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At the End of the World: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Friday, May 29, 2020 09:10 EDT



    Keywood nodded. “That’s the gist of it. There’s always a few veterans in every dodgy lot, and they’re likely to recognize our call signs, and figure out that this plague might not have reached us. And as the bodies pile up around them, there will be little to stop them from grabbing a ship and seeing for themselves. That’s why we didn’t answer your transmissions, Alan. Orders. And we couldn’t take the chance of encouraging them.”

    The captain seemed to be sucking at something caught in his teeth. “Won’t help, you know.”

    “Now, Alan –“

    “Don’t try to cod me, Keywood. I know this part of the world. I know how many fishing boats come to these waters from Argentina, Chile, even Brazil. They won’t forget about KEP just because you go off the air.” The captain stopped as we drew abreast of the long warehouse. “There’s one inhabited spot on this whole bloody island: right here. And a thousand miles of frigid water and dodgy weather protect it from plagues better than the Ark Royal and Royal Marines could do.”

    “Are you saying that pirates are sure to come here?” Blake sounded like he might wet his pants.

    “I’m saying that there are thousands of people who work the fishing boats, and who served in the various navies of South America, and that there won’t be anyone or anything to stop them from commandeering a trawler, or some naval auxiliary. They all know how to run a ship, know of KEP’s existence, and won’t be shy about travelling to South Georgia Island. So we have to be ready to defend ourselves.” He looked around. “And from what I can tell, Keywood, you haven’t given much thought to that.”

    Larry bristled. “In fact, I’ve given it a great deal of thought. But unlike you, I’m not in a rush to arm ourselves with boat hooks and knives against pirates who will probably be carrying assault rifles that used to belong to the police or army. I know a losing fight when I see one, Alan. We need to consider a different approach.”

    The captain rarely sneered, probably because it required too much facial flexibility. But he did now. “There’s only one approach that works against raiders, Keywood, and it does not involve negotiation or barter.”

    Keywood shook his head. “You never change, Alan. It’s been — what? thirty-three years? — and you’re still trying to re-fight that bloody war against anybody who’ll give you cause. Well, come on, then; we won’t settle this here and you need to have a look at what we’ve done.”

    As we walked, my understanding of the captain was undergoing a major change. Specifically, there was only one war that had ever involved this part of the world since World War II, and that was the 1982 Falklands War. So that had to be the war that Keywood was referring to. Which meant that the captain had probably been sailing here, on and off, since then. That’s why he seemed to know everyone at the station, as well as the staff who’d been here before, often many years earlier. And probably why he had some of the skills he had.

    Keywood showed us the station’s boats, snowmobiles, warehouses, droned through what he called an abbreviated list of their stores. Then it was time for a tour of their dinky clinic and office space, and lastly, the housing for the summer staff, which was where they told us to crash.

    At lunch, we met the rest of Keywood’s team. They are pretty evenly split between folks who are here to handle practical operations and those who are here to conduct scientific and environmental monitoring. There’s one fisheries scientist, one zoological field assistant (she’s all about seals and penguins), two boating officers, one electrician, one mechanic, and a station operations manager whose only job seems to be making sure that Keywood’s orders get carried out.

    After lunch, Keywood took us out again to show us all the booby traps we’d missed — and that had been right under our noses — at various key storage points and even next to the clinic. Most were cans of fuel with home-made electric igniters, all slaved to the same activation switch. The captain was unsurprised; it was pretty clear he’d seen them all the first time.

    Giselle, standing in the middle of the largest warehouse space after being shown the fourth booby trap there, turned through a full three-hundred sixty degrees, eyes wide. “Why?”

    Captain got his reply in before Keywood; his first two words were as sharp as thunder claps. “Larry thinks,” he began, “that these booby traps will deter the raiders. That once they learn that all the supplies will be destroyed if they misbehave, then they will be keen to cut a deal. Which is rubbish.”

    Keywood glowered. “Of course you’d say that. Anything to ensure that there’s more shooting. Except our side doesn’t have any guns.”

    “Piss off, Larry. You’re being soft-headed about who you’ll be dealing with. And you’ve got at least one scoped rifle. Left from the elk eradications, just in case any survivors are sighted.”

    Keywood’s eyes widened for a moment — at the captain catching him in his lie, not at the insulting tone — then he put his hands on his hips and his brow came down. “And just what are we going to do with one rifle, Alan, if, as you think, we’ll be dealing with a shipload of pirates? Get ourselves all killed, is what. So forgive me if I plan to control them by controlling access to what they really want: our goods.”

    The captain barked out a hoarse scoff. “Right. Because they’re going to pull up to the pier like we did and announce their intentions. So that you, in turn, can tell them that you have all your supplies rigged. Two little problems with that plan, Larry. Small one first: they know you can’t get along without those supplies. So yes, they want what you’ve got — but they’re also not so dim to overlook that the same bomb that will destroy what they want will destroy you, too. And they’ll bet that not all of you will have the nerve to commit suicide rather than try to cut a deal — a deal that sells out the rest of you.

    “But here’s the bigger problem. Unless they are all potty, they’re not going to announce their arrival by steaming up to the pier, as bold as you please. Some of them will know the lay of the land here. They’ll send a small group ashore to take a dekko at the grounds and maybe nick whoever’s out on guard or taking a pee. And so they’ll learn about the booby traps, because they won’t stop at waterboarding captives, of that you can be sure. And how brassed will your lot be when the pirates finally come ashore at the pier, all armed with rifles, and hand you a bag of your mate’s fingers?”

    Keywood put up his chin, but his voice was shaky. “And if we refuse to cooperate?”

    Alan’s smile was mirthless. “Why, they’ll just climb back in their boat, and tell you to think it over, because they’ll be back in a few hours with a few more fingers — or maybe an even more interesting extremity. Because they know that your team will tear itself to pieces over what to do next and that not all of you will be made of stern enough stuff to hold to the course you’ve set. Why, they might bring your fingerless mate to shore and, waving around a pair of bolt-cutters, tell you that they’re going to start removing more pieces at a steady rate — which you can stop any time. Any time one of you is willing to show them around to disarm the booby traps, that is. And someone will. You know that, Larry. Your crew are compassionate, good people. Too good to play out the kind of game to which you’re committing them.”

    Keywood had grown very red. “You talk this tripe in front of my people, Alan, and I’ll –“

    “You’ll what? What will you do to me, Larry? What can you do?”

    Keywood folded his arms. “Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be, Alan.”

    “I’m still waiting to hear how you’re going to make it difficult for me and mine. It’s you who have a hard road ahead, unless you face facts.”

    “We have faced facts. And the facts are that we do not have the training, or the weapons, to fight back.”

    “Not as you are, no. And not from this location.”

    “What are you talking about?”



    The captain took a half step toward Keywood; it looked like a prelude to a plea, rather than a threat. “Anyone coming out here will know where KEP is, but they won’t have gone to the other bays. They won’t know to look for us at –“

    Keywood stepped back. “No. That’s madness. This is the only facility big enough to hold us. And we could never move enough of the stores in time. Besides, this is about you and that bloody glacier again. What is it, Alan? A death wish of some kind?”

    “I don’t give a tinker’s damn about the glacier. I’m talking about Husvik.”

    Keywood shook his head. “Totally daft. We’d be cheek by jowl in the manager’s house and we’ve got no way to store everything there.”

    “Not everything, no, but enough, and they’ll never look for us there. Besides, if they did, they’d be on unfamiliar ground in a very dodgy environment.”

    Keywood began walking back to the main house. “I won’t say more and embarrass you in front of these — in front of your crew, Alan. But this conversation is ended.”

    When Keywood had walked away, we all looked at the captain. He didn’t look back; he just nodded at the door. “You’ll want to follow the station leader. Get a cup of tea or broth. Go.”

    The others filed out.

    He glanced sideways at me. “You deaf?”

    I shook my head. “What’s Husvik, captain?”

    “None of your look-out,” he snapped. He started toward the doors, turned to mutter over his shoulder. “Not yet. Now don’t diddle about; let’s warm our feet indoors.”

    *     *     *

    Tea turned into early dinner. I think Keywood and his operations manager, Lewis, were trying to bring the day to a quick end. I could understand why; every attempt to start a harmless conversation took a wrong turn.

    For instance, while we were picking at some canned — they called it “tinned” — meat, the captain tried to make (what sounded like) small talk. “So, no more elk after the fifty you bagged last season?”

    Lewis shrugged. “We haven’t seen any more, but we found some of their scat. So however good a job the hunters did, it is certainly not complete. They’ll have to come back.”

    The captain stopped eating. “Come back? The hunters?”

    Lewis nodded. “Yes. I suppose it could be a while, of course. A while before anyone is thinking about such things, even once the plague has passed. But we’ve left the hunters’ weather sheds out there. For when they return.”

    And I thought, “What planet are you living on?”

    The captain was more discreet. “So you’re still following your environmental mission?”

    Lewis shrugged. “Have to. Last orders from Port Stanley.”

    Keywood shifted uneasily in his seat. The captain glanced at him, then looked back at Lewis. “The last orders you got from Port Stanley were that you should still be conducting elk surveys and your other . . . other scientific tasks?”

    “Well, yes. In a manner of speaking.” Lewis shrugged. “I didn’t hear the message, of course. That was Larry and Simms.” He jerked a finger back at the electrician. “The acting Commissioner told us to ‘carry on.’ So that’s what we’ll do.” Lewis’ lips smiled and his eyes were wide. They didn’t blink. That’s when I realized that he had gone quietly and totally nuts.

    Rodney had stopped eating, and before either Chloe or Giselle could stop him, he blurted out what all of us were wondering. “Don’t you know what’s going on back in the world?”

    Lewis blinked, the right eye a little slower than the left. “I’ve — I’ve heard enough. Larry keeps us up to date. It’s a bad business, right enough, but they’ll get the measure of this bug. We’re just lucky to be here.”

    No one was looking at Lewis by the time he finished; we were all looking at Keywood. Chloe’s face had darkened; she started leaning across the table.

    The captain leaned in first, preempting her. “So, you oversee all the radio traffic.”

    Keywood kept a pleasant smile on his face, but his jaw set. “Simms and I, yes, we did.” He nodded toward the electrician, who nodded back but kept his eyes on us. “Back when there was any traffic to monitor.”

    I remembered when we drifted past the radio room as part of our walking tour; all the lights were off. Keywood had said they were just saving power and wear and tear on the equipment. Now I wondered if that was the case, and how long it had been since the radio had been turned on.

    Chloe wasn’t wondering; she was standing up. “Haven’t you told them –?”

    “They know how bad things are,” Keywood interrupted. I managed not to shout “liar!” “We just didn’t need to hear the same sad reports, over and over.”

    The captain turned his ghoul-gaze on Chloe. She sat down again, out of respect for, not fear of, him.

    And now I understood why Keywood wanted to hurry the day to a close. If he didn’t, then whatever we kids knew about how bad things were in the world might get revealed and his team might wig out. Some of them already looked close to that point. The seal and penguin expert — Diana Paley — had started leaning close against the electrician Simms, her eyes frightened, bracketed by crows-foot crinkles. Simms put an arm around her, looked daggers at Chloe and the rest of us. And then I understood something else: Simms had already looked into the abyss and seen their death. The death of the whole world. He had accepted that fate. So he was just trying to take care of Diana until the final curtain fell, to keep her from having to face the reality he had.

    The captain had noticed the same thing. He released one of his mouse-sized sighs. “Thank you for the meal. Nice change from fish.”

    “You out of supplies already?” Keywood sounded surprised, maybe worried.

    “No, just supplementing them with catch. Make them last longer.” He rose. “Time for us to get some kip. First time we’ve bunked on dry land in months.”

    We all heard the cue — even Johnnie — got up, and filed out. As we did, Keywood called after the captain, “Have a dram, in a bit?”

    The captain just nodded, shrugged into his coat as we prepared to brave the short walk to our rooms. Once outside, we discovered it was already below freezing.

    “Captain,” started Giselle.

    “No questions. Not tonight. In the morning. Before breakfast.”

    We walked through the dark and the snow, which swallowed up the sound of our footsteps and everything else.

    It really did feel like we were the last people on Earth.

    When we got to our rooms — with real beds, not bunks! — I didn’t even take off my clothes: I just dropped down on the blanket and started today’s first journal entry. Then, about fifteen minutes later, I heard soft footsteps in the corridor. Since my room was closest to the outside door, it meant that someone either wanted to sneak in on me or was about to leave the barracks. But I didn’t hear the door to the outside open. Nor did anyone knock on my door or try the knob.

    So I waited. Almost certainly, it was the captain, going back to the main house for his “dram.” I was pretty sure that meant whiskey; I heard it in an English movie, once. I popped my head out into the corridor. No one. But there were boot prints on the floor; big ones. Yup; that was the captain all right. But how the hell had he gone past making less sound than a kid in fluffy slippers, to say nothing of opening and shutting the door? Serious ninja skills.

    Serious enough for me to realize that if he had the skills to get out of the barracks without making a sound, he probably also had the skills to wait to see if anyone was trailing him. So I waited for two minutes that felt like an hour. Then I slipped my coat back on and followed him.

    Of course, he was gone by the time I poked my head out into the cold — and I mean cold — but mad ninja moves or not, he couldn’t keep from leaving tracks in the snow, and there was just enough light to make them out.

    I followed them back to the main house, was just realizing that I didn’t have any way to get inside without attracting the attention of everyone in their “pub,” when the door opened. I tucked back around the near corner of the main house, heard low voices: the captain and Keywood. Feet crunched in the snow, heading toward the opposite/western corner of the house. Just before they moved out of hearing, I stepped out and followed them. 



    I kept my distance, not wanting to wind up on the captain’s ninja radar. He and Keywood ultimately slipped into the marine stores shed, just a little bit east of the boathouse that fronted on the pier. I went around to the rear of the huge “shed”, eased open the back door.

    I had missed the opening part of the conversation, but I had no trouble picking up the topic.

    “– so I don’t want to have to pull rank, Alan, but this time, you can’t make your decision as a free agent.”

    “You don’t have enough rank to pull, Larry. I’m still in the reserves and since I am the only military authority in the area, I am activating myself. Which leaves us at an impasse. If I’m being charitable.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, you haven’t shared all of what you heard from Port Stanley, but I’d be gobsmacked if the Commissioner didn’t declare martial law before he went ’round the bend. Hell, the old girl back in Buckingham might have sent that word herself, for the whole of the U.K. and its territories. In which case, I rank you, Larry.”

    Keywood was silent for a long moment. “As you say, we seem to be at an impasse. But I can’t have you corking off about the state of things out there, any more than I can allow you to fill my team’s heads with any of this Husvik nonsense.”

    “It’s not nonsense, Larry.”

    “No? There’s a month of winter left. Don’t know what you plan to do for heat. You can’t have much food left, and I’m not giving you any of our supplies. Might as well throw them in the bay.”

    “We’ll be fine, Larry. But we won’t be at Husvik now, so if you and your lot is still alive come spring, don’t bother to look for us there.”

    “So where will you be, then?”

    “As if I’d tell you, now.”

    “You won’t tell me? Why not?”

    The captain paused for a moment. Then: “When your visitors from the mainland arrive and you find yourself taped to a chair with one of your snowmobiles’ batteries wired to your balls, you’ll understand why I wouldn’t tell you.”

    “Damn it, Alan, that’s paranoid. The odds are at least even that there won’t be any raiders willing to come across a thousand miles of winter ocean. In which case, you and those poor young people will all have died for nothing.” Keywood paused; he may have stepped closer. “Come on, Alan: give it up. She didn’t die because of you, and those helicopters weren’t your fault. It’s time to let that go and stay with us. We have plenty of beds here, plenty of supplies. And come spring, you can –“

    “Come spring, anyone who stays here will be dead. It’s a bloody miracle that a boatload of cutthroats hasn’t already arrived from Buenos Aires or Montevideo or some Brazilian pest hole to winter over here and wait out the plague. And your own people know it. Just look at Lewis. He’s barking mad, he is. Playing at the old stiff upper lip until things return to normal. Which they never will. And you know it.”

    “Of course I know it. But what would you have me do? For now, that belief is all that keeps them going.”

    “That’s total shite, Larry. Deep down, they know that the world is gone. But they’ll deny it to each other and themselves as long as you let them ignore the facts. Right up until the Argies come steaming in and your plan for holding them at arm’s length goes fatally pear-shaped. But you’ve decided to believe your own lies, so this is pointless.”

    It sounded like the captain was preparing to leave. Keywood’s voice was urgent. “Very well; so we can’t agree. But I need to know: what do you mean to do?”

    The captain paused for a few very long seconds. “Tomorrow, I am going to wake my lot — my crew — up early and tell them they have a choice: stay here or come with me. I will not minimize the hardships they can expect if they come with me. I don’t want any hangers-on who aren’t fully committed to pulling their own weight. They’ll have about an hour to think it over. They’ll tell us what they’ve decided to do right after breakfast. Fair enough?”

    “Damn it, you owe them better than that, Alan. If you want to go out into the wilds, to do battle with whatever guilt and demons have been inside you since Paraquet, that’s your affair, your life to lose. But not theirs. They deserve to have a reasonable chance at survival.”

    “And that’s precisely what I’m offering them. Goodbye, Larry. Don’t come looking if you change your mind. You won’t find us.”

    The captain started moving again. I slipped out the backdoor, tried to make a stealthy getaway and then realized I was totally busted: I’d left footprints in the snow, too.

    So I just ran like hell back to the barracks.

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