At The End Of The World – Snippet 20

Steve was the one watching when they came into sight, clearing the headland just west of Busen Point about an hour after dawn. It was precisely when and where the captain told us to expect them, if they came. From about a mile to our southeast, Steve shone the captain’s emergency flashlight on a mirror we had taken from Voyager, and which he kept angled away from the harbor. Within one minute, the captain was on the radio with him, getting a report. After hearing it, he told Steve to keep observing and stay there until the ship drew abreast of Tönsberg Point, which was about three miles from Husvik. Then he was to slip back to us along the mostly-concealed path we’d marked. He’d be pretty much invisible doing it: he was wearing a white wrap made from a torn sail. Even if they were using binoculars, they’d have to be pretty sharp-eyed and lucky to see him from three miles away.

By now, we could get into position very quickly. Chloe and I had the longest run; all the way to the Karrakatta and up to its pilot house, which was still intact. We listened on the radio; no update from Steve, which meant that the ship hadn’t put any other boats in the water to land anywhere else and so, outmaneuver, or “flank,” us as Captain Haskins likes to say.

I settled into my perch behind the multiple layers of iron plate with which we had lined the inside of the pilot house. I was the scout and spotter. Chloe would be too busy with her rifle to see everything that might be going on in the places other than where she was preparing to shoot. So watching was my job. So, because I had been given one of the two pairs of binoculars, I was the first one to get a good look at the ship which had come to attack us.

It was an old, rusty trawler, but a big one, what the captain called a multi-purpose fishing vessel. As it moved past some of the orientation points we had ranged and marked in the water — rocks, debris — I estimated it to be slightly under one-hundred-and-fifty feet in overall length. It had a superstructure, not just a pilot house, and it had a side door in its hull, just aft of the bridge. The midship gunwale was more than a yard lower than the bow. I reported what I saw to the captain.

I must have sounded a little excited or nervous. The captain’s response was slow, like he was trying to calm an animal or a little child. “That’s very good, Willow. Now I need you to tell me how many people you see and what they are carrying.”

“I think I see three on the bridge. There are a few on top of the superstructure. They are all carrying guns.” I squinted hard. “I think two are the military assault rifles you spoke about, two more are AK’s, and maybe two are short shotguns.”

“How short?”

“Police cruiser, not sawed off.” I was pretty proud that I had managed to memorize all these facts about guns.

“Good job. But no one on the weather deck, up near the bow?”

“No, sir.” That was the first hint that something about this ship was odd, but it didn’t seem particularly important just then. Besides, we had more important things to do. 

“Anything else worth reporting?”

“They have two small boats, sir. Back near the stern. And sir, I think they are wearing the same cold-weather clothing that the team at KEP wore.”

There was a long pause. “The same kind of clothing, or exactly the same?”

“British Antarctic Service colors and patches, Captain.”

We all knew what that meant: station leader Keywood and all the other members were almost certainly dead and the base and all its supplies were gone.

The ship clattered and clanked closer — the engine sounded like it was about to break down at any moment — standing off from the shore a bit. It slowed, sounded its horn. The pirates waited. One of them scanned the end of the bay with a pair of binoculars. He seemed to be particularly interested in the Voyager, which was anchored well down the shore from his other point of interest: the manager’s house. Although we didn’t have a fire going, it hardly mattered. There was no way to hide the deep trenches our comings and goings had cut in the snow, any more than we could conceal that there was no snow on its roof, or that of the radio house: they always stayed warm enough so that it tended to melt and slide off.

We had thought that seeing an obviously inhabited whaling station with no people in sight might give them pause. It certainly would have made any of us consider our next move very carefully. But not them. When no one responded to a second sounding of its horn, the pirate ship chugged out a little more black smoke and made for the end of Husvik’s only remaining deep water access: the end of the pier. I swept my binoculars to the rear of the ship: no activity among the dinghies there.

That was a little surprising, too. We expected that while their main hull pulled up to the pier, they’d also put teams out in any smaller boats they had. That way they’d be threatening us at two or three different locations. But that didn’t seem to concern them. After changing to the second radio frequency, I reported what I was seeing.

The captain was as puzzled and worried as I was. “Keep watching them, Willow. And stay on this channel.”

“If they are monitoring, they might hear.”

“They might. So it’s time to switch to Russian.”

Da, captain.” I said. In the weeks leading up to this day, the captain had asked us all sorts of interesting questions, many of which initially seemed odd. But eventually, we understood the importance of all of them. In my case, he had discovered we shared a language that was not likely to be spoken by many South Americans, unless they were holdovers from the Cold War days. At any rate, it was a better bet than English (too common), French (common enough and too many common root words), and none of us spoke German, Chinese, or Arabic (including Captain Haskins).

The fishing ship started backing engines as it approached the end of the pier, then swung its stern around very slowly so that the side of its hull gently kissed the remains of the bumpers. Specifically, they were aligning their hull-side door with the end of the pier. “It looks like they are ready to land a raiding team,” I muttered to Captain Haskins.

“Looks like it,” he agreed. “Alvaro?”

“Yeah?” said Alvaro, who just used English; he didn’t know Russian.

“Your motor is idling reliably?”

“It is.”

“Good. Standby.”

“We’re ready. Voyager out.”

The ship’s side door slid aside, which the crew managed to do with some kind of winch they had rigged from the superstructure. Odd: was the door’s main mechanism broken, somehow? The pilot gently pulsed the engines, keeping the hull snugged against the pier so closely that it creaked and groaned. Much more pressure and it was likely to splinter.

We all waited, and for several seconds, there was no activity around the open door: just a lightless rectangular hole in the side of the ship. Then there was a sudden rushing noise — steam gushed from the open doorway — followed immediately by screams. Wild, chaotic screams that came out along with the raiders as they fled the steam.

Except that these weren’t raiders. Not the kind we had thought about and prepared for.

Naked people came scrambling out on to the pier, their hair matted, their eyes wild and insanely intense. And they kept pouring out.

All of us realized what we were seeing at the same time.

“Sod it!” the captain shouted, not bothering with Russian. I swung the binoculars over to his “fighting position:” snugged behind the raised concrete foundation of the foremen’s barracks and protected on either side by old iron try pots. He reached up, pulled a line taken from the Voyager. From atop the ruin of a chimney behind him — the only part of the barracks still standing — a large metal gear toppled down to hit a shallow iron bowl. It rang loudly.

There was enough of a gap in the roof of the main plant that I could see Blake, Rod, and now Steve count to three together, and then swing home-made mallets at the rear legs of the two platforms holding up the weighted chains.