House of Refuge
The award-winning short story House of Refuge is now available for purchase!
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.
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Read an excerpt from House of Refuge:
Agnarsson stood alone on the uppermost deck of the observation tower, scanning the frothy green surface of the Argentine Sea through binoculars. Having emptied its burden on the ocean, the wall of east-moving clouds had desaturated to a light, vaporous gray and begun to break up, allowing the passage of the first direct rays of morning. To the west, the flood lamps on the shadowy bulks of scattered seasteads began to wink out and the masts of more distant vessels became visible for the first time without aid of their navigational lights.
He had dispatched his morning report about twenty five minutes ago, received the reply and standby instruction twenty two minutes ago, and received an electronic query from the Argentine warship Furibundo fifteen minutes ago. The message informed him of “coastal security” operations conducted the previous night, and the pursuit of two known illicit weapon traffickers and unlawful combatants, listing Horacio and Sandra Vietes by name, and might these not be the same alleged refugees? Agnarsson dutifully left it unanswered. But now he was being hailed on the ship-to-ship radio. The stationkeeper considered leaving the hail unanswered as well, but he wasn’t going to allow them any excuse to “render assistance.”
“Atlantic Littoral Refuge 49, go ahead Furibundo,” he replied in English, hoping that would lend some difficulty to the affair. There was a delay, but he eventually received a reply in the most obsequious English.
“Refuge 49, have sent you electronic bulletin warning of known, dangerous war criminals. Can you please offer confirmation? We are prepared to render assistance, over.”
Agnarsson’s smile was tight and rueful. “Received bulletin. No assistance necessary. My compliments to your captain and the Argentine Navy for its responsible stewardship of the seas. Refuge 49, out.”
Agnarsson wasn’t worried. He expected the Argentines to inquire; in fact, he expected them to pester him for much of the day. This was his first assignment as a Stationkeeper, but he had seen similar scenarios play out when he was an ALERT man, and he had been told what to expect by veteran stationkeepers who had gone through the same rigmarole a dozen times in their lives. What he didn’t expect, what was nearly unthinkable, was that the Argentines might try to force the issue. To violate a house of refuge was a grave crime under both treaties and customary law. It was an act of piracy, rendering one a hostis humani generis – an an enemy of humanity – and inviting the most severe retribution that no flag or writ would shield one from. In the 29 years Agnarsson had lived, no life saving ship or station had been attacked by any state or Clade anywhere on earth.
The stationkeeper’s more immediate worry was Sandra. Her reaction reminded Agnarsson of his late father, who had fought against California in the Pan-American War. Justin, the youngest of four siblings, was born after the war, and he never knew his father before the nightmares, before the periods of depression punctuated by episodes of drunkenness and spasmodic violence, but his mother did, and she knew a very different man than the one that came back from the Klamath front. She used to tell Justin stories of the old days, of his father’s easygoing nature and the unassuming gentleness that won her love. That was before the bitterness at the horrors he’d witnessed – and maybe, Justin dared to think, the horrors he’d committed – ate him alive. Sandra’s tirade could have been quoted from Justin’s father, right down to the line about wiping their filth from the earth. It even shared the same uncaring – even welcome – recognition that those impulses were self-destructive.
Sandra’s words and her rage-contorted face burned in his mind, haunting him like his father’s ghost. It was enough of a tragedy for tough men like Horacio and his own father to live with such a burden, but it was intolerable to think of a young woman shouldering that weight. Sandra deserved to finish growing up in a place free from the hate-fueling fear and dehumanizing impulses of war, and, with time, mend her heartbreak. If she could be gotten out of the war, then maybe the war could be gotten out of her.
He had hope for that. Clade Brittania had already taken on refugees from the war, treated them with decency and dignity in Avonshire and St. Helena. They might be willing to take some more. That arrangement could have additional benefits, namely that her father might never see prosecution; the Crown-in-exile had no love for Argentina since the botched blockade of the Falklands last year.
Agnarsson turned around at the sound of footsteps. It was Sandra. She had pulled her wet hair back in a ponytail and was dressed in one of the station’s coveralls, too big for her in every dimension. She stepped off the ladder and stood stiffly, her lips pursed. “My father told me to apologize to you,” she eventually said, and in crisp English.
Agnarsson realized she wasn’t actually going to offer that apology, so he interceded. “I don’t know what for.”
“Neither do I.”
The stationkeeper smiled. “You speak English well, better than I speak Spanish.”
“My mother insisted.” Her voice took on a hard edge. All her grief had hardened into wrath.
“It was good that she did,” he said. “We’ve settled some refugees on the Isle of Avonshire, far north of here. They speak English there.”
“I know where it is,” she said. “But we’re not refugees. We’re smugglers and rebels.”
Agnarsson grew annoyed. “That’s not your determination to make.”
“Whose is it?”
Suddenly, the ship-to-ship radio crackled again. It was Furibundo. Agnarsson held up his hand for silence and took the radio handset.
“Station 49, Corvette Captain Larrea requests the pleasure of your presence for supper. He would consider it a great honor to dine with you. If your duties do not allow you to leave your station, he and a small complement of officers might visit your station, food and preparations compliments of the Argentine Navy.”
‘Death by courtesy,’ Agnarsson thought and almost laughed, only restraining himself for the sake of the young woman that stood behind him. “Please extend my thanks to Captain Larrea and your crew, but I must regretfully decline. I am ill and contagious with little appetite. Influenza, I think. Another time, perhaps.”
The Argentine reply was immediate and little too enthusiastic. “We can send the ship’s doctor to you right away.”
“Many thanks again, Furibundo, but that will not be necessary. I must attend to my duties now, Station 49 out.”
Agnarsson replaced the handset and turned to Sandra, eager to reassure her. “This is just a little game they’re playing. They won’t come.”
But the girl did not seem in need of reassuring. Her voice was an intense whisper. “You should have accepted. Let me set the table. I would slit Captain Larrea’s throat with one of your shiny bread knives.”
He glowered at her. “You shouldn’t be contemplating slitting any throats, especially not with a bread knife.”
“You side with a murderer,” Sandra said coldly.
Her words and the look of contempt that burned in her eyes left him stunned and angry. “You’re a stupid child. If I did, you wouldn’t be here insulting me.”
“And you are a coward! If you weren’t, you would have joined the navy and gone to fight your country’s enemies instead of making beds for drunk fishermen!”
“Just like Captain Larrea did?”
The girl flinched, stunned into open-mouthed silence. Her hard expression softened and shame crept into her eyes, but she’d gone too far to elicit any sympathy from Agnarsson.
“See yourself below deck,” he growled. “I have beds to make.”