ERIS AT RISK

By Bruce Post

Chapter One

Willa

I lost track of time. At Little Ragged, it was easy to lose track of time. The gorgeous weather went on and on, with the occasional morning or evening rain shower. No one bothered us and we kept to ourselves. Commander Alvarez, Jose, or Joe, as we called him, checked in with us regularly. He told us it was to make sure we were healthy and hearty, but I think he just liked to visit. I also think he was in love with Chase or Sandy, I wasn’t sure which one, maybe with both of them. They both seemed to enjoy his attention, and why not? He was very attractive in his naval uniform and he had been a steadfast friend to all of us.

We occasionally were visited by bare bottom boaters, some of whom we welcomed. Some not so much. I had no idea where the US Navy was, nor did I care. As long as they left us alone. Time went on.

Julia and Sly had three children, three gorgeous little girls, and quite a few others, former passengers, also had children. People will do that. Our population grew, but we were at peace and we could still feed everyone between the fishing and the crops we grew and the chickens and livestock we had acquired. Days drifted into one another and we lost track of time. There were times that I missed the Eris, but it was brief melancholy. Carson and I had our cottage by the sea, and we had each other. We did our part to help the community. I was no longer in command of anything and I liked it that way.

We did become avid sailors. The Daily Grind had become our boat and we often went out for weeks of sailing. It was our second home, or perhaps our first. Ironically, as the skipper of a cruise ship I Barely got enough color to protect me from the Caribbean sun. Sailing with Carson on the Daily Grind I got as brown as a bagel. I had always been fit but working the lines and the tiller on the sailboat turned me into a muscular woman. I had worried that Carson would find it unattractive, but the opposite was true. He couldn’t get enough of me and the feeling was mutual. I had worried that I might get pregnant, especially with all our vigorous sex but I stopped worrying once it became clear I couldn’t conceive. Which made it possible to have even more vigorous sex. Not that sex was all we did. We also sailed, followed by vigorous sex. If I had to guess I’d say it was about fifteen months of bliss.

Then one day we were sailing off Little Inagua, which was an unoccupied park and one of our favorite destinations, when we spotted a very large ship in the distance.

“What the hell is that?” I asked.

“A big ship.” Said Carson.

“A very big ship. It’s not commercial, from the looks”

“I think it’s military.” Said Carson.

“Hand me the glasses.” He took the binoculars and focused in. “Holy shit.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a battleship.”

“U.S.?”

“Don’t think so. I’m trying to find the colors.” He continued gazing. “Fuck.”

“What?”

“It’s Chinese.”

“Chinese? Are you sure?”

“It sure ain’t from this part of the world.”

“What the hell is a Chinese battleship doing in the Caribbean?”

“Nothing good.”

“You think they spotted us?”

“Possibly. Unless they fire on us, they’ll never catch us.”

“I don’t like the looks of that thing.”

“No.”

“What do we do?”

“We swing around Grand Turk and head for home.Hope they don’t follow us.”

They didn’t follow us. We tried not to hurry but pay attention to the wind and the tide and the currents so as to make the best time. Within two hours we were back at Little Ragged. We moored the boat off the beach and took the dingy in. Mr. Turnbull was surf casting when we got to the beach. The stuck his pole in the sand and met us coming up the beach.

“You don’t look happy. You always look happy after you been sailing.”

“We got visitors. Scary visitors.”

“The Navy?”

“Not our navy. Chinese. Looks like a battleship.”

Turnbull whistled. “That’s not good news. They spot you?”

“If they did, they didn’t show it.” Said Carson.

“Let’s talk to the council.” I said.

Turnbull grabbed his fishing pole and we made our way to the community center. We found Ferdie and Earl there, drinking coffee. We gave them a quick update and they rushed off to find the council members. Turnbull and I made coffee for ourselves while Carson had tea. It wasn’t ten minutes before we were joined by Felix, Al, Sly and Chase. We all sat at a table and Al made more coffee.

“Where’s the fire?” asked Al.

“We were sailing off Little Inagua.” I said. “We spotted a very large ship. Carson scoped it out. Looks like a battleship.”

“A battleship?” said Sly.

“A Chinese battleship.” Said Carson.

“You’re sure?” asked Felix.

“Quite sure.” Said Carson.

“What the hell is a Chinese battleship doing here in the Caribbean?” asked Chase.

“Nothing good.” Said Sly. “My guess is that the Chinese communist party managed to maintain order and now they’re exploring their options.”

“The American government is in tatters. What better time to expand your territory?” Said Carson.

“What the hell are we supposed to do?” asked Earl. “We can’t fight a battleship.”

“I think we need to get in touch with Alvarez.” I said. “He needs to know about this if he doesn’t already.”

Sly, who was the acting head of the council, said, “Ferdie. You and Shady motor over to Guantanamo and locate Commander Alvarez. Tell him we’d like to meet with him as soon as possible.”

Ferdie stood and ran off to find Shady.

“We need to alert the community. No more fires until further notice. We need to set watches on the beach. Felix, take a boat over to Grand Turk and bring Lisa and Mari back here to meet with us. I think we would be wise to rotate watch crews over at Ragged Island. Earl, see if you can round up some volunteers. Am I forgetting anything?”

“I don’t think so.” I said.

“Let’s get to it than.” Said Sly.

Lisa and Mari joined us within an hour. They had not seen the Chinese ship but were quite alarmed. We put off any further discussion until we were joined by Commander Alvarez. Joe arrived with Ferdie and Shady not much later.

“Joe it’s good to see you.” I said.

“I assume you have spotted our new visitors.” He said.

“Willa and Carson caught sight of them about two hours ago.” Said Sly. “They don’t believe they were seen by the Chinese.”

“You saw the battleship?” Asked Joe.

“Off Little Inagua.” Said Carson. “It was flying a Chinese flag.”

“Yes.” Said Joe. “Our pilots have been tracking it from a high altitude. There is more bad news. There are two destroyers following the battleship, a few miles behind. The pilots cannot positively identify them as Chinese, but they fit the profile. It appears there may be at a few smaller ships as well.”

“They brought a fleet? Any sign of the US Navy?” asked Sly.

“We haven’t seen the U.S. Navy in months.” Said Joe.

“Is the Eris still at Guantanamo?” asked Willa.

“Presently.” Said Joe. “We are preparing to move it to Havana. We don’t believe the Chinese would risk sailing that close to Florida.”

“Commander,” asked Sly, “would you care to guess what their intentions are?”

“I have no confirmation.” Said Joe. “But my commanders believe that the Chinese, being a communist country, were able to avoid the breakdown in government control such as that suffered by the United States. Surely they are aware of what has transpired in this hemisphere. That being the case, I would guess that they intend to take advantage of the situation. Other than my own country, there are no military powers in the Caribbean. And it appears the U.S. has abandoned most, if not all of their military outposts here. Five years ago I would have welcomed such an outcome. Given the present circumstances, it leaves a terrible void. I’m not sure we have the power to go up against the Chinese.”

“At least they didn’t bring a carrier.” Said Earl.

“Not yet.” Said Carson.

“Other than laying low and posting lookouts I’m not sure what we can do.” Said Sly. “if the Chinese find us here, we’ll have no choice but to do whatever they say. We certainly don’t have the weapons to oppose them.”

“We have to assume that they also have submarines.” Said Joe.

“Terrific.” Said Ferdie.

“We can’t just wait for the worst to happen.” Said Willa. “We need some kind of plan.”

“What can we possibly do to stop them.” Asked Lisa.

“We can’t stop them.” Said Willa. “But…”

“But what?” asked Sly.

“You’re not going to like it.” Said Willa.

“Let’s hear it anyway.” Said Sly.

“I think we should meet with them.” Said Willa. Everyone just stared at her.

“Begging your pardon, XO, but have you lost your mind?” asked Ferdie.

“Listen. We don’t know why they’re here. We don’t know what they have planned. Other than the fact that they are Chinese, and heavily armed, we don’t know anything about them. Nils always advised me to know everything I could about a situation before I confronted it. I’m just saying why not try to meet with them. At least then we might have a better idea of what we’re up against. If anything.”

“And how do you propose to do this exactly?” asked Sly.

“Sail up to them. How much of a threat is a sailboat?”

“How are they to know your sailboat isn’t loaded with explosives?” asked Joe.

“We don’t sail right up to them. We pace them. From a safe distance.”

“You think you can keep up with them?” asked Sly.

“I can’t imagine a ship of that size can cruise much more than fifteen knots. We can easily keep up with that.” Said Carson.

“I think he’s right about that.” Said Joe.

“Okay.” Said Sly. “You’ve got their attention. What do you say to them?”

“Take me to your leader.” Said Mari.

“Basically, that’s it.” Said Willa.

“I think it’s too dangerous.” Said Felix.

“I agree it’s dangerous, Felix” said Willa. “But either way the danger is sailing in this direction.”

“When would we do this?” asked Sly.

“There’s still six, seven hours of light left. I’d say we do it now.” Said Carson.

“You’re not going.” Said Willa.

“What do you mean…” Willa cut him off.

“Carson, you are a beautiful man but you’re little scary. I think it should be me, Lisa and Mari. Three broads in a sailboat is not very intimidating.”

“But…”

“I’m in.” said Lisa.

“Me too.” Said Mari.

“I think she’s right.” Said Sly. “How soon can you be ready?”

Lisa, Mari and I looked at each other. “Fifteen minutes.” Said Mari.

Fifteen minutes later we were under way. I wore a modest pair of khaki shorts with a tee shirt. For Lisa and Mari, they wore their usual sailing uniform, skimpy bikinis. They did most of the sailing with me feeling like a third wheel. They were both such accomplished sailors there really wasn’t much for me to do. We agreed it would be wiser to sail around Grand Turk as opposed to a direct approach. Once we got to the other side of the island locating the Chinese battleship was easy. It was hard to miss.

“How do you want to do this?” asked Lisa.

“I think we should approach at an angle.” I said. “Less threatening.”

After a few tacks the two women had us approaching the Chinese ship. “How close do you want to get?” asked Mari. “Not very.” I said. “Say, a quarter mile.” “Sounds good.” Said Mari. They soon had us in position. The size of the battleship was terrifying. “Anybody else feeling nervous about this?” asked Lisa. “Plenty.” I said. “What’s our speed?” “About 12 knots.” Said Lisa. “I’m sure they’ve noticed us by now.” “No doubt.” I said. Still there was no reaction. We sailed along that way, maintaining our distance and speed, for several miles. “Maybe they don’t care.” Said Mari. “They’ve got to be curious.” I said. Still, nothing happened for nearly an hour. At last we saw a speedboat headed our way. “Here we go.” I said. The boat reached us quickly. There were perhaps eight sailors aboard, well-armed, guns pointed in our direction. One of them, apparently an officer, shouted at us in Chinese. “I think they want us to stop.” I said. Lisa and Mari let the sails out to luff, and we slowed. The speedboat pulled up alongside us. The officer shouted at us again in Chinese. “Do you speak English?” I asked. One of the sailors looked to the officer who nodded. “Yes. I speak English.” “We would like to meet with your commander.” I said. The sailor exchanged a few words with the officer then turned back to me. “For what reason?” he asked. “Because I live here and I’m frightened.” He turned back to the officer and spoke with him briefly. Then he turned back to me. “Remain here. Do not attempt to leave.” The boat pulled away from us and sped towards the battleship. “Well,” I said, “that went okay.” “If you say so.” Said Lisa. We didn’t have long to wait. Less than fifteen minutes later we saw the speedboat returning our way. Once again, they pulled up alongside us. The sailor who spoke English shouted at me. “You will come with us. The two women in their underwear will remain here.” That got a chuckle from both Lisa and Mari. “You going to be alright?” asked Mari. “I think so. Don’t go anywhere without me.” “We’ll be right here.” Said Lisa. I slid under the rail of the sailboat and clambered into the speed boat. The sailor pointed to where I should sit. We pulled away from the sailboat and sped towards the battleship. “Where do you live?” asked the sailor. “On an island near here.” I said. “You speak English very well.” “I went to Yale. As an undergrad.” “Did you like it?” I asked. “Very much. I’d like to go back. I miss New Haven” “What’s your name?” “Li Wei. You can call me Lee.” He said. “Hello, Lee. I’m Willa.” “Nice to meet you, Willa. You’re an excellent sailor.” “I’m afraid that credit goes to the ladies in their underwear.” Lee laughed. “Don’t tell that to the commander.” “It will be our little secret.” The speedboat was abreast of the battleship now, and we steered towards the stern. The ship was big from a distance but the true mass of it was truly intimidating. It made the Eris look like a yacht. The Eris had fifteen decks; I couldn’t imagine how many decks this ship had. It towered hundreds of feet above us from the water. There was a launching bay in the stern, five times the size of ours, with dozens of small craft stored inside. We motored into the bay and were soon secured in a berth. Lee helped me out of the boat. “Follow me.” He said. I did. “Stay right behind me, we don’t want to lose you down here.” I didn’t see it how that would be possible with two armed sailors behind me. They weren’t pointing guns at me, but they were armed. I’d never been on a battleship before. We walked briskly down corridor after corridor, stepping through hatches and I got the feeling I could walk in the same direction for an hour. The ceilings of the corridors were stuffed with wiring conduits and I got a sense of how complex modern ships are. The Eris has just as much wiring but it’s all hidden, being a cruise ship. Eventually we came to an elevator. Lee called the car and we made our way inside. He pushed the button for one of the top decks and we rose alarmingly fast. In less than a minute the elevator stopped. Lee motioned for me to exit. “This way.” He said. I followed him and we passed through a portal out onto a deck. I could see the conning tower way above me. From this height it seemed you could see forever. It was like the entire Caribbean Sea was laid out below me. We crossed the deck and entered through a port, walking toward a teak door. There was teak everywhere. Teak and Brass. We reached the door and Lee knocked sharply. There was a brief command in Chinese. Lee opened the door and gestured for me to enter. I found myself in a large office with an expansive view of the forward decks, including batteries of the sixteen-inch guns that made the ship so fearsome. A tall man in a crisp uniform perched on the front of a desk. “Thank you, lieutenant.” He said. He gestured for Lee to leave. Lee saluted and exited. “Please. Sit.” He indicated a chair. I sat. “I am Admiral Shen Yuan.” “I am Willa Freundlich, captain of the Eris.” “Is that the sailboat you arrived on?” “No, sir.” I said. “I didn’t think so. What is the Eris and where is it?” “The Eris is a cruise ship. It is currently anchored in Havana.” “And why are you so far from your ship, Captain?” he asked. “There’s not much call for cruise ships these days, Admiral. Myself, my crew and my remaining passengers have settled on an island. The Eris is currently on loan to the Cuban navy.” “I see. And why were you shadowing of my battleship in your sailboat?” “I was hoping to talk to you.” “I was very impressed with your sailing captain. Impressed enough to want to meet you.” I wasn’t about to disavow him of this notion. “Thank you.” “What exactly did you want to talk with me about captain?” “I’ll be blunt, Admiral. What are you doing here?” “He smiled. We’re on a humanitarian mission. But, please, excuse my manners. Can I offer you some coffee? Something else, perhaps?” “Coffee would be lovely.” Admiral Shen picked up a phone and spoke briefly in Chinese. He then moved a chair opposite me and sat. I looked him in the eye. “What is the nature of this humanitarian mission?” I asked. “There are many populations here in the Caribbean that are suffering, as I’m sure you know. Food and water shortages are quite severe, especially in Haiti and Jamaica. We may be a warship but we’re capable of carrying a great deal of cargo. Food, water, medical supplies, as well as medical personnel and others capable of relief.” “But why come in such force?” I asked. “Are you an American, Captain?” he asked. “I am, although I have not lived there in many years.” “Your great country was torn apart by recent events. Your military, once quite formidable, is now struggling to regain some sort of footing. Frankly, they are in serious disarray.” “I am aware of that.” “As such, they are incapable of carrying out any humanitarian missions. And yet, the need is urgent. You ask us why we came in such force. My answer is that we wanted to complete our humanitarian efforts with impunity. There are many more Chinese naval vessels following us. They are all on the same mission. They all carry food, water, medical supplies and relief.” “You honestly want me to believe that all of your intentions are strictly humanitarian?” “Your government has left a void here, Captain. We intend to fill it. If that includes increasing our influence, then so be it.” “As long as increasing your influence causes no harm.” “We are not here to cause harm, Captain. You’ll have to take my word on that.” “I don’t see that I have any other choice.” “Perhaps you would consider assisting us.” Said the Admiral. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean.” “You could be our goodwill ambassador, using your ship of course.” “The Eris? I told you, it’s in Havana.” “I’m sure you could arrange to collect it.” He said. “Are you offering to take me there?” “Not at all. Despite the disarray of the US Navy, I would not be so foolish as to risk taking this ship into the Florida Straits. You have your own ways of getting there.” “That is true. It is also true that I can take the ship at any time. We have developed very friendly relations with the Cuban military.” I said. “I don’t doubt it.” “Nevertheless, there’s barely enough fuel left in the Eris to get it to this side of Cuba, much less sailing the Caribbean.” “We have tankers in our fleet. We can supply you with all the diesel you need.” “What would I have to do.” I asked. “You can create your own path, Captain Freundlich. Beyond that, it would require that we work closely together. I would envision that the Eris, at the head of our fleet, might soften our approach.” “I see. I will consider your offer, Admiral. I will need to consult with my crew.” “Of course. We will continue our mission regardless of your answer. I do request that you give me an answer soon.” “I’ll be back in two days with an answer.” “Excellent. It certainly has been a pleasure meeting you, Captain.” “Thank you, Admiral. Shall I show myself out?” “Very amusing. Your escort is just outside the door.” “Thank you for meeting with me, Admiral.” “Goodbye, Captain.” I left his office and followed Lee back to the speedboat. Within minutes I was back on the sailboat with Mari and Lisa. I thanked Lee. And we set sail for Little Ragged. “How did it go?” asked Mari. “We’ve got some things to think about.” I said.