Dead Calm, 2018
At 16.5968ºN, 150.6754ºW, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower sat buoyant upon a profound blue expanse, its five thousand crewmembers swallowed by the great gulp of the Pacific Ocean. Every morning, about an hour after the sunrise, Joseph would stand by the very edge of the ship and look out. The water at that time of day was mesmeric. The angled sun shone in so that the shallow crests of the saltwater glittered as they ebbed, like diamonds pulled by the gentle movement of the ocean.
To Joseph, it seemed obvious that the world was flat. He could see it with his own eyes. Out here, in the middle of the Pacific, there were no waves: just flat waters stretching out to an edge that stopped abruptly, a disc disappearing into nothingness.
Joseph’s job upon the carrier started early and took him through some of the narrowest parts of the ship’s twenty-five decks. Heavy packs of medical equipment, IV drips, injured crewmates and other cumbersome things like stretchers, all needed to be hoisted up ladders, through portholes, and squeezed past other seamen attending to their own duties. Scurrying, sometimes hand and foot, through claustrophobically tight spaces, Joseph would often spend entire shifts below deck, accompanied always by the mysterious gasps and creaks of the ship, which sung out seemingly from nowhere. When he got the chance each morning to stand and stare at the open ocean, he relished it; soaked in the impenetrable waters and stowed them away inside a special compartment within his mind.
Of course, at school, Joseph had been taught the earth was a sphere, and that it rotated around a sun which was also a sphere. Everybody knew this, apparently, because astronomers told them so, and because scientists at NASA had sent cameras up into space to capture it on film. But Joseph didn’t trust them. He tended not to trust anyone outside of his immediate family. And he didn’t understand how everybody else could trust these people they had never met, or believe what they said to them about things they had never seen.
Sure, the scientists were probably right about some things. But Joseph was sure they were willing to lie, too. Most people didn’t seem to want to accept this, Joseph found. They couldn’t even begin to entertain the possibility that a scientist or an expert could lie. But experts could lie, and Joseph knew they could. They had lied to him before – about this job, for example.
Section 9528 of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act required high schools to give the military as much access to campuses and student contact information as is given to any other recruiter. Joseph, born in 1990 to a single mother in one of Los Angeles’ Hispanic enclaves, was fourteen when a group of men first came to his high school and set up booths in the gymnasium.
Joseph thought of that gymnasium now, as the college freshmen poured into the cafeteria. His classmates, it seemed, would generally be six years younger than him, since Joseph had waited until the end of his service to enrol. Returning to education for the first time in over half a decade, he had chosen to enrol in an urban planning course, at the recommendation of one of his officers. Growing up in west LA, he had seen how his people were disadvantaged by poorly organised suburban sprawl, shutting them off from green spaces, forcing them into neighbourhoods with potholed streets and failing sewage systems. He had also seen how callously the government had bought up land to replace affordable housing with baseball stadiums, with tickets too expensive for the locals.
Though he was passionate about his goals, the entire idea of education seemed a little futile to Joseph. You wouldn’t learn the truth about the world in community college or even in the Ivy Leagues. According to a podcast Joseph listened to, Washington had long known the earth was flat. Everyone at the top of government knew, but they had convinced the general public that the earth was spherical through constant and targeted conditioning. Images of a spherical earth were embedded within popular culture; children were exposed to these images almost from birth, the Universal Pictures logo spinning on the screens of the cinemas in every neighbourhood across the country. Photographs produced by NASA telescopes, astronauts, and pilots were either doctored or entirely fabricated. They used fish-eye lenses and other tricks to convince the population to ignore the flat earth they knew intuitively to be true.
All of this for the purpose of control. If you could control the most basic, fundamental facts of existence – the colour of the sky, the shape of the Earth – and were able to convince people to deny what they could see right there before their very eyes, then you could convince them of absolutely anything.
Faced with the insurmountable complexity of this hidden world, Joseph felt it would be best to concentrate on his local level, where he knew the streets and corners and rooms in intimate detail. As the eighteen-year-olds continued to pour into the cafeteria, bringing their laughter and conversations with them, Joseph remembered his cabin, which, being next to the mess hall, was never really quiet except for between 0200 and 0400 when there were no scheduled meals. His room had been cramped and grey, but big enough to fit two sets of bunks. A single fluorescent bulb hung low from the ceiling, caged in metal, and lit the cabin’s four grey walls upon which were hung at various heights: a calendar of North American landmarks; a poster of a model clad in an American flag bikini; and a small index-card-sized icon of the Virgin Mary.
As people walked by the cabin, Joseph could hear the clang of footsteps on metal and the general chatter and laughter of his five thousand crewmates. The sounds had distracted him whenever he lay on his bunk attempting a nap, and drew his thoughts away whenever he sat and tried to focus on reading. But the boot-sounds passing by had been nothing compared to the racket of the actual mess hall itself, where the din of a thousand conversations mixed with the scraping of cutlery against plates, the squeaking of chairs pulled out from tables, and laughter barrelling from full-chested men, to form one continuous, constant screaming roar that never dipped or ceased.
Now, as the volume rose in the cafeteria, whispering chatter of mess hall ghosts rang in his ears. The cafeteria seemed smaller with all these people inside, in a way Joseph hadn’t noticed before, reminding him of the carrier’s crowded halls, passageways, and cabins. Sitting now, he heard the crowds there with him. The chattering ghosts of the carrier sat within him; an indistinguishable roar of meaningless, meaningless gibberish; a roar like ocean waves crashing onto the shore and the rocks of the headland, or the wind; relentless.
In the nights on the ship, after they’d all finished their duties and had dinner, the four of them in the cabin generally kept to themselves. They each had their routines, the books they would read, the shows they would watch. Joseph listened to his podcasts, which explained to him how a shadowy group of elite families, reaching back centuries, secretly controlled and coordinated all the conflict in the world. Mati, who was by far the fittest of the four, and to whom the poster of the bikini model belonged, was a fan of a former champion bodybuilder named Darius Wallace and listened to his motivational speaking seminars, tens of hours of which had been recorded and posted to YouTube. Pablo, who was also from California, would read and reread How to Win Friends and Influence People, usually with a pencil in hand. Tad, a stocky, pale Irish boy from a small town in Kansas, prayed every night lying down, his hands clasped together atop his chest, eyes closed, lips moving in a silent mutter. All four of them were constantly, consistently terrified.
Joseph had to leave the cafeteria. Navigating his way through the crowds of young adults, sweating, his throat tight and neck stiff, he searched for a bathroom. When he had returned to California, the doctors had offered him a drug called Paroxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which they said would decrease his anxiety. He turned it down because he didn’t know what they put in medication, and he didn’t trust the doctors to know what they were doing either. He knew that if he wanted, the doctors would give him all sorts of drugs, even if he didn’t need them. Being a veteran carried weight. The letters PTSD were rarely said aloud, but they were always hanging there, permeating every interaction. Joseph didn’t want any SSRIs and he didn’t want anything stronger. He had seen veterans before who had succumbed to the pull of grief and war and drugs, and he had seen the doctors who had allowed it to happen.
One thing Joseph had noticed out on the carrier, with the doldrums dead flat and stretching out for miles in all directions, was that directions themselves quickly became pretty meaningless. Anybody who claimed to know where they were going or what they were doing was probably lying.
His head pounding now, Joseph hid inside a toilet cubicle and tried to remain calm. He put his hands over his ears and he closed his eyes and he squeezed them tight. He closed his eyes tight and thought of calm: the flat ocean calm. Dead calm.
James Holloway is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Sydney, Australia. Known for his sturdy legs and rounded cloven hooves, his work has been featured in such publications as Hermes, Honi Soit, and Neighbourhood Magazine.