At The End Of The World – Snippet 23

The men at the stern came out of the hatchway again, crouching. Chloe, who was now deathly quiet, let one get out, then caught the second one with a shot in the chest right as he cleared the coaming. By the time the next one was clambering over him, she had worked the action and fired again. That one went backward — whether hit in the leg or trying to fling himself out of the line of fire, I couldn’t tell. Then she nudged her gun over to where the first pirate, the one she had allowed to exit the hatch, was hiding. Finally summoning the nerve to fight back, he popped up.

“Chloe –“

“How’s Alvaro?”

The raider fired twice then ducked back down. One shot rang off the pilot-house’s iron plate.

“Chloe, I can’t see if Alvaro is –“

“Then shut up.”

The pirate rose again, bolder; a head-and-shoulders target. He started firing.

Chloe let him get off three rounds, let him get more confident, rise up a little more.

“Sniper’s triangle,” she whispered and squeezed the trigger.

The man slumped back with a dark hole at the base of this throat. He did not move.

*     *     *

I had to put the pen down for a while; my hand was shaking. I don’t know if it was because I was holding it so hard and writing so fast for so long, or if it was because it was the first time I thought back through all of what happened.

The rest was anti-climactic. Although Alvaro’s flare overshot the oil, Johnnie’s last container of liquid blubber flooded along the deck to where the flare had come to a stop. In a second, half of the weather deck was obscured by a low, dim, sheet of flame: blubber, even if it is refined again and again in try pots, does not burn like motor oil or gasoline.

But the captain was right when he assured us that the thing a ship’s crew fears the most is fire. Any fire. Whatever organization was left on the pirate ship disintegrated. Some came out to try to fight the fire; Chloe gunned them down, along with some help from the captain. In fact, when they finally put their hands up to surrender, he had to shout at her over the radio — hard and loud — to get her to stop.

Johnnie had taken over the Voyager‘s wheel. Although he’s not our best hand with the boat, he brought it around and stood off thirty yards from the ship. Using the radio, I talked him through what he should do: instruct the enemy survivors to go to the stern, pile all their guns there, leave in their dinghies, and remind them that Chloe’s gun would be on them the whole time.

As that was taking place, Steve and Rod pulled Voyager‘s own dinghy out from behind a pile of rusting tanks, got it down to the water, where the captain joined them. He was moving slowly, looked like he might stumble. “Captain?”

“No time to talk. Need to get these Argies sorted.”

“Then can you give the handset to Giselle?”

He did not reply. But a moment later, the circuit opened again and Giselle asked, “Willow? Are you all right up there?”

“We’re fine. But how’s Blake? And the captain?” I wasn’t going to ask about Alvaro, not as long as Chloe had the pirates in her sights. She never did take her unblinking eye from that scope.

Giselle’s voice was hushed. “Blake is dead. They hit him a bunch of times. Rod saw him pass out after about half a minute. They couldn’t get to him without leaving cover and getting shot themselves.”

“And the captain?”

“He’s in bad shape, Willow. Freak hit. I was down here, reloading magazines for him, heard one of the try pots kind of snap and ring at the same time — and there he was on his back. Apparently, a bullet hit the side of one of the pots, cracked it, bounced back, hit him in the left shoulder.”

“So he’ll be alright?”

“I hope so. When I tried to put a dressing on the wound, I saw more blood. All along the left side of his neck.” She was silent for a moment. “The bullet cracked chunks off the pot — spalling, I think it’s called? Pieces cut into his neck, into his arm, one into his armpit.”

“Can you see them, get them out?”

“You’re the biology and premed type, Willow, not me. I can’t see anything, because the fragments didn’t really make holes; they made slits, almost like he’d been cut with a razor. I packed them as well as I can, but they keep soaking the gauze.”

What little I knew about surgery and wounds told me that did not sound good. But I didn’t say that — not yet. 

It took us about two hours to get everyone together again, and the prisoners locked up in the gunpowder house: not much more than an unfurnished, unheated shack on a stone foundation. We took turns guarding them with their own guns: Johnnie had shinnied up the ship’s davit ropes and got their weapons.

For which he caught hell from the captain while he was shinnying back down. “You damned fool! You can’t know that ship is safe. They might all be contagious. They probably are!”

Which scared us all because it became pretty clear pretty quickly that the captain had heard more about the plague than he had let on, probably before we had even come around Tierra del Fuego.

But there was no time to ask him — or even think — about that. We had a lot to do. Alvaro had been shot through the thigh: no broken bones, but he lost a lot of blood and the fall stunned him. Chloe alternated between hovering over the little guy and then leaping to her feet, eyes full of hellfire, ready to go out to the gunpowder house and shoot the Argentine survivors.

Not that they didn’t deserve it, but the captain insisted that they had to be debriefed. He waved off my attempts to check his wounds even though he became very pale.

By two o’clock, Alvaro was caning around, and we were ready to talk to the prisoners. There were only eight left, four of whom were badly wounded. We stood outside the gunpowder house, pushed in a camp stove. They were grateful for the heat, asked for food, which only got them stares; it was pretty clear they had been eating a lot better than us.

Alvaro and the captain did most of the talking; the captain because he had clearly done this kind of thing before, Alvaro because Spanish was as much his first language as English.

The pirates weren’t eager to share information, but they weren’t eager to die, either. It also turned out that the alert ones didn’t care what happened to their wounded, or really, each other. But what were we willing to give them in exchange for cooperation?

Captain Haskins told them he’d provide the best care for the wounded that he could, and that, furthermore, he would let them join our community if they were willing to go back on board their ship and unload the supplies for all of us to share. Alvaro got very dark when the captain forced him to offer that. The Argentines could barely keep from smiling; that deal was obviously fine with them. I think we were all silently wondering if the captain had gone, as he put it, around the bend. The raiders almost certainly had some weapons left on board their ship, and even if they couldn’t fight all of us, once aboard and unsupervised, there wouldn’t be much we could do to keep them from motoring away. We couldn’t even be sure they hadn’t left someone — or something — aboard as a backup: it was a plague ship, so we weren’t about to search it. The only reason we thought it was probably empty was because the raiders had all been so eager to get off, away from the fire. Which ultimately did a lot of superficial damage, but burned out before the whole ship caught flame.

Our worst fears about the team at KEP were confirmed. As the captain had expected, rather than making a direct approach, the raiders had tried sneaking into the warehouses. They set off the booby traps and almost all the supplies had burned. They were evasive about how they’d known to travel to Husvik, but it was clear that Keywood and his staff had not given us up easily, if at all. According to the pirate leader, they had died of exposure after breaking out of the building in which they had been locked.