On the Beach - Nevil Shute
A New Appointment
Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes, of the Royal Australian Navy, woke early. He lay half-asleep for a time and watched the first light of the Australian sun on the window. The position of the sun showed that it was nearly five o'clock. Very soon, the light would wake his baby daughter, Jennifer. There was no need to get up until that happened.
He woke happy, and he was not sure why. Then he remembered the date. This was Thursday, 27th December. Today he had to go to the Navy Department in Melbourne. He had to be there at eleven o'clock and he was hoping to receive a new appointment. If he got it, it would be his first work for five months. He hoped that he would be sent to sea again. He liked the sea better than a job on land.
He was happy because he would have work to do. He had not had any work since the Navy made him a Lieutenant Commander. That was in August, and he had almost lost hope of working again. But the Navy Office had paid him during these months, and he was grateful for that.
His wife Mary woke and asked him the time. He kissed her and left the room to make some tea.
'It's a beautiful morning again,' he said when he came back.
'You're going to Melbourne today, aren't you?' she said. 'I think I'll stay at home. I can sit under the trees. It's going to be a hot day. Shall we meet this afternoon at the club? About four o'clock? We could have a swim there.'
They had a small car in the garage. Since the short war had ended, they had never used it. It had been in the garage for a year now. But Peter Holmes was a clever man with his hands. He had built a cart with two wheels that he pulled behind the car. Both
Mary and he had bicycles. He had fixed metal ties to the bicycles so that either he or she could use their bicycle to pull the cart. It could carry their daughter Jennifer or the shopping. Their main difficulty was the long hill up from Falmouth.
'A swim at the club isn't a bad idea,' he agreed. 'I'll take my bicycle and leave it at the station.'
'Yes. Take your bicycle. What train have you got to catch?'
'The five past nine.' He drank some tea and looked at his watch. 'I'll go and get the milk as soon as I've drunk this.'
He dressed and went out. They lived on the ground floor of an old house. It stood on the hill above the town. In his share of the building, he had the garage and a good part of the garden. The car in the garage was a Morris. The Morris was his first car and he had had it when he met Mary.
He and Mary were married before the war. After the war started, he sailed away in the warship Anzac. They had expected that it would be a long war, but it did not last long. It quickly spread over the whole of the northern world, and there were a lot of explosions in different places. It died away with the last terrible explosion on the thirty-seventh day. At the end of the third month he had returned to Williamstown and then to his wife Mary and his Morris car.
The car had a little petrol in it. He bought some more and used it. But then Australians began to realize that all their oil came from the north.
He pulled the cart on to the grass near the house. He fixed it to his bicycle and rode away. He had to go six kilometres to get the milk. There were not many cars in use now in Australia; there was no petrol. So milk was never brought to the houses. He or Mary always went for it and carried it home in the cart.
There was not much traffic on the road. He passed something that had once been a car; but now the engine had gone, and the old car was pulled by a horse. He also passed two men on horses.
He did not want a horse for himself. Horses were sometimes ill, and they cost a lot of money now. Some of them cost a thousand pounds or more.
He reached the farm in half an hour and found the farmer immediately.
'Good morning, Mr Paul,' said the Lieutenant Commander. 'How are you today?'
'Good,' was the reply. The farmer filled his milk can. 'How are you today? Is everything all right with you?'
'Yes, thanks. I've got to go to Melbourne. I have an appointment at the Navy Department. I think they've got a job for me.'
'That'll be a good thing,' the farmer said.
'Yes. If I have to go away to sea it'll be difficult, but Mary can come for the milk twice a week. She'll bring the money.'
The farmer said, 'You don't have to worry about the money until you come back. I've got more milk than the pigs need, even in this dry weather. I threw some away last night. I should get some more pigs, perhaps, but I'm not sure about the future.'
He stood in silence for a moment. Then he spoke again. 'Won't it be difficult for your wife? What will she do with Jennifer when she comes here?'
'She'll bring Jennifer too, perhaps, in the cart.'
'Not very easy, that!' The farmer walked away and looked closely at the cart.
'That's a good cart,' he said. 'I never saw a better one. You made it yourself, didn't you?'
'That's right,' said Peter.
'Where did you get the wheels, if I may ask?'
'They came off old bicycles. I got them in Elizabeth Street.' 'Could you find two for me?'
'I could try,' Peter said. 'They're better than the little wheels. They're easier to pull. But there aren't many now.'
'I was telling my wife about wheels,' the farmer said slowly. 'If I had a little cart like that, it would be useful. I could make it like a chair for the wife, fix it behind the bicycle and take her into Falmouth. She could go to the shops. It's very lonely for a woman in this place. It's not like before the war. She could take the car and reach the town in twenty minutes in those days, but now the horse and cart takes three and a half hours there and three and a half hours back. That's seven hours for travelling alone. That's a very long time. She tried to learn to ride the bicycle, but she'll never do it, not at her age. But if I had a cart, I could take her into Falmouth. We could go twice a week, and we could take the milk to Mrs Holmes at the same time.'
He paused. 'I want to do that for her. The radio says that we haven't got long now.'
'I'll have a look in town,' said Peter. 'You're able to pay a good price for the wheels?'
'Yes. But I want good tyres on them. Good tyres, that's the main thing. Like yours. But you'll have to go to a lot of shops.' 'I'll go by streetcar,' said Peter. 'Thank God for the coal.'
'How do they get the coal out? Do they dig it out with machines?'
'Yes. And then it's used to make electricity for the streetcars.' 'Where do they get the oil for the machines?'
'They make it from coal, but it costs a lot of money.'
Peter took the milk cans and put them in the cart. Then he started for home. It was half past six when he arrived.
He had a bath and put on his uniform. Then he ate his breakfast and rode his bicycle down the hill. Some horses were standing near the station. Cars used to stand there in the old days, but nobody used a car now. The speed of business life was getting slower.
He travelled to the city deep in thought. He was thinking about his new appointment, and he looked down at his uniform.
The Royal Australian Navy was very small now. It had only seven small ships, and they burned coal instead of oil. But the aircraft carrier Melbourne had not been changed to coal. If she burned coal, she would not be fast enough and aircraft would not be able to land safely on her.
He began to think again about his new appointment. Perhaps an officer was sick, and someone had to take his place. Or perhaps he was going to get an appointment on land. But he would rather go to sea again.
He reached the city in about an hour. He walked out of the station and got on a streetcar. There was not much other traffic and the streetcar took him quickly to the few shops that were open. He began to look for two light wheels in good condition. After he found them, he took a streetcar back to the Navy Department.
He put the wheels down in one of the offices and spoke a word or two to a young officer that he knew. The officer left him and went into the Admiral's office. Peter looked anxiously down at his uniform and put his hat under his arm.
The young officer soon returned. 'The Admiral will see you now, sir,' he said.
Peter marched into the Admiral's office. He found the Admiral sitting at his desk.
'Good morning, Lieutenant-Commander,' he said. 'You may sit down.'
Peter sat down in the chair beside the desk.
'You haven't had work for some time?' the Admiral said.
'That's correct, sir.'
'Well, I've got an appointment for you — an appointment at sea. I can't put you in one of our own ships. You're going to an American ship — USS Scorpion.'
He looked up at the younger man. 'I understand that you've met Commander Towers.'
'Yes, sir.' Peter had met the captain of Scorpion two or three times. The captain was about thirty-five and came from New England. When the war began, he had been in his submarine. Peter had read his report. Towers was at that time between Kiska and Midway, but he headed for Manila. His engines were driven by nuclear power and he had travelled at full speed. On the fourth day, the submarine was north of Iwojima. Towers had put his periscope up to have a look over the sea, but he could not see much. The air seemed to be full of dust. At the same time, the detector on his periscope showed a large amount of radioactivity. He tried to report this to Pearl Harbor, but he got no reply. The submarine continued, and the radioactivity grew greater near the Philippines.
Next night he sent a message to Dutch Harbor. He wanted the message to be sent on to his Admiral, but he was told that many signals were not getting through. He got no reply.
On the next night, he was unable to communicate with Dutch Harbor. He headed for Luzon. In the Balintang Channel, he found a lot of dust and radioactivity. On the seventh day, he was in Manila Bay and he looked at the city through the periscope. The detector showed less radioactivity, but it was still dangerous. He did not want to take the submarine up to the surface. He could see smoke above the city. He thought that there had been a nuclear explosion here, or more than one, perhaps. He could see nothing moving on the beach. He went closer, but his submarine touched bottom in the main channel. Now he was sure that a nuclear explosion had changed the shape of the bottom of the sea.
He rose from the bottom and started for the open sea. The coast was soon far away. That night he failed to communicate with any radio station or ship. He had now been under water for eight days. The men did not seem to be ill, but some were anxious about their homes. Finally, he was able to communicate with an Australian radio station at Port Moresby. Conditions there seemed to be as usual. It seemed that the best course was to the south so he turned towards Yap Island and reached it three days later. There the radioactivity was low and he came to the surface.
He blew some clean air through his ship and let the men go out in groups. He was glad to find an American warship there. He crossed to the big ship in a boat. He put himself under the orders of the ship's captain, Captain Shaw.
There he learned for the first time about the Russo — Chinese war that had come out of the Russo — NATO war, which had in turn followed the Arab — Israeli war. He learned about the use of cobalt bombs by the Russians and the Chinese.
The big warship was waiting at Yap for oil. She had been there for a week and she had heard no news from the United States for the last five days. The captain had enough oil to take his ship to Brisbane, but no more.
Commander Towers stayed at Yap for six days. He hoped that no cobalt bombs would fall there. The news grew worse every day. They were unable to communicate with any radio station in the United States or Europe, but they were able to hear the news from Mexico City for two days and the news was as bad as it could be. Then they heard nothing more from Mexico City.
They could hear stations in Panama, Bogota and Valparaiso, but these places had no news about the north. They managed to communicate with a few ships of the United States Navy. Most of them, like themselves, had a little oil. The captain of the warship at Yap ordered all US ships to go to Brisbane, and put themselves under Australian command.
Two weeks later, he met them all there: eleven ships of the US Navy. Not one of them had any fuel and there was little hope of getting any. That was a year ago and they were still there.
Towers could find nuclear fuel for USS Scorpion, but there was none ready when the submarine arrived so they waited for some time at Williamstown. After the nuclear fuel was prepared,
Scorpion was able to move. She sailed to Rio de Janeiro, carrying nuclear fuel for another US submarine. After that, Scorpion returned to Melbourne.
All this was known to Peter Holmes, and it passed quickly through his mind. He sat in front of the Admirals desk and thought about Commander Towers. The appointment that the Admiral offered him was a new one. There had been no Australian officer in Scorpion when the submarine had visited South America. He thought about Mary and his little daughter. 'How long will this appointment last, sir?' he asked.
'Perhaps a year,' replied the Admiral. 'This will probably be your last appointment, Holmes.'
'I know, sir. I'm very grateful for the opportunity. Will the ship be at sea long, sir? I'm married and we've got a baby. Things aren't easy at home, and there isn't much time now.'
The Admiral agreed. 'We're all in the same position, of course. I shall not criticize you if you don't want to accept. But if you don't accept, I can't offer much hope of anything else. The ship will be ready on the fourth of the month. That's about a week from now. Then she will sail to Cairns, Port Moresby and Port Darwin. She will report on conditions in those places. Then she will return to Williamstown. Commander Towers thinks that all this will take eleven days. After that, there may be a longer trip for her. It may last two months.'
'Will there be any time between the two trips, sir?'
'I expect so. Perhaps two weeks.'
'And nothing after that?'
'We know nothing at the present time.'
The younger officer sat in thought for a moment. He thought about his wife, the baby and the milk they needed. It was summer weather, and nobody needed to cut wood for the fire. He could be home before the middle of April. That was before fires were needed in the house. Perhaps the farmer would help Mary if he was away longer. He had got the wheels for the farmer's cart. But if the electricity failed, or if the radioactivity spread south quickly… It was better not to think of that.
Mary would be angry if he refused the appointment. She was an officer's daughter from South sea, England. He had met her there when he was doing his sea time with the Royal Navy.
He lifted his head. 'I should be all right for those two trips, sir,' he said. 'Is it possible to decide later about anything else? It is difficult to make plans now.'
The Admiral agreed. 'I can fix that, Holmes,' he said. 'I'll give you this job for five months, until the thirty-first of May. Report to me again when you get back from the second trip and we'll discuss the situation.'
'Very good, sir.'
'You'll report to Scorpion on Tuesday. That's New Year's Day. Wait outside my office for your letter to the captain. The submarine's at Williamstown with her mother ship, Sydney.'
'I know, sir.'
The Admiral stood up. 'Right, Lieutenant-Commander!' He held out his hand. 'I hope you'll enjoy your appointment.'
Peter Holmes shook hands. 'Thank you, sir,' he said. He paused before leaving the room. 'Do you know if Commander Towers is on board today?' he asked. 'Perhaps I could meet him and see the ship.'
'I believe he's on board,' said the Admiral. 'You can telephone to Sydney. An electric car is leaving from the main gate soon. Half past eleven. You'll be able to catch that.'
Twenty minutes later Peter Holmes was sitting by the driver of the electric car. It took him to Williamstown. The streets were empty and the vehicle moved along at thirty kilometres an hour. At Williamstown Holmes walked down to Sydney, an aircraft carrier. He went on board, and down to the officers' living quarters.
There were only about twelve officers there. The captain of Scorpion was one of them. He came forward, smiling, to meet Peter.
'I'm glad to see that you could come down,' Towers said.
'I hoped you wouldn't mind, sir. I'm joining the ship on Tuesday. I was at the Navy Department. Perhaps I could have a look around the ship.'
'Of course,' said the captain. 'Admiral Grimwade told me that you were joining us. I was glad to hear it. I'd like you to meet some of my officers.' He turned to the others. 'This is my chief officer, Mr Farrell, and this is my engineering officer, Mr Lundgren.' He smiled. 'We need some good engineers to look after our motors. Here are Mr Benson, Mr O'Doherty and Mr Hirsch.' The captain turned back to Peter. 'Shall we have a drink before lunch, Commander?'
The Australian thanked him and the captain rang a bell.
'How many officers do you have in Scorpion, sir?' Peter asked.
'Eleven if you include the chief officer. She's quite a big submarine, of course, and we carry four engineering officers.'
'You must have a big living area.'
'There's a crowd when we're all there together, but that doesn't happen very often in a submarine. We've got a bed for you, Commander.'
They had lunch in Sydney and then they went down into Scorpion. She was the biggest submarine that Peter Holmes had ever seen. Her engines used nuclear power. In addition to her eleven officers, she carried about seventy other men.
Peter spent about an hour in the engine room with the engineering officer, Lieutenant-Commander Lundgren. He had never served in a ship with nuclear power, so some of the equipment was new to him. When he had seen everything, he went back to the captain's quarters and they drank some coffee together.
'I have to report to you on Tuesday,' Peter said. 'Those are my orders. What time shall I come on board, sir?'
'We're going to take stores on board on Monday. The men will come on board then too.'
'I should report to you at the same time,' said the Australian. 'Some time on Monday morning?'
The captain agreed. 'I think we'll leave at midday on Tuesday. I told the Admiral I wanted to make a short trip. I have to test everything. If you're on board on Monday morning, that'll be fine.' He looked at Peter. 'Has anyone told you the real purpose of our journey?'
The Australian was surprised. 'Haven't they told you anything about it, sir?'
The American laughed. 'Not a thing. The last person who hears the orders is the captain!'
'I learned something at the Navy Department,' Peter said. 'I was told that you were making a trip to Cairns, Port Moresby and Darwin. They said that it would take eleven days. After that there would be a longer trip — about two months.'
Commander Towers was surprised. 'That's news to me,' he said. 'Where are we going? Did he tell you?'
Peter shook his head. 'He just said it would take about two months.'
There was a short silence. Then the American smiled. 'I guess that will give me something to do,' he said.
The Australian looked at him and changed the subject. 'Aren't you going away for the weekend?' he asked.
The captain shook his head. 'I'll stay around. Perhaps I'll go to the city one day.'
It did not seem the best way of spending the weekend. The captain was far from home, and did not know a lot of people in Australia.
Peter said suddenly, 'Would you like to come to Falmouth for a night or two, sir? We have a room. My wife would like it if you could come.'
'That's extremely nice of you,' the captain said. He drank some more coffee and thought about it. People from the north rarely mixed with Australians now. Too much stood between them. Their experiences were too different; he knew that very well, and he knew that the Australian officer knew it. But he should know more about him. If he went to the Australian's home, he would learn a lot. The change would be good for him too and it would be better than the empty aircraft carrier.
'Wouldn't it be difficult for your wife?' he asked.
Peter shook his head. 'She'd like it,' he said. 'She doesn't see a lot of new faces.'
'I certainly would like to come for one night,' said the American. 'I'll have to stay here tomorrow. But a swim on Saturday would be nice. Shall I come on Saturday on the train? I must be back here on Sunday.'
'I'll meet you at the station,' Peter said. 'Can you ride a bicycle?'
'Yes, I can.'
'I'll bring another bicycle with me to the station,' Peter said. 'We live about three kilometres from the station.'
'That's a good idea,' said Commander Towers.
His own red car was just a dream now. It was probably still in the garage of his Connecticut home, with all the other things he tried not to think about. He had to live in the new world and forget the old. So now, it was bicycles at the station, not a car in the garage.
Peter left and went to catch the electric car to the Navy Department. He collected his wheels, got on a streetcar, and went to the station. He got back to Falmouth at about six o'clock, hung the wheels on the bicycle and rode heavily up the hill. He reached home about half an hour later. Mary was sitting on the grass and came to meet him.
'Oh, Peter, you're so hot!' she said. 'I see you got the wheels.' 'Yes. I'm sorry I didn't come to the beach.'
'I guessed you were busy,' she said. 'We left the beach and came home at half past five. What happened about the appointment?' 'It's a long story,' he answered. 'I'll have a bath first and tell you then.'
'Good or bad?'
'Good,' he said. 'At sea until April. Nothing after that.'
'Oh, Peter, that's wonderful! Go and have your bath and then tell me about it.'
A quarter of an hour later, he was telling her. At the end he asked, 'Have you ever met Commander Towers?'
She shook her head. 'Jane Freeman met him once. She said he was rather nice. Will you like serving under him?'
'I think so. He's very clever. It's going to be strange at first in an American ship. But I like him. I've asked him to stay here.'
She looked at him in surprise. 'Oh, Peter, he won't like it. It's always too sad for the people from the north. They come into Australian homes and think of their own.'
'He'll be all right. He's older than most of them.'
'How long will he stay?'
'Only one night. He has to be back in Scorpion on Sunday.'
'If it's only one night, it shouldn't be too bad,' she said. 'We'll have to find him plenty to do. We must keep him busy. What does he like?'
'Swimming,' he told her. 'He wants to have a swim.'
'Does he like sailing? There's a race on Saturday.'
'I didn't ask him.'
'We could take him to the cinema.'
'It might be about America,' he said. 'Pictures of America in the old days.'
'Oh!' she cried. 'That would be terrible. Was he married?'
'I don't know. I think he was.'
She thought for a moment. 'Perhaps Moira Davidson would come.'
'If she isn't drunk,' he said. 'She drinks too much.'
'She's not like that all the time,' his wife replied. 'If she comes, she'll make him laugh.'
'It's not a bad idea,' he said. 'I could tell Moira about him. I could explain about the cinema. They don't need to go there.' Mary telephoned Moira Davidson that evening. She told her about the American. 'Can you come and help us, dear? Keep him busy.'
Moira was not sure. 'What kind of man is he?' she asked. 'Will he start to cry and tell me all about his wife? Will he say I'm just like her? Some of them do that.'
'I've never met him,' said Mary uncertainly. 'I'll ask Peter.'
She soon came back to the telephone. 'Peter says the American will beat you. He'll get drunk and hit you until you're black and blue.'
'That's better,' said Miss Davidson. 'All right. I'll come over on Saturday morning.'
On Saturday morning, Peter Holmes rode down to Falmouth. He met Moira Davidson there. She arrived in a small cart with four wheels pulled by a horse. She had straight hair and a white face and was wearing bright red trousers and a bright red shirt. 'Morning, Peter!' she said. 'Where's your friend?'
'He'll be on the next train,' he said. 'What time did you leave home?' She had driven thirty kilometres to Falmouth.
'Eight o'clock,' she said. 'Terrible!'
'Have you had breakfast?'
'Yes, thanks,' she answered. They walked to the station.
'What time did you get to bed?' Peter asked.
'About half past two.'
'How do you do it?' he said. 'I couldn't do it.'
'I can,' she said. 'I can go on as long as I must. That's not long now, is it? Why should I spend time sleeping?' She laughed rather loudly. 'It doesn't make sense.'
He did not reply because she was quite right. They waited together until the train came in. They met Commander Towers, who was not in uniform.
Peter Holmes introduced him and the American remembered the bicycle.
'I haven't ridden a bicycle in years,' he said. 'I'll fall off.'
'We've got something better for you than that,' said Peter. 'Moira has brought her cart.'
'Only one horse,' said Moira. 'But we can do about twelve kilometres an hour on a flat road.'
They reached the cart and stopped. The American stood back to admire it.
'Say!' he cried. 'That's quite a cart!'
'I've got my bicycle here,' Peter said. 'I'll ride it up the hill and meet you at the house.'
Commander Towers climbed into the cart and Moira got up beside him.
'I want a drink,' she said. 'Peter's a dear, and Mary too, but they don't drink enough.'
Towers was very surprised. He had not met a girl like this for a long time. 'I'll go along with you,' he said. 'I need a drink.'
'Then that makes two of us,' she noted. She drove the cart badly. A few cars stood in the street. They had been there for a year because there was no petrol. She stopped at a hotel and they went in.
'What can I order for you?' Towers asked.
'Something strong — a large one with a lot of ice.'
He watched her while she drank. 'You drink quite a lot, don't you?' he said.
'They tell me so. What's your name?'
'Dwight,' he told her. 'Dwight Lionel.'
'Dwight Lionel Towers,' she repeated. 'I'm Moira Davidson. You're the captain of a submarine, aren't you?'
She finished her drink, and he bought her another.
'How do you spend your time?' she asked.
'Fishing, generally,' he said. He remembered a holiday long ago with his wife, but he put the thought away. One must forget the past. 'I swim too. I like going to the beach.'
'There's a sailing race this afternoon,' she said. 'We can sail Peter's boat. Do you like sailing?'
'I'll say I do,' he replied. 'But come along. The Holmeses will be waiting.'
They went to the cart and got in. The horse ran off as soon as they were in it. Towers was a little surprised. How could anyone drive so badly?
They reached the house, and Peter and Mary came out to meet them.
'I'm sorry we're late, Mary,' Moira said calmly. 'I couldn't get Commander Towers away from his drink.'
'We've had quite a ride,' the submarine commander said. He got down and was introduced to Mary. Then he looked after the horse, which was very hot.
That afternoon Mary stayed at home, and the others rode bicycles to the sailing club. They got the boat out and Moira and Towers sailed it to the starting line. Peter watched the race from the beach at the club. Towers had never sailed a boat of this kind before, but he was quick to learn. Then at one point, the wind blew hard and turned the boat over. With some difficulty, they turned her back over and climbed in again. They completed the course in second to last position.
After they had left the boat, the three of them had a swim. The American looked round at the blue water and the bright beach. 'This is a good place here,' he said quietly. 'It's a nice little club.'
'That's because they aren't too serious about anything,' said Peter. 'A few people are coming for drinks this evening. We can have some dinner at the hotel first; that'll help, Mary. Perhaps we should dress now.'
'Never be serious about anything,' Moira said. 'When do we start drinking again?'
They dressed and rode home on their bicycles. Moira talked a lot. She was hoping to help Towers forget the past.
She went off with Peter to catch the horse. 'How am I doing?' she asked.
He laughed. 'You're doing all right,' he answered.
They went to the hotel in the cart and had some dinner. Then they drove back up the hill and left the horse in the field.
People soon began to arrive for the party, and the submarine commander enjoyed himself. When the guests left, they rode away on bicycles.
'Nice party!' said Towers. 'Really nice people.'
They sat in the garden. The fresh air was good after the hot rooms. Moira demanded a large strong drink and a lot of ice, and Towers brought it.
'You should go to bed earlier,' he said.
'Why? What's the use of anything now? I never go to bed early.'
He did not try to answer that.
'Where are you going in your submarine?' she asked.
'People are saying we're going to Port Moresby.'
'Is anyone alive there still? I thought it was a dead place.'
'I believe it is. They haven't had any radio communication from there for a long time.'
'You can't go on land if it's dead, can you?'
'No,' he said, 'but somebody has to go and look some time. We won't get out of the ship if there's a lot of radiation. I won't even come to the surface.' He paused and there was silence in the garden. 'Someone should go and see a lot of places,' he went on. 'Some radio signals are still coming from a place near Seattle. The signals don't make any sense. They're just letters. Sometimes there's nothing for two weeks, and then some more signals come. Perhaps somebody's alive up there, but he doesn't know how to send messages. Somebody should go and see.'
'Could anybody be alive up there? Is it possible?'
'I don't think so. It's just possible, of course. He could be in a closed room. All his food and water could be in there with him, stored in the room. But it isn't really possible.'
'Is it true that Cairns is dead, Dwight?'
'I think so — Cairns and Darwin. Perhaps we'll have to go and see those too. Perhaps Peter is coming with us because he knows those waters.'
'Somebody was saying that they've got radiation sickness in Townsville now. Do you think that's right?'
'I don't really know,' said Towers. 'I hadn't heard it, but it might be right. It's south of Cairns.'
'Is the sickness going to spread down here until it gets us?' 'They say so.'
'Nobody ever dropped a bomb in this part of the world,' she said angrily. 'Why must it come to us? Can't anything be done to stop it?'
He shook his head. 'Not a thing. It's the wind. You can't escape from the wind. You just can't. You have to do your best, but you can't escape.'
'I don't understand it,' she said. 'People were saying once that the wind didn't blow from the north, so we should be safe.' 'We'll never be safe,' he said quietly. 'If the wind didn't blow it down here, the radiation would come in other ways. It's in the dust. There's already more here than there used to be.'
'That doesn't seem to hurt us,' she said.
There was a silence.
'Why is it taking so long, Dwight?' she asked. 'Why doesn't the wind blow the dust here now?'
'The winds blow round the earth in the north,' he explained. 'They usually blow towards the west and the east. They do the same in the south. They go round and round; they don't often blow north to south. So it's taking a long time, but the dust is coming; it s coming.'
'I won't accept it,' she cried. 'Nobody ever dropped a cobalt bomb in the south, or any other kind of bomb. We didn't do anything. Why must we die because other countries wanted a war? They're fifteen or sixteen thousand kilometres away from us. And we have to die. It's not fair.'
'It isn't fair,' he said, 'but it's coming.'
'I don't mind dying,' she said. 'But I'm going to miss so many things. I'll never leave Australia. All my life I've wanted to go to Paris. I've wanted to see the Rue de Rivoli. But now there isn't any Paris, or London, or New York.'
He smiled at her gently. 'Paris may still be there. I don't know if Paris got a cobalt bomb or not. Perhaps the sun's shining down on it now. I like to think of it like that. But people don't live there now. That's all.'
'I don't want to see a city of dead people,' she said. 'Get me another drink, Dwight.'
'I won't. You should be in bed.'
'Then I'll get it myself.' She marched angrily into the house, and soon came out with a drink. 'I was going home in March,' she cried. 'To London. I've planned it for years. I was going to spend six months in England and in Europe. Then I was coming back through America. But I can't go now. It's not fair.'
She drank the whole drink in one. 'Perhaps it'll kill me,' she said. She could not stand up very well. She laughed. 'It's really funny!' she cried. 'Mary said that I must keep you busy and help you forget the past. I mustn't let you cry!'
She began to cry herself, and fell to the floor.
Towers did not lift her up. He waited a moment, and then he went into the house. He found Mary in the kitchen.
'Mrs Holmes,' he said, 'perhaps you should go outside and look after Miss Davidson. She has had too much to drink. I think she needs someone.'
Preparing to Leave
In the morning, Peter went for the milk. He took the cart.
'I've got to report for duty tomorrow,' he said to the farmer. 'I won't be able to come for the milk.'
'That'll be all right,' said Mr Paul. 'Leave everything to me. Tuesdays and Saturdays I'll take the milk to Mrs Holmes.'
Peter got back to his house at eight o'clock. He had a bath, dressed and began to help Mary with the breakfast. Commander Towers appeared at a quarter to nine, and he looked fresh and clean. Moira did not appear.
Breakfast was on the table and the three of them sat down. 'Do you want another swim?' Peter asked his guest. 'It's going to be another hot day.'
'I rather like going to church on Sunday morning,' the American said. 'Is there a church here?'
'It's just down the hill,' said Mary. 'Quite near. The service starts at eleven o'clock.'
'Perhaps I'll walk down there. Will that be all right?'
'Of course, sir,' said Peter. 'I don't think we'll come with you. I have a lot to do here.'
The captain agreed. 'Sure! I'll be back in time for lunch. Then I'll have to go back to the ship. I'll get a train at about three o'clock.'
He walked down to the church in the warm sunlight. He was early, but he went in. The little church was like the church at Mystic, his hometown. He sat down and thought about his family. He planned to go home to them in September — home from his travels — and to see them all again. The boy must be older now. He could teach him to fish. He remembered his little daughter, Helen, too. She must be nearly six now. His wife, Sharon, had the job of explaining to her that he was away at sea.
Later he walked out of the church with the others, but he knew nobody there and nobody knew him. He walked up the hill and thought about Scorpion.
At the house he found Mary and Moira Davidson. 'The church was full,' he said, and sat down with them.
'Mary says you're going back to Williamstown this afternoon,' said Moira. 'Can't you stay and have another swim?'
He shook his head. 'I have a lot of work on board,' he said. 'We go to sea this week.'
'Do you work all the time?' Moira said.
He laughed. 'Do you do any work?' he asked.
'Of course. I'm a very busy woman. I drink and drink. Can I come and see your submarine next week?'
'No,' he said with a laugh. 'We're going to sea. I'll show it to you another time.'
He travelled back to Williamstown by train. There he went on board Sydney. He had two rooms on the ship and one of them was his office. Lieutenant Hirsch soon appeared with a lot of messages in his hand. One of these surprised the Commander a little. It said that a government scientist was coming on board. His name was Mr J. S. Osborne.
Towers looked up at the Lieutenant. 'Say, do you know anything about Mr Osborne?'
'He's here now, sir. He arrived this morning. I put him in the officers' quarters. The duty officer will give him his own room tonight.'
'Well, well!' said the captain. 'What does he look like?'
'He's very tall and thin, sir. About thirty.'
The Commander said, 'Ask Mr Osborne to come in.'
The scientist soon arrived. 'Well, Mr Osborne,' said Towers. 'This is a surprise. I'm glad to know you.'
'It was all decided quickly,' Osborne said. 'I only heard about it the day before yesterday.'
'Are you married?'
'Have you ever been to sea in a submarine before?'
'No,' said the scientist.
'There isn't much room,' said Towers. He looked at the man's good clothes. 'You'll need some other clothes. Ask Lieutenant Commander Holmes about that tomorrow morning. You'll get dirty when you go down into Scorpion. What are you going to do there?'
'I have orders to watch the radioactivity. I understand you're going on a trip to the north.'
'Everybody understands that except me. I'll probably be told one day. Do you expect an increase in radioactivity inside the ship?'
'I don't think so. But you'll want to know about that, won't you?'
They discussed scientific matters. In the evening, Osborne went down into Scorpion. He examined the radiation detector on the periscope. There was another detector in the ship's engine room.
A message arrived for Commander Towers on the next day. It explained about the trip.
On Tuesday Towers sailed away, to begin his sea tests. All afternoon they sailed round a boat, which contained some radioactive material. Osborne ran about the submarine and watched his detectors. At five o'clock, the tests ended and they turned away from the boat and the radioactive material. They stayed on the surface and sailed towards the west.
In the morning, they were off Cape Banks. There they went down to fifteen metres, but they sometimes came up to use the periscope and to look round. Then they left the Cape and sailed into open sea. On Thursday, they were north of King Island and turned the submarine towards home. They were back at Williamstown again on Friday.
That evening Dwight telephoned Moira Davidson. 'We got back safe and well,' he said.
'Can I come and see the submarine?' she asked.
'I'll be glad to show it to you. Tomorrow's the best day.'
She was glad. 'Shall I come to Williamstown station?' she asked.
'That's the best way. I'll meet you there.'
'Good! Meet the first train after half past eleven.'
She arrived on the next day in a white dress. She looked nice, but he was a little surprised about the dress in a dirty submarine.
Towers introduced her to John Osborne, but she had met him before. 'What are you doing here, John?' she asked.
'I'm part of the ship's company,' he replied.
'Are you going to live with them in the submarine? Do they know your terrible habits?' She turned away. 'Well, it's not my business,' she added.
She made a pretty picture in the officers' quarters. She had lunch with the Americans at one end of the table. After that, they gave her something better to wear. A white dress was not the best choice for a submarine.
She changed her clothes, and then they took her to Scorpion. She asked some questions about the submarine and she looked through the periscope, but she could not understand the engines. Then Towers gave her some tea and told her about the trip.
'We're going to Cairns, Port Moresby and Darwin,' he said. 'Then we'll come back here.'
'Will you go on land? Won't there be some radiation?'
'We'll have to find out about that. If conditions are bad, we'll stay below the surface. John Osborne will help us. He's a scientist and he understands radiation.'
'Have you ever been in a radioactive place before?'
'Oh, yes. We were in it during the war. We went from Iwojima to the Philippines. Of course, we didn't go outside the ship.'
'Has anybody been in the radioactive place since the war stopped?' she asked.
'Yes, Swordfish — that's our sister ship — made a trip to the north. She got back to Rio de Janeiro a month ago. I've been waiting for the captain's report. I haven't seen it yet, but the submarine went a long way. She went from Florida to Maine. She went to New York, and Halifax, and Saint John's. Then she sailed up the English Channel and into the River Thames, but she couldn't get far there. She went to look at Brest and Lisbon. But then her men were starting to fall ill, and she went back to Rio.' 'Did they find anyone alive, Dwight?'
'I don't think so.'
'Think of all those cities,' she said. 'All those fields and farms, with nobody. Nothing alive. I can't imagine it.'
'I can't either,' he said. 'I don't want to try.'
'I never saw them, of course,' she said. 'I only know those places from films and books. I don't think anybody will make another film of them now.'
He shook his head. 'It wouldn't be possible,' he said. 'Nobody can go there now. Have another cup of tea.'
They went up to the fresh air. 'Does everybody down there in the submarine always stay calm?' she asked.
'Most of us.'
'Watch John Osborne,' she said. 'I don't believe he's a calm man.'
He was surprised. He had not thought of that. 'Well, thanks,' he said. 'I'll do that.'
They went to Sydney and looked at some of the aircraft.
'They'll never fly again, will they?' she said.
'I don't think so.'
'Do any aircraft fly now?'
'I haven't heard of one in the air for a long time. They've got no fuel.'
She walked quietly to her small room and changed into her white dress again. She felt better then. She hated these ships. She wanted dancing and music. She wanted to get out of these metal walls. She must get out quickly. This was no place for her.
He met her in the officers' quarters. 'You look beautiful!' he said.
'I don't feel beautiful,' she replied. 'Take me to that hotel and give me a drink. After that we'll dance.'
'Anything you say.'
He left her with John Osborne while he took off his uniform. She went up into the fresh air with Osborne. At first, they lost their way in the great ship, but then they reached the sunlight and the blue sea.
'I'm glad to be out of that,' she said. 'Are you having fun?'
He thought for a moment. 'Yes, I think I am. It's going to be rather interesting.'
'Looking at dead people through a periscope. I can think of funnier sorts of fun.'
'The radioactivity may be less now,' the scientist said. 'I don't think we'll discover anything good, but we have to find out.'
'Is that fun?'
'Yes, it is. You won't face things, that's your trouble. You've got to face the facts of life.'
'All right,' she agreed angrily. 'I'll face them next September. That's the date that you scientists have given us.'
'Don't be too sure about September,' he said. 'It may come earlier or later than that.'
'Don't you know?' she asked.
Commander Towers appeared and walked towards them. 'I couldn't find you,' he said.
'Be careful, sir,' said Osborne. 'She's very angry.'
'Take me away, Dwight,' she said.
Towers took her to a hotel, and they had a few drinks. Then they went into the city. The streetcars were the only traffic in the streets. Some people were dancing in a hotel and an Italian was playing for them. A drunk fell down near them.
'It isn't as bad as before,' she told him. 'It was worse just after the war. It's Saturday today, of course. It's very quiet on an ordinary night.'
They had a meal and talked a lot. She told him about her life. She did not work now. 'People don't want office girls now,' she said. 'There's less business in the city and a lot of offices have closed.'
'Isn't there work of any kind?' he asked.
'None that I can do.'
He tried to let her enjoy the evening. He talked about things that she understood. After dinner, they danced and then he paid the bill. The city was quieter now, but some men were drunk in the streets and could not walk straight.
At the station, she thanked him for a nice evening. 'When do you go north?' she asked.
'I don't know. Not yet. A message came in just before we left.
I have to report to the Navy Department on Monday. Lieutenant-Commander Holmes is coming too. Perhaps we'll leave on Monday afternoon.'
'Come and find me when you get back.'
'I will. Perhaps we could go sailing.'
He stood and watched her go. She was soon lost in the crowd. She was rather like his wife Sharon. Or perhaps he was forgetting his wife now. He turned away and went to catch his train to Williamstown.
On Monday morning, he went to the Navy Department. Peter Holmes went with him. They waited to see Admiral Sir David Hartman. A short time later, they were invited into his office.
The Admiral got up to meet them. 'Good morning,' he said. 'The Prime Minister wants to see you before you go. We'll go to his office in a minute. But before we do that, I want to give you this. It's the report of the captain of Swordfish about his trip. He went from Rio de Janeiro to the North Atlantic.'
The American took the report and looked at it closely.
'He found a lot of radioactivity,' the Admiral said. 'It was greater in the north than in the south. He went down near Parniba and stayed under the water for the whole trip. He came to the surface again near Cape Sao Roque.'
'How long was he below the surface, sir?'
'Thirty-two days. Well, take it away and look at it. It gives news of conditions in the north. If you want to communicate with him, he's at Montevideo now.'
'Are things getting dangerous in Rio, sir?'
'Yes, a bit.'
They left the Navy Department and got into an electric car. It took them silently through the empty streets. Soon they were sitting with the Prime Minister, Mr Donald Ritchie.
He said, 'I wanted to see you, Commander Towers, to tell you something about your trip. You are going to Cairns, Port Moresby and Darwin. You will report on conditions in those places. Look for any signs of life, people or animals. And birds, if you can.'
'That's going to be difficult, sir,' Dwight said.
'Yes. I understand you're taking a scientist with you.'
'Yes, sir. Mr Osborne.'
The Prime Minister passed a hand across his face. 'Well, I don't expect you to put yourselves in danger. In fact, you must not do that. We want you back here with your ship. We want your men here in good health. Your scientist will guide you. We want all the news that you can get. If the radiation is weak, you should land. You should go into the towns. But I don't think the radiation will allow that.'
'I shall have to go below the surface south of Townsville,' said the American.
The Prime Minister said heavily, 'Yes. There are still some people alive in Townsville. You can only go there if the Navy Department decides that you can.' He lifted his head and looked at the American. 'That may seem hard to you, Commander, but you can't help them so don't give them hope by showing your ship. We know something about conditions in Townsville. We are still in communication with them.'
'I understand that, sir.'
'That brings me to the last order,' the Prime Minister said. 'You cannot take anybody on board your ship during the trip. If you want to do that, you must get the permission of the Navy Department by radio. None of you must communicate with other people. They might be radioactive. Is that quite clear?'
'Quite clear, sir.'
The Prime Minister rose to his feet. 'I hope to see you again, Commander Towers, two weeks from now.'
The First Journey
Nine days later USS Scorpion came to the surface. First, the captain put up his periscope and checked his position. Then John Osborne checked the radiation with his detectors. The Scorpion rose, a long grey submarine. She was moving towards the south.
Some of the officers and men came up from below, and clean air began to blow through the ship. Everyone was glad to be in the fresh air and to see the rising sun. They had all been below the surface for over a week.
The submarine stayed on the surface and moved towards the coast of Queensland. The captain reported their position by radio.
Between Cairns and Port Moresby in the Coral Sea, they had met only one ship. There seemed to be nobody alive on board. All her boats were in place, but they could not go on board. There was too much radiation. So they photographed her through the periscope and left her.
'We can't say much in our report,' said Osborne.
'That's right,' the captain agreed. 'But we did see that dog.' They had in fact learned very little during the trip. They had moved towards Cairns on the surface but they had stayed inside the submarine. The radiation was high outside. They moved with great care; they even spent one night without moving at all. It might be dangerous to move in the dark.
When they sailed in towards the land, the town looked normal. The sun was shining on the beach and on the mountains behind. Through the periscope, they could see streets and shops. They saw beautiful trees and houses, and a hospital. Some cars stood in the streets and one or two flags were flying. They went up the river but they saw little. There were a few boats, but no big ships. They could not see far because the top of the periscope was low in the water. It seemed like Sunday on land. A large black dog appeared and noticed the periscope.
They had stayed in the river for two hours. They called through a loud hailer, but nobody replied. The whole town was silent.
They turned the ship round and went out a little way. They could see the Strand Hotel and some of the shops again. They stayed there for a time, still calling, but they got no answer.
They moved out to sea again. The captain did not want to be near the land when night came. They had learned nothing there except some facts about the radioactivity. Cairns looked exactly as it had looked before. The sun shone in the streets, and the trees were bright on the distant hills. It was a nice place, but nobody lived there now. The only thing alive seemed to be a dog.
Port Moresby had been the same. From the sea, they could see nothing wrong with the town. Through the periscope, they saw a ship. She had a ladder up the side. Two more ships lay on the beach. Perhaps a storm had put them there.
The captain called through the loud hailer and they stayed there for some hours. There was no reply.
Two days later, they reached Port Darwin. They lay in the port below the town. They could not see much from there, only the roof of Government House and part of the Darwin Hotel. They moved around and called through the loud hailer. They examined some boats through the periscope but they could learn nothing.
'People are all in bed,' said John Osborne. 'If a man's ill, he goes to bed. Animals go into a quiet corner to die, too.'
'That's enough about that,' said the captain.
'It's true,' the scientist replied.
'Right! It's true. Now we won't talk about it anymore.'
They left Port Darwin as they had left Cairns and Port Moresby. They went back to the south and down the coast of Queensland, moving below the surface. They were getting tired now. They talked little until they came up to the surface three days after they left Darwin. They all felt better after breathing some fresh air.
'Our trip is like the experience of Swordfish, of course,' Dwight said. 'She saw nothing in the States or in Europe.'
Peter took the report of Swordfish from the top of a cupboard. He had read it a number of times, and he knew it well. He turned the pages. 'It's true,' he said. 'There's nothing here about conditions on land.'
'We couldn't look anywhere on land and they couldn't either,' the captain said. 'Nobody will ever know much about radioactive places. And that's true of the whole of the northern part of the world.'
'We can't see them, and it's a good thing,' said Peter.
'I think that's right,' said the captain. 'There are some terrible things in the world now. Nobody should want to see them.'
'I was thinking about that last night,' John Osborne said. 'Have you ever thought that nobody will ever see Cairns again? Or Moresby? Or Darwin?'
'Nobody could see more than we've seen,' the captain agreed.
'Who could go there except us?' said Osborne. 'And we won't go there again.'
'That's true. I don't think they'll send us back there again. I never thought of this, but you're right. We're the last living people that will ever see those places.' Dwight paused. 'And we saw nothing.'
'There should be an account of all this,' Peter said. 'Is anybody writing a history of these times?'
'I haven't heard of one,' Osborne said. 'What's the use of writing a history that no one will ever read?'
'I'd like to read a history of this last war.' said the American. 'I was in it for a short time but I don't know a thing about it. Has anybody written anything?'
'Not a history,' said Osborne. 'We know some facts, of course, but there are a lot of things that we don't know.'
'I'd like to read about the things that we do know,' the captain said.
'What kind of things, sir?'
'Well, how many bombs were dropped? Nuclear bombs, I mean.'
'They think about 4,700,' said Osborne. 'But perhaps there were more than that.'
'How many of these were the big bombs?'
'Most of them, I think. All the bombs dropped in the Russo — Chinese War were the big kind. Most of them contained cobalt.'
'Why did they use cobalt?' Peter asked.
'I don't know,' the scientist replied. 'Probably to get more radioactivity. I can't tell you more than that.'
'I think I can tell you,' said the American. 'I learned about this kind of war at Yerba Buena, San Francisco. Some commanding officers went there a month before the war and we were told about these things. The officers there expected a war between Russia and China. They told us what might happen.'
'What did they tell you?' asked John Osborne quietly.
The captain considered for a minute. Then he said, 'It was about ports — ports with warm water. No ice in the winter. Russia hasn't got a port which doesn't freeze in the winter. There's Odessa, of course, but that's on the Black Sea. If a ship wants to leave Odessa and reach the oceans, she has to go past the Bosphorus and Gibraltar. In times of war, Russian ships can't pass there. Murmansk and Vladivostok can stay open, of course. They can break the ice; they have ships for that. But those ports are a very long way from any other place. I mean a Russian place, which produces anything. They said at Yerba Buena that Russia really wanted Shanghai.'
'Is that convenient for their Siberian factories?' the scientist asked.
'Yes,' the captain answered. 'During the Second World War they moved a lot of their factories to the east, as far as Lake Baikal. They built new towns and everything else. Well, it's a long, long way from those places to Odessa. Shanghai's only about half the distance.' He paused.
'There was another thing that they told us,' he went on. 'China had more people than Russia. A lot more. It had more and more factories. Russia had millions and millions of square kilometres of empty land, so she was afraid of an attack by China. She wanted fewer Chinese near her borders, and she wanted Shanghai. So the result was nuclear war.'
'But if she used cobalt,' said Peter, 'she couldn't follow and take Shanghai. Think of the radiation there.'
'That's true. But nobody could live in North China for a number of years. She could drop the bombs in the right places. Then the radioactivity would cover all China to the sea. If there was any more, it would go across the Pacific Ocean. If any of it reached the States, Russia's eyes wouldn't fill with tears. Certainly, she couldn't follow the bombs and take Shanghai for a number of years. But she would get it in the end.'
Peter turned to the scientist. 'How long would it be before people could work in Shanghai?'
'After a cobalt bomb? I couldn't guess. It depends on a lot of things. More than five years, I think. Less than twenty. But you just can't say.'
Dwight agreed. 'The Russians would get there first. They would arrive before the Chinese or anyone else.'
'What did the Chinese think of all this?' John Osborne asked.
'Oh, they had a very different idea. They didn't especially want to kill Russians. They wanted to change them. They wanted Russians to grow things and do nothing else. Then they wouldn't want Shanghai or any other port. They aimed to cover Russian factories with radiation. So the Russians couldn't use the machines for ten years or more. The Chinese planned a small amount of radiation. It would not go far around the world. They didn't try to hit a city. They just wanted to drop a cobalt bomb sixteen kilometres to the west of it and let the wind do the rest.' He paused.
'When all the Russian factories were dead,' he went on, 'the Chinese could walk in at any time. They could keep away from radioactive places. Then later they could enter the towns.'
'The machines would be old and useless,' Peter said.
'Yes. But the war would be easy.'
'Do you think that actually happened?' John Osborne asked.
'I don't know,' said the American. 'Perhaps nobody knows.'
They sat in silence for a few minutes.
'Was this after the Russians bombed Washington and London?' Peter said.
'The Russians never bombed Washington,' Dwight said. 'The aircraft were Russian, but the men were Egyptians. They came from Cairo.'
'Are you sure that's true?'
'It's true enough. They shot down the one that landed at Puerto Rico. It was on its way home. They only knew that it was Egyptian after the bombing of Leningrad and Odessa and the Russian nuclear centres.'
'Do you mean that we bombed Russia by mistake?' It was a terrible thought.
'That's right, Peter,' said Osborne. 'It's an official secret, but it's true. First was the bomb on Naples. That was done by the Albanians, of course. Then there was the bomb on Tel Aviv. Nobody knows who dropped that one. Then the British and the Americans flew some aircraft over Cairo. Next day the Egyptians sent out all the aircraft they had. Six went to Washington and seven to London. One reached Washington and one reached London. After that there weren't many American or British politicians alive.'
'The aircraft were Russian,' Dwight added. 'I believe they had Russian markings too.'
'Good heavens!' cried the Australian. 'So we bombed Russia?' 'That's what happened,' said the captain heavily.
'And the war spread,' said Osborne. 'I can understand it. London and Washington were dead. Somebody had to make decisions so army officers made them. They had to be quick before more bombs arrived. Politicians in Canberra think now that the officers made the wrong decisions.'
'But if it was a mistake, why didn't they stop the war?'
'It was extremely difficult, you know,' said the captain. 'All the politicians were dead. How do you stop a war when the politicians are dead?'
'The bombs were too cheap,' said the scientist. 'They only cost about fifty thousand pounds near the end. Every little country could have some. And every little country that had some money started to drop bombs. It thought it could beat anyone else. It could drop the bombs in a surprise attack before the other country was ready. That was the real trouble.'
'Another problem was the aircraft,' the captain said. 'The Russians had been giving the Egyptians aircraft for years. The British had done the same. And they had been giving them to Israel and to Jordan. They even gave them big aircraft, which could fly a long way. That was the big mistake.'
'Well, after that,' said Peter, 'there was a war between Russia and the West. Why was China in it?'
'I don't think anybody knows exactly,' said the captain. 'Perhaps China saw that Russia was busy. So China attacked her with nuclear bombs.' He paused. 'But it's all guessing,' he went on. 'There was no news. Most of the radio stations were soon dead and silent. The higher officers were dead so younger officers had to do the thinking.'
John Osborne smiled sadly. 'Chan Sze Lin,' he said.
'Who was he?' Peter asked.
'I don't think anybody really knows. He was an officer in the Chinese Air Force. Near the end, he seems to have, been in command. The Prime Minister was communicating with him and trying to stop it all. And there was another man in Russia. Nobody important. But I don't think the Prime Minister ever reached the Russians. The war only stopped when all the bombs had gone and all the aircraft were useless.'
'What would I do in those conditions?' said the American. 'I just don't know. I couldn't stop fighting if I had some bombs. If Russia was hitting the States, could I just stop?'
'They didn't know either,' said the scientist. 'Too bad! But it's not the Russians' fault. The big countries didn't start this thing. The small countries are responsible for the death of the world.' Peter Holmes smiled sadly. 'It's hard on the rest of us.'
'You've got six months more,' said John Osborne. 'Be glad about that. You've always known that you're going to die. Now you know the date, that's all. Do everything that you want to do before the end.'
'That's the trouble,' said Peter. 'I can't think of anything better than this.'
'A prisoner in Scorpion?'
'I can't really believe I'm going to die soon. Can you?'
'But you've seen things.'
'I haven't seen any damage.'
'You can't imagine anything,' said the scientist. 'All army and navy people are the same. You think it can't happen to me.' He paused. 'But it can and it certainly will.'
'I can't imagine the end of the world. It's too difficult.'
'It's not the end of the world,' John Osborne said. 'It's only the end of us. The world will go on just the same. But we shan't be in it. Perhaps it'll be all right without us.'
'That's probably right,' said Towers. 'Cairns seemed to be all right. There wasn't much wrong with it, or with Port Moresby either.' He paused and thought about the trees on the coast. He had seen them through the periscope. 'We're not good enough for this beautiful world,' he said.
They went up into the fresh air and the sunlight. In the morning they reached the Heads near Sydney Harbour. Then they sailed on to the south and reached the aircraft carrier at Williamstown. The Admiral was there to meet them.
Dwight Towers went to meet him.
'Well, Commander,' said the Admiral, 'what kind of trip did you have?'
'We had no problems, sir. We followed our orders, but the results are not very interesting.'
'You didn't learn very much?'
'We got plenty of facts about the radiation, sir. We couldn't go up to the surface in the north.'
'Did you have any sickness?'
'No radiation sickness, sir.'
The two men went below. Dwight showed the Admiral some notes for his report. 'I'll send it to you when it's ready, sir,' he said, 'but in fact we found out very little.'
'No signs of life in any of those places?'
'Nothing at all. Of course, you can't see much from a low periscope. We saw very little of Cairns and Port Moresby, and we couldn't see Darwi