At The End Of The World – Snippet 04

I gotta give Giselle credit: she didn’t back down an inch. Probably because she is Rod’s devoted friend. And more than that, it’s pretty clear that she had a crush on him, too. Which of course he would never see on his own, not unless she did something a little less subtle than blushing when their eyes met. Like maybe tackling him and jumping his bones.

But given Giselle’s defiance and Chloe’s darkening complexion, I had a suspicion that this confrontation might not end with words. There wasn’t much room separating these two sizable ladies, but I saw — and jumped into — the little bit of daylight still between them and planted myself there. Only then did I realize that I didn’t have any clever lines to go along with my bold move. So all that came out of my dumb-ass mouth was, “Ladies, let’s not fight.”

That got Chloe to lean back. But not because she was intimidated; she was just surprised. Then she really leaned back — to laugh. “And who’s going to stop us ‘ladies’?” she taunted. “You?”

I managed not to swallow, even though I wanted to. Not because I was scared, but because the last thing I wanted to do was fight a girl or young woman or whatever you call somebody who’s eighteen and acting like she’s four. And besides, I really do kind of like Chloe, which is stupid and hormonal, but there you go. I was also pretty capable of acting like I was four. Or maybe as old as twelve, on this occasion.

I just nodded at her. “I’ll stop you if I have to. And I don’t want to have to.”

Chloe’s eyebrows shot halfway up to her widow’s peak. Then she laughed again and quick — like a striking snake and surprising for her size — she snapped her head forward and yelled, “Then get out of my way, runt!” and she poked her index finger into my chest.

Except her index finger never got there. Reflex took over before I could even think to just let her poke me. Because this is what you train for in aikido: to be able to react faster than you can think. And that’s what I did.

I got her index finger twisted so that her wrist had to roll along with it. My other hand came up and grabbed her wrist on the opposite side. I turned it so her palm was facing upward and then bent it towards her hard, the back of her hand facing me.

If you know what that does in aikido, then you know that despite being both surprised and angry, Chloe was a lot more aware of the profound discomfort in her wrist, with the promise of serious agony lurking right behind it. She went down to one knee, as they usually do, and emitted a surprisingly shrill, “Ow!” After a quiet moment, she said in a low, very serious voice, “I’m going to kill you.”

What she did next was what a lot of people caught in that position do. She tried to make a grab for my foot with her free hand, trying to pull me over or trip me. But because that’s what an untrained opponent usually does, it’s also one of the moves aikido teaches you to react to. The moment I saw her free hand in motion, I sidestepped, then pushed and twisted her hand some more. From the position she was already in, it was easy to chicken-wing her so that she ended up on both knees, her face more than halfway down to the deck.

I waited another second. “Are we done now?”

It was two seconds before she answered. “I’m going to kill you,” she repeated.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “At least not from that position. And I’m not going to let you go until you take back that threat. And convince me that you’re not lying.”

She looked around before she answered, and I realized what was making the situation even more complicated than it already was. Most of the other kids on the ship had gathered around. They were all surprised, some slightly amused, and one or two were kind of scared. Probably because — with the captain still chasing us away from the radio while remaining riveted to it himself — we’re increasingly worried that something bad might be going down back home. And that makes people more sensitive about anything that might ruin the already weak cohesion of our group.

But right then, Chloe was simply getting darker. “I’m not promising you anything, pipsqueak,” she said.

I sighed. “Well then, we’ve got a real problem. I’m not going to let you up until you give me your word that this ends here. Because, seriously: you’re pretty strong and pretty dangerous.”

She paused for a long time. By the time she spoke, her voice sounded a little bit surprised, a little bit grateful, but still a whole lot pissed. “Nice of you to notice,” she said. “Won’t save you, though. You should have minded your own business and let the ladies work it out.”

“Yeah, well, it looked like your version of ‘working it out’ meant you were going to pound Giselle’s face into the deck. I won’t have that.”

“Then what you have is a new enemy.”

“Can’t see as how you were anything but that already, Chloe. Wish it wasn’t like that.”

She was quiet for about four seconds this time. When she spoke again, her voice was very changed. “Well, isn’t that a shame. Because when you let me go — and eventually you’ll have to — you are never going to know when I might come up behind you and –“

“Enough,” said a voice that sounded like a rifle going off.

We all jumped. Except for Chloe that is. She jerked in surprise, which made her yelp: I kept her hand twisted.

The Great Ghoul of the Ocean-Sea was glowering at us, standing next to the hatchway from which he’d emerged. “There will be no fighting on board this ship. Especially not between men and women. I see something like this again and I will flog the lot of you.” He managed to say this in a tone of such disgust and anger that I think everybody but me looked down. Chloe had no choice in the matter; I still had her chicken-winged. He stared at me hard for a moment, but then his lower eyelids drooped. Which actually made him look younger.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said.

He nodded, half in acknowledgment and half toward Chloe. “That’s enough,” he muttered. I let her go. She pulled away sharply.

He glared at her — she looked down again quickly — and then he stared all around the group. “You should all be ashamed.” He snorted disdain. “I don’t care who did what. Or who is right and who is wrong. I will have no more of that shite on this ship. Is that clear?”

The mumbled replies were vaguely affirmative.

“IS — THAT — CLEAR?” He shouted each word so that it sounded like a sentence unto itself.

The other kids all looked up pretty much simultaneously. Almost as a chorus, they answered, “Yes, sir,” quietly but clearly.

One last undead glower. “Then get back to your work. All of you.” He glanced at me, jerked his head toward Rodney and Giselle. “Are they done learning knots?”

“Not just yet, sir.”

“Well then, stop lazing about and get them finished. I need you people to be able to handle a ship. On your own, if need be.” That got everybody moving.

Except me. Was I — and am I still — the only one who heard something ominous in that last short sentence of his?