The snow came down so thickly, it formed fragile snowballs in the air that tumbled and melted as soon as they landed on the horses lined up along the dock. It was four in the morning and the place was coming alive and Captain Samson had never seen the dock in such a bustle. The cargo was flying out of the ship, literally; the cranes strained in their efforts to get the bales out as quickly as possible. The ship stank of the disinfectant already, stank of the stuff. Every man who came on board was so drenched in it that it dribbled out of his boots. But that wasn't enough; some of them had squelched aboard with big, heavy spray cans that spat an acid-pink fog over everything.
And there was nothing Captain Samson could do about it. The agent for the owners was right there on the dockside with his orders in his hands. But Captain Samson was going to try.
"Do you really think we're infectious, Mr. Blezzard?" he barked to the man on the dock. "I can assure you—"
"You are not infectious, Captain, as far as we know, but this is for your own good," shouted the agent through his enormous megaphone. "And I must once again warn you and your men not to leave the ship!"
"We have families, Mr. Blezzard!"
"Indeed, and they are already being taken care of. Believe me, Captain, they are fortunate, and so will you be, if you follow orders. You must return to Port Mercia at dawn. I cannot stress enough how important this is."
"Impossible! It's the other side of the world! We've only been back a few hours! We are low on food and water!"
"You will set sail at dawn and rendezvous in the Channel with the Maid of Liverpool, just returned from San Francisco. Company men are aboard her now. They will give you everything you need. They will strip that ship to the waterline to see that you are properly provisioned and crewed!"
The captain shook his head. "This is not good enough, Mr. Blezzard. What you are asking—it's too much. I— Good God, man, I need more authority than some words shouted through a tin tube!"
"I think you will find me all the authority you need, Captain. Do I have your permission to come aboard?"
The captain knew that voice.
It was the voice of God, or the next best thing. But although he recognized the voice, he hardly recognized the speaker standing at the foot of the gangplank. That was because he was wearing a sort of birdcage. At least, that's what it looked like at first sight. Closer to, he could see that it was a fine metal framework with a thin gauze around it. The person inside walked in a shimmering cloud of disinfectant.
"Sir Geoffrey?" said the captain, just to be sure, as the man began to walk slowly up the glistening gangplank.
"Indeed, Captain. I'm sorry about this outfit. It's called a salvation suit, for obvious reasons. It is necessary for your protection. The Russian influenza has been worse than you can possibly imagine! We believe the worst is over, but it has taken a terrible toll at every level of society. Every level, Captain. Believe me."
There was something in the way the chairman said every that made the captain hesitate.
"I take it that His Majesty is . . . isn't—" He stopped, unable to force the rest of the question out of his mouth.
"Not only His Majesty, Captain. I said 'worse than you can possibly imagine,'" said Sir Geoffrey, while red disinfectant dripped off the bottom of the salvation suit and puddled on the deck like blood. "Listen to me. The only reason the country is not in total chaos at this moment is that most people are too scared to venture out. As chairman of the line, I order you—and as an old friend, I beg you—for the sake of the Empire, sail with the devil's speed to Port Mercia and find the governor. Then you will— Ah, here come your passengers. This way, gentlemen."
Two more carriages had pulled up in the chaos of the dockside. Five shrouded figures came up the gangplank, carrying large boxes between them, and lowered them onto the deck.
"Who are you, sir?" the captain demanded of the nearest stranger, who said:
"You don't need to know that, Captain."
"Oh, don't I, indeed!" Captain Samson turned to Sir Geoffrey with his hands open in appeal. "Goddammit, Chairman, pardon my French, have I not served the line faithfully for more than thirty-five years? I am the captain of the Cutty Wren, sir! A captain must know his ship and all that is on it! I will not be kept in the dark, sir! If I cannot be trusted, I will walk down the gangplank right now!"
"Please don't upset yourself, Captain," said Sir Geoffrey. He turned to the leader of the newcomers. "Mr. Black? The captain's loyalty is beyond question."
"Yes, I was hasty. My apologies, Captain," said Mr. Black, "but we need to requisition your ship for reasons of the utmost urgency, hence the regrettable lack of formality."
"Are you from the government?" the captain snapped.
Mr. Black looked surprised. "The government? I am afraid not. Just between us, there is little of the government left at the moment, and what there is is mostly hiding in its cellars. No, to be honest with you, the government has always found it convenient not to know much about us, and I would advise you to do the same."
"Oh, really? I was not born yesterday, you know—"
"No indeed, Captain, you were born forty-five years ago, the second son of Mr. and Mrs. Bertie Samson, and christened Lionel after your grandfather," said Mr. Black, calmly lowering his package to the deck.
Excerpted from Nation by Terry Pratchett Copyright © 2008 by Terry Pratchett. Excerpted by permission.
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