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At the End of the World: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Saturday, June 6, 2020 13:38 EDT



August 12

    I have never been so tired in all my life.

    We reached Husvik right before the light started fading four days ago. It is every bit as desolate and dismal as the captain said. Like the other abandoned whaling stations we passed at Leith and Stromness, it’s mostly a pile of rusting tanks and half-collapsed buildings. At Husvik, though, the so-called manager’s house was in good shape, as well as the radio house not too far away, but we couldn’t move in that night. It was too dark and too risky to get things on shore, particularly since falling in the water is an open invitation to hypothermia and frostbite, at least until we get the heat going in the two houses.

    If anything, dawn was even worse: Husvik really does look like it’s at the ends of the earth. But we didn’t have enough time to get depressed: the captain was at us right away. And he hasn’t let up since.

    As soon as we had moved all the gear and supplies into the manager’s house — which is actually pretty damned nice inside — we started sprawling around, thinking about lunch. Nope. Captain had us back on our feet. First we had to throw together a makeshift launch ramp for the dinghy. Then two of us had to tap eighty percent of the fuel out of Voyager‘s tank and store it in pretty much every container we had, including some of Husvik’s old try pots. He sent another few of us to walk around the perimeter of the old whaling station and make a crude map of what they could see, marking any places with a lot of fallen wood that weren’t completely filled in with snow. And he, Chloe, and Willow went on a nature walk. Translation: they went off to find where the seals, penguins, and other birds hung out.

    We didn’t eat until dinner, at which point we were so hungry I suspect we’d have considered chowing down on some of that half-dry wood that the map-makers had prospected. Instead, the captain had bagged a fur seal and found a nest of emperor penguin eggs. By the time we came staggering back from our jobs, he had set up a kind of small furnace in one of the half-collapsed buildings that was mostly made out of steel sheeting. He was using some of the wood for a fire, which was boiling a small try pot of water that had started out as upland snow.

    But when we started to huddle around the fire, Chloe came at us with a stick. “What are you, a bunch of idiots? That’s treated wood.”

    “What do you mean, treated?” said Blake. He was that ignorant.

    “It’s been soaked in creosote or even worse stuff.” When Blake’s expression didn’t change very much, Chloe rolled her eyes. “It’s poison, asshole. Once the fire’s going, you’ve got to stand back or cover your mouth and nose. That’s why captain has covered the pot and has those red-hot iron bars leading straight out of the fire to a little makeshift camp stove: so we don’t all die or become retards.”

    “Not very efficient,” Silent Steve observed.

    “Plenty efficient if you want to stay alive, geek-boy. Now, get out!”

    Captain almost smiled as we filed out.

    If he kept up with these displays of emotion, he was going to start weeping at old movies, soon.

    *     *     *

    The next two days were very much the same and entirely different. Yes, I meant what I wrote. Our jobs all changed, but we wound up just as hungry and exhausted as we had the day before.

    The captain took Chloe and Willow on a bona fide hunting trip, this time on the Voyager, scouting for elephant seals. He set almost everyone else to surveying Husvik, filling in the map and keeping our eyes out for useful metal objects, which was a pretty broad definition. However, Rod and I got the strangest job: crawling up and into an abandoned ship called the Karrakatta.

    I gotta say, that was pretty cool. It was an old steamship that dated to the turn of the last century, and which had been laid up on a slipway at some point between the world wars. They just left it there but had cut through the hull in two places to get to the fuel and the boiler, respectively. Despite all that, it was in surprisingly good shape. Our job was to find out what, if anything, had been left aboard. The captain’s hunch was that, when they originally put her up on the slipway, they had probably intended to come back for her: if she hadn’t been seaworthy, it seemed unlikely they would have gone to all the trouble to raise her up out of the water.

    You had to be careful in there, though. While everything beneath the weather deck was actually in better shape than the interiors of any of the buildings (the deck of a twentieth century steamship is a whole lot tougher than sheet steel roofing), water tended to pool and there was a lot of junk laying around. Sharp rusty junk, now, some of which was concealed under puddles of slush. And once inside, the captain insisted we use the surgical masks he pulled out of the Voyager‘s medical stores: they used a lot of asbestos back when the Karrakatta was built. On the one hand, I was grateful for the protection. On the other, I had to wonder if any of us were now going to live long enough for mesothelioma or any of the other asbestos-based cancers to catch up with us. But I wore the surgical mask: hell, I’m an optimist at heart.




    At the end of that very long day, we gathered in the radio house while the furnace in the remains of the primary processing plant got hot enough to cook dinner. But we couldn’t wait, because we were starving again. So hard-boiled penguin eggs were passed around.

    Now let me tell you two things about penguin eggs. One is pretty predictable; the other is pretty bizarre. The predictable: they taste pretty much like fish. I mean, they are just this side of awful. But when you’re hungry enough — well, you’ll pretty much eat anything. The bizarre: their “whites” are absolutely clear. Like colorless acrylic. You can see straight through to the yolk. Which is green. It’s like eating food from another planet.

    But soon after we finished the eggs, we could look forward to some slow-roasted seal-meat. Slow roasting in the iron stove was the only kind of cooking we were going to see other than boiling, since we had to keep the oven so far away from the fire that it took a long time to get the iron bars really hot.

    The captain considered the day a success. He and his female naturalists found a small colony of elephant seals just two miles to the east, halfway to the foot of Jason Peak. They showed no fear of humans, and some of the smaller males had been banished to the fringe by the bigger harem bosses: perfect targets. The biggest problem: hauling a carcass back. On the positive side, the temperature hadn’t been higher than four degrees centigrade in days, so it wasn’t as if the meat was going to go bad, and the rat extermination on the island had been pretty thorough. But how were we going to cut up the carcass, even if we meant to take it in pieces?

    The scrounger group had the answers. In several of Husvik’s better preserved buildings — but particularly the machine shop, the laundry, and the “slop house” — they found all sorts of abandoned tools. Most of them had either gone to rust or their handles had rotted away, but there were all-iron boning axes — curved, heavy sons of bitches — that were apparently made to cut apart whales. Some experimental sharpening had shown that they could be restored to a condition good enough to handle an elephant seal, at least.

    They also discovered a few boat knives and what looked like machetes with either regular or extra-long handles. Captain told us they were called flensing knives.

    Rod just shrugged. “I just call them whaler’s glaives.” Which was a perfectly good name, particularly once Rod reminded me exactly what a glaive was (he’d apparently played more Dungeons and Dragons than I ever had. A whole lot more.)

    “Why?” the captain asked Rod. “Did you find some on the Karrakatta?”

    That was the “smart-ass reveal” moment that Rod and I had been waiting for. We unveiled what we had found in the rusted hulk: almost a dozen big, well-preserved flensing knives, most with five-foot handles and blades almost half as long again.  But the handier ones were shorter: three-foot handles with two-foot blades. Like a really beefy machete mounted on a short axe haft. And some were just, well, beefy machetes. They all had a coating of rust, but that’s all it was: a coating. A few minutes of work and there was the metal, shining out from underneath.

    The captain nodded gravely. “Good finds. Were they in the ship’s locker?”

    “Mostly,” Rod gushed through a big gap-toothed grin. “There were some up near the crew’s quarters, too, in personal lockers. Must have been overlooked. The lockers were still closed and the water never got into them. Some of the tools were still wrapped.”

    The captain’s nod was actually perceptible. “With the hole they cut to tap her fuel tanks and use her boilers, the water didn’t stay inside her. Ran out the lower decks.” He eyed the flensing knives more closely. “Those will make short work of whatever seal we take. The smaller ones look to be handy close-quarters weapons, too. Anything else?”

    “Oh,” said I casually, “just these.” I got off of the box I had been sitting on, reached inside. Pulled out two damn near pristine boat knives. Scrimshaw handles, still intact. And then, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat very, very slowly, I produced the Find of the Day: a flare gun with five rounds.

    The captain scowled. But his eyes were fixed on it. “And where did you find that? At the bottom of a puddle?” Voyager‘s flare gun had gone missing the same time he had dropped off the prior group of kids at Galapagos: not much mystery there. He had meant to replace it in Valparaiso, but hey: apocalyptic shit happens.

    Rod was shaking his head. “It was in a closed metal box — water-tight — that was on the highest shelf of the pilot house’s ready locker.”

    One of the captain’s eyebrows rose slightly. He made a reaching motion toward one of the flares. I handed it to him. He sniffed it like a wine critic who’d just opened a precious bottle that might have gone vinegary.

    His other eyebrow rose. “No sign of moisture?”

    “Not a bit.”

    He pocketed the flare. “We’ll test it later. Now what about the chains?”

    “The whats?” Rod and I asked in unison.

    “The anchor chains?”

    Oh, yeah: he’d asked us to look for those. “All there. A little rusty, but in good shape. Why? Are they important?”

    “Only the most important single piece of gear in Husvik.”

    We all looked at captain as he started handing out the seal meat. Finally, Chloe asked, “Why are the anchor chains so important?”

    He shook his head. “We’ll go into that later. For now, here’s tomorrow’s assignments: if you’re not on the hunting team, you’re carrying the chain.”

    “Carry that chain? How?”

    “You don’t carry it all at once. Every anchor chain has removable links. Find them, remove them. Carry the sections. Leave them in the main plant. Close to the bay.”

    “It’s going to be hard, getting them apart. They’re rusty.”

    “Excellent. You can all use the exercise.”

    I don’t really remember much of the next day. Seemed like I was working before I was fully awake. Blake, Steve, Rod, Giselle, and I cleaned rusty tools until it grew light, then we carried links of chain, then carted more wood into the furnace-house to dry out (any time you didn’t have something else to do, that was your job). We were dragging our sweaty, dirty asses back to the radio house when Voyager showed up. The captain docked her at the long pier that ran out from the main plant: its pilings were solid but the rest of it was pretty rickety.

    We spent the next two hours getting big chunks of elephant seal off the boat and into the machine shop, which was still pretty intact. But however tired the rest of us were, Johnnie was actually staggering with exhaustion: he’d been swinging one of those boning axes since they’d made the kill.

    “How many shots did it take?” I asked him.

    Chloe overheard. “Three,” she murmured.

    “Why are you whispering?”

    “Because the captain was pissed. Even though he’s got a crate of ammo for that FAL.”

    I’d read about how fast you can put a hundred rounds down range in an honest-to-god firefight and didn’t say a word. This one time, I think I had a good idea of what the captain might have been thinking and why he begrudged using every single bullet.

    I remember finally making it back to the radio house after that, eating some fish, part of an energy bar, swallowing a quarter of a multi-vitamin . . .

    And then I woke up here in my bunk. I figure I got back here myself. I figure I slept about ten hours. The only thing I can’t figure out is how I got to sleep. Because between the stale blood, fish, and sweat stink on me, I’m thinking of fashioning nose plugs. And we’re still two days away from “wash day”: the day we spend enough fuel to get indoor hot water and clean both our clothes and our bodies.

    And god knows, we need it.

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