Shards of Silver is a short story prequel to the Drowned Earth novellas.
The bed pitched backwards and Debbie’s pillow dropped lower than her feet. Groaning, she clutched her stomach as the small cabin righted itself and then rocked to the left.
“You all right, hun?” murmured her husband from the bunk on the other side of the room.
“Just peachy,” replied Debbie, sitting up and leaning heavily against the wall. She could feel the large motors humming gently, sending vibrations up through the floor and the metal frame of her bunk. Closing her eyes, she listened to the ship creaking as it plunged over the unseen waves. The only other sounds were the soft breathing of her husband on the bed opposite, and her daughter, Miriam, on the bunk below. Neither of them seemed distressed by the fact that their beds were rocking like possessed seesaws.
Climbing down the ladder, Debbie tried to ignore the spray of saltwater splashing against the porthole window. “I’m going for a walk,” she told her husband, pulling her coat on over her pyjamas. “See if I can calm my stomach.”
Luke gave a loud snore in reply and if Debbie wasn’t feeling so sick, she would have smiled. It was just like him to be able to sleep when his bed was rocking like the boat ride at Luna Park. Debbie bent down and gave Miriam a kiss on the forehead, then slipped her shoes on. Checking that her room key was safely in her pocket, she stepped out into the narrow corridor.
The lurch of the ship felt slightly calmer in the hallway. Still, she walked along with one hand tracing the wall, ready for the floor to suddenly shift beneath her. Reaching the lounge area without incident, Debbie was surprised to see so many people drinking and laughing, as though the rock of the ship was inconsequential to them. Checking her watch, she realised it wasn’t even midnight yet—she had grown so used to going to bed early with a young child that she had imagined it was at least two or three a.m. Debbie looked self-consciously down at her pyjama pants, pulling her coat closer and half-considering returning to the cabin. Then she noticed the door leading out to the balcony.
Waving away the waiter’s inquiry as to whether she wanted a glass of wine, Debbie walked across to the balcony exit, pushed the door open, and stepped out into the night.
It was freezing outside, and the wind mingled with the sea-spray as the ship plunged forward over the waves. Debbie hugged her arms around herself, closing her eyes and breathing in the salty breeze, willing her stomach to calm down.
“You here to see the meteor shower?”
Debbie jumped, her heart hammering in her chest as visions of being thrown overboard flashed through her overactive mind.
“Sorry,” said the young man standing in the shadows, “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” A small orange circle appeared in the darkness as he dragged on a cigarette.
“You didn’t,” Debbie lied, grasping the metal barrier as the ship rocked forward. To her left, she could just see the lights of Devonport disappearing in the wake of the ship.
“It should be starting any minute,” the man said in a quiet voice, taking another puff on his cigarette.
“The meteor shower. It’ll be starting soon.”
Debbie peered at his face in the darkness and figured he couldn’t yet be out of high school. “I didn’t even know about it,” Debbie admitted, forcing herself to relax. “I just couldn’t sleep.”
“There’s better viewing from the back of the ship,” he said, waving a hand in the air, “but there’s so many people up there. You want quiet for meteor viewing.”
“Right,” said Debbie, pleased for the distraction from her lurching stomach.
“Oh, look,” said the boy, stepping closer to the rail.
Debbie looked up and saw a silver shard of light streak across the sky. “Oh, wow,” she breathed, wondering if she should make a wish.
“There’s another one,” he said, pointing closer to the horizon as another trail sliced the dark sky. “I’m Charles, by the way,” said the boy, offering her his hand.
“Debbie,” she replied, shaking it and hiding a smile at how proper the young man was acting. He clearly felt very mature smoking cigarettes and standing out on the ship’s balcony, watching the sky. She wondered vaguely where his parents were.
“Have you seen a meteor shower before?” he asked.
“No,” she said, watching in awe as another one carved through the night.
“This one’s been dubbed Jagannatha—Hindu for Lord of the Universe.”
“Do you study astronomy or something?”
Charles laughed. “My school isn’t interesting enough to offer astronomy as a class. But I do like looking at the sky.”
Another three streaks of light appeared overhead like giant claw-marks and Debbie breathed in admiration. She smiled—she had almost forgotten about the fact that she was on a ship, lurching from side-to-side.
“Will it last for long?” she asked.
“It’s only just heating up. The folks at SETI originally had this at a four on the Torino scale.”
Debbie raised an eyebrow.
“It’s like the Richter scale, but for meteors.”
“And four is good?”
Charles shook his head. “Four means they want to watch it in case it’s a threat to Earth. But they soon figured out that nothing much was going to happen—beyond a nice light show. It was scaled back to one a few weeks ago.”
Debbie gazed upwards as the frequency of light streaks increased, creating bright lines across the canvas of the sky.
“So are you from Tasmania or Australia?” asked Charles.
Debbie laughed, hugging her coat closer. “Melbourne. I’ve been in Tassie with the family for the first week of the school holidays.”
“Poor you.” Charles dropped the cigarette onto the damp deck and stood on it. Then he picked up the butt and placed it in a nearby bin. “I live in Tasmania. It’s the worst. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to go there willingly.”
“It’s not so bad,” said Debbie, breathing into her hands in an attempt to warm them up.
“My boyfriend lives in Melbourne,” said Charles. “As soon as school’s over I’m moving to the city. I can’t wait.”
“That’s nice.” Debbie’s stomach was feeling calmer now, and she prepared to return to her cabin. “Anyway, enjoy—”
A brilliant light appeared in the sky, brighter than all the rest. It had a green tinge and streaked through the darkness, lighting up the waves like it was the middle of the day.
“What on earth—” began Charles.
A low crack and boom echoed around them and Debbie dropped to the damp deck. It sounded like a thunderbolt had struck directly above them, but there was just the ball of light zipping behind the ship and disappearing over the horizon. Goosebumps prickled along Debbie’s arms as she stood back up. “Is that normal?”
Charles shrugged, lighting up another cigarette. “It’ll break up in the atmosphere,” he said, nonchalantly. “I wish I’d filmed it, though. You want one?” He held the pack towards Debbie.
Feeling spooked by the meteor, she almost took a cigarette, but then shook her head. “I’m going to try to get some sleep. Enjoy the show.” She headed back inside the ship, trying to ignore the fact that she now felt sick again—but for very different reasons than before.
Debbie was jolted awake by a high-pitched alarm blaring through the small cabin. Glancing groggily at her watch, she realised that she’d only been asleep for a couple of hours.
“Mummy,” cried her daughter sleepily. “What’s happening?”
Debbie stumbled down off the bunk and scooped her daughter up into her arms. “I’m not sure, hun.” As she turned on the lights, Debbie noticed an announcement was emanating from a speaker in the corner of the cabin, but it was too muffled to work out what was being said.
Luke staggered out of bed, tugging his coat on and tying up his boots.
“Is the ship sinking?” asked Miriam.
Debbie passed her daughter to Luke and then glanced out the window of their cabin, visions of Titanic entering her mind. It was too dark to make anything out, but it didn’t feel like anything was amiss—in fact, the lurch of the ship seemed calmer than before. “No sweetie, it’s not sinking.”
A frantic bang bang came from the cabin door and Luke quickly unlocked it. A young crew member who looked far more awake then Debbie felt ushered them into the hallway.
“Please, remain calm,” she said, “and follow this corridor to the muster point.”
“Please ma’am, follow the other passengers. You will be briefed at the muster point.”
Bristling slightly at being called ma’am, Debbie followed the straggle of haphazardly dressed passengers along the corridor and back to the large lounge area. As they arrived, another crew member stopped them, his uniform denoting him as being of a higher rank than the girl who had given them directions.
“My name is Officer Millard,” he said. “I’m in charge of the safety of the passengers on this deck.” Then he nodded towards Miriam, snuggled into Luke’s arms. “How old is she?”
“Eight,” said Luke.
“Head to the starboard side,” said the officer, pointing across to the other side of the room.
All the seats were already occupied, but they crossed the lounge and found space against the far wall to sit down. People were yawning and children were crying softly, but there was no great air of panic. Debbie’s stomach still felt like lead, but if the ship was sinking, it certainly didn’t feel like it. She told herself there could be any number of reasons for evacuating the cabins—perhaps a fire, or even a lost child.
Then another crew member started handing out lifejackets, and Debbie’s hands began to tremble.
“Can I have your attention please,” said Officer Millard, standing at the front of the crowd.
A hush descended upon the assembled mass. Debbie saw the young man she had met earlier, Charles, standing with a woman on the other side of the lounge. Charles nodded at Debbie, then turned to whisper to the woman who looked so much like him that she could only be his mother.
“We have been alerted by the Bureau of Meteorology to the presence of a large wave heading in this direction.”
A rumble of chatter erupted at this statement, and Officer Millard waited until it died down before proceeding.
“At first, the Bureau estimated that we would have berthed at Melbourne and all passengers would have disembarked hours before the wave hit. However, there has been an update to this estimate and it now seems that the wave will reach the Spirit of Tasmania before we have the chance to land.”
Debbie gripped her husband’s hand, willing it to stop shaking. Miriam lay curled in his lap, breathing softly.
“Helicopters are about to arrive from both Launceston and Melbourne to airlift elderly passengers and those with young children from the ship. All other passengers will remain in the muster area, don lifejackets, and remain calm.”
“How big is the wave?” asked one man.
“Fifteen metres,” replied the crew member. “It’ll be a rocky ride, but we’ll be fine. The ship is equipped to cope with such sizeable waves—evacuating young children and the elderly is just a precaution.”
“So if we’re staying, what do we do?”
“Brace yourself,” said the officer with a smile. “The captain is turning the ship so that we can ride over it with least impact. Now, can I please have this side of the room heading up the stairs to the evacuation point?” Officer Millard gestured to the area where Debbie and her husband were sitting. “Everyone else, please stay in this area and put on the life jackets that our crew will bring around. Above all, please remain calm.”
Accepting a life jacket, Debbie followed Luke up the steps towards the top deck of the ship. It was slow going, and Miriam fell back to sleep in Luke’s arms. Thankfully, the sea was eerily calm for once, and the effect seemed to rub off on the passengers. Nobody panicked, nobody pushed, and soon Debbie emerged from the stairwell into the crisp early-morning air. She was surprised to see that it was still dark outside—it felt like the sun should have risen ages ago.
“Wait here,” said a crew member, gesturing for them to stand still. It was loud on the deck, the rotor blades of the helicopters hovering above the ship making a stuttering roar. Ropes hung down from their bellies, touching the centre of the deck where people were being helped into harnesses by the crew.
“Two more over here,” yelled a woman, gesturing towards Luke and Miriam.
“We’re a three,” said Luke, raising his voice to be heard over the rotor blades.
“What?” The woman made a gesture to show that she couldn’t hear him.
“Just go,” said Debbie, laying a hand on Luke’s arm. “I’ll be on the next one. It’s better to get her off this ship sooner rather than later.”
“You take her then,” said Luke, trying to pass Miriam to Debbie, but the little girl shook her head and clung more tightly to her father.
“It’s fine,” said Debbie. “I’ll see you soon.”
Luke kissed Debbie on the cheek and then jogged across the deck towards a man in fluoro. Debbie hugged her arms around herself, watching as the crew member looped a harness around her husband and daughter, and the pair were hoisted into the air. The tight feeling in her stomach eased as Debbie watched them climb on board the waiting helicopter.
“Hold on!” someone yelled.
At first, Debbie thought the command was being directed at the people entering the helicopters. Then the ship lurched below Debbie’s feet and she fell sideways, slipping on the damp deck. Screams punctured the air as the passengers slid across the slick surface and were pummelled against the railing. Seawater surged upwards, dousing them with the freezing liquid, and then the ship pitched in the other direction. Debbie gripped the barrier hard, thanking the Lord that her daughter and husband were safely off the violently rocking vessel. The far side of the ship dropped away beneath her, and she wrapped her arms around the cold steel so that she didn’t fall across the ship and injure herself. Others weren’t so lucky, and she watched as one passenger fell against the far railing with a sickening crack.
“Downstairs,” yelled a crew member as the ship righted itself and the helicopters flew towards the mainland, abandoning the rest of their cargo. “Everyone, back down below.”
Debbie was ushered back down the stairs to the lounge area, where all the tables and chairs had now been removed. Pale-faced passengers were holding onto pillars and wedging themselves into the corners of the room.
“Hey lady,” said a voice. “Uhh . . . Dianne?”
Debbie glanced over at the teenager with dark hair waving towards her. “Debbie,” she corrected him, walking over and holding her hand out towards the woman sitting beside Charlie. She was pale-faced and shaking, and she’d looped a rope tightly around herself and Charlie, fastening them to a pillar.
“This is my mother, Margo,” said Charles, nodding towards the woman as she shook Debbie’s hand. “Debbie was watching the meteor shower too,” Charles said to his mother. “She saw the Jagannatha.”
Margo feigned polite interest but was clearly more concerned about her current predicament.
“Was that the wave?” asked Debbie. “What we just went over?”
Charles shook his head. “Apparently not. The crew weren’t ready for that one—it came out of nowhere. Everyone went flying down here. One passenger started yelling about how they weren’t looking after us, and then he brought around these ropes.”
Charles passed Debbie a length of rope and she raised an eyebrow. “Is that a good idea?”
“Take it,” said Margo, quietly. “They’ve updated their estimate of the main wave.”
“So it’s not going to be fifteen metres anymore?” asked Debbie, accepting the rope as fear gripped her stomach.
“No,” said Margo, her freckles standing out on her pale cheeks. “Apparently it’s going to be at least double that.”
Debbie took a deep breath and then sat down on the ground with her back against the next pillar. She looped the rope around the pole and herself, tying it in a tight knot that she hoped would hold.
“Have you read the news?” asked Charles, changing the topic and sliding his phone across the floor towards Debbie.
She shook her head, picking up the phone and reading the headline. Space Rock Collides with Antarctica—Tidal Waves Threaten Coastal Towns.
“It must be what we saw last night,” said Charles. “I guess it didn’t break up in the atmosphere after all. Check out the suggested articles.”
Scrolling down, the next article announced, Jagannatha Dread: Scientists Fear Ice shelf Breaking Up.
“Far out,” said Debbie. “What does that mean?” She slid the phone back across the floor.
Charles shrugged, picking up his phone and placing it in his pocket. “If the ice shelf breaks up, then our sea levels will rise a lot more quickly than the current predictions. Hey, maybe we saw the start to the end of the world.”
Debbie shivered. “What a long night. I feel like the sun should have risen by now.”
“Oh, it should have.”
The hairs on Debbie’s arms stood on end, and even his mother looked at Charles in horror.
“The impact with Antarctica would have thrown dust and debris up into the air,” explained Charles. “Who knows how long it’ll block out the sun for. Maybe yesterday was the last time the sun will ever rise.”
Debbie felt a lump in her throat, but there was no time to dwell on this revelation, because a moment later someone shouted, “Hold on!”
Debbie double-checked her knots as screams echoed from somewhere behind her and the prow of the ship began to rise. And rise. And rise.
An eerie hush fell over the passengers as the huge vessel strained to get over the wave. The motors below the floor groaned as the ship pitched at an impossible angle. The ropes cut into Debbie’s stomach as she fell forward, and she regretted not spacing them out over a larger surface area. As the front of the ship kept going up, Margo turned her head sideways and threw up, the vomit running along the floor towards the back of the ship.
The lights lay flat against the roof and Debbie had the sudden realisation that the ship wasn’t going to make it over the wave. It was going to flip.
A passenger to her right slipped out of his ropes, fell through the air, and collided with a pillar ten metres below him, leaving a red smear as his body flopped to the side, falling again towards the rear of the ship.
The sound of glasses smashing was peppered by people’s screams, and then, impossibly, the ship crested the wave. Debbie let out the breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding as the ship righted itself for a moment.
Then she cried out as the pillar behind her back fell away and the ship plunged into the valley generated by the wave. There was a crack as the ship smashed into the water and Debbie’s back fell hard against the pillar, the force knocking her breath out of her lungs. Bodies smacked into the wall behind her with dull thuds, like some sort of macabre theme-park ride.
Debbie covered her face as shattered glass rained down around her, windows exploded, and seawater poured in through the sides of the ship.
She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even think, as icy water rushed in through the windows and tugged at her legs.
And then the ship was still. The tremble of the motors beneath the boards was silent, as were all the passengers. Shaking, Debbie fumbled with the knots in the rope.
“Is that it?” she asked to nobody in particular. “Are there any more?”
Only the sound of gentle sobs answered her, and the knot finally came undone beneath her fingers. Rising shakily to her feet, Debbie picked shards of glass off her clothes. The floor was slippery with seawater, but the ship appeared to be floating. Walking carefully across the sodden floor, she stepped through the smashed door and out onto the balcony—the same one she had watched the Jagannatha meteor shower from just a few hours earlier. She looked out at the dark sea.
Somewhere out there lay Port Phillip Bay, and right now a giant, destructive wave was racing towards it and the city of Melbourne. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she wondered what would be left of it by the time their ship finally reached the shore.
Shards of Silver is a prequel short story to the Drowned Earth novellas—a series of books set in a shared world. Check out the Drowned Earth Kickstarter campaign here.