At The End Of The World – Snippet 11

The captain took a half step toward Keywood; it looked like a prelude to a plea, rather than a threat. “Anyone coming out here will know where KEP is, but they won’t have gone to the other bays. They won’t know to look for us at –“

Keywood stepped back. “No. That’s madness. This is the only facility big enough to hold us. And we could never move enough of the stores in time. Besides, this is about you and that bloody glacier again. What is it, Alan? A death wish of some kind?”

“I don’t give a tinker’s damn about the glacier. I’m talking about Husvik.”

Keywood shook his head. “Totally daft. We’d be cheek by jowl in the manager’s house and we’ve got no way to store everything there.”

“Not everything, no, but enough, and they’ll never look for us there. Besides, if they did, they’d be on unfamiliar ground in a very dodgy environment.”

Keywood began walking back to the main house. “I won’t say more and embarrass you in front of these — in front of your crew, Alan. But this conversation is ended.”

When Keywood had walked away, we all looked at the captain. He didn’t look back; he just nodded at the door. “You’ll want to follow the station leader. Get a cup of tea or broth. Go.”

The others filed out.

He glanced sideways at me. “You deaf?”

I shook my head. “What’s Husvik, captain?”

“None of your look-out,” he snapped. He started toward the doors, turned to mutter over his shoulder. “Not yet. Now don’t diddle about; let’s warm our feet indoors.”

*     *     *

Tea turned into early dinner. I think Keywood and his operations manager, Lewis, were trying to bring the day to a quick end. I could understand why; every attempt to start a harmless conversation took a wrong turn.

For instance, while we were picking at some canned — they called it “tinned” — meat, the captain tried to make (what sounded like) small talk. “So, no more elk after the fifty you bagged last season?”

Lewis shrugged. “We haven’t seen any more, but we found some of their scat. So however good a job the hunters did, it is certainly not complete. They’ll have to come back.”

The captain stopped eating. “Come back? The hunters?”

Lewis nodded. “Yes. I suppose it could be a while, of course. A while before anyone is thinking about such things, even once the plague has passed. But we’ve left the hunters’ weather sheds out there. For when they return.”

And I thought, “What planet are you living on?”

The captain was more discreet. “So you’re still following your environmental mission?”

Lewis shrugged. “Have to. Last orders from Port Stanley.”

Keywood shifted uneasily in his seat. The captain glanced at him, then looked back at Lewis. “The last orders you got from Port Stanley were that you should still be conducting elk surveys and your other . . . other scientific tasks?”

“Well, yes. In a manner of speaking.” Lewis shrugged. “I didn’t hear the message, of course. That was Larry and Simms.” He jerked a finger back at the electrician. “The acting Commissioner told us to ‘carry on.’ So that’s what we’ll do.” Lewis’ lips smiled and his eyes were wide. They didn’t blink. That’s when I realized that he had gone quietly and totally nuts.

Rodney had stopped eating, and before either Chloe or Giselle could stop him, he blurted out what all of us were wondering. “Don’t you know what’s going on back in the world?”

Lewis blinked, the right eye a little slower than the left. “I’ve — I’ve heard enough. Larry keeps us up to date. It’s a bad business, right enough, but they’ll get the measure of this bug. We’re just lucky to be here.”

No one was looking at Lewis by the time he finished; we were all looking at Keywood. Chloe’s face had darkened; she started leaning across the table.

The captain leaned in first, preempting her. “So, you oversee all the radio traffic.”

Keywood kept a pleasant smile on his face, but his jaw set. “Simms and I, yes, we did.” He nodded toward the electrician, who nodded back but kept his eyes on us. “Back when there was any traffic to monitor.”

I remembered when we drifted past the radio room as part of our walking tour; all the lights were off. Keywood had said they were just saving power and wear and tear on the equipment. Now I wondered if that was the case, and how long it had been since the radio had been turned on.

Chloe wasn’t wondering; she was standing up. “Haven’t you told them –?”

“They know how bad things are,” Keywood interrupted. I managed not to shout “liar!” “We just didn’t need to hear the same sad reports, over and over.”

The captain turned his ghoul-gaze on Chloe. She sat down again, out of respect for, not fear of, him.

And now I understood why Keywood wanted to hurry the day to a close. If he didn’t, then whatever we kids knew about how bad things were in the world might get revealed and his team might wig out. Some of them already looked close to that point. The seal and penguin expert — Diana Paley — had started leaning close against the electrician Simms, her eyes frightened, bracketed by crows-foot crinkles. Simms put an arm around her, looked daggers at Chloe and the rest of us. And then I understood something else: Simms had already looked into the abyss and seen their death. The death of the whole world. He had accepted that fate. So he was just trying to take care of Diana until the final curtain fell, to keep her from having to face the reality he had.

The captain had noticed the same thing. He released one of his mouse-sized sighs. “Thank you for the meal. Nice change from fish.”

“You out of supplies already?” Keywood sounded surprised, maybe worried.

“No, just supplementing them with catch. Make them last longer.” He rose. “Time for us to get some kip. First time we’ve bunked on dry land in months.”

We all heard the cue — even Johnnie — got up, and filed out. As we did, Keywood called after the captain, “Have a dram, in a bit?”

The captain just nodded, shrugged into his coat as we prepared to brave the short walk to our rooms. Once outside, we discovered it was already below freezing.

“Captain,” started Giselle.

“No questions. Not tonight. In the morning. Before breakfast.”

We walked through the dark and the snow, which swallowed up the sound of our footsteps and everything else.

It really did feel like we were the last people on Earth.

When we got to our rooms — with real beds, not bunks! — I didn’t even take off my clothes: I just dropped down on the blanket and started today’s first journal entry. Then, about fifteen minutes later, I heard soft footsteps in the corridor. Since my room was closest to the outside door, it meant that someone either wanted to sneak in on me or was about to leave the barracks. But I didn’t hear the door to the outside open. Nor did anyone knock on my door or try the knob.

So I waited. Almost certainly, it was the captain, going back to the main house for his “dram.” I was pretty sure that meant whiskey; I heard it in an English movie, once. I popped my head out into the corridor. No one. But there were boot prints on the floor; big ones. Yup; that was the captain all right. But how the hell had he gone past making less sound than a kid in fluffy slippers, to say nothing of opening and shutting the door? Serious ninja skills.

Serious enough for me to realize that if he had the skills to get out of the barracks without making a sound, he probably also had the skills to wait to see if anyone was trailing him. So I waited for two minutes that felt like an hour. Then I slipped my coat back on and followed him.

Of course, he was gone by the time I poked my head out into the cold — and I mean cold — but mad ninja moves or not, he couldn’t keep from leaving tracks in the snow, and there was just enough light to make them out.

I followed them back to the main house, was just realizing that I didn’t have any way to get inside without attracting the attention of everyone in their “pub,” when the door opened. I tucked back around the near corner of the main house, heard low voices: the captain and Keywood. Feet crunched in the snow, heading toward the opposite/western corner of the house. Just before they moved out of hearing, I stepped out and followed them.