Out of breath, having rushed up the stairs from the engine room deck, Ernesto joined Captain Abasolo in the Darwin Lounge seconds after the captain had arrived. They found the lounge empty except for Leila, who was listening to music through her earphones, and the bartender. Miguel handed them their life vests, which the captain and Ernesto hurriedly put on. The same instant, they all felt the slight vibration that permeated the ship cease. The clock on the wall showed 3:26 p.m.
“Francisco – we need to cast anchor as soon as the speed is low enough to permit it!” the captain shouted into his radio. “Get back to me immediately when you can give me an affirmative response.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. Wilco.”
Ernesto had brought a heavy hammer and an ice pick. The captain quickly made evenly spaced knots on the rope he had fetched. When he was ready, the captain signalled to Ernesto that he should follow him as soon as he had reached the flying bridge below. The same moment, the radio crackled.
“Even if we could reduce the speed to under a knot”, Francisco reported, “it will only make things worse if we lower the anchor now, Captain. The bathymeter is showing that the seabed is beyond our anchor’s reach, and besides, despite the engines having been shut down, our speed is far too fast to be able to successfully lower the anchor – we’re presently sailing at three knots.”
Captain Abasolo and Ernesto looked at each other with fear in their eyes.
Simultaneously, they felt overwhelmed by the danger they faced aboard a runaway ship that they were unable to control.
“Vicente! Start up both engines and put them in reverse!” the captain yelled into his radio. “Go to two knots to allow you to compensate for the current. We can’t allow the ship to advance further.”
Shielding his eyes, Captain Abasolo peered ahead. Through the sleet and the
daylight robbed by the dark clouds surrounding them, he could still just about make out the contours of the rocks and mountains against the fading evening sky. The ship was veering towards the port side of the strait. He quickly calculated that, should the ship keep its course, it would wreck against the surrounding cliffs in less than one mile.
One mile that, at the present speed, would give them not more than fifteen minutes to regain control of the ship – if they were able to gain access to the bridge.
“We need to hurry before we have a shipwreck on our hands!” Captain Abasolo shouted to Ernesto.
He quickly secured the rope to the railing and threw it downwards. He climbed over the railing and slid across the sloping bridge’s roof. When he reached the edge, the captain rapidly – using both feet simultaneously – jumped from knot to knot until he reached the deck below. Ernesto threw the tools down onto the flying bridge below and followed the same way.
Hurriedly, Ernesto checked the two side doors that led to the exterior flying
bridge and found both of them locked. Meanwhile, Captain Abasolo inspected the shattered glass pane that had blood splattered all over it. The hole in the window was the size somewhat larger than a ping-pong ball, albeit irregular in shape. There were shards of glass scattered on the outside. In the lamplight on the other side, he made out the legs of a body on the floor.
“Let’s break the window of the side door”, Captain Abasolo shouted over the wind, which now had picked up considerably. “Smashing one of the frontal windscreens that faces the sea will only make things worse later on.”
Ernesto started pounding his ice pick against the window of the side door.
Ahead, the last precipice that was part of the strait loomed, and beyond it there was nothing but open water crowned with rough waters. The glass broke, and by and by Ernesto widened it until the gap was large enough for him to put his hand through and unlock the door by turning the knob on the inside.
After Ernesto had managed to open the door, the first object he stumbled over was Ari Cohen lying lifeless in a pool of blood still flowing that circled his head. He signalled to Captain Abasolo to follow him after indicating that he should take care not to disturb the area where the body lay. The captain took his point and cautiously entered the bridge. A quick glance at Cohen’s glazed eyes and the bullet wound in the middle of his forehead made them instantly realise that it wouldn’t be meaningful to check for his pulse. Taking the wheel, the captain frantically began to turn the ship starboard to avoid a collision with the looming precipice.
“Vicente”, he barked into one of the bridge’s telephones, “this is an emergency! Immediately take our reverse speed up to five knots!”
Ernesto hasted over to the door that led to the corridor and unlocked it. He found Ricardo waiting outside.
“We’re trying to take back control of the ship”, Ernesto hurriedly remarked.
“There’s a casualty, though. For some reason, this poor man decided to commit suicide here on the bridge, exposing everyone to the shipwreck we’re now facing.”
He stepped aside to let Ricardo in before shutting and locking the door anew to avoid prying eyes.
Ricardo walked over to the body and made mental notes about its position just below the panel containing the instruments and its angle to the shattered, bloodstained window. The victim’s right hand clenched a pistol that looked like a .45. A big gun if you’ve decided to kill yourself, Ricardo thought, decidedly not a common one for a suicide – in fact, I can’t recall ever having seen or heard of someone killing himself with one. He proceeded by snapping pictures with his mobile phone from different angles.
The rumbling vibrations of the ship’s engines reluctantly increasing their reverse speed could be felt acutely through the floorboards. Ricardo glanced at Captain Abasolo, whose forehead was covered with droplets of sweat. The captain was leaning heavily on the control board while staring at the forbidding cliffs that kept closing in despite his efforts to stay clear of them. At that very moment, a screeching noise, sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard, ripped through the air – the ship’s hull had touched a rock close to shore.
“I need to alert the authorities to our situation.”
The captain grabbed the microphone to the ship’s radio and shouted into it.
“Mayday, Mayday! This is Captain Carlos Abasolo on Stella Australis. We are moving with the current towards disaster, soon about to shipwreck on the southern side of Gordon Island. Mayday, Mayday!”
When he released the button that allowed him to speak into the ether, no affirmative voices confirmed that they had heard the announced disaster about to happen – the uncooperative radio merely crackled incomprehensible noise. Captain
Abasolo made three additional attempts to contact the emergency services in both Chile and Argentina, but without success.
“I need to use the satellite phone!” he called out to no one in particular.
Ricardo realised that he had no choice but to have confidence in the captain’s skill and experience to save the ship, fully aware that there was nothing he, with his lack of experience in navigation, could contribute that would be helpful. Instead, he continued to focus his attention on examining the dead officer, who he now recognised as the man who had attacked another member of the crew in the engine room.
The gun was pushed against the forehead, between the eyebrows about two fingers above them, and the bullet exited at the back of the head. If he were standing up at the time he was shot, the trajectory matches the hole in the windscreen. The body’s position on the floor confirms this.
There are severe stains of gunpowder on the forehead. The blood is coming from where the bullet exited. At first glance, the death certainly looks like suicide.
Ricardo inspected the aperture in the blood-splattered windscreen. A wind, carrying sleet and cold enough to be well below zero, blew through the hole. When he stared beyond the glass, nothing but a grey mass could be seen in front of the ship as Stella Australis now encountered itself at open sea, safe from the cliffs of the strait.
Both the captain and Ernesto let out a shout of relief.
“We made it!” the captain confirmed, shouting into the bridge’s telephone.
“Vicente, go forward at eight knots.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise, captain”, Vicente’s alarmed voice reported back. “We’re taking in water in sector three.”
“Then keep the speed at three knots”, the captain replied. “Put the bilge pumps at work and check the other sectors for damage. If sector three is an isolated case, we should be able to make it to Ushuaia. Also, give me an estimate for how much water we’re taking in.”
Ricardo didn’t pay attention to the exchange. Instead, he kept concentrating on his close study of the blood splattered across the broken window. The cold air entering through the hole in the glass made his warm breath turn into vapour. He awkwardly leaned across the dead body to inspect the blood splattered irregularly on the pane up close. In the process, he happened to breathe on the part of the glass where the blood had run in a different pattern. Beneath the stains, his breath caused the print made by a hand appear. Ricardo studied the jagged edges of the broken glass closely before turning around to face the opposite wall. Then he looked at the ceiling and noticed a large dent in one of the plastic panels above. Next, he studied the console beneath the windows with its clutter of instruments and monitors. Ricardo picked up the heavyduty flashlight encased in rubber lying near one of the phones. He turned it on and, because of his injured foot, with some difficulty got down on his knees. He began to carefully search the floor, including underneath the furniture, until he found a cartridge case. Using a pencil, he collected it and carefully placed it in his breast pocket.
“What about the passengers we’ve left behind?” Ernesto, troubled, asked the captain.
“We won’t be able to pick them up after it gets dark – we’ll have to wait until morning”, the captain replied. “Besides, there’s nothing we can do for them as long as we’re beyond their radio range. If the damage to the hull is limited, we should be able to allow them on board tomorrow at dawn and then make it to Ushuaia by noon.”
“What shall we do with Ari’s body? We can’t leave him here”, Ernesto asked.
Captain Abasolo turned to Ricardo, who now had risen from the floor and was leaning over the table, where a map of the region with a corner torn off was spread out.
The hand that held the flashlight suddenly hurt and made Ricardo inspect it. Some microscopic shards of glass had pierced his palm. Tiny drops of blood appeared.
“What do you suggest, Inspector?” the captain asked. ”You’re the one who’s investigating this disastrous event.”
“I have a couple of questions for you”, Ricardo calmly said, ignoring the captain’s comment. “I see that there are three doors with access to the bridge. What about these two doors leading outside to the flying bridge … when you entered, were they locked, too?”
“Yes, they were”, Ernesto replied and went over to a table with charts. “As you can see, we had to smash the window to the one on the port side to let ourselves in.”
“Didn’t you have a key to open one of them?”
“There are no keys. When closed, these doors can only be opened or locked from inside the bridge. A security measure, I’m sure you understand, as the sea can become quite brutal.”
Ricardo was thinking hard to assimilate the information while comparing it with what he had learnt so far.
“It seems obvious that Ari decided to lock himself up inside the bridge before taking his own life”, Captain Abasolo concluded, exhaling a sad sigh.
“And on purpose put us and the rest of the crew and passengers in danger”, Ernesto accused in a grim voice.
Ahead of them, there was only black, impenetrable darkness, where the storm clouds and the sleet now had become one with the open ocean.