At The End Of The World – Snippet 21

Both platforms tilted for a moment and then — the three boys scattering away — they came down with a crash Chloe and I could hear almost two-hundred-and-fifty yards away. Without the support of the platforms, the weights on the two lengths of anchor-chain plummeted. The chains were yanked down hard, went taut; their other ends were looped and straining around the pier’s much-hacked pilings.  For a second, the pilings held.

But only for a second. Cut almost all the way through, the pilings snapped, one after the other, loud enough to make even the forty-odd zombies — because that’s what they looked like — stop in the middle of their headlong rush toward land. They stared as twelve feet of the pier was half-pulled and half-fell down into the water. Some of them started to howl at the unsupported planking that now sloped down into the frigid water only eight feet away, but most turned to look back at the ship.

The door in the side of the hull shut quickly, and smoke started coming out of the funnel.

The zombies grabbed at the suddenly receding ship, their hands slipping as they tried to get a hold of its sheer sides. Two fell into the water. Two more looked at the gunwale that began at the base of the superstructure, a few yards forward of the door. One of them tried to jump the widening distance. She got half her body over the side, scrabbling to pull herself all the way onto the weather deck. But her desperate handhold had apparently been upon a coil of spooled rope: it unwound and she went down. The other two were already sinking, gurgling and uttering wordless yowls as the water closed over their heads.

One of the others on the severed pier roared and took a running leap at the collapsed length of planking that slanted down into the water. Surprisingly, he reached it — but his first attempt to scramble up that ramp was also his first contact with the seal fat that had been slathered upon it. He seemed to run in place for a moment, then screeched in fury as he pitched backward into the low swells. The water wasn’t quite over his head, but that didn’t matter; if anything, the zombies’ reaction to that sub-zero cold was more rapid and severe than ours. After a few seconds of highly agitated thrashing, his limbs began to slow down, looked like they were stiffening.

Chloe had to poke my ribs to get me to stop watching the zombies; it was important to see how they differed from us, and observing species is what I do best.

“Willow. What’s happening?”

I swept the binoculars from the captain’s position to the raider ship and then over to Voyager. “Nothing much. Wait. The pirates are backing engines.”

“What? Why?”

“Don’t know. Wait. It’s the spikes we put in the water; they’re steering away from them. And there’s activity at the stern. I think they’re preparing to put a boat in the water. Maybe both of them.”

“Bet on both of them,” Chloe muttered, slowly angling the muzzle of the bolt action rifle over in that direction.

A lot of howling brought my attention back to the pier. Some of the now stranded zombies had pushed some of their front rank over the edge, apparently in the primal hope that they could crawl over them to get to the pier. And from the corner of my eye, I saw what had focused their aggression enough to do so.

After dropping the weight that collapsed the weakened span of the pier, Blake, Rod, and Steve were under orders to grab flensing knives — more like machetes or swords, actually — and hang back in the shadows of the plant. If anyone still got over the pier, they were to ambush them as best they could. A dangerous job, but we only had three guns. Besides, we were pretty sure that our enemies would be unable to cross the gap, and we had the captain to shoot at any who tried.

But Blake had stepped out of the shadows of the plant, taunting the zombies. I doubt they understood his words any more than his obscene gestures, but I guess seeing him dancing on shore, so close and yet so far, made some of them a little extra crazy. Which is why some pushed their own kind into the water, intending to scramble over and reach the greased ramp that led up to the pier.

One of them actually got a hold of those half-submerged planks and then — either out of pure dumb luck or intent — found himself clinging to one of the pier’s intact pilings. Which he started climbing.

“Captain . . .” I said in Russian.

“I see him,” Captain Haskins muttered back. “Tell me what the raiders are doing.”

I looked back at the fishing ship. “They are preparing to lower two dinghies into the water, about four people per boat.”

“Bloody hell. I’m going to sort out the bugger trying to crawl atop the pier. Tell Chloe to wait until I start firing.”

I did so, then watched as the long barrel of the captain’s FAL eased out from between the try pots. The captain started firing. A moment later, Chloe did as well — which pretty much deafened me. Even though the pilot house didn’t have windows anymore, a lot of the sound was still trapped in that small room.

The captain had told us that if shooting started, we wouldn’t be able to think straight and that we certainly wouldn’t be able to keep track of everything going on around us. The noise, the threat, the fact that everyone would be either hiding or moving or shooting: it would just be too much. “Sensory overload,” is how he explained it. “It takes getting used to.”

I distinctly remember nodding at his explanation, but still thinking, “That’s other people. That’s not me. I have always been calm and collected in crises. I might be a little distracted, but it will not be so bad.”

I was wrong. So very, very wrong. When Chloe started firing her rifle just a few feet away from my head, I suddenly couldn’t think of anything. I thought I might scream. I’m not sure why. But I managed to remember that my job was to watch what was going on. So I did.

Captain Haskins had already withdrawn behind his two try pots. The zombie that had reached the shortened pier was dead in the water and sinking. One man at the stern of the pirate ship was lying face down. Another was holding his leg with one hand and dragging himself back to the rear hatchway with the other. The rest had taken cover: they had either run around the far side of the superstructure or were crouching just within the aft hatchway. They were looking around uncertainly, scanning the roofs of the whaling station, the Karrakatta, even some of the hills behind us.

As Chloe reloaded, I reported what I saw to the captain. He acknowledged, added, “You’re a cool one, Willow.”

I’m about to vomit from nerves, I wanted to reply. But I said, “Thanks. Now what?”

“Now we take the fight to them. Is the bow still empty?”

“Yes, sir. And I think I see why they didn’t have anyone out there before.”

“Why so?”

“The hatch cover to the fish bin has been damaged; it can’t close. If there’s a communicating passage between the bin and the side-door, then –“

“Yes: that was how they controlled the infected. Kept them in the fish-hold. The buggers stayed below to keep out of the cold wind, but if there had been movement on the forward weather deck, they would have swarmed up.” The captain paused, as if he was thinking. “Voyager, this is the moment to intercept.”

“Roger that,” answered Alvaro. “Just give the word.”

“The word is given.”

“Aye, sir. Releasing the anchor line. Leaving the mic open.” Alvaro leaned away from the pick-up, shouted, “Johnnie! Get on deck but stay under the gunwale. Are the containers ready?”

“Still nice and warm.”

The sound of a motor rose up quickly from what had been an almost inaudible background idling.

Out in Husvik Bay, Voyager started moving very slowly, no longer attached to its anchor. If any of the pirates saw its change of position, they gave no sign of it.