Twenty One: First Leg


Monday, Days 15-19 – Haiphong to Sarawak


Sartaq awoke with a start. He was sure they’d just been jolted upward a meter or so. And while the vertical motion had stopped, there was a slight but definite back and forth sway.

Looking around, there was a bright rectangle where he remembered the container’s now closed doors from the night before. In the light that was leaking through, he could barely make out several dark but human shapes sitting up around him.

Lili was the nearest, he remembered as a faint scent of her perfume came to him.

Their locked container was about to be loaded onto a ship.

The Sharmarke.

He remembered the name from the coded communique.

From Haiphong, it would sail South to Malaysia stopping at Sarawak before heading West to Singapore where their pre-arranged travel would end. The ship would then complete its three stop circuit back in Haiphong.

As they waited, there was a sudden clang as something metal locked in place on the bottom left corner under the door. A scrunch of boots on gravel moved to the right corner and the same clang happened again. Two more corners and clangs, there was a shout and the container jerked straight up.

Lili gasped.

“Sh!” Sartaq ordered.

Still ascending, the container racked broadside, the whine of electric motors coming to them through the steel cables and pincer clamp that held them aloft.

A few seconds later the motion slowed and paused and, after a couple of small adjustments side-to-side and front-to-back, they dropped down and clanged hard into something beneath, spring-loaded clamps in each corner fired to secure them to the container below.

The frame grasping the top of the container released them with a thud. They could hear the electric winches howling as it moved away to pick up the next container from the dock.

Half an hour later, the sounds of containers being hoisted into place stopped and was replaced by a slow and deep vibration coming up through the plywood floor.

He said, “I think we’re underway. You can talk and move about now but don’t make too much noise. Crewmen might still hear us. Once we’re at sea we can relax. Someone light one of the gas lanterns.”

Moments later there was a hiss followed by the striking of a match. The lantern, sitting on the plywood floor in the middle of everyone glowed yellow and then white as the glass was closed and the flame turned up to full intensity.

Everyone squinted in the glare.

Sartaq glanced over at Lili. With no mirror, she was trying to smooth her night-matted hair by feel but a cowlick kept popping out on the top right. She licked her fingers and wiped the strands a couple of times before tucking them in.

The skin around her eyes was black. Sartaq guessed she’d either cried or rubbed her mascara out of place. She reminded him of a picture he’d seen of a raccoon in one of the college text books one of his followers had. The boy was studying to become a veterinarian and had shared his excitement. Sartaq had learned long ago to feign interest in their passions to help draw them in.

Sartaq announced the daily agenda.

Pointing at the student nearest the door, he said, “Boil water on the stove and make ramen for breakfast, one package per person.”

He continued for everyone, “We’ll have that for breakfast, a snack in the afternoon and then fish and beans for dinner. Don’t waste the water with your ramen. Drink it. Drink more water only when you need it. When you use the toilet containers, remember we only have so much toilet paper. Put the lid on tightly enough to trap odors but loose enough so the next person can open it again. Each container has to last for at least two days.”

Lili had stared at him the whole time he was giving instructions. Most of the time, he could not read what she was thinking but at the end, her revulsion was unmistakable.

Deal with it, Lili, he thought. This isn’t a party cruise.


On Friday, their fifth day at sea, Lili was sitting on her blanket with her back against the corrugated steel wall.

They’d settled into the stark routine imposed by their travel conditions. The severely rationed food discouraged physical movement and, with only a limited supply of LP gas canisters for both cooking and light, the latter was kept to a minimum. The high point of the day had become the afternoon Mars bar candy break that doubled as lunch. The sugar coupled with turning up the lantern to full for a few minutes temporarily relieved the boredom.

Sitting next to Lili, Sartaq chewed slowly as he turned the half eaten bar in his hand.

“I’m not used to this much sugar,” he said, “but I do like these.”

“There’s a lot in the world to like,” Lili answered, her usual one or two word answers apparently a thing of the past.

Sartaq nodded.

“I was in Singapore a couple of weeks ago,” he said, tearing down the wrapper to expose another bite. “I’d never seen any place like that. They must be incredibly rich.”

“Some are,” Lili agreed. “But most places have people who either refuse to work, or for various reasons aren’t able to. There are poor everywhere, some more than other places.”

Sartaq glanced over at her.

Almost none of her makeup remained. As they had sailed South, the heat had increased and he guessed she’d sweated most of it away although he did catch her using some of the precious toilet paper to wipe the mascara from around her eyes. They’d exchanged angry glances but he’d said nothing.

“In Tokyo,” Lili continued, “they gather in one of the parks where the city supplies tarps and rope. The homeless string them from trees to make shelters for the night. Early in the morning, they have to take everything down and disperse into the surrounding neighborhoods. During the day, you wouldn’t have a clue how many there are.

“What hurts,” she went on, her voice growing in strength, “is when a government, either through greed or incompetence, keeps them that way generation after generation. The favelas in Brazil are a prime example, made of odd bricks and stones, stuck together with cement over generations. They look like cancerous tumors on the face of each city.”

My little Lili, he marveled to himself smiling. She’d been places he’d only seen in books, and had probably done things he could barely imagine.

“That’s what we’re going to change,” he said, trying to swing the discussion so he could convince her of their righteousness.

Lili sat quiet before responding.

“By killing people?”

“By fighting the corruption,” Sartaq corrected.

Lili shook her head.

“You can’t overthrow the whole country of China, Taq. The very thought of the six of you having any appreciable affect is ludicrous.”

Sartaq noticed everyone was listening.

“True,” he said trying to match her reasoned voice. “We won’t bring down the government. We don’t expect to. What we will do is generate international attention and, through that, political pressure and trade sanctions by other governments. The United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, all the economic powers of the world will rally to our purpose. And that will force China to change.”

“Change happens through economics,” Sartaq continued, rolling into his oft-repeated lecture.

Everyone except Lili nodded.

“Stressing a country’s financial resources always provokes change. In the extreme case of open war, guns and bombs do that, they force a nation to change. Japan lost World War II because it didn’t have enough raw materials to offset those of the United States. Japan was out spent.

“And it doesn’t take a fighting war to do that. Look at what happened to the Soviet Union in the forty years after that same war. The United States bankrupted them in the Cold War and in 1991, the USSR ceased to exist.

“We,” Sartaq waved his hand to encompass his five followers arrayed before him, “will re-establish our independence, for East Turkestan, in much the same way, by increasing pressure on Beijing from both the inside and the outside. The ‘Special Administrative Region’ they already have in place for Xinjiang was the first step. Now it’s time for the next.”

One of Sartaq’s followers leaned enthusiastically toward Lili and took up the litany.

“We’re going to make a huge statement in Singapore. It will be much bigger and get far more attention than the famous attacks in New York and Washington a few years ago. The hotel and casino in Singapore were built by Singapore expressly for the rich of the so-called Communist China. Chinese citizens get special rates on Singapore’s state-funded airline. They get cheap rooms in the hotel. And they pay nothing  to enter the casino.

“Did you know that citizens of Singapore have to pay a fee to enter the casino? But not the citizens of China.

“What we are going to do there will dwarf the three thousand in the collapse of the twin towers in New York. When the Marina Bay Sands hotel tilts over and crushes the casino, the tally will be at least ten thousand, maybe even more. And most of them will be from the rich and corrupt comrades that dominate the party with their secret fortunes.”

When he finished, Sartaq realized the deep thrumming beneath the plywood floor of the container had stopped.

One of the students jerked upright, “Are we there?”

“Sh!” Sartaq cautioned. “Listen.”

There was a deep thump followed by the sound of a distant engine building up.

“I think that’s a tug,” the same student whispered. “We must be at Sarawak.”

Sartaq nodded, “The tug will push us into position in port. There will be people on deck loading and unloading. We’ll have to be completely quiet until we get back to sea.”

He pointed to the student who had become their de facto bean and ramen chef, “We’ll have an early dinner today and then shut everything down, even the lantern.”

An hour later, it was pitch black inside. Only the square of light leaking in around the door was visible.

Outside, all motions and engine noises had stopped.

Only the small electric fan pushing fresh air into the container could be heard, rattling away in its far corner. It brought in enough so they wouldn’t suffocate but was far, far short blowing away the smells that leaked out of the bathroom containers.

Sartaq had thought he would be able to tolerate the stench of stale urine and feces for the trip, but the seasickness that’d hit most of them on the second day coupled with the diarrhea starting the next day made the ordeal much, much worse.

And they were only half way there.


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