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White Sailors

by Peter Jerrim

 
CHAPTER 7

The boat sped upstream. There was standing room only. And, apart from heavy breathing and some clearing of throats, silence. Huan and Lequila positioned themselves between Marta and the forward bulkhead and stared through a porthole at the brilliant green of the cliff. It had grown so high that the river on which they were travelling was in near-darkness. The interior of the boat glowed white, casting light from the portholes over the deck and onto the water. Bryan stood between the women and the soldiers who had switched on their camouflage gear and were hard to see, except for their unhelmeted faces and ungloved hands. The male soldiers casually jostled each other to glimpse the naked buttocks of the two girls in the bow. A tall, black male in the front shuffled closer to Bryan. Sweat ran on his face. Ringlets trembled red when he tossed his head. His Adam's apple slid randomly as he stared down into Bryan's glazed eyes.

'Kirsten.' Marta had school teacher's eyes in the back of her head. 'Control yourself.'

Kirsten snapped to attention then stepped back and stood at ease. He stroked the dull weight of the particle gun velcroed to his leg.

'Anyway,' Marta continued. 'It's particle-proof. And it's an agile little boy.'

Kirsten wiped his brow with his near-invisible sleeve and grinned. 'Flame troopers can handle themselves...'

'And that's all they'll do until we've got these ladies safely clothed and home.'

A titter from one of the female soldiers.

The bulkhead glowed red and the boat's speak-easy said, 'Warning. Hatches are closing. Deceleration imminent. Brace yourselves.'

In the next four seconds, the 30 unrestrained passengers were compressed into the front of the craft. The boat heaved into the air then flipped end over end and submerged. It rose again in a surge then slowly righted itself and settled. When the boat stopped rocking, the few soldiers in the aft who had been wearing safety harnesses released themselves and came to assess the damage. Arms and legs were tangled in a cartoon of confusion, groans and blood.

Bryan was first to extricate himself and help the others. He grabbed wrists, ankles and heads and pulled the attached bodies out like weeds from soft dirt. He helped them stand, if they could, and carried those who couldn't onto the deck where he sat them against the side of the craft and examined them in the darkness.

When he reentered the cabin Marta was attending two soldiers who were lying unconscious on the floor dressed only in their one-piece underwear. One was Kirsten. The other was a smaller, caucasian female.

The speak-easy kept repeating, 'There is no damage. Do you wish to continue? There is no damage. Do you wish...'

Marta barked, 'Not till I say so. Now shut up while I think what to do next.'

'As you wish, commander.' The bulkhead glowed green for a moment then the inside lights came full on and exterior lights lit the decks.

'Glit. Check these two for concussion and, if they're OK, give them a shot of something to resuscitate them. Now, where are my charges?'

'Continue to where?' asked a crew-cut corporal, as she squirted skin repair over a gash on her forehead. She stopped in mid-squeeze and the goo dribbled into her eyebrows. 'What is that?'

From the light cast by the boat, through the portholes she could see that the surrounding cliff was growing appendages--glistening bulbs and knuckles that extruded stalks with cabbage heads. The stalks swayed like the time-lapse tendrils of a climbing plant blindly seeking for something to which to attach itself.

'No!' cried Marta. She and the able-bodied soldiers scrambled on deck and fired their particle guns full-bore into the cabbage heads. The impact made each head pause as its convoluted surface was peppered with tiny craters. But the tendrils continued to weave about the craft and each head regained its purpose. Each tendril selected one of the injured soldiers that had been propped on the deck by Bryan. A cabbage head hovered like a globe of writhing mercury over the head of each soldier, then dropped. A silvery black liquid gleamed over the soldier's body and the soldiers were dissolved into it. Marta kicked at the tendril closest to her. Her boot rang on the tendril like a hammer on steel.

In a few moments the decks were clean of the injured. The able-bodied soldiers watched the tendrils and cabbage heads withdraw into the wall.

Then the lights went out.

Marta boomed in the darkness, 'Everyone inside.' And to Bryan, 'Think fast, glit. Tell us the score.'

Bryan squatted on the cabin floor and rocked back and forward. His senses had remained alert during the melee. His wafer had recorded everything for later analysis. He mentally fast-forwarded through the detail, searching for clues to the ship's location and the whereabouts of those of its occupants who had not been absorbed into the wall.

'You've lost ten soldiers...'

'Roll call,' said Marta, 'Names. One at a time.'

The surviving soldiers spoke their names in small voices.

Kirsten, Ohio, Ng, Ng 2, Charboug, Xenakis, Milhoau, Wong, van der Plas, Ti.

'Half present and correct, ma'am, Ti continued, 'Though Charboug and Kirsten have no weapons or uniform.'

'Ten left. Ten down. Hmm. Eight of which are operational.' Marta thumped the bulkhead. 'Give us some light, damn you.'

The speak-easy purred, 'We apologise for the inconvenience. A system failure has caused a temporary loss of power. Emergency lighting will be provided.' A dull, yellow light flickered from the cabin walls. The survivors looked at each other

The glit continued, 'And you've lost two nats. But at no stage did I see them on deck.'

'Half my superannuation is tied up in those young ladies. Where have they got to?'

'It's obvious, isn't it?' said Ti. 'In the confusion they've taken the uniforms and weapons fom Charbourg and Kirsten. They could have been fully camouflaged. Without our helmets on we wouldn't have seen them.'

Marta said, 'Then put on your helmet and look. They could be right here with a particle gun trained on you.'

Bryan said, 'They're nats. They wouldn't use weapons.'

Ti donned his helmet and glanced around the cabin. He said nothing.

'So where the hell are they?' said Marta. 'And reduce camouflage, everyone. I want to be able to see who I'm talking to. Now, how do we get out of this mess?'

The glit was still rocking. 'We're on level 17 and we should be about half way round the Sleeve. I'd give the exact coordinates, but they could be wrong. I'm not used to an environment that grows as fast as this.'

Little Charboug sat up, adjusted her underwear and blinked. 'You mean this is all pseudo? And we ain't in any cube thing?'

'It seems that way,' said Bryan.

Ti stood up and addressed Marta. 'What's the glit getting at, commander?'

'Spell it out, glit,' said Marta.

Bryan sucked some skin into his mouth and blew it out again in a bubble that winked in the low cabin light. A smaller bubble of spit slid round the inside of the bubble till it came to his lips. He swallowed. Bryan was starting to feel tired but he didn't want the others to know. He let the glitskin snap back to his face. 'In simple terms,' he said, 'although I can't be really sure...'

'Yes, yes.'

'The ten missing soldiers aren't a few metres away, sitting outside the Cube, sucking grope and surfing feelie channels while they wait for their comrades to finish their game...'

'Cut the crap, glit.' Ti fingered his particle gun. 'What do you mean?'

Bryan pushed another bubble, smaller this time, and paused for effect. 'Your friends are not pretend gone. They're really gone. Into the pseudo. I have no idea where.'

'They're still alive, though?' said Charbourg.

'Alive? It depends what you mean by alive.' Bryan looked up at Marta. 'Can we have a word outside?'

'Make it quick.'

They stepped onto the deck.

Marta said, 'I'll stand guard. I suppose you'll want to squat-and-rock.'

'I've replayed in slow motion the critical sensory inputs relating to Lequila and Huan. I thought you ought to know. The rate at which the boat decelerated suggests there is an obstacle in the river--or the river has come to an end.'

'Obviously.'

'So listen to what happened. Item 1. Both nats drop to the floor, squat against the forward bulkhead and curl into foetal position with hands locked behind the neck. Item 2. Marta stands with her back against the forward bulkhead and spreadeagles.'

Marta sniffed. 'To reduce the impact.'

'Item 3. Marta's face, breasts, abdomen, buttocks and thighs undergo lateral distortion during deceleration...'

'Spare me the details.'

'...while the rest of her company moves forward relative to the boat. Item 4. Kirsten impacts with Marta while remaining in a standing position. His head proceeds over Marta's head. His forehead impacts the forward bulkhead. His chin pitches forward. His nose and chin impact. The first centimetre of cartilage in Kirsten's nose is crushed. His torso depresses Marta's torso about 5 centimetres. Kirsten's legs continue another 50 centimetres between Marta's spreadeagled legs...'

'Spare me the intimate details.'

'...until his kneecaps smash against the forward bulkhead. In 2·65 seconds the remaining unharnessed personnel pile into the four people already pressed against the bulkhead. Charbourg impacts under Kirsten and rams face first into Huan's right hip.'

Marta traced a question mark in the air with the barrel of her particle pistol. 'Where are you in all this?'

'I just wait for the right moment and stand to the side on the forward bulkhead to watch what happens. At 90 degrees to the action. It works OK till the boat flips. Then I become a little more involved.'

'You are an agile boy. So, what else did you see?'

'When the boat flips end over end my visual data becomes too complex to describe. But I hear some interesting things. Item 207. Huan to Lequila: I'll strip the little one, you take the big one.'

'Ti worked that much out. Come on, glit, this is anxious-making territory out here. I want to get back inside and work out what to do.'

'Item 235. Lequila to Huan: And it's beddy-byes for me. (The next 80 audio items are mostly uughs and aaaghs.)'

'I still don't know where this is leading.'

'Wait. Wait. Item 319. (I only catch the first word of this.) Lequila to Huan: riverrun...'

Marta stowed her pistol. 'Now where have I heard that before?'

'It's a set text at the Flame Academy, I believe. The first word of the first sentence in a well known twentieth century novel. Perhaps you used a similar code to bring your boat through Sector 17 into this cell.'

'Come on, then,' said Marta. 'We'd better be quick.'

 

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