Chapter 3

Lazaretto.

Noun.

A type of quarantine station historically intended for diseased sailors and maritime travelers. Most often took the form of permanently anchored ships, isolated islands, or buildings on the mainland coastline. No longer in use.


“The idea that ended up becoming Final Voyages came from my father. He was an interesting man, personal faults aside. He liked to people-watch. Had some stripe of autism, I’m fairly sure.”

I’d heard of Doreen’s company before, obviously. Who hadn’t? Six or seven years ago, when they’d first come out with it, it had dominated public conversation. But it wasn’t something I’d paid much attention to, beyond what I absolutely couldn’t avoid. It was crazy, yeah, but what wasn’t? Just another level of insanity to pile on top of everything else. 

Rich pricks did nutty shit with their money, big shock. I didn’t need the news to tell me that.

“He worked for a big entertainment megacorporation, high up in the food chain. Not board of executive high, but high. Handled the financials for a small, twenty-person branch in the company that dealt with IP acquisition. You know what that is?”

“Intellectual property,” I said. “Copyright, patents, all that.”

“Bingo, Hallie! Well, not patents; those are for inventions, not artistic properties. But copyright, exactly. They dealt with the rights to fictional works. What would happen is that they’d get sent long lists of works that the higher-ups wanted them to look into acquiring, and then they’d go and do the dirty business of actually negotiating for the rights. That meant trying to buy everything from movie scripts to completed, decade old television shows. If it was art the bosses thought they could find a way to profit from, they were trying to buy it.”

“Get to the point.”

“I’m trying to craft a narrative here, Hallie. By now, you should have plenty of experience listening to annoying rich people drone on about themselves. For what we’re going to be paying you, I figure you’ll indulge me. Consider it practice for what lies ahead.”

I grumbled. She was still lying — she had to be lying, with a number like that — but I couldn’t afford to risk it. In the case that she was, I contented myself with the mental image of suing April for violating her NDA. God, that’d be fun. I’d litigate her to hell and back.

“Other than my father, everyone in that department dealt directly with the artists and owners, trying to convince them to sign away their properties. And they were sociopaths, his coworkers. They’d smooze and bullshit like nobody’s business to close a deal. It was one thing when they were negotiating with another equally humungous company to buy a show so they could put it on their streaming service, but when they were working over small-time writers or designers, god. They were manipulating people into signing contracts awful enough to make Berry Gordy blush. Heartless.”

“Unlike your father, I’m sure you’ll say.”

“Oh, no. Don’t get me wrong; he wasn’t the one getting his hands dirty, but he was more than complicit in it. He never denied that. But he was just there for the ride, to make some money, to observe. They loved doing it… he just loved to watch them work.”

Led spoke for both of us.

“What?”

“Have you ever watched a white collar scumbag do their job? It’s fascinating. My Dad couldn’t get enough of it. The grandeur, the self-delusion, the complete and total willingness to disregard ethics whenever possible. He used to tell me that being around those people was all the entertainment he ever needed.”

She laughed.

“Every six months, summer and winter, they’d go on these big, week-long cruises to the Caribbean. All expenses paid, including family, so my Dad would always bring me along. He hated the cruises, but it was an office politics thing, so he couldn’t get out of it. He loved being around all his coworkers under normal circumstances, but on the ship they’d just get drunk and fat and not do anything, which bored the crap out of him. So he would just take me by the hand and go to the little events they set up and strike up conversations with random strangers. We made a game of it.”

“…Real interesting.”

“You’re being sarcastic, but it was. Again, on the sorts of giant economy-class megaships we’d go on, around 80% of people were falling into that same “eat and drink and do nothing” category, but the people who weren’t, they had some good stories. Do you two know what group of talkative people love to cruise more than anyone? Take a guess.”

“No clue,” I said.

“The well-educated?”

“Old people. People often have a mental image of cruise-goers as young drunk kids on Spring Break, but as prevalent as that is, it’s far from the norm. As of last year, the average age of an American cruise ship passenger was 54, and that’s still including folks going on weekend trips to the Bahamas. The real heavy hitters of the industry, the only folks who have the time and money to go on the big trips, that’s seniors. For the most part, they don’t drink and they love when people listen to them. So that suited my father perfectly.”

“…You spent your family vacations talking to old people?”

“And loved it. Once we pushed past seventy, people got interesting. Sometimes that meant wise, self-aware great-grandmothers with well-reasoned life advice, and other times it meant listening to thirty minute diatribes about how the government doesn’t want you to know the benefits of sungazing. Do you know what sungazing is? Because it’s exactly what it sounds like, Hallie. Mr. Levitt, you blind bastard. Rest in peace.”

“And your point is…”

“We kept this up for a long time, two cruises a year, from when I was six up until I was twenty-three. We’d spend two weeks a year listening to old people and the rest of it making fun of all the crazy ones. Some people might try to argue that it’s not good to build a loving parent-child relationship off a foundation of regularly mocking the elderly, but hey, it worked for us. And over the years, we start to notice certain things. A pattern, an attitude coming from the oldest, the sickest, the ones lugging around oxygen tanks. Sometimes we were told, very directly. It was always phrased as a joke, but, well. They meant it.”

“Meant what?”

“I came on this ship to die.”

“…And that’s when your dad thought up Final Voyages?”

“There was never a single light-bulb moment. It was research, stuff coming up in the news, all sorts of bits and pieces that melted together in his head over the years. It was true thirty years ago, and it’s still true now, that long-term economy cruising is a cheaper retirement option than most standard nursing homes. More dignified, too. Fancy dinners every night, the open ocean, plenty of young people around to stave off the feeling that you’ve somehow been cut away from mainstream society. Unless a person was sick enough to require specialized care, it was a great option, and an increasing number of old people were opting for it.”

“But Final Voyages isn’t about retirement,” Led pointed out.

“Correct. My dad wasn’t interested in that. Besides, as stated, that market already existed. But he kept on ear on things, listening to these people, to the news. Right around the time you two were born, euthanasia was becoming a big topic again in the public discourse, and more and more states were legalizing the right to die. It was almost as big of a deal as you ended up being, Hallie. And years of listening to old people say that they were ready to go, with the largest generation in human history suddenly posed for a massive die-off, he saw what those in business like to refer to as an emerging market. Death tourism was already a concept — folks from countries that didn’t have legal euthanasia traveling to ones that did — and with it rapidly becoming accepted and legalized in most of the developed world, he just ended up being the first to extend the idea. If you’re on death’s door, if you’re sick and old and ready to take your exit… why not do it in style?”

“Christ.”

“His first concepts were very, very different from the finished product. The original idea was a big Royal Caribbean style megaship where middle class folks would have two weeks of bucket-list fun before drinking out of little glass vials at the end and saying a collective goodnight. He was laughed out of the room by every investor that he came into contact with. And, well, duh. My dad liked being with people, but he never totally understood them, not in the way you and I might. Even ignoring all the hundreds of conceptual and logistical problems that’d come with a system like that, it fails to properly account for the human element.”

I heard Led crack his knuckles. It was his general habit when thinking about something.

“How so?”

“First, the two weeks. That’s a big deal. Even when people get on-board with euthanasia from a moral perspective, there aren’t going to be loads of people jumping to do it themselves, aside from folks in serious, serious pain. Hospice is always more palatable, psychologically-speaking. The average hospice stay is a little over two months, and that’s in our culture, which only likes to recommend it at the last possible moment. Compared to the vial, it’s much easier for a person to say ‘Hey, I’m sick of these treatments, so I’m going to go to a place where they are focused on quality of life over keeping me alive at any cost’. And there’s comfort in knowing that it might not happen, that they might make it out of hospice, which does happen, albeit rarely. And that way they don’t have the mental weight of one specific approaching date, which helps.”

“Wouldn’t that be scarier, though?” asked Led. “Not knowing when it comes, that it could happen whenever. That’s what I’d assume, not being in that position myself.”

“For many, there’s peace in that. Not being in control. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to flip the universe off and go out by gulping down a glass of cyanide at the precise minute of your choosing, but not as many actually want to do that, when push comes to shove. It’s much simpler to close your eyes and let go a steering wheel than it is to actively drive into oncoming traffic. So he switched the focus away from euthanasia, moving closer to palliative care. That’s easier, more marketable. Less moral outrage from the public, too. Many, many more clients. But that came with its own set of problems, more practical ones.”

She took a breath.

“Again, seventy day average. So it needs to be insanely long, for a cruise, to ensure that the vast majority are able to pass during the duration. That cuts out the middle class, which shifted the focus to the rich, along with the smaller, luxury ships that we ended up going with. Then you have to custom-build a ship that can be accessed and used by the very sick and the very disabled. And you need employees trained both as hospice carers and cruise ship attendants, which means an asinine amount spent in training and recruiting. There’s a million more problems, on top of all that. And the problem ends up being, mathematically, the sheer cost. Almost anyone who can afford the bare minimum of what we’d need to charge could also afford to rent a yacht or a cabin on a private island and die there instead. Which, under normal circumstances, would be the preference for most of the very wealthy.”

“…So you’re saying your company shouldn’t logically exist?”

“Exactly. It absolutely shouldn’t. I am selling a product and an experience that, due to multiple fundamental misunderstandings about the market, makes no sense, both for the customer and the producer. Do you know how a company goes about selling a product like that?”

“Lying?”

“We like to call it marketing. Goes down easier.”

She laughed.

“A Final Voyages cruise, he decided, needed to be a status symbol. Not just to provide luxury, but the ultimate luxury, respect. A place for those on the top of the pyramid to end it all, a coffin for kings and queens. The investors loved that pitch. Final Voyages has one ship, and it goes out once a year, for nine months. Whenever we set sail, it’s news. Whenever we come in, it’s news. Oil tycoons, business executives, the most respected and feared individuals from the worlds of art, sport, government, industry. They all come, paying more than enough to buy their own yacht several times over, and for good, good reason. You don’t die on our ship for the caviar, Hallie. You die there so people know you meant something.”

She banged her fist on the table, her voice picking up.

“And that means sparing no expense. That means paying for symbols like you, performers like you. Because you are everything. The best violinist in the world, the subject of the court case of a century, her first public appearance ever less than a few short months after her reveal, all on our ship. Like paying to meet a modern demigod, to have it make music for you, to dance for you, to sing for you. The money I’m waving around is incomprehensible to you, and it should be. But you’re worth it, Hallie. You’ll be the biggest star we’ve ever had. The amount we can upcharge because of your presence will make the nine figures I’ve just teased you with look like a literal pittance.”

I heard something slide across the table. Paper. A big stack.

“Nine months, early July of this year to the day before Easter 2040, leaving from Port Everglades. 432 passengers, discounting the crew. Led comes, if you want. Same cabin, or separate, if you’d prefer.”

“Same,” I clarified.

“Lovely. Four hours of performing per day, some in public, some for private bidders. The rest is yours. You don’t even need to maintain your persona, if you decide that you’d rather not. We don’t care. Mingle or stay in your room, as long as you play when we tell you to.”

She sounded almost deranged, talking faster than I could really process. I assumed that was intentional.

“I know you have questions, Hallie. About the operations of the ship, about how any of this would work, about what exactly it would involve. I can answer them. Just say the word, and the three of us leave here with this sixty-page contract and take a cab to our corporate office. We can pick up your lawyer on the drive over. And we’ll spend the next ten hours hashing this out. Maybe it takes us a few days, if you decide to get scared about us screwing you over in the fine print. But by next week at the latest, this can all be secured. That number can be in your bank account. Just nine months, Hallie. That’s it.”

The fact that she knew who my lawyer was and that they worked in Manhattan was somehow not even in my top fifteen questions. Which was not good, probably.

“You’ve worked hard. You’ve suffered. And you’ve toyed around with some videos and some little private shows as a way to justify that, but this is real, Hallie. This is it. Take hold of the fruits of your labor. The fruits you deserve.”

“A little melodramatic,” I managed to say, after some silence. “It’s just a cruise.”

Led reached over and squeezed my hand. We both knew that we needed to be careful about how we went forward, but we also knew my answer. There was no question, aside from managing the details. I nodded.

“You know, I get the impression that your dad would have enjoyed watching you work.”

One thought on “Chapter 3”

  1. I was going over the chapters so far and I realized that I made a really silly mistake. In my internal character doc I mixed up the names of two characters and ended up giving them both the same first name, calling both Hallie’s birth mother and her manager Alice. They are separate characters, and the latter is actually named April (Mariano). This has been corrected.

    Like

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