The morning drizzle was gentle and quivering. Thankfully, after much swaying and churning in the waves, the brutal gale had relented, reduced to a dazed breeze that felt like defeat. It barely registered as it swept upon the pitted, pocked face of Patrick McQueen, skipper of the Old Shanty. McQueen had keenly navigated the sea lanes more days in his life than he had spent time begrudgingly on land. He could physically sense the ocean’s myriad of moods well before the swell grew or the wind turned. It was meaningful that he could feel something that day, as he stood at the wheel, taking in the ugly but serene panorama before him.
For the last two days they had headed into the heart of the so-called Sea of Squander, a vast collecting pool of garbage and plastic in the Mediterranean, several miles off the coast of southern Spain. Approaching the mass of floating rubbish was always a moment when the crewmen paused to take in what they were seeing, the deluge from millions of lives, the end of the journey for products and packaging. For as far as the eye could see, a flotilla of garbage created an island so dense in trash it stretched the breadth of the horizon.
The beep on the radar was clear and fixed, a distress signal from a dingy, and they were inching closer. They could hear torn plastic and discarded bottles scraping across the bow. It was thick, several feet in depth upon the water, now and again undulating with a wave beneath. The Old Shanty was sea harvester class, paid her way by hauling in plastic through side vents, filtering it and melting it down into sheets. Larger objects like crates and fridges bumped off the ship’s thick hull intermittently, reminding them of hidden dangers lurking in the mounds of floating remains.
For a waste trawler, the Old Shanty was, relatively speaking, small and boxy, but nevertheless fitted with the latest gadgets. Crewed by only four seamen, bar the skipper, with most of the ship empty for storage, the sailors were a rough looking mob of varied quality. There were the two hulking Lawson brothers, Paul and Ryan – brought up on the sea from boyhood, with good sea legs and made of sturdy stuff. They seemed to lack necks and their shoulders were as wide as two average men. The skipper always trusted them on voyages above others, like furniture on the ship, fixtures with a purpose you can understand at-a-glance. They rarely argued with each other and no one succeeded in bettering them in a direct confrontation, so few dared. The other regular crewman on the Old Shanty was Sean Pickford, he knew the engines, the technology and the smallest details of the boat’s internal workings. Sean was also a good cook so often doubled up his role for more money. Sean could be a pain, and was a poor communicator, which at sea was a character flaw but he was needed as the only other man bar McQueen that really knew the underbelly and guts of harvesters. Lastly, there was the contractor, Austin Smith. McQueen was suspicious that Smith was not his genuine surname, but he cared little for this deception, as long as he did his job that he was hired to do. The man looked like a nerd; wiry, irritating and a landlubber if ever there was one. Patrick had to prod him and scold him to muck in with lesser chores on deck, as he never volunteered when work was clearly a priority. Arguably, he was only there for one job but an important one. His discretion was his best asset.
The days on deck passed by fast, there was always work to be done in preparation for the hauls. Manufacturing plastic was illegal, but you could recycle it from the sea and it was a valuable substance. Fishing was pointless and banned anyway. Only a few species now resided in shoals and they had learned to evade or attack humans, the very reasons they survived the extinctions.
“Coming up now on the portside,” barked McQueen. Sure enough, he could see what he was looking for out there. A man, a woman and a child, clinging and sprawled across the floating rubbish, the man waving frantically and screaming out something in a foreign tongue. They were Syrians, a family, suspected the skipper.
“Bringing her about and cutting speed. Get ready with the pike poles and rope ladder!”
McQueen was gesturing to hurry, to the brothers.
The engine cut and the boat immediately lost momentum, drifting closer, like a curious shark, to the three human shapes clinging to the debris. It was possible to make out the deflated, punctured dingy skirt poking from a loose raft of plastic bottles behind them.
“Ayuda!” shouted the man. “Ayuda!”
The man, although wet and bedraggled after an ordeal, looked as if his clothes were middle class, branded, a man of office work, someone who had enjoyed a comfortable living. He had well cut hair, a tidy, thin moustache and an air of someone who was once used to finer things.
“Grab the pikes!” said McQueen, barely raising his voice. They were close enough now to be heard without shouting, yet to the irritation of the skipper, the stranger on the water insisted on being highly vocal, except this time he shouted in English, responding to Patrick’s instruction.
“Yes, yes… We will do that! Thank you, thank you! You rescue us! You English?”
Patrick said nothing, as his men rolled out the rope ladder off the rail, which was longer than necessary and bunched on the bobbing bits and pieces. The woman, with pale brown headdress still firmly, neatly wrapped around her head, grabbed the pike pole offered to her and used it to guide her to the ladder, her son tightly held close with one arm. In under a minute, all three had clambered on board with smiles and relief and collapsed like bundles of wet rags, around the rubber boots of the sailors.
“My name,” offered the refugee, “Is Joshua, this is my wife Lucia and my son, Nathan. God praise you, you have saved my family. I am in your debt.”
Patrick smiled broadly in a manner that resembled a bottom feeder, the grin of a flatfish waiting for minnows on the mud of the seafloor.
“That, my man, that you are…”
Joshua wavered, sensing something he knew well, the unsubtle signals of exploitation.
“Shut them up, clean them up, feed them and get them below in bay three… Bind their arms!” instructed the boss to his crew and without ceremony the gruff sailors grabbed the arms tightly of each of their new guests, and dragged them off as commanded, kicking and protesting, giving the impression that their luck had not changed after all.
Bay 3 was a strange place. It looked more like a living room than a storage area, with ornaments and chairs and a sofa, in contrast to the other bays for loading plastic. It had a camera on a tripod bolted to the floor, which fed wires into a laptop and a small satellite dish. The three refugees were a little warmer, a little better for their soup and bread but their hearts were racing as they sat together on the sofa which was lashed to the floor. They were all tied, and standing over them, Paul and Ryan Lawson looked menacing in their oilskins and gloves, like guard dogs without independent thoughts, waiting for commands from their owner. The ship was at a standstill. The trawling had stopped. There was the weight of anticipation in the air.
The skipper strode into the bay with Smith by his side. Smith was now more animated than usual, and swiftly busied himself around the recording equipment and laptop, pressing buttons, typing in commands and checking the dish.
“What is this?” pleaded Joshua, “Please don’t hurt my family. Take me, but please leave my wife and son out of this, whatever you are doing.”
The four crewmen ignored him, but stared at him coldly, as if he were a whale on a beach, and they were curious if it could manage to move.
Patrick squatted, so his eyeline was at Joshua’s level but talked to Austin who was behind him on the camera.
“You ready? Any takers yet?”
Smith glanced at the open laptop screen.
“Plenty of interest. Good bids too. Let’s wait five minutes to let some more players into the auction.”
The bay was closed, lit by LED strips around the corners. It cast a glow upon the surreal scene. In Syria, Joshua was aware this was a setup played out on internet TV many times, the fear, the forced speech by the victim, executioner’s theatrics and then the bloodletting. It was a reason many fled the desert cities overcome by terror but the demand for such gore was obviously higher than anticipated – it had become a commodity. And as for the extremist armies, why do your own dirty work when opportunists, inspired, hungry for quick money, could carry out remote justice in the middle of nowhere to those who ran?
“If it’s money you want, I can match any offer you are shown.”
Patrick raised his eyebrows and nodded.
“I doubt that very much.”
“Who is your customer?”
The skipper was silent for a moment and then played along.
“Not one customer. Lots of them, from all around. Businessmen, politicians, rich kids and bored billionaires. They all want this more than anything else. Don’t see the pleasure in it myself, but it’s more money than reworked plastic ever made, so that’s saying something…”
It was somehow more awful than Joshua had envisaged.
“You will go to prison for this, all of you.”
“Well, that’s the real beauty of this, you see. Even if they catch us, no one claims the territory of the Sea of Squander, it’s not officially within any country border, it’s literally nowhere and belongs to no one because who would want to be accountable for all this rubbish, and nowhere… well, there’s no law in nowhere.”
“Skipper, a bid came in – a real big one to start things off.”
“All the fingers on her left hand.”
Joshua began to squirm and tried to throw his body across his partner as a barrier.
“No! Stop! No, you don’t…. Don’t!” yelled Joshua bravely, but it would be futile.
Ryan Lawson removed his woolly hat to reveal his hairless dome of a head. His face was rigid, expressionless, like a fixed photograph of someone without care or compassion. He turned to explore a small box next to the laptop and rooted about with one gloved hand to find what he was looking for, a set of steel cutters, a metallic razor beak that could open and close to slice through anything from wire to bone. Lucia, that was the woman’s name, Ryan recalled for a moment, before moving purposefully over her with the cutters. He pulled the husband from her and threw him to the floor and whisked Lucia around where she sat, so her tied hands were facing up and her face was buried in the sofa.
“All the fingers!” said Austin, to confirm the request. “Let me zoom in on the hand first. And take your time, this is good money. It will attract more bids for later on, if you make a show of it. I’ll film the man and the boy, in between each finger. It will add to the drama.”
Ryan pulled the hand sharply up as she squirmed and screamed, trying to stand to one side, eager to ensure the camera had a clear view before he circled the steel blades around the index finger.
The ship shifted violently, so much so, that the cutters fell to the floor as Ryan back peddled to stabilise himself.
“What the hell was that?” blasted the skipper. “Where’s Sean?!”
McQueen marched away, beckoning to Paul to follow him. As they reached the bay door, the ship moved again, this time even more violently, like it had run aground. The skipper was now bounding up the steps to the deck and by the time he arrived topside, he came face to face with his engineer. Sean had his hands in the air and motioned with his eyes to the sky. A drone was hovering above the ship and to the side, it became instantly obvious that a submersible had rammed them, its nose cone impacted with the hull. Behind Sean was a man clad head to toe in black, a standard army machine gun pointed directly at his head.
“Who the hell are you and what are you doing on my trawler?!”
The gunman put one finger to his lips, visible though his balaclava, and ushered a hushed “shuuuu….”
Two similarly dressed marauders appeared, as if from nowhere and forced the crewmen to their knees at gunpoint. McQueen noticed their insignias. These were no pirates, nor terrorists, this was a military raid and there was a small, stitched Union Jack on the neckline of each of the black outfits.
“You’re British Special Ops?”
The soldier smiled, tilted his head as if a bizarre, proud affirmation, and then smashed the butt of his gun over the skipper’s scalp.
By the time Patrick had regained consciousness, he found himself lashed to the sofa in Bay 3 alongside Austin and Sean. On the floor between him and the camera, the two brothers were in the midst of an act at gunpoint. Paul’s nose was crushed and he was breathing badly. His brother was sobbing, engaging against his will in a lurid sexual task. It seemed so grossly warped, brother to brother, that Patrick had to look away, not something he was used to doing, with the amount and variation of horror he had participated in.
“Good morning!” beamed Joshua, who was grinning ear to ear, standing with crossed arms to the side. “Let me introduce you to my colleagues at unit ten. Not many people know about us, including you, it would seem.”
Lucia, ‘not her real name’ thought McQueen, was now sitting on one of the other chairs, looking composed and confident. The boy was not anywhere to be seen.
“We operate in theatres of war, like Syria, like Iraq, like New Turkey and the seas between them. We’re good at what we do. Our mission, to take out profiteers, opportunists, merchant of misery my friend… just… like… you!”
“And you?…You involved a child in your work? As bait?”
“Lucia and I found the child in the garbage out there. We couldn’t leave him so we improvised, made him part of the mission. You’d be amazed how many people try and cross the Sea of Squander on foot, jumping the rubbish piles, one at a time, abandoned kids especially. They find food in the rubbish. Incredible, how people can survive like that. And then there are people like you and your crew.”
Ryan was now blubbering hard.
“OK, stop now boys, I can see the payments have been made on the website. You can take a break.”
They slumped away from each in disgust and relief, grabbing for their trousers, holding their facial wounds to stop the bleeding from the previous beatings they had sustained.
“It’s really something you know, to be forced against your sexuality, and with your own kin, that’s like as sick as you can get, right?” said Joshua with a stride that made no apologies, that said he was in complete control. “Your customer base, wow, they are pretty imaginative!”
McQueen shook his head in disbelief: “So you’re taking the money now, I guess you hacked into it? Double standards, I say, you pig!”
Joshua offered up his palms as if caught red handed, shaking them like he was a weighing scales.
“I suppose, to a degree… But we need to pay for our operations without using Government money, sooo… You see, it makes kind of sense and dishes out some of your own medicine in the process. I think we can live with it,” explained the soldier, smugly, enjoying the moment. “We have been waiting for you to turn up. Bay three pleasure dot com – jeez, that website has been busy for months with some really sick shit. You’re pretty famous in some circles, extremists love you for sure, but the rich, why you are like a rock star by the looks of this site. The funny thing is, your customers, you think they would be a bit more loyal to you in your predicament but nope… They can sense the shutdown, so they’re offering a lot of cash for some last little shows… And guess what, you’re up next!”
It was a long, lonely remainder of the day for the crew of the Old Shanty. Sean and the brothers were eventually killed, Ryan refused to stab his brother, so Sean was tasked with killing them both before the skipper was made to strangle Austin and dismember Sean. By five o-clock the skipper had reached a level of comprehension that few have lived through without succumbing to insanity. Such grotesque horror, it seemed always to spiral out of control once the doors had been opened and the red lines were crossed.
The drizzle had turned to hard punishing rain on deck and McQueen was happy to understand that he would not die within the bay itself, gasping-in the cold sea air in lung fulls when he was led from the blood drenched storage bay. He could taste the salt in the air and it was glorious, it was home.
The sea was a mess out there, the canvas for a billion forgotten products, set adrift to clog the elements. Like a living raft of trash, it bobbed, rose and sank with the disturbed waters. The boy was sitting on the flat top of the submarine alongside the trawler. He was facing away from the ship, wrapped in a thick blanket, a silent, solitary figure cut against the grey sky. The skipper could hear the soldiers placing bombs about the ship, shouting out confirmations every time a bomb’s timer was set live. ‘At least’, he thought, ‘I’ll go down with Old Shanty, as a skipper should.’
They finished up their operation and congregated in front of him, looking satisfied and expectant at the same time.
“One last thing to do,” said Joshua. “Get off the boat…”
“I’ll prefer to stay…” retorted McQueen, his voice finally breaking with the realisation his time was near.
“I didn’t ask you what you wanted. Look, down there, we left you a plastic sheet, from bay two.”
Sure enough, down on the ocean level, a long colour-free slab of repurposed plastic was sitting in the random collection of sea rubbish, a square of plain flat plastic in a crazy mixed-up rolling plateau of bits and parts.
“Your new ship, skip!”
With his hands still bound, they threw him onto the large plastic square from the deck. The freezing water poured on to it as his weight pushed it into the sea. It recovered for a moment, a resilient second of buoyancy, cradling his shocked body as if there was a glimmer of hope, before the sea began to win it over, lapping over his shoulders, his legs, his face, taking him into the depths under the ceiling of rubbish. From underwater, the circle of plastic garbage from the peripherals closed in and sealed itself like a cut wound clotting.
“Waste, just waste,” said Joshua as he and his team stood above, watching now with an air of sombre reality and justice, as the casual evil of a profiteer vanished forever into the depths where nature still ruled.