The Most Beautiful Voyage in the World

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The Most Beautiful Voyage in the World

By Jean McNeil

Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! GoodBYE, GoodBYE!

The drone of Elin’s voice welcoming passengers tagging in and out was soothingly familiar. Upon embarking everyone was fitted with a chip implanted just above the wrist. They presented this to the sensor at the door and Elin’s voice said, “Welcome to the most beautiful voyage in the world!” Elin went on to inform passengers of the name of their particular ship. His was the MV Uunngåelig—the Inevitable. The other ships in the fleet were the Evighet (Eternity), the Uendeligheten (Infinity), and the Udødelig (Immortality).

It was ten in the morning and the ship would sail in an hour. Helpbots were ferrying the last passengers on board. He spotted an octogenarian couple, youngsters for the usual catchment age for the journey, nostalgically kitted out head to toe in Berghaus outdoor gear. 

It was time to go up to the Boneyard—his private name for the outdoor observation deck—to watch their departure from Bergen. No matter how many times he experienced it, the scenery was still stirring, its ex-glacial islets graced by clapboard palaces owned by Norwegian renewable oligarchs. 

He was halfway up the stairs when a woman tugged at his sleeve. She was blond, vital, his age or even younger.

 “Excuse me—” she began, enough for him to detect an American accent. “You work here, don’t you? I was wondering if you could recommend an excursion.”

“The Viking Feast is very convincing. They still make their own mead for the dinner.” He didn’t tell her about the out-of-work actors who had been playing Thor and Freya every Wednesday for the last 20 years, or that the pig’s head on the banquet table was a plasticine replica.

“Thanks.” She gave him a quick, appraising glance and stuck out her hand. “I’m Linn.” Her voice was surprisingly full and deep, like a man’s. 

He gave his name and asked where she was from. Linn was not Norwegian, as it turned out, despite her classically Scandinavian name. He’d guessed as much, because he’d detected a spark, a joie de vivre that hadn’t been extinguished by 130 years of undisturbed sickening prosperity. She lived in Michigan, she told him, where she taught economics at university. “I’m descended from Swedish stock,” she said. “I thought it was about time I saw it.”

“But this is Norway.”

“I couldn’t get a visa for Sweden. They’ve become very selective about who they let in since the riots. Listen,” she hesitated and for a moment the reckless bravado he associated with Americans wavered, “can I invite you for a drink?”

“I don’t drink on board. We have to sign a contract. No alcohol on the voyage.”

“That must be tough. Everyone around you is packing it away. How many times have you done this trip? Aren’t you bored?”

 “The trip itself doesn’t bore me, but the way they’ve got it mapped out inch by inch does.”

He took her to the bar. They talked while sipping herbal tea. Linn had one cup, made a face, and ordered a beer. The entertainment came on in the bar. He liked the way Linn called them crooners: Eleni from Athens and Amit the keyboardist from Mumbai, both coastal refugees with documents, finally, after a 10-year wait. They were actually quite good but persisted in resurrecting megahits circa 2080, largely ballads of loss and nostalgia for abandoned cities like “Rising Tide” and “The Lonely Waves.” There were no teenagers—no one under 70, for that matter—aboard the ship to roll their eyes in horror.

 “What’s that you’re reading? A real book!” Linn picked it up and flipped the pages. “I haven’t seen one in decades.”

He plucked the book—Ice, by Anna Kavan—from her fingers. She’d lost his page. 

“What’s it about?”

“A new ice age covers northern Europe and society disintegrates,” he paraphrased. 

“Well, it didn’t work out quite like that, did it?”

“It’s a hundred and fifty years old.” He paused. “How can I help?”

“I didn’t come for help.”

“That’s what they all say.”

She laughed and this time he heard its full, musical timbre, like a xylophone. “I know you’re the ship’s doctor, but I assure you there’s nothing wrong with me.”

“That’s good to know. Let’s go for a walk in port. We dock in an hour.”

Her face brightened. “I’d like that.”

“OK, see you around 10.” It was nine at night. The sun didn’t really set at this time of year, only hovered above the horizon. 

She stood. “I’ll meet you by the gangplank.”

“Gangway,” he corrected.

The ship’s siren sounded to signal they were aside. Linn appeared, kitted out in cherry-coloured polar wear. It was 17 degrees. She squinted at the sky, where the sun bored at them through a chiffon layer of ozone.

“Don’t look at it directly,” he cautioned. The pasty sheen of factor 150 illuminated their faces in a thin bluish layer, like tungsten. 

They walked though the gravel streets. “Do you remember snow?” she asked.

“Of course. We could see the Øksfjordjøkelen glacier from our fields. In the winter the Northern Lights throbbed in the sky—we called it the night sun.”

A contemplative expression settled on Linn’s face. She was a watcher. He observed her scanning the town, piecing together a story in its details: the rusted ship’s anchor, the prim fishermen’s houses repurposed as refugee hostels, the ugly church like a nuclear bunker stood on its head. 

“I was just curious, what do you think of the regime?”

He was startled. “Is that what you call it—a regime?”

“Well, it’s not compulsory in the States. Obviously, if you have the money—”

“But the States is where this was all pioneered,” he countered. “There are more Americans doing it than any other nation on Earth, numerically.”

“Yes, but they all live in California on their Bitcoin fortunes. Here, it’s nationwide, isn’t it? Everyone has to join.”

“That’s Scandinavian socialism for you.” 

He felt a strange need to moderate for his country—not that he was in any way in favour of the system. For one thing, it was putting people like him out of work. 

“But it can never be universal,” he said. “You know: car accidents and so on. The medics can’t get to them fast enough.”

 “I’m against death, don’t get me wrong, but people should be able to choose, don’t you think?”

Habit and suspicion told him not to answer her question, which was rhetorical in any case. 

She was silent for a minute. “When we were in Bergen, every woman I saw was pregnant.”

He nodded. “It’s a proper breeding colony.”

“Is that compulsory too? I read a piece in the New York Times that said even with all the Sudanese and Bangladeshis the birth rate in Norway is still falling.”

“There are incentives,” he said, carefully. “I wouldn’t call it compulsory.”

“I suppose it’s natural, to an extent, that people would confuse an extended lifespan with having all the time in the world to reproduce.” He had the impression she was trying to sound reasonable and open to opinion, but was secretly horrified.

They came to a halt on a corner of the road that curved around the town, just in front of a billboard pointing toward the Scanway supermarket carpark. They could see helpbots scurrying behind their masters, pushing trolleys or laden with jute carrier bags.

“Speaking personally,” he began. “I think people here don’t feel the same compulsion to have children now. If they’re going to be here for a couple of hundred years at least, where’s the rush to secure your immortality?”

“Did you have children?”

“No. I never found the right person.”

He was about to return the question but intuition told him the very question would cause images of three strapping sons to blossom on her iscreen. Such an apparition would cause him pain.

 They walked in silence for a moment. Her skin was reddening. He reached into his pocket. “May I? I think you might have missed a spot.”

She frowned. “But we’ve only been out for 20 minutes.”

“High latitudes,” he said. “There’s no ozone at all in the spring.”

She waved her hand in a gesture of assent, and he rubbed more Silkscreen over her nose. As he did so she closed her eyes, like a child.

 “What gets to me is that it’s so uneven,” she said. “That’s my diplomatic word for unequal. Which of course we’re not allowed to say anymore.”

“Life has always been incredibly unequal on this planet. Lifespans in the North were nearly double what they were in the Global South in 2010. What we’re doing is just an extension of that.”

 “That’s another reason why everyone is so desperate to come here, I suppose. Another hundred or so years on the planet, never mind that at home you’re starving because the ocean has eaten your land. It’s quite an incentive,” she gave him another of her cautious looks, “as you say.”

 “We should get back to the ship. We sail in an hour.”

She didn’t move immediately. He followed her gaze, which scanned the granite islets of the harbour, their mustard knit of lichen topped by colonies of narrow gannets struggling to find enough fish. When she turned her face toward his he caught a glimpse of red-rimmed eyes. He quickly looked away. He hadn’t cried in 20 years. 

 “Where are we going to put all these people who are coming into the world?” Her voice sounded as if it were being raked across a cheese grater. “I mean, they’re going to be here for a long time.”

“But not forever,” he corrected. “And it’s a localised phenomenon, remember. Only Norway and Sweden have the resources to do it—okay, the States and Canada, but as you say, there the cost is beyond the means of ordinary mortals. We’re building colonies on Novaya Zemlya, on lots of uninhabited islands. Now it’s entirely survivable far into the Arctic Circle.”

He glanced at her, to judge her reaction, and noticed something about her face he’d missed. She had a tiny, faded scar on her cheek—from a cycling accident, she would tell him later that night, in his cabin. Her wheel gave out at 15 kilometres an hour, and she “took a tumble.” He would savour the expression, the way it skirted the real hurt she must have been dealt.

When they returned to the wharf a clump of hunchbacks were waiting. These were the cleaners from the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Vanuatu—permanent refugees whose homes now lay submerged between 1 and 12 metres of water—hoovers strapped to their backs. From afar they looked like a dishevelled convention of Quasimodos. 

As they approached the ship, they heard Elin the cruise director’s voice droning on in three languages on the interface: “to the starboard side you can see 87 snow-clad peaks.”

“That’s 87 too many,” Linn grimaced.

He laughed, and stole a look at her in profile: dark blue eyes framed by compelling eyebrows, a strong but not strident chin. It had been so long since he really wondered about someone, the emotional energy of his interest drained and replenished him at once. It was as if she were him, or he her. It was one of the oddest things about life, he thought, how close we can feel, so suddenly, to strangers.

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He and Dylan had done a rotation in plastic surgery together in Boston, that was how they’d met. He knew of Dylan’s older brother from anecdotes and photographs. “He’s the black sheep in a family of doctors and corporate lawyers,” Dylan had told him. “My grandfather would be groaning in his grave if he knew.”

Dylan’s older brother Alexander was a writer. Their grandfather had been an industrialist. After plastics were blanket banned, he muscled in on the packaging market with ingenious inventions made from organically farmed sisal, which he grew on recovered land in Tanzania. He had been killed in a helicopter accident when he was caught in an Indian Ocean cyclone. Not even the best medical care in South Africa could put together the gruesome slop of adipose tissue. 

After they finished the two gruelling years in Boston, Dylan invited him to South Africa. “It’ll be a friend of mine’s wedding in a month, come out for that.”

“But I don’t know him. How can I go to the wedding of someone I’ve never met?”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter at home. Lots of strangers come to your wedding. It’s the only thing that makes them bearable.”

He flew to Cape Town from Boston via London. The city still possessed its postcard beauty, but it had been ravaged by drought and cyclonic winds. Three cylindrical apartment buildings, whose name he learned was Protea Towers and which nestled in Vredehoek in the skirts of Table Mountain, had been abandoned, their windows many times blown out by gales. The city lacked the resources to demolish them and so they stood, a gap-toothed monument to the ferocity of the Cape weather, muslin curtains blowing through their shattered eyes. 

Within a week of his arrival, he found himself in a marquee at a private game reserve and winery an hour outside of the city: big tents, a dozen bottles of wine per table, gold plated electro-Mercedes in the parking lot. He stood around awkwardly while tanned men slapped each other on the back. 

From across the room he spotted a lithe man walking in his direction. Belatedly he realised the man was heading for him. 

“Knut,” he felt himself encased in a hug. “Finally we meet.” Alex’s eyes drank him in all at once. Before he could say anything a wedding guest tugged at Alex’s sleeve and he melted back into the crowd. 

Attached to the wedding was a compulsory trip to the game reserve. They piled into a Land Cruiser and drove to see lazy lions interned in their own personal predator paradise, haunches of gazelle tossed over the fence twice a day. The cats lolled in a tawny pool, licking each other fraternally. 

Alex squinted at the spectacle. “It looks like the lions have given up on life, don’t you think?”

“It does,” he replied. It was the look of fatal boredom in the lion’s eyes that stayed with him, as if he’d seen a vision of his own future. He got rip-roaringly drunk at the reception that night. Apparently he and Alex did the tango à quatre, stealing two women from the bride’s entourage onto the floor. They ended up crashing on the sofas in the hotel’s gigantic lounge. He woke up with a buffalo—stuffed and hung over the fireplace—giving him a stern look. 

He met Alex’s girlfriends. At the time he had three—a quiet period. Alex very generously tried to share one of them with him, but neither he nor the girl were that interested. They only had eyes for Alex.

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Day 5. He knew they were in Lofoten because the main course was quail wrapped in smoke-cured bacon. You could set your watch by the menu. 

He had his morning coffee in his cabin. Elin’s voice floated through the air. “Here we see the majestic waterfall, the Seven Sisters. In this spot in 1472, a young woman was beheaded by her village for having a child out of wedlock. The villagers killed her children, then displayed her head on a stake as a deterrent to any other young women who were thinking of doing the same.”

He switched off the livestream—some old-timers on board still called it the PA system. Usually by the time the Elin had said the ritual “Welcome to the most Beautiful Voyage in the World,” he’d already reached for the mute button. 

He cast an eye toward the sheets on his bed, which looked like a piece of paper crumpled in an enraged fist. 

They did not exactly lie in each other’s arms but rested on their backs, their thighs millimetres apart. He found the scant distance between them more thrilling than the proximity.

“I’m so glad we don’t have to do it any time soon,” Linn had said. “I’d be so afraid.”

“I wonder if it’s worth it, the fear. Do you miss the time before you were born?”

“I don’t remember not being,” she’d said. “I only remember being.”

They had that in common—they were the first generation for whom it would go on and on, not forever, but drastically elongated. After 150, certain things could appear and assail the body which even modern medicine couldn’t fix, no matter how much telomerase one received. But potentially, given his luck to be Norwegian, he was looking at 300, maybe more.

“Do you think it’s uncool to talk about death the first time we sleep together?” Linn had said. 

“Ah, the lure of the forbidden. It’s like talking about ketamine in a rehab programme.”

Her eyes were moist. “Sometimes I feel I’m drowning in future.”

“Would you rather be dead at 50 like Bangladeshis and Africans?”

She turned toward him, her blonde hair spiralling on the pillow. There was a wounded, admonitory note in her gaze. “I wonder if they are the lucky ones. We’re just living out this pallid purgatory.”

“To be alive is possibility. That’s all it is—the possibility to be miserable, to grieve for decades, for sure,” he said. “But at least something might happen.”

That afternoon he didn’t feel like working. There was so little for him to do on these trips anyway. His presence was a mere legal formality. Two years before when he’d taken the position, he assumed he’d be on the ship for the summer season only; by September he’d be back in Oslo, or even London, whose climate was more agreeable despite the filthy air. But here he was, still shuttling up and down the coast of Norway, all 11,000 kilometres of it. 

The ship was quiet. He’d developed a sixth sense for times of activity, as when the backgammon tournaments in the observation area caused 180-year-old women drunk on duty-free vodka to brawl on the leisure deck. At least then his skills were required, if only to pull them apart and apply a few stitches. 

All the passengers must be in their cabins looking at their iscreens. He never used them; he had no desire to see his innermost fantasies projected and enhanced. He always had it turned off, but the signal itself was impossible to extinguish. To seek to switch it off would be, for most people, like turning off your mind. 

He did break his rule once, a couple of months ago, in a moment of weakness. He needed some kind of unidentifiable succour. If he’d been allowed to have a glass of wine, that might have done the trick.

 “Switch on,” he’d commanded Elin. The screen winked to life. An African elephant lumbered across the savannah, despite the fact that no elephants had existed in the wild for at least 50 years. Superimposed on the animal’s olive-coloured flank was Alex’s face. 

The elephant was a memory of course, from that first day they’d met at the wedding and gone to the game park. Alex had looked at the animals—coolly, he’d thought, then. And in return the lion, the leopard, the elephant had returned Alex’s gaze with a frank expression of recognition. He was the sort of person who had retained his animal self. 

After the wedding, he and Alex agreed to meet for lunch in Kalk Bay. They ate fibrous shellfish and drank crisp Chenin blanc. The sun forced their eyes shut. He could not help but stare at Alex. His skin was smoothed, seemingly unaged. He had green eyes, tending to olive, and a thick carotid—Alex had caught him staring at his neck and asked, “Are you a vampire?” “Doctors notice that sort of thing,” he’d explained, guiltily.

All through the lunch he couldn’t settle. The wheeling seagulls, the spectacular duet of mountains and sea, the glassy residences of the town painted white and perched above False Bay like albatrosses—all of it unnerved him. 

 Alex asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I’m hungry, but not for food. It’s like I’ve just taken speed. I feel—” He put down his fork. His hands were trembling.

“Let’s go home.”

Alex lived in a house with white shutters above False Bay. Alex grabbed his neck. Then Alex kissed him with a tenderness so thorough it shocked him. 

They stayed in bed for the rest of the afternoon and into the night. 

“What are you afraid of?” Alex had asked.

“That this won’t go on forever.”

“Why?” Alex’s voice was sharp. “Have you looked at the Cast?”

“No, I never look.” As a doctor he had access to his Futurecast but he’d always demurred, preferring not to know. “Just an intuition. Forget I said it.”

Alex did not forget. He was living his life so differently, in a headlong rush, untroubled by the burden of what to do with his future, wealthy enough not to have to work and to escape the consequences of the upheavals he was surrounded by, even if they were robbing him of his beloved Cape Town. 

They said nothing of this, then. They knelt at the window, arms around each other’s torsos, watching the blow spouts of the whales. It was spring and southern right whales still migrated to the bay, where the krill population had remained healthy. The whales surfaced nose first, as if testing the air, then rose slowly, their backs glinting gunmetal in the sun, like submarines.

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They were far enough north now that nighttime temperatures dipped toward zero, but the days passed under a polar glaze of sun. 

Elin’s voice came over the interface. “Here it is said a famous troll had his lair, right in the hole in the middle of the mountain.”

He found Linn in the Boneyard, hanging over the rail, glaring at the horizon. She spent a lot of time on deck on her own, he’d noticed, hanging over the railing—the posture of people who had come on the trip to Figure Things Out.

“Why is she always blaring on about witches and trolls?” Linn demanded. “Did Norwegian history stop a thousand years ago?”

He laughed so sharply a Boneyard resident gave him a worried look from his wheelchair. 

“You think I’m jaded,” she said. 

“No, the opposite. You’re fresh. It’s been so long since anyone’s made me laugh.”

“But you don’t want to repeat last night.”

Linn was careful not to pose it as a question, so he didn’t answer. The ship slid, nearly silently, under a suspension bridge between two barren mountains. 

Day 8. Kirkenes, the turnaround point. From here the ship would slink back down the coast. 

He liked this point in the voyage. He’d grown up not far away and it reminded him of nights when the temperature still dipped below zero, when Arctic fox in their winter morphs would accompany him on his walks through early-spring saxifrage and reindeer moss. 

He rose early, at six o’clock. He ascended the stairs and pushed open the observation deck door. When he’d gone fishing with his father on their boat, he’d loved the moment when he went out on deck and the air slapped his face. Cold stiffened his resolve, made him feel the edges of his mind more keenly. Now the air that met him on deck was like soup. 

 The ship glided through black water on its silencers. The sky had a different note, this early in the morning—hungry, expectant. Suddenly he was surrounded by a wash of guillemots, seagulls, and Arctic terns. They gathered themselves and flew as one, spiralling around the ship in a single wave. He watched as they orbited 3, 4, 10 times, their call more a lament than a screech. They flew so fast and so close together, yet there was never a collision. Three terns sliced through the guillemots and flew as a squadron, in formation, advancing as a single arrow. He watched as one flew lead for awhile before falling back, only to have one of its companions seamlessly assume its place. He watched the birds until they melted into the sky. 

The ancient Egyptians believed birds were the souls of the dead, he remembered. “Are you there, Alex?” he whispered, his voice faint but audible in the glassy morning air. “Where have you gone?”

That evening Linn came to find him in his cabin. She brandished a glass. “Only $100 U.S. for a vodka tonic. Bargain. It’s a good thing you’re under contract not to drink. You’re saving yourself a fortune.”

She sat on his bed and gave him a level look. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“No. Yes. My best friend died.” The confession came at him, as if driven by an external force, and on its back, his elision, or lie. 

“But how?”

“Cancer.”

“Didn’t they stem-cell him?”

“They tried.”

“When did this happen?”

“Twenty years ago.”

Her mouth twitched, as if she were gathering then dispersing possible responses.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “I should have moved on by now.”

She put her drink on the table. In her lap, her hands curled over each other, worrying themselves. “Twenty years used to pass in a flash, they say. Now it’s an eternity. Strange, isn’t it? The more time we have, the more excruciatingly slowly it passes.”

Outside his cabin window the sea stared back at him. For once he found no comfort in its steely contract with infinity. Islands slipped by. Now that they were below the 60th parallel, homestead gardens were visible, with their hydrangeas and potted palms.

“Do you know Norse mythology?” he asked. 

“Isn’t it all about dwarves and fate and killing?”

“Not quite.” He told Linn about the Queen of Hel. How she charged through an underworld full of dazed men stupid enough not to have died in battle, and so failed to be admitted to Valhalla. “She’s in charge,” he said, “but of what?”

“She’s a symbol of cold control, you mean,” she said. “When you control your life so thoroughly you kill it.”

 “Something like that.”

Day 11. The end of The Most Beautiful Voyage in the World. The livestreaming webcam stopped as the ship docked in Bergen, and a nation of insomniacs could finally drag themselves away from the television at four o’clock in the morning, where they had been watching fjords and skerries fall away in the ship’s wake on their iscreens. 

She came to his cabin to say goodbye.

“What will you do?” he asked, as if there were a choice—she would go back to her job in Minnesota. Michigan, he corrected himself. He was always getting them mixed up.

“I’ve got a few days before I fly back. There’s the Snodome at Trondheim. I’ve never been skiing. I hear it’s just like it used to be. They’ve even got reindeer wandering around inside.” She paused. Her eyes, a deep, un-Nordic blue, darkened. “You’re waiting for something to happen. I wonder what it is.”

He nearly said, I’m waiting for my friend to return. This is what grief is: waiting, perpetually, for the person to appear on the meridian between now and forever. From time to time you think you glimpse them. But the frontier always shifts, and they never arrive.

Linn pulled herself upright. “Well, I guess this is GoodBYE.” 

“A very good Elin impression. But you haven’t tagged out yet. Let me give you preferential treatment.” He took her wrist in his hands and reached for his laser. The chip leapt up to meet the beam; with the other end he quickly cauterised the scar. 

“A few more of these chip implants and I’m going to look like I’ve been razoring myself,” she laughed. “In Norway they lock you up for that too, don’t they?”

“It’s a crime not to live your life to its fullest.”

“Which is not quite the same as to the end.” Her eyes tracked across his face, their gaze vertical, consuming, like cursors. “This could go on forever, you know, if you don’t do something.”

“I know.” He felt the flare of panic in his lungs. 

“That witch burning and troll story algorithm is going to drive you insane, for one.”

He knew he should say come back and see me. But the moment passed out of his hands and into the black fission of perhaps, and maybe, and forever. 

“Take care, Doctor Knut,” Linn said. Her voice was light but there was a wince in her eyes. “I’ll see you the next time around.”

She descended the gangway to the dock, where the other passengers were milling about and shedding their regulation snowflake-pattern sweaters. He watched her as she threaded her way through the huddle of bodies, then dissolved into an immortal sunshine.

Next Story: Orphan Bird, by Leah Newsom

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