Outland: Chapter 7
As we reached the northernmost tip of our side of the continent, I kept imagining myself looking out northward and being able to spot the land dangling down into the ocean. I had heard that much of isthmus connecting the two landmasses had been inundated under water. I realized at one point, it would have to be crossed.
The thought of passing the canal put a small nagging voice at the back of my mind, increasing as we continued. Back before the catastrophe, there had been a few pilots like me with similar mechs that worked the canal, mostly working to regulate the depth of the channels. Since then, I had little idea of what had happened to the canal, especially as the sea levels had risen.
In fact, there was little of the country of Panama that one could call ‘inland.’ With the presence of the canal and the sea traffic that probably still exited to some extent, I imagined that there would be still a good deal of people there.
The land started to bow outwards once again westward as we crossed over into central America. The Andes mountains had long since left us behind. It would only be a short distance to reach the Atlantic Ocean from this point, but I had already made up my mind that Gulliver and I would be heading northward to eventually find a way across to the western rim of the Pacific.
I could start to see the remnants of people’s lives along the edge of the land, confirming their presence by the sighs of more lights in the night. I was determined to continue along the edge of the water, but the land slowly began to creep uphill to the highlands. I can remember standing at a sort of fork in the road; following a path inland, or travelling submerged in the water.
If I went over the land, I would undoubtedly run into people. Gulliver definitely wasn’t something that could be missed, and I would be forced to show my face outside of the cockpit. It had been a long time since I had properly socialized with people. However, small talk would be the least of my worries. I had heard that many people still sticking around in this area were more expats and citizens of the states. Undoubtedly, I would get questioned nonstop about my control of Gulliver, what I was doing, and various other questions I wouldn’t want to answer.
Trying to sneak by underwater may have spared me this interaction, but the state of Gulliver’s systems had me worried. The stability ballast in his foot still hadn’t been properly tested, and it had been a long time since I had done any prolonged submersion trials to see how the seals would hold up. It would also be a challenge to clear the area before we ran out of power.
Both the sea and people are unpredictable, but I figured that any predicament I could attempt to talk myself out of would be favorable. Finding a footing in the rough grass and brush, I piloted Gulliver up the bank and onto the ground along the coastline.
Eventually along the path, I found a worn-down dirt road, complete with muddy pits with fresh tire tracks passing through them. I soon found the source of the tracks, a pickup truck patrolling around a chain-link fence guarding a series of guard points. Before I could close in, the truck began circling me, makeshift police lights flashing fervently. I slowed Gulliver down to an even more docile pace, and took to following the vehicle.
It ended up parking alongside the guard point, parking parallel to the gate as if to block me from entering. I could imagine myself simply trotting through the dainty fence, but there was no way I was going to cause undue trouble. More men appeared from the guard post, ancient looking rifles up to the cockpit. I decided to head down as fast as I could, not wanting to generate any more worry for them.
“Close the hatch after I’m down there, Gulliver.” I quickly shouted before beginning my descent.
Climbing down the wobbly rope ladder, I could hear them shouting up to me in Spanish. As I reached the bottom, I attempted to raise my hands above my head as fast as possible, but they had already pushed their way up to me and forced me around. I swallowed hard, attempting to make sense of their shouting, but the cacophony of their voices interrogating me all at the same time generated a buzz that I couldn’t understand.
A few choice words of English were thrown in, and I began to understand they wanted me to walk forwards. Forcefully, I was prodded through the guard house and into the compound beyond the fence. In the background, I could see the massive walls and locks of the canal extending out farther than I could see in both directions.
I hadn’t been the first time I had been roughed up, and I saw it in the eyes of them men that they were totally comfortable with the hardware in their hands, but I didn’t want to test any of their shaky, timid trigger finger. I was pushed along to one beaten up looking buildings; a white washed two story that overlooked the canal on one side. It looked as if a sign had been torn down off of it, once denoting whatever agency once used it.
Opening the door, they pushed me inside and down the hallway to one of the back offices. With a knock on one of the dirty frosted glass panes of the last door, a quick shout called for us to come in. As I was forced in, I could see the ratty office chair turn away from the window, and a light skinned man looked up to greet me, binoculars dangling around his neck on a strap.
He quickly shooed the other men out of the room, and waited for them to exit before turning his gaze to me, smug toothy grin on his face. “Nice toy you’ve got there.” He rolled his head back, nodding at the window where I could faintly see Gulliver beyond the fence.
“Nobody touches it.” I growled, scrunched up fingers rapping on the armrests of my own chair.
“Haha.” The man swung his head back, sitting across the desk from me. “Nobody is going to do anything. My men stopped you because your bot is a sight truly peculiar, especially these days.”
“More of a reason for you and your men to not lay a hand on it.” I announced, still not convinced by his pleasant exterior. “Getting the appropriate tools and resources to make repairs, let alone keep it maintained, is hard enough.”
“I would imagine.” The man stood up, pulling the binoculars off his neck. “We used to see pilots like you in this area much more often. One day though… it was long after the shift by then… it seems you guys got recalled.”
“That’s the gist of it.”
“Then what about you?” He questioned. “Why are you still piloting that thing? You on a job? Got your papers? You know where you are, right?” His voice began to rise, hands pressing into the surface of the desk.
“None of that.” I shook my head, knowing very well that my license had long since expired. “I’m just travelling now. What about you?” I turned the question around, hoping to distract him. “Who’s the boss here?”
“Boss? If you’re wondering about the canal… well, it is what it is, now.”
“So, you’re just going to be all secretive, is that it?” I leaned forwards in my chair, maintaining eye contact.
“Let me remind you that you’re the one being interrogated here.” He began to shout, spit flying from his mouth. Taking a deep breath, he continued. “Despite what it may seem, not all areas of the seaboard have gone completely rogue. Do you think I sit in this office just to seem intimidating and important?”
“To be honest, it’s been a little of both.” I sat back in the chair, rolling my eyes. “Listen, I chose to stop Gulliver rather than simply walking through this compound and leaving a wake of destruction. Let’s be civil about this.”
Pursing his lips, the man sat back down in the chair, eyes drifting away from mine. “The name’s Jameson. I’m the lead supervisor of this side of the canal customs. You got a name?”
“Andrew.” I muttered.
“Well, Andrew. Like I said, it’s not every day we see seven-meter-tall breaker bots creeping up the coastline towards us. But, we do tend to prepare ourselves for the unexpected. Who knows if you could have been some terrorist or something.”
“Terrorist? Those bots are machinery- tools.” I shook my head incredulously. “What type of people do you deal with here? Whose authority are you working under?”
“The amount of ships we’ve seen has been very low, but the amount of people wanting to cross between the continents has been very high now for a while. People are afraid of sea travel nowadays. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen any of the big truck convoys driving all over the place, carrying supplies and such?”
“No, I’ve been following the coastline for a long while now. Gulliver… my bot isn’t fit to cross over inland farther.” I nodded back at the big figure out the window. “The Andes are pretty hazardous and unforgiving.”
“I take it you’ve been on the move for a while now, then?” Jameson asked, rubbing at his chin. “You seem out of it.”
“Somewhat, but I’m also used to living like this. Gulliver is like a companion to me.”
“I see. Let me tell you about what we do here, then.” Jameson stood up, walking behind me and moving towards the door. Standing up quickly, I scurried out the door after him.
“You an expat?” He asked quickly just as I caught up behind him.
“You can call it that, though I’ve never renounced my citizenship or anything like that.”
“Well, I am.” He announced triumphantly, leading us outside. “The American government pulled out the involvement here soon after the shift, thinking it would run into disuse. There were plenty of us, though, who stuck around. We’ve been able to maintain this place; as well as keeping the peace the best we can.”
“Like customs? Or border patrol?” I pondered aloud.
“Not anything formal like that, now. We’re not affiliated with any group of people or country. We just want to help as many people as we can… even if that means weeding out the bad ones. Drug trafficking, wanna-be warlords, rabble rousers.”
“Killing them?” I asked quickly shaking my head. We continued walking, and I could start to see the water of the canal from behind the various rows of fences.
“No, no, not if we can avoid it. Straightening them up, or turning them back. We just really want to help those who want to find a better place. Up North is slightly better than down here, so people have been slowly coming our way.”
We had stopped at the fence line, and I wrapped my fingers around the links of fence. “Just like me.” I mumbled, overlooking the towering embankments beside the water.
“Just like you. You have family, or someone you want to see back in the states?”
“No… no. I have a destination I want to make it to. I’m going to stick to the coastline for now.”
“I couldn’t talk you into working here with us, could I?” He asked earnestly, biting his lip. “We had guys like you working down in the canal in the old days, helping us maintain and dredge it. You could also work security.”
“I don’t think I could do that.” I shook my head, quickly turning around to lean against the cold metal. I could still see Gulliver still standing just beyond the farthest fence. “I decided long ago that I didn’t like the feeling of being anchored in once place.”
“You don’t get lonely?”
“Not with Gulliver.”
“The AI in that thing? I guess whatever works for you.”
“I’ve enjoyed this uhm… meeting, but I would like to head back now, if that would be alright.” I admitted, turning to Jameson hesitantly.
“Sure, I’ll have my men let you through. I’ll just have to have a look at your papers real quick; some current identification or license just to make sure.” His eyes focused on mine, and I swallowed hard. “Hah, as if!” He exclaimed. “Just a joke. I couldn’t imagine someone like you having been in the outland for so long to have proper ID. I’ll walk you to the gate.”
“Heading up the dirty gravel, road, I could see some of the men from before, decidedly calmer. The large gate rolled open to the outside, and I quickly jumped back up onto the rope ladder. Arrving at the top of the hatch, I looked back down at Jameson, shading his face to look up at me.
“Gulliver, open up.” I banged on the bottom hatch, and the aperture opened up with a quick metallic scraping. Arriving back in the cockpit, I could see the sets of gates having been opened, and the drawbridge set in place over the canal.
Carefully continuing over the water, I took a quick glimpse, barely able to see the two bodies of water on each side of the canal. With a quick look back at the individuals at the edge of the canal, I continued onwards.