At The End Of The World – Snippet 15

At the end of that very long day, we gathered in the radio house while the furnace in the remains of the primary processing plant got hot enough to cook dinner. But we couldn’t wait, because we were starving again. So hard-boiled penguin eggs were passed around.

Now let me tell you two things about penguin eggs. One is pretty predictable; the other is pretty bizarre. The predictable: they taste pretty much like fish. I mean, they are just this side of awful. But when you’re hungry enough — well, you’ll pretty much eat anything. The bizarre: their “whites” are absolutely clear. Like colorless acrylic. You can see straight through to the yolk. Which is green. It’s like eating food from another planet.

But soon after we finished the eggs, we could look forward to some slow-roasted seal-meat. Slow roasting in the iron stove was the only kind of cooking we were going to see other than boiling, since we had to keep the oven so far away from the fire that it took a long time to get the iron bars really hot.

The captain considered the day a success. He and his female naturalists found a small colony of elephant seals just two miles to the east, halfway to the foot of Jason Peak. They showed no fear of humans, and some of the smaller males had been banished to the fringe by the bigger harem bosses: perfect targets. The biggest problem: hauling a carcass back. On the positive side, the temperature hadn’t been higher than four degrees centigrade in days, so it wasn’t as if the meat was going to go bad, and the rat extermination on the island had been pretty thorough. But how were we going to cut up the carcass, even if we meant to take it in pieces?

The scrounger group had the answers. In several of Husvik’s better preserved buildings — but particularly the machine shop, the laundry, and the “slop house” — they found all sorts of abandoned tools. Most of them had either gone to rust or their handles had rotted away, but there were all-iron boning axes — curved, heavy sons of bitches — that were apparently made to cut apart whales. Some experimental sharpening had shown that they could be restored to a condition good enough to handle an elephant seal, at least.

They also discovered a few boat knives and what looked like machetes with either regular or extra-long handles. Captain told us they were called flensing knives.

Rod just shrugged. “I just call them whaler’s glaives.” Which was a perfectly good name, particularly once Rod reminded me exactly what a glaive was (he’d apparently played more Dungeons and Dragons than I ever had. A whole lot more.)

“Why?” the captain asked Rod. “Did you find some on the Karrakatta?”

That was the “smart-ass reveal” moment that Rod and I had been waiting for. We unveiled what we had found in the rusted hulk: almost a dozen big, well-preserved flensing knives, most with five-foot handles and blades almost half as long again.  But the handier ones were shorter: three-foot handles with two-foot blades. Like a really beefy machete mounted on a short axe haft. And some were just, well, beefy machetes. They all had a coating of rust, but that’s all it was: a coating. A few minutes of work and there was the metal, shining out from underneath.

The captain nodded gravely. “Good finds. Were they in the ship’s locker?”

“Mostly,” Rod gushed through a big gap-toothed grin. “There were some up near the crew’s quarters, too, in personal lockers. Must have been overlooked. The lockers were still closed and the water never got into them. Some of the tools were still wrapped.”

The captain’s nod was actually perceptible. “With the hole they cut to tap her fuel tanks and use her boilers, the water didn’t stay inside her. Ran out the lower decks.” He eyed the flensing knives more closely. “Those will make short work of whatever seal we take. The smaller ones look to be handy close-quarters weapons, too. Anything else?”

“Oh,” said I casually, “just these.” I got off of the box I had been sitting on, reached inside. Pulled out two damn near pristine boat knives. Scrimshaw handles, still intact. And then, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat very, very slowly, I produced the Find of the Day: a flare gun with five rounds.

The captain scowled. But his eyes were fixed on it. “And where did you find that? At the bottom of a puddle?” Voyager‘s flare gun had gone missing the same time he had dropped off the prior group of kids at Galapagos: not much mystery there. He had meant to replace it in Valparaiso, but hey: apocalyptic shit happens.

Rod was shaking his head. “It was in a closed metal box — water-tight — that was on the highest shelf of the pilot house’s ready locker.”

One of the captain’s eyebrows rose slightly. He made a reaching motion toward one of the flares. I handed it to him. He sniffed it like a wine critic who’d just opened a precious bottle that might have gone vinegary.

His other eyebrow rose. “No sign of moisture?”

“Not a bit.”

He pocketed the flare. “We’ll test it later. Now what about the chains?”

“The whats?” Rod and I asked in unison.

“The anchor chains?”

Oh, yeah: he’d asked us to look for those. “All there. A little rusty, but in good shape. Why? Are they important?”

“Only the most important single piece of gear in Husvik.”

We all looked at captain as he started handing out the seal meat. Finally, Chloe asked, “Why are the anchor chains so important?”

He shook his head. “We’ll go into that later. For now, here’s tomorrow’s assignments: if you’re not on the hunting team, you’re carrying the chain.”

“Carry that chain? How?”

“You don’t carry it all at once. Every anchor chain has removable links. Find them, remove them. Carry the sections. Leave them in the main plant. Close to the bay.”

“It’s going to be hard, getting them apart. They’re rusty.”

“Excellent. You can all use the exercise.”

I don’t really remember much of the next day. Seemed like I was working before I was fully awake. Blake, Steve, Rod, Giselle, and I cleaned rusty tools until it grew light, then we carried links of chain, then carted more wood into the furnace-house to dry out (any time you didn’t have something else to do, that was your job). We were dragging our sweaty, dirty asses back to the radio house when Voyager showed up. The captain docked her at the long pier that ran out from the main plant: its pilings were solid but the rest of it was pretty rickety.

We spent the next two hours getting big chunks of elephant seal off the boat and into the machine shop, which was still pretty intact. But however tired the rest of us were, Johnnie was actually staggering with exhaustion: he’d been swinging one of those boning axes since they’d made the kill.

“How many shots did it take?” I asked him.

Chloe overheard. “Three,” she murmured.

“Why are you whispering?”

“Because the captain was pissed. Even though he’s got a crate of ammo for that FAL.”

I’d read about how fast you can put a hundred rounds down range in an honest-to-god firefight and didn’t say a word. This one time, I think I had a good idea of what the captain might have been thinking and why he begrudged using every single bullet.

I remember finally making it back to the radio house after that, eating some fish, part of an energy bar, swallowing a quarter of a multi-vitamin . . .

And then I woke up here in my bunk. I figure I got back here myself. I figure I slept about ten hours. The only thing I can’t figure out is how I got to sleep. Because between the stale blood, fish, and sweat stink on me, I’m thinking of fashioning nose plugs. And we’re still two days away from “wash day”: the day we spend enough fuel to get indoor hot water and clean both our clothes and our bodies.

And god knows, we need it.