The Gulf of Panama. 2200 hours
MY LIFE IS WASTED.
The black-on-black sea stretched into nothingness before Naeem Bari, and he shivered. But it wasn’t cold. In fact, even the breeze crossing the ship’s bow did little to alleviate the suffocating heat of the tropical night as the vessel plied its way toward Panama. The humidity wrapped its fingers around Naeem like death itself. But still he shivered, because the bleakness of the sea before him mirrored his future.
If only there were one bright spot in my career, like the sliver of moon that now hides behind the clouds. Perhaps then I could hold out hope. But no. I have no future in this business. What am I to do?
There had been a time when Naeem was proud to be a mariner. He had been born into a poor Pakistani family, and as a teen, becoming a seaman had seemed an exciting alternative to sweating in his father’s scrubby fields, staring at the desolate expanse of mountains that formed the walls of his prison. But he had simply substituted one bleak reality for another.
After spending twelve years at what amounted to little more than slave labor on a variety of aging merchant vessels, Naeem’s youth had been consumed like the rusty hull of the Invincible
upon which he stood. He often came to the ship’s bow when he had trouble sleeping. It was the only place where he could think in peace.
The old vessel throbbed beneath his feet, as if the dark Pacific waters it had labored across for twelve days were the consistency of molasses. They had crossed the ocean three times in as many months. How many more times would the dilapidated ship be able to make the trip? Shepherding goats wasn’t looking so bad after all.
He looked at his watch, pressing the tiny button to illuminate the dial. Nothing happened. Cheap Chinese garbage.
He let out a disgusted sigh. Oh well. He could easily find another one in downtown Panama City, if they had enough time to go ashore while the ship’s cargo was being off-loaded. He’d better try to salvage whatever sleep he could. He would be pulling watch on the bridge in a few hours.
As he turned away from the ship’s bow, a shout sounded from somewhere high on the ship’s superstructure. Naeem peered around the nearest container just in time to see the control room door slam open and the officer on duty come tumbling out and collapse on the landing.
Is Emilio drunk? Why…?
Before Naeem could wonder further, another man emerged from the control room and stopped under the doorway light.
Naeem felt as if his stomach and his bowels had suddenly switched places. The fact that the man was definitely not part of the ship’s crew was almost as terrifying as the submachine gun he carried.
As Emilio struggled to his feet, Naeem started toward the stair-way that led up to the bridge. More shouts echoed from the crew’s sleeping quarters. Then a burst of gunfire erupted from the control room.
Naeem jerked his gaze upward only to see his friend’s limp form topple down the stairwell.
He gasped. Emilio!
Angry voices approached, and Naeem instinctively stepped between two rows of containers, sure that his heart would leap from his rib cage. More gunshots sounded, followed by screams of agony.They are murdering the entire crew!
His first instinct was to plunge overboard. But even though he was a decent swimmer, treading water for a few hours and then succumbing to exhaustion–or worse, sharks–might not be preferable to a bullet in the head.
More gunshots split the air. Naeem’s breathing was as staccato as the gunshots. He pressed his fists into his eyes and tried to think.
He could hide, but the Invincible
wasn’t that big a ship, and the pirates were bound to find him eventually.
The orange lifeboat, located at the rear of the ship, was made to hold the entire crew, but the gunfire made it clear that most of the men were even now meeting their fate. Besides, the lifeboat required at least two men to launch.
Sweat flowed from every pore of Naeem’s body, and his nightshirt stuck to him like cellophane. He promised Allah and himself that if he survived this night, he would never again step foot on a raft, much less a ship.
Two small inflatable life rafts in canisters were tucked beneath the forward stairs. Naeem peered around the corner of the container on the starboard side of the ship. He could just make out the dark shape of the fiberglass box that held the life rafts and several flotation vests, about twenty meters away.
He jerked his head back when two men emerged from the superstructure, but not before Naeem recognized the third man held between them.
Franjo Karovik, the ship’s captain.
One pirate held the captain while the other, a huge, incredibly muscular black man, shouted a question. When Franjo didn’t immediately answer, the pirate smashed his forearm into Franjo’s face. Naeem heard the crunch of bone, then his friend crumpled to the deck.
A sob escaped before Naeem could stifle it. He clapped a hand over his mouth, turned, and ran between the containers to the port side of the ship. A peek aft showed no signs of movement. More shouts and gunfire drifted from the stern.
Time was running out.
When the pirates finished with the crew, they would most certainly search the ship, and he would be found. He must go now.
Hoping that anyone left in the control room would not see him, Naeem ducked around the side of the container stacks and sprinted for the stairwell. He quickly found the box that held the life rafts, and after fumbling with the latch for several seconds, he managed to yank open the lid.
Inside were a dozen life vests and the barrel-shaped pods that held the rafts. He heaved a pod out of the box and staggered over to the railing. The pod was heavy, at least forty-five kilos, but with the amount of adrenaline coursing through his veins, Naeem barely noticed. He hesitated.
Though the raft was self-inflating, it was meant to be deployed aboard ship, which in this case was impossible. For a moment he considered going back for a life vest, but when heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs above him, Naeem dropped the pod over the railing and followed quickly after, throwing caution and himself thirteen meters into the sea.
Naeem crossed his arms over his chest and hit the water feet-first. The impact ripped the air from his lungs. Panicking, he flailed toward the surface for what seemed like an eternity. He finally broke through, choking on salt water and bile.
Where is the pod? It isn’t here!
Terror redoubled inside his gut. When something broke the surface ten yards to his left, a new jolt of adrenaline shot through his already raw nervous system.
I am going to die.