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I Can’t Believe It’s Not March!

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Dr Cornelius Hickey @DrHickey · ██████

I used a linear regression to predict how the pandemic will affect London's homeless. The situation is dire. Now more than ever they need our help. You can donate in this link: https://tinyurl.com/y3sres4w

Graph with a exponential growth curve

 

 

"How long are we going to have to wait for?" Irving asked, arms crossed.

 

"It's only been thirty minutes," Little pointed out.

 

They were in the mess hall. Goodsir and McDonald were examining a line of patients by the buffet table, the latter taking people's temperature while the former wrote them down on a clipboard. Irving and his labmates had been among the first to be examined. Afterward, they found a spot by the wall and were now standing in a socially-distanced square. Most of the quarantined people were doing the same, although Irving saw that Doctor Hickey was not staying two metres away from his friends. Typical.

 

Hodgson cleared his throat. "The word ‘quarantine' comes from the Italian ‘quaranta giorni‘, after the Venetian policy of isolating ships from countries that had been stricken by the plague for-"

 

"Forty days," Des Voeux finished for him, his tone curt. "Tell me something I don't know."

 

Hodgson frowned, lips pursed. "It's been discovered that tribes that engage in cannibalism are immune to mad cow disease."

 

Irving, who had been busy glaring at Doctor Hickey, startled. "What?"

 

Hodgson perked up. "You see, there is this tribe who used to develop kuru due to their ritualistic consumption of-"

 

"They can't keep us here for forty days," Des Voeux interrupted him. "I don't even have my laptop to keep myself busy."

 

Irving arched his eyebrows, pleasantly surprised to see their student so eager to work for once. Feeling magnanimous, he said: "You know, Charlie, given the circumstances, I'd be happy to give you an extension to work on the outline of your thesis."

 

"Who cares about that." Des Voeux waved him off. "I'm in the Platinum tier. I'm going to lose LP if I can't play tonight."

 

Irving-who had some vague sense that video games were one of the Devil's temptations-had absolutely no idea what this meant, and didn't want to ask.

 

A phone rang. Little took it out of his pocket and looked at the screen. "Oh, crap."

 

"Your mother?" Irving guessed.

 

"Yes." Little sighed. "Be right back."

 

Irving watched how Edward passed by several groups of people before settling down on one secluded corner of the room, his phone to his ear and a pinched expression on his face. 

 

"Can you not ask the company to put your ranking on hold?" Hodgson was asking Des Voeux. "It is an emergency, after all. It's hardly your fault."

 

"Sure," Des Voeux replied, his tone as flat as a smooth function. "I'm sure Riot Games has nothing better to do with their developers' time."

 

Hodgson smiled proudly, the sarcasm having flown over his head as usual. "See, Des Voeux? There was no need to worry."

 

Their student stared at Hodgson in silence for a few seconds before finally saying, "I'm going to see what Armitage is up to."

 

Des Voeux walked off to join Hickey's group. By the look of it, Cornelius was completely unconcerned by the virus. The redhead had sat down at the table, his booted feet on the tablecloth. He was smoking from his vape pen again. Even from this distance, Irving could smell the faint scent of it: strawberry cheesecake. That couldn't possibly be safe, Irving thought. After all, if he could smell it, didn't that mean that he was essentially inhaling Hickey's breath? John could imagine it, as vividly as a computer-generated simulation: particles of Cornelious entering his mouth, filling his lungs, permeating every crevice of his body. First would come the fever, then, the delirium; and before he knew it, it would be too late. He'd be unclean. Dirty. Corrupted by Hickey, bare and vulnerable before him, helpless to resist him-

 

Hickey winked an eye at John.

 

Realizing he'd been caught staring at him, Irving went pale.

 

"I'm going to use the bathroom," Irving muttered.

 

"I don't think there's any loo paper left in that water closet," Hodgson said. "I still have a couple of monogrammed handkerchiefs, if you'd like one."

 

"That won't be necessary," Irving replied, already heading for the mess hall's bathrooms, and desperately wishing for a cold shower.

 

*

 

"Mom, I know that Boris Johnson said that," Edward said, "but listen-" 

 

Little caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye and turned around. It was Jopson, standing two very respectful metres away from him. 

 

Noticing the phone, Thomas mouthed, "would you like me to give you some privacy?"

 

Edward shook his head. "-listen," he repeated, "it's serious. We have two doctors here. Three, actually, and they all say-no, they're proper doctors. Yes, I know that you think having a doctorate doesn't make you a proper doctor, you've told me a thousand times, I meant that they all went to med school-mom, wait-"

 

Jopson winced, his expression sympathetic. He gave him a thumbs up and mouthed, "hang in there."

 

"No," Little said. "I know he said-Well, he was wrong about Brexit too, wasn't he? No, wait, wait, listen, this is important. We might have the virus. No, I'm not speaking hypothetically. We're being quarantined, right now."

 

Little glanced at McDonald and Goodsir, still clad in their rudimentary protective equipment. Goodsir was now disinfecting the thermometer with rubbing alcohol while Le Vesconte waited for their temperature to be taken.

 

He tuned back in. "Mom, more than a hundred thousand people have died already. It's not a hoax by the Chinese. It's real, it's happening, and dad and you are both over sixty... What?" Edward rubbed his face. "Mom, you've been celebrating your fifty-fifth birthday for ten years now. This is serious-Mom!"

 

Thomas found a seat nearby and was studiously watching something on his phone, doing a very good job of pretending he wasn't listening to the conversation. Edward appreciated it.

 

"Look, just… Stay away from the city, okay? How about…" An idea occurred to him. "How about you and dad spend some time in the country? I'm sure Empress misses you, and you're always saying you'd like to ride more. And dad hates how London's weather gets in █████. Why not get away from it all while you can?

 

"Yes… yes, I agree, that'd be best. It doesn't even have to be because of the virus. Just take a vacation. Check on the rosebuds. Alright. Yes. Bye, mom. Bye." Feeling like a soldier putting down his weapons after a hard-won battle, Edward lowered his phone. "My God."

 

"Intense conversation?" Thomas asked from his position on the chair.

 

Edward nodded. "Yeah."

 

Thomas pointed at a chair two meters away from him. "Tell me about it."

 

Little sat down heavily and rested his elbows on his knees. "My parents-well, they believed that nonsense about herd immunity. They think there's nothing to be afraid of."

 

"Oh, no," Thomas said.

 

"Oh, yes," Edward sat back. "How about your parents?"

 

"Oh." Jopson looked out the nearest porthole and tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear. "I don't need to worry about them."

 

"You have no idea how much I envy you," Edward said.

 

"Mmh." Jopson shrugged. "Are you feeling better now?"

 

Edward bit his bottom lip. The sunlight fell on Thomas' face, turning those improbable eyes of his a clearer shade of blue. 

 

"Yes. Yes, I am." Edward shook his head. "But what are you doing here? You weren't in the original quarantined group."

 

"Armitage told Tozer that I had been playing Left for Dead with Des Voeux and him, and Tozer thought that we had been in the same room. By the time Armitage cleared things up, Manson had already, ah, invited me to come," Thomas explained, his tone mild.

 

"Ah. Yes." Edward winced. "I saw Armitage inviting Doctor Hickey to come, too. He was very persuasive."

 

"I suspect Armitage and Manson used similar methods." Jopson's cheeks were now faintly pink.

 

"I don't blame you. Manson is built like a brick house." Edward offered a tentative smile to him.

 

Thomas returned it. "How likely do you think it is that any of us actually has the virus?"

 

"Mmh." Edward crossed his arms. "We reviewed a paper earlier…"

 

"Lauer et al?" Jopson asked.

 

"That one." Edward nodded. "According to that paper, it seems unlikely. Maybe if Morfin had gotten the symptoms tomorrow, or the day after that, but today… I don't think so."

 

"Are you still worried about it?" Thomas asked with that disarming perceptiveness of his.

 

"...yes," Edward reluctantly admitted. "How about you?"

 

"Not really," Jopson said. "But it got me thinking. What if there *was* a virus on the ship? What if we were doomed to stay two metres apart for the rest of the trip, just in case? What would you do, then?"

 

"Mmh. I'd listen to McDonald and Goodsir," Edward said after a Little pause to think. "They know more than us about this. How about you?"

 

Thomas leaned forward. "I'd regret not having kissed you while we had the chance."

 

"I," Edward cleared his throat. "I'd regret it too."

 

Thomas seemed surprised by Edward's boldness, but it only lasted a second before he smoothed his expression over. "Of course, I don't want to pressure you. I understand you need time. But if you like, when the quarantine is over, we could revisit our situation."

 

"Yes," someone said.

It took Edward a few seconds to realize it had been him. He froze, perplexed by his own reaction. Edward was about to apologize and take it back, but then he looked around him, at the two doctors clad in trash bags and plastic bottles, at the concerned faces around him. Hadn't he just said to his mother that he might be infected with some deathly virus? What use was there putting off this conversation?

 

"Really?" Thomas said, seemingly as surprised as him.

 

"Yes. Really," Edward said, more confidently. What the hell. With any luck, they'd both die before he was forced to live up to his momentary bravery. "I can't wait."

 

"Me neither" Thomas laughed softly. "I've never in my life resented two meters of space so much." 

 

"God, me too," Little said. "I feel like a teenager. What if... No, that's stupid."

 

"No," Thomas shook his head. "Tell me."

 

"What if…" Edward bit his bottom lip. "What if you described how you're going to kiss me?"

 

Thomas' gaze turned darker. "I can do that."

 

*

 

"We have an in with Des Voeux," Hickey was saying, much too loudly for Tozer's tastes.

 

"Lower your voice, will you." Tozer hissed, arms crossed behind his back. "The mess hall is not that big."

 

Tozer, Armitage, Gibson and Manson were all standing around Hickey's chair, trying to shield him from view.

 

"Armitage, you plays video games with him, don't you?" Hickey continued as if he hadn't heard him.

 

Armitage nodded. "Yes. He'd buy it. I've been hinting at it."

 

"Good lad. You would have done well in the army." Hickey folded an arm behind his head, stretching back to look at Armitage's body with appreciation.

 

Something about the gesture made Solomon's skin crawl. He had to resist the urge to stand protectively in front of Tommy to shield him from those hungry eyes.

 

"Can we focus?" Gibson snapped. Tozer was grateful for it.

 

Hickey looked at his boyfriend. Assuming, of course, that the trainwreck going between the two men had space for that label.   "Sure. Irving." Hickey turned to face John Irving. The man was standing across the room, glaring at them. "He might be interested in our product, too." He winked at John.

 

"That guy? Please." Gibson rolled his eyes. "He's too much of a goody-two-shoes. I bet he doesn't even wipe because he thinks touching your arse is sinful."

 

"Oh, I don't know about that." Hickey licked his vape pen's mouthpiece. "I bet his ass is fine."

 

"I agree with Gibson," Tozer said, because someone had to say something before Gibson punched either Hickey or Irving. "The man doesn't strike me as the type who can keep a secret."

 

"I disagree. I can assure you that John Irving is very skilled at hiding things from others… and from himself." Hickey straightened up on his seat, lowering his feet to the ground. "But it's true there are easier marks."

 

"Marks?" Tozer arched an eyebrow.

 

Hickey shrugged, his bony shoulders rising and falling. "Clients. Allies. Whatever you want to call them. And speaking of the devil…" 

 

Des Voeux had approached their table. "You look more entertaining than my labmates," he said. "What are you talking about?"

 

Hickey's grin widened until he looked like an especially demented Bugs Bunny. "Business, Mister Des Voeux. Will you sit with me?"

 

*

 

"...and then I would lift your chin," Jopson whispered. Edward leaned closer in his seat, wanting desperately to hear that low voice. "You would try to look away." Thomas smiled. "But I wouldn't let you. I would wait until you met my eyes, stay still for as long as I needed to, until I was certain I had your attention."

 

"Christ," Edward murmured, hands clenched into fists over his thighs.

 

"And you would look at me, wouldn't you?" Thomas' voice was gentle but firm. A shiver ran down Edward's spine. "Even though I know it'd be so hard for you. You'd do it because you love that I can do that for you. You love that I can get you so desperate that you forget how to be shy."

 

"Thomas," Edward breathed.

 

"Look at me, Edward," Thomas said. 

 

Edward gulped, his throat bobbing, and raised his eyes.

 

"You love it, don't you?" Thomas said.

 

Cheeks red, Edward nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do."

 

*

 

Goodsir sat on the edge of the buffet table, McDonald next to him. Through the condensation obscuring the front of the bottle he was using as a helmet, Harry could barely see the other doctor's face.

 

"Not one of them has a fever," Goodsir said, pointing the obvious. "Nor any other symptoms, either, apart from Mister Morfin's diarrhoea."

 

"It's incredible. I've been working as a cruise doctor for ten years. You can always count on about five per cent of the passengers to be ill." McDonald shook his head, his bottle-helmet bobbling precariously over his shoulders. "This might be the healthiest ship I've ever worked on."

 

Goodsir peered at the men-and Le Vesconte-in the mess hall. They were all chatting among themselves. Collins had even gotten bored and was taking a nap, curled up on one the tables like a hibernating bear. Everyone seemed fine.

 

"What now?" Goodsir said.

 

"There has to be another explanation for Morfin's symptoms." McDonald leaned back on his hands-and winced as he accidentally put his hand inside a bowl of lukewarm orange slices.

 

McDonald was still wiping his hand with a napkin when Morfin stood up and approached them. The two doctor straightened up.

 

"Everything alright, Mister Morfin?" Goodsir asked him.

 

"Yes, doctor," Morfin said. "Just one of my tension headaches. I have them all the time. Could I get something for it?"

 

"Of course." McDonald hopped off the buffet table and went for the bag full of medical equipment they had brought with them. "What do you usually take for them?"

 

"Oh, anything that doesn't have lactose in it will do," Morfin said.

 

The two doctors paused and looked at each other.

 

*

 

"...and as I unbuttoned your jeans, I would kiss your chest, your belly. I bet that by then you'd be hard for me," Thomas continued. "I would feel the heat of your skin through your underwear." He grinned devilishly. "Boxers or briefs, Edward?"

 

Edward looked to the side, at the nearest people around them, but Bridgens and Peglar seemed to be too busy chatting among themselves to notice how Thomas was torturing him. "...boxers," he said at last.

 

"Mmh," Thomas practically purred. "I like that. Would you like to know what I'm wearing under these slacks?"

 

Edward nodded. "Yes. Yes."

 

Thomas' eyes twinkled with mischief. "Nothing at all."

 

"Fuck." Edward squirmed on his seat, trying to subtly adjust himself before anyone could notice the erection forming between his legs.

 

There was no hiding it from Thomas, however. Not from two metres away. Thomas' expression softened as he saw the mortification in Edward's face. "Is that too much?"

 

"I…" Edward hesitated. "I don't know."

 

"I will stop if you need me to," Thomas said, with that kindergarten-teacher gentleness that always undid Edward. "I'm never going to push you to do anything you don't want to do, Edward."

 

"I know." Edward took a deep breath and released it slowly. He let go. "Don't stop."

 

Thomas smiled.

 

*

 

"John and I have sailed together for years, Doctor Goodsir," Diggle said as he ushered Goodsir into his kitchen. "I always make sure my food is properly labelled. I know how John gets when he eats anything with lactose."

 

The doctor had appeared at his door a few minutes ago, clad in an odd costume. Through the surgical mask and the fog obscuring the front of the bottle he was wearing over his head, the cook saw the doctor's conciliatory expression.

 

"I'm sure that you're very careful," Goodsir said. "I just want to make sure we have considered every option."

 

"I'm also very careful about never breaking the cold chain," Diggle said, anticipating another one of Goodsir's possible suggestions. "Even these past few days, when they were rationing electricity. I have a system to tell if anything has defrozen overnight."

 

"Really?" Goodsir perked up. "Fascinating! How does it work?"

 

"You freeze a cup of water and then you place a penny on top of the ice," Diggle explained, mollified by Goodsir's willingness to listen. "If one morning the penny is at the bottom of the cup..."

 

"The ice melted. Very clever!" Goodsir nodded thoughtfully, his head moving up and down inside its plastic prison.  "It's clear that you take very good care of your kitchen. But I want to do a little experiment so we can rule this out. Could I have a glass of milk?"

 

"What sort of milk?" The cook asked, grabbing a glass.

 

"The same brand that Morfin has been drinking," Goodsir said.

 

Diggle took the can of powdered milk from the shelf. "It's lactose-free. It says so right there." He tapped the sign on the can where the words 'Lactose-free' were printed in cursive.

 

"Still, it doesn't hurt to try," Goodsir said.

 

With a sigh, Diggle went through the business of filling a mug with water and heating it in the microwave. To say that he resented having to go through this would be putting it too mildly. Diggle had it up to his eyebrows with passengers trying to stick their noses into his pantry. But Diggle came from a generation that venerated physicians. He had a hard time saying no to one. 

 

Plus, this Goodsir fellow was the only doctor so far to take Morfin's health seriously. Diggle had been worried about John. He'd put up with a bit of nosiness if it meant helping his friend.

 

"What do you know about lactose intolerance, Mister Diggle?" Goodsir asked as they waited for the water to boil.

 

The microwave pinged. Diggle opened it and took the glass out. "I heard humans are the only animals that can drink milk as adults," he said.

 

"That's true," Goodsir confirmed. "All other animals stop being able to digest milk as they age. But humans had a very good reason to evolve the gene for lactose tolerance. You see, as homo sapiens left Africa and migrated to the North of Europe, they had to adapt to a colder climate. Suddenly they could no longer rely on sunlight to metabolize vitamin D. But milk is an acceptable source of that vitamin."

 

"So they evolved to drink milk." Diggle added three spoons of powdered milk into the water and stirred it.

 

"Yes! Exactly!" Goodsir said. "In fact, people of European descent are far more likely to tolerate lactose than people from other continents. But there's an exception… Thank you, Mister Diggle." He took the glass being offered to him.

 

"You're welcome," Diggle said.

 

"Anyway," Goodsir continued, "Some nomadic pastoralist tribes in Africa also evolved to be able to digest milk. They were people who lived in environments with very little vegetation, who traditionally depended on their cattle's milk as their main source of food. So of course it was advantageous for them to be able to digest it. But here's the interesting thing: both groups, the Europeans and these African tribes, evolved completely different genes to digest milk. Which is a great example of convergent evolution!"

 

Diggle crossed his arms. "You can drink the milk now, if you like."

 

"In a moment. Do you know how they make lactose-free milk?" Goodsir asked.

 

Diggle checked his watch. "They add lactase to it."

 

Goodsir took off his improvised helmet and placed it on table next to him. He lowered his surgical mask. There was a mark on the bridge of his nose, where the metal edge of the mask had been digging. "Exactly. It's as simple as adding to it the very enzyme that lactose-intolerant people lack." At last Goodsir took a sip of the glass. "Mmh. It's as I thought. This has lactose."

 

"What?" Diggle's eyes widened.

 

Goodsir lowered the glass. "Yes. You can taste the difference. Lactase turns lactose into a monosaccharide, which makes lactose-free milk sweeter. This tastes like regular milk."

 

"And you can tell that just from the taste?" Diggle frowned. That sounded pretty far-fetched.

 

"With some level of confidence," Goodsir admitted. "But I'll have definite proof soon."

 

"Why is that?" Diggle asked.

 

"Because I'm also lactose intolerant," Goodsir said.

 

And with those words, the doctor downed the entire glass.

 

*

 

"...and you'd feel so full, open and ready for me, taking me so well," Thomas said, his eyes all pupil, now.

 

"Fuck. Fuck." Edward had taken his jacket off earlier to cover his lap with it. "Keep going."

 

Thomas smiled teasingly. "Is that what you'll say when I do it?" 

 

Edward swallowed. "M-Maybe."

 

Thomas licked his lips. "Good boy."

 

Feeling like he was going crazy, Edward managed to say, "Am I?"

 

Thomas' laughter made Edward throb. "Yes, you are. Keep listening. You won't believe what comes next."

 

*

 

"I see," James said to the person on the phone. "Are you certain?"

 

Francis gestured at him to share whatever had been said, but James lifted a hand, wordlessly asking him to be patient. Francis took a deep breath and tried not to stare at him too obviously as the phone call continued. He squirmed on his seat across from James and tapped nervously on the man's desk.  The last few hours hadn't been easy. Jopson had texted him a few minutes ago to tell him that he was in quarantine, too.

 

"How about your spouse? Roommates?" James insisted. 

 

James was good at hounding people. It had surprised Francis when they had first started calling their former sponsor: the man could project an air of authority fit for a war general. Francis was so used to seeing him use his charm to get his way that he hadn't expected him to be able to assert himself like that.

 

"Thank you. Yes, of course, we'll keep you updated. Take care." James finally hung up.

 

"So?" Francis asked, sitting straighter.

 

James left his phone on his desk. "None of the coast guards are feeling even remotely ill."

 

Francis wasn't quite as reassured by this news as he ought to be. He got the feeling that neither was James.

 

Still, as a scientist, it was time to accept the evidence. "Right. Ockham's razor. Morfin must simply have a mean case of indigestion."

 

"Yes, he must be. I shouldn't be surprised. Doctor Stanley told me he's been having them the entire trip. I should have known it'd be nothing but that." James rubbed the back of his neck. He appeared to have a backache.

 

Francis caught himself thinking of offering him a massage. He shook his head. Christ, Francis, he thought, get a grip. "The situation is getting to us. It's perfectly normal."

 

"Yes, I suppose." James seemed to have found the point of his neck that was giving him trouble. As he rubbed at it, his face relaxed minutely.

 

No wonder James was the media's darling, Francis thought. He was absurdly handsome. His masculine features were softened by his curling hair. His eyes were warm and expressive; the sort of eyes that invited one to trust him. And Francis had seen enough pictures of him doing yoga in his underpants on the man's Twitter account to know how fit and strong he was. Someone like Francis, with his soft belly and a beard that barely managed to hide the lines in his face, couldn't compete with that. If he'd had to choose someone to play the role of environmental influencer, he would have picked James, too.

 

The absurdity of their flirtation struck him. What could an old man like Francis offer to a young pretty thing like James? Would James have looked at him if they weren't trapped in a ship? It was like Sophia all over again: the two of them stuck in that platypus reservoir, watching those strange animals' odd mating habits until even Francis had to look like a suitable match to Sophia.

 

A lopsided little grin appeared on James' face. "Though I suppose it's not all bad. Did you see those threads with pictures of wild animals returning to places occupied by humans?1"

 

Crozier snorted. "Christ, yes. Nature healing itself. Hah. My entire family won't stop sending me those pictures."

 

"Come on." James' smile widened. "Even a curmudgeon like you must admit they're nice. They've certainly filled me with hope for the future of the planet."

 

"Hah! Now that's a good one!" Francis laughed. 

 

To his surprise, James didn't join him. Instead, the man looked confused by his reaction. 

 

Francis blinked, perplexed. "Oh. Were you serious?"

 

"Yes, of course." James' brow furrowed. "Why are you laughing?"

 

Feeling awkward, Francis squirmed in his seat. "Isn't it obvious?" By the look of it, it wasn't to James, who kept peering at him with a disconcerted expression that now bordered on annoyed. "The pollution levels might have decreased somewhat, but the moment the lockdown ends they'll go back to normal."

 

"Do you really think after the pandemic everything will go back to normal?" James seemed bewildered by the concept.

 

"Don't you?" Francis said.

 

"No, of course not." James replied. "This pandemic will change everything. Don't you see it? We're finally united by something greater than ourselves."

 

"United?" Francis sputtered. "Have you been following the news? Countries are squabbling over the handful of respirators and masks left like children left unattended!"

 

"And people will realize they don't want people like that running their countries!" James said. "They'll demand a better class of leader, more international cooperation-"

 

"Like they have for climate change?" Francis asked in disbelief.

 

"They were going to, eventually!" James said defensively.

 

"Are you kidding?" Francis shook his head. "Do you know anything about people?"

 

"I know that you don't give them enough credit!" James stood up.

 

Francis pushed himself to his feet. "I give them exactly as much credit as they deserve, which is none at all. I've been researching climate change since the nineties-"

 

James rolled his eyes. "Don't you try to use the seniority card with me!"

 

Francis felt his cheeks grow hot at the reminder of the distance between their ages. "Fine, then I'll use evidence!" he snapped. "Can you point to a single sign that the average person cares about anything but their personal comfort?"

 

"Are you blind?" James said. "People are greener now than ever!"

 

This time, Francis couldn't stop his surprised laugh. "Are they, now?"

 

James' face turned red. "Yes! Yes, they are! If you talked with people instead of locking yourself in your ivory tower, you'll see the lifestyle changes they-"

 

"Lifestyle changes!" Francis interrupted him. "Is that your evidence?"

 

"What other evidence do you want?" James said, frustrated.

 

"Organized action!" Francis hit the desk with the flat of his hand. "Systemic change! You can't stop global warming by eating kale and using bamboo toothbrushes!"

 

James' shoulders rose up defensively. "Changing your consuming habits is the first step to-"

 

"You can't solve systemic problems with individual actions!" Francis insisted. "That's… neoliberal propaganda!"

 

James gaped at him. "Are you calling me…" His face twisted in disgust. "Neoliberal?"

 

"Oh, come on." Francis rolled his eyes. "I'm sorry you didn't seem to realize it until now, but I can't possibly be the first one to tell you. Your solution to climate change was organizing a very contaminating *cruise* sponsored by the world's *biggest plastic polluter*!" Francis exclaimed. "You brag about having met a man who staged a coup against Bolivia to steal their lithium! Your entire… personal brand, or whatever you want to call it, is empty feel-good quotes and corporate-friendly ecologism! You enable lobbyists and whitewash capitalism's crimes! If I had to choose the face of neoliberal environmentalism, it'd be yours!"

 

In the silence that followed, even Francis realized that he had gone too far.

 

James looked devastated. For a few long moments, neither man did anything. In the background, Francis could hear the sound of the ship's engines.

 

When James finally spoke, he sounded suspiciously calm. "Is that what you think of me?"

 

Francis stuck his hands in his pockets. He tapped his shoe on the ground. "Perhaps I was too harsh," he muttered.

 

"But it *is* what you think," James pressed on.

 

Francis couldn't bring himself to deny it. Because the thing was, it was true. It was what Francis thought of him. James was iron-willed and principled, hard-working and honourable. These past few weeks, Francis had been lucky to know the best parts of him. 

 

But when it came down to it, James was complicit with the very environmental crimes Francis had spent his entire career fighting.

 

It hadn't always been like that.

 

Francis still remembered reading James' blog nearly a decade ago and being struck by how passionately he talked about global warming.

 

But now, more than ten years later…

 

Francis couldn't deny a word of what he had said.

 

"I see," James said eventually. He took a deep breath and straightened up, his chin raised proudly. "Get out of my office."

 

"Wait, please," Francis begged. "Let's discuss this first-"

 

There was a knock on the door.

 

After some hesitation, James said, "Come in."

 

Goodsir walked through the door. "Good afternoon. I'm afraid I have some bad news." Seeming to sense the tension in the cabin, he hesitated at the door. "I can come back later."

 

James sat down. "No, it's fine. What is it?"

 

Goodsir walked into the office. He squirmed, uncomfortable. "I have reasons to believe that the food in our pantry is mislabeled. The lactose-free milk contains lactose, and other products likely contain other allergens as well."

 

"What?" Francis cast his memory back, remembering a half-forgotten conversation that they had during the cruise's inaugural dinner. "The caterer. Who hired them?"

 

"Franklin did," James replied, a bit more sharply than was warranted. "Are you sure of that, Goodsir?"

 

"Positive. In fact," he rocked in his heels, "if you'll excuse me, I have to go tend to some urgent matters."

 

And after those last words, he fled the room.

 

"What the-" Francis followed him out of the office, concerned.

 

He was quick enough to see Goodsir disappear past the bathroom door at the end of the corridor.

 

Well, Francis thought, this was no good.

 

There was no toilet paper in the bathroom.

---

FOOTNOTE:

1 Later, it would be discovered that many of these pictures were hoaxes, and either doctored or from a different time and place. Experts called this "a total bummer." [ ▲ ]