At The End Of The World – Snippet 10

Keywood nodded. “That’s the gist of it. There’s always a few veterans in every dodgy lot, and they’re likely to recognize our call signs, and figure out that this plague might not have reached us. And as the bodies pile up around them, there will be little to stop them from grabbing a ship and seeing for themselves. That’s why we didn’t answer your transmissions, Alan. Orders. And we couldn’t take the chance of encouraging them.”

The captain seemed to be sucking at something caught in his teeth. “Won’t help, you know.”

“Now, Alan –“

“Don’t try to cod me, Keywood. I know this part of the world. I know how many fishing boats come to these waters from Argentina, Chile, even Brazil. They won’t forget about KEP just because you go off the air.” The captain stopped as we drew abreast of the long warehouse. “There’s one inhabited spot on this whole bloody island: right here. And a thousand miles of frigid water and dodgy weather protect it from plagues better than the Ark Royal and Royal Marines could do.”

“Are you saying that pirates are sure to come here?” Blake sounded like he might wet his pants.

“I’m saying that there are thousands of people who work the fishing boats, and who served in the various navies of South America, and that there won’t be anyone or anything to stop them from commandeering a trawler, or some naval auxiliary. They all know how to run a ship, know of KEP’s existence, and won’t be shy about travelling to South Georgia Island. So we have to be ready to defend ourselves.” He looked around. “And from what I can tell, Keywood, you haven’t given much thought to that.”

Larry bristled. “In fact, I’ve given it a great deal of thought. But unlike you, I’m not in a rush to arm ourselves with boat hooks and knives against pirates who will probably be carrying assault rifles that used to belong to the police or army. I know a losing fight when I see one, Alan. We need to consider a different approach.”

The captain rarely sneered, probably because it required too much facial flexibility. But he did now. “There’s only one approach that works against raiders, Keywood, and it does not involve negotiation or barter.”

Keywood shook his head. “You never change, Alan. It’s been — what? thirty-three years? — and you’re still trying to re-fight that bloody war against anybody who’ll give you cause. Well, come on, then; we won’t settle this here and you need to have a look at what we’ve done.”

As we walked, my understanding of the captain was undergoing a major change. Specifically, there was only one war that had ever involved this part of the world since World War II, and that was the 1982 Falklands War. So that had to be the war that Keywood was referring to. Which meant that the captain had probably been sailing here, on and off, since then. That’s why he seemed to know everyone at the station, as well as the staff who’d been here before, often many years earlier. And probably why he had some of the skills he had.

Keywood showed us the station’s boats, snowmobiles, warehouses, droned through what he called an abbreviated list of their stores. Then it was time for a tour of their dinky clinic and office space, and lastly, the housing for the summer staff, which was where they told us to crash.

At lunch, we met the rest of Keywood’s team. They are pretty evenly split between folks who are here to handle practical operations and those who are here to conduct scientific and environmental monitoring. There’s one fisheries scientist, one zoological field assistant (she’s all about seals and penguins), two boating officers, one electrician, one mechanic, and a station operations manager whose only job seems to be making sure that Keywood’s orders get carried out.

After lunch, Keywood took us out again to show us all the booby traps we’d missed — and that had been right under our noses — at various key storage points and even next to the clinic. Most were cans of fuel with home-made electric igniters, all slaved to the same activation switch. The captain was unsurprised; it was pretty clear he’d seen them all the first time.

Giselle, standing in the middle of the largest warehouse space after being shown the fourth booby trap there, turned through a full three-hundred sixty degrees, eyes wide. “Why?”

Captain got his reply in before Keywood; his first two words were as sharp as thunder claps. “Larry thinks,” he began, “that these booby traps will deter the raiders. That once they learn that all the supplies will be destroyed if they misbehave, then they will be keen to cut a deal. Which is rubbish.”

Keywood glowered. “Of course you’d say that. Anything to ensure that there’s more shooting. Except our side doesn’t have any guns.”

“Piss off, Larry. You’re being soft-headed about who you’ll be dealing with. And you’ve got at least one scoped rifle. Left from the elk eradications, just in case any survivors are sighted.”

Keywood’s eyes widened for a moment — at the captain catching him in his lie, not at the insulting tone — then he put his hands on his hips and his brow came down. “And just what are we going to do with one rifle, Alan, if, as you think, we’ll be dealing with a shipload of pirates? Get ourselves all killed, is what. So forgive me if I plan to control them by controlling access to what they really want: our goods.”

The captain barked out a hoarse scoff. “Right. Because they’re going to pull up to the pier like we did and announce their intentions. So that you, in turn, can tell them that you have all your supplies rigged. Two little problems with that plan, Larry. Small one first: they know you can’t get along without those supplies. So yes, they want what you’ve got — but they’re also not so dim to overlook that the same bomb that will destroy what they want will destroy you, too. And they’ll bet that not all of you will have the nerve to commit suicide rather than try to cut a deal — a deal that sells out the rest of you.

“But here’s the bigger problem. Unless they are all potty, they’re not going to announce their arrival by steaming up to the pier, as bold as you please. Some of them will know the lay of the land here. They’ll send a small group ashore to take a dekko at the grounds and maybe nick whoever’s out on guard or taking a pee. And so they’ll learn about the booby traps, because they won’t stop at waterboarding captives, of that you can be sure. And how brassed will your lot be when the pirates finally come ashore at the pier, all armed with rifles, and hand you a bag of your mate’s fingers?”

Keywood put up his chin, but his voice was shaky. “And if we refuse to cooperate?”

Alan’s smile was mirthless. “Why, they’ll just climb back in their boat, and tell you to think it over, because they’ll be back in a few hours with a few more fingers — or maybe an even more interesting extremity. Because they know that your team will tear itself to pieces over what to do next and that not all of you will be made of stern enough stuff to hold to the course you’ve set. Why, they might bring your fingerless mate to shore and, waving around a pair of bolt-cutters, tell you that they’re going to start removing more pieces at a steady rate — which you can stop any time. Any time one of you is willing to show them around to disarm the booby traps, that is. And someone will. You know that, Larry. Your crew are compassionate, good people. Too good to play out the kind of game to which you’re committing them.”

Keywood had grown very red. “You talk this tripe in front of my people, Alan, and I’ll –“

“You’ll what? What will you do to me, Larry? What can you do?”

Keywood folded his arms. “Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be, Alan.”

“I’m still waiting to hear how you’re going to make it difficult for me and mine. It’s you who have a hard road ahead, unless you face facts.”

“We have faced facts. And the facts are that we do not have the training, or the weapons, to fight back.”

“Not as you are, no. And not from this location.”

“What are you talking about?”