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At the End of the World: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Saturday, June 27, 2020 16:47 EDT



August 27

    It feels strange to write in a journal, particularly someone else’s. I haven’t written in one of my own since I was eight, or maybe nine.

    So. My name is Willow Lassiter and I am writing in Alvaro’s journal because Captain Haskins asked me to. He said that if you want a record of what happened during a fight, then you need to write it down as soon as you can. He says it’s very easy to forget exactly what happened, particularly once you’ve slept on the memories. Fighting is so fast and chaotic that our minds try to make sense of it in retrospect, and so we start remembering things in a more sensible order than they might have actually occurred. So I agreed to write what the captain insists on calling this “after action report.”

    The pirates didn’t surprise us. Starting three days ago, Captain Haskins put us on a rotating schedule of watches. One hour each, starting an hour before dawn, and going until sunset. He wasn’t worried about night-time. The possibility that any of the pirates had ever visited Stromness Bay was very low; the chance that they’d be confident navigating it in the dark was about equal to our chances of being hit by a meteor.

    Long before they came into sight, we could see the smoke from their ship. They had probably seen ours, too; there really isn’t any effective way to hide it, and we can’t do without it.



    Steve was the one watching when they came into sight, clearing the headland just west of Busen Point about an hour after dawn. It was precisely when and where the captain told us to expect them, if they came. From about a mile to our southeast, Steve shone the captain’s emergency flashlight on a mirror we had taken from Voyager, and which he kept angled away from the harbor. Within one minute, the captain was on the radio with him, getting a report. After hearing it, he told Steve to keep observing and stay there until the ship drew abreast of Tönsberg Point, which was about three miles from Husvik. Then he was to slip back to us along the mostly-concealed path we’d marked. He’d be pretty much invisible doing it: he was wearing a white wrap made from a torn sail. Even if they were using binoculars, they’d have to be pretty sharp-eyed and lucky to see him from three miles away.

    By now, we could get into position very quickly. Chloe and I had the longest run; all the way to the Karrakatta and up to its pilot house, which was still intact. We listened on the radio; no update from Steve, which meant that the ship hadn’t put any other boats in the water to land anywhere else and so, outmaneuver, or “flank,” us as Captain Haskins likes to say.

    I settled into my perch behind the multiple layers of iron plate with which we had lined the inside of the pilot house. I was the scout and spotter. Chloe would be too busy with her rifle to see everything that might be going on in the places other than where she was preparing to shoot. So watching was my job. So, because I had been given one of the two pairs of binoculars, I was the first one to get a good look at the ship which had come to attack us.

    It was an old, rusty trawler, but a big one, what the captain called a multi-purpose fishing vessel. As it moved past some of the orientation points we had ranged and marked in the water — rocks, debris — I estimated it to be slightly under one-hundred-and-fifty feet in overall length. It had a superstructure, not just a pilot house, and it had a side door in its hull, just aft of the bridge. The midship gunwale was more than a yard lower than the bow. I reported what I saw to the captain.

    I must have sounded a little excited or nervous. The captain’s response was slow, like he was trying to calm an animal or a little child. “That’s very good, Willow. Now I need you to tell me how many people you see and what they are carrying.”

    “I think I see three on the bridge. There are a few on top of the superstructure. They are all carrying guns.” I squinted hard. “I think two are the military assault rifles you spoke about, two more are AK’s, and maybe two are short shotguns.”

    “How short?”

    “Police cruiser, not sawed off.” I was pretty proud that I had managed to memorize all these facts about guns.

    “Good job. But no one on the weather deck, up near the bow?”

    “No, sir.” That was the first hint that something about this ship was odd, but it didn’t seem particularly important just then. Besides, we had more important things to do. 

    “Anything else worth reporting?”

    “They have two small boats, sir. Back near the stern. And sir, I think they are wearing the same cold-weather clothing that the team at KEP wore.”

    There was a long pause. “The same kind of clothing, or exactly the same?”

    “British Antarctic Service colors and patches, Captain.”

    We all knew what that meant: station leader Keywood and all the other members were almost certainly dead and the base and all its supplies were gone.

    The ship clattered and clanked closer — the engine sounded like it was about to break down at any moment — standing off from the shore a bit. It slowed, sounded its horn. The pirates waited. One of them scanned the end of the bay with a pair of binoculars. He seemed to be particularly interested in the Voyager, which was anchored well down the shore from his other point of interest: the manager’s house. Although we didn’t have a fire going, it hardly mattered. There was no way to hide the deep trenches our comings and goings had cut in the snow, any more than we could conceal that there was no snow on its roof, or that of the radio house: they always stayed warm enough so that it tended to melt and slide off.

    We had thought that seeing an obviously inhabited whaling station with no people in sight might give them pause. It certainly would have made any of us consider our next move very carefully. But not them. When no one responded to a second sounding of its horn, the pirate ship chugged out a little more black smoke and made for the end of Husvik’s only remaining deep water access: the end of the pier. I swept my binoculars to the rear of the ship: no activity among the dinghies there.

    That was a little surprising, too. We expected that while their main hull pulled up to the pier, they’d also put teams out in any smaller boats they had. That way they’d be threatening us at two or three different locations. But that didn’t seem to concern them. After changing to the second radio frequency, I reported what I was seeing.

    The captain was as puzzled and worried as I was. “Keep watching them, Willow. And stay on this channel.”

    “If they are monitoring, they might hear.”

    “They might. So it’s time to switch to Russian.”

    “Da, captain.” I said. In the weeks leading up to this day, the captain had asked us all sorts of interesting questions, many of which initially seemed odd. But eventually, we understood the importance of all of them. In my case, he had discovered we shared a language that was not likely to be spoken by many South Americans, unless they were holdovers from the Cold War days. At any rate, it was a better bet than English (too common), French (common enough and too many common root words), and none of us spoke German, Chinese, or Arabic (including Captain Haskins).

    The fishing ship started backing engines as it approached the end of the pier, then swung its stern around very slowly so that the side of its hull gently kissed the remains of the bumpers. Specifically, they were aligning their hull-side door with the end of the pier. “It looks like they are ready to land a raiding team,” I muttered to Captain Haskins.

    “Looks like it,” he agreed. “Alvaro?”

    “Yeah?” said Alvaro, who just used English; he didn’t know Russian.

    “Your motor is idling reliably?”

    “It is.”

    “Good. Standby.”

    “We’re ready. Voyager out.”

    The ship’s side door slid aside, which the crew managed to do with some kind of winch they had rigged from the superstructure. Odd: was the door’s main mechanism broken, somehow? The pilot gently pulsed the engines, keeping the hull snugged against the pier so closely that it creaked and groaned. Much more pressure and it was likely to splinter.

    We all waited, and for several seconds, there was no activity around the open door: just a lightless rectangular hole in the side of the ship. Then there was a sudden rushing noise — steam gushed from the open doorway — followed immediately by screams. Wild, chaotic screams that came out along with the raiders as they fled the steam.

    Except that these weren’t raiders. Not the kind we had thought about and prepared for.

    Naked people came scrambling out on to the pier, their hair matted, their eyes wild and insanely intense. And they kept pouring out.

    All of us realized what we were seeing at the same time.

    “Sod it!” the captain shouted, not bothering with Russian. I swung the binoculars over to his “fighting position:” snugged behind the raised concrete foundation of the foremen’s barracks and protected on either side by old iron try pots. He reached up, pulled a line taken from the Voyager. From atop the ruin of a chimney behind him — the only part of the barracks still standing — a large metal gear toppled down to hit a shallow iron bowl. It rang loudly.

    There was enough of a gap in the roof of the main plant that I could see Blake, Rod, and now Steve count to three together, and then swing home-made mallets at the rear legs of the two platforms holding up the weighted chains.



    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.



    Instead, a bunch of them came running out of the superstructure and set up around the forward weather deck, from the waist to the bow. They were scanning the high points behind their ship. Including, of course, the Karrakatta.  A moment later, the men who had ducked back into the rear hatch came rushing back out; three of them kept sweeping their weapons back and forth across the same high points. The rest set to work on lowering the two dinghies. “Captain –” I started.

    “I see it. They’re readying the boats at the taffrail again?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “The others are all looking for Chloe. They know they can’t land safely without suppressing her.”

    “So what do we do?”

    “You wait until I start my diversion.”

    “Your what?”

    Chloe had overheard. “His diversion.”

    Everything seemed to happen at once. The captain started firing at the men lining the bow of the ship. He didn’t hit any — the range was more than two hundred yards — but he came close and certainly got their attention. They leaned their weapons over the bow toward the captain —

    Two of the zombies stuck on the isolated length of pier started pushing and shoving to get a better look at what was happening around them — and fell into the water. Blake, who had been watching them from the edge of the main plant’s shadows, whooped and shouted something at them, waving his flensing knife in their direction —

    The two raiders on that side of the bow swung their weapons over at him and started firing. One of them had a real AK-47, a machinegun.

    Blake turned, took one running step backward and then sprawled, his flensing knife flying away, that hand now clutching his hip.

    It happened so fast, I didn’t even gasp. And the next second, Chloe fired. One shot. Then she ducked down as she worked the bolt. “I missed again. Shit.”

    “One miss is to be expected at this ra –“

    “Willow. I fired five shots the first time. And only two hits.” She rose up slowly; I scanned the back of the ship. Although she hadn’t hit anyone with her shot, they were all crouching down, still scanning. One of them was pointing in our direction, seemed pretty convinced the shot had come from Karrakatta. Two of the others were focused on an elevated overseer’s office at the eastern end of the plant. “They’re going to see you next time,” I told Chloe. And then I remembered. “They hit Blake.”

    “Shit,” she said, blew out a long breath and prepared to rise into her armored sniper’s notch for another attack.

    I slipped over into my back-up spotter’s slot — never be in the same place twice — and realized that the bridge crew had seen that the Voyager was not only moving, but angling toward them. “Their ship is turning to port, Chloe. The guys at the stern are looking around, surprised. The two on the far right are looking back through the hatchway –“

    Fully in the shadows, Chloe rose up carefully, settled the rifle on her sawdust-filled sandbag, began staring down the scope.

    The riflemen up at the bow seemed to get instructions from the bridge; they started moving across to the port bow, where they might get a shot at Voyager.

    Captain Haskins evidently saw that; his FAL began banging away again. Five fast rounds: one of the raiders went down, twisting on the deck. Then he fired once every other second or so. The raiders who had been moving along the bow stopped where they were, sheltered, did what the captain had told us most pirates will do: rather than following orders, they stopped to shoot back at whoever was shooting at them. They all emptied their magazines at the captain’s position, reloaded, did so again.

    Voyager edged closer.

    The bridge crew blew their horn, probably to get the attention of their team up at the bow.

    Chloe exhaled, took her next shot.

    I swiveled back to look at the stern of the ship.

    One of the raiders was down on his back, arms wide, a dark puddle spreading around him. The others ducked behind their two dinghies, started yelling. Two jabbed their index fingers fiercely at Karrakatta.

    Chloe had already worked the bolt of her rifle, was snugging it against her round cheek. “Time to die, bastard.” She squeezed the trigger.

    She missed, but it put a hole in one of the dinghies. They all started firing at us.

    I thought we were going to be dead in the first few seconds. But initially, they didn’t even hit the pilot house. And since we were in the shadow of its overhanging roof, they had no way of actually seeing us, unless they saw the flash from Chloe’s gun.

    Chloe took three seconds to reload, her frown deepening. “I’ve fucking had it,” she growled, rose up and didn’t even wait for me to spot for her.

    Three times she squeezed the trigger and worked the bolt. I got my binoculars over in time to see one raider drop his rifle and clutch his arm, and then another fall back with a red smear where his right collarbone used to be. Chloe ducked back; the return fire was closer now, going through the weathered wood of the pilot house and ringing against the improvised iron plating like we were hidden inside a church bell.

    I slipped back into my first spotter’s position, watched the pirates pull back inside the aft hatchway again, dragging their wounded in after them. They weren’t getting their boats down in the water anytime soon, now. I had one moment to wonder how badly Blake had been hit when the captain started shooting faster again and shouting, “Willow! Chloe! The bastards at the bow are moving portside.” He coughed; his throat sounded tight, constricted. “I can’t get shots at them anymore. And Alvaro and Johnnie are –“

    I looked beyond the waist of the pirate ship’s weather deck; the Voyager was sweeping in and slowing.


    By the time she was on her feet, the Voyager had maneuvered to come parallel and drift alongside the enemy ship — and big, broad-shouldered Johnnie jumped up and slung an industrial garbage bag of liquid fat onto the fishing ship’s weather deck. As it broke, splattering and spreading, the riflemen rushed to that side. Alvaro, steering from the deck-wheel, raised the revolver in his right hand and fired three times at them.

    They ducked, but it was more like a bobbing reflex; they were already rising again the moment he was done shooting.

    Chloe choked out a sobbing curse, yanked the gun around with a sudden desperation that I had never seen in her before.

    Johnnie hurled another container over on to the ship’s deck — this one a ten-gallon jerrican — swinging it away from him with both arms, like he was throwing the hammer in the Olympics. The jerrican trailed a spout of oil as it cleared the enemy’s gunwale — and Johnnie dove for the deck.

    Alvaro, being agile and fast, had already leaped up the stairs to the top of the pilot house. He fired three more times at the riflemen who poked up over the port bow; they hunched back down, shooting blindly. With everyone ducking and firing at the same time, no one seemed to be hitting anyone else, even though they were barely fifteen feet apart.

    Alvaro dropped the revolver.

    A rifleman stood to get a better shot at him . . .

    Chloe screamed, “Fucker!” and fired.

    The rifleman went down.

    Alvaro had pulled another gun from his belt: the flare gun. He aimed it carefully, his waist on level with the enemy’s deck.

    Chloe’s rifle fired at the same time that the other two riflemen at the bow popped up to shoot at Alvaro.

    Who fired the flare gun and then fell off the pilot house, hit by one or more bullets.

    And suddenly I could not hear. Not because of Chloe’s gun — that was loud and steady enough — but because of her banshee screams. Somehow she seemed to be crying and shrieking and shooting and cursing all at the same time.

    A second gunman went down at the bow; the other one scrambled to a blind spot in the lee of the superstructure, having to skirt the spreading oil as he did so.

    Johnnie got up, heaved another, smaller jerrican of the oil on the deck. I could see its puddle spreading to where the flare was still burning.



    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.  



    Captain Haskins ended by getting their assurance that their story was complete and honest, pointing out that the penalties for lying were extremely severe in our group. The pirates swore to their truthfulness on bibles they had never read, and on the souls of mothers that they had probably abandoned to squalor and disease by the time they were fifteen.

    The only really useful information we got was about the plague itself. We learned more details about the various stages of the disease, about how contagious it was, and which were the most likely ways to catch it. But ultimately, what none of them knew was how long you had to wait before going back into an area where all the infected had died. In fact, it was that uncertainty which had led them to grab the ship about two months ago:  a conglomeration of semi-allied gangs that had one leader smart enough to realize that the only way they were going to live was by getting away from all possible sites of infection. But during their weeks at sea, most of them had turned anyhow and ultimately became the survivors’ zombie shock troops.

    The captain motioned them to get up; it was time to unload their ship. Alvaro stared at Captain Haskins, who only stared back and used a boat hook to pull out the camp stove once the four unwounded pirates had exited.

    The captain had us tow the Argentinians back to their ship in a separate dinghy, then shocked us by being the first to board, even though he clearly had difficulty ascending the rope ladder that Johnnie had left hanging from the stern. He disappeared into the aft hatch, was gone for a few minutes. When he returned, he confirmed that he had found no traps and motioned the first two Argentinians to come aboard. Once they were, he had them hold the ladder steady while the last two clambered up.

    When the second pair was just a few feet away from the taffrail, the captain quietly drew the revolver that Alvaro had used earlier and put a bullet into the back of first one raider’s head and then the other. As they fell, he yanked the knots holding the rope ladder: the last two raiders plunged down into the water, screaming as soon as they surfaced.

    I don’t think anyone spoke or moved for a full second. Then, reflex took over and we went into rescue mode. We started grabbing for boat hooks and life preservers.

    “No,” shouted the captain. “Leave them.”

    “Leave them?” I shouted back. “They’ll die!”

    “As they should. Care to guess what I found on their ship?”

    I shook my head.

    “The gnawed remains of Larry Keywood and Diane Paley.”

    It took us a second to realize the full significance of that: the raiders had used the station team as fodder for their zombies.

    So we watched the two dog-paddling Argentines plead and pray and shiver and sputter, growing more pale, growing more listless. Finally, unable to even tread water, they sank beneath the grey swells without so much as a ripple.

    The captain had watched from the ship’s taffrail. “They were warned about the penalty for lying. They’ve paid the price. Wait there.”

    He made five trips into the ship’s interior, emerging with large, bulging plastic trash bags. He also ran a fuel hose over the side, told us that it was for tapping one of the fuel tanks. Then he lowered the bags into the dinghy in which we’d brought along the Argentinians and climbed down into it himself. At that point, he was as pale as the men who’d drowned a half hour before. He mumbled for a line. We tossed him one and then towed him to shore.

    Once there, he snarled at us if we came close. He dragged the bags out of the dinghy, upended them all on the scree beach, careful not to touch anything that fell out, and spun on his heel toward the radio house, wobbling as he went.

    “What are you doing?” Giselle shouted after him. Her voice was angry, frightened, hurt.

    “Putting myself in quarantine,” he said. “No one comes in. We speak through the door. Burn their dinghy. Burn the bags. Filter masks on when you handle what I salvaged. Even though I never touched it directly, everything goes in boiling water. Even the ammunition. Can’t take a chance. And Johnnie?”


    “You’re going to stay in the end room of the manager’s house. You went on the ship, so no contact with the others. Not safe.”

    He turned and locked himself in the radio house after giving us strict orders to stay away from the wounded pirates in the gunpowder house. Earlier in the day, we would have argued against just leaving them to freeze overnight, which they would certainly do. Now, death by slipping from semi-consciousness into sleep and on into hypothermia seemed like a fairly mild form of justice. Besides, no one was willing to expose themselves to whatever virus the prisoners had been living next to for weeks or months.

    Alvaro limped away someplace, trailing blood in the snow. Chloe made to go after him, but Giselle put a hand on her arm and shook her head. When Alvaro came back, he looked okay, but his eyes were red. He insisted, almost violently, that he was going to take the captain’s dinner out to him. No one argued.

    By the time Alvaro came back, he was too tired to do anything except tell me that the captain wanted to speak to me.

    I went out to the radio house, knocked on the door. It opened a crack. “Stay back.” The captain sounded terrible.

    “Captain, what is it? What can I –?”

    “Two things. First, I left a manila envelope under my bed. In it, you’ll find everything I ever learned about this bloody virus. It’s not complete, but it has some additional details about what to avoid and how long it takes to become symptomatic under different conditions. Second: write down what happened today. Not just the action against the raiders: everything. Everything we learned from them, everything you observed. You — we’ll need it.” But his correction to “we’ll” sounded like an after-thought, the kind of thing people say when they are trying to pretend that they’ll live as long as their kids or are trying to act confident about surviving a dangerous surgery.

    So I just said, “Yes, captain,” and went back to the manager’s house.

    I have done as he has asked. I have written everything down. And now I want to sleep and not think about tomorrow. Or anything that comes after.

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