Twenty Four: At Sea, Last Leg


Monday, Day 21 – Sarawak, Malaysia

The gas lantern hissed at full brightness from its improvised hook in the ceiling of the shipping container.

Sartaq looked again at the calendar he’d scrawled on the bare plywood floor. After the five days of pitching and rolling from Haiphong, they’d all welcomed two days anchorage outside Sarawak Malaysia. But it was now Monday morning and they still had four days sailing ahead. He worried they would miss his target in Singapore, the Saturday crowd at the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino.

We must sail today, he knew.

The smell of beans and ramen boiling over the LP gas stove made his mouth water as the morning meal was dished out to seven paper plates.

He’d been surprised how quickly they’d all come to ignore the ambient stench of unwashed bodies, covered buckets of pee and poo, and dried vomit on the plywood floor from the seasick days. The small electric fan in the vent at the back of the container kept them alive with fresh air but, when a toilet bucket was un-lidded, they’d quickly agreed to no potty visits an hour either side of meals.

Fortunately, after multiple days of seasickness and minimal eating, they had plenty of food. Rationing was not going to be an issue. Water, however, might still be a problem. They were halfway way through the third of the four 20 liter plastic containers with at least four days to go.

Sartaq carefully held out a steaming paper plate to Lili, being careful not to spill any of the water that pooled around the noodles.

When she didn’t react to the offered plate, he grumbled, “Here!”

She shook her head.

Sartaq sighed and sat down on his blanket next to Lili.

Sartaq set her plate between them and started eating from his own.

Glancing over, he saw a drop of water splash on the back of her folded hands.

He leaned over and half-whispered, “Are you crying?”

She didn’t react.

He went back to his food.

They’d learned to eat slowly. It was their only relief from the relentless boredom inside the shipping container. Each person drew out each meal as long as possible. It also seemed to lessen the stomach cramps they’d all been suffering since the third day out.

This is not a pleasure cruise, he’d had to say more than once.

Her head still down, Lili said, “Taq, you are a smart man. I knew that when we were kids.”

She swept her hand around the inside of the container. “You could’ve done much better than this. What happened to the big brother I admired, the one I loved so much when we were growing up?”

Sartaq nodded. Their early childhood in Wuhan had been wonderful. His adoptive father was strong, compassionate and gentle. And their common mother had been loving and sensitive. Between them, they were always enticing both he and his half-sister with new things, patiently teaching them how to do things, challenging them to solve problems and bend the world, limited as it was, to their bidding.

“We did have some wonderful times.” He frowned. “But we were very little then.”

He raised the paper plate to his mouth and raked in the last beans and strands of ramen. Chewing and swallowing, he brought the empty plate up and slurped the last of the liquid.

Don’t waste water, he reminded himself.

Lili had picked up her plate, expertly looped a ball of ramen on her chopsticks and put it in her mouth.

Chewing, she motioned with her chopsticks for him to continue.

Sartaq knew what the trigger had been.

“I was in Four,” he said. “You were in One so you wouldn’t have noticed but all the teachers changed. I mean, they were all new. At the time, we didn’t know what happened to the old ones.”

He paused but decided not to say what he suspected.

“The new ones, they were all loyal Party members. Some wore their green uniforms and caps every day, some just on special occasions, but they all carried the same Little Red Book all the time that they gave us. We used the old books in our desks less and less after that.

“Mom and Dad had me bring mine home but the school said that wasn’t allowed. They took them back but I never saw them again. They said the old books were wrong and that we’d be getting better ones soon. But that took a long time and, when the new books did arrive, they were mostly propaganda and slogans.

“Then, near the end of Six, we had an assembly. I remember seeing you in the audience. Everyone in my class had to recite something from the Red book. Mine was several pages long and I had a hard time figuring out what it actually meant. Mom and Dad tried to explain but I could see in their faces they didn’t believe what it said either. Anyway, when my turn came in the assembly, I got stuck.

Sartaq leaned over in front of Lili to get her attention.

“Do you remember Mr. Chen? He was the Party Representative, a short fat man with a pig’s snout of a face.

“When I started to stammer, I could see him fidgeting in his chair across the stage. He shouted at me to continue but I couldn’t remember.

“He stood up and started shaking his finger at me saying how I was failing the Party, failing my family, failing the country and failing the school and its honored administrators and teachers.

“Mom and Dad were in the back. Mom looked frantic but Dad, I can see his anger even now, was staring at Mr. Chen.

“I tried to explain to Mr. Chen why I was having so much trouble.

“I asked him, ’How can you say something that you know isn’t true?’

“Mr. Chen’s face turned bright red. He was breathing like a bull about to charge.

“I think I said something like, ’This is stupid. It can never work,’

“Chen exploded across the stage and slapped me. He slapped me across the face and I fell. Looking out, I could see Dad trying to come forward but Mom was holding him back, pleading.

“Somehow I ended up sitting on Chen’s little hat with its red star. He reached down to push me aside and, I guess get his hat, but as he came close, I reached up and slapped him back as hard as I could.”

Sartaq laughed, “The look on his face, sitting on his butt across from me, was wonderful.”

“Anyway, Dad was there by then. He pulled me up to my feet and we walked out.

“I have never been prouder of any man.”

Sartaq saw Lili silently mouth, “Wow!

He took a deep breath before continuing.

“A few weeks later, Mr. Chen came to the house. I wasn’t allowed in. Father later explained I’d been selected by the committee for what Chen had called a special honor. I was to be promoted from Six that week. Mr. Chen had explained I was going away to apply what I’d learned in school. I was going to be sent to a farm somewhere to work and improve agricultural practices.

“But I knew nothing of farming. It was just a sham. In fact, I was being banished for my public defiance.”

Lili nodded, “Everyone else in the world knew the ‘Cultural Revolution’ was a disaster for China. They killed the intellectuals and teachers and, worse, your Mr. Chen then abused the system to take revenge. That was terrible, Taq. You didn’t deserve that. It was a terrible time for our country.”

Sartaq shook his head, “That just started my real education.”

“You mean at the farm?” Lili asked.

“No. I never went there. I went to Kashgar instead, all on my own with no help, to find my real father’s family. But when I found them, they wanted nothing to do with me. Called me Piroytki, half-breed. The only warmth I found that winter was huddling with the pigs at night.

“One of my cousins, she was a year or two younger and reminded me of you, brought food scraps at night and we talked, longer and longer into the night.

“Our grandfather misunderstood.”

Sartaq reached up and touched the white scar that ran up through his hairline.

“He gave me this. I don’t know how long I was unconscious.

“The Major took me in, Major Qassim. I guess he found me and carried me to his home. He bandaged my head, fed me and gave me a warm, dry place to sleep. We talked for hours and hours. Through him, I learned how the Communists had swept into Kashgar in 1949. It was so fast, any resistance was overwhelmed before it could become organized. In a few weeks, all of East Turkestan, our country, was occupied.

“They called us part of the Province of Xinjiang.

“The East Turkestan Independence Movement was born with that pronouncement.

“Major Qassim knew my father, my real father. They were in the same unit that was supposed to confront a small patrol of militia and turn them away. It was to be a demonstration by the ETIM of its strength and resolve. But their intelligence was wrong, or maybe the plan discovered, because a full platoon of regular Chinese army showed up. The Major said they opened fire without warning. My father was killed in the first volley.

“I was an infant then. I never knew him.

“But Major Qassim said my father was a hero. He just never had the chance to show it.

“After the Major told me about my father, I remember laying in bed imagining I was standing with him, with my father, a rifle in my hands and blocking the invaders, reclaiming our independence.”

Sartaq glanced around. Everyone was listening.

“In the morning,” he said, spreading his hands, “I suddenly understood all the things that had brought me to that place. Mr. Chen and his banishment, my grandfather’s cruelty, even the fact that I’m a half-breed, I understood that all these things had a purpose, a reason, a goal.”

Sartaq raised his hands, “Allah was shaping me, guiding me, pushing me toward the purpose for my life.”

No one spoke.

“I am to finish what my father began. It is Allah’s will.”

He sat quietly, his arms up and face serene with the peace of an innocent child. Eyes closed, they could all see his lips moving in silent prayer.

He lowered his arms and head as he turned to Lili.

“So, I returned to you, Mom and my step-father in Wuhan. I learned a trade, reshaping and repurposing old metal, and set up a forge and shop near the University. At the end of each day I would close up shop and walk the campus, talk to the students and, every now and then, find one who would someday help ETIM. Sometimes they would do things directly in the name of the movement like the attack in Kunming a couple of years ago. I made some of those long-bladed knives.

“Others I’ve recruited have supported our fight for independence by sending money, carrying packages for us in their travels, acting as couriers and delivering communications to and from the leaders in Kashgar. Major Qassim is still there; I recognize his hand-writing in some of the messages I receive.”

Sartaq finished with, “I praise Allah. He has favored my life.”

Lili had listened quietly, nodding slowly several times.

She asked, “What about in the forest when Spence saw you?”

Sartaq was instantly angry, “Wang Qing Yang defied me. Hu Jian, Tan Ling and Deng Lan were starting to listen to him. I had to make an example of him.

“They did as they were told. They carried the bombs into the library and are now with Allah.”

“But why,” Lili pleaded. “Why did you kill all those innocent students? They know nothing of Xinjiang or East Turkestan. Why did you kill them?”

Sartaq turned to face her, his voice animated, “It was proof, proof that my plan will work.”

Lili’s blank look prompted him.

“Don’t you see? All these years I’ve done what they wanted. I’ve talked with students, convinced them to help, sent them to Kashgar and, from there, out to their glory. But I’ve never really done anything.

“After the attack on the twin towers in New York I realized that a small group,” Sartaq looked at his five followers arrayed before him sitting on the plywood floor, “like you,” he continued, “could accomplish something really spectacular.

“Hu Jian had been to Singapore with his family. He told me about the hotel there and the casino that’d been built specifically to attract the Chinese the Party had made so rich in their various secret schemes.

“So, I sent a message to Major Qassim proposing we do the same kind of thing, and in a way that wouldn’t need an airplane or learning to fly or even getting into the United States. Just the six of us here and some explosives.

“The library was a demonstration,” Sartaq said as if explaining something elementary.

“It showed the movement’s leaders in Kashgar that my plan would work. Blowing up the Library at Wuhan University showed them I could organize, manage and command a team like we’d need for Singapore.”

Sartaq smiled at Lili.

“If your boyfriend hadn’t been wandering the forest that day, you wouldn’t be here now.”

Lili nodded, “But Spence was there. He saw you murder that student in cold blood. And now you are holding me to ensure his silence.”

She finished the thought, “So, you must keep me alive. If you kill me, there’s nothing to stop him from going to the police.”

Sartaq grinned. She’d missed the point.

“You’re alive because it’s easier. You do what I say so I won’t kill him in Singapore. And your boyfriend stays quiet because he knows I’ll kill you if he doesn’t.

“See? It’s like you are holding each others lives and can’t let go to save your own.

“Isn’t love grand?” He sneered.

Lili stared at him but her eyes did not flick back and forth like she was searching. Instead, her stare was like she was drilling through and into his deepest thoughts.

That’s good, he thought. Let her see I won’t hesitate to kill if she or her boyfriend get in the way.

In the silence, a distant clanking started from the bow. At almost the same time, the deep throb of the ship’s main engines began to vibrate the container.

They were getting underway.

Four days, Sartak sighed in relief. Four days to Singapore.


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