know anything more of her than her surname.
Then, one meal, she and Harv had found something in common. It was nothing really – a book they’d both read – but it had been enough.
She hadn’t intended it, certainly hadn’t planned it, but about a year ago they’d drifted together one night, after a party the soldiers had thrown, some birthday or something. They’d got through a couple of bottles of the home-made alcohol the squaddies distilled. It was appalling stuff, the bottles inadequately cleaned, the sour alcohol fighting to drown out the tang of metal – but it had had its effect on them both and they’d ended up in bed.
She had avoided him for a long time after that. But since another such party a few months ago, they had slept together perhaps a dozen more times. Her desire for some bare minimum of intimacy, emotional and physical, occasionally overpowered her desire to keep apart from everyone, Harv included. And Harv was alive to her need for solitude. He never imposed his own demands, simply adjusted to hers, and was willing to talk only when she wanted it. He was her closest – her only – friend on the rig.
She turned back from the wardrobe to her small canvas bag, throwing a few more shirts in.
‘So, let me get this straight. Edward Thorne himself, great national hero et cetera, and your old college tutor, writes you this mysterious letter. Now he’s dying…’
‘And now he wants to see you.’
‘That’s what they said.’
‘Did they say why?’
She thought of the letter she’d burned, of the urgent words. ‘I don’t know, Harv. I have no idea. I hardly knew him.’
‘Really. I don’t know him, I’m not interested in seeing him, and I hate London. And I don’t like this woman either.’ Warwick’s comment was still playing in her ear: You’re an observer, then. Not a doer. It rankled all the more for her suspicion it was true.
Harv shrugged. ‘But you’re going anyway.’
‘Guess so.’ She didn’t want to tell him any more.
Harv shifted, levering the door further open with his foot, unoffended by her terseness. ‘You alright after this morning? The boat?’
‘Not really.’ She kept thinking of the two smaller bodies hunched together, how the sinking would have ruined that tableau, jumbling the remains beyond sense until the bone worms had their way with them. But she didn’t want him to see how much it affected her, so she kept folding.
‘Where did it come from, would you estimate?’ He was clearly trying to move her away from the upsetting scene onto a question of fact. She was grateful for it.
‘One of the Americas, most likely. Although I couldn’t tell you which one.’
Given where they’d located the ship, it was almost impossible to tell where it had sailed from. The old current system had collapsed, of course, and the dominant new current which kept Britain and Western Europe cool enough flowed from the north, several hundred miles east. But the counter-current which would have brought the fishing boat towards them was fed from enough other sources that it could have come from anywhere west or south-west of here. She listened back to herself and laughed.
‘Some fucking ocean scientist I am. Got it narrowed down to two full continents for you. That specific enough?’
He shrugged. ‘You’ll work it out. If anyone will you will.’
‘I’ve got a lot of it worked out, Harv. It just doesn’t seem to be making much difference to anyone.’
‘Don’t talk like that. It’s important work you’re doing.’ For a second she disliked him for attempting to cheer her up; wanted only to be alone, savouring the feeling of failure, and the sensation that none of her work would make a difference in the end. Then she mastered herself. She’d been slipping into that mindset a lot lately.
‘Thanks. Anyway, you’d better go. Haven’t you got soldiering to be doing? Underlings to shout at?’
Harv grinned again. ‘Oh, sure. It’s all go here.’ He crossed the room and hugged her tight. ‘Take care of yourself in London. Seriously. And call any time, if you want to talk.’
She hugged him back for a second, then disengaged. ‘I will. Back in a week.’
The door clanged shut behind him. She turned to pack the rest of her few things, her smile fading, and as she did, caught a glimpse of herself in the scale-pocked mirror above the sink.
She was thirty-four years old, had spent nearly fifteen of those years as a scientist. Life on the rig was starting to make her weatherbeaten; her work was probably leaving its mark too. Her career, at first gilded, had been marked by a decade of sheer difficulty, and a fog of official indifference. No children, no parents, no close connections, barring a semi-relationship with a soldier. Barring her brief and ill-starred marriage, her whole adult life had been spent fleeing intimacy, now approaching its perfect expression: life in a cell on a floating rig, barely tethered to the sea.
And now Thorne, the man who had driven her here, returning to her life as he was dying. The man whose work had built the rotten state she had escaped. She realised she had repeated to Harv her own lie to Warwick. What had she said again? Ah, yes. ‘I hardly knew him.’
From The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray. Used with the permission of the publisher, Dutton. Copyright © 2020 by Andrew Murray Hunter.