Chapter 1: The Man from Halifax
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA. DECEMBER 1917.
A small grassy hillside overlooks the harbor channel of the Canadian city of Halifax. World War One era.
Two boys sit bundled up on the chilly December day, looking out over the water. An early biplane soars over the channel in front of them, and they gaze with eyes wide of amusement as it cranks past.
"What do you think the future looks like, Jack?" one asks the other.
The familiar looking boy pauses. "The future? That's a trick question, we'll never see the future."
"Think about it. When will we die? 1970? Tomorrow, if they bomb us? They'll always be working on something better, something we'll never get to see.
"That's a dark way to think," his friend shrugs.
"It's true though. Tomorrow is the future, right? Will it be tomorrow? No, it'll be the next day, and then the next day. We'll never actually see the future; it's always coming next."
The rickety plane makes another pass by.
Young Jack walks briskly down a dirt road alongside the channel, stiff breeze blowing in. Cold. Walking without a limp.
He's made his way down the long way from the hill, heading into town. Shoulders hunched up, he glances off to his left over the collar of his thick coat. A steamship is moving in the same direction out in the water. The SS Imo. He stops and looks; the only person visible on deck is a man standing up on the crest of the bow, looking right back at him. He can't see any of his features, other than a prominent hat; it's the captain.
They stand off for a few seconds before the figure about the ship waves. "Hello!" the voice booms out, muffled by the wind and clapping waves.
Jack waves back at the captain before continuing on his way.
He stops at a bakery to pick up a pair of bread loaves for home and school, and upon reaching the center of town, finds himself in the midst of a commotion. Cradling his market sack with two hands, he's jostled about by citizens hurrying back and forth; something's happening.
"Hey. Hey, what's going on here?" he asks anyone in the crowd willing to stop and listening, tugging on shirt sleeves. "What's happened? Is it war?"
Most people seem to be rushing in one direction – back towards the water. Jack looks in that direction, and sees smoke rising from the industrial harbor front. He stares for a few moments before being bumped around by the crowd, then continues on his walk home in the opposite direction.
"A fire down by the tracks," he'll say to his family upon returning home to their small house.
In actuality, the situation is much more serious. In the harbor's channel, a pair of ships have collided thanks to navigational confusion and error; the SS Mont-Blanc and the SS Imo, the very ship he saw coasting towards town earlier.
The Mont-Blanc is aflame, and slowly drifting towards shore, unmanned and out of control. What's worse, the ship is full of wartime explosives and munitions, bound for Europe, and no one knows it. It's a disaster waiting to happen, but to the unknowing townspeople of Halifax, it's an event, something to see. They gather around the water to view the spectacle of the burning ship as it careens slowly towards land, unaware of the imminent danger.
Young Jack continues on his way home, again bending out wide to the water, a long way back to a home that he didn't see much need being in for the time being. There was more to see and learn outside, not huddled around the stove or fireplace indoors all winter. Back on the small road straddling the channel, in an area of sheds and warehouses, people are still emerging from buildings to see what the source of all that noise and smoke was back at the harbor.
Jack felt danger. Not a sense of disaster, but knew that fire was nothing to be messed with. He'd seen homes burn down before, seen ships light ablaze. It wasn't anything special; and there were far worse things to worry about going on on the other side of the Atlantic.
Suddenly, shouts from the distance. Jack looks over his shoulder at the ruckus, and sees that the smoke billowing up behind him has turned black. The crowd that had been amassing along the shores begins to rush back towards him, as everyone doubles back in panic.
Jack drops his bag and takes a few running steps, a short run that will be etched into his brain for a century to come. The final run.
Shouting from the crowd, as word of the fire's true nature finally spreads through the streets, just a few minutes too late.
"It's gonna blow!"
The ship detonates, taking the town and his future with it.
There's a peal and thunderous explosion of light and fire from the area of the burning. At the time, it's the largest man-made explosion in recorded history. The impact creates a type of blast and death unfamiliar to the world at the time, even in war, with the force of a small nuclear bomb. Waves of pressure and fire shoot out across the shore at supersonic speeds, devouring everything in their path.
Anyone unlucky enough to have been gawking at the fire from the harbor's shoreline is killed instantly, others further out and away from ground zero by collapsing buildings, shattering glass, or the fireball and blast wave itself. A white-hot wall of death streaks through the city, blowing out every window in town, splintering wooden structures, sending bodies flying through the air, hurling chunks of the Mont Blanc and the other destroyed ships at dock skyward and inland.
The airburst strikes the street Jack runs down, torching and shattering everything around him as he dives to the ground with a scream. The long banks of windows in the adjacent factory are blown out, throwing shards into his legs like knives before the rest of the area collapses into the inferno.
Complete devastation as the deafening rumbling ceases, and a horrible quiet takes hold in his popped ears. Burned, bleeding, and cut all over, Jack rolls onto his side. Through wounded eyes he looks to the sky, at the mushroom cloud rising over the remains of the port of Halifax as snow and ash begin to fall around him.
He looks up into the towering, blinding smoke.
This was the day.
This was the day the world ended.
That my path and future was decided. Down on a long, winding road of no return and no end.