An April Fool’s Voyage*
Naming him is irrelevant to this story. He was so well known that any one, anywhere on earth would know who you were referring to if you just uttered his first name. Wealth? Even to think of asking how rich would have been impertinent. Was he oligarch, oil sheik, tech geek, shipping magnate, or mega-titan of Wall Street? That too doesn’t matter. For the world’s leaders were happy to have him address them by their first names, and count them as his friends. Though in his own mind they were perhaps not truly friends; significant and valuable acquaintances would be more accurate, for he was not really a close friend to anyone, being too careful and suspicious of human motivation to allow that.
He annually invited a circle of his childhood and school friends to one of his many estates or penthouses for a long week of parties, an event duly noted by the media although hardly ever photographed since security was thorough. It was often said that it was wonderful that he had not left behind those he had grown up with. Of course his body guards stayed discreetly close to him, the wine that he drank was from a different bottle, and the meals that were brought to him were prepared separately from what were served to his guests. But it was one of the few things he did that was primarily for pleasure, since he was able to drop his guard to a large degree and reminisce with these companions of his youth who reassured him that for all his achievement, he had really not changed that much from the boy that they grew up with.
But of course he had. He was infamous for indulging his whims, providing frequent juicy morsels to the tabloid media, for he felt that he lived outside of society’s norms and ethical standards, and that belief kept a pack of expensive lawyers fully employed. His successive wives and other women lay beside the track of his life like so much litter along the road. The idea of good works, of establishing charitable foundations, he dismissed as bourgeois sops to conscience. He had worked long and hard hours and years to achieve his status, others could do the same; he would use his wealth as he pleased. Nero and Crassus would have completely understood him.
And then the year of the world wide pandemic arrived. It began in November in a market in Asia where wild-caught animals were sold for consumption, due to a persistent belief that eating certain wild animals would grant the consumer the strength, the virility, and the vital essence that could be found only in the wild. Rising individual wealth during the past decade had increased the demand. The governments tried to shut down the trade, but an unhealthy black market flourished and any sort of wild animal that was desired could be produced for a price. It was ironic that the first illnesses occurred among the well-to-do older population, predominately male, since they were the ones most concerned about restoring youthful vigor and had the means to do so. The virus had a longish incubation period of two and half weeks on average and became infectious to others during the last week, before symptoms appeared. Thus an infected person, still free of symptoms, could often contact and infect many more people before he or she showed signs of illness The symptoms were those of the common cold at first, but there was a rapid progression to an unrelenting pneumonia in the sickest and encephalitis in the truly unfortunate. The death rate among those with symptoms, even in first world countries, was just over twenty percent. The encephalitis often left persisting neurologic effects in survivors. And there was no specific treatment or vaccine.
In just four short months, by early April of the following year, it had spread to every continent including Antartica where scientists at several of the research stations were infected. He decided that the safest place for him to ride out the plague would be aboard his mega-yacht. Even at one of his estates, the chain of potentially infected contacts was too long and unpredictable. On land who knew what vagary of touch, wind, or breath could bring the virus into his life? Even with the private satellite system used to direct his far-flung enterprises. Even with the layers of underlings who carried out his commands. Who could know with whom they might come in contact when they were not with him? Someone in their family, a doorman or porter, a waiter, a friend, the delivery man, a mistress or a mister, a passing sneeze. It was all too haphazard.
From the yacht he could still control his businesses via his own very secure communication satellites. Of course, even his businesses had suffered a slowdown with the pandemic and many of them were in standby mode until the virus passed, whenever that might be. So being at sea at this time was not really a handicap to his affairs. He decided to invite along a few friends of his youth as company rather than business associates. They would provide a relaxing diversion away from the pressing and worsening situation on land and he would be warmed in the glow of their nostalgia and gratitude. He was careful to invite friends who at present had no close family ties or significant others. It would be a happier time for all to not to be worried about someone left on the shore. And he was between mistresses himself. So he sent forth the invitations, and only two declined. The five guests who accepted, four men and a woman, were picked up by one of his private jets and delivered to the place of embarkation.
He had never before invited his childhood chums to his yacht so as they rode the launch from the dock to where it rode at anchor, they could only watch in awed silence as they drew closer. Almost the length of two football fields and gleaming white, rising three stories above the waterline. It was not the largest private yacht in existence, but it was the most well appointed and luxurious. He waved from the lower deck railing as their launch swung alongside, then descended to greet them. As their luggage was taken to their rooms, he took them on a tour of the ship. The appointments made liberal use of teak and ebony—solid of course and not veneer. And gold where strength of metal was not needed because, as he explained, gold doesn’t tarnish or rust. Lights were encased in crystal. He favored art from between the World Wars and museum quality painting and sculpture that he had acquired through agents, graced the public spaces and staterooms throughout. There were the two swimming pools-one larger for groups and one lap pool for solo workouts, the helicopter and its pad, the anti-piracy rocket launchers and rapid fire cannons. The dining room, with mahogany panels that could be rolled back to reveal the sea, seated up to twenty-four around a long smoky-glass-topped table. And for those inclined to fitness, which he was, a fully furnished gym. Their guest staterooms were equally impressive. The crew and staff, outfitted in impeccably tailored white and gold uniforms, stayed inconspicuously in the background but were immediately available to respond to any request. He apologized that the choice of “escorts,” female and male, was necessarily abbreviated by shipboard limitations but that they had been selected personally from among the absolute elite of their profession, intelligent, educated, as well as physically beautiful.
The last of the provisions were loaded shortly after they boarded and the diesel fuel tanks for the twin water jets powering the yacht topped off. The ship set sail at sunset. It would not need to make landfall again for four months. They were safely insulated from the increasingly dire situation on shore where nations and states competed for medical supplies, desperately sought an effective treatment. The low and the high, the rich and the poor continued to sicken and to die, and the economies of the world crashed. Of course he had ample reserves of gold bullion that many smaller nations would have envied, and diamonds, safely stored.
At sea, he and the five friends were pampered by the staff as they relaxed and played, dined and wined, while sailing the Pacific. They watched as pods of porpoises came from time to time to ride the bow wave, flying fish shot across the water, and wandering albatrosses on their long, solitary quests, effortlessly soared above the waves on quiet wings. When the seas grew too rough to safely use the pools, and even when it wasn’t, there were ample indoor diversions, for he provided unlimited access to movies and performances, libraries, virtual reality games and sports and travel. They talked, laughed, tanned, reminisced and spun tall tales, or just gazed in silent contemplation of the sea. Each night they carefully dressed to gather in the dining room, the table shortened to accommodate the six of them and whomever of the escorts they selected to dine with them to join or initiate conversations. He had had their formal attire custom tailored prior to sailing.
The pandemic had at last showed signs of slowing when they made a prearranged stop for refueling and reprovisioning at a South Pacific island resort after four months at sea. It was a favorite Asian tourist destination, and so it had been struck early by the virus. The visitors fled. Without a large modern medical presence, its population had suffered heavy losses, and in desperation had confined those with symptoms to one village, emptied of its inhabitants, much as had been done with persons with Hansen’s Disease at an earlier time. Now the virus seemed to have run its course; no new cases or burials had occurred for the week prior to their planned visit and, after he sent the helicopter ashore to assess the situation, he felt that it was safe to proceed with the port call.
They toured the island in SUV’s that the yacht’s crew sanitized before they got in and drove off with masked drivers who had recovered from the virus and were therefor felt to be immune and non-contagious; stopped to swim at unpopulated gorgeous beaches that would have been filled with visitors in the very recent past, and picnicked on food prepared on the ship and served by waiters from the ship. During their three day stay they returned to the yacht to sleep after each outing, stripping off their clothes and showering first as they boarded. With diesel fuel replenished, fresh fish and meats flash-frozen, fruits and vegetables stored in refrigerators filled with nitrogen gas to slow ripening, they set sail on a course for Patagonia, planning to arrive in the spring.
They had been sailing southeast for a week when a member of the engineering crew began to show mild respiratory symptoms but no fever. The ship’s doctor checked him and prescribed a decongestant, fluids, and echinacea and he was allowed to continue working. Then a member of the dining staff showed similar symptoms and she was checked but as a precaution was taken off her duties and assigned to the ship’s laundry.
When he developed a cough, headaches, and fever, the doctor became much more concerned. His cough worsened rapidly, his fever spiked, and he ached in every joint. It was apparent that inspite of all their careful precautions, the virus had breached their safeguards. Had it been on a banana peel, a red tomato, a luscious mango, a door handle of the SUV, in the breath of one of the men loading food, the sand at one of the beaches? It really didn’t matter now. It was on board and he was infected. They had sailed beyond the range of the helicopter to fly back to the island that they had left and too far from South America for an Argentinian or Chilean naval vessel to reach them in time His breathing became more labored and he began to hallucinate. The doctor could only watch helplessly as his lungs filled up, he slid into a coma and then died. All in three days.
The staff and friends debated what to do. Should they give him a sea burial? They finally decided that because of his business empire, it would be best to produce his body as proof that he was in fact dead. So they fashioned a body bag out of a blue tarp, securely triple taped him into it and made room for his body among the frozen meats and fish. It was still two weeks to the coast of South America. The news of his death sent via satellite sent a chill through the financial institutions of the world. Although others onboard the yacht developed milder symptoms and fever, no one else became gravely ill. It was not surprising that three of his guests became vegetarians for the remainder of the voyage, as did a number of the crew.
*The Masque of the Red Death By Edgar Allan Poe – Published 1842
The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.- – – – – – – – – –
But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts.