"RNLI" Alternate Universe
A man, his teenage son and his neighbour had hired a boat and gone out to fish for mackerel, and were due back at dusk. The man's wife hadn't reported them missing until nearly midnight, assuming they had gone to the pub for a drink. A full-scale search was underway, the lifeboat, helicopters, coastguards and all local shipping were either actively looking or keeping a watch.
The sea was still flat calm but no doubt by dawn a mist would blanket the water, only to burn off and disperse as the sun rose higher. They searched in a grid pattern, keeping their speed down. Chris and Buck took turns on the helm, up on the flying bridge; the others kept watch, and taking breaks in turn. They had been going for about four hours, it was quiet, the moon making odd shadows on the water. JD was reminded of the very first shout he'd been on. He glanced up at Buck, keeping a deft hand on the helm and at the same time scanning the sea around them as Nathan, standing beside him, swung the search light back and forth. He had managed to get Buck alone not long after they set out on this second mission.
"Hi," he greeted quietly.
"Hi," Buck responded, and then before JD could continue Buck started. "JD, son, I never wanted you to leave, I'd never want that, I was just so the thing is I got a hell of a temper, I scare myself sometimes."
"You had every reason to be mad at me. I don't know why I did it, I'm so sorry for all the trouble I caused."
"Don't be JD. You acted on instinct, if I had been thinking straight I would have seen what she was up to, if you hadn't done what you did God I don't even want to think about what would have happened. I could say you should have talked to me first."
At this statement JD's face fell and he dropped his head.
"But," Buck continued. " Knowing me I wouldn't have listened, most likely I'd have yelled at you just the same. So what I'm trying to say is, would you consider coming back? Mac misses you."
JD knew that was Buck's way of saying he missed him. He smiled impishly at his tall friend.
"What's that all about?" Wilmington asked.
"I moved back this morning," he admitted.
"Good, I'm glad."
They were almost as far out as they could be before they would have to turn back or risk running out of fuel, when the call came. The two men and the boy had been found. They were dead, washed up in a remote cove some twelve miles further down the coast. How they came to drown in such still, benign seas was a mystery, but it wasn't their problem. With heavy hearts they turned for home. No longer searching they could pick up speed and would be back by approximately ten that morning.
Ezra stood at the stern looking back out over the wake.
"How you doing?" Chris asked.
"And that means what?" Larabee pushed further.
"We never lost anyone before."
"We didn't lose them, we just didn't find them in time, my guess is we never could have. We can't save everyone, just not possible, sooner or later you'll have to pull a body out of the sea, it's not what we signed on for, but it happens."
"I know, logically I know, the reality is harder to face."
"Reality generally is, but "
"Don't say 'that's life' please, I'm begging you," Ezra pleaded.
"Very well, but we do our best, sometimes it's not good enough, that doesnt mean we don't do it, don't try."
Some where Chris knew Buck was having the same conversation with JD. So he headed off to find Vin and Nathan, and make sure his crew were all focused on the positive.
Some of the crew of the St Nicholas were lucky and were able to get some sleep when they had turned the boat around and refuelled her. Some did not, some were just hoping to catch up that night. But sleep was going to be put off for a while when all their pagers went off just after six in the evening. A pleasure boat had spotted what appeared to be swimmers in the water nearly half a mile from the far side of St Just Island. They had tried to get to them but lost them in the low evening light.
It took them half an hour to reach the spot, then they searched diligently for another two hours. Suddenly Vin shouted and pointed to a spot ahead of them. When they reached it, two heads bobbed in the water, watching them with big, brown, doe eyes, full of curiosity.
"You reckon that's it, that's them, a pair of seals?" JD asked, incredulously. "We've been out here for hours, looking for seals!"
"Most likely, happens all the time," Buck commented as Chris turned the boat around.
The Nero was making her halting progress toward the English Channel with her cargo, destined for an isolated bay and a clandestine delivery. Stefan Corvanich guided, bullied and cajoled the reluctant and aged ship up into the world's busiest shipping lanes. It was a long fall from warlord to smuggler. But times changed, and you had to change with them or go under. He had been a sailor once. A junior officer in his countrys navy. A country that didn't exist any more. A country that had been held together by power and fear, when that power wavered, and the people no longer feared, the country tore itself apart refighting old battles, avenging old slights and giving in to old hatreds. It was a situation in which a clever, ruthless man could grab his own bit of country and make it his own. He had come close, it was a gamble and it hadn't been for the faint-hearted, but in the end he lost everything. No matter how ruthless, you werent going to beat a larger better-equipped force with unlimited resources. Corvanich had seen the end coming, he had gathered what portable wealth he could and made a run for it. Most of his senior officers were dead or in prison, but not Stefan Corvanich; oh no, he was a free man, and a man who was using what he had to make as much money as possible as fast as possible.
The added advantage was being at sea kept him out of the reach of those who would bring him to book for his crimes. Not that he believed he had committed any crimes, war was war, he had done what was needed. But the bleeding hearts at The Hague were very keen to get their hands on him, he was wanted for murder in his own country, or what was left of it, and there were a number of individuals and splinter groups who would shoot him on sight - given the opportunity. The advantage of being at sea was that once he was in international waters he was effectively the ruler of his own kingdom, outside the laws of any land. He reckoned the old tub would do three more trips before he would need to scuttle her in a storm and claim the insurance. Of course making money meant coming into national waters occasionally, but if the worst came to the worst he had a very good collection of passports. The only worry he had was Tanner. Who would have thought Corporal Tanner would turn up again after all this time. Well, the chances of breaking down were moderately good, the chances of him calling for help much lower and if he did call for help he would be sure not to avoid the seas covered by the Four Corners lifeboat.
You were weak Stefan, he thought. You let him go when you should have finished him.
He thought of his children, older now, some in their teens. He had allowed Tanner to escape for them, because Tanner had spared his life - for the same reason. He was doing what he was doing for them, he might not be able to see them often, but he was still their father, and he would provide for them, whatever it took.
The duty turn from hell wasn't over. Just when they thought they were off the hook they were called out again, at one in the morning, to transport Nathan out to the island, where one of the monks had fallen ill. While Doctor Jackson and Chris went to the monastery to see what the situation was, the others sat about and waited. Over and hour later they were head back across the sound with Brother Frances, who Nathan was sure had an inflamed appendix. They were finally released to go home at just after four; the first light of dawn was paling the sky.
"Tired kid?" Buck asked as he walked up the hill.
"I'm okay, what about you?" It vaguely occurred to JD that Buck hadn't had a lot of sleep lately.
"I'm used to it, come on I'll take the hound out now, then we can sleep in."
"I can do it," JD offered, he tried to look bright, but he just couldn't hide the dark circles under his eyes and the scuffing of his feet as he walked.
"No I'll do it, go on you go to bed, see you in the morning."
He returned with the dog an hour later and all but fell into bed.
At eight am Larabee's crew would be off duty. At seven thirty five their pagers went off almost simultaneously with the maroon. Chris all but fell down his stairs, still pulling on his shirt, cursing as he went. Ezra didn't wake to the sound of the pager, he had always worried this might happen if he was really tired so had purchased a special, custom made alarm, it was activated by the sound of the pager and was nearly ten times louder. He found himself scrambling out of bed blindly trying to silence the deafening alarm, and grab his clothes all at the same time. Rain shook her inert husband awake, getting not much more than grunts until he was finally aware enough to understand what was happening. Vin didn't have any difficulty waking up but let loose a truly colourful string of foul language in both Welsh and English as he pulled his clothes on. Buck hadn't been asleep, so he dressed quickly and went into JD's room. The teen hadn't stirred; Buck all but had to pull the boy to his feet.
It was their worst response time ever, but they made it. A Chinese freighter had spotted a smaller ship with smoke coming out of her stern, the ship had not responded to the freighters calls so they had reported it to the coast guard. No ship had called in a may day, but a ship on fire was a serious thing, they couldnt take the risk that the ship's crew was incapacitated or the radio was out. Unfortunately the Chinese didn't have GPS and were somewhat vague about were they were. Their approximate position put the apparently burning ship some three hours sailing time from Four Corners.
The tired and ill-tempered crew headed out into the morning mist with less than their normal enthusiasm. Ezra, who despite his difficulties waking, had got some sleep after the fruitless search for the fishermen, took on the catering, since non of them had had breakfast. The boat had hot water but no other cooking facility. What it did carry was self-heating. The 'All-Day' breakfast in a can, was very popular with everyone except Nathan, who didn't even want to think about what was in it and Ezra who even if he was the one serving it up wouldn't even contemplate eating it. Today however, Buck turned it down, also refusing the tomato soup with croutons Standish had made for himself and the doctor. He told them he had been awake and had already had breakfast.
The combination of fresh air and the sea began to wake them up and soothe raw nerves after a while, as travelling at nearly top speed they headed out into the channel. JD climbed up on to the flying bridge. Buck was up there, not on the helm, Chris had that in the wheelhouse, but just enjoying the wind and the view. One or two ships were visible in the morning mist all at some distance. Chris called each one but none had seen a ship on fire.
"Feeling more awake?" Buck asked as JD stood beside him.
"JD can I ask you something? Something personal? "
JD turned to face him, he thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Depends."
"I was wondering about your father. What well, what's happening?"
JD turned back to face the sea, it wasn't something he was really comfortable with yet, he didn't know how he felt himself, but he knew one thing for sure. Buck was the brother he had never had; walking out thinking he could never go back had put a hole in his heart he thought would never heal. And if all that was true he owed his 'brother' some kind of explanation.
"He definitely is my dad," he finally said, then he went on to describe the whole meeting.
Sean Dunne had been reluctant to agree to the meeting to begin with. His deal with the paper was that the reunion would be done in public, an exclusive human-interest story. They were going to pay him a four-figure sum for the right to his story. Heather had called him from Four Corners sometime after Father Sanchez had called, to inform him if he went to his first meeting with JD alone he wouldn't get a penny. He needed the money, even though he had a regular job as a security guard, working nights in an office block, he was living in a small, pokey, damp one room flat, with no extra cash for the little luxuries of life. Even a drink in the pub had to be budgeted for. But that evening the priest had called him back and 'persuaded' him the money would be tainted if he took it at the expense of a possible relationship with his son. JD speculated that Josiah had lain the 'Catholic Guilt' on a fairly heavily. Buck suspected he was right. Josiah could be very persuasive when he needed to be, and had no compunction about bringing God into his arguments, if he would get the right result.
"Well anyway," JD continued. "He was there, at the pub. He's kinda like me, got black hair, brown eyes, not exactly tall "
"JD, what did I tell you about being short?" Buck interrupted.
"The most valuable things in life, are the smallest things," JD dutifully recited.
"Right! His hair is black?"
"Well kid, from what you say he doesnt sound like the hair dye kind, so " JD just frowned. "So you most likely won't got grey too early either."
A smile of realisation spread across his face. "Hey and he ain't bald either!"
"Better and better."
Feeling more positive, JD continued his narrative. "He tried to say Mum had run off for no reason, but Josiah went in to full priest mode - you know called him 'son' and told him to 'look in to his soul' the whole guilt trip - anyway ." Buck almost didn't hear what came next, because he was having such fun with the mental image of Josiah in full priest mode. " he finally admitted Mum had a good reason to leave. He used to drink and was always getting arrested and coming home with total strangers, all of them pissed out of their minds. Thats why Mum left, he didn't try to find us for a few years, mainly because he was in prison, by the time he got out he had lost track of us."
Buck wondered just how hard Dunne had tried to find his wife and son, but didn't say anything.
"He says he didn't know she was going to say all them things about Mum and you and the guys, and I guess I believe him."
"Are you going to see him again?" Buck asked.
"He's staying here, at the pub were we met, but he goes home tomorrow, I said I'd go and see him off. I've got his address, but well I don't see myself doing more than sending Christmas cards. He's a stranger, a total stranger." JD looked over at the tall man next to him, at his kind eyes and feeling as he always did, safe in his presence. "You - and the guys - youre my family now, not him."
"I'd be honoured if you called me family, JD, I couldn't have wished for a better brother."
After that they didn't say anything else.
Vin was restless; he was usually the stillest of them on the run out to a job, able to relax until action was called for, even sleep. But not today, now he drifted about the boat, never settling anywhere long. Finally he wandered up the wheel house windows, standing beside Chris fiddling with some of the instruments.
"Will you stop that," Chris ground out.
"What's bugging you anyway?"
Vin shook his head slightly. "Nothing."
"You got a problem with fire? You do know we don't fight the fire, not as such, just take off casualties."
Vin nodded. "Yeah, I know, it isn't that, I just ." He turned to Chris. "I used to get this feeling, you know, when I was in the field, when there was someone watching us ."
Chris tried not to say anything as he watched Vin struggling to vocalise what he was feeling.
"It's like the hairs on the back of my neck are up, but not physically, it's all in my mind. Cach man! I'm most likely just going crazy, don't take no notice of me."
Chris was about to say he would be taking note, because he trusted Vin's instincts, when JD came in to check their course again. Focused on his job he didn't notice the remnants of tension in the small space.
Looking away from Vin, Larabee focused on the young navigator. "Well?" he asked.
"Were here, or rather we're where the Chinese ship thought they were when they spotted her," JD confirmed.
Chris dropped the speed and they began scanning the horizon all around them, it was going to be a hot day, as soon as the morning mist burnt off a heat haze would be forming. Nathan joined Buck up on the flying bridge to a better view while JD kept his keen eyes glued to the surface radar. He detected a ship and called up a direction to the lookouts.
"Yeah I got her!" Nathan called down, smoke at the stern, lots of smoke, she's not moving."
Pushing the engines to full power the lifeboat set off to reach the ship.
The fire had started in the number two engine space. It had stripped its gears and seized, the build up of heat had ignited years of grease and oil. The flames had quickly spread to the accumulated debris in the engine room and taken hold. Number one engine, starved of oxygen and over-heated, stopped. Smoke and embers had been sucked into the ventilation shaft, setting fire to the accumulated dust and grease in there as well. Once it was in the ventilation system it spread quickly to the rest of the living and working area at the stern. The captain had turned her into the wind to help blow the thick smoke and flames away from the hold and its cargo. Fertiliser and a second secret cargo, the real fear was the fertiliser, even thought they only had a relatively small quantity it was potentially explosive if the flames reached it.
Realising there was no way they were going to make a safe harbour, and not prepared to risk calling for help, the crew were in the process of lowering their lifeboat when the St Nicholas came into view through the haze. Captain Corvanich swore. Because given their position there was every likelyhood this was the same lifeboat that had come to their aid once before, and that meant there was a chance Tanner was on board. And Tanner would know he wasn't a German national called Stefan Kole. And that was going to be a problem, because while 'Stefan Kole' was an innocent, free man, Stefan Corvanich was not, he was a wanted man, wanted for murder, for ethnic cleansing and other war crimes. Abandoning the cargo was going to be expensive but unavoidable. The most of the crew of eight piled into the single lifeboat, which had been built for almost twice that number and was fitted with a small motor, it would, in such gentle seas, easily carry them to shore. Which was why they hadn't called for help. Better to just slip away, the flames would eventually reach the fertiliser in the shallow, false-bottomed hold and when it did the ship would be destroyed. And all evidence of smuggling would go with it.
Vin surveyed the ship through his binoculars, and sighed. There was no mistaking the old rust bucket they were fast approaching.
"It's that ship we went out to before," he called to Chris, who was now up on the flying bridge.
"I can see, what was it called?"
"The Nero," Ezra supplied form behind him.
"Yeah thats it," Chris responded. "Oh shit!" he suddenly exclaimed.
"What?" asked JD.
"Fertiliser," Buck supplied.
JD looked around at him, still confused.
"Fertiliser can be very unstable in a fire, even explosive," the big man explained with evident worry.
They were close enough now to see that the lifeboat had been swung out and was beginning to be lowered, which meant they wouldn't have to get too close. Then just as Chris brought them to a stop at a safe distance the Nero's lifeboat gave a shudder, then came to a stop. The man still on board controlling the winch seemed to work frantically to get it to go again. As Larabee and his crew watched on in horror one winch with a protesting screech lurched into life, but the other did not. The lifeboat's stern dropped while the bow remained steady, and the six men on board scrambled to hang on to anything to stop themselves falling into the sea.
The paint was already blistering on the ships sides; flames could be seen coming from the lower portholes and the door to the main deck housing. And with no one on the helm, the ship was drifting in the current little by little as the current was beating the wind and pushing her round. Smoke was now wafting over the St Nicolas at intervals.
Chris brought the lifeboat as close as he dared to the burning ship and its dangling life-craft. He assumed the man desperately clinging to it was waiting for him to get closer before they jumped. But they didn't, even though they were all wearing life jackets, and the sea was relatively calm.
"Jump!" Shouted Vin from the deck.
The men looked at him, apparently uncomprehending.
"You have to jump into the water." Buck explained form beside Vin, using his arms to try to show them what to do. But to no avail.
Ezra came up to stand beside the other two men. He tried French, German and even Latin, but still the men clung to the lifeboat. Vin looked up at the two remaining men on the stricken ship. He didn't seem to have any problem with the water and, having given up on getting the davit winch working, he had thrown a rope ladder over the side and was inching down it. All the time he was shouting at his men in some unknown language, but they continued to shake their heads.
"I suspect they can't swim," Ezra ventured.
"They've got life jackets," Buck pointed out with exasperation.
"Being told something will keep you afloat and actually trusting your life to it are two different things. Besides if the lifejackets are anything like the ship I wouldn't want to trust them either," Standish admitted.
"Good point." With that Buck ducked into the wheelhouse. "They're too scared mate, yer gonna have to take her right up to them."
"I just knew you were gonna say that, we've got a Navy frigate on the way and a tug, but I have to guess no one's gonna get too close." With that he manoeuvred the bows so they were just nudging the side of the dangling and useless smaller boat.
One by one the terrified men were guided down and on to safe deck of the St Nicholas. The man who had stayed on board to work the winch had by now reached the water and struck out for the lifeboat. Now, with Nathan's help, he was scrambling up to meet his crew. Shaking off the offer of a warm blanket he began to harangue his crew, loudly and with extravagant hand gestures.
"I don't think he's too impressed with them," JD commented to Buck.
"No I don't think he is," his friend confirmed.
Chris was already backing away from the potential time bomb as the current moved the Nero once more and the flames began to lick back and around the stern, when Vin called out.
"No! Chris stop there's still one guy on the ship," he shouted.
"What? You sure?" Even as he said it, Chris knew it was a pointless question, Vin wouldn't have said it unless he was sure.
Vin ran to the wheelhouse. "I saw two men working the davit, through the glasses, I know what I'm talking about, I saw two men!" he insisted.
Chris remembered what Vin had hinted at regarding his military carrier. Trained snipers didn't make mistakes like miss counting targets.
Out on deck, as Nathan started to usher the rescued drew below, Ezra was trying to see if he could get some information from the man they took to be the Nero's master.
"Do you speak English sir?" he asked carefully.
"Little," the man stated, holding his thumb and finger a few millimetres apart to indicate just how little.
"Who is on the ship?"
"Er?" The man looked blankly at Ezra.
"On the ship " Ezra pointed at the rusty tub behind them. "A man, on the ship, who?"
"No, here, men here, we go?" he looked hopefully at Ezra and then at Chris in the wheelhouse. "We go now - shit!" He pointed at the ship. "Shit - boom!" He pointed more vigorously.
"I'm telling you Chris, I saw two men on the ship, and she's still too high in the water if she's full of fertiliser," Vin insisted.
Chris already believed Vin but glanced at the ship's water line anyway, indeed the ship was riding too high for a ship that was fully loaded.
"I'm going on board, Chris get me close enough to grab the ladder then back off," Vin insisted.
Chris nodded. "I'll come too. Buck!" he shouted.
"Get that one below, then come and take the wheel, me and Vin are going on board."
Buck considered this to be foolishness, if someone was still on board it was his choice, the ship was a time bomb, they should get a safe distance from it, and quickly! In his opinion. But there was that tone in his old friend's voice, that tone that said this was not up for debate.
"I'm coming!" Buck shouted as Ezra ushered the last casualty below decks.
Vin had armed himself with a hatchet as he climbed swiftly and surely up the rope ladder. The sudden jolt on the ladder below him told Vin Chris had safely transferred from the boat as well. He registered the change in engine sound that told him Buck was backing up, and taking his precious boat to a safe distance. By now he was almost at the top, acrid black smoke wafted over the deck, making him cough, his eyes burning. Swiftly looked all around, his eyes taking in every detail, searching for movement, danger. Assured they were safe for the moment he turned to help Chris over the side.
"Shit! I'm getting too old for this kind of thing," he commented as he pulled himself over the edge. "This is your show, now what?"
Vin stood before him, and it was if the soft-spoken, shy mechanic melted away and a professional soldier, a killer replaced him.
"You find out that they're carrying, what they're really carrying. I'll find our phantom crewman."
Chris blinked as the smoke once more blew over the deck, making his eyes water. "Fifteen minutes, no longer, we meet back here - agreed?"
Vin looked at his watch and nodded, then without a word he tossed the hatchet at Chris, spun on his heels and was gone.
Chris used the hatchet, which he noted Vin had honed to a razor sharp edge, to cut the ropes that secured the heavy waterproof tops over the two hold openings. Once he had a few cut he could pull back a corner and looked into the dark hole below. Both holds did indeed appear to be full of fertiliser, the dry powdered kind, which while it didn't smell, was the kind that very well might explode if exposed to flames. But there was no way around the fact that if both holds were full the ship would be much lower in the water. Finding a hatchway open he descended, knowing that at intervals there would be inspection hatches giving access to the hold from the inside. He found the first hatchway and banged on it, listening carefully, if the hold beyond wasn't full of fertiliser it might sound hollow he reasoned. It sounded solid, so he moved further down and at the very base of the hold tried again, still solid. Then he moved to the base of the second hold. He knocked and before he could register that it sounded hollow something knocked back!
Without stopping to think he yanked the large lever that held the door closed, and opened the door. There in front of him was a sea of faces, dark, haggard, desperate faces. The stench was almost overpowering, a combination of sweat, human filth and rotten food. A man came forward and in halting English asked.
"Are we there?"
As Chris just stood there and stared in horror at what was before him there was a huge bang and the whole ship shook! Instantly the dark space in front of him was filled with crying and screaming. The faint smell of smoke, that probably only Chris was aware of, suddenly became stronger.
"Out!" he suddenly shouted. "Everyone out, up!" he pointed up at the stairs he had just used.
For an agonisingly long time no one moved, then the man who had spoken to Chris shouted at the people who started to move, not out but back inside.
"No out! You have to go out." Chris couldn't understand what was happening, until he saw that people were picking up large bags of possessions. He reached out and grabbed hold of the sleeve of the man he had spoken to. "No, we have no time, no room, we have to go now, fire! You understand? The ship is on fire!"
Even as he spoke he could tell he wasn't going make them understand so, and mach as he hated to do it, he bolted for the stairs, he had to tell the others what he'd found and get something organised. Even as he began to climb he could see the smoke was beginning to drift down the stairs.
The fire had reached the galley where two canisters of gas, used to fuel the cooker resisted the heat for a while and then exploded. One was propelled through the rusty hull and shot out across the water and landed in the sea, the other, which was mostly empty was contained in the galley but the fireball engulfed the whole area.
On the lifeboat Buck kept his nerve and resisted the urge to go back in and send the others to search for Chris and Vin. He waited, unconsciously nudging the St Nicholas closer all the time. It seemed like forever before Chris appeared at the rail.
"Oh thank Christ!" Buck breathed, he didn't even see Chris' gesture to come closer, he was already doing it.
Chris was shouting down at the other three on deck. "Those bastards were carrying people, the hold's full of people!"
"How many?" Nathan shouted as they got closer.
"Lots, lots and lots, kids too. JD you get up here, Nate stay there with Ezra and launch the Y, then Ez."
"Get up here as well. JD, bring the bolt cutters. Buck, just keep her ready to get the fuck out of here as soon as we can."
By now the bows were back under the rope ladder, and JD hopped nimbly over and began to climb.
"Chris?" Buck called up. "Where's Vin?"
Chris looked around suddenly alarmed, just then Vin came running from the now flame-engulfed superstructure. A look passed between them, it said, - 'something's wrong but I don't have time to tell you now'.
By now people were beginning to emerge on deck, blinking owlishly in the bright sun, stumbling as they tried to pull over-stuffed bags up onto deck. Some of the children were crying and as they saw the flames now clearly visible licking around the stern of the ship some of the others also cried out in alarm.
"Vin, can you get that to go down?" Chris pointed to the apparently jammed winch, stopping the ships own lifeboat from being lowered to the water.
Vin made a cursory look. "Not in time," he stated.
"Can you cut it free?" He handed him the bolt cutters JD had brought with him.
"Sure, but it might sink once it hits the water," he warned.
"'S no good now, go for it. JD?"
JD jumped, he was scared, he was very scared. This was much worse then the catamaran, he glanced over at the flames and quickly back to Chris.
"You okay JD? We've got time, okay, nothing's critical yet, alright?"
"Sure, I'm okay, what do you want me to do?"
"Help them over the side and down the ladder. Work with Buck. Don't let them bring luggage."
"How do I do that?" The teen asked somewhat panicked.
"If I knew that I'd be doing it, figure it out." With that he leant over the side to see how the others were doing launching the inflatable Y class boat that was stored on the roof behind the flying bridge. The bright orange craft was already in the water and he couldn't help a smile of pride escaping his lips. "Buck!" he bellowed
An unmistakable mop of black hair appeared out of the wheel house window.
"Get the ones you've got in the Y, make sure they can't start it and tie them astern."
Buck just looked at him blankly.
"Just do it!" he barked.
"Ay, ay skipper!" With that he was gone.
The rescued crew were none-too-keen to leave the solid security of the lifeboat for the small flimsy looking inflatable. In fact they needed a lot of persuading, mostly from Buck and Nathan using their impressive height to intimidate them and the apparent leader receiving a vicious right upper cut from Ezra.
As he explained. "Sir, you appear to have been engaged in the transportation of illegal immigrants, and were going to leave them there to die. I quite frankly don't wish to breathe the same air as you, besides the boat's not big enough for both them and you."
The man looked at him, his look of innocent bewilderment faded in an instant. He pulled himself up, rubbing his already swelling jaw. "There isn't room for them, the ship is going to blow up, we have to leave - don't you understand, we have to leave now!"
Buck's huge right hand shot out and grasped the man around the neck. "Well your English suddenly got better, didn't it?" he commented with evident menace. "Now get your miserable carcasses in that boat, before I decide you'd be better off in the sea. Did you know a Great White Shark was spotted off the cost of Cornwall last summer?"
The man blanched and cast a wary eye over he benign waters around them.
"Inflatable or sea," Nathan placed a powerful hand on his shoulder. "Your choice."
All the men were in the boat it was tied off, just as Vin called a warning. The Nero's own lifeboat was about to drop. There was an agonising second as the jaws of the bolt cutters bit down into the steel cable, then with a strange whistling sound as the severed line whipped through the blocks the boat was free falling, stern first toward the water. It hit with an almighty smack, a huge plume of water was thrown up and as they watched the stern sank beneath the waves. For a second it looked like it would continue down, then, more slowly than it went down it began to come back up. Eventually, and admittedly half full of water, it was on the surface. Chris didn't even have to say anything, already Buck had the St Nicholas headed for her with Nathan on the bow ready with a boat hook. In no time the small craft was tied alongside the lifeboat and Nathan was onboard with a portable bilge pump. The engine was flooded and it was unlikely they could get in started in time but tied beside the big Severn class lifeboat, it was safe enough.
Chris looked back to see how JD was doing. He had chosen their youngest with good reason. He was the least threatening, the least authoritarian and therefore least likely to scare them. Also he suspected all the women would want to mother him, and not put him danger by arguing and causing a hold up. JD had done well. The stream of humanity coming out into the sunlight was forming a line, they were putting their bags, all they owned in the world, to one side and retrieving odd things from them, papers, pictures, the children were pulling out one cherished toy each. JD moved up and down the line with the man who had first spoken to Chris. He seemed to be the only one who spoke English and to be some kind of leader.
"Ezra!" Vin shouted, still perched precariously on the faulty davit.
"Yes," Ezra replied with due trepidation as he made ready to clime up the ladder.
"Bring the bosuns chair with you, I can set it up here, we got at least one pregnant lady up here!"
Buck held the St Nicholas steady against the side of the Nero, the other lifeboat secured against her far side, Nathan guided people down on to the deck. He sent the fittest over to the other lifeboat where he showed them how to operate the hand-operated pump to start emptying it of water, the weakest he sent below and the rest he sent to sit wherever they could. Chris knew both boats were going to be seriously overloaded, but the Navy frigate would be with them soon, with the sea so calm, he hoped there wouldn't be a problem. Quickly a kind of routine was found as Ezra helped the casualties over the side, JD organised the line and once he had it rigged Vin lowered the pregnant lady down on the bosuns chair. That done he turned to Chris, and quickly told him what he had found on his earlier search.
On the far side he had found a life raft in the water. Someone had tried to launch it and escape un-seen. It was the kind that comes in a white barrel-like container. When it hit the water it was meant to open up into a kind of inflatable wig-wam. This one had opened but not inflated, clearly along with everything else on the ship it hadn't been maintained or checked. Quickly scanning the waters around the ship he couldn't see anyone swimming away from the vessel so concluded they - whoever 'they' were - were still on board. He had then entered the main living and working area of the ship. He found evidence of someone ransacking the place, but nothing else. He had been about to go deeper in when the gas cylinders blew.
"Man, I only made it out in time, I'm telling you," he told Chris with evident relief.
"You think whoever this second man is he was caught by the fire?" Chris asked.
"Maybe, but my guess would be no. If I were him, I'd be trying to sneak off with this lot," he gestured to the line of bedraggled people behind him " get lost in the crowd like," Vin speculated. He had done as he had been trained to do, put himself into the position of his target and then anticipate his next move. If he were trying to leave a blazing ship undetected, that would be the way to do it. "Keep an eye out for someone out of place, I'm laying good money it's the captain of this death trap."
Suddenly there was commotion at the back of the line. JD came running up to them looking worried.
"He " he pointed at there interpreter. " says that one of the children is afraid of fire, when he saw the flames he ran back down below, I'm gonna go look for him, but the interpreter guy won't come, he says he's more use up here - I think hes afraid too."
"No doubt, but then so am I. Okay JD, go search, Vin go with him, if it looks like things are turning dodgy get back, boy or no boy, got it?" Both men said they understood. "I'll call you on your personal radio if we're pulling back, make sure it's on."
Vin and JD were at the bottom of the stairs up which the last of the immigrants had just filed. There were no lights now, the power system having failed. Torches on, they searched the fetid hold where the immigrants had spent the long voyage. The boy wasn't there, from what JD understood he was travelling alone, an orphan of about twelve.
"Now what?" he asked the older man.
"We split up. You go up the port side, I'll take starboard, it's a good bet he went forward, he'll go away from the fire not back towards it."
Vin had been going for about five minutes when he saw someone run across a passage in front of him. He quickened his pace and set off after the figure, all the time trying to remember where he was and the way out, in a dark unfamiliar ship it was easy to get lost and disorientated. Suddenly he rounded a corner to find someone in the beam of his torch. Behind them was just a dead end and some pipe valves.
This was a man, not a boy, well fed and well dressed. "Get lost on your own ship, Captain?" Vin asked sarcastically.
"Hello Corporal Tanner."
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