Putting Out Fires
Lieutenant Jack Beachum grabbed his bunk with his left hand and held on tight. Had another compartment flooded? The ship had shifted again, the deck beneath his feet tilting to a steeper slope. Jack adjusted his footing to lean into it and, with his free hand, pushed the note into the top pocket of his boiler suit. He had thought that if he looked at it again the words might have mixed together, so that half-truth and lie would become indistinguishable, and the notion of “duty” and “necessity” would emerge the way Captain had implied they would. To Jack it just looked like a list of names.
The curtain covering the doorway was jerked to one side.
“You should be at your station,” Chief Petty Officer Kendall said.
Kendall had to lower his head and hunch his shoulders to poke his perspiring forehead into the tiny living space. Jack kept on looking at the plan on his desk, thinking about the steady spread of the flood, the slow death of the ship, the best place to fulfil the Captain’s orders. He didn’t turn until Kendall sullenly uttered the word “Sir.”
“What happened?” Jack said.
He made no mention of the breach of protocol, or the simple rudeness of entry without knocking. He knew exactly how things stood between him and the Chief.
“The Commander ordered us to hold the team at station 2,” Kendall said.
Evidently not. Maybe Kendall didn’t know. How could he?
Jack had stood on the bridge four hours ago as the wounded warship HMS Buckinghamshire limped back into port somehow, miraculously, still alive, still deciding whether to die from the ambush she had escaped and who should die with her. The crew had contained the flooding, for the most part, but the largest explosion had set several compartments on fire and thick black smoke blossomed from between the decks like the great old ship was bleeding ink. Jack’s voice had been level and calm as he repeated the Captain’s commands, all the while driving his middle nail into the palm of his hand.
The moment the ship was alongside, the Captain had called his name and they had left the bridge together. Jack had felt the eyes of the warfare team upon them. How had the enemy known? Was it one of their own that had betrayed them? On the quarterdeck, where the lads were hurriedly erecting a gangplank so that the Captain could go ashore, the Captain had said, “Get it done,” and handed him the note, like it was nothing, like it was just a favour between men. Stood there in front of everyone it had been impossible to protest. Jack had simply saluted as they piped the Captain off the ship, and gone to join Chief Kendall, Leading-Rate Potter and the rest of his fire team.
As soon as his team had been rotated back he had left them eating a hurried meal to return to his cabin and re-read the Captain’s note. His dirty hands left thick black fingerprints on the paper. Kendall had tried to stop him in the mess hall, in front of the men, and then followed him all the way up here to the officer’s quarters, still looking for the last word.
“Excuse me,” Jack said, moving to gently push Kendall to one side with his right forearm. They did not touch. Kendall slid back, slowly, the two of them studiously not meeting each other’s eyes, like overweight ballet spiralling into the corridor. Kendall’s boiler suit smelled of a mix of old and new sweat. Jack imagined his own suit smelled even worse. He turned left.
“Station Two is back this way. Sir.”
The deck lurched beneath them, the floor falling away as the ship listed another few degrees to starboard. Jack’s fall was only stopped by his shoulder slamming into the bulkhead, and at the same time he heard Kendall swearing as the big man crashed heavily onto his hands and knees. They looked at each other for the first time.
“Nothing is happening at Station Two,” Jack said. “I have to speak to the Commander.”
The ship was a labyrinth of corridors, corners and equipment, of sailors struggling past each other and trying not to breathe too loudly in case by breathing they triggered another explosion. Even with the engine room fire sealed and the bunkers closed off, the flames could hide in other places, sneaking through the small spaces and the ventilation, disguised behind machinery or lying quietly behind sealed bulkheads. The enemy was everywhere: in the fire, in the flood, folded away in his breast pocket.
It took them a few minutes to make their way past huddled groups of sweating men and stacked equipment, down three ladders and along a corridor to Damage Control. This was usually a secondary mess hall, but was also used for church, and, no matter how much time the lads spent scrubbing, always smelled of overcooked pasta and processed meat. Amongst a crew used to living in close-quarters you could pack maybe up to twenty-five men shoulder to shoulder around the tables.
The Commander was the cricket-playing, ugly-moustachioed First Officer and second-in-command after the Captain of HMS Buckinghamshire. He was drawing large crosses on sections of the ship’s plan with a thick red marker. Normally the large whiteboard on which the plan was drawn was kept behind a glass-faced bookshelf filled with Clive Cussler novels, but as soon as action stations had sounded they had strapped it to one of the dining tables. The Commander had wedged his crotch against the table to counteract the steep angle of the ship while nodding and grunting at whoever was talking on the other end of a phone. A Yeoman carrying a stack of blue folders was apparently attempting to limbo beneath the phone cable, which had stretched out like a tightrope. At the far end of the room, still close enough that you could strike him with a good sized broom, a young steward whose usual responsibility was to make the Captain’s bed was shouting at someone down a second phone, as if whoever was on the other end was partially deaf and a little slow. Jack wondered if the Steward and the Commander were at the other ends of the same conversation.
Wedging himself between the table and a locked cupboard he leaned up to examine the ships plan, ducking a shoulder as the Yeoman manoeuvred past him. Jack had noticed the blue folders. The Commander’s red pen marked the progression of the fire. If Jack had harboured doubts before, it was now clear where he had to go. But it was Kendall’s shadow, cast across the blue criss-crossed lines indicating closed-down areas of the ship, which made the Commander look up, first at one, then the other, then back at the plan.
“What is it, Lieutenant?”
Jack tried to remember what he had done recently to piss off the Commander.
“I’d like to take Team Two to check the secondary electrical flat,” Jack said.
“I put Team Two on standby to cover main engineering.” The Commander glanced up from the plan. “Which is where I expected you to be.”
“Sir, if the automation on the breakers fails…”
“Not again.” The Commander slammed down the pen. “I saw your memo.”
“I stand by what I wrote,” Jack said. “We have a security leak.”
“Which is something you write to me, not the Captain!” But the Commander’s voice immediately went quiet again, and he put his hand on Jack’s arm. “Look, I’m not stupid. I know something is going on.”
The steward had chosen a bad time to stop shouting down the telephone. Jack was trying not to move a protective hand over the note in his breast pocket. Did the Commander know? How much could he possibly know? Was there another piece of paper out there with Jack’s name on it?
Jack shrugged off the Commander’s hand and pointed to the white board. “I can have my team check the flat and then moved back up to a support position in twenty minutes.”
The Commander grabbed the pen back up like he might throw it, but then he grimaced and shoved it to the corner of the plan. The Yeoman scooped the pen back up. When the Commander spoke again he sounded like a man who had been fighting fires for too long. Duty. Necessity.
“Fine, take your team, check the flat, and then get back on station.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Jack didn’t hang around. He didn’t dare look at Kendall, or let him know he’d seen the little smirk floating on Chief’s face. Jack did look back when the Commander called him.
“Jack. Be careful. If the automation has failed, then you’ll have to trigger the fire suppression system manually. Do you understand what that means?”
Which is worse? Waiting to fight a fire, or fighting a fire? Five minutes earlier the men of Team Two would have claimed the waiting, the thick fire suits only slightly less heavy than the thoughts of what might be happening elsewhere on the ship, the boredom, the fear, the waiting, the boredom. As soon as Lieutenant Beachum returned they wished they were back waiting.
Jack was still fastening his fire suit as they stepped through into the electrical flat, a large control-room for many of the ship’s systems, two steps behind Chief Kendall and five steps behind Leading Rate Potter. Potter had been on the ship about six months and reminded Jack of the scrawny brother of a girl he had known back in Portsmouth. Potter and Kendall were both carrying small black CO2 extinguishers, which would be about as much use as a tissue in a flood if a real fire had taken hold in the flat. In spite of this, they moved as quickly as they could against the ten-degree list to starboard. The steep slope of the floor to their right made the enclosed space feel like the twisted world of an Escher painting and walking feel like playing hopscotch on black ice.
The room they entered was large and filled with cabinets of electrical systems, a library of little lights and whirring motors. It hummed, decorated only by signs warning of the danger of death, and at the far side of the chamber a glass-faced office held the control panels for the various pieces of equipment.
“Spread out, check the bulkheads, check the vents.” Jack stopped at the starboard side of the flat, where the great black cylinders of the fire suppression system were mounted by lights that were meant to indicate the temperatures of the different components.
Jack heard Potter calling, but he was busy trying to figure out what was wrong with the lights.
“Kendall, can you tell if this is working?” Jack said.
“Sir?” Potter’s persistence penetrated Jack’s sweltering fire suit. “Is this bulkhead supposed to be hot?”
Jack looked up and saw Kendall looking straight back at him.
“Go, pull the breakers!” Jack said.
Jack watched Kendall marking the distance, clearly adding up the time it would take to pull the breakers and get out again. Neither man could sure there was long enough. Kendall swore at Jack, loudly enough that everyone heard, then turned and ran as fast as he could towards the office with the breakers at the far end of the room.
“You’ve got two minutes before fire suppression kicks in.” Jack was shouting now. “The rest of you – move it! Out!”
He felt them racing back past him as he faced up to the argon cylinders. Once activated, the inert gas would kill the fire along with anyone else trapped in the chamber. The cover came away with a hard twist. There was a red lever inside. Anyone might hesitate faced with that sort of decision.
Jack pulled the lever, hit the timer on his watch, and turned back to face the room.
“Potter, don’t open that!”
The Leading Rate was knocked backwards by a rush of flame, dropping the panel and the fire extinguisher as he raised his hands to protect his face. Jack ran clumsily up the sloped floor, as the flames momentarily dispersed in the rush of air, and grabbed the boy by the collar. He couldn’t see where Kendall had got to. Dragging Potter by his suit he headed towards the exit. A wailing alarm was warning everybody stupid enough not to know that death was coming soon. Potter began kicking his feet; Jack and the boy staggered onwards, hands coming through the opening to drag them over the line.
Jack caught his shins on the rim of the door, banged his nose falling against the wall on his way out. It didn’t matter. He got to his feet and pulled away his googles to wipe the moisture from his stinging eyes. He had barely recovered his balance before he was looking at his watch. A quick glance around the space, then back at the watch. 10, 9, 8, still two men inside.
Someone shot out through the door. His fire suit was scorched and he had dropped his tools. Jack was checking the calculations in his head.
5, 4, 3 too little time, too much risk.
“He was still pulling the breakers.” The boy with the scorched suit, barely nineteen years old, was sucking in heavy air.
“Close it,” Jack said.
The men knew what was flooding the compartment and didn’t hesitate. The door was slammed shut and sealed. Now there was nothing to do but watch the window
They watched the window.
On the other side they saw Kendall come charging round the corner. The closed door blocked the sound. It made him surreal, distant, quiet, a man who didn’t know he was dead yet.
Jack stepped up to the small circular window in the closed door. He picked up the handset and flicked on the intercom. Kendall had done the same on the other side, using his last breath to scream invective down the telephone that only the Lieutenant could hear.
Jack looked Kendall right in the eyes as the Chief finally understood what was happening.
“You talk too much,” Jack said. Then he flicked off the intercom.
Jack bit his tongue. Kendall, already asphyxiated by the fire suppression gasses, had fallen formless and unseen to the floor behind the hermetically sealed bulkhead. He was dead. But everybody else had heard what Jack had said.
Slowly, he turned to face his men. They were all staring back at him. He took a long, deep breath, and then looked each of them in the eye, in turn, holding their gaze and daring them to say something. Was it fear he could see? Contempt? Horror? It didn’t matter. The list of names in his breast pocket wore heavier than his pride. And there were other fires to put out.
I'm a doctor of law and economics, a qualified barrister, and a retired British naval officer. I have written for journals, collections of academic writing, and newspapers including The Economist. I also write scripts, short stories, and am finishing a novel just so I can throw it on a bloody bonfire. This blog charts my efforts to avoid fiction-related fire hazards.