The Ship’s Crew
A Tale of The Undead
Dar Es Salaam Bay.
‘You alright Mack?’ The engineer asked.
‘Aye would be if I could have a fag,’ Mack replied in his clipped northern accent, staring dully up at the white super structure and the ten feet high letters emblazoned in red across the front.
‘No smoking,’ Mack read, ‘they should make that bloody sign bigger.’ He muttered more to himself than to the older man dressed in the faded grey coveralls.
‘How long you got left?’ The engineer asked with a big smile under his bushy moustache.
‘Couple of hours,’ Mack replied.
‘Ah not too long then. Well for me it’s a quick Scotch and some sleep,’ the South African engineer replied.
‘Lucky bugger,’ Mack replied.
‘Ha, think of the money man! Think of the money!’ The engineer laughed, walking back towards the super structure. Mack nodded at the burly figure, lowering his eyes against the glare of the bright lights fixed to the towering white building in case it ruined his night vision.
Turning back to face out into the inky black waters of the sea, he shouldered the heavy Kalashnikov assault rifle and continued his patrol down the long port side of oil tanker M.V. Panama. Flagged in the country of the same name, but running precious loads of crude fuel from the Middle East down the east coast of Africa to Tanzania.
The route took them past the notorious country of Somalia and the ever increasing range of the pirates moving out in powerful rigid inflatables to take over vessels moving through what they perceived to be their waters.
The ship owners, along with many others, simply could not risk their vessels being taken and held to ransom and for the last few years had resorted to having armed escorts on board. Initially, these armed escorts were locally sourced. But corruption being what it is and the lure of high pay-outs tempting the poorly paid guards meant professional companies were contracted. Several high profile cases of vessels being boarded by the pirates had led to many ship owners needing security and so a whole industry was created within months.
The already well-established private security industries quickly branched out and were quick to recruit the highly trained and well respected US Marine Corp and soldiers from the Royal Marines. Already versed and experienced in long periods at sea, used to static guards, patrols and famous for their ferocious fighting spirit. These soldiers could triple their army salary with tax free bounties paid for each trip. And Mack, a twelve year Royal Marine veteran was no exception. Having served in most of the world’s troubled hot spots and having been shot at, bombed, attacked, hated and all the time paid low wages and accused of being a baby murderer finally had enough and he took the offer to leave and join the private industry.
Three hundred pounds a day tax free, three weeks on and three weeks off. Spend six months out of the UK, avoid the taxman and Mack, along with many of his former comrades were laughing all the way to the bank. However, with every positive there is an equal negative and the downside was spending tedious hours patrolling oil tankers, cargo ships and many other vessels. But at least he wasn’t being shot at and bombed anymore. In fact, after suffering some costly losses. The pirates soon learned which shipping lines had the highly disciplined mercenary soldiers on-board and quickly focussed their energy on the smaller, less defended ships.
With the age of information being upon us, the pirates soon learned to use marine websites showing the location, position and cargo for every commercial vessel in the world, complete with an inter-active map allowing the user to plot, moving speed and likely load of the vessel. The shipping lines were quick to respond and soon learned to update those marine websites with alerts, indicating their vessels had armed escorts on board.
The cost of the security personnel was offset against the potential risk of losing a vessel. The high value of the cargo, the vessel itself and even the cost of the fuel on-board the vessel made them realise it was a small price to pay, and it pretty much guaranteed a safe passage.
So Mack, for the last two years, had served three weeks on and three weeks off on-board countless vessels, going to countless ports and carrying countless cargos. The circuit within which he worked was small, and the teams on board averaged between four to six personnel. They all knew each other, and with every organisation that involves people working closely together, Mack had people he liked to work with, and people he didn’t. This voyage was no different. Out of the five man team on-board the M.V. Panama, Mack liked two of them. And being the blunt northern man that he was, he didn’t give a shit if the other two knew he didn’t like them, but being the professional soldier that he was, he also knew they could be relied on in a tight spot and they, in turn, knew the same in return.
Taking the last few hours of darkness before the vessel reached the port of Dar Es Salaam, Mack, the former Royal Marine, patrolled the port side while Berkowitz, the former US Marine, patrolled the starboard side, with the set patrol pattern organised so they get half the width of the bow and half the stern each. Fortunately, Berkowitz was one that Mack did like and as with any mundane task that is to be repeated over and again, they both looked forward to the forty-five minute intervals when they would meet at the stern.
‘They all turned in or what?’ Berkowitz asked in his strong Boston accent.
‘Aye, Chief just went,’ Mack replied, referring to the chief engineer he passed some minutes before. Berkowitz gave a furtive glance around before producing a pack of cigarettes and tapping one out for Mack.
‘Ta,’ Mack replied, closing his eyes tight against the glare of the lighter and inhaling deeply to breath out a contented plume of smoke.
‘So, anymore thoughts on it?’ Berkowitz asked after a couple of minute’s comfortable silence.
‘Thailand,’ Mack replied firmly.
‘Well hey, the fucking Englishman finally made a decision,’ Berkowitz laughed, clapping Mack on the shoulder and going for a high five, only to be left hanging.
‘I’m fuckin’ English, we don’t high five, we shake hands,’ Mack replied giving a withering look at the hovering hand.
‘Oh you left me hanging there buddy, that’s shameful, you’re a racist man’ Berkowitz dropped his hand, shaking his head.
‘Silly twat, got nought to do with your skin colour, like I said I’m English and I don’t do high fives,’ Mack laughed at the regular joke played from Berkowitz.
‘It’s because I’m black ain’t it?’
‘Oh you so racist, you should join the clan.’ Berkowitz laughed.
‘What fucking clan?’ Mack asked.
‘The fucking clan, what other clan is there?’
‘I don’t know any fucking clan’s.’
‘So, we’re going to Thailand?’ Berkowitz said after a pause with them both trying to laugh quietly.
‘You fancy some chicks with dicks huh?’
‘Fuck off Berkowitz, I’m not you,’ Mack laughed.
‘Hey, I told you man, it was dark and I was very drunk.’
‘More like mid-afternoon and you’d been drinking fuckin’ cola.’
‘Cola? What the fuck is cola?’
‘Coke, we say cola where I grew up. Couldn’t afford the proper stuff.’
‘Oh those tough northern streets huh?’ Berkowitz said, playing his pretend violin.
‘Aye, tough as turds and hard as nails.’
‘We’ll get Sammy to sort the flights soon as we hit terra firma,’ Berkowitz said, referring to the local contact the company used to bypass red tape and local government officials, arrange safe weapon storage, shore side accommodation and a thousand other smaller issues and now used by the security personnel to sort private issues for a small fee.
Avoiding going back to their home countries in favour of keeping the tax free money paid into their offshore accounts, the mercenaries regularly spent their down time in a few well-chosen cheap far flung corners of the globe. Both Mack and Berkowitz knew there would be many other security personnel from the Afghan, Iraq, Middle East and Marine security circuits, and they would have almost three weeks of training every day, swapping stories and drinking every night before being contacted by the company and informed of their travel arrangements for the next voyage.
After ten minutes of discrete smoking, low conversation and making plans for their downtime, they swap sides and start the long stroll down to the front of the ship. Both equipped with night vision binoculars they stopped every few metres and scanned the area. The constant noise of the ships powerful engines provided an ever present sound, but still they listened intently for the faster, higher pitched sounds of the powerful outboard engines used by the pirates. Although reports of contacts with pirates were now few and far between amongst those ships with armed escorts, they still regularly came into visual contact with the pirates.
Their vessel; a huge super tanker, would be visible for many miles whereas the smaller pirate vessels would not be so visible. So despite the lack of actual contact, the security personnel knew they were constantly being probed for weaknesses. There was also the risk of crew corruption too. A poorly paid deck hand offered a share of the bounty could easily send a signal giving the pirates an opportunity to attempt a boarding during the hours of darkness.
Still, despite the non-smoking rule, being outside was often better than being stuck in the accommodation. Their digs on-board consisted of a few cots located around the safe room. The safe room being located in the bowels of the ship was a fortified room stocked with water and food and intended as a go-to place for the officers and security should the ship be successfully taken.
The security team maintained a constant presence within the area of the safe room, preventing any corrupted crew from gaining access and sealing themselves in to leave the rest outside to suffer the wrath of the increasingly desperate pirates.
‘Can see the port now,’ Mack said during their next interval of smoking behind the super structure.
‘Land ahoy,’ Berkowitz idly joked, passing the time, ‘couple of days from now Mack, we’ll be drinking cold beer on a hot beach.’
‘Aye, bout fuckin’ time.’
‘I worked out the weeks,’ Berkowitz said, a sly smile forming on his shadowed face.
‘And?’ Mack asked with a dull voice.
‘Your friend will be on downtime, I heard he was staying out of the US for a few more months too.’
‘I fuckin’ hope not,’ Mack sighed.
‘So this’ll be what, third round?’
‘The fourth! Holy shit Mack, three fights with the same man?!’
‘Aye, and all over a game of cards, the cheating bastard.’
‘Not what I heard,’ Berkowitz said, ‘I heard you were the one cheating.’
‘Fuck off, I weren’t cheating. I didn’t need to I was fuckin’ winning.’
‘That’s what he said, that you cheated to win.’
‘Bollocks, mind you it were a fuckin’ good scrap.’
‘Brits against yanks?’ Berkowitz asked knowing the answer but happy to relive the humorous memory.
‘No it were a fuckin’ free for all, every bugger was going at it. I saw two officers from the same regiment knocking ten bells o’shit out of each other.’
‘A good time to settle scores,’ Berkowitz nodded, smiling at the visual image in his mind.
‘The second were in Phuket actually, last night before we got re-deployed.’
‘Who won that one?’
‘We got separated just as the local police turned up.’
‘Lucky for them,’ Berkowitz said wistfully imagining a couple of local police officers trying to separate two drunken fighting marines while being watched by more drunken marines.
‘Third were here, in Dar Es Salaam port. Walked into the pub, saw him as he saw me and we went straight at it,’ Mack recalled the story to a chuckling Berkowitz and despite having heard the stories many times before, he enjoyed the re-telling and it helped pass the time.
‘He’s probably been training like Rocky, getting ready to tear you apart,’ Berkowitz goaded the short but powerfully built Mack.
‘Aye, probably. I’ll get my fucking’ arse kicked. Right, see you in forty-five fucknuts.’
‘Fucknuts? I still don’t know what that means man.’
‘That’s coz you’re a stupid fuckin’ yank.’
By sunrise the M.V. Panama was holding a static position several miles out of the port of Dar Es Salaam. The bay being used as a giant parking lot for the many vessels waiting for their turn to enter. Mack stood at the bow, having climbed up onto the piping network to see over the front and look out at the port in the distance. The long brown hills of the land rose up on either side of the bustling city skyline. The sun was promising another hot day and Mack was trying to guess if he would have time to sleep or if they would enter port soon, in which case all the security would be up and ready. Mack knew that the bigger ships took priority and their owners made sure they could enter port quickly and avoided costly delays out in the bay.
Mack slowly worked his way back towards the super structure and entered into the tight stairwell before climbing to the bridge at the top as it offered the best view of the surrounding seas. This early in the day, Mack knew he would find one of the junior officers in charge while the captain normally came on deck later in the day.
To Mack’s surprise, the captain was on deck and to his even greater surprise so were most of the other officers, including the chief engineer. All of them dressed in various night clothes or hastily grabbed items.
‘Everything alright?’ Mack called out as he entered. The captain spun round as he heard the words, holding his hand up for quiet while he listened intently to the radio receiver glued to his ear.
‘Something happening in Europe man,’ the chief engineer whispered, ‘terrorist attack maybe.’
‘Europe? Where in Europe? It’s a fuckin’ big place,’ Mack replied.
‘The whole of Europe,’ a junior officer said, a young Filipino with wide scared looking eyes.
‘What?’ Mack said, the tiredness gone in an instant.
‘M.V Panama roger that, received. Confirm we hold our position and wait further instruction. Out.’ The captain put the receiver down before turning to his officers, his face drawn and grey.
‘Captain, what’s happened?’ One of the officers asked, impatient to be updated.
‘They’re saying that Europe has fallen, riots, civil uprising….Something big. The police and army have been wiped out, none of the local governments are responding. None of the vessels can dock.’
‘Which ports?’ The engineer asked his voice hoarse and quiet.
‘All of them…’ the captain looked round his crew. Shock clearly etched onto his face, ‘the port authority is saying we’ve got to hold position and wait instruction.’
‘But that’s in Europe Captain, we’re in Africa,’ the young Filipino officer said.
‘It’s spreading; the northern African countries are reporting the same outbreaks. From the reports I heard, it only started late last night and was across Europe within hours.’
‘Hey, what’s the hold up, why are we holding here?’ Berkowitz called out, his voice entering the bridge before his physical form appeared and stopping abruptly on seeing the gathered faces.
‘We’ve got to hold here, something happened in Europe that’s wiped out the local populations and it’s spreading out,’ Mack relayed the brief details.
‘What’s the intel?’ Berkowitz said switching straight into professional mode, his face serious.
‘That’s all I know, the satellite phone went down half hour ago so the only comms we have is via the ship to shore radio, and there’s a lot of vessels out here trying to communicate at the same time,’ the captain replied.
‘Did you hear where it started Captain?’ Berkowitz asked.
‘Eastern Europe but nothing further than that,’ the captain replied.
‘And it spread? What was the rate of the spreading?’ Berkowitz questioned the captain, his manner being one of calm authority and bearing.
‘They just said Eastern Europe and it spread across the whole of Europe within hours, and now it’s in northern Africa.’
‘I need a world map,’ Berkowitz stated, looking towards the cluster of junior officers, his statement making it clear the words were intended for them.
‘Do it please,’ the captain nodded at the younger officers. The maps were rooted and a full world map was quickly spread across the map desk at the rear of the bridge. Berkowitz requested the other security be summoned to the bridge. The order was relayed via the intercom and within minutes two of the other security personnel were running in. Despite having just been roused from sleep they both looked alert and held weapons at the ready.
‘Simpson, Jones,’ Berkowitz nodded at the two men, using their surnames in form of greeting.
‘McCarthy is in position,’ Simpson reported, informing the squad leader Berkowitz that the fifth man, McCarthy was holding a guard position at the safe room.
‘Roger that,’ Berkowitz nodded back before informing the two newcomers of the information he and Mack had only heard moments before, while Mack examined the map on the desk.
‘Eastern Europe is a big place, but assuming it involves this section here,’ Mack indicated the map with his hand, ‘the only report we have is that it spread across this land mass within hours,’ Mack continued, his hand sweeping across central Europe towards the western edge on the Atlantic coast. ‘So, here to here within a few hours. This area is Europe, which is mostly settled and peaceful. A massed and co-ordinated civil uprising is not fuckin’ likely, and if it was, it would be mainly isolated to the capital cities and would not be as widespread as the captain said.’
‘Then we rule that out,’ Berkowitz stated matter of factly, ‘what’s next?’
‘If it were an attack from a foreign body, the only ones that have that power are China and Russia, and even they don’t have enough planes to take out a land mass that size within a few hours.’
‘Not with conventional weapons,’ Simpson added.
‘Aye, so were looking at an airborne entity, or a chemical attack using WMD’s,’ Mack relayed to the nods from the other security operatives. They paused as the captain lifted the radio, listening intently to the loud chatter coming through. His face showing more shock as he replaced the handset.
‘The Suez Canal is gone and it’s hit the Middle East spreading south,’ the captain said, his voice sounding weak.
‘Gone? Gone where?’ the young Filipino officer asked.
‘Gone, just gone,’ the captain replied, too shocked to take in the rude questioning tone of the junior officer.
‘It can’t just go, it must have been rendered unusable from this incident,’ Berkowitz stated, ‘Mack, how long before it reaches us at the current rate?’ He asked the wide shoulders of the man leaning over the map and muttering quietly as he worked the answer out.
‘If it spread across Europe overnight, and is already in northern Africa and hitting the Middle East then six hours, tops,’ Mack said, turning round to face the assembled men.
‘Captain, we need to head south and stay ahead of whatever it is,’ Berkowitz said. Both the engineer and captain shook their heads.
‘We don’t have the fuel,’ the engineer said flatly, ‘we’ve just done a three week voyage with a full load.’
‘Captain, Tanzania is surrounded by countries that are unstable at the best of times. We do not want to be here when this thing strikes. How far can we get?’ Berkowitz asked.
‘Not far, we’re full of crude oil and we’re burning fuel just sat here holding position,’ the engineer replied, the captain now standing quiet and looking very pale.
‘If we dump the cargo, will that buy us time?’ Jones asked to looks of contempt from nearly everyone else.
‘You can’t dump millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea so near the shore. It’ll ruin the coast for years to come,’ the engineer said firmly, shaking his head to emphasis the point.
‘Mack, options?’ Berkowitz referred to his close friend. Knowing the blunt northern tones of Mack will help settle the nerves starting to fray.
‘We stay here, run out fuel and food and have to land eventually while risking being boarded by someone else. Or, we go now and head for the airport and go south,’ Mack stated, his voice firm and strong.
‘I’m for the airport,’ Simpson stated. ‘Me too,’ Jones added with a firm nod.
‘I agree,’ Berkowitz nodded back before turning to the crew members, ‘captain? Chief?’
‘I can’t leave the ship,’ the captain replied.
‘Captain this is not the time to sit and wait and see what happens. A few hours and it will be too late to do anything,’ Berkowitz said in a calm tone.
‘The captain’s right, we can’t leave the ship,’ the engineer said, ‘it’s worth millions of dollars, and if left untended it could end up ramming the port and causing a disaster.’
‘Then we take the ship in, dock it and go. Captain, Europe is the most stable place on Earth, if it has fallen then it is pretty much guaranteed that the rest of the world will follow,’ Berkowitz said, still calm but with an increasing tone of command.
‘That’s an option captain, a good option,’ the engineer said to the man in charge.
‘The port authority said to remain here,’ the captain replied with a pointed look.
‘You heard these men Frank,’ the engineer said, using the captain’s first name, ‘they’re the experts in this type of thing. We have to be guided by them.’
‘The port authority said….’ The captain started saying.
‘See sense man!’ the South African engineer exclaimed, making the younger officers jump.
‘Mitch, I’ve known you for many years and you know the protocols,’ the captain said to the engineer.
‘Frank, Europe has gone. Your Jenny and my wife are safe in Johannesburg, but only for a few hours. Don’t choose the ship over them Frank.’ The captain winced at his old friend naming his wife and making it clear the risk they’re under.
‘Captain, if your family is in South Africa then I would recommend we get to the airport and take the next flight south,’ Berkowitz added, Mack and the other security personnel staring hard at the captain, adding pressure.
‘So you, as the chief security advisor aboard this vessel professionally recommend that we leave the ship and remove ourselves from this area?’ the captain asked, his voice once again full of authority and making the implication clear to Berkowitz.
‘Yes,’ Berkowitz replied without hesitation.
‘I second that Captain,’ Mack said firmly.
‘I want that in writing, entered into the ships log with a full rationale,’ the captain stated.
‘Roger that,’ Berkowitz said, pen already in hand, ‘where do I sign?’
Part two of The Ship’s Crew coming soon…