Introduction: Slavery, smuggling, and piracy seem like themes from the era of tall ships and whale oil lamps, but they are as real today as in the age of Captain Kidd and Madame Cheng. 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.
While this series is not a project of SkyTruth (Shepherdstown’s own satellite watchdogs with whom Manthos had the privilege to work with on related marine conservation issues), he is thankful for the relationship. This story will run in serial format over the coming months. To learn more, and to support the project, visit patreon.com/lineattheendoftheworld.
— Prologue —
Location: Southern Indian Ocean, ~1,100 miles south of Perth, Australia.
“Lafayette, adjust your heading and speed. You are on collision course.”
The Nishin Maru rose slightly at crest of a swell, and settled again like a sleeping child. The bridge burned red under the nighttime running lights, but the radio remained silent as First Officer Osamu Aoki peered into the darkness for any sign of the massive vessel.
The door closed quietly behind Captain Yamashita as he rapidly scanned the charts, instruments, and men posted around the ultra-modern bridge of the 8,000-ton whaling vessel. He stopped at the radar station, then looked to his second-in-command with an alarmed expression.
“Captain, sir!” Aoki saluted, “Lafayette is not responding. Bearing 45º at 12 knots. Thirteen hundred meters and closing.”
Yamashita glowered for a moment, then turning to the radioman, “Ito, last contact with Lafayette. Report!”
A fresh-faced ensign consulted his logs then snapped back to rigid attention.
“Last contact with Lafayette at 18:00 hours yesterday. Confirmed coordinates for rendezvous, revised ETA to 00:30 this morning. Captain, sir!”
The captain paused.
“Engines full speed ahead. Helm to starboard, new heading,” Yamashita paused, consulting the compass, “bearing 340º, NNW. Keep hailing them. Work lights on. Sound General Alarm.”
Yamashita snatched a set of binoculars and strode off the bridge to the quarterdeck. Block by block, the massive work lights clicked on behind him, but for all he could see inside the fog, the Nisshin Maru might as well be in space.
“Port lights, off.” He ordered into his radio, as seven short blasts of the horn pierced the night.
The diffuse light in the fog blinked out again, but no lights emerged from the inky darkness.
Yamashita stormed back down the gangway to the bridge as the final blast of the horn rang out.
“Bearing 50º, 15 knots, 800 meters and closing. She’s accelerating and turning towards us. Captain, sir!”
“Full reverse on starboard, maintain all ahead port. Bow thrusters hard to port, stern thrusters hard to starboard. Sound collision alarm.”
Klaxons blared as the ship shuddered and heeled hard to the right. The power of nine thousand horses dug seawater from the far side of the collision and piled it toward the unresponsive ship.
“500 meters, Captain sir!”
The ship bristled with activity. Alarm bells. Crewmen scrambled for their posts. Many half asleep, many supposing this was simply another drill.
Yamashita watched as the radar blips moved closer together. His instinct to order more speed gave them enough momentum to execute a difficult turn, but they could still collide. At least it would only be a glancing blow from the side.
“200 meters, Captain, sir!”
He stepped to the port hatchway. Finally, the tricolor beast loomed darkly out of the fog.
“100 meters, Captain, sir!”
A pang of self-doubt for slipping away from his escort vessels, leaving them to contend with anti-whaling activists now 1,400 kilometers away in Antarctic waters. He gripped the frame of the hatchway with both hands.
“Brace for impact.”
A jolt. The rending shriek of steel on steel. Sparks and glass flew as the oil-tanker-turned-floating-fish-factory ground along the Nisshin Maru’s port side.
The shrieks slowed to wails, and the wails slowed to groans. Then silence, mostly. Just the creaking and clanging as two islands of metal drifted side-by-side on the glassy sea.
There was darkness. There was silence. And then there was fire.
— Chapter One – Underwater —
Location: Lagos, Nigeria
… Three months earlier
Call him a fisherman. Call him desperate. Call him anything but a pirate.
George Igwe was a fisherman. At least he had been a fisherman until the fish he caught were too small and too few to turn a profit.
His motorized trike rattled up the alleys of the capital city, the cargo bed empty except for a ragged tarp. This bike once allowed him to skip the fierce competition in crowded markets, instead bringing fresh seafood for sale straight to the kitchens of Lagos’ most exclusive restaurants. Now his light load weighed heavily on his mind as he wound through the slumbering tenements.
Down an alley, up a narrow passage behind rows of warehouses, and along a stinking, trash-strewn canal; he came to a stop near the entrance to an abandoned canning factory and cut the engine. Furtively glancing around, he pulled a cigarette from behind his ear. He dug in his pockets for a lighter and his mobile phone. His weather-creased face glowed in the orange light of the flame and the blue light of the cracked screen.
Four tones from his phone.
“OFF. Now. You want wahala (trouble)?”
He looked around, but his eyes struggled to adjust. He pocketed the phone and snuffed the cigarette on a concrete post. The sky was just barely beginning to lighten with the approach of dawn.
A stone skittered across the road, kicked by an advancing foot. A small troupe emerged from an alley opposite the factory, two men pushing a second motor-trike silently across the road.
The men quietly muttered greetings, but Fredrich, the leader, was the only one holding his head high. A quick burst of orders and they took to their tasks. Two to push open the rusty, unsecured gates, four to push the trikes through the gates and into the abandoned factory floor, two to keep lookout, and four particularly large men shuffled along behind—heads down, hands in their pockets.
Inside it was still inky black.
“Search it,” Fredrich ordered.
No one moved.
“Search the place! You want spies and snitches? Abeg!”
Finally, the men started to move, fanning out erratically to look under tables and behind idled machinery. Eventually satisfied the building was empty, the men uncertainly congregated around Fredrich. His burly men had removed the tarps, uncovering two pallets, stacked high with crates containing at least a metric ton of paint cans. And laid out at his feet, two wooden cases—drab army green with Cyrillic markings.
— ARTWORK BY: Ana Prillaman