|art by I. Khivrenko|
Colored circles flashed before my closed eyelids. My lungs burned, about to explode. I pushed with my elbows struggling to force myself free from a stranger gripping my back.
I couldn't. I could barely tell top from bottom as I kept hitting and kicking. Pointless. The bulk of the water around me absorbed the impact.
My fingers brushed the bars. I grabbed at them, pushing myself up, and started climbing up toward the light, hoping that the inmate who clung to me would loosen his grip once we were out of the water.
When we surfaced, his fingers at my throat slackened. I took a swing and elbowed his temple. His nails scratched the skin on my neck as he went underwater.
Every second could be my last, the thought pulsated in my head. I climbed further up, higher, as far from the water as possible.
Once I’d climbed about six foot up, I forced my hand between the bars and gripped them tightly, pressing my side to the grate. No one was going to pull me away from it. I'd make a quick job of anyone who tried.
Turned out, I wasn't the only clever one. About a dozen more people, Wladas included, hung along the perimeter of the cage clinging to the bars. The deck was now to our left and the ceiling to our right. The ferry had to be lying on its side... sinking.
Below in the water, people struggled and screamed, calling for help and drowning each other.
I looked around. I had to get out of there. The ferry was about to become a mass grave.
"Over here! Help!" voices came from my right.
I turned my head to the bars. The guard boat rocked on the waves nearby, heading for the island. The deck was empty.
Our screams followed the boat. Apparently, no one was going to help us. They weren't interested.
Someone tugged my ankle. A gentle pull - not an attempt to grab my foot and drag me down. Someone was trying to get my attention. I looked down, prepared to kick a wet face, but reconsidered. Hanging below me was a Chinese. He looked like the one who'd just lost his buddy in the airlock. He pointed down, nodding.
What the hell?
"Why down?" I asked.
The Chinese started climbing down.
"Where are you-"
"Mark!" Wladas called.
I turned my head.
The guard boat slowed down, the feathered waves in its wake settling. The turret on the stern turned its twin guns toward the sinking ferry.
I let go of the bars and kicked myself away and down.
What's better, the hydrodynamic shock or being showered with shrapnel? It depended on the gunners' aim, and I had a funny feeling they were about to target the emerging part of the ferry. Otherwise, the Chinese wouldn't have-
The bang came from the ferry's bow. It felt as if someone had put me into a barrel filled with water, covered the lid and started pounding it with a sledge hammer.
I surfaced, mouth wide open, trying not to scream from the earache. I nearly hit the Chinese when he grabbed my shoulder and pulled me in the direction of what seemed to be a gap in the grating. The explosion had bent its torn and twisted bars inward. On the foredeck, water gushed in amid billowing smoke and fire.
" Wladas!" I snorted and shook off the Asian's hand. "Where are you?"
The Asian pushed away a dead body drifting toward us and dived down. Lots of bodies around. And blood. The water was dark with it.
"I'm here-" the neurotech choked.
I made a stroke toward the gap and looked up. The bars drew closer. The ferry was about to go down hook, line and sinker.
If we wanted to stay alive, we had to get out as quickly as possible.
"I'm here! He-help!"
Wladas' head disappeared under water within a meter from the gap. A disheveled burly man held him down and grabbed at the bars, pushing himself up. The Asian resurfaced nearby and grabbed his feet. Before the burly man had time to react, the Asian climbed his shoulders and locked his hands under the man's chin. Then he kicked hard at the man's shoulders, straightening his legs like a deadlifter.
Vertebrae crunched, and the dead man collapsed on top of me. I recoiled. The Asian dived into the gap, and Wladas showed his head again.
"Out!" I gasped. "Quick!"
I looked back. A few more men swam toward us, including the miner who'd fathered the cloned triplets.
By the time I looked back, the neurotech had already escaped. The gap was now halfway in the water, sinking. Or should I say, the entire ferry was sinking. Quite rapidly, too.
I took a deep breath and dived in, praying that no one else would catch up with me and grab my foot hoping to survive. Either that, or I could go face first onto a jagged bar. Or just miss the opening.
In front of me, the gap's uneven outline came into view, its bent broken bars barely visible. I stretched out my arms, put my legs together and slid, dolphin-like, through the opening. I surfaced and tried to get as far from the ferry as I could before the vortex pulled me under.
My heart pounded. With every third stroke, I made a quick gasp and kept going. I took another stroke and my hand bounced off inflatable rubber. I didn't have time to slow down. Face up, I’d collided with the orange side of the safety raft.
"Where d'you think you're going?" I heard overhead.
"He looks strong enough. Georgie, Oakum, get him out. Put him with the rest. And let’s pick up the others."
I raised my arms. They grabbed my elbows and pulled me out.
The raft was a six-seater. The bald fatso, a.k.a. the ferry captain, sat on top of a waterproof personal survival kit. He was in his fifties, a round red face, a smooth suntanned skull, and bushy gray eyebrows. His shoulder sported a tattoo: an anchor with a towline wrapped around it and a spike-headed combat dolphin below. Military geneticists had developed those dolphins in order to destroy underwater saboteurs. From what I'd heard, the spikes on their heads were sharp and strong, and also venomous.
On either side of the captain sat the young sailor and the crane operator with his machine gun.
The crane operator, dark-haired with gray temples, looked older than the captain. His thin face, wrinkled and wizened, was covered with three days' worth of stubble. By the confident way he held the machine gun you could tell he'd been in a scrape or two.
I looked at the young sailor. His strawberry hair was tufted together making it stick out like... like oakum. That's how he must have gotten his nickname.
The youngster handed me a short paddle that looked more like a trenching spade.
"Take it and row," the captain said.
"Give me a chance," I leaned against the bulwark catching my breath.
"Georgie," the captain said.
The crane operator pointed the gun at me.
"You fucking clone's ass," he grinned showing gapped yellow teeth, "Shut your mouth and row!"
I grabbed a paddle and straddled the rubber float. The ferry boat was gone. Jetsam floated on the surface. Amid the growing oil slicks, two bodies rocked in the waves. The murky mist over the jumpgate base had dissolved, and the bright white sun blazed in the clear sky overhead. The silhouette of the guard boat was barely discernible against the steel-and-concrete island.
"Why did they shoot at us from the boat?" I asked.
"Just row!" the crane operator said in a coarse three-packs-a-day voice. "The Feds have their own orders."
"Where do you want me to row?"
"Over there," Oakum pointed behind my back.
I turned around. Wladas and the Chinese were rocking on the waves a few meters away. Neither of them spoke. I didn't like it. The neurotech lay on his back, arms wide apart, staring into the sky.
I sat down with my back to the machine gun, lowered the paddle into the water and pulled violently. Oakum on the other side countered, trying to make sure the raft didn't turn. We soon reached the two heads bobbing in the water. I glanced over my shoulder. Several large bubbles billowed up: all that remained from the ferry boat. A few more bodies resurfaced.
Wladas was pale - unconscious, by the looks of it. With the boy's help I dragged him on board. The Chinese climbed in with ease.
"Is he alive?" the captain asked as I bent over the neurotech. "I don't need no stiffs here."
Wladas coughed. I turned his head to one side and water spasmodically gushed out of his mouth.
"You're in luck," the crane operator grinned. "If it wasn't for..."
His stare met with mine, and the gun's barrel pointed at my chest.
"Now," the captain said. "Don't even think of rioting. I'd rather have a chat with you before we reach the shore. I don't care about your names or sentences. But if you can tell me what's going on back on Earth... Having said that, any of you got sea legs?"
I shook my head and glanced at the Chinese. He sat straight, hands on his knees, smiling and looking much like a votive statue.
"What's wrong with him?" Georgie pointed his gun at him. "What's there to smile at, Chink?"
"He doesn't understand you," I said.
" He will when I shoot him!"
"Shut up, Georgie," the captain shrugged. "Give me a chance to talk to the people."
He sat up as if nothing had happened and went on.
"Any mechanics among you? My engineer's dead. I need someone to replace him."
Once again I shook my head. The Chinese kept on smiling.
"Shame," the captain scratched his tattooed shoulder and squinted at the boy. "I'm afraid, it'll have to be Oakum."
The kid's eyes lit up. He spread his shoulders and stuck his chin out.
I didn't like the way he spoke. Asking about the Earth and new engineers so matter-of-factly as if nobody had just died during the sinking. Okay, they were only deportees, but they were still human. Lots of them, turning into fish food even as we spoke. He didn't seem to care. Death must have become mundane here on Pangea, to the point where no one cared about the dead.
"Quit glaring," the captain lowered his hands. "Think about those who've survived. About yourself and your future. You can't bring the dead back to life."
"You can't," Georgie butted in.
"Ferries sink all the time," the captain went on, like an old grunt telling war stories to rookies. "Last year, one just disappeared. Like that," he clapped his hands. "A bolt of lightning, and it was gone. Had to be Pangean devils."
Wladas finally caught his breath. He lay on his side wheezing and clutching at his throat. The Chinese sat with his back straight, smiling.
"So! No new Civil war out there, apparently?" the captain asked.
"Apparently not," I picked up the paddle and straddled the float.
"How about Siberia?" the crane operator perked up. "They haven't sold it to those slant-eyed clones, have they?"
"In your dreams."
"Good," Georgie grinned. "They've pissed away the rest."
"How many times have I told you?" the captain jumped up. "What do you want with that radioactive waste pit? Siberia! It won't change just because you ask!"
The crane operator sulked. Clutching his gun, he looked at the Chinese. His knuckles turned white.
"Georgie is a Siberian, see," the captain said. "A Baikal conflict volunteer. So he's one of our old-timers."
A Baikal conflict veteran. I see. I hadn't even been born when this Georgie was fighting for Siberia's independence against the Chinese clone settlers, razing their Irkutsk settlements to the ground. No one knew for sure but apparently, Siberian independence was the real cause behind the Civil war in Russia. A year after, the newly-formed Federal Security Agency had started mopping up. It took them several years to properly establish the new totalitarian regime. That had been their hay day - purges and arrests - right up until the Coup of the Seven Generals.
"Okay," the captain slapped his hips and turned pointing to the direction of the mainland. "Course north west, fifteen degrees starboard from Elephant Ridge.”
"Leave them, Grunt," Georgie spoke. "Just look at them: they wouldn't tell north west from a shit sandwich. And that slanted-eye monkey don't speak no Russian."
The captain sighed. "In other words, row till you hit the shore. Oakum! You on lookout, make sure we don't lose the current. Keep an eye on the wind, too. Give your paddle to the Asian. Let him work for his rescue. Georgie, keep a bead on them-"
"Depend upon it!"
"... it would be safer for us all," the captain concluded.
The kid passed his paddle over to the Chinese and sat in front next to the captain. I nodded to the Asian. We made a couple of strokes adjusting to each other and paddled away. Luckily, the wind was at our backs otherwise we'd have to drift and no amount of paddling would have helped, not with all this windage. Now I understood why they'd rescued us: they’d needed someone to paddle. I glanced back again. The island and the Fort receded slowly but surely, and I couldn't see the debris any more.
"Permission to speak," the captain clutched his hands on his belly and reached out his legs. "Rookies have lots of questions."
Georgie snorted. I looked at Wladas. He sniffled with his head dropped onto his chest. The dumping and the shock had been too much for him.
"Why didn't they rescue us?" I pointed my paddle at the Elephant Ridge with its beam trawlers. "Couldn't they come and help?"
"Trawlers have no business in the Fort area," the captain said. "They'd be sunk straight away. And during these vortex incidents," he raised his eyes to the sky, "the Fort closes the channel and tells them to leave at full steam."
"How big is the base water area, then?"
"About five miles south from the Elephant Ridge. Right up to Cape Fang."
He pointed over Georgie's head to the east where a crooked black cliff hung over the shore. Far beyond it, mountain tops barely showed through a gray mist: that was the beginning of the mountain range that encircled the continent's east coast. The swamps had to lie by the northern foothills.
"The only way to get to the base is by ferry boat," the captain waved his hand, "and only when they're expecting a new shipment of convicts. We take carula on board, then wait for the go-ahead from the Fort commander and approach the base. Then we unload, ship the men on board and go back."
I’d barely heard his last words as the Information clicked on again in my head,
Herba Cearula, or blue seaweed, commonly known as carula, grows exclusively in the New Pang area. It is the only source of biocyne.
Biocyne? I thought, thus activating a new page:
Biocyne is a biologically active substance produced by the seaweed species herba caerula. It facilitates DNA breakage repair resulting in improved environmental tolerance and longevity...
"Quit gawking and row!" the captain shouted.
The Information finally shut up allowing me to paddle with renewed vigor. I glanced at the unconscious Wladas and the silent Chinese. What was going on here? Nothing but riddles. First the chain of accidents at the jumpgate, then this Chinese who looked as if he was keeping an eye on me. Now this complex informational software in my own head, and when had they ever had time to install it? I could only think of one instant when they could have done so: after the tribunal when army surgeons had removed my combat implants. They'd had to put me to sleep. But if the surgeon had installed the software, he couldn't have done it on his own accord, could he? He couldn't have cared less about me. Which meant he'd been forced into it - why else would he risk facing a court martial?
But what kind of force was it? Who'd care about a soldier and a murderer on his way to life in exile? And had the Chinese been sent here by the same force? And how about the jumpgate accidents, had they been arranged, as well, in order to distract the Fort operators and slacken their vigilance? True that they hadn't looked too deep into my mental scans - not deep enough to discover the unauthorized software, anyway.
My head was spinning. The Chinese, Information, jumpgate accidents... biocyne.
"What's carula?" I asked.
"Just some slimy shit," Georgie muttered. "Stinks to high heaven."
I looked at the captain. "Why do you send it to the Fort?"
He shrugged. "God knows. They process it, like, to use as a food supplement. To help with overpopulation. According to them, we deliver food shipments."
"How can I say..."
"Regularly enough," Georgie grumbled.
"Exactly," the captain nodded. "We send, like, one shipment a month."
"How do you harvest it?"
"It's cultured. Once it blossoms, divers go down and filter the muck... Why would you want to know?"
I didn't say anything.
"Shitty job," Georgie winced.
"Not nice, no," the captain said. "But it's McLean and his people who deal with that. Virtually no Russians on his farms. And I shouldn't think of becoming a diver. They're dog meat, no one cares if they live or die. Worse than clones."
I stared in front of me. I'd just realized that the Information's data was classified. Here on Pangea no one seemed to know anything about biocyne. The deportees seem to think that the Earth needed the blue seaweed as a handy nutrient to add to cheap synthetic food they sold to the poor. Even on Earth, few knew about biocyne's precious properties. It was used to make medications to reverse aging, affordable to a select few like our President and corporate top brass. Had the common people learned that the authorities manipulated them in more than one way, achieving immortality while the deteriorating environment cut the average lifespan further with every year...
That was all well and good, but the average soldier like myself wasn't supposed to know these things. The Information had told me... no. It had only repeated something I'd known for a long time. This was no Information software - the installation seemed to help surface suppressed memories.
I got out of synch again, rowing slower as I got lost in thought. It looked like I was caught in a weird and disturbing situation.
I glanced at Georgie and the captain,
"I understand the Earth needs the seaweed. But what's in it for the settlers?"
"All our machinery," he explained, "is exchanged for carula. All the generators, spare parts, guns and ammunition... It's old: nothing digital, no pulse guns or computerized lathes. Even the gun cartridges are analog."
"And the fuel? There're no mineral resources here, are there?"
"There aren't," the captain grinned. "But we do have the Tanker."
Information butted in again. The Tanker is the oil riggers' base. It includes the supertanker Samotlor, an oil rig, a supply vessel and the icebreaking tug Svyatoslav Norg which were teleported to the Continent as a result of Boris Neumann's bomb test disaster.
"Heard about the Samotlor disaster?" the captain said. "You must have, it was all over the news. A whole convoy disappeared on its way from the Arctic oil rigs."
"I see," I mumbled.
"The tanker was full to the brim," the captain perked up, gesturing away. "When Neumann first discovered Pangea forty years back, we kept finding all sorts of shit caught in the jump. Raiders make good money out of it, seeking and selling their goodies on the New Pang market."
The crane operator nodded.
"Our Georgie here was with the raiders for quite a while. He used to work with Neumann himself before Earth pulled the plug on his research," the captain raised his bushy eyebrows wrinkling a sunburnt forehead. "You don't know what I'm talking about, do you? Neumann is the old egghead who went missing two years ago, but not before he talked the whole of New Pang senseless with his swamp stories and Continent mysteries. He'd researched all of Pangea by then, from top to bottom, and he had a good team to help him, too. But then-"
A wave hit the board. The raft jerked, showering me with briny froth.
"The wind's changing," Oakum said.
"Easy all," the captain ordered. For a few seconds he sat still watching the sea. Then he elbowed Georgie,
"Not good. There's a storm brewing from the Fang. It'll be here soon. The shore is a stone's throw away, but if we try to land, the waves will beat us to fuck on the rocks.”
The crane operator didn't answer. From out of the corner of his eye he watched the Chinese who didn't avert his gaze from the cape.
I could see the Asian's anxiety, too. Did he understand Russian or was he just second-guessing our risks? I'd have loved to have known that.
The raft rocked harder, spattering Wladas with froth. He perked up.
"What's up?" Blinking, he turned his head and tried to sit up. "What's going on?"
No one answered. The Chinese turned to Georgie, feigned a smile and froze again.
The captain sized us up, gloomy, munched on his lip and said,
"Now, guys. It's better if you jump overboard. Off you go."
Georgie tensed up and grasped his gun tight. The young sailor bit his lip, looking scared.
"Don't move, Oakum! I'm talking to the deportees. We need to increase windage. This way at least some of us survive. You hear me? Jump!"
"Did you hear?" Georgie raised his machine gun, its butt hard against his shoulder. "Out, now!"
A shadow moved out of my field of vision. It looked as if the Chinese had simply turned, but Georgie emitted a stifled scream and dropped the machine gun. I reached out, grabbed the gun by its holed barrel shroud and pointed it at them. The Chinese was already undoing the slackened crane operator's pants belt while holding the sharp end of the paddle to the captain's throat.
"Hey," I called him, "what's your name... Enough for the time being."
The Chinese released the belt and grabbed it with his teeth. He pushed the belt's end through the buckle to make a noose and lifted his face.
"What's your name?" I asked staring into his expressionless slanted eyes. "Do you speak a word of Russian or not?"
He answered with a volley of gobbledygook stressing the word Wong.
"Wong. Is this your name?"
He picked up the noose and turned away.
"Wong. Please don't," I poked him with the gun and commanded, "Sit back down."
Wong turned to me and shook his head, disapproving. Still, he sat down next to the captain, barging the boy aside.
"What now?" the captain kept squinting at the paddle in the Chinese's hands.
I began unloading the gun.
"We'll split into pairs. There are six of us so we can take turns rowing. You and Georgie, take the paddles."
Wladas stirred. He apparently didn't look forward to straddling the dangerous rubber float.
"Move it," I dropped the ammo belt onto the raft, removed the buttstock and the return spring and began to remove the bolt. "Hear me, Grunt? Bring Georgie round and get rowing."
"Oakum," the captain rubbed his neck, "get some water out of the survival kit."
The kid bit his lip again and stepped toward the captain, undecided.
"How do you expect him to do it?" I said. "You're the one sitting on the bag. Another thing. I suggest we drop these stupid monikers, or not? What's your name, sailor?"
"Jim," the boy said.
"That's not a Russian name," Wladas raised his eyebrows. "What did they send you here for?"
"He's one of the locals," the captain rose and started undoing the survival bag. "Born here. What are your names?"
Wladas and I exchanged glances. Over the last thirty years or more, Russia had signed quite a few international agreements allowing other countries to get rid of their undesirables by sending scores of them to Pangea. About a decade ago, an epidemic had wiped out a large part of the Continent's population, but by now a new generation had replaced it: young men and women who had grown up in their prison world without once setting foot on Earth.
"I'm Mark," I said.
"Wladas," the neurotech added.
The captain had produced a flat water container, unscrewed the top and took a large swig.
"I'm Trophym," he wiped his mouth with his forearm. "Trophym Pavlovich Kuznetsov. But I'd rather you call me Grunt. I'm used to it."
"Georgie needs water," I reminded as I put the disassembled machine gun aside. I showed the bolt to the captain.
"I'll keep it for the time being. Now get on with it!"
I put the bolt into my breast pocket and glanced at Georgie as the captain splashed some water into his face. Apparently, Wong had overdone it. The crane operator didn't look as if he would recover any time soon. I ordered the Chinese to join the captain and row and told the others to be ready to replace them.
At first we didn't do too badly. According to Grunt, we'd reach the inshore current at any time which could take us to the shore before the storm.
But the wind grew stronger, the waves bigger, and the swell heavier. Finally, I told the rowers to ship their oars for fear of one of them ending up overboard.
"How far to the shore?" I asked panting.
"Less than a mile," Grunt stood up looking to the east. There, the blackened sea hung over the blurred horizon. The white sun behind our backs turned crimson as it set, its light covering the rocky Cape Fang with blood-red spots.
"It'll smash us against the rocks," Georgie pointed out.
"How much time do we have?" I opened the survival kit and looked inside.
A torn blanket, two flat water containers, some purification tablets, a signaling mirror... but no sign of a first aid kit. I lifted the blanket and pulled out a sheathed machete by its leather strap.
"A bit more than an hour," the captain answered. "Provided we don't get flipped over."
I tied the leather strap around my waist and turned back to the bag. I handed Wladas and Jim a water flask each. Then I discovered a plastic container with a pair of field glasses inside, their ribbed case peeling with age.
I was just going to train them on the rocks and the thunder clouds above them when Wong exclaimed and pointed his paddle toward the north. I focused the glasses.
A truck drove along the shore.