Twenty hours had passed since the lifeboat became their refuge; both from bullets and the icy ocean. An orange fibreglass, self-righting, emergency lifeboat, it had been launched from a rail at the rear of the Sea Otter; a small, McEntire Corporation covert ship that now languished for all eternity in the frigid darkness of the deep ocean. It already seemed like days ago, as the rolling of heavy waves shook the innards of its human cargo with every sickening, jolting, lurch into a trough or sudden scaling of a peak. The worst of the winter storm had passed a few hours before but the heavy swell was still producing waves in excess of two metres, incessantly rocking, hammering and pounding at the surprisingly sturdy little hull.
The main issue was that this was early September; the tail end of the Antarctic winter, and that meant the majority of the day was still endured in darkness. The sun rose at about nine o’clock in the morning and set again at three o’clock in the afternoon, although the successive civil, nautical and astronomical twilights at this latitude added a slight tinge of light to the horizon for most of the day. The situation would change rapidly, Pace knew from his research about the vast, frozen continent. The daylight hours would double from seven to fourteen by the end of September before moving into a fully-fledged, twenty-four hour, sunlit day by mid-October, as the summer took hold.
But, for now, there was a great deal more darkness than daylight; not that it mattered inside the lifeboat, which had plenty of internal and external lights, powered by a reliable little diesel engine. If the engine failed, an underwater impeller would keep the batteries topped up, so at least they would be able to see an enemy coming.
Pace didn’t think the enemy would show up any time soon, though, as the vessel that had slunk up on them, and launched zodiacs filled with mercenaries, had been blown to Kingdom Come, along with their own ship. It was obviously something to do with Scorpion, and the gold, they both knew. But they had been on their way to try and locate the second of the covert WW1 bases, which they expected to take quite a while. They had expected to be shadowed, or even locked in a race with others, but such a show of extreme, reckless force had taken them by surprise.
‘I don’t know about you,’ grumbled Hammond, grinning wanly, ‘but I could kill a cup of coffee. I am quite bored with bouncing around inside this toy boat.’
‘At least it’s warmer in here than out there,’ shot back Pace, locking the little steering wheel off with a jerry-rigged autopilot comprised from some torn strips of cloth and a belt. Joining his friend at the front of the lifeboat, he flopped down gratefully in to one of the slightly more comfortable passenger seats and stretched out his long legs. ‘Go on then, make the coffee.’
Hammond rose to the challenge and did his level best to find anything resembling a portable gas stove. Typically, this type of lifeboat would only be fitted with a small medical kit, two weeks of cold rations and a similar quantity of bottled water. Being a McEntire vessel, Hammond’s face broke out into a broader smile as he pulled out a small, specialist cooking unit exactly the same as the one they’d carried with them into the Amazon, a few months earlier.
It was an amazing piece of kit. It was a sealed, circular unit, no larger than his head, which sat on retractable metal legs that raised it just six inches off of the ground. A saucepan sat firmly on top of the unit, held snugly within guide runners. A tiny gas flame, shielded from the weather but ventilated via tiny air holes in the unit’s circumference, was provided by a small gas bottle built neatly into the bottom of the unit. The flame was tiny but the whole thing had been designed for maximum efficiency.
No heat was wasted, all of it was channelled directly against the base of the saucepan. The pan even came with a handy lid, which kept out rain and bugs, if using it outdoors, and retained almost all the heat energy inside. Just as they had done in the jungle, Hammond half-filled the pan with water and hit the ignition button, which sparked into life instantly.
‘Lucky sod,’ grunted Pace evenly. ‘Now let’s see you magic up some coffee,’ he challenged.
Hammond had already spotted a tin of freeze-dried Nescafe Gold Blend in the same locker and produced it with a theatrical flourish. ‘And for my next trick,’ he chuckled. ‘Coffee!’
Pace had been at the helm for most of the last twenty hours, repeatedly batting away Hammond’s attempts to share the navigation duties. Somehow being in the captain’s seat, and operating the minimal controls, gave him some small sense of control over their dire situation. Hammond had taken the opportunity of sleeping, strapped in to a chair for most of it, and he now felt as refreshed as possible while Pace looked fit to drop.
‘Just shut your eyes and settle down for a few minutes,’ Hammond commanded gently, suddenly serious. ‘I’ll knock us up some coffee and a bite to eat, then you can crash out for a few hours. It’s my turn to drive…and I won’t take no for an answer this time,’ he warned, pre-empting any argument that might have fallen from Pace’s lips.
Pace wasn’t about to argue. A wave of tiredness had suddenly washed over him and he was happy to let Hammond take charge for a while. His eyelids felt leaden and it was only the agitated motion of the sea all around that stopped him falling immediately into a deep slumber. He tightened a seatbelt and kept his eyes shut while his ears followed the sounds of Hammond adding coffee granules to the rapidly heating pan of water, quickly bringing it to the boil on the magical little stove. The water spat and growled a little as it assimilated the coffee and, almost immediately, a familiar scent tickled their nostrils. Forcing his eyes open, Pace focused blearily on the red plastic mug that Hammond soon handed to him, along with a Mars bar. He noticed that Hammond was having a Snickers.
‘Only the best chocolate to lift our spirits,’ Pace noted. Sipping the scalding liquid and feeling it push back against the ever-present dark wall of foreboding, he demolished the chocolate bar in two large bites.
‘Want another?’ asked Hammond. ‘We have hundreds squirrelled away back there.’
‘No thanks,’ said Pace. ‘That’s fine for now. The coffee is great, by the way. Lucky for you I always take it black, no sugar.’
‘There’s sugar and powdered creamer back there, if you want something more refined.’
Pace laughed aloud. ‘You’ll be offering me a double latte next!’
As the sound of the laughter died away, replaced again by the slapping of the waves against the hull and the regular thump of the engine, they regarded each other thoughtfully.
‘So,’ began Hammond. ‘The radio is only short-wave and we are too far from anywhere to use it yet. The emergency beacon is in perfect working order but if we activate it, it might attract trouble long before a rescue party.’
‘I guess it depends on whether our friends back there had another ship in the neighbourhood.’
‘It’s a gamble.’
Pace thought over the issue for a second. ‘McEntire will have figured something’s wrong by now. We’ve been out of contact for too long. You know the company a hell of a lot better than I do,’ he added. ‘What will he do next?’
Hammond swallowed a mouthful of his coffee, ignoring the fact that it was burning all the way down. He needed to feel the heat.
‘The Corporation’s assets will all have been deployed by now,’ he explained. ‘Satellites, communications intercepts, human intelligence, high level governmental contacts and a host of covert teams around the globe will have been placed on standby.’
Pace was suitably impressed. ‘They have our last known position and my guess is that a rescue team will already be on its way to this area, right?’
‘Then we should switch on the emergency beacon,’ decided Pace. ‘In the dark, with such heavy swells and a small radar signature, they’ll need as much help as possible to find us.’
Hammond was inclined to agree but, in the end, it was a pointless conversation. Whoever had compromised Sea Otter’s security systems had also disabled the emergency beacon. When they tried activating it, and were met with a dark, dead response, a quick look behind the cover plate revealed key components missing from their niches.
‘Why leave the radio working?’ wondered Hammond, replacing the cover plate just so it would not end up crashing around inside the lifeboat. ‘Why not do both?’
‘My guess is that whoever is responsible probably ran out of time, or worried about being discovered. The short-wave radio is useless out here, they would have known that. With several lifeboats to sabotage, it was a pointless risk.’
‘Thinking about it,’ said Hammond, ‘I’m pretty sure that the regular inspections on lifeboats have to test the radio, fuel and engine. As a rule, an emergency beacon wouldn’t be triggered until the annual check.’
‘Well then, that’s our answer. On the off chance that anyone managed to launch a lifeboat, they couldn’t activate a beacon and the enemy vessel would easily have been able to track them down to sink them, or haul them back aboard.’
‘They didn’t bank on losing their own ship,’ frowned Hammond. ‘Which is our lucky break, or we’d be dead already.’
‘I’d only call it lucky if we manage to find land and then get some help out here. Otherwise,’ Pace added thoughtfully, ‘our demise has only been postponed.’