An early morning ray of sunlight pushed through the clouds and climbed the foremast platform a centimeter at a time. Above sat the admiral’s bridge, and above that, the navigating bridge, and above that, more steel, then sky. In cold weather, the sun rises at a much slower rate, or appears to. The U.S.S. Nashville maintained a stern and looming presence, anchored out in open water off the coast of Patagonia. Across the deck the flagstaff pierced the horizon, where a frayed and faded American flag at half mast whipped in the wind. From a distance, the battleship looked frosted with snow; atop the turrets, the gun barrels, the deck, a thick white mass clung in place, undulating slightly as if a trick of the eyes, or due to the slow movement of the water which held the ship afloat. But as the sun broke free from the clouds, the ship’s inhabitants stirred, and the deck came to life with the sounds of the seabirds in their nests. The birds flew off in search of food or fought for space on the deck, the platform, the stern, the bow or boom boat hatch; anywhere there was an inch there was a squabble, evidenced by feathers floating into the air. The birds had been attracted by the smell of blood, and they followed the smell and came upon the vessel in hungry packs. The ship overflowed with gulls, terns, shearwaters, petrels, cormorants, sheathbills, albatross.
The decommissioned battleship—now a research vessel—had been manned by a crew small by battleship standards but still nearly 100 sailors, as well as a group of scientists. Each Saturday, a helicopter delivered bags of flesh and bones, and hundreds of blood samples from those who had miraculously survived what came to be called “high risk” situations. The scientific team’s job was to assess the remains and samples, looking for any specifics that stood out, and record the findings. The data was uploaded daily to a satellite, then uplinked to an onshore research station. As the months passed and the work progressed, the team found few irregularities, in part because they were unsure of what to look for. The helicopter pilots remained tightlipped about goings on ashore, but the shipmates had a good idea. Any necessary news was relayed directly to the retired admiral in command of the vessel. When prodded for information his only reply was that they’d been ordered to “continue the work.” They saw the admiral rarely, usually in the hallways or on the bridge, but never on deck. He spent much of his time locked in his quarters, relaying orders to the navigational bridge or to the first mate over the intercom. One Saturday, the helicopter didn’t arrive. It had become the habit of some of the scientists and ensign staff to sit in lawn chairs atop a gun turret and play cards if the wind permitted. The day the helicopter failed to arrive was windy (no cards), so the men sat drinking until the sun went down. They spoke of their loved ones, some of whom were gone, and talked about their favorite foods. The next day their com link with the satellite stopped functioning. They relayed this news to the admiral via one of his staff members, who stated as his reply: “That’s too bad.” The scientists were ordered to continue their work and document the data on their computer hard drives and record it on paper.
Eventually, the scientists refused to work unless the admiral met with them in person. He grudgingly agreed, after postponing for several days, citing that he was “not feeling up to par.” When he did finally meet with them, he was blunt.
“What’s happening?” One of the scientists asked.
The admiral ran his hand through his hair, then put his elbows upon the table. “I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure?”
“I am not sure. We’ve lost all communication.”
“I want to go home,” another scientist said.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“Well, you can’t force us to stay here,” the scientist said.
“You’re right, I can’t. As soon as we can reestablish communication and assess the situation, I’m sure we can get you back home. But in this specific scenario, we’re under direct orders to remain here and continue our work, and that’s what we’ll do until we receive new information.”
“Believe me, this isn’t ideal for anyone aboard this ship.” The admiral sighed. “But my orders are clear, and I will not turn this vessel toward land. I’m not sure home is the best place to be right now.”
“What do you mean?” one of the scientists asked.
“I mean I’m not sure you’d like it if you saw it. The last I heard it’d all gone to shit.”
The scientists looked at each other, then back to the admiral, who proceeded to tell them the truth, which was: it had all really gone to shit. Everyone in the world was exploding.
“But why haven’t we?” the admiral asked. Then, he stood up and nodded. “Continue the work.”
That week, as the scientists studied their samples, they talked quietly about how to leave the ship. The only plan they could come up with was stealing a boom boat, or one of the life boats. But that was impossible without sounding an alarm that would alert the crew. One day, they walked to the end of the deck and for some reason, none of the crew followed them, so they discussed the problem, but their voices were overwhelmed by the loud whirring hum of a helicopter descending to the deck. One of the scientists ran inside, shouting: “It’s here!”
The deck flooded with sailors. The admiral appeared shortly thereafter, walking briskly toward the helicopter. A few meters away the admiral stopped, a man in military uniform jumped out of the helicopter, and it lifted into the air again. The scientists watched from a distance as the man in military uniform threw his arm into the air for a salute, and the admiral did the same. The second their hands reached their foreheads, both men let out a loud wheezing noise then burst into a thousand pieces. The crowd on deck was thrown into confusion. One of the crewmen screamed, “we’re under attack!” and more than half of them hit the deck on their stomachs, and exploded on impact. It felt as if something had electrified the air. The scientists stood stock still watching as man after man exploded with hardly enough time to open their mouths and scream. Several men made it through the first wave of explosions and ran as fast as they could toward the interior of the battleship.
The scientists were left standing on the prow alone. “Now’s our time,” one of them said; they all agreed. They made their way across the deck quickly but cautiously; it was covered with the remains of the crewmembers, which steamed in the cold air. The scientists avoided the larger piles of remains for fear they might meet the same fate. Bones crushed like eggshells beneath their shoes. When they reached the lifeboats, one of the scientists slammed a red button on the wall with the flat of his hand. An alarm sounded and one of the boats began to lower. The team of scientists clambered down a ladder and boarded the lifeboat. By the time the last scientist had gotten on, one of them had primed and cranked the motor, which emitted little puffs of exhaust. They headed off in the direction of land, and none took a last look at the U.S.S Nashville.
Inside, the men who had run off deck to seek shelter exploded the instant they entered the navigation room, much to the surprise of the men already there, all of whom exploded seconds later, after just enough time to glimpse the carnage on deck and comprehend, at least a little bit, what had happened. Deep inside the battleship, the men working in the engine room had no idea what had happened, and they exploded without knowing their time was upon them: one was thinking of his baby girl, another, the tortas his grandmother made on holidays. In an instant, it was as if death had flipped a switch; the lights went out: the last on board to perish. Afterwards, the ship was silent, save the occasional groan from the hull expanding or contracting. The birds moved in that same day. From far off in the distance, the scientists made out what looked like smoke—they thought the ship was burning—which turned out to be a cloud of storm petrals. Over the next few weeks, the birds fed on every piece of flesh on deck until all that remained were the exploded bones of the dead. The birds then gathered the bones to build their nests. Perhaps, had the scientists remained they might have hypothesized why the birds began to feed on human remains, but they’d begun to freeze to death on the open ocean before they themselves exploded. In other cities, those who remained alive sheltered away from others or joined the zealots in the streets. As the birds built their nests of bones, on the battleship, and in every city in the world, each day brought more and more material to work with.