At The End Of The World – Snippet 17
“I was a damned fool. Two helicopters went down. Everyone survived. Miracle that. Then they had to shelter until the last helo could fly in and recover them.”
“And what did you do in the meantime?”
“Not bloody much. There was nothing for it except to stay on top of that bloody glacier with them. Gave them all my rations, used my camp heater until it ran out. That might have made a difference. Might not have.”
“And what about the other person — the one who had been security for the filmmakers?”
“Right there, doing the same thing. Until the weather cleared enough for the last helo to come and try to get those poor blokes back out. Took three tries. Damn near crashed every time. They were flying on instruments, navigating these bleeding fjords with radar that had been designed for sub-chasing. So naturally we had to get out there and help.”
“Help how?” Blake’s voice was hushed.
“Sending radio signals. The security operative and I both had small sets. We set up on either end of what looked like the best landing zone. Direction finding on our signals gave the last helo some crude triangulation capability. And they needed all the help they could get. If the weather closed over once they started their final approach, the only way they knew if they were nearing the ground was if we signaled that we had spotted their lights, or saw their rotors kicking around the snow.”
“And did the chopper crash?”
“No; it came in hard but straight, and two helicopters-worth of my mates managed to cram themselves into that little Wessex 3. It was like a bunch of bloody weightlifters packed into a clown car.”
“Then . . . what went wrong?”
The captain looked away. “Everything seemed fine. The helo went up, got out over the water, and was headed back toward the ship. I turned to find the person I’d been working with.” He stopped for a moment. “No sign. I looked for days. Found a hand-held landing light at the edge of a crevasse. Nothing else.”
I could hear how careful the captain was every time he spoke about this security operative who’d been lost on the glacier, but I wasn’t going to ask him any questions about that, particularly not with the other two gawking at him. “So if the story ends at the glacier, why is this gear down here?”
“Because the story doesn’t end on the glacier. Once I was done there, I had to come back to Leith to keep an eye on the Argie Marines. They just sat here. But when my mates retook KEP, then it was time to let the invaders here know that they had to give it up, as well. Took a day of pretty testy negotiation.”
“Why?” Blake seemed outraged at the notion that the Argentines wouldn’t give up immediately. “They must have known you guys would slaughter them, otherwise.”
“Probably, but their commander wanted to sign a separate surrender and save his skin.”
“I don’t understand,” said Steve.
The captain nodded. “Their commander was a right swine by the name of Alfredo Astriz. Sadistic strongman for the Argie military government. Disappeared all sorts of people, including some Swedes and French nuns. He knew that London would want him extradited, right enough. So he made a separate peace, you might say. Took an extra day.”
“And you were part of those, um, negotiations.”
“I was just the messenger. If it had been up to me, I’d have shot the bastard.”
I poked at the frozen ground. “And so…this?”
“I was ordered to stay on. Keep an eye peeled, make sure the Argies hadn’t left anyone behind. Then came orders to destroy what was left of the two helicopters. And the kit that the Argies left behind.”
“How did you do that?”
“The weapons and vehicles got what you Yanks call a willie pete and that was the end of ’em. But it seemed a bloody waste to destroy perfectly good rations and vitamins.” He pronounced it “vittemens.”
I started scratching the outline of the hole we had to dig. “Okay, but why bury them here?”
The captain shrugged. “Back in those days, no one knew if the war might flare up again in a month, or maybe a year. Seemed like a fair enough idea to have a cache on hand, if that happened. Afterwards,” — he shrugged again — “never had a reason to dig them up. And, in case some tosser in Moscow or Washington decided to push the button and end the world, I figured I might run here for a few months, let all that fallout blow over.”
I stared at the ground. “You think they’re still good?”
He nodded. “It’s in plastic. In metal containers. In ground that never gets warmer than about ten degrees centigrade. And all of it has expiration dates measured in decades, not weeks or months. So get digging.”
When we came back to the Voyager, I thought Chloe would lay into us with questions about our brimming backpacks. But instead, she was waiting aboard, gun in her hands, fidgeting from foot to foot.
“Captain!” she called when we got within fifty yards. “Someone was on the radio.”
He started walking faster. “Who was it?”
“Don’t know, but I’m pretty sure they were speaking Spanish. And I think they were sending a lot of numbers.”
The captain’s brow lowered a bit.
“Coordinates, course, speed? Response frequencies?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Possibly all of that.” To Chloe: “You didn’t respond, did you?”
“Captain! You’ve given orders not to. And I’m not stupid, you know.”
He nodded as he climbed back aboard. “Let’s get home. Quickly.” He turned to me. “You take us out. I’m going to search the dial.”
I don’t think any of us said a single word, all the way back to Husvik. The captain was out of the boat before we’d even heaved a line up to the pier. “Did you get all that scrap collected?” he asked loudly.
Giselle and Willow had emerged from the machine shop. They nodded together. “Probably a ton’s worth.”
“Good. Keep working.” He turned to those of us in the Voyager. “Start helping the others to relink the anchor chains. Two equal lengths. Keep them in the plant, near the fire. They must stay dry and warm.” He went back to the radio.
Normally, when we got jobs like these, we groused once the captain had stalked off. We didn’t do that today. We knew the captain was worried. And that meant we were worried, too.
We were all pretty tired by the time we got together back in the radio house for a meal and news from the captain. He heard more of the radio traffic about an hour after we got back. According to him, the senders identified themselves as the crew of a fishing boat that, returning to Montevideo, found chaos, and turned around without making port. Now they were trying to raise KEP to get news of safe harbors. “Which,” the captain finished, “is all a load of shite. They give their position as a few hundred miles away.” He shook his head. “Any boat that turned its back on the mainland wouldn’t have gone steaming over five hundred miles into the middle of the wintertime South Atlantic before trying to find out if there was anyone at home at King Edward Point. That and some of the terms they used, their radio habits: they aren’t fishermen.”
“So they’re coming for us,” Rod said quietly.
“Hard to say. But I suspect they’ll at least go to KEP. Whether they know the island well enough to have heard about Husvik, or whether they, erm, debrief the staff at KEP, that’s another matter. No point in speculating: we assume they will. Which is why we’ve been getting ready since we got here.”
“Getting ready?” Johnnie asked earnestly.
Blake rolled his eyes.
Which pissed me off. “Okay, Blake, so if you understand the point of everything the captain has had us doing, why don’t you explain it to us all?”
Blake flushed bright red. “We’re getting weapons together and . . . and getting ready to feed ourselves for as long as it takes.”
“How does that explain the chain, and the pieces of steel sheet that everyone else was gathering today, and that Johnnie was punching holes in?”
“Shut up, Alvaro.”
“You’re free to try and make me, Blake.”