Outland: Chapter 10
My eyes grew tired from having been trained on the land before us. My hands rested haphazardly on the controls, throttle set at three-quarters speed for the past while.
“If I may recommend, Andrew… we are not progressing at maximum speed.”
“No, no, I’ve got this.” I said, snapping out of my daze. “I’m just keeping my eyes out, and this is helping me focus.”
“I am also capable of scanning our surroundings, Andrew. Is there something particular you would like me to attempt to detect?”
“I think… its better if I just do this. There probably isn’t anything.” I shook my head, pulling my hands off the controls for a moment to crack my knuckles against my palms. “I’m probably just being paranoid at this point.”
I had been looking for any signs of the footprint like depressions I had seen before, but the rocky ground swallowed up any signs of anything having passed by. The sea was calm and the sky clear. However, my eyes wouldn’t leave the spot directly out in front of Gulliver. Eventually feeling too feeble to continue piloting, I turned over the controls to Gulliver, and grabbed myself a ration. Between bites, I still looked out ahead of us.
Standing up to throw away the crinkled foil wrapper of the ration, I took a quick glance out behind us. Even the spots where Gulliver had stepped were barely visible against the slope of tiny fragmenting rocks. Each step was carefully placed, a few feet from one another. I sat back down for a moment, rubbing my temples to try and clear my mind of the thoughts that were driving me crazy.
I either must have dozed off or gotten lost at looking at the steady lights of the instrument panel when I felt Gulliver stop. “Obstruction ahead, Andrew. Recommend switching to manual control to get around it.”
I looked up suddenly, and my heart immediately jumped up in my chest, pounding with fright. Sitting between the edge of the water and the steep hillside ahead, I could see the gigantic silhouette of another mech sitting quietly, still. “Systems, Gulliver?” I uttered, voice beginning to shake.
“Charged to 42%.”
I grabbed tightly onto the controls, knuckles going white. I could see the glint of light shining off the opposing mech, their cockpit pointed our way. There was no doubt they hadn’t seen us yet, having approached slowly. “Is overcharge mode available, Gulliver?”
“We could sustain in for about a minute, Andrew.”
“Be prepared if I call for it.”
My gaze remained fixed on it, not wanting to blink. It seemed like a newer model, with almost pristine paint job and updated body physique. Since having made contact with it, it hadn’t moved an inch. I looked down at the tiny led on my radio systems panel, glowing brightly despite its inutility. I could remember all the hours I had run it in the past, hoping to make contact with someone else. It eventually burnt out, leaving me with no other option for long distance contact. If the other machine was trying to contact me, it would be to no avail.
Eye burning, I refused to pull away. My hands lay tensed on the throttle, waiting for an inch of movement. Without warning, the mech’s leg moved forward, and I found my hand frozen in place, unable to move the joystick forwards. With that singular movement, it stopped, and I could see a ladder being unfurled from where their bottom hatch would be. A man quickly descended, standing before the legs, waiving a big white t-shirt in the air.
“Are they… giving up?” I mouthed.
“A white flag is the generally accepted sign of surrender, Andrew.”
“I understand that…” I mumbled, pulling my tensed arms back. “But is he surrendering to me?”
“Perhaps he just doesn’t want to enter combat.”
“Open the bottom hatch, Gulliver.”
Sliding down the ladder on my side, I quickly turned to see the man descending the t-shirt flag out of the air, arms tired. Raising my own arms in the air, I slowly made my way to the middle point between the two machines, as he did the same.
The man seemed a little older than myself, but sported a bald head and glasses that seemed premature for his age. Holding the crinkled-up shirt under his arm, he approached. His face had become red, shiny with a thin layer of sweat.
“Friend then?” He called out, making his way towards me. “Put your arms down kid, what do I look like?”
“You look like a pilot to me.” I said, finally reaching him, offering my hand outwards in a handshake.
“Well, sort of.” He sighed, placing his palm against mine. “You scared me and my wife to death.”
“Your wife?” I responded. Behind him, I could see another figure coming down the ladder, making their way over to us.
“My wife is the pilot. We’re a team.” He said, as the woman came closer. Exhausted, I plopped myself down on the ground, breathing ragged. “It seems we spooked each other.”
“That’s one way to put it.” I said, head resting against my knees. “I never thought I would see another breaker out here, never.”
“Me neither.” The woman spoke up. “The name’s Jane Michaels. This is my husband Nathan.” She offered, taking a seat across from me. “You didn’t answer my hails, so we figured you were hostile.”
“So you had your husband jump out and waive a flag of surrender?” I joked. “No, my machine is just old. Radio’s busted. You can call me Andrew, by the way.”
“I see.” Nathan looked up quickly at Gulliver before taking a seat. “That’s a gen four, is it not? How did you manage to hang onto it for so long?”
“I didn’t have much of a choice. Gulliver is all I have.” I mumbled, playing with a shard of rock on the ground. “What are you doing out here? I saw your footprints around the old harbor back there. It got me worrying about running into another breaker. Luckily… you guys are the civil type.”
“I’d say we’re not too different from you.” Nathan sighed, resting his hands on his knees. “We just wanted to continue living like we do. We don’t have really much family inland, and we sold our house and most of our belongings before we took this job.”
“Your ship looks like it’s in great shape.” I noted, peering up at the light glinting off the paint of the mech opposite Gulliver.
“Generation five.” Jane nodded emphatically. “We were rationed with this one in particular because it has additional systems that require a two-person team to operate. Additional sensor arrays for picking up and recording readings in the subterra underwater. We got it pretty fresh. AI goes by Zeus.”
“Zeus.” I mumbled. “You two must have been fresh out of the mill when… the shift happened.”
“Heh, you caught us.” Nathan rubbed the back of his head apologetically.
“We had a good couple of weeks in the cockpit getting used to ebb and flow of the job before it happened.” Jane finally took a seat on the rocky ground. “After the waters hit, it was every man for himself. Nobody could contact the stationary base up here near Baja. Some of the other pilots who were from this area split almost immediately to check on their homes.”
There was a low wind that came up off the water, sending a small chill up my spine. Pulling my legs up to my chest for heat, I ran my fingers across my head to fix my messy hair. “Hey, Nathan, dear. The boy looks like he could get some food in his belly.” Jane turned to her husband, pulling her long hair back over her shoulder. “Let’s bring down some of our supplies and cook dinner down here, shall we?”
“That sounds like an idea, huh.” Nathan quickly jumped to his feet. “I’ll collect some wood and we can make a campfire of sorts.”
“You don’t have to do that, you two.” I shook my head. Jane was already making her way back to their ladder, and Nathan had started to walk in the direction of the tree line to the side of us, urging me to follow.
“Don’t be so stiff, boy.” Nathan joked with me as I caught up with him. “You must be lonely after being isolated out here so often, no?”
“I talk to Gulliver.”
“You mentioned that.” Nathan nodded, bending down to pick at some dry sticks stuck amongst the wiry grass. “It’s just an AI you know. It can’t have that much to say.”
“It’s better than nothing.” I shook my head. “I’ve had my run-ins with people before. Most of them aren’t bad. Sometimes desperate, or defensive, but not bad.”
“Maybe you’re lucky.” The man scratched his head with a free hand, bits of dry wood starting to pile up in his opposite arm. “I remember when we first began living aboard Zeus for the first time, both of us in that tin can. It was rough sometimes. We managed to work it out, though.”
“I see…” I mumbled, trying to look for sizable chunks of wood to shove under my arm.”
“That should be enough.” Nathan called out from behind a group of trees, wandering about with a sizable bundle of wood. Stumbling back out of the timbers, I could see Jane organizing a pile of rocks in a circle, big ice-chest looking box beside her.
I dumped out my pile following Nathan doing so. I watched as he carefully laid out a small teepee shape of branches inside the circle. They had what looked like old-fashioned camping gear, ready to put over the firepit to roast something. With the pounding of two stakes into the cracks in the rock, they had set up a spit, ready for the fire to be set alight.
Nathan quickly fished a box of matches out of their kit, looking well worn. Lighting the fire, he looked up towards me, probably seeing the look of awe on my face. “Not a boy scout I take it?”
“No…” I shook my head, puzzled.
“One thing we like about being out here in the coastline…” Jane spoke up, fishing around in the ice chest. “is being able to just camp out anywhere under the stars, the sound of the in the distance.”
For a moment, I stopped and listened to the soft pounding of the waves, the gentle call of the ocean that I had rarely stopped to think about. The fire began to rise up, popping and licking at the sticks. Nathan quickly added one of the bigger branches, which was quickly licked upon by the growing flames.
“It seems very nice, now that I’m here to think about it.” I pondered. “Usually, I’m just consumed with travelling, day in, day out.”
“Is that all you’ve been doing, kid?” Nathan looked up at me with a look of guilt in his eye. “Where were you stationed originally?”
“All the way down by the cape.” I mentioned nonchalantly. I could see both to turn and look up at me. “I wanted to get up by the equator, and when I got there, I decided to just keep going.”
“I can’t imagine going all that way, in a bot no less.” Jane shook her head in disbelief. “You must have something to keep you from driving yourself crazy, right?”
I thought for a second, and spoke up. “I do. Let me show you.” I quickly jumped up and ran back to the ladder hanging down outside of Gulliver. Reaching my study inside, I pulled out my stack of rolled-up maps and tucked them under my arm, quickly returning down below.
Jane had already skewered some chunks of meat on the spit, which had begun turning brown over the fire. Tiny drips of liquid from the chunks dripped down onto the fire and hot embers, causing tiny bursts of steam to sizzle and rise up from the heat.
“I’ve been cartographing the coastline on my way up.” I unfurled some of the more finished maps from the bottom of the stack. I held them up to the firelight to be better seen in the dying light of the evening.
“That’s something.” Nathan glanced down at them, eventually grabbing one for himself. “So, this is what the coastline looks like now down there, huh? Jane, take a look at this.”
The wife turned her attention away from turning the spit and scooted over to Nathan, whom I had passed another map. “These are very detailed, Andrew. These could be of great value to someone. Perhaps not now, but maybe someday.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.” I said, rubbing the back of my head.
“Cartography was pretty much a lot art for a while kid. Everything being explored and whatnot.” Nathan gestured around with his eyes. “What got you into this.”
“My first attempts…” I pulled out one of the older maps, wrinkled and sloppy as it was. “Were of the fissured and landscapes down there on the bottom. We… me and Gulliver, spent a lot of time along the Peru-Chilean trench. Seeing how the landmasses come together like that along the ocean floor was… incredible.”
I looked up from the map to see the two staring up at me. “You must have been… there, when it happened then, no?” Nathan prodded.
“I was…” I went on calmly, setting the papers beside me. “I don’t know what people experienced up the coast, but down there, it was something else. I would compare it to the dinosaurs seeing that giant meteor come to crash down on the Earth.”
“How did you…make it out?” Jane looked me in the eyes expectantly.
“I was lucky enough to be on land when the first of the earthquakes hit. The guys who had been mining the trench were most likely obliterated by the sudden increase in water pressure around them. Even inside of Gulliver, I felt the ground move upwards and backwards. It was almost like having a sheet pulled out from under me. Gulliver even tumbled to the ground. I was knocked out in the process, but when I came to, the emergency sirens were going off all around our base, and Gulliver was covered by several feet of water. It kept rising, too. I kept waiting, expecting for the tsunami to retreat, but it never did. When we finally did regain out footing, I could see the water continuing up inland for probably a good mile or two, finally stopping at the Andean foothills. On the other side… out where the water should have been… there was the plate protruding up, sea floor suddenly pushed asunder into the air.”
Nathan and Jane had turned their heads down to peer into the fire. “So, we know the cause was the mining in that area, now. That was always the mystery to us.” Jane mumbled.
“How many people survived? Where did you go after that?” Nathan added.
“A few colleagues with their own mechs went about looking for survivors, or went around the coast for family. Out base there was destroyed. I headed back around the cape to search for the base located on the Atlantic side. It turned out to be destroyed and abandoned as well. After that… I just started travelling.”
The meat sent another drop of sizzling juice into the fire, and Jane quickly pulled the spit down. “Well, let’s stop this depressing nonsense, and eat up.” She quickly pulled out a couple steel plates and slid some of the meat off onto them.
The first place was handed to me, and I took in the smell of the fresh food, having eaten nothing but dry rations and random fish for the last few months. My mouth watered while I waited patiently for the other two to get their own plates and put more meat upon the spit.
Nodding in silent agreement to start eating, I shoved the big chunk of meat into my mouth. It was tender, and possibly the best tasting thing I had eaten in a long time. After having shoved several of the pieces into my mouth, I chewed quickly, barely being able to speak or breath while I attempted to take in the flavor.
“This is amazing, what is it?” I finally got down the giant mouthful.
“Listen… Andrew, maybe you shouldn’t ask.” Jane answered quickly between swallowing bites.
My heart quickly jumped, and my stomach grumbled in protest. “This isn’t human, is it?”
“No, no.” Nathan stopped me. “It’s dog. We came across a pack of stray… rather, wild dogs out here. In this place, there isn’t a lot to go around. Waters are pretty polluted so fish are mostly a no-go. You have to deal with what you can find.”
“Nate.” Jane admonished him. I looked down at the remaining chunks of meat on the plate.
“We didn’t kill someone’s pet poodle. Meat is meat.” Nathan shook his head. “It’s hard to push the feeling out of your mind, but in the end, when you’re running low on rations and you haven’t seen any settlements in a few weeks, you try to find the first source of food you can.”
I looked down at the chunks of meat on the plate, slowly dribbling juices out onto the metal surface as they cooled. “You don’t have to eat them if you don’t want.” Jane reassured me. Without thinking, I lifted the plate to my face, sliding the chunks down into my mouth. I hardly had the chance to chew them down before swallowing the stringy food.
“Thank you.” I mumbled, feeling along the edges of my mouth for any mess. “I know the feeling of not having food at the ready. I’ve been lucky as of late but… you’re right, sometimes you have to ignore your feelings and just think of yourself.”
“You must have had hard times on your own, I take it?” Jane replied, leaning her head to the side against her arm.
“Not so recently but… in the past yet.” I paused, wondering if I should reply. “I was homeless before. Not alone for the most point, though. I actually had a dog, myself.” I gave a weak laugh, hoping to disarm the situation. Lifting my eyes up, I spotted the two staring at me through the twisting arms of the fire. “I shouldn’t have said that.” I continued, turning my gaze back down.
“How’d you end up out here, then?” Jane quickly changed the subject.
“When my dog, Jake, got put to sleep, I finally decided to look for some permanent work and a place to live.” I began to reminisce. “I had some money in the bank, but I could never find a place that would take pets. So, I never found a reason to work, if I didn’t have rent to pay. After all that nonsense… I found the job in the corps to come down south to work with the bots.”
“And you ended up as a pilot just like that?” Nathan questioned.
“I had the experience… sort of. Long ago, I was going to aviation school before my parents decided it was a waste of money, and cut me off. When I begged them for money to finish the last bit to get my certification, they pretty much rid me from their lives, telling me to find a job already. That’s how I ended up on the streets. Ended up adopting a stray and well… you know the rest.”
“When’s the last time you talked to your parents, Andrew?” Jane raised her eyebrows at me.
“When they disowned me. I couldn’t care less where they are or what they’re doing.” I grumbled, painting my finger through the meat juices remaining on the plate.
“We never had kids, Andrew.” Nathan began to explain. “But if you were our son, we would want to know where you might be, especially after everything that’s happened.”
I quickly turned my gaze to the shine of the firelight on the smooth surface of the plate, before I could see Jane’s arm stretch out, trying to retrieve it from me. “You don’t need to guilt trip him, dear.” She said, stacking up the plates. “Don’t you think we should call it a night?”
Nathan and I turned our heads out towards the sliver moon across the water, shining down on the rippling surface. “Sure, what about you, kiddo?” He nodded back to me.
“I’m a night owl.” I motioned back to the stack of papers. “I’m going to do some charting before I head off to sleep. I have to allow Gulliver to charge for a bit before we take off in the morning, too.”
“Well then, we won’t leave without saying goodbye.” He replied, tugging at the stakes out of the ground beside the slowly dying fire.
“Thank you for the dinner.” I quickly shouted out to Jane, who was slowly disappearing into the dark silhouette cast by their own bot. Gathering up my papers, I trotted back to Gulliver and climbed up inside.
The next morning, I was awoke by a loud metallic pounding outside. Moving down to the bottom level, I opened the hatch to look down below, where Nathan had removed the ballast hatch from Gulliver’s foot.
“It doesn’t look like it was in very good shape.” The husband mentioned as I found my way to the bottom of my ladder. Rubber mallet in hand, he had been pounding away at the edges to straighten them out.
“No, I had an incident with it.” I joked. In the distance, Jane had begun climbing down the ladder of their own bot. Noticing me, she waved.
“Make progress last night?” She asked, coming close enough so that we could hear each other. “It’s better on a full stomach, isn’t it?”
“Yes, thank you.” I nodded quickly. “I don’t think I’ll be doing any hunting, though.”
“Hah.” Nathan laughed quickly. “I don’t blame you. This should do you good.” He added, quickly putting the panel back in place.
“So, what’s your final destination, kiddo?” Jane paused, hand over her brow, to look up at Gulliver.”
“I’m looking to keep heading north… find a way to cross the sea.” I could see both of them look over at me after saying this.
“With this relic? What do you want to accomplish?” Jane flashed me an apprehensive look.
“I want to possibly find some parts to extend Gulliver’s life expectancy. A new, healthy power cell.”
“Well, that’s quite the undertaking. But… you seem to be confident in your path.” Nathan nodded emphatically.”
“Perhaps our paths will cross again one day.” The wife reached out for a hand shake.
I returned the gesture and then shifted to Nathan to do the same. “It would be hard to say for sure but… it’s definitely possible.” Turning back around, I was ready to thank them one last time before climbing back up into the cockpit.
“Listen, Andrew.” Jane stopped me. “When you reach the peninsula… Baja… I would try my best to head over land as much as you can. You’ll waste your time trying to head around the tip.”
“Yeah, there’s no Cabo left, either, if you were hoping for a party.” Nathan added in.
“But seriously…” Jane continued. “There’s little remaining on the coast or inland there… you could easily be stranded without food or supplies.”
“If you’re running on solar energy like you are, there aren’t many months of these long daylight hours. You’ll run out of summer skies before you reach the states.” Nathan warned. “Even if you have to skip your maps…”
“I’ll have to plan accordingly. Nothing I haven’t done before.” I said, placing my foot upon the first rung. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Safe travels, kiddo.” Jane said up at me. I could see the waving as I pulled up the ladder, ready to shut the hatch. As I found my place in the cockpit, lowering the solar array, I could see the two disappear inside their own machine. Taking careful steps forward, I could see the tiny black soot stain from the fire the night before. As I passed Zeus, I could faintly see the two inside the window of their cockpit, giving a quick wave.
“Those people… they were good.” Gulliver announced.
“Yes, Gulliver. They were good.”