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At the End of the World: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Friday, June 12, 2020 08:46 EDT



August 14

    We had a light day yesterday; we didn’t have to do anything other than move more wood to dry out for cooking and washing clothes. We don’t have enough soap, but boiling water does a fair (if brutal) job on its own. Problem is, none of us have that many sets of clothes, so we’ve got to wear each one about four days running — because in this cold, that’s about how long it takes to dry after they get ladled out of the wash pot. So in the course of twelve days, each of us go through the three sets of clothes we were each told to pack by the Sail to Discovery folks. At this rate, I suspect we’ll be wearing rags by March. Or sooner.

    But today was a real change of pace. Might even call it a day of revelations. Because two things happened that put a new spin on things. Again.

    Firstly, most of us who had been on scrounge-and-carry duty for two days in a row got a change of scenery. Captain wanted to sail up to Leith, the whaling station closest to the mouth of Stromness Bay. Everyone else got left behind to lug pieces of tin roofing back into the plant. Once the corrugated metal sheets were there, Johnnie swung the back-spike on the biggest boning axe to put a hole in them. Captain didn’t take the time to tell us why that was important, but he was deadly serious about it being done. Then the captain, Steve, Blake, Chloe, and I set sail, as the rest started in on that job. Which made life on a chain-gang look both easier and more meaningful.

    Arriving at Leith, I realized how much more welcoming Husvik already was, even though we’d been there less than a week. There was usually a fire going now, and you could smell the wood and the meat and the seal blubber being rendered, as well as seal dung being dried for fuel. But, even if you didn’t have a sense of smell, you’d know someone lived there.  Pathways in the snow led to and from the buildings we used; piles of wood or gathered tools were near all of them; and as long as there was light in the sky, there were the sounds of people at work: hammering, bashing, shouting, even laughing.

    But Leith was deader than dead. Blanketed under snow, it was utterly noiseless, and the only smell was the faint tang of the salt water. We pulled up to the best pier — the one that led to the old guano processing plant — and got out in silence, surrounded by hollow, windowless buildings and rusting scrap. The captain had a backpack and was carrying a folding shovel — he called it an “entrenching tool” — that I’d never seen before; must have kept it in his cabin. He handed the rest of us empty back packs, as well.

    But when Chloe, who was the last to get to the side, made to hop up to the pier, the captain shook his head. “Stay with the boat.”

    “What?” she said.

    “Get the FAL. Watch the mouth of the bay. Use the ship’s radio if you see anything coming in.” He pulled a small walkie-talkie out of his parka, turned it on. “I’ll be listening.”

    Her almond-shaped eyes got very wide, then she looked over at me. I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. I mean, what else could I do?

    We walked through Leith, not even stopping to look for salvage until we came to a shed. There was nothing special about it, except that its door was intact and the captain had headed towards it like it had a homing beacon. He opened the door, pulled out two long handled tools that were kind of like really sharp and really heavy garden hoes. “Originally for pulling off strips of blubber or meat that got stuck to the bone itself or burned on to the side of the ovens. You’ll use them to dig.”

    “To dig?”

    He nodded and started walking again, up toward the slowly rising field of snow that reached up into the mountains hemming in Leith Bay.

    We found ourselves moving westward, staying between a stream that ran down to the harbor on the extreme south side of the whaling station, and a hundred-foot ridge to our north. After a few hundred yards, the captain veered toward a spot where the side of the ridge flattened out a bit and became less steep. After five minutes of stomping our way upward through the snow, we got to level ground again. Less than a minute later, we made a quick button hook into a tight little gap in a rocky outcropping that rose ten feet above the mini-plateau.

    What we found in the back of that notch wasn’t exactly a cave, but it sure made for a nice little shelter: unless the wind could somehow blow uphill, and then downhill, and change direction by about one-hundred and ten degrees while it did so, you were in a totally calm cubby-hole.

    “Cool,” muttered Blake, huddling into the space. “Good to get out of that wind and get warm.”

    “You’ll be warmer, still, when you start using that tool I gave you,” the captain observed, setting down his backpack.

    “What?” Blake said after a speechless moment.

    The captain pointed at the ground underfoot — which was actually packed dirt, almost totally free of snow. “We have about four inches of digging to do. Although it won’t be digging so much as hacking; the ground is frozen solid. Once you get an inch or so broken up, I’ll shovel it out. Then you go back at it.”

    Blake looked irritated. Steve looked at him. I looked at the ground, and then at the captain. “Here in the center?”

    He nodded. “Yes. We’ll need to clear about a yard in diameter.”

    I kept looking at him.

    “Well?” he asked.

    “A cache? From the war?”

    One of his eyebrows may have risen slightly. “Why do you think that?”

    I shrugged. “Because it’s obvious you were here back then. It’s obvious something went wrong. And I remember something about the British having to abandon or destroy things on South Georgia.” Which was pretty much all I remembered.

    The captain leaned against the wall. “Did you ever read about something called Operation Paraquet?”

    I shook my head. Steve and Blake squatted down, eyes on the captain.

    He sighed. “Before the invasion of the Falklands, the Argies — Argentinians — first came here. Right here. About fifty ‘salvage workers’ brought by the Bahía Buen Suceso to collect scrap metal from Leith. But there were marines in among them and they raised the Argentine flag. People forget it, but that was the opening gambit of the Falklands War.”

    “And you were here when they did?”

    “Me? No, but I already had orders to come to South Georgia. My cover was to provide additional security for two nature photographers who were shooting a wildlife documentary on the island, Annie Price and her boss, Lucinda Buxton. Who just happened to be the third child of Lord Buxton, so that assignment was pretty convincing cover for my actual mission.”

    “Your actual mission?” I asked. For once, I was talking less than he was. I hadn’t thought that was possible.

    “Advance recon and operational support for what became Operation Paraquet. I was dropped off separately from the Royal Marines that were shipped into KEP. They didn’t even know I was aboard the inbound supply ship; I had signed on at Port Stanley as a new crewman.”

    “So what happened?”

    “I was put ashore a few miles away from the documentary team and linked up with the security operative that was already on overwatch. I informed the operative I was in place and then moved on to my actual objective.”


    “Right. Had to look in on what the Argies were doing. Of course, the aggro between London and Buenos Aires was rising by the hour, so I finished my recon and checked back on the actual safety of the birdwatchers. I was there less than a day before their security operative and I were both assigned to help set up for the first attempt to insert troops here: Operation Paraquet. By that time, the Argies had grabbed the Falklands, and had set up housekeeping in KEP.”

    “And where did your troops insert?”

    The captain hooked a thumb behind him, to the west. “Fortuna Glacier. It was madness. It was April 21 and the weather was awful. The task force leader was dead set on sending 19 Troop in, despite the shite visibility and winds coming from three points of the compass. I told him what the conditions were like, but he kept pressing. So I gave the go-ahead, made the call they wanted to hear.



    “I was a damned fool. Two helicopters went down. Everyone survived. Miracle that. Then they had to shelter until the last helo could fly in and recover them.”

    “And what did you do in the meantime?”

    “Not bloody much. There was nothing for it except to stay on top of that bloody glacier with them. Gave them all my rations, used my camp heater until it ran out. That might have made a difference. Might not have.”

    “And what about the other person — the one who had been security for the filmmakers?”

    “Right there, doing the same thing. Until the weather cleared enough for the last helo to come and try to get those poor blokes back out. Took three tries. Damn near crashed every time. They were flying on instruments, navigating these bleeding fjords with radar that had been designed for sub-chasing. So naturally we had to get out there and help.”

    “Help how?” Blake’s voice was hushed.

    “Sending radio signals. The security operative and I both had small sets. We set up on either end of what looked like the best landing zone. Direction finding on our signals gave the last helo some crude triangulation capability. And they needed all the help they could get. If the weather closed over once they started their final approach, the only way they knew if they were nearing the ground was if we signaled that we had spotted their lights, or saw their rotors kicking around the snow.”

    “And did the chopper crash?”

    “No; it came in hard but straight, and two helicopters-worth of my mates managed to cram themselves into that little Wessex 3. It was like a bunch of bloody weightlifters packed into a clown car.”

    “Then . . . what went wrong?”

    The captain looked away. “Everything seemed fine. The helo went up, got out over the water, and was headed back toward the ship. I turned to find the person I’d been working with.” He stopped for a moment. “No sign. I looked for days. Found a hand-held landing light at the edge of a crevasse. Nothing else.”

    I could hear how careful the captain was every time he spoke about this security operative who’d been lost on the glacier, but I wasn’t going to ask him any questions about that, particularly not with the other two gawking at him. “So if the story ends at the glacier, why is this gear down here?”

    “Because the story doesn’t end on the glacier. Once I was done there, I had to come back to Leith to keep an eye on the Argie Marines. They just sat here. But when my mates retook KEP, then it was time to let the invaders here know that they had to give it up, as well. Took a day of pretty testy negotiation.”

    “Why?” Blake seemed outraged at the notion that the Argentines wouldn’t give up immediately. “They must have known you guys would slaughter them, otherwise.”

    “Probably, but their commander wanted to sign a separate surrender and save his skin.”

    “I don’t understand,” said Steve.

    The captain nodded. “Their commander was a right swine by the name of Alfredo Astriz. Sadistic strongman for the Argie military government. Disappeared all sorts of people, including some Swedes and French nuns. He knew that London would want him extradited, right enough. So he made a separate peace, you might say. Took an extra day.”

    “And you were part of those, um, negotiations.”

    “I was just the messenger. If it had been up to me, I’d have shot the bastard.”

    I poked at the frozen ground. “And so…this?”

    “I was ordered to stay on. Keep an eye peeled, make sure the Argies hadn’t left anyone behind. Then came orders to destroy what was left of the two helicopters. And the kit that the Argies left behind.”

    “How did you do that?”

    “The weapons and vehicles got what you Yanks call a willie pete and that was the end of ’em. But it seemed a bloody waste to destroy perfectly good rations and vitamins.” He pronounced it “vittemens.”

    I started scratching the outline of the hole we had to dig. “Okay, but why bury them here?”

    The captain shrugged. “Back in those days, no one knew if the war might flare up again in a month, or maybe a year. Seemed like a fair enough idea to have a cache on hand, if that happened. Afterwards,” — he shrugged again — “never had a reason to dig them up. And, in case some tosser in Moscow or Washington decided to push the button and end the world, I figured I might run here for a few months, let all that fallout blow over.”

    I stared at the ground. “You think they’re still good?”

    He nodded. “It’s in plastic. In metal containers. In ground that never gets warmer than about ten degrees centigrade. And all of it has expiration dates measured in decades, not weeks or months. So get digging.”

    We did.

    When we came back to the Voyager, I thought Chloe would lay into us with questions about our brimming backpacks. But instead, she was waiting aboard, gun in her hands, fidgeting from foot to foot.

    “Captain!” she called when we got within fifty yards. “Someone was on the radio.”

    He started walking faster. “Who was it?”

    “Don’t know, but I’m pretty sure they were speaking Spanish. And I think they were sending a lot of numbers.”

    The captain’s brow lowered a bit.

    “Coordinates, course, speed? Response frequencies?” I asked.

    He shrugged. “Possibly all of that.” To Chloe: “You didn’t respond, did you?”

    “Captain! You’ve given orders not to. And I’m not stupid, you know.”

    He nodded as he climbed back aboard. “Let’s get home. Quickly.” He turned to me. “You take us out. I’m going to search the dial.”

    I don’t think any of us said a single word, all the way back to Husvik. The captain was out of the boat before we’d even heaved a line up to the pier. “Did you get all that scrap collected?” he asked loudly.

    Giselle and Willow had emerged from the machine shop. They nodded together. “Probably a ton’s worth.”

    “Good. Keep working.” He turned to those of us in the Voyager. “Start helping the others to relink the anchor chains. Two equal lengths. Keep them in the plant, near the fire. They must stay dry and warm.” He went back to the radio.

    Normally, when we got jobs like these, we groused once the captain had stalked off. We didn’t do that today. We knew the captain was worried. And that meant we were worried, too.

    We were all pretty tired by the time we got together back in the radio house for a meal and news from the captain. He heard more of the radio traffic about an hour after we got back. According to him, the senders identified themselves as the crew of a fishing boat that, returning to Montevideo, found chaos, and turned around without making port. Now they were trying to raise KEP to get news of safe harbors. “Which,” the captain finished, “is all a load of shite. They give their position as a few hundred miles away.” He shook his head. “Any boat that turned its back on the mainland wouldn’t have gone steaming over five hundred miles into the middle of the wintertime South Atlantic before trying to find out if there was anyone at home at King Edward Point. That and some of the terms they used, their radio habits: they aren’t fishermen.”

    “So they’re coming for us,” Rod said quietly.

    “Hard to say. But I suspect they’ll at least go to KEP. Whether they know the island well enough to have heard about Husvik, or whether they, erm, debrief the staff at KEP, that’s another matter. No point in speculating: we assume they will. Which is why we’ve been getting ready since we got here.”

    “Getting ready?” Johnnie asked earnestly.

    Blake rolled his eyes.

    Which pissed me off. “Okay, Blake, so if you understand the point of everything the captain has had us doing, why don’t you explain it to us all?”

    Blake flushed bright red. “We’re getting weapons together and . . .  and getting ready to feed ourselves for as long as it takes.”

    “How does that explain the chain, and the pieces of steel sheet that everyone else was gathering today, and that Johnnie was punching holes in?”

    “Shut up, Alvaro.”

    “You’re free to try and make me, Blake.”



    The captain stood. “That’s enough. The only fighting I’ll permit is against the Argie thugs. As for how we’ll defend ourselves, I’ll explain that tomorrow. We’re in no rush. They’ve got a way to go and we are certainly not their first port of call. Now see if your next change of clothes are dry yet and get to your bunks. All of you.”

    I thought that’s where the day was going to end, except I hung behind in the radio house to clean up: I had kitchen duty that day. Just as I was finishing, the door opens and Chloe slips in.

    She looks at me, then at the floor, then at me again. Not her usual, bold-as-brass self.

    “Hi,” she says.

    “Hi,” I say back. “Leave something behind?”

    She shook her head, and — I swear to god — she scuffed one of her shoes against the floor. “You’re a good teacher, Alvaro.”

    I’m pretty sure I just stood staring at her for a minute. I couldn’t decide what shocked me more: that she thought I was a good teacher, or that she had called me by my first name. “Thanks,” I eventually replied in a virtuoso display of eloquence.

    She looked around the room. “We’re going to be in it soon, I guess.” She nodded out at the bay. I knew she was really nodding toward an approaching trawler full of probable pirates, bobbing like a cork on the cold, dark waves at least two hundred miles west of us. “Things could get bad.”

    “Sure could,” I agreed, continuing to showcase my rhetorical gifts.

    “So I want more training.”

    I think I blinked. “Chloe, you’ve done a fine job. Better than that, actually. You can handle any boating task as well as I can, now.” Well, that wasn’t quite true, but hell, no reason not to build some extra morale. “And your reading –“

    “Screw that. I want you to teach me how to fight. The way you do.”

    This time I know I blinked. “You want me to teach you aikido?”

    “Yeah. That.”

    “Um. Why?”

    She looked away again. “Look, I know I talk a lot of shit, but I’m no fool. A really big guy who knows how to fight — he’s gonna roll right over me. I won’t let that happen.” Her eyes and voice changed when she added that last sentence. The only adjective that comes to mind is that she looked and sounded ‘haunted.’ Then she snapped back to the here and now. “So I want to learn to fight dirty. Like you do. In case I can’t beat them with strength alone.”

    So: Chloe wanted me to teach her how to fight . . . but because I knew how to fight dirty. Talk about leaving me with mixed emotions. “Even if we get in an hour of practice a day, you’re only going to have a few of the basics,” I warned her.

    “I figured. I don’t care. I’ll take any edge I can get. Now teach.”

    So I did. For all of ten minutes. Then she stood back. “I don’t want to do all this dancy stuff.”

    “Chloe, this ‘dancy stuff’ will teach you how to move so that –“

    “Damn it, I need you to skip to the part where I can keep someone from tackling me. From holding me down.” She didn’t look away; her eyes were wide and defiant. But they were also a little shiny.

    Oh. I looked down. I knew she wouldn’t want to see the realization in my own eyes. “Okay. So, that means two things. Learning how to keep from getting knocked down. And how to keep from getting pinned down, if you’re already on the ground.”

    She nodded. “Right. Let’s go.”

    I figured we’d go over the basics, although this wasn’t really aikido, anymore; it was a really limited number of aikido moves converted into a basic self-defense course. She learned how to dodge, sidestep, even trip an onrushing attacker. How well she’d be able to use it — well, that was a different story. Then, to end the evening, I went over how she could break free from someone who was trying to grab her and hold her down.

    On the second run-through, when I grabbed for her, she didn’t dodge. And instead of twisting my wrist and trying to shove me off to her left while she rolled up to her feet on the right, she just held my hand. I found myself looking down into her eyes, not quite a foot away.

    It’s crazy how fast human situations can change. One minute you’re working on self-defense, and the next, you’re looking into each other’s eyes and wondering — really, really wondering — what it would be like to have sex with each other. And you don’t have to say it to know it. In fact, saying anything kind of destroys it. So we just looked at each other. I don’t know for how long.

    “Thank you,” she said eventually.

    I doubt there’s anything else she could have said that would startle me out of my sex-obsessed thoughts, but that did it. “Uh, sure. For what?”

    “For sticking up for Johnnie today — and for the others.”

    I guess my surprise showed on my face.

    She can apparently read my mind, too. “Yeah, yeah, I know: I was a pain in the ass early in the trip. I went around making people feel like shit. I do that when I’m scar — when I’m with new people. Want to let them know I won’t take any of their shit.”

    “Well, you got your point across.” I couldn’t help smiling.

    She spent a moment studying my expression. I guess she decided I wasn’t sticking it to her, because she smiled, too. “What I’m trying to say is you kind of look out for all of us. Even the ones you don’t like too much. Like me.” The last sentence was cautious.

    “I don’t dislike you,” I said, falling desperately short of the truth.

    “I gave you plenty of reason.”

    I smiled again. “Yeah, but since then, you’ve given me plenty of reasons not to. Plenty of really good reasons to like you, in fact.”

    And again, something changed. Her hand grew tense in mine, but not like she was going to fight. Quite the opposite. She was looking at me really steadily now, and although she was smiling a little less, it wasn’t because she was less happy. I was pretty sure that Chloe’s state of mind had gone well beyond “happy” . . .

    The door to the radio house banged open. Johnnie barged into the other room, yelling. “Alvaro? Chloe?”

    Who chucked me off her like a bag of rice. Which was fortunate: that way, we were picking ourselves up from opposite walls. Johnnie stared back and forth at us. “What are you guys doing here?”

    “Practicing,” Chloe said. She blushed ferociously as she said it.

    “Aikido,” I added. Then I translated for Johnnie: “Self-defense. What’s up?”

    “Chatter on the radio again. Captain wants you.”


    “Your Spanish is better than his.”

    I was careful not to look back at Chloe. I’m pretty sure she was careful not to look at me as I raced out.

    And I’m pretty sure we each remained intensely aware of exactly where the other was for the rest of that night. I almost thought I could hear her breathing as I lay in my bunk.

    Not sleeping.

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