“He looks like shit.”
“So? You can’t just throw him into a quarantine, no matter how bad he looks. He’s got no real symptoms, you know.”
“Nothing except spitting blood, right? Skin like ice? Weeping sores in his mouth …”
“Those don’t count! They’re from the bile, it’s ruining his gums.”
Henry payed attention only as far as he was able; most of his focus was on not dying immediately. That was usually pretty easy, most days, but today … not today.
The metal deck was pitted, another of the long corridors on the Godqueen. This was either the third or the fourth deck down, and as far as Henry had been able to make it before his legs had given out entirely. Now they lay behind him, twitching uncomfortably, spots of musculature deep under the skin twisting in uneven time. If he had been naturally nauseous, the sight of his kneecap shivering would have finished him off. As it was, his last few meals were somewhere aft, along with what he feared were key parts of his stomach lining.
He’d made a point, as soon as his feet had left England’s shore fifteen years prior, to never complain. It had served him well, through scurvy, through the loss of eight different toenails, through a hurricane that had left splinters through his trachea and a disagreement about dental hygiene that had lost him four molars.
His fingernails slipped off the rim of the bulkhead, and for a moment his arm twitched spasmodically.
“How’d he even make it this far?”
“What do you mean, ‘this far’? I figured the poor bastard lost it here.”
“No, he was stuck on his sack for a few nights, and then he pulled himself out here. You know … I think we could probably carry him to one of those sealed rooms.”
“Then we’d have to touch him.” Henry was lucid enough to figure that was Wax; the ungrateful bastard. “Why don’t we rope him up, drag him there?”
Unkind laughter. “If you’re worried about transmission, friend, I have bad news for you. Henry’s smeared himself all over the place. You ever heard of a virus?”
It’d better not be a virus. Henry’d had a few bouts with those, and in his experience they never quite went away. This … no, this was just a hitch in the system. Some part of his body had become a bit confused, had turned on all the alerts, and the rest was just every little mechanism overreacting to every other little group of overprotective things in his body. A miscommunication.
Because he’d had a lot of time to see what diseases looked like, and this wasn’t something he’d ever seen before.
He stuck his fingers in between the metal ridges of the bulkhead, and this time they stuck, fast. Stuck a lot harder than his muscles could manage; his forearms were shaken tar, slapping around his aching bones.
“He’s moving again.”
“You better not be serious about that virus shit, Ober. If I get what he has, I swear to god I’ll stuff your mouth with …”
“Shut it, Wax. Go get somebody.”
Henry’s progress wasn’t great, but at least he couldn’t feel pain anymore. His fingers were bloody, and his toes got caught, but … well, having every part of his body numb was its own reward.
The only pain he felt was a blooming heat in his chest, right under his throat. His collarbones, sure, they were torn up; no part of this deck was safe to rub your body on, but he had no choice.
Was this supposed to remind him of something? Being sick as a kid, no; that hadn’t been anything, compared to this. Digging holes in the fields after he got better, hands bloody on a shovel two feet taller than himself, running to the docks, that had been a stroll on the beach. Probably. It was hard to remember. Explaining to somebody why now was a good time for an eight-year-old to join the merchant marine, maybe …
The trick was letting every part of his body go slack, letting the heat bloom outwards, riding the shifting wave of this … dammit, this disease. A body couldn’t do this to itself. If it could, well, then there wasn’t much to say about whoever designed the damned thing.
“He’s sick, huh.”
There was speaking again, and Henry was left with the unpleasant sensation of figuring whether the voices were new, or just something to which he’d been insensate.
“We don’t know with what, but it’s bad. I don’t think he’s eaten in days. Is this … I mean, is this what we quarantined for, when Renshaw was in charge?”
“I don’t know how we’d figure that, Ober. Henry’s not making bad time, though. I mean, for a fellow whose face looks like that.”
“So, we stick him in quarantine, you figure?”
“We could tug him onto a tarp, maybe, wrap him up real tight while we carry him.”
“I’m not touchin’ him. Viruses, right?”
“Fair enough, Wax. You’re disgusting as is. Duke, sir, what should we do?”
“I can’t believe … we could rope this whole section off. Seal it, using the bulkheads.” A pause. “I don’t have the time for this. Renshaw’s only miles behind, we need …”
“So your first instinct is to seal the man in a coffin, you jag? How’ll he eat?” Henry knew that voice. “I guess you’d rather just deal with the corpse.”
“If he gets better, he can come ask us for food. I can’t wait on him, not with …”
The whole conversation was pretty abstract to Henry, a man dealing with bright flashes in his vision, teeth that felt like icicles, and a headache twice the size of his own head. Food, sure, that was a thing, but who cared about it? Who had that kind of luxury?
Somebody leaned down into his vision; if he tried as hard as he could, he could tell that it was a person, and not the grim face of death itself.
“Henry, sport, how do you feel about quarantine?”
That was Elaine’s voice, probably. Female, at any rate.
“We can carry you there, see, and stick you in a bed. Or a hammock, if that feels more natural. Bundle you up, stick some soup in you, ride out whatever the fuck this is in comfort.”
He flicked a wad of gummy blood out of his mouth and grit his teeth, pushing his arm forward again.
“Elaine, come on, the man’s as close to dead as you get without a pine box.”
“Well, he’s not real excited about quarantine,” she said, ignoring the other men. “Unless I misread the body language. Sailors do love spitting, I must admit.”
“Let’s just toss him in and be done with it, Miss.”
“Wax, I could push you over the side and not even feel bad. Henry’s clearly heading somewhere. It’s not our job to tell him where.”
“Not our job to …”
“Another word, Wax. I’d like that, if you said one more fucking word.” Some more skin, lost to the cleft between deck and hull. “That’s what I thought. Henry, where are you going?”
Henry wasn’t very clear on how conversations worked, but he thought that sentence deserved the exaggerated blink it got in response. He wished he could just tell her, could work his mouth well enough to say what he wanted, but … what would he even say? He had no idea where he was going.
Again, that swelling sensation, a pulse of heat through his chest. What was he pulling himself to? Was this something his body even felt like sharing with his mind?
“Up or down, man.”
Thoughtfully, he tapped the deck.
Elaine spent a few moments talking to the rest of them, while Henry tried as hard as he could to figure out why he wanted to go down. The last time he’d felt like that … urgh. What was the point? Nobody had ever felt like that. Maybe water felt like that, when it was dripping down rocks, crawling over minute bumps in stone, the complex but unstoppably simple structures of liquid and solid pulling it forward.
Belatedly, he realized that somebody had him by arm and was dragging him upright.
“This had better be worth it, Henry.”
Down the corridor, and down the decks, and through cabins strewn with disastrously unstable furniture. The ship shifted uneasily on the open ocean, and Elaine shifted to avoid sliding tables and chairs, and Henry shifted to avoid … something, probably, though mostly just because he had no other option.
They reached somewhere. Henry wasn’t clear.
“… smaller boats, but they’re pretty quick. I didn’t think the bastard would follow. Sven’s missing, but I don’t even know how badly, because he could be right over the horizon, for all I know. Now a lot of people expect me to make decisions, but … I’m just trying to figure out how many boats we have to capture to keep me in liquids. I only obtain about a twentieth of whatever we find, right, and that’s mostly through theft; each ship we find has, at maximum, a cask of anything good, and mostly it’s just watered spirits. Not worth much, the way I figure. I’d have to drink, say, a couple of gallons of the shit we found off the Floridian Peninsula …”
“You drink too much regardless.”
Elaine gasped, and Henry tried to figure out why, while she stared wide-eyed at his face.
“Henry? You can speak?”
“Oh. Ah, yes.” He was slurring, and still hanging over Elaine’s shoulder like a man three times his age and half his size, but … by god, he felt better. Not fixed, but good enough to feel the sting of every cut he’d just managed to give himself, good enough to really appreciate the melting fever that seethed under his skin. “Where are we?”
“Weapons deck. Henry …” She was staring at his feet, now, where they were dragging on the deck; for his part, Henry stared around. His vision was a bit more clear, now, and he could make out the poorly-patched hole in the hull, the stacked crates.
“What were you saying, about Sven?”
“I don’t think that matters much, Henry. You’re …”
He wasn’t capable of much thinking in this state, but the few thoughts he was forcing through the tormented labyrinth of his fevered brain landed with thumps that shocked his skull. “Of course it does. Sven’s the first thing that matters. Where is he?”
“For the love of god, Henry, you’re steaming.”
While that particular sentence was working its way through his head, Elaine pushed her shoulder up under his arm, staggered forward, and then dropped him squarely into the two feet of water that filled the hold.
He looked at her through the thin clouds of steam that started rising all around his body. “Alright, so I am.”
“Sven’s out west, we think, if he’s managed to make his way around the peninsula. We thought we’d meet him sooner, but … well, it’s probably only a matter of time. I’m sure we’ll find him. People like Sven … people like you, they don’t just die. People like me, sure, but not the sort of man who boils his own water.”
The twitches across his body were evening out, becoming less abrupt and more measured, translating into a soft shivering. He gripped his sides, rubbed his legs, and then sloshed his hands through the water, making little wavelets around his body. The more the water moved, the more comfortable he felt. Plus, it lowered the amount of steam.
“Either this is a natural step in a sailor’s life cycle, like cocooning or pupating,” Elaine said, sitting down, “or Renshaw’s quarantine was a stranger thing than I thought. You look a lot better, Henry.”
“I feel …” Henry pulled his arms out of the water, and plucked the iron washers off his fingers one by one, shaking his hand to get them to fly off. “Better. Not perfect.”
“Nobody’s perfect.” Elaine looked almost completely wiped out, staring out through the hole, and Henry belatedly realized how hard it must have been for her to carry him down here. “For instance, I could be slightly better if I had a drink right now.”
“And I,” Henry noticed a lack, “I had pants on the way down here, right? Until you threw me in the water?”
“Not especially. You want some?”