A slang term often used in the United States Navy to refer to ballistic missile submarines (SSB). Boomers were first created in the period immediately following World War Two, reaching special military significance during the height of the Cold War, when many became nuclear-powered. At the time, this effectively gave them the ability to destroy the planet. Those wishing to work with boomers are advised to travel to any available Naval Academy, demand to speak to the Base Commander, and give them a long, firm handshake.
We were in Hell.
Or Florida, which was close enough.
A place called “Port Everglades” conjured up mental images of sawgrass and swamp gas, but it was surprisingly industrial, concrete docks and blandly-colored square buildings stretching out for what felt like miles. Despite it being just past three in the morning, the entire area was lit up like a candle, and I had no trouble seeing everything around us as Hallie and I were driven in.
It was only a twenty minute ride from the hotel we’d spent the night in, but Hallie hadn’t even tried to stay awake with me for it, punching out on my shoulder almost as soon as the cab started up. The driver kept eying her from the rear view mirror, and I first wondered if he recognized her, soon realizing that he was just fixated on her inhumanely loud snoring.
“See Pap,” he said, with a thick Eastern European accent. Following his command, I looked out the left window, taking my first real world glimpse at the Paphnutius. Much of the ship was blocked from the large building it was parked in front of, but I could make out the top decks, the famous gravestone-shaped smokestack even gaudier in person.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
He shook his head, pointing back towards Hallie.
“We’re both going.”
“No, no… ah. For breathe, for breathe.”
“…I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I’m having trouble hearing you.”
He shook his head, laughing.
After crossing a checkpoint, he pulled up in front of our station to the terminal, right where we’d been told to go to. Three figures were waiting for us near the drop-off.
I shook Hallie awake, and I got out of the cab, the driver helping me unload our bags from the back before waking Hallie up. After I gave him a tip, he raised a finger, signaling me to wait for him. Opening the car door, he fished out an old business card and a pen, quickly scrawling on it and handing it to me.
He leaned in to whisper.
“Wife is sad, tired, snore all night. Sound like hurt turkey. We go to doctor, they do study, they say, CPAP, CPAP. We get it, now she sleep, I sleep, she so, so happy. Magic. Get CPAP. CPAP, CPAP.”
“…I’ll look into it, thanks.”
Patting me on the shoulder, he smiled and opened the back door again. I crawled in and woke up Hallie, helping her out of the car.
With us both out and about, the driver got back into his seat, shouting happily from the window. “CPAP!”
“CPAP,” I confirmed.
“I can’t,” said Hallie. “Prick.”
Considering the time, the three men who greeted us were unnaturally cheery, bright white smiles pairing creepily against bright white crew uniforms. Of the trio, only the man in the middle was apparently important enough to need to introduce himself to us, guiding the other two to start loading our bags. He looked professional, a straight-laced man in his late thirties. He knew enough not to try and shake Hallie’s hand without asking first, which boded well.
“Hello, Ms. Nordhoff, Mr. Sualo. It’s fantastic to meet you both. I’m Nate Coiner, director of events. I’ll be in charge of most scheduling and recreational activities while onboard, and I deal directly with our entertainment. If either of you need anything beyond a refill on a drink, I’m the best person to speak to.”
While he was introducing himself, both men walked back in front of me, our bags loaded up into a wheeled metal carrier. I tried handing them each twenties, but they each smiled and shook their heads, continuing on. Nate explained.
“Those two don’t work for the port terminal. They’re from the ship, and none of the crew works for or accepts tips, as is policy. There’s no need, I assure you. Seeing you satisfied is all the reward they require.”
I saw Hallie make a face, and I wasn’t that far from it myself. Something about that specific brand of customer service styled faux-friendliness made me want to vomit. Like a serf, almost.
I reminded myself that our bank account, as of the week prior, had nine consecutive digits in it, and that Nate probably knew that. He also probably didn’t know that we’d used up the vast majority of it in the time since, so from his perspective, he was speaking to folks with scary, scary wealth. That might have been intimidating, in a way.
Then again, it was his job to deal with those people, wasn’t it?
After some more small talk, he had us follow him into the giant rectangular terminal positioned in front of where the ship was. As we walked inside the empty building and ascended through several levels of rooms, hallways, and escalators, he answered some of my questions. Hallie, who was not the type who could manage to wake up in the middle of the night and deal with people, mostly seemed to ignore the conversation, half sleep-walking alongside me.
Other than a few straggling crew members walking between different locations, there was no one besides us present, which was jarring in comparison with the massive size of some of the rooms we walked past. Not really thinking, I pointed the emptiness out to Nate.
“The Paphnutius has a very unique loading process, Mr. Sualo. Most cruise ships, when they return to their initial port after any trip, use it as a chance to restock. We’re no different, but because of the complexity involved in our operations, it takes us much longer than the six hours that it takes even most larger ships. Specialized medical equipment is much harder to load and store than most typical supplies, and even that requires extra effort for us, as we must pack much higher quantities of food than our competitors, owing to the length of the trip. We also must manage and remove whichever guests chose not to have their remains dealt with at sea, which is a very time exhaustive process. Of course, we also have renovations, which is more time consuming than anything. Most ships will come in at six in the morning and be out to sea with new passengers by six that same evening, but we have to stay in port for upwards of two months.”
“…Do you guys rent out the whole port during that time? You’re the only ship docked. Is that a security thing?”
“Again, it’s a little early, Mr. Sualo. Aside from weather events or planned renovations, it is very rare for most cruises to stay docked overnight. Most start coming in at around five or six.”
We reached the top of our third consecutive escalator, coming to a final hallway that seemed to lead to the bridge connected the terminal to the ship.
“Our guests are going to begin arriving at ten, and passenger embarkation should start less than an hour later. The plan was to have you two board as soon as you arrived and let you sleep in, but I’m afraid there’s currently a minor technical issue that we need to take care of before I can bring you both aboard. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
He opened the door, leading into a tiny lobby, strongly resembling the waiting room to a doctor’s office. There were fifteen wide comfortable-looking chairs scattered throughout the room, along with some tables and the door to a bathroom. I also noticed, without giving it any thought, a large cup of ice resting on a stool near the back.
I sat down, a jolt of relief shooting up from my legs. I was more tired than I’d realized.
“Most of the other entertainers should be arriving soon to join you. By the time you all make it, we should be ready to get you on board.”
Hallie spoke up for the first time since introducing herself to Nate.
“Yes, Ms. Nordhoff. Aside from you and our regular events staff, about ten other full-time entertainers are contracted guests for at least a significant duration of our cruise. We have a pianist, a singer, a magician… the best of the best, as with yourself. Only three others are scheduled to remain with us from start to finish like you, however. Most live artists have difficulty providing nine months worth of unique content to the same audience.”
Hallie yawned. It was out of tiredness, not disinterest. I barely resisted the urge to do the same, Nate becoming harder and harder to pay attention to. I wanted to get back into bed.
We were told that we’d be placed in a normal cabin, same as the passengers got. I imagined, on a ship filled with dying billionaires, what the sheets would be like. They’d have to be nice, right? Of course they would.
A rock and a pile of napkins would’ve been good too, from where I was at mentally, but that was besides the point.
“You might enjoy speaking with the other entertainers. It’s an amusing coincidence, but you’re all very young, so I imagine you would get along. I’m sure you’ve already been informed all about the… demographics.”
The average age on the last cruise, as we were told, was eighty-four. We were like fresh grapes lining up for national raisin convention.
I yawned. Hallie spoke, changing the subject.
“…Hey, well. We came first. Isn’t that right, Led? Good thing, too. Wouldn’t have wanted to be late.”
She pinched my elbow, still cranky that I’d been so insistent on arriving at the time they told us to. Fair enough, considering where it had ended up getting us.
“Actually, that’s not quite true. You both are, believe it or not, the second guests to arrive.”
“…Who was the first?”
“Oh, yes. That would be our ship’s comedian. Quite the character, that one. I think that-”
As if on cue, he was interrupted. The bathroom door rammed open, said character walking out and, after looking us over, greeting us with a warm smile. I felt myself start to wake up a little.
“Hey! Nice you meet you.”