Outland: Chapter 17
I never ended up seeing any other active ports along the coast like that man down in Los Angeles had told me of. I fully prepared myself to take time travelling underwater to avoid any more of the same situations like I did down there. Luckily, both for my sanity and the speed of our progress, I never was able to spot any more telling lights in the night.
I could feel the cold outside start to penetrate Gulliver’s metal skin. For the first time in almost a year, I opened up the mechanical access panel to turn the knob on the boiler to high. It had been set on the lowest setting to simple be able to heat water for drinking and the occasion shower, but never enough to send hot enough water to circulate into the cockpit’s radiator. I knew it would decrease the efficiency a bit, by my teeth chattering at night from the near hypothermia told me it would be a necessary thing to do. Despite that, my blanket became a permanent installation around my body as I sat inside the cockpit during the day. I cured the fact that none of my old work uniforms had proper, insulated long sleeves.
Long stretches of water were bordered by tall cliffsides that stretched up even farther than the rising tide. Rather than be pushed around by the chilling waves, I chose to pilot Gulliver up top, despite the often thick foliage that we had to push our way though. Many of the trees were taller than Gulliver himself, and the undergrowth was dense and rich. In a way, it was mesmerizing, like some sort of scene out of a sci-fi movie where adventurers find themselves on a strange planet that is inhabited by nothing but trees.
When the sun eventually set, however, I learned that it was increasingly more difficult to spot any lights on the horizon. My fears were confirmed one night when sets of lights flickered on somewhere on the other side of a patch of trees. Startled, I grabbed the controls and stopped Gulliver abruptly. If it hadn’t been for his own systems taken over, we could have possibly toppled over.
“Andrew, I must stress that you must take care while performing such an action.”
“Sorry, Gul. I can’t risk any other run-ins like the one down south.”
“I understand. You see lights?”
“Some just came on out there. They’re probably on some light sensor or timer by the look of it. There’s a lot of them too.”
“Many people, then?”
“It’s hard to say. But… let’s not move from this spot.” I took a deep breath, letting my hands fall off the controls. “Crouch us down. I want to be out of sight when the sun comes back up.”
The metal structure of Gulliver’s joints creaked as he took a knee, shifting the cabin at an angle. I quickly went around and turned off the lights up in the cockpit, eventually sliding down into my sleeping chambers to do the same. In the fresh darkness, I took another look out the small port hole to the bright orange lights filtering through the trees. Tired, I jumped into my hammock to rest, maintain an eye out towards the strange lights until I drifted off.
I woke up some time after the sun had risen. The lights outside had turned off, and luckily, it seemed as if we hadn’t been noticed. A quick scan outside the cockpit window confirmed that the position we had taken was temporarily safe.
“Gulliver, I’m heading out.” I announced, grabbing a bite to eat before climbing down to where the bottom hatch was located.
“On foot, Andrew?”
“Yeah. If I can talk to someone first, I can explain the situation.”
“Take care, Andrew.”
“Thank you. Open the bottom hatch, please.”
As the bottom hatch opened, I readied the rope ladder in my hands. Tossing it out, I head it hit the ground below, as the position placed us closer to the ground. I jumped down into the soft bark and dirt of the forest floor, and got my bearings once again.
Outside was slightly foggy, and chilly. I zipped the jumpsuit up as much as I could, and shoved my bare hands into my shallow, dirty pockets. With each step, the dry leaves and tiny branches cracked under my boots, and fog flowed out from my mouth. Moving through a final patch of trees and underbrush, I stepped out into a clearing that stretched out in the direction of the compound.
The tall light poles stretched up into the sky, overhanging several sets of wood and concrete piers. The structures dangled off the hillside, constructed several feet off the surface of the water. Between the larger piers was a sizeable container ship, still mostly empty, waiting under two cranes, only one of which seemed to be active. There was minimal protection around the base, save a shabby chain-link fence that had collapsed in places.
I quickly marched off from the edge of the forest and into the partially eroded soil towards the base. I could see a few people standing around the piers, but none of them seemed to turn my way or notice me. Carefully stepping over the collapse section of fence, I hiked up the embankment and onto the concrete pad in front of a big warehouse, partially packed with shipping containers and crates atop pallets.
I quickly called out to the first person I could see, asserting myself so I could trick them into thinking I was supposed to be there. “Hey, who runs this place?”
The man quickly turned around, befuddled. Without a word, he gestured over the another person; a large man sporting a reflective vest.
“Excuse me.” I approached the heavy set man.
He quickly turned to me with an unpleasant look, slowly switching to a scowl. “Do I know you? Who are you with?”
“I’m here on my own accord.” I held firm on my bluff.
“Then why are you here, and how did you get here?” I quickly turned back to his busy-looking clipboard.
“I walked here.”
“Then you can leave. We don’t have time to deal with wanderers.” He waved at one of the workers guiding a large shipping crate dangling under a crane. “Too much crap to deal with right now with this crane out.”
“Where is this shipment headed?” My eyes quickly lit up.
“Why do you care? If you try and stow away, we’ll shoot you on the spot. I doubt you’d like China though.”
“I can help you.” I waited for him to turn back towards me.
“You-“ He stopped and looked me up and down. “Can fix a crane?”
“No, but I can help load the ship. In return, I want to be able to board and cross as cargo.”
The man’s eyes shifted around in disbelief, finally looking at me as if I had grown a second head. “If you can prove to me in ten seconds that you can be useful, then do it. Otherwise, you need to get the hell outta’ here.”
“Give me ten minutes, and you’ll see what I can do. Just… don’t be surprised.” I took a quick glance back at the forest where I had stopped Gulliver.
“Whatever, kid.” The man shook his head, before waiving me off and turning back to the crane in its effort to load the container. Quickly turning around, I began to jog off back to the forest.
Almost out of breath, I found my way back to Gulliver and climbed back inside, pulling up the ladder after me.
“Did you find people?” Gulliver quickly chimed in.
“I’ve found more than that… an opportunity, even. We just have to do some work, first.” I quickly took my place in the pilot’s seat and engaged the manual controls to get Gulliver standing upright.
Walking out of the forest, I aligned Gulliver with the pier and slowly began to walk against the soft earth. I could see people starting to take notice of us as we approached the fence line. Without a second thought, I trounced through it, toppling and crunching what was left of the intact sections. The concrete made a nice crunch as Gulliver’s feet made contact with it, and I quickly scanned the area for the contractor.
Gulliver stopped in place, I headed back out the bottom hatch, where some of the workers had gathered around tentatively. As I reached the bottom run, I made eye contact with the director, eyes agape with both fury and confusion.
“If you… you’re… you should have just said something, damn it.” He stammered. “You know how to do load balancing?”
“He’s equipped with high load potentiometers, so it shouldn’t be a problem.” I motioned back to the cockpit. “It’s not what they’re designed for, but it would be faster than just running one crane, no?”
“Listen. We’ve got no guarantees that we’ll can get you on this ship.” The director grumbled. “But if you help out, we can try our best to talk the captain into something.”
“Good enough for me.” I folded my arms, understanding the tentative agreement. “Show me where you need me to go.”
“We’ll be giving the orders here.” The man waived furiously to the others around. “Quit lollygagging, let’s get this job finished with.”
Giving a final nod, I climbed back inside Gulliver. Finding a good spot in the pilot’s seat, I could see a man waiving a set of batons at me, leading backwards towards one of the yards, partially filled with rusty shipping containers.
“Gulliver, I’ll need your help on this one.” I admitted. “We have a proper job again, after all this time.”
“I will try to adapt my best to this maneuver, Andrew.”
Approaching the first of the crates, I squatted Gulliver down to grasp it, hand joints grasping onto the locking mechanisms at the sides. Feeling the container slip, I readjusted us to take it by the long side. I could see some of the stray workers sending concerned faces our way, but with some fiddling with the controls, I managed to take a firm grasp upon it.
“Weight is 4.3 tons Andrew. Comparatively light.”
“Right, then let’s place it near the edge for now. We can move it when we need to.” I quickly took mental note. Taking slow, deliberate steps towards the ship, I walked the container forwards, squatting back down to put it on the desk in as far as possible. The crane on the other side of the ship was moving back and forth at a similar pace, unfortunately having to match mine in order to keep the load balanced.
I noticed the baton man watching us, talking on a radio headset strapped to his ear. Once again, He lead me back to the yard and directed me to a specific container. Moving back and forth repeatedly, I felt a sudden rush of excitement at having a purpose again, and not just having to watch Gulliver walk along the coast all day long.
Another truck carrying a sole container pulled up from a road coming from the inland. The crane extracted it from the truck bed, and I could see the driver peek his head out the window at me. I quickly went back to work, following the signals of the man on the ground.
“Andrew.” Gulliver alerted me.
“We must be low on power, right?’ I looked out at the few remaining stacks of crates.
“Yes, Andrew. I recommend not continuing this sort of work until we can charge in the sunlight properly.”
“Hmm.” I mumbled, wiping my brow and staring up at the sky, skill mostly overcast. “We’ll have to save some power to get up on the ship, if they allow us. I’ll pull off to the side and stop us here.”
I could see the conductor look up at the cockpit window, confused, as I pulled away from his guidance and out of the path of the crane carrying the final group of crates. I quickily headed down and out the hatch, landing on the ground. The director had already approached.
“What, is that all you got?” He grumbled, sticking his pen behind his ear.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much power left. I did all I could, I promise.” I gestured my head back to the storage yard, more than half empty.
“That’s fine then, I guess.” The man rolled his eyes, rubbing the back of his head just below the line of his yellow safety helmet. “You still wanna get on board? I technically should compensate you for your work… but I don’t have the extra budget to spare and… it seems like this is something you want.”
“You seem to understand.” I looked the man in the eye. “I’d appreciate it, if you’d be so kind.”
“Ya know, my little brother drove one of these guys down south.” The director scanned up the front of Gulliver slowly. “I wanted to do the same, to have a cool job like him. He got caught up in the accident, though. Didn’t come home.”
“I’m… sorry to hear that.” I apologized, watching the others around us start to disperse.
“When you came walking out of the woods like that, I thought of him.” He took of the helmet and ruffled his thin hair, looking down at the padding inside. “It just made me happy that there are still folks like you, trying to do good. I’ll have a talk with the captain; there’s bound to be space for you on the ship.”
“Thank you.” I quickly responded, the man turning around to go back to the other men. I quickly scrambled back up inside Gulliver to put the solar array up, and to start organizing the loose bits around the cabin so that they would not roll around once aboard the ship.
Sometime later, I heard pounding on the hull, and I headed down to investigate. Below with the Director was an older man, dressed in heavy clothing with ratty fur trim, and sporting a beard that was intriguingly similar.
“You’re the pilot of this here craft, are ya, boy?” The old man spoke up, flashing a not quite complete set of teeth.
“Andrew.” I offered my hand, which he took limply. “I am. I wish to be aboard your ship, I have some business to take care of over there.”
“I don’t need your life story. I’ll let ya on.” He quickly looked up at Gulliver. It’ll be about a week and a half, dark most of the time, on rough waters.”
“I’ll deal with it.” I quickly nodded down at him.
“I’ll need you to shut that thing off completely too; can’t risk an old thing like that starting a fire with a loose wire or something.”
I gulped, looking back at Gulliver for a brief second. “No problem.” I replied slowly.
“Good, good then.” The man started to turn around. “We leave first thing in the morning. You better be ready by then.”
“Yessir.” I gave a quick nod to his back.
The Director nodded at me. “Good luck.” He mouthed to me. I looked around at the base, where many of the men had disappeared already. The fog had burned off, but the sun was already getting low in the sky. Out on the ship, the large gang-plank was still laid out to rest upon the side of the pier.
Quickly climbing back inside Gulliver, I made my way to the pilot’s seat. The light poles outside flickered on with their bright orange glow as if they had been expecting my movement. “We’re getting on the ship, Gulliver.” I began controlling him forwards.
The ship rocked slightly as I stepped over onto the deck, spotting the wide free slot between the two stacks of containers on either side of the deck. I carefully maneuvered Gulliver around the uneven surface of the deck, facing backwards. I had practiced laying Gulliver back for when he would be serviced, but never completely flat or in such a small space.
Bending at the knees carefully, I stretched Gulliver’s arms backwards until they were able to meet with the ground. With a grinding slide against the moist metal surface of the desk, we landed roughly on the ground. I found myself laying parallel to the ground with my legs up in the air, still sitting in the pilot’s seat.
I quickly grabbed my heavy flashlight and scrambled out through the now horizontal compartments inside of Gulliver, finding the hatch just a few feet off the ground. The sky outside had become mostly dark, and the lights on the pier hardly reached the deck of the ship. I quickly searched around for tiedowns and cables, fumbling around in the cold and the dark to get Gulliver in a place he would not be able to slide around. With breath heavy and hands raw, I finally finished, and climbed back inside Gulliver to take a breath before calling it a night.
“I’m powering you down for now. Until we get off this boat.”
“I understand the circumstances.” The response felt cold.
“When you… wake up, we’ll be across the ocean.”
“I will be looking forwards to it.”
“Commence shutdown sequence, Gulliver.”
“Yes, Andrew. Goodnight.”