The Ferry Boat
"Forward march!" bawled from our right.
Four Feds guarded the exit. They wore heavy Centurion suits with integrated exoskeletons and jetpacks on their backs. The men held combined weapon systems. Diodes gleamed on their television sight units mounted on the barrel housing, ready for action. The red dot of a laser sight slid across my chest and jumped onto Vladas. I could almost see target markers flash as the ballistic calculators sent their data back to the guards' helmets, and nearly ducked aside to escape the estimated field of fire. I put out one leg and swayed to my left.
"Keep in line!" the nearest guard barked.
I stepped back cursing my army instincts. A Fed with corporal's insignia walked in front. On his shoulder I could see two dark stripes covered with some formula. It emitted a colored light when seen through an infrared device: same as the army friend or foe system. The other three stayed put but didn't lower their weapons.
The corporal led us to the pier. The sun was at its zenith - and it wasn't our Earth sun, either, but a blinding ball of fire, scaringly larger and whiter than the one we're all used to.
The tall L-shaped pier projected a good fifty meters into the sea. There, safe from the bulging waves, was moored the ancient hulk of a ferry boat. The ocean breathed fresh and vital. This wasn't the continent yet: there, the further you were from the sea, the harder it was to breathe. The desert air tasted dry and bitter, and the swamps left the sweet and sticky aftertaste of poisonous vapors…
I got out of step, then realized that my brain had soaked up the information from the software unpacking in my head. I'd never been to Pangea before and couldn't have known any of those desert and swamp things.
I relaxed and marched on with the other inmates. I licked my salty lips, took a deep breath and shielded my face from the sun. Far beyond, several miles away from the base, the Continent Anomalous stretched out its brown Southern shore.
The continent non-existent on Earth, one that came to life during a daring scientific experiment. It had been nearly forty years since Boris Neumann, the then emerging prodigy of military physics, had carried out trials of a new type of non-lethal weapon. Supposedly non-lethal, that is. His electronic bomb was designed to scorch soldiers' implants which was why the Feds only equipped their special forces' men with them. From what I heard, these days the Feds tended to experiment with chemicals to see if they could affect the human brain - so that they could abandon neuromodules altogether. Anyway, what had happened, was that they'd exploded an electronic bomb at their Kola Peninsula test site. But its air blast emitters, instead of targeting the enemy's simulation command center complete with working communications system and a tracking station, had born down into nothing creating the portal that led to Pangea Anomalis.
I'd no idea why Neumann had dubbed it so. Never asked myself why. I'd heard, of course, that Pangea was the name given to the ancient proto continent that had broken apart creating the Earth's continents as we knew them. Only the Earth's Pangea had been enormous, and Pangea Anomalis was half the size of Australia although its wild life looked similar to that on Earth.
"Pangean tigers live in prides hunting not by night but during daylight," the Information's voice resounded in my head. I kept walking trying not to betray the fact that I had an illegal piece of software working in my head. The Information kept going on about the tigers: apparently, if you intruded into their territories, they would hunt you down and kill you. My brain was soaking up the data. My head boomed, blood pulsating in my temples and sending a hammering pain to the back of my neck.
Then, blurred and unstable at first, a map came into my mental view.
Sketchy but clear, it collided with reality and hindered my perceptions. I stumbled, causing the corporal to swing around. His weapon system's barrel jerked towards me.
"Keep in file!" I heard from under the mirror visor.
Finally, the map faded away. I gave a sigh of relief. The corporal led the group onto the pier and ordered us to stop, then walked down the gangway onto the ferry's lower deck. It was barred all around and formed a large cage slightly rocking with the waves. The corporal crossed the cage inside, looked around, then headed back and started climbing the steep stairs that lead to the captain's bridge.
The ferry was quite big - bulky and squat - with spots of rust here and there. Two sailors stood aft, wearing light-colored canvas shorts and orange safety vests. Positioning themselves under the arm of the crane, they argued with a third crew member overhead who was tugging at the levers of the hoist trying to land a rusty ten-ton container onto the slipway.
A fat bald man came out of a deckhouse that rather resembled a riveted armored pillbox. He scratched the suntanned belly which hung above white shorts, stretched and yawned, then noticed the prisoners' column down at the pier. For a couple of seconds he stared at us, as if unable to grasp what he was seeing, then grabbed at the railing and leant over the stairs. The corporal shouted something, and the fat one hurried towards the sailors lurking under the crane.
"I have a funny feeling they brought us out earlier than usual," Vladas said.
"Could be," I agreed. "The sky above the base is getting dark."
"Where do you see that?" the burly miner said next to me. "It couldn't be clearer."
"Petro, wait. You don't know about this," Vladas turned to me. "I can see it, too. It's getting very murky right above the Fort. Have you any idea what's going on?"
The island was oblong, by the looks of it. The fort that had been built around the portal stood in the middle surrounded by towering walls that ran the island's entire perimeter. Above it protruded a few segments of ancient parabolic dishes. I knew too little about Neumann's experiment: just bits of trivia of what had happened forty years ago. The wave from the electronic bomb that had created the portal to Pangea, had also caused the test site to collapse, together with its tropospheric station and part of the Kola Peninsula. Later, they had erected the inward-sloping wall around the base. Keeping the portal stable demanded a shitload of power so they'd been forced to build an atomic power station right on the base. The concrete top of its reactor peeked above the wall to our left. Rusty mesh parabolic dishes, several hundred square meters each, stood on tall steel supports behind the walls. The dishes had been mounted close to the center of the island and were orientated towards the four corners of the Earth at opposing angles to each other. They were the only old installations left intact. The rest had been encased in steel and concrete, turning the base into an impregnable sarcophagus. Our scientists couldn't forecast the consequences of the portal's collapse. The wave's nature was still classified research. I remembered a geek from our army school tell me that if they tried to shut the portal down, it could cause a major catastrophe. Apparently, our continuum would collapse turning the entire Solar System into a new black hole...
"So Mark, what is it-" Vladas started.
Lightning flashed between the antennas. A deafening clap ripped through the air. I covered my ears and ducked. Many of the people fell onto the pier covering their heads.
The sailors seemed to be quite used to the local thunder and lightning. They'd finally managed to place the container onto the landing ramp. The crane operator prodded a lever unhooking the wire ropes that held the container in place under the boom of the crane. Slowly, it slid down the slipway towards a square opening in the Fort's wall.
The corporal watching the crew from the bridge turned on his jetpack and shot skywards. He made a steep arc through the air heading for the gate we'd just left. Three guards waited there for him. The corporal landed and motioned them to begin. All three turned their backs to the gate and trained their weapons on us. A harsh voice spouted from concealed loudspeakers,
"Prisoners! You have broken the Earth's laws and are banished for good! There is no going back! There is no forgiveness! From now on, you're deportees!"
His voice grew louder and more powerful. Now it echoed over the island, deafening and hair-raising, bringing one to his knees. "The Earth's laws end here! Within the limits of the prison world, your life span is your responsibility!"
As he spoke, the Feds were retreating into the gate, their weapons still pointed at us. The loudspeakers concluded in a lower voice,
"The portal base and the island are Earth's territory. All prisoners have two minutes to clear it. In case of noncompliance, the Fort will engage its weapons systems."
With the last word, the armored gateway closed concealing the Feds. The square opening in the Fort's wall opposite the ferry shut, and the slipway retracted. The sailors rushed to cast off; the crane operator lowered the crane and began covering the hoist with tarps.
The fat bald guy - who seemed to be the captain - hurried inside the cockpit and emerged a few seconds later wearing a lifejacket. He raised a polished megaphone and shouted,
"Need a special invitation? In the cage, quickly! By the left, single file, quick march!"
Several round loopholes opened in the Fort's wall. I rushed toward the gangway, Vladas and the miner wheezing close behind. The rest of the deportees also jostled toward the ferry. The pier resounded with their howling.
"You idiots!" the captain yelled. "In single file!"
The crane operator, having covered the hoist, sprang to a low concrete stand nearby, jerked the lid open and produced a machine gun: an ancient German MG, with its holed barrel shroud and wide-mouthed flame arrester. The crane operator flung a leather belt over his head and hung the weapon at his thigh. He placed the gun barrel onto the railing, straightened the ammunition belt and drew the bolt.
"Halt!" the captain yelled from the bridge.
Lightning flashed. Another clap of thunder tore through my ears. I stopped in front of the gangway.
"Form ranks!" he commanded. "At the double!"
All over the pier, people started pushing and swearing.
"Do it, Georgie," the captain said without lowering the megaphone.
The machine gun rattled, sending a semicircle of hissing bullets ripping through the air overhead. Somebody screamed and collapsed onto the pier. Some rushed back to the shore, others froze. The thick dark barrels of weapon systems emerged from the round loopholes in the walls. The characteristic flattened ends of the barrels blackened with soot told me what they were. Flame throwers.
"Listen here!" the captain shouted. "You have ten seconds to fall in. The last ones will get a bullet. Ten, nine-"
He gave the crane operator's shoulder a shove pointing to an inmate who, despite the orders, had bolted along the pier back toward the base gate. The gun barrel traced the escapee and cut him down in one long spurt.
"Start moving on my command," the captain said matter-of-factly. "Three, two, one! Towards the cage, at the double!"
I took the gangway in three long bounds and dived into the cage's opening.
"Step it up!" the captain hollered. "And don't you dare puke on my deck!"
I strode to the bow side of the gate and rested my hands on the bars watching a fair-haired sailor cast off. In one practiced motion, he released the dock line from a bollard, threw the line into the water and turned round showing a young freckled face.
"Hey Oakum!" the captain yelled in a strained, breaking voice. "Quit shirking! To the engine room, now!"
The youth chose not to walk back past the cage, apparently for fear of someone pushing him into the water or grabbing him through the bars. He unlatched a hatch under his feet and before I could call him, jumped down into the opening. The hatch closed with a clang and I looked up.
The whole scene must have taken a minute and a half. The barrels of the flame throwers moved forward all at once aiming at the pier. Most of the deportees had already boarded the ferry. The rest faltered on the pier, anxiously waiting their turn. Inside the cage, Vladas elbowed through the crowd towards me. He nodded at the murky gray mist thickening high above the island. Slowly, it formed an enormous conical thunder cloud.
"What's going on?"
"A hurricane, probably," I nodded at the antennas. "The blast wave. Has to be, for sure. The jump takes too much energy disrupting the status quo and causing perturbations. The residual effect of transporting us to Pangea."
Vladas nodded. During jumps, the antennas worked like lightning rods redirecting surplus energy into the Pangean atmosphere. But the atmosphere had its own ways of dealing with this phenomenon.
Looked like our army school geek had been right about the future catastrophe, albeit a local one.
When the last deportee had entered the cage, the sailors hooked up the gangway with bargepoles and dragged it onto the bridge. More sliding bars blocked the exit onto the deck. The cloud over the base thickened, heavy as lead.
"Full speed astern!" the captain barked.
The deck shook and the ferry wallowed as it moved between the pier and the Fort wall. The antennas emitted bolts of lightning, bathing everything in their colored blaze. The sky rumbled.
A guard boat came into view abeam: a squat vessel with square deck houses. It headed for the Elephant Ridge: a much shallower area than here, flooded with daylight, its horizon dotted with seine-boats' sails...
The Elephant Ridge? Was I supposed to know that? Or was it Information defusing in my head again? I was a bit fed up with its nonsense. I'd get to the mainland first, and then I'd try and give it a good think.
The anxious deportees argued and quibbled. Some squatted down, others stood holding onto the bars. I headed towards a tight bulkhead at the back part of the cage and stood under it. Vladas forced his way through behind me.
Soon the ferry caught up with the guards' boat and followed in its wake. Lightning flashed over the island although not as often. Still, the sky remained dark.
The guards' boat started to turn, the ferry mimicking its maneuver. On the bridge, an alarm wailed, and another one answered from the guards' boat. The deck swayed sending me sprawling onto Vladas. We collapsed. Everybody screamed. The ferry kept turning without slowing down.
When it turned its stern towards the island, a tornado swirled over the antennas, its funnel flashing occasional bolts of lightning. The leaden sky was pressing down on it as if trying to flatten it and crush it into the Fort. The thunder clapped and crackled; then sunrays ripped the top of the funnel and pounced through the thick darkness illuminating the pier and the Fort's gray walls. A tall rumbling wave concealed it from view.
It rolled on quickly, but I managed to take a deep breath and cover my face. The deck lurched. Water poured through the cage bars.