Introduction: Line at the End of the World is a contemporary fiction narrative about illegal fishing, ecosystem collapse, and human rights abuses on the high sea, developed and written by Jefferson County geographer David Manthos. This is the fourth installment of a story running in serial format throughout 2017. To read previous installments, visit www.wearetheobserver.com and search through previous issues as well as the Arts & Essays or Writing link(s). To learn more, and to support the project, visit patreon.com/lineattheendoftheworld.
— Previously in the Story —
George Igwe and his friend Ahmed discover explosives in the hold of a ship moored off the coast of Nigeria, but they are discovered themselves. On the other side of the world, Maria Mendez, an investigative journalist, meets with emancipated women working a stand at the Tokyo Fish Market.
Already familiar with these details, Maria was writing down observations about the market and how Mi Mi interacted with her employees. All the women who worked this stand had been rescued from human trafficking. Mi Mi herself escaped from a brothel in Bangkok, stowing away to Japan on a cargo ship.
“About how long from the time a Rohingya leaves home until they regain their freedom?”
Mi Mi stopped and looked down.
“Most of them,” she sighed, “do not.”
A young woman in a hijab brought out a heavy tray with what appeared to be a dozen red balls covered in white dots. It took a moment to realize they were octopi, arranged like flowers with their suckers facing out.
Mi Mi shuffled trays around to make space for the display, then stopped the girl before she headed back behind the counter.
“Noor was escaping a camp in Rakhine State, but their boat was hijacked by armed men. They held her and her two daughters at sea for three weeks on a ship.”
Mi Mi leaned close and they spoke quietly for a moment. Noor nodded and started back behind the counter. Mi Mi signaled to follow.
Behind a curtain, Noor untucked part of her hijab. A jagged scar extended from her right temple down to her jawline.
Mi Mi translated as Noor spoke.
“The traffickers held us on a ship so that no one could escape. There were over a thousand people on board. They beat everyone, even children, if they didn’t obey a command.”
She traced the scar with her finger. “A man threw me down a set of stairs when I asked for water for my children. They starved us and made us sleep on our sides, absolutely still.”
“Why did you have to sleep on your side?”
Mi Mi translated Maria’s question to Noor.
“So they could fit more people onto the floor,” came the reply.
Noor rewrapped her headscarf and Mi Mi nodded that she could go back to work.
“How did Noor get off the ship?” Maria inquired as Mi Mi resumed her chores around the stand.
“Someone bought her in the hopes that she could get ransom money from relatives. They took her to Thailand. She was beaten if someone didn’t answer the phone, and of course, they took advantage of her. She escaped when the police made a drug raid nearby and distracted her captors.”
“What about her children?”
Mi Mi shook her head. “One died of typhoid in the camp in Thailand, and she lost the other to yellow fever escaping to Malaysia.”
Maria stopped writing for a moment, and Mi Mi continued to arrange boxes and trays filled with colorful and iridescent marine life.
“Who owns the boats?” Maria asked.
“Some ships are owned by organized crime. Mafia. But many of the smugglers were once fishermen.”
Mi Mi stabbed aggressively at a bucket of chipped ice.
“I don’t sell tuna or shrimp anymore,” she said grimly. “The supply chain is poisoned with the filth of slavery.”
“Is it just for the money…?” Maria prompted.
“Yes. Well, it is money.” Mi Mi paused. “Because of overfishing, boats fish longer to catch fewer fish. Some captains give up, and some start trading in human souls.”
“But it’s not just the Rohingya, no?”
Mi Mi shook her head. “No. Cambodians too. Laotians. Bangladeshi. Even poor Buddhist Burmese. They lure them with promises of better wages. They lock up their passports and trap them with impossible debts. But our people have nowhere else to go, even if we know the risks.”
Maria tapped her notebook with her pen and glanced at her watch. “Mi Mi, thank you. I’m sorry this is so short, but I have a flight to catch. You said you had some photos?”
Mi Mi nodded and went over to a desk walled off by stacks of foam coolers and a decorative curtain. She extracted a manila envelope and held it out to Maria with severe solemnity.
“Find them,” she looked intently in Maria’s eyes, “and free them with your words.”
Chapter Three – Redirect
Location: Gulf of Guinea, ~ 150 miles south of Lagos
George woke with a start. Someone was opening the door of the sweltering hold.
It had been a day or more since he regained consciousness. They heard scraping and banging on the hull for hours, and now it seemed the ship was at sea. The door opened on Fredrich standing with two of his merry men.
“My nosy, nosy friends,” Fredrich tutted. “I am sorry for having to lock you away, but there was no time. I apologize. Now come eat, and I will explain everything.”
Over bottles of cold water and plates of rice and fish, Fredrich informed them they had been underway for about 12 hours, after a marathon repainting job. They changed the name of the ship and the color of her trim, as well as covering over the most recognizable rust patterns.
“You are now aboard the F/V Zeus,” Fredrich declared, “and what you saw in the hold has nothing to do with me, I swear.”
“You know of Boko Haram?”
George and Ahmed exchanged worried glances, then murmured affirmatively.
“Their people try to convince me this ship is loaded with drugs, and promise me a share for bringing it into port. But I learn what they really aim to do.”
The men stared at him, wide-eyed.
“They tell me the bomb is so I don’t run off with their product. But I know they paid someone else to pump fuel oil into the hold with the fertilizer.”
Fredrich could see they didn’t understand.
“They want to destroy the Port of Lagos. Make a statement, strike terror in the West, you know … this same thing happened by accident in America, in Texas, I think. A cargo ship loaded with fertilizer caught fire and blew up. It destroyed a Monsanto chemical plant and killed almost 600 people.”
George’s mouth hung open; Ahmed was equally petrified.
“But don’t worry about all that,” Fredrich boomed as he stood and selected a couple glasses from an overhead rack. “We threw the bomb overboard.”
Fredrich set a glass a piece in front of the slack-jawed men, and topped them up with a clear liquid from a hip flask.
“We have a ship. We have enough fuel to make it past Cape Town. And only trouble waits for us in Africa. What do you say we go fishing?”