This award winning story is a tour-de-force set in a rich, imaginative near future of seasteads, anarchic international agencies, and high-seas adventure.
Imagine…a world where independent seasteads and private airship companies keep the peace on the high seas.
|Publication Date||Jan. 30, 2016|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
Volume 1 – Part 2
Geoffrey Allan Plauché, J.P. Medved, Matthew Alexander
Cover image courtesy of the Seasteading Institute, licensed under Creative Commons
Want more libertarian fiction? Sign up for the LFA newsletter for info on new releases, free stories, and tons of other goodies!
By Michael DiBaggio
It was four o’clock in the morning when the electronic chime of the boat gong jolted Justin Agnarsson from his hard-won sleep. He blinked blearily at the flashing blue light on the overhead, wondering where and when he was and why he should not just roll over and go back to sleep. The scent of saltwater and the gentle pitching of his bed reminded him that he was on duty, and as stationkeeper he always would be. He slung himself off the mattress and began the mechanical motions of dressing while he watched the small monitor atop his bureau. The video feed from the well dock showed him the cause of the disturbance: a long hulled RHIB run up on the ramp and two stumbling figures in orange rain slicks tying a mooring line. A quick glance at the meteorological panel reported only light rain, a westerly wind of 17 knots and a wave height of only three feet.
‘Hardly shipwreck weather,’ he thought. He checked a second monitor for distress beacons, but there were none. It had been almost a month since anyone drifted to the refuge in need of assistance, and had it been the middle of the afternoon instead of the middle of the night, Agnarsson would have assumed it was a couple of old salts come aboard to share part of their catch and spin a yarn, and he’d have been grateful for the visit. At this hour, he had no idea what to expect. Out of habit, he took his sidearm off the bureau and holstered it, then finished dressing and ducked out the watertight hatch.
At the station store, he retrieved a medical kit, a gallon of fresh water, and a couple of thermal blankets. “Ahoy, lifeboat. How many souls aboard?” he called into the wall intercom.
He overheard muttering, snippets of a conversation in Spanish. Belatedly the answer came, a man’s voice, hoarse and tight. “Dos.”
He frowned. That lifeboat was easily big enough to hold a dozen people. When asked in his own inexpert Spanish if they carried any fatalities, the reply was negative.
Agnarsson climbed down two ladders to the well deck, eyeing the two bodies huddled against the bulkhead. There was a man, tall but stooped, with his arm draped across the back of a younger girl, who hugged her knees and stared sullenly out to sea. Agnarsson guessed that she was 15 or 16 years old. He could hear their hushed whispers punctuated by bursts of sobbing.
He crouched beside them, handing them the blankets and water. “Are either of you injured? Where are you from?”
They shook their heads to the first question and provided no ready answer to the second.
“Should I expect more boats?”
“Just us,” said the man. He was stout and barrel-chested, with a thick red beard and the deep tan of a mariner. Agnarsson judged that he was at least a decade his senior.
“Where did you come from?” the stationkeeper repeated.
“Our home. It burned,” the man answered haltingly.
“I’m sorry,” Agnarsson said blandly. These little tragedies happened often enough that his condolences began to sound rote; it was a hard life living on the sea, and seastead fires were especially common.
“Well, we have food, clothing, and bunks above deck. I’ll try to make you as comfortable as I can until we can get you to land or another vessel. Do you…” He hesitated. He was about to ask if their seastead was insured. There was no question about helping people adrift on the sea, no matter where they came from or what their financial condition was, of course, but houses of refuge like this one didn’t run on good feelings alone. Whatever the answer was, it could wait, he decided.
“Do you have any family or friends I can get in touch with? On shore or at sea?” he asked.
The other man’s glazed eyes flicked over him, stared through him. The girl wept.
Agnarsson nodded stiffly, brushed his hand through his short blond hair. “Let’s get something warm into your bellies, then I’ll show you to your quarters. You can get changed and take a hot shower, whatever you need to do.”
“Thank you, sir,” the man said. Careworn lines around his eyes deepened as he asked, “Have you radioed about us yet?”
“Uh, no, not as yet. You caught me out of a dead sleep,” Agnarsson answered apologetically. “We’re supposed to have a crew of four, but right now this is a one-man operation.”
The castaway seemed encouraged by this news. “Please, sir, I have to speak with you before you make that report. It’s essential. Absolutely essential!”
Surprised by the man’s insistence, Agnarsson found himself nodding. “Very well. The report can wait until after breakfast.”
Agnarsson led his two guests into the galley and sat them down. As he rooted through the pantry, he wondered what the story would be, and whether he’d be offered a bribe for forgetting to make a report. Probably they did not have insurance and didn’t want to be hit with the bill for rescue. Or maybe they were smugglers, attacked by a rival crew, and they didn’t want any word of their survival getting out. Heaven knew there were enough smugglers and privateering operations in the 350-mile-long flotilla of seasteads and platforms known as the Plata Raft, a trade of misery and desperation fueled by the Brazilian-Argentine War. The grim situation ashore suggested other possibilities as well: maybe there was no seastead at all, and they were refugees or even escapees from a prison camp. Maybe they had escaped from the illicit traffic in human beings that still plied these waters. Agnarsson’s employer, Atlantic Littoral, rendered free assistance to war refugees and escaped slaves, but such people often preferred to keep a low profile, fearful of falling back into the clutches of their oppressors. Whatever the truth, the young stationkeeper prepared himself for a grim story. He brewed some coffee and loaded eggs, bacon, and instant potatoes into the AutoChef and returned to the table.
“Let me welcome you to South Atlantic House of Refuge Number 49, or Sweet Surcease, as we call her.” Mounted on the wall behind them there was an ancient piece of driftwood with that name burned into it, the work of the station’s first keeper more than twenty years ago. “My name is Justin Agnarsson. No need to stand on formality, just call me Justin if you like.”
“Thank you, sir. We are very grateful.” The man extended a calloused hand across the table. Agnarsson noticed that it trembled. “My name is Horacio Vietes. This is my daughter, Sandra.”
The dark-haired young woman stared unblinkingly at the floor and pulled tight the blanket wrapped around her, but said nothing.
“You wanted to speak with me before I made my report.”
Horacio Vietes hesitated, folding his hands and pressing them to his lips. At length, he replied with a question. “Is there any way you can see not to report this?”
The stationkeeper arched his brow as if in surprise, though he expected the request. “That would be highly irregular. I’m required to report all arrivals and all disasters at sea. Surely there are people who want to know that you and your daughter are alive?”
“That, sir, is the problem,” said Horacio. “I will be forthright, and leave the decision to your judgment. We were attacked by an Argentine warship. They boarded us without warning, and when I challenged them, they shot at us. My wife—” His voice grew strained again, and began to crack.
Agnarsson winced. There was no doubt what the man was about to say.
“My wife, and my little boy, were gunned down,” he ground out.
“On what cause were you boarded?”
“You will have to ask them,” he snapped, and his red eyes darted angrily. “I left Argentina fifteen years ago. We are not citizens, our home was not under its flag.”
“You moored in territorial waters?” Agnarsson asked.
“No. In the Raft, just as we are now.”
Agnarsson knew that both sides had made threats of interdicting vessels and seasteads in international waters, but this was the first he’d heard of any such action. If true, it was a dramatic escalation of the war. The Plata Raft, like all other high seas traffic, was guaranteed freedom from interference, and there were a lot of other flags flying on those vessels, flags of clades and states alike that would not quietly accept such aggression. It would risk the entry of other parties into the war, a war that was already going against the Argentines. There was only one reason that Agnarsson could think of for them to risk it.
“Mr. Vietes, I have to ask you something in my official capacity as an officer of Atlantic Littoral, and I expect an honest reply. But first, let me assure you that, no matter how you answer, you and your daughter are in no danger of being turned over to the Argentine navy. Houses of refuge are inviolable under the terms of the Treaty of Tokyo, as well as the Common Accords on Mediation, Extradition, Restitution, and Arbitration. As a matter of policy, Atlantic Littoral does not turn over the custody refugees or survivors at sea to hostile parties. Do you understand?”
“Were you knowingly involved in piracy or privateering against Argentina, or smuggling of contraband?”
“Sir, you speak of treaties and the CAMERA accords, but they are just pieces of paper. What word do you give me man to man?”
Agnarsson straightened in his chair. “On my honor, I swear that I will live up to those terms, or else die failing to live up to them.”
Horacio gave a slow nod. “Yes. I helped deliver weapons and fuel to the Coloradan rebels. But my family had no part in it.”
“Your family had every part of it,” Sandra snarled. Her father shot her a sharp glance, but she didn’t heed it.
“I am proud to have aided the Colorados. We have nothing to feel guilty for. The Reconstructos weren’t satisfied just to murder grandfather and your brothers on land, they had to butcher Mama and Pedro, too. They are the guilty ones!”
“Be silent right now!”
“No!” She turned her fierce gaze on Agnarsson and spoke bitterly. “I don’t care if you call us pirates or smugglers. Unless they kill me first, I will do it all over again. And again, and again, until all the Reconstructo filth is washed from the earth! I will fight them with my last breath, and then may I die with my hands around their throats!”
Agnarsson would have been dismayed to hear those words from a grown man, much less an innocent in the early bloom of womanhood. He pitied her transformation almost as much as he pitied the loss of her family. Here was one of the tragedies of war that too often went unremarked, the outrages that transform the innocent into monsters and poison whole generations with hate.
“I am sorry for my daughter’s outburst. I implore you to forget her words.”
“I will not forget them,” said Sandra.
“I am sorry for all that happened to you. Regardless of anything else, firing on a woman and a child in their home is unconscionable,” Agnarsson said. “I must make my report, but I won’t mention anything you just told me. Not yet, anyway. For now I’ll report you as war refugees. That way you’ll have some help finding a place to live. Until then, you’ll be safe here.”
“Please! If you do, they will know where we are. They will come for us!”
“I doubt it. The whole world would come down on them.” The AutoChef buzzed, and Agnarsson stood up. “Try to eat something if you can, and then rest. You’ll be safe here.”
Agnarsson stood alone on the uppermost deck of the observation tower, scanning the frothy green surface of the Argentine Sea through binoculars. Having emptied its burden on the ocean, the wall of east-moving clouds had desaturated to a light, vaporous gray and begun to break up, allowing the passage of the first direct rays of morning. To the west, the flood lamps on the shadowy bulks of scattered seasteads began to wink out and the masts of more distant vessels became visible for the first time without aid of their navigational lights.
He had dispatched his morning report about twenty five minutes ago, received the reply and standby instruction twenty two minutes ago, and received an electronic query from the Argentine warship Furibundo fifteen minutes ago. The message informed him of “coastal security” operations conducted the previous night, and the pursuit of two known illicit weapon traffickers and unlawful combatants, listing Horacio and Sandra Vietes by name, and might these not be the same alleged refugees? Agnarsson dutifully left it unanswered. But now he was being hailed on the ship-to-ship radio. The stationkeeper considered leaving the hail unanswered as well, but he wasn’t going to allow them any excuse to “render assistance.”
“Atlantic Littoral Refuge 49, go ahead Furibundo,” he replied in English, hoping that would lend some difficulty to the affair. There was a delay, but he eventually received a reply in the most obsequious English.
“Refuge 49, have sent you electronic bulletin warning of known, dangerous war criminals. Can you please offer confirmation? We are prepared to render assistance, over.”
Agnarsson’s smile was tight and rueful. “Received bulletin. No assistance necessary. My compliments to your captain and the Argentine Navy for its responsible stewardship of the seas. Refuge 49, out.”
Agnarsson wasn’t worried. He expected the Argentines to inquire; in fact, he expected them to pester him for much of the day. This was his first assignment as a Stationkeeper, but he had seen similar scenarios play out when he was an ALERT man, and he had been told what to expect by veteran stationkeepers who had gone through the same rigmarole a dozen times in their lives. What he didn’t expect, what was nearly unthinkable, was that the Argentines might try to force the issue. To violate a house of refuge was a grave crime under both treaties and customary law. It was an act of piracy, rendering one a hostis humani generis – an an enemy of humanity – and inviting the most severe retribution that no flag or writ would shield one from. In the 29 years Agnarsson had lived, no life saving ship or station had been attacked by any state or Clade anywhere on earth.
The stationkeeper’s more immediate worry was Sandra. Her reaction reminded Agnarsson of his late father, who had fought against California in the Pan-American War. Justin, the youngest of four siblings, was born after the war, and he never knew his father before the nightmares, before the periods of depression punctuated by episodes of drunkenness and spasmodic violence, but his mother did, and she knew a very different man than the one that came back from the Klamath front. She used to tell Justin stories of the old days, of his father’s easygoing nature and the unassuming gentleness that won her love. That was before the bitterness at the horrors he’d witnessed – and maybe, Justin dared to think, the horrors he’d committed – ate him alive. Sandra’s tirade could have been quoted from Justin’s father, right down to the line about wiping their filth from the earth. It even shared the same uncaring – even welcome – recognition that those impulses were self-destructive.
Sandra’s words and her rage-contorted face burned in his mind, haunting him like his father’s ghost. It was enough of a tragedy for tough men like Horacio and his own father to live with such a burden, but it was intolerable to think of a young woman shouldering that weight. Sandra deserved to finish growing up in a place free from the hate-fueling fear and dehumanizing impulses of war, and, with time, mend her heartbreak. If she could be gotten out of the war, then maybe the war could be gotten out of her.
He had hope for that. Clade Brittania had already taken on refugees from the war, treated them with decency and dignity in Avonshire and St. Helena. They might be willing to take some more. That arrangement could have additional benefits, namely that her father might never see prosecution; the Crown-in-exile had no love for Argentina since the botched blockade of the Falklands last year.
Agnarsson turned around at the sound of footsteps. It was Sandra. She had pulled her wet hair back in a ponytail and was dressed in one of the station’s coveralls, too big for her in every dimension. She stepped off the ladder and stood stiffly, her lips pursed. “My father told me to apologize to you,” she eventually said, and in crisp English.
Agnarsson realized she wasn’t actually going to offer that apology, so he interceded. “I don’t know what for.”
“Neither do I.”
The stationkeeper smiled. “You speak English well, better than I speak Spanish.”
“My mother insisted.” Her voice took on a hard edge. All her grief had hardened into wrath.
“It was good that she did,” he said. “We’ve settled some refugees on the Isle of Avonshire, far north of here. They speak English there.”
“I know where it is,” she said. “But we’re not refugees. We’re smugglers and rebels.”
Agnarsson grew annoyed. “That’s not your determination to make.”
“Whose is it?”
Suddenly, the ship-to-ship radio crackled again. It was Furibundo. Agnarsson held up his hand for silence and took the radio handset.
“Station 49, Corvette Captain Larrea requests the pleasure of your presence for supper. He would consider it a great honor to dine with you. If your duties do not allow you to leave your station, he and a small complement of officers might visit your station, food and preparations compliments of the Argentine Navy.”
‘Death by courtesy,’ Agnarsson thought and almost laughed, only restraining himself for the sake of the young woman that stood behind him. “Please extend my thanks to Captain Larrea and your crew, but I must regretfully decline. I am ill and contagious with little appetite. Influenza, I think. Another time, perhaps.”
The Argentine reply was immediate and a little too enthusiastic. “We can send the ship’s doctor to you right away.”
“Many thanks again, Furibundo, but that will not be necessary. I must attend to my duties now, Station 49 out.”
Agnarsson replaced the handset and turned to Sandra, eager to reassure her. “This is just a little game they’re playing. They won’t come.”
But the girl did not seem in need of reassuring. Her voice was an intense whisper. “You should have accepted. Let me set the table. I would slit Captain Larrea’s throat with one of your shiny bread knives.”
He glowered at her. “You shouldn’t be contemplating slitting any throats, especially not with a bread knife.”
“You side with a murderer,” Sandra said coldly.
Her words and the look of contempt that burned in her eyes left him stunned and angry.
“You’re a stupid child. If I did, you wouldn’t be here insulting me.”
“And you are a coward! If you weren’t, you would have joined the navy and gone to fight your country’s enemies instead of making beds for drunk fishermen!”
“Just like Captain Larrea did?”
The girl flinched, stunned into open-mouthed silence. Her hard expression softened and shame crept into her eyes, but she’d gone too far to elicit any sympathy from Agnarsson.
“See yourself below deck,” he growled. “I have beds to make.”
The drone could not be seen, but its buzzing was audible. As the morning wore on, it had gone from overflying the station at low altitudes to hovering in place, hidden somewhere above the light cloud cover. Agnarsson wound up the pressure hose he’d been scaling the deck with and looked over his shoulder at Horacio Vietes. “I wish you’d stay inside. It may be safer.”
“Safe?” Horacio coughed as he discarded his cigarette into the water. “How? You said they already knew we were here.”
“I said that they think you’re here,” Agnarsson corrected him. “And if that drone gets a good look at you, they’ll know for sure. If they have a submarine drone with a good microphone, they already know because you keep bringing it up.”
Horacio’s voice dropped to a whisper. “They will not give up.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway. You and your daughter will be flying north by this time tomorrow.”
“What will stop them from shooting us down?”
Agnarsson looked at him sharply. He was aggravated at having to repeat his reassurances, especially because he was starting to get unnerved himself. The Argentine corvette hadn’t steamed off. Furibundo. The longer he saw her circling them, silhouetted against the horizon, the more portentous that name seemed.
“I thought we were safe in my seastead as well, a hundred miles off the coast. That demon has no limits. I wish you had not sent that report. Why couldn’t you have waited a few more hours, or a day?”
‘I probably should have,’ he thought. ‘No, don’t start down that road. They’re trying to make you sweat, but you can’t allow it. And what good does it do to worry about it anyway?’ He could not, would not, hand over the Vieteses no matter what.
“I’m going to check if there’s any word from Atlantic Littoral on your pickup. Please go back inside. Eat something, read a book, watch TV. Do anything but worry about this.”
Inside, Agnarsson found what he’d hoped for. There was a communique from Avonshire granting his request for a refugee transfer. A floatplane was to be dispatched tomorrow. For the first time in several hours, he felt optimistic.
Then the ship-to-ship whistled. He was being hailed again.
“Attention Atlantic Littoral Refuge Number 49, this is the ARA Furibundo. The two people you are harboring as war refugees are known unlawful combatants engaged in a state of war against the Argentine Republic. By warrant of the President of Argentina, we are charged with taking them into custody and expect your cooperation in accord with the law of civilized nations.”
With one taut movement, Agnarsson grabbed the radio handset and pulled it to his lips. His thumb shook with nervous energy on the transmitter button, sending dead air across the wire. He fought to steady his voice. “This is a house of refuge, and may not be subjected to threats or violence – in accord with the law of all civilized nations. I am the custodian of war refugees and I am neither empowered to, nor am I willing, to surrender them to a belligerent.”
“Harboring pirates and terrorists is a violation of the law, as well as a breach of trust of a house of refuge. We insist that you surrender these pirates without further delay. If you refuse, you force us to take action to retrieve them.”
It was madness. ‘The whole world will come down on them,’ he thought again, only to realize that it didn’t matter if they did, because by then he and all that was left of the Vietes family would be dead. Agnarsson felt nauseous. He had been so confident, but Horacio was right after all. They had no limits.
“Refuge 49, what are your intentions?” the voice on the radio demanded.
There was only one answer he could give to that. “Go to Hell, Furibundo.”
Agnarsson activated the station’s automated defensive systems: two radar-guided 30mm autocannons and a single deuterium-fluoride laser. Both systems were for point defense against small boats and missiles – useless against Furibundo unless it blundered in much closer than she needed to, but certainly useful against a boarding party – or the damned drone that had been buzzing the refuge.
‘Assuming that any of them work,’ he thought. Both systems were as old as the station; while regular maintenance was done on them, neither had been test fired in years. Realistically, it wouldn’t matter. He could not fight off the corvette with the paltry self-defense systems on the refuge. What he needed was outside help.
Luckily stationkeepers wielded a formula for such an unlikely contingency, an incantation against harm crafted by lawyers and diplomats. Agnarsson chanted it on the long-range radio, and it went like this: “Mayday, mayday. This is South Atlantic House of Refuge 49, requesting immediate assistance against rogue Argentine naval vessel Furibundo. My position is 38 degrees, two minutes, 1 second South, 54 degrees, 37 minutes, 31 seconds West. By my authority as Stationkeeper of an international life saving installation, I hereby issue a general Letter of Marque for the defense of this station against any and all who threaten it.”
He repeated the distress call in Spanish and French, and set it to cycle continuously.
“Chew on that, Captain Larrea,” Agnarsson said to himself. He desperately wanted to believe that he had just called their bluff, that the transmission would force the captain to withdraw. The next message from the ship-to-ship shattered that fantasy.
“Refuge 49, disarm your weapons and prepare to be boarded.”
“You’ve killed us!” Horacio’s voice was so taut it became shrill. His big frame trembled with anger and fear.
Agnarsson said nothing. He charged the bolt on the CR-10 rifle and re-checked the safety. He wondered if Vietes would shoot him if he handed the gun over to him.
The three of them were gathered in the ‘storm cellar’, a watertight keep in the center of the station, partially beneath the waterline. Behind its armored bulkheads and hermetically sealed hatches were the armory, sick bay, the emergency stores, and a secondary command center from which the refuge’s sensors, radios, and weapons could all be controlled. It could be steered from here as well, though that was of no use now. The refuge, unlike many seasteads, had its own engines, but she moved with all the grace and speed of a pregnant cow; outrunning the swift hydrofoil that menaced them was impossible.
“You killed us!” Horacio repeated. “You locked us in here to die! God damn me! We should have left in the lifeboat!” He appealed to his daughter, his eyes red and filled with tears. “Forgive your father for being so stupid and reckless.”
“You wouldn’t have gotten far ,” Agnarsson said. “Their drones would have picked you off as soon as you left the well dock.”
Horacio punched the wall and roared. “What difference does it make? They will come here and kill us!”
“That remains to be seen.” Agnarsson tried to reflect calm, but his patience and his courage were fraying.
“They will just shell us. They’ll sink the whole refuge,” Sandra said. Her voice and her manner were disturbingly calm.
“If they do there’s nothing we can do about it.” He slung his rifle and turned his attention back to the arsenal, loading a drum of three-inch flechette shells into an automatic shotgun. “But if they were going to do that, I think we’d be dead already.”
Agnarsson tossed a flak jacket and a helmet to each of them. “Put them on and keep them on,” he ordered, then turned to Sandra. “Have you fired a gun before?”
Her eyes glinted. “Yes.”
He thrust the shotgun into her chest. She grunted as she tucked it under her shoulder. “It’s heavy.”
“Yes, well it’s not a bread knife,” Agnarsson said. He moved behind her, pulled the strap across her body and adjusted it so that it bore most of the weight of the weapon. He told her how to brace it and where best to aim. All day long he had schemed to remove the girl from a world of murder and mayhem and now he armed and instructed her on how best to kill other men. The irony wasn’t lost on him, but scruples and idealism wouldn’t save her life now.
Her father looked on at the scene in wonder. “My daughter is no soldier,” he said.
Agnarsson glared at him. ‘Only now you realize it.’ He wanted to give voice to that thought, but the words caught in his throat. He knew that his judgment wasn’t fair, that wars had a way of dragging people in, even those who tried mightily to avoid it, but still he held Horacio Vietes responsible for his family’s peril.
“Hail the ship,” Horacio said, almost at a whisper. He licked his dry lips. “Hail the ship. Tell them that I will surrender. Just spare my daughter.”
“They’ll execute you summarily,” said Agnarsson.
“But my daughter will live. And you.” Horacio sagged visibly. “I have already brought death to too many.”
“That’s out of the question. Out of the question!” Agnarsson yelled, suddenly ashamed of his resentment for the man.
“For God’s sake, what other choice is there?”
Now it was Agnarsson that punched the wall. He turned round fiercely, pointing at Horacio as blood dripped from his split knuckles. “This isn’t just about the here and now! It’s about every man, woman, and child who will ever set foot on a refuge, every innocent huddled in a camp or hiding in their home! This is about civilization itself. I won’t give that away, not in the face of all the bombs and guns on the planet! Because if I do, it won’t stop here. There won’t be any stopping it, anywhere.”
He pushed past Horacio, making for the radio in the command center. He should have had it on already, been listening for messages from Atlantic Littoral or any ships that might come to help. He blew a thick layer of dust off the buttons of the long-neglected console and tuned the receiver to the emergency channel. The loud thrumming and screeching from the speakers startled him, and he switched it off with a groan.
“Is it broken?” Sandra asked. She had come up behind him silently, watching him with other words in mind than what she spoke.
“They’re jamming us. They’re drowning out the distress call.”
“Someone would have heard it already,” she suggested.
“Yes,” he said stiffly. “Yes, they might’ve.”
“You are not a coward, Justin,” Sandra said. “It was despicable of me to say so. Everyone who lives on the sea is grateful for lifesavers like you. You are very courageous, and I am sorry for thinking otherwise.”
Agnarsson unslung the rifle and flopped backwards into the chair. He looked over his shoulder at Sandra; she looked absurd in the bulky body armor, cuddling the shotgun.
Sandra walked over beside him. “What now? Do we just wait?”
Agnarsson cocked his head. “What else is there?”
“You’re from North America, I think,” she suddenly said.
He answered slowly, as if he had to work to stir up the memory. “Cascadia. I was born in a place called Cowichan, on Vancouver Island.”
“Did you like it?”
He nodded. “Very much.”
“Of course you would. North America is free,” she mused. “You can go anywhere. And you can say what you want, and buy and sell what you want. You can make a living without anyone’s permission.”
“But for the most part. There are governments, but they are small and weak. No standing armies, no secret police. For the most part.”
“For the most part, that’s true.”
“You can’t know what it’s like here. We weren’t so lucky last century. The invaders didn’t make it this far, there was no one to burn our capitols and break our shackles. That’s what the Colorados fight for.”
“Convincing me of your politics isn’t going to help us any, Sandra.”
She shrugged. “I’m not trying to convince you. You already know it. You know what things are good and worth dying for.”
“I also know that there are things worth living for,” he answered swiftly. “And I wish you weren’t so eager to die. Or to kill.”
An electronic warning tone sounded. Agnarsson swiveled to the tactical console, saw the radar screen flashing, and then several things happened almost simultaneously. The walls vibrated, shaken by the full-throated roar of the 30mm gun on the deck above them, and then a deafening report rang through the hull, rocking the refuge violently. The camera feed and radar from the deck gun went black.
“They’re shelling us!” Horacio shouted. He ran to shield his daughter and she clung to him.
“No,” Agnarsson hissed. “It’s that damned drone! It took out the gun.”
Suddenly defense laser control toned and a synthesized voice blared: “Engaging target. Engaging target. Engaging- Contact lost.” Short seconds later the station was jolted again, though this blow was much weaker than the first.
“What happened?” Sandra yelled over the commotion. Agnarsson couldn’t answer. All he could see was that the camera feed on the south end of the observation tower had gone dead, while the one facing to the west showed movement: two gray shadows bouncing on the waves, long frothy wakes stretching out behind them.
“The boats are coming,” he said.
It took more than an hour for the Argentine boarding parties to land and sweep the upper decks of the refuge, and Agnarsson, who watched most of it on camera, found their pace agonizing. They moved painstakingly through every corridor and compartment, turning over beds and tables and ransacking closets. He watched impotently as they set demolition charges on the remaining autocannon turret and rolled grenades into the lifeboats, but not once did they destroy one of the cameras. Whether it was an oversight or done with intent to demoralize the survivors, he couldn’t know, but more than once he saw marines look into the cameras through the eyeslits of their knitted face masks.
And now, at last, the Argentines were at the door. Their time had run out and no one had come to the rescue.
Agnarsson withdrew toward the rear of the room, knelt behind the blockade of heavy cabinets and bunks that they’d turned over for cover and to deflect grenades. He spared a glance back at Horacio and Sandra Vietes, watched their lips move with whispered prayers. Horacio squeezed his daughter’s hand and then took up his rifle, kissed her on the forehead, and stepped toward the blockade.
“Stay behind me,” Agnarsson said. “Stay with your daughter.”
Horacio’s eyes did not move from the armored door, which rang with the incessant banging of hammers and grinding of metal. The muffled voices of the Argentines could be heard through the door calling for explosives. “It should be me up front,” he said. “I set this in motion.”
Agnarsson shook his head gently, patted him on the shoulder. The other man relented and took up his rifle in the corner of the room, his body shielding his daughter.
“They’re going to blow the hatch. It’s going to be loud, but don’t panic.” Agnarsson told them. “The second you see an arm or a leg through the breach, shoot it. Remember, they’re going to have to come through a small opening one or two at a time, so we have the advantage. We don’t need to run around, just stay low and stay behind cover. Sandra? There’s no choke on that gun, so for God’s sake don’t fire from directly behind me, or you’ll cut me to shreds.”
Sandra nodded, then quickly turned to her father. “I love you, Papa. I’m not afraid.”
Those were the last words Agnarsson heard before the world filled with smoke and thunder. The blast wave hit so hard that for a moment of stupefying fear he thought he’d taken a bullet in the chest. But he was still kneeling, still breathing, and his finger squeezed the trigger even before his conscious mind recognized the mass emerging from the smoke and dust as a human body. The body rocked backwards, lost its footing, and fell back through the ragged metal hole in the door that had just become visible. Another body came into view and he fired again.
Bodies. That’s how he thought of them as he watched them fall: they were not living men, not the fragile vessels of human souls. At best they were actors in a play, and the crescendo of gunfire was the orchestra. The rifle at his shoulder was his violin, and each fret of the trigger the signal for another body to drop over. The drums rolled staccato behind and in front of him, the muzzle blasts and the tanging whip-crack of bullets cutting through the air, breaking and ricocheting off the walls. A hand grenade skipped off the cratered floor, bounced back from the barricade and exploded, the crash of cymbals, and then the orchestra went quiet.
No, it went on playing, only he couldn’t hear it anymore. He felt the beat go on in his chest, in his vibrating skull. He could taste metal, felt hot blood running down his cheek. He was on his back. He rolled onto his knees, grabbed the rifle and tried to steady his arms enough to swing it into position. There was a short pile of bodies at the breach. Limbs thrust out from behind cover, dragging one of the fallen back through the door. Another grenade rolled in and this time Agnarsson threw himself to the deck. The blast slammed the cabinet back into his side and the metal bit into his arm.
Behind him he saw Horacio and Sandra flattening themselves against the bulkhead as bullets cratered all around them. They were still firing when suddenly Horacio spun like a top and flopped face down onto the deck. Agnarsson groped for his rifle, brought it back to his shoulder and peeked over the rim of the barricade, but he could no longer see the blown open hatch or the stack of bodies. There was smoke everywhere, smoke that seared his throat and made him clamp his eyes shut in pain. He tried to slow his breathing, but he kept gagging. He rolled to his feet to get away from the suffocating cloud but crashed on his side almost instantly. The pain in his right leg was so excruciating that it felt surreal, like it had disconnected his mind from his body; his own scream sounded distant through his burst eardrums. The world spun away vertiginously and he screamed no more.
The first time Agnarsson awoke, he was gasping for air, and every breath made him want to vomit. His mouth and throat burned unbelievably. Someone in black boots and camouflage fatigues leaned over him. He realized dimly that the man was tying a tourniquet around his leg. The man moved to push Agnarsson down, but he had already flopped back onto the deck. There was no strength left in him, and he passed out again.
When he awoke the second time, he was in the open air, staring up at the sky and the strange sight of an aircraft’s empennage jutting from a ruined wall. It took him a little while to realize that he was on the deck of the refuge, staring up at the observation tower. He was baffled by what he saw until he remembered the drone and the second crash; the laser must have shot it down.
Agnarsson turned his head and looked around. The deck was strewn with rubble and a lot of men with submachine guns and shotguns stood around him. He was on a litter, and his wrists were tightly bound behind the small of his back. Above his knee, his right leg was in agony, but below it, he felt nothing. There was no sign of Sandra or her father. He moaned in pain.
“He’s awake!” someone said above him, in Spanish. Another man quickly strode over, cuffed him on the side of his head. “It’s all over for you now.”
The stationkeeper laid back, kept quiet, and tried not to think. He wished he could pass out again, but he found himself eavesdropping on the conversations of his captors. His ears still rang, and it was hard to hear them distinctly, but he heard a woman’s voice. Her words were every bit as harsh and contemptuous as the men around her. Sandra was still alive. His heart could have burst with joy.
‘Still alive,’ he thought, ‘but for how much longer?’
He laid there for what seemed like a very long time until the blaring of a loud horn drew his attention. Gradually, the sleek hull of the Argentine corvette powered into view, not more than 300 yards off the refuge’s port side. At first he thought it was coming alongside to expedite the transfer of the boats, but it didn’t stop; it accelerated. The marines on deck made a lot of commotion, some asking aloud what was happening, others swearing nervously.
Agnarsson watched, mystified, as a canister rocketed high and straight from Furibundo’s deck. It exploded into a cloud of glittering smoke. It was chaff: metallic debris meant to confuse radar, and it could mean only one thing.
The horn was blowing again, and over the din Agnarsson could hear the ringing of the ship’s collision alarm. The ship rose out of the water, elevated on the skids of its hydrofoils, the sea churning madly under her hull. Suddenly there was a keening whistle overhead, and all the marines that surrounded him threw themselves to the decks, leaving him an unobstructed view as a volley of flaming darts slammed into Furibundo. The missiles struck her amidships, right at the funnel, and that whole part of the superstructure disappeared in a rising ball of fire. When the corvette’s hull slammed back into the water, she broke in half. The section forward of the impact kept on moving ahead for a little while before it heeled over, but the aft end reared out of the water until it was almost perpendicular to the surface, and then in another heartbeat it disappeared.
Agnarsson couldn’t believe it, and judging by the torrent of expletives that went up from the Argentine marines and sailors on the refuge, neither could anyone else. One of them actually turned to him, his hands folded over the top of his head and his face a mask of confusion and horror. “What the hell just happened?” he asked.
Not ten minutes later the man received his answer as a dark shadow swept over the deck of the refuge. Agnarsson squinted up, instantly recognizing the blue on white color scheme of the zeppelin and the ensign of the Aviation Bond Corporation. Through a loudspeaker, voices in English and Spanish commanded: “Attention Argentine sailors, this is the MB Etheridge. Throw your weapons over the side and lie face down on the deck, or you will be fired upon!”
Someone had come to the rescue after all.
Agnarsson laid a flower beneath the white concrete cross engraved with the name of Horacio Vietes, then turned his gaze down the green hillock toward the gray, stormy waters of Autumnfrost Harbor. “I’m sorry he didn’t get to see Avonshire,” he said.
“He wouldn’t have liked it here. He never liked living on land,” Sandra said. “We buried him at sea. Some anonymous person paid for the marker to be put up here. For the rest of my family, too.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Agnarsson said nothing.
“Whoever it was,” she went on, “I’m glad for it. It makes me feel like they’re not so far away.”
“That’s good,” he said. “You should stay here, then. Keep them close.”
Sandra Vietes laughed as she pushed the wheelchair back to the paved pathway. “You’re relentless, Justin. Don’t think I didn’t notice you haunting my steps from afar. Everyone is very concerned to keep me from going back to the Raft. Even Lady Samantha checked in on me.”
“You can’t fault me for that. I’m just a crippled stationkeeper, not the class of person that hobnobs with the Marchioness of Avonshire.”
“Except that she’s hosting a dinner in your honor tonight, of course.”
“Aristocrats will make any excuse for a soiree,” he said dryly.
They continued along the path, eventually coming to a spot where the soft turf ended abruptly in a wide, rocky promontory that jutted into the South Atlantic. The pair was silent for a long while, watching the ships motor in while farther off bolts of lightning streaked from cloud to cloud.
At last, Sandra spoke. “Well let me finally put you at ease. I’m not going back to the Raft or Argentina. The Colorados don’t seem to need me. And I think I owe you.”
Agnarsson reached across his shoulder and clasped his hand over hers. “I’m relieved,” he said.
Sandra set the brakes on the wheelchair and sat down on the margin of the grass, facing him. “And what about you? Are you going back once you’re healed, or is your job done now that you’ve saved civilization – and a stupid child – from the forces of barbarism?”
“Did I really say all that?” He laughed in embarrassment. “Well, I’m sure there’s always a stupid child that needs saving somewhere. But civilization?” The smile faded from his face and he slowly shook his head. “I’m not sure it can be saved.”
Sandra brushed back her blowing hair, met his eyes, and said, “I am.”
About the Author
Michael is a Catholic voluntaryist who works full-time as a software developer, but his real passion is writing and world-building. Along with his wife, Shell, he is the co-creator of the Ascension Epoch, an open content, collaborative fiction project released under Creative Commons (http://www.ascensionepoch.cc). He will shortly be releasing his first novella, “Copper Knights and Granite Men”, and has another full length novel nearing completion. These works, as well as the “House of Refuge” short story, are all set in the Ascension Epoch shared universe.
More Great Libertarian Fiction from LFA Members
Withur We by Matthew Alexander
Salamander Six by Michael DiBaggio
Defiant, She Advanced edited by George Donnelly
Indivisible by Troy J. Grice
Higher Cause by John Hunt, MD
Granite Republic by J.P. Medved
Homecoming by Jaylan Phoenix
High Desert Barbecue by J.D. Tuccille
Seamus Tripp & the Empire City by Richard Walsh
For even more see the full list of libertarian fiction at:
A great many thanks go to everyone who helped us throughout the process of promoting the contest, selecting, editing, and finally publishing these stories. A special thanks to Geoffrey Allan Plauché for his creation of the LFA with all the wonderful collaboration that has made possible. Thank you as well to the members who donated for the contest’s prize money, and to our SFL counterparts who were so involved in promoting and managing the contest and entries, David Deerson, Monica Lucas, Nicole Lough, and Kara LaRose.