“Is it fate, or us, ending the world?” The admiral asked the question, but to him the answer would not come from the doctor, but the bright star to the west where the sun had just set. The night sky opened as a stage, and there, Venus, a false star, beckoned. The admiral listened. What did his god mother ask of him now? And would he listen?
The doctor dismissed the admiral’s question, to him an enquiry to a deaf heaven. To ask a star, even the brightest, where their fate was headed, seemed the logic of a child from what he could tell.
“We have to assume humanity will survive admiral,” the doctor responded, purposely loud enough for the others on the bridge to hear, a half dozen crewman who manned stations on an aircraft carrier. And not just any carrier, but the HMS Prince of Wales, what remained of the pride of the British navy.
The bridge crewmen monitored a night vision array of communications equipment, sonar, and weapons systems. Red dials silently turned and blipped, while dim scarlet shadows reflected off the men. Beyond the horizon to the west, disruptions rumbled where the sun had abandoned the day, a battle occurring in Sicily some fifty nautical miles away.
The admiral’s jaw thrust forward at the doctor, and he flexed the mass of his thick body like a tanned, leather skinned, son of a goddess. To him he was born of a mother who dictated his fate, and he railed on. “Humanity survives? I didn’t ask you doctor. I asked him!” stretching an accusatory arm at Stevens, the new journalist just having arrived within hours after dropping like a feed bag on the flight deck. The admiral directed his wrath. “When the communications start breaking down, they send me a fresh faced fodder to keep the record!” He sneered at Stevens, the admiral's hands clasped behind his back, his eyes angry; but in the depths of his irises lay a bottomless cry of unresolved pain. This startled the journalist, a glimpse into a sadness he couldn’t imagine and had never experienced. And then Stevens remembered what the admiral had lost over the last two years of war.
The admiral stared back at the journalist as he talked to the doctor, fixing Stevens in front of him. He declared, “Maybe no one else would come doctor. Maybe no one else was left to come.” Then the admiral broke off and brushed some flint from Steven’s shoulder.
“I just do what I’m told, keep a record,” young Stevens said.
The admiral scoffed at the doctor as he turned. “See. The boy still honors the chain of command!”
The doctor’s eyes skirted the door. He knew where this was headed and he looked the part of an escaping weasel; a thin professor with grayed hair, a squint to his eye; and an intelligence within which sent a message he somehow knew where destiny lay, but with an aspect implying everyone else was too limited to understand. But the admiral held him tight in his aura. There was no escape from the admiral.
President Matthews stepped over the ship's doorsill and entered the bridge. “We’re cockroaches, can’t be extinguished,” he blurted, as somewhere in his broken psyche he gained a hint of the conversation. No one heard the president, or if they did, acknowledged him, having concluded his ravings came from an insane man. And he was now little more than an immigrant anyway, an American clinging as a guest on the last remaining aircraft carrier of the British fleet. The president, with his mind gone to horror, struck a disposition more like a hawker on a New York city street than the leader of the free world. He threw his wild eyes at the crew. “The minds of men are ignorant of fate!” The men on the bridge averting their eyes.
Stevens thought the admiral and the doctor would start again, an endless debate about choice versus fate, gut instinct versus the doctor’s data. But just as the doctor started to say something, a blinding light struck the bridge. Everyone flinched reflexively, command and crew alike. The empty white light struck through them, a despair wrenching flash. A metallic taste, a phosphorus pureness, held the bridge parallelized, followed by the cracking stomach hit of a tactical nuclear warhead punching into Sicily off the port beam.
“Holy.. Navigation?” The admiral still held his arm up like it would protect him from the blast. The searing wind of light swept by, then in seconds the bridge dimmed gray once more. Rising on the horizon rose a singular fired red cloud in the dusking sky. The men recovered quickly, somehow accustomed over the last two years, but the deepest part of themselves would never get used to this, and that part of them was stunned. The bridge became silent. The men in apocalypsed rapture, watched the slow motion of the crimsoned veins rising in the cloud, building layer on layer, tumbling over on itself, an inner red glow pulsating, the form reaching higher and higher in the dark sky over Sicily.
Time slowed for the admiral, and he stood admiring the power, the immensity of the blast. Pinks and blues were now spreading out across the horizon in a line making an unearthly sunset, humbling in its beauty. War is the most peaceful feeling, the admiral thought. He’d been born a prince, his Turkish blood traced not just past the recent wars, World War II, the Great War, but back to Troy itself. And in his mind, even now, it was not men, but gods, who drove his fate. And who could tell him different? As if on cue, a group of falling stars streaked the sky to the north, Mercurian messengers in an asteroid belt, communicating an argument between gods, visible in the night sky.
In front of the admiral, seven remaining war ships sliced their way across the gray water of the Mediterranean, the unnatural sunset of the horizon glowing behind them. The admiral’s eyes did not see but assessed like a warrior his ships remaining from NATO’s armada; a cruiser, two destroyers, supply, and his command carrier, now stripped of aircraft. The ships were gray, the sky ahead a fading gray, and he knew, without seeing, the men on the ships were grayer still, caught in the ashen exhaustion of war.
A single destroyer spun off, quietly, like a guest past its hour, heading away from the evening sick sky, the wake from the ship trailing out in the murk. The Admiral thought of the captain and tipped his hat in salute as the ship sailed off. As he did, he whispered aloud. “So you go home Mike. Crete, wasn’t it? And I don’t blame you, we all want to go home, but of course Mike, like me, your home is probably, mostly, assuredly, gone.”
The admiral braced. He had no time for sentiment. Decades of military discipline rose in his chest. Should they go on to Rome? Would this decision mean a new beginning? Is there a decision that matters? Maybe not. He’d seen that at Greece. The FREECHOICers descending into the hell of anarchy, the ZEALOTS finally taking over. What can a navy do when millions descend into that kind of chaos? Nothing he’d found.
“Admiral?” The navigation officer sat hunched over back lit maps, glowing on a table monitor.
The god star murmured, and the admiral felt the muscles in his back tighten, the heavens nudging. “Tunisia. Set a course,” he commanded. Within him, he felt an inward heat, and this surprised him. He smiled, thinking of Ankara and when he was a boy, a much simpler time where all he had to worry about was his father teasing him about cupid’s arrow, and when it flew. And now he sensed the arrow’s path, and felt the sting.
Blown off course by the storms of radiation, a Junonian god blocking the way to Rome, the last vestige of NATO’s strength turned as one. The seven ships steadied on, seemingly held in the strong but gentle hands of Neptune, south to North Africa, to a Carthage respite.
“What did you say?” the doctor said, barely loudly enough to be heard above the music, an Aerosmith retro band, the best the Tunisians could do the doctor supposed. The Libyan ambassador and he had just downed the tenth round, shooters of near 100 proof Arak, a milky whiskey. Hundreds of Tunisians were in the chamber, the Tunisian grand hall built in memory of the palace of Tunis. Libyans also crowded in, along with scores of refugees, those who had the money and means to flee the continent. A festival in full swing, a feast, an auld lang syne to the end of the world.
With nothing to lose, and after disgustedly admiring the inlaid panels and murals depicting the Turkish defeat two years earlier, the doctor and the Tunisian ambassador were playing ‘scissors, rock, paper’. Stevens watched as the loser of each throw of the hand downed a shot of the white clouded liquor.
Drunkenly teetering, Stevens peppered the doctor with questions while taking a shot himself if either party lost, even though he wasn’t playing the game. He breathed on the doctor with his questions, drunk as he’d ever been. “What about fate?” he asked next. “I thought you solved fate like some wee-gee board?”
The doctor flinched back from Steven’s, red eyes unfocused, blurring. But he couldn’t help not answering the journalist’s questions. He was still a scientist to the core after all. The doctor spouted, “What I didn’t say, but was thinking, was it’s not really the world that’s ending is it? The world will be just fine.”
Stevens steadied himself by putting his hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “But what about fate? You’re always talking about fate?”
The doctor raised his head in an inebriated pause, like he’d discovered an interesting bug. “Not fate, Stevens, data. Fate is data. Data is fate. The same.”
“How so doctor?”
“Blame the bloody Americans. They unveiled the Real Intelligence Machine. They crunched the data. Took chance out of the equation, or at least our awareness of it.”
Aerosmith clashed. “What?
“Chance! With enough data, fate is known.”
“I’m my own man,” Stevens said. He spoke loudly into the doctor’s face, determined to be heard.
The doctor steadied and spoke as memorized from some long-ago treatise. “Cognitive neuroscientists.”
“Who are they?”
“The people who know 95 percent of us is unconscious.”
“I’m not unconscious.”
The doctor collapsed down, back against the wall, defeated. Stevens struggled down next to him. The doctor put his arm around him, pulling him close. “You seem like a nice fellow,” he said with a slur, “so I’ll tell you. It’s all about data. Big data. Statistics. Sure, we can make a choice, like the drops in a river channel spinning off, but the river itself, the mass of us all, the aggregate of all our choices, ends up where the river is going. And that dear laddie, once the RR machine was good enough, let us know there was no choice for all of us in the end. The logarithms end up the same. Like a fixed game, the once artificial, but now Real Intelligence, spins our fate for us to see. We just didn’t know it.” The doctor raised both hands and gestured. “This.” The doctor looked both ways to take in the hall, the insanity of the festival, the desperation of it, the nuclear war, “is where we were headed all the time. It’s our fate, not for each, but all.”
Drunken cheers went up from the front of the palace hall. Thirty-foot-high double doors were opening up. Coming through the arch were two elephants with purple robes and gold trim, jewels inlaid. Sitting on a throne-like chair on one elephant rode the admiral. He rode naked from the waist up, muscles taunt, his arms folded in front of him, and he wore a gold crown. In his hand was a spear. On the other elephant sat the stunning leader of Tunisia, President Abu Minyar, her eyes dark with eyeliner, a gold laden shoal, a purple sashed thin waist, a wooden shield in her hand.
The ambassador who the doctor had been drinking with stood at attention, his right fist pounded the center of his chest rhythmically. The near thousand in the hall pounded their chest the same, all together a steady beat. Those not Tunisian looked on, confused. With each double strike of the Tunisian’s chest a resounding cry rose in time, like drums marching to war. “Dido…Dido…Dido…” The huge elephants reared up in triumph, their two front feet kicking above them, a glorious screeching trumpeting the air, their purple tongues extending from their mouths between large white ivory tusks.
The coast of Tunisia faded in the gray dawn as the fleet steamed north, and with it, hope. In two days they sighted Italy, one of the last vestiges on earth free of radioactivity, and as such, a new world. The admiral, in spite of all desire to stay in Tunisia, obeyed the false star, his mother. And so he put the Tunisian leader, the love of his life, from his mind. The doctor claimed his love fated, and her death fated. But how can that be true? Did the doctor’s data, or his god star, have enough number crunching to work it out? No, it wasn’t data but the gods themselves that painted the way, him as helpless in the arms of fate as the earth itself, fated to burn in the sun. And just as he thought this, Venus rose in the dawn sky, leading the sun like a soothsayer, a prognosticator pointing to Italy. If not demanding, then begging he go. So we Aeneads, we progenitors, are headed to Rome, he realized, as the dictates descended from the brightest star in the sky.
Prime Minister Turnus of Italy tried not to think of the man he’d been before the war. The Italians were a loving people and he saw himself as a sensitive man, generous to a fault. Running for office was a fluke, a joke on established power. And then he’d won and with that came responsibility, and a hope that he and the party could effect real change. He reflected back on how far they’d come. At first the tag-line was ‘humanity, empathy, peace’. The government welcomed everyone under a large, all inclusive, tent. What should it matter if you looked different than someone else? So laws were passed, people’s rights protected. But little by little those protections meant it was important to hold people accountable. Shouldn’t a nut-case spouting nationalism be restricted? Shouldn’t a book about white supremacy be banned? Shouldn’t any offensive irrational thought be labeled for what it is? Insanity. And shouldn’t the politically insane be put away, their offense being how they thought? What they said. So insensitivity itself was rooted out. And all books are offensive to someone. If people didn’t wake up to progressive thinking, they should be, well, put to sleep. And it worked. With war came peace.
So now, the prime minister thought, who were these people? This NATO. Should Italy welcome a free-thinking horde to settle here, an organization where any clown can spout about anything they want? These Turks, particularly this admiral, had lost Asia Minor and now he needed a home. No. Nothing good could come of this, resources slim. The wiser course was refusal.
And here was the Turk begging at his Quirinal court. The prime minister, staring down the admiral, made a walking motion with fingers in front of him, like flicking NATO off his peninsula. “No, admiral. You won’t be coming ashore. Move on.”
The admiral rubbed his brow. “We’re all one people since--.”
“Where would we go?” interrupted President Matthews, rubbing his sweating hands clasped in front of him.
“Why ask me?” The Italian prime minister examined his manicure, then rose. “This meeting is over. Stay the night. But I’ll need you out of here tomorrow morning.”
The admiral appealed to Prime Minister Turnus. “We’ll need provisioning.”
The Italian Prime Minister bristled. “You know what? Don’t wait. Now that I think about it.”
The four made it back to the ship, the path that led them was lined with heads on spikes, the now gray sculls of those who were insensitive to the rights of others.
Gathered once again on the bridge, the admiral looked curiously at the doctor. “You seem at ease, given we’ve just been thrown out of Italy doctor?”
“Italy is home admiral. We’re here to stay.”
“You seem so confident. Tea leaves doctor?”
The doctor admired Rome from the bridge of the Prince of Wales, the domes on the buildings, the seven hills, the ancient city laid out in terracotta under a cloudless sky. “Not tea leaves admiral. Better. The data has led us to Rome and here we’ll stay.”
The admiral’s eyes narrowed. “That’ll take a fight doctor. He’s raised the flags of war; he’s a bloody-minded son of a bitch.
"So what do your gods tell us now Admiral?"
The admiral glanced at the sky. "We'll land at Lavinium. That's where we'll start.”
The doctor scratched his three-day beard. Then putting his arm around Stevens like he had a secret to tell, he squeezed the journalist’s cheek and said, “Maybe it's time son. You could be the one writing the next chapter of the history of Rome!”
And maybe it would be himself, Stevens thought. And maybe when he did write the history, he’d learn if it was the admiral’s gods, the doctor’s data, or just themselves who drove their fate.