Justin Agnarsson is stationkeeper and lone crewman of South Atlantic House of Refuge #49, a floating sanctuary for the thousands of mariners and seasteading families who live and work in the 350-mile long Plata Raft. Now, war threatens to bring an end to his lifesaving mission as an Argentine warship pursues a pair of refugees to the station. A house of refuge is supposed to be inviolable, but the Argentines are hell-bent on their mission. Alone and virtually defenseless, Agnarsson faces an impossible choice between duty and survival. But when the brutality of war threatens to unravel the fabric of civilization, more than lives are at stake.
House of Refuge was the second place winner of the 2014 Libertarian Fiction Authors/Students for Liberty Short Fiction Contest. The ebook contains the original short story, plus exclusive bonus artwork and an appendix exploring some of the organizations, locations, and equipment featured in the story.
It was four o’clock in the morning when the electronic chime of the boat gong jolted Justin Agnarsson from his hard-won sleep. He blinked blearily at the flashing blue light on the overhead, wondering where and when he was and why he should not just roll over and go back to sleep. The scent of saltwater and the gentle pitching of his bed reminded him that he was on duty, and as stationkeeper he always would be. He slung himself off the mattress and began the mechanical motions of dressing while he watched the small monitor atop his bureau. The video feed from the well dock showed him the cause of the disturbance: a long hulled RHIB run up on the ramp and two stumbling figures in orange rain slicks tying a mooring line. A quick glance at the meteorological panel reported only light rain, a westerly wind of 17 knots and a wave height of only three feet.
‘Hardly shipwreck weather,’ he thought. He checked a second monitor for distress beacons, but there were none. It had been almost a month since anyone drifted to the refuge in need of assistance, and had it been the middle of the afternoon instead of the middle of the night, Agnarsson would have assumed it was a couple of old salts come aboard to share part of their catch and spin a yarn, and he’d have been grateful for the visit. At this hour, he had no idea what to expect. Out of habit, he took his sidearm off the bureau and holstered it, then finished dressing and ducked out the watertight hatch.
At the station store, he retrieved a medical kit, a gallon of fresh water, and a couple of thermal blankets. “Ahoy, lifeboat. How many souls aboard?” he called into the wall intercom.
He overheard muttering, snippets of a conversation in Spanish. Belatedly the answer came, a man’s voice, hoarse and tight. “Dos.”
He frowned. That lifeboat was easily big enough to hold a dozen people. When Agnarsson asked in his own inexpert Spanish if they carried any fatalities, the reply was negative.
Agnarsson climbed down two ladders to the well deck, eyeing the two bodies huddled against the bulkhead. There was a man, tall but stooped, with his arm draped across the back of a younger girl, who hugged her knees and stared sullenly out to sea. Agnarsson guessed that she was 15 or 16 years old. He could hear their hushed whispers punctuated by bursts of sobbing.
He crouched beside them, handing them the blankets and water. “Are either of you injured? Where are you from?”
They shook their heads to the first question and provided no ready answer to the second.
“Should I expect more boats?”
“Just us,” said the man. He was stout and barrel-chested, with a thick red beard and the deep tan of a mariner. Agnarsson judged that he was at least a decade his senior.
“Where did you come from?” the stationkeeper repeated.
“Our home. It burned,” the man answered haltingly.
“I’m sorry,” Agnarsson said blandly. These little tragedies happened often enough that his condolences began to sound rote; it was a hard life living on the sea, and seastead fires were especially common.
“Well, we have food, clothing, and bunks above deck. I’ll try to make you as comfortable as I can until we can get you to land or another vessel. Do you…” He hesitated. He was about to ask if their seastead was insured. There was no question about helping people adrift on the sea, no matter where they came from or what their financial condition was, of course, but houses of refuge like this one didn’t run on good feelings alone. Whatever the answer was, it could wait, he decided.
“Do you have any family or friends I can get in touch with? On shore or at sea?” he asked.
The other man’s glazed eyes flicked over him, stared through him. The girl wept.
Agnarsson nodded stiffly, brushed his hand through his short blond hair. “Let’s get something warm into your bellies, and then I’ll show you to your quarters. You can get changed and take a hot shower, whatever you need to do.”
“Thank you, sir,” the man said. Careworn lines around his eyes deepened as he asked, “Have you radioed about us yet?”
“Uh, no, not as yet. You caught me out of a dead sleep,” Agnarsson answered apologetically. “We’re supposed to have a crew of four, but right now this is a one-man operation.”
The castaway seemed encouraged by this news. “Please, sir, I have to speak with you before you make that report. It’s essential. Absolutely essential!”
Surprised by the man’s insistence, Agnarsson found himself nodding. “Very well. The report can wait until after breakfast.”
Agnarsson led his two guests into the galley and sat them down. As he rooted through the pantry, he wondered what the story would be, and whether he’d be offered a bribe for forgetting to make a report. Probably they did not have insurance and didn’t want to be hit with the bill for rescue. Or maybe they were smugglers, attacked by a rival crew, and they didn’t want any word of their survival getting out. Heaven knew there were enough smugglers and privateering operations in the 350-mile-long flotilla of seasteads and platforms known as the Plata Raft, a trade of misery and desperation fueled by the Brazilian-Argentine War. The grim situation ashore suggested other possibilities as well: maybe there was no seastead at all, and they were refugees or even escapees from a prison camp. Maybe they had escaped from the illicit traffic in human beings that still plied these waters. Agnarsson’s employer, Atlantic Littoral, rendered free assistance to war refugees and escaped slaves, but such people often preferred to keep a low profile, fearful of falling back into the clutches of their oppressors. Whatever the truth, the young stationkeeper prepared himself for a grim story. He brewed some coffee and loaded eggs, bacon, and instant potatoes into the AutoChef and returned to the table.
“Let me to welcome you to South Atlantic House of Refuge Number 49, or Sweet Surcease, as we call her.” Mounted on the wall behind them there was an ancient piece of driftwood with that name burned into it, the work of the station’s first keeper more than twenty years ago. “My name is Justin Agnarsson. No need to stand on formality, just call me Justin if you like.”
“Thank you, sir. We are very grateful.” The man extended a calloused hand across the table. Agnarsson noticed that it trembled. “My name is Horacio Vietes. This is my daughter, Sandra.”
The dark-haired young woman stared unblinkingly at the floor and pulled tight the blanket wrapped around her, but said nothing.
“You wanted to speak with me before I made my report.”
Horacio Vietes hesitated, folding his hands and pressing them to his lips. At length, he replied with a question. “Is there any way you can see not to report this?”
The stationkeeper arched his brow as if in surprise, though he expected the request. “That would be highly irregular. I’m required to report all arrivals and all disasters at sea. Surely there are people who want to know that you and your daughter are alive?”
“That, sir, is the problem,” said Horacio. “I will be forthright, and leave the decision to your judgment. We were attacked by an Argentine warship. They boarded us without warning, and when I challenged them, they shot at us. My wife—” His voice grew strained again, and began to crack.