Records on the Empire MacArthur trace its home port to Hampton Roads, Virginia. The last recorded logs from the ship had it anchored just off the Porto de Fortaleza when the Firefall happened.
The tsunami that followed, which laid waste to the port that’s become Sunken Harbor, washed the ship ashore. The ship came to rest just north of the port, where the rocks ripped the vessel in half.
While other wrecks like this were surely lost to time, the grounding of the Empire MacArthur is only the start to its story. Whereas Sunken Harbor grew into a central hub of consumerism and lightheartedness, the wreckage of the Empire MacArthur has become a slum; home to the sick, the downtrodden, the addicts, and the drunks. The ship itself has become home to an especially nasty band of raiders, though the area around it has been built up into a camp for the displaced and the downtrodden, the sick in the body as well as the sick in the mind.
I meet with the lead physician of a small medical station the Accord has set up out here. He’s a tired, grumpy man who seems more annoyed by his assignment to Empire MacArthur than anything else, but remains out of a sense of duty to both the Accord and the locals who are unfortunate enough to be here. I meet with him near his tent, sipping on a cup of tea under the moonlight.
“Sit down, boy,” a grizzled old man barks at me through a voice that sounds like gravel. He sits at the corner of small aluminum table placed unevenly on the rocky ground, where he sips at his tea as I take my seat next to him.
“Steranko,” he says. “My friends call me Ivan.”
“Well, Ivan, it’s a--”
“You’re not my friend.” Steranko takes a drink from his tea while his eyes remain fixed on me. I’d be lying if I said that I’m not wholly comfortable.
“Well, um… Doctor…” I clear my throat to buy a moment before continuing. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
As he leans back in his chair, its old wood groaning with a slight creak, it’s clear that the good Doctor Steranko wants nothing to do with me. His eyes, narrow and sharp as a hawk’s talons, look me up and down as he silently sips on his tea. After an initial shot of trepidation, I shake it off and press onward.
“Accord records show that you were assigned here shortly after the Arclight crash, to help tend to the need of displaced residents of Fortaleza and Sunken Harbor. What were those initial days like?”
“You mean apart from the mass panic of being swallowed by a giant poisonous space cloud,” he asked snidely. “It was what you’d expect. In the minutes after the crash, you had a massive gaggle of humanity who was utterly lost. People from the coasts all ran inward because of the tsunami. You have people running from the cities towards the coast because of the cloud. When the dust settled and everyone realized that we weren’t all about to be swallowed whole, this was one of about two dozen staging areas for refugees.”
“Were there many people displaced?”
“Oh, yes. Mostly from the coast, though – people who were further inland didn’t really have time to escape the cloud, let alone a place to go. As far as we know we’re the only vestige of humanity left on Earth.” Bitterness dripped from his every word.
“As far as we know?”
“Nothing survives in that cloud. But, I suppose if a group of people were in a mine shaft or a cave or something, they could still be alive out there. Theoretically.” He takes another sip from his tea while looking at the heart rate monitor on the table before continuing. “The question you should be asking yourself is why there are still so many here.”
“What do you mean?”
“This was meant to be a temporary staging area. Temporary. Cut to six months later and, well, have a look.” Steranko casually gestures his thumb to point behind him. “You want to know what life is like at the good ol’ Empire MacArthur? That’s how you find it.”
I rise from my seat and turn to look at the slum behind me. Discarded cargo containers lay stacked upon each other, serving as makeshift homes for the displaced men and women of New Eden. Others huddle around drumfires for warmth, while a select few clumsily lurk in the shadows, their attempts at being stealthy thwarted by their drunken stumbling.
“Are you coming with?”
He sighs, pouring himself a fresh cup of hot tea. I wait a moment, looking down at him as he pours. His attention is wholly on the tea.
“Please shut up.” Steranko places the pot down on the table and rises from his chair, a quick succession of audible pops catching my ear when he stretches. Finally he turns and starts walking into the slum, signaling me to follow him with a single finger as he passes. Not wanting to be left alone in this unfamiliar and unfriendly place, I follow.
“It wasn’t until after the ocean settled down and that damned wall stopped advancing that we could recognize how bad the situation was. We had all these people and absolutely no place to put them, and as time passed and it became apparent that we didn’t have anywhere to put these people…” Steranko trails off and, with a light shoulder shrug, takes another sip.
“Where did they go?” I ask.
“Most of the people who came here right after the crash left. I’m sure you saw that sad excuse for a farm village down south. Most of them went north, towards Copacabana. A few wound up going to Sunken Harbor. Funnily enough, most of them wound up coming right back here anyways.” Steranko scoffed. “Who says the universe doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
We pass by a father and two children, all of them disheveled and unwashed, sleeping under a rusted aluminum awning. A few meters away, a slender woman leans against one of the cargo crates. The orange glow from the drumfire dances across her caramel skin as she reveals just enough leg to grab my attention. But it’s not me she’s interested in.
“Olá, Doc,” she says to Steranko in a soft, accented voice. “I’m so happy to see you.”
“Christ,” Steranko grumbles under his breath, taking a sip from his cup. “Do you want something, Ambar?”
“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”
“No.” Steranko’s voice is stern. I’m starting to question his bedside manner. “What do you want, Esteves?”
Ambar’s back stiffens as her arms cross. “You know what I want, Doc. I went through your pills, and the headaches are still getting worse.”
“Maybe it’s a tumor.” Steranko stares blankly at Ambar. It seems like these two have had this conversation before. “I gave you a month’s worth of medication. You blew through it in two weeks. Either you’re using it recreationally or, I’m betting, you’re selling it off to Lorca’s grunts. Either way, I’m not about to be lied to.”
Ambar’s eyes go wide and her jaw clenches at the accusation. Pushing herself off the wall, she walks towards us with a fire in her eye.
“Doc,” she shouts. “You are a member of the AMC (Accord Medical Corps. – ED), and I am a civilian who is in need of medical help. You’re bound by law to treat me!”
“Is this true?” I ask him. He gives me a brief but intense glare before turning his attention back to Ambar. When he speaks, his voice is softer than I’ve heard before.
“I’m bound to examine you, Miss Esteves. Nothing more.” Steranko pulls a small notepad from his pocket and scribbles down a note. Tearing the note from the pad of paper, he takes a step forward and hands it to Ambar. “I will see you bright and early tomorrow morning for your exam.”
Ambar snatches the paper from Steranko’s grip and storms off. I pause a moment before walking beside him.
“What was that?”
“That was Ambar Esteves,” he tells me. “Before the Arclight crash, she and her family were wealthy – entrepreneur and philanthropy types. She was on vacation in Copa when the ship crashed. When the Melding spread, most of her family was caught in São Paulo.”
“So why is she here?”
“Empire MacArthur is filled with a lot of gamblers, degenerates, druggies, and those who want to prey on them. Ambar is different. She’s here because she had absolutely no idea how the world worked outside of her little bubble of privilege. When the world ended and people had little use for people who couldn’t repair a resource extractor or carry a rifle into battle, she had nowhere else to go.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. She’s the one who sells herself.”
We continue walking through the outskirts of Empire MacArthur, Doctor Steranko nursing his tea the whole while. As we walk and talk, Steranko tells me about his growing frustration with the Accord bureaucracy that’s blocked him from receiving the aid and supplies needed to keep the people of Empire MacArthur well. He admits that this may be souring his mood. Eventually the topic turns to the ship itself.
“If things are so rough here, why not move to the ship?”
“Besides the fact that living on board an 80-year-old rusted out cargo ship is basically inviting disease and death on people who are already in need of more medical care than I can provide?” He takes a drink. “Because of Cold Eyes, mostly.”
“Cold Eyes? Is he the leader?”
“Yes, she is. I don’t know where she got the name, but that’s what everybody calls her so I’m not about to argue.”
“Is this ‘Cold Eyes’ the ‘Lorca’ you referred to earlier,” I ask.
“You’re not as dumb as you look,” he says before stopping and looking me up and down. “Still pretty dumb looking, though.”
As we talk, three men step in front of us. One of them is bald, with his arms crossed as he stares intently at Steranko and I. The one on the far right is shorter, a little chubbier, and resting his hand on his pistol. The third man, the one in the middle, is obviously their leader. He’s a mountain of a man who looks down at the Doctor and I, his hands resting at his sides as he speaks.
“Which one of yous is askin’ ‘bout Cold Eyes?”
Steranko gives me a glance before muttering under his breath. “They won’t kill me because I’m an Accord doctor, but there’s nothing stopping them from putting one smack dab in the middle of your forehead.”
“Well?!” The rather large man asks again, much more forcefully this time.
“I was telling my new friend here about your boss. I was just about to tell him that she is not somebody to be played with, until you and your two lesser companions interrupted.” Steranko leans over to me again, speaking under his breath. “You need to slip away and get the hell out of here. They’ll look for you at the stadium – head north.”
As Steranko turns his attention back to the three men I slowly step away to give myself some space. I hear my heartbeat racing as I move further and further back, hoping that they don’t notice--
I turn around and sprint through the labyrinth of cargo containers. My feet don’t stop when I hear their footsteps grow fainter. My feet don’t stop when soft sand turns to gravel and hardened earth under my feet. My feet don’t stop when they’re climbing more than running.
My feet don’t stop until I reach Fortaleza.