Chapter One: The Promised Land, Part One
Click and forget
Timor Sea – Indian Ocean, 210 nautical miles from the Australian mainland,
02:14 Northern Territorial Time.
The sea was whipped by heavy rain and visibility was close to zero.
Two slender motor yachts with balancing floats on their sides were fleeing through the night along the crests of the waves towards the Australian coast. Four thousand kilometers away in a busy Australian Border Force operations center on a big screen with the continent silhouette another yellow dot lit up. The north coast was littered with them. Half a dozen such points were waiting in line for Mitchell Higgins to check-in.
„Can you care this for a minute? I want to give smoke,” Ryan turned to him.
Ryan rose from his swivel chair and reached for the pack of cigarettes on the table. Mitchell had quit smoking for about the thousandth time last week, and when he saw it, the imaginary smell of tobacco and the sensation of the first puff knocked his nose. He got a terrible urge to light up too. It was already clear to him that once Ryan returned, his resolution would take a swift end. Just as he disappeared from his sight, one of Ryan’s points flashed. Mitchell decided he’d deal with Ryan’s tasks as a priority because figuring he might beg a cigarette from him without sneering. He hovered his cursor over the dot and clicked the mouse button.
The screen had divided into four areas. The satellite images were in the top left corner. Mitchell didn’t want to rely on them because of the bad weather, so he checked the vessel authorization list just in case. However, according to the list, none should be at the current coordinates.
Mitchell clicked on the icon labeled INVESTIGATIONS.
His command came through the satellite link to a floating platform sixty nautical miles from the point’s position to the Guardian-class drone. Drone started the engines. Thirty seconds later, it lifted into the sky, made a half-turn, and set a course for the target. The digital clock on the screen began counting down the time. It showed less than six minutes to approach. Mitchell watched the data scroll across the display.
The onboard video screen has not appeared yet. The label UNKNOWN OBJECT winked in the target window.
The drone has reported to the coordinates. The yellow dot on Mitchell’s screen changed color. It turned to red, flashed three times, and then split. The onboard camera image finally came on. The infrared video showed two ships traveling at high speed.
Mitchell ordered the machines to make two go-arounds flights. His duty was to make sure the system correctly identified the intruder. The drone’s onboard headlights lit up with harsh light. The video switched to normal mode. Considering the storm in progress, he was getting a pretty decent picture. The boats look like the sea hunter class, but the system identified them as Chinese-made sport yachts.
They had no markings, they were not flying a flag, and the dark paint job on the hull was a clear sign of active camouflage. The programmable topcoat could simulate various objects: a piece of rock or a tank with a heat signature. The system provided the result in just a moment. The display popped up a CONFIRMED message. Reason: Variable camouflage. It’s the reason the smugglers have been so successful so far. But that was about to change. The detection network took an upgrade last week. The score of success detection has jumped a thousand percent in a day. Mitchell sent out a series of warnings over the air.
No one responded to the call.
The ships separated. Telemetry data started flying across the display, and Mitchell wondered what it must be doing to the people on board. He sent one last warning, but even that went unanswered. He moused over the exclamation point icon and clicked. The drone fired a salvo of phosphorescent missiles in front of the first ship. It missed its bow by about ten meters, but the boat held its speed and course. Mitchell clicked on the icon marked AUTO. The drone fired again. This time it missed the bow by less than two meters. Nobody on the board couldn’t have missed it.
Meanwhile, a second machine launched from the platform.
These self-service platforms were installed more than two thousand along the whole northern border. Each carried three machines. Two for action and a third as a backup in case the platform was attacked. The second drone took off because protocol required it. If the first one couldn’t complete the mission because of a malfunction or when the smugglers managed to shoot it down.
Intruders were to be eliminated as far from shore as possible to reduce the likelihood of unwanted witnesses. It could have been a fishing boat or, God forbid, activists. Nobody wanted that. The enforced stop, as this was officially called, was legal and sanctioned by referendum. But why irritate the public when the tougher option of a solution had just been passed?
The drone withdrew after the last warning shot. It climbed to three hundred feet and waited in the position. After a few minutes, a second machine joined it. They formed a formation, dropped to a hundred feet, and circled the ships like a pair of vultures. Mitchell checked one last time to make sure everything was going according to protocol. The inscription changed to ACTION IN PROGRESS. He could still call it off. All he had to do was press STOP icon. But as soon as went gray, the drones would spring into action. He could only watch.
Mitchell had a habit of giving ships an extra chance. Sometimes it paid off.
Mitchell sent out a final warning to the ships on the naval frequencies in all the world’s languages, but his gesture was like a shout in the dark.
The button went gray.
Mitchell remembered an earlier incident. Two of his colleagues get fired. An outdated system misidentified a fishing boat. An inexperienced operator who didn’t ask for a four-eye check took the initiative. He sank the ship. No warnings. Of course, they want to brush under the carpet, but one fisherman survived. The media had a feast. But still, nothing changed. Prime Minister Adams’ plan to stop migration went ahead despite growing protests. Police sprayed gallons of tear gas, several rubber bullets were also fired, all operators had to undergo new training and the operator in question and his supervisor were released.
Mitchell dropped the video into the bar. He wouldn’t have seen much because of the weather, he just didn’t want to watch in the first place.
Not ever again.
„Any trouble on the horizon?” Ryan startled him unexpectedly behind.
“Damn it, don’t do this to me! You scared me!”
“I just took one of your tasks.”
“You’ve got two more priority ones. Sector A122 and B110.”
“Yeah, well. What I can do If they’re still won’t listen,” he threw up his hands helplessly and laughed cynically.
This was his third year in the ABF and he was one of the most senior members. It’s starting to take its toll on him, Mitchell thought. Ryan settled into his chair in the row in front of him and grabbed the keyboard.
“Can I ask you a favor? Can you give me one?” Mitchell asked tentatively.
Ryan tossed the cigarettes pack behind him without looking at him. Mitchell took one and returned it with a tap on his shoulder.
„Give it up,” he grinned without looking away from the screen.
“What for? For smoking?”
“No. To your stupid attempts to quit! It’s not getting you anywhere anyway. Tell me, am I right? Look, you must have a bad habit. Otherwise, you’re gonna go crazy. You wouldn’t be the first or the last. So smoke, smoke while you got it. Don’t be a hero, Mitch.”
“Will you take it for me a minute, then?”
Ryan turned in his chair.
“Sure. Take your time, I’ve got this whole thing nicely under control,” he clicked the mouse theatrically. “See? Click, click, click! I mean, it’s like shooting wombats in a barrel! You just squeeze the button and forget.”
It sounded like a sigh, but Ryan returned to his usual cynical mood.
“Say, ain’t that easy money? Sometimes it’s almost embarrassing how much they pay me. Go now!”
Then he clicked his mouse a few times. Two drones returning to the platform took a course for a new point.
Mitchell rode the elevator up to the terrace. The place is crowded in the daytime. Not just for the fresh air and the view under the potted palms that provided pleasant shade. Nearby was a party grill where one gets a free steak of the highest quality several times a day. Eat all you want! One of the many benefits of working at ABF.
Now the patio was deserted and the view slightly depressing.
Half the city was cloaked in darkness due to austerity measures. Mitchell lit up. Finally! He exhaled the cigarette smoke with a sense of satisfaction and leaned his back against the railing. He cocked his head and looked up at the sky covered with billions of stars. He shivered a little. They reminded him of a map filled with yellow and red dots.
A map full of wasted lives.
How many were there today? Twenty-three red dots?
Mitchell tried not to think about it, but it was almost impossible.
Mitchell was a civilian like most of the operators here. A friend from high school got him this job. His name was Thomas O’Neil. He made a career in the army.
They met at a class reunion. Mitchell complained. He hadn’t had a good job since he got out of college. Car selling sucks. He and his wife expecting a second child. Now he’s maybe gonna be fired.
“Really? Clarice Irving? Did you marry that chick?”
“What’s it like? Being married?“
“Good, actually great, but right now… we’re kind of just arguing. Mostly about money.“
“Hey, Mitch, I got something for you. We’re gonna be hiring.”
“Thanks, but the duty is not suitable for me.“
“That won’t be necessary. We have understaffed as hell, so they’re charging c-sucks. I mean civilians.”
“Fly a drone. It pays well. You won’t much work. Operators have good benefits. Extra health insurance, six-month bonuses, and a ten grand recruiting allowance. I can get you an interview. With your education, it won’t be a problem. What do you say? You wanna give it a shot?”
“That doesn’t sound bad.”
The interview was a piece of cake. Suddenly he had a promising job.
Many operators were quit after a year and a half, just as their commitment expired. Some of them lasted longer. Ryan for example. Mitchell too. He signed another tour yesterday.
What the fuck am I supposed to do if there’s no real work and I can’t get that money anywhere else?
He made his “first notch” three days after he started. It was sunny, no wind, and the water was shiny as a mirror. It was the first and last time he’d ever watch the video. He couldn’t sleep for a month. For a long time, the havoc that a 30-millimeter cannon can make was in front of his eyes.
He must do it differently.
Do warning three times!
ACTION, drop the video.
Make a warning, ACTION, turn off video!
Make a warning, ACTION, turn off video!
There were times when he didn’t have to click on that damn icon for weeks. It made the world seem a little happier. Mitchell was disturbed from his deep thoughts by the sound of a helicopter in the distance. As soon as it fell silent, the cicadas gave a light-hearted concert. He pushed his thoughts away and watched the stars. He couldn’t help it anyway, because he was reminded of a documentary he had recently watched. He wondered what the difference might be between him and a guard in an extermination camp somewhere in Poland a hundred years ago.
Was it just a job too? They said were ordinary people. At least in the beginning. Not all of them, of course. Women did it too. Often they weren’t even 25. At the end of the war, they were hung up.
He turned, leaned over the railing, and spat in disgust. He felt like throwing up. Of himself, of the aftertaste of the cigarette, and of what awaited him below.
Why do they keep coming up here?
Don’t they know what the fuck is going on?
He never told his wife what he was doing at the ABF. Nobody was allowed to know! He could only imagine how many friends he’d lose. His wife might even leave him.
He wasn’t going to risk that.
He told his wife that he was in charge of administration in the mailroom. Mitchell’s daily bread is sorting mail, not making life-and-death decisions.
More like death.
A pair of ships far away was suddenly so close. He flicked the butt of his cigarette and spat one last time. Glowed like a firefly on the way to land, producing a tiny firework on the impact that quickly went It.
Click and forget.
The bullets were bouncing off the hull of the ship.
The first shot did them no harm, and the captain thought his investment in the special plating had paid off. The satisfied smile didn’t last long. The intelligent software of the interacting machines assessed the situation and selected a different type of ammunition. The rotating machine guns, capable of firing 4,200 times a minute, blew the deck into a thousand pieces in seconds. A volley of uranium-enriched lead flew through the skeleton-like a knife through melted butter. It blew the captain’s head off and turned his body into mush the consistency of fast-food hamburger filling.
The bridge was shrouded in a pink mist.
The churning sea swallowed the sound of gunfire resembling a jackhammer in a sharp staccato rhythm.
Thirty lives, including six children, were extinguished in twenty-two seconds.
The sea closed in behind the yacht and a few debris and plastic bottles appeared on the surface. While the drones searched for possible survivors with the help of searchlights and sensors, the other boat managed to move away. Drones made a go-around and went after it. But only one of them fired. Within two seconds, the attack was over, the machines turned and set a course. The hundred and forty shots he managed to fire were enough to scatter the upper deck.
The bridge was a torso. Heavy rain fell through the torn ceiling.
The air smelled of gunpowder, molten steel, and the stench of entrails. The upper deck was virtually non-existent, yet somehow the interior lighting worked. A roughly sixty-year-old man in a plaid shirt with a face covered in bloodstained flesh began to shake.
The line of fire ended only a few dozen centimeters in front of him.
A piece of carbon plating reinforced with honeycomb structure at the molecular level amputated the arm of the woman sitting in the back of the forearm. At first, she stared in mute amazement at the exposed bone, the shreds of hanging skin, and torn arteries. Then she screamed and fainted.
The man in the leather jacket, sitting next to the man in the shirt, was the first to recover. He struggled with the belt buckle for a moment and when he managed to unbuckle it, he went to help.
The roiling waves played with the yacht as if it were made of paper.
With great difficulty, he managed to reach her. Then he took off his jacket, and finally his shirt, which he tore into three shreds, and then, with a makeshift bandage, tried to strangle the stump, from which blood gushed at intervals like a fountain.
„Someone brings a first-aid kit! Do you see it anywhere?”
He tried to shout over the storm, but it was a futile effort. Then he realized how lucky he was. Half the passengers were dead. On the starboard side, in the three-seater, there were people strapped in. Their heads were down. They were all missing limbs.
The man with the bloody face wiped it on his shirt. He looked at the woman on his left. She was in shock. He gave her a cursory glance, squeezed her hand, kissed her forehead, then pulled away. He went to the young man’s aid.
“I’m a doctor!”
The man couldn’t hear him over the rush of water and the roar of the storm, but he figured he wanted to help and made his way to meet him. He grabbed his arm and then together they moved to the injured man. She was still strapped in her seat.
The people in the back began to unbuckle. None of them came to help.
The younger man unbuckled the woman, picked her up in his arms, and carried her to a vacant bench near the undamaged port side. He laid her down and the older man quickly strangled her wound. He tried to feel for a pulse. He looked at his colleague and screamed at the top of his lungs.
“We have to stop the bleeding!”
“Try looking for the pean!”
“It looks like scissors!”
The woman opened her eyes. Then it went out for good.
“What are we doing? Where’s Vitali?” moaned a middle-aged woman.
The man sitting to her right pulled away seatbelt and stood up. He had to hold on to the armrest because his knees buckled and he turned as pale as chalk. Only debris remained where the toilet had been a few minutes before.
The red mass was slowly dripping down the snow-white laminate.
“Oh God, no!”
The forty-something Chinese man pointed toward the bow. Soon they had water up to their knees.
Boat on the horizon!
Ten hours later,
150 nautical miles off the Australian coast.
The sea had calmed and the sun peeked through a gap in the thick clouds. Sergeant McKinsley scanned the grey horizon through his binoculars. He thought he saw something.
“Looks like a lifeboat, sir. Shall I launch the Falcon?”
A four-propeller reconnaissance drone launched from the stern of the armored ship. Three minutes later, it was hovering over the orange inflatable. Fourteen people were crammed into the eight-person compartment. They could barely stay afloat. No one in the boat was wearing a life jacket.
The lieutenant made two low passes. A tentatively raised hand waved in greeting.
The lieutenant made another pass.
“Fourteen! They’re taking on water. Should the Operations center handle this?”
The captain could hardly hide his displeasure.
“We can’t be sure, Kinsley!“
“Of course, sir.”
“Let me see!”
The lieutenant handed him a tablet. The captain looked at it. He turned to the helmsman.
“Lead the way, Shifty.“
* * *
“This is the Australian Coast Guard, put your hands up!” came from the amplifier. Two people in the boat raised their hands and the rest followed timidly.
The soldier on the port side threw a life ring into the water and when they caught it, he pulled them in. One by one they were picked up on deck and then another soldier shot the boat with a burst from an automatic rifle.
One of those rescued women cried out.
They were taken to the mess hall where they were given dry blankets.
The captain could have been in his sixties. The first person he questioned was a young man half undressed.
“Have a seat,” he pointed to a chair and sat down at a small folding table.
„Capitain John Stenton. What’s your name?”
The man nodded.
“Do you have papers?”
“That’s not good.”
“Could it be worse?”
He looked at the man but didn’t answer.
“What are you going to do with us?”
“Tell me what happened?”
“Are you serious?”
“I assume you were intercepted by a drone.”
“If you call the massacre an interception, yes. You bet your ass something intercepted us!”
The captain rubbed his eyes. He looked like someone who wasn’t enjoying this conversation.
“You know… it doesn’t happen that… anyone survives. Are you… all right?”
“No, we’re not.”
“I see. How many of you were there?”
“I don’t know. About thirty. Plus crew. Three or four.”
“How many ships? Just you?”
“We left Kuala Lumpur in the dark. They herded us below decks, but I think we sailed with two. Maybe three. I’m not sure. We certainly weren’t alone.”
“Do you know what happened to them?”
“I suppose they weren’t as lucky as we were. Captain, why do you care how many of us there were? Do you think it’s okay to kill refugees? Are you even…?”
“Look,” he interrupted firmly, “you had damn well better know what’s going to happen to you once you cross the line here! If you don’t know it from the newspapers, the TV, the internet, there’s a clear warning on every fucking buoy around the coast! The zone is almost a hundred and fifty miles wide! I bet you got a chance to turn it around!”
“I didn’t drive the boat, so I’m not going to tell you.“
The captain rose from his chair and turned to the small window with the rounded corners. He silently watched the slowly calming sea. Then he turned back to it.
“Did you say two boats?”
“I guess. Captain, you didn’t answer. Do you think it’s okay to kill civilians? Just like that?”
The captain looked him squarely in the eye.
“It’s not just like that, Mr. Hess.”
“Mr. Hass. You know, it doesn’t matter what I think about it. I may disagree, but that’s about it. They call us barbarians, but let them! Surely you’ve heard what New Zealand faced after those events in the Middle East, haven’t you? We won’t have that here! We’ve sent a clear message to the world. We don’t want any more people here. Do you know why? Our system is not ready for another exodus. We’ve got our own big problems! Yes, Australia may seem big enough, and a few tens of millions of people could certainly fit in. But what the hell do you want to do here? Do you know that a third of the continent burns twice a year and that we are so dry that we have to produce water from the air because desalination is not enough and we harvest crops basically only in greenhouses? Yes, we are still much better off than elsewhere. Do you know why? Because we don’t destroy our own homes! It’s those damn Americans, and you Europeans, who are looting! You’ve sucked up our resources, waged senseless wars, and now you want to drag it on to us? Now take a good look at me, Mr. Hass. That’s not going to happen!”
Then he paused for a while.
“It won’t happen. It’s really not going to happen,” he added, a little more softly now, yet still firmly.
“The vast majority of refugees are decent people, Captain. They are fleeing war, starvation, and death!”
“I’m not arguing with you. I believe they are. But you’re overlooking a fundamental fact. We’re all going to die. Undoubtedly soon. Because we killed our planet! We have. Our civilization. Here in Australia, we’re trying to live out the time we have left in some sort of… peace. We’re past the point of no return. We’ve got about a hundred and fifty, two hundred years at the most. Corporal!”
The door opened.
“Bring me another.”
* * *
The survivors were guarded by two soldiers. It was warm in the room that was used as a dining room, yet survivors were shivering with cold and exhaustion.
They were hypothermic, thirsty, and hungry. The soldier’s face was impassive, but the second she-soldier was visibly troubled. Her colleague did not respond to the pleas for food and water.
She ran off but paused for a moment in the doorway.
“Look, Lasky, be kind and don’t do any shit!”
As soon as she was out of sight, the soldier put his finger on the trigger as if he was going to end the hint of resistance at the very beginning.
In about two minutes she was back with two cartons of bottled water.
“What are you looking like a dick? Do you want me to fucking do it myself? Go get the fucking buffet!”
He didn’t want to, but then he turned on his heel and came back with a tray full of sandwiches. He handed it to her.
“You are a dick,” she said, a lot more conciliatory, and started handing them out.
A young man appeared in the doorway with an armed escort. The soldier pointed at the woman close the door.
“You! Come with me.”
Scared out of her wits, she put down a sandwich.
“It can’t get any worse,” the young man tried to reassure her, and gratefully picked up one of the sandwiches from the tray and bit into it.
* * *
The captain interviewed everyone, made a report, and ordered a makeshift dormitory set up in the mess hall. Towards evening they anchored in the harbor. They were taken straight from the ship to a police wagon, which took them to the station, where they were put in a cell. On the bench slept a hungover, unkempt man of indeterminate age. When the guard left, they woke him up. A man speaking English began to question him, but the ragged man looked at him as if he had come from another planet.
“What the hell are you? How on earth did you get here?”
By the time they came for him, he’d managed to get out that they were in Darwin.
There’s no worrying abot
The cell could hold up to 40 people.
It was lined with grey, white and garish green tiles up to two meters high. In the middle stood two long benches made of stainless steel, fixed to the floor with their backs together.
The survivors split into four groups. Some were chatting quietly. A young man with a blanket over his shoulders shied away. He sat down on the cold ground in the corner and leaned against the wall. He watched them.
He counted three Europeans. A Scottish doctor and his wife, and then himself. Four Americans, three men, and one woman. They were white. Then the four men, probably Chinese. The one standing off to the side and alone would be Middle Eastern. And then an Indian couple.
Eleven men, three women. No children.
Wait, wait, wait, wait!
No, there were some kids in the boat!
Of course, there were!
The Russians had a boy!
A black-and-white film flashed before the man’s eyes.
The woman is clinging to the edge of the boat. She cries out but is silenced by the rush of water. It pulls her under. Then her husband is there. He’s holding on. “Galina!” she calls out and sinks.
Two endless minutes.
She swims out a little further. She takes a breath and sinks again.
He doesn’t swim again.
The boat is moving away from them. The other two are holding on by their fingernails on the other side of the boat.
They want in.
Come on, let’s go! Sharks!
There are no sharks. They’re just panicking.
But there’s not enough room in the boat!
You didn’t have to sink yours with your stupidity!
Your problem is you don’t know how to use a flare!
A flare gun is not a toy, you idiots!
We’re all gonna drown! Somebody do something about it! Somebody do something!
Those Asians are a strange breed, he thought.
Do you mean heartless bastards?
“Do you still have it in you?”
One of the four Asians caught the man’s attention. He was gesticulating furiously. A flash of memory fished from the furthest corner of his mind came.
How does Diana say it?
Conscience is more annoying than a drunken hooker?
He noticed his probing gaze. The Asian’s mouth quirked as if he might smile, but instead, he frowned and turned his back on him.
Anger surged into the man on the ground. He clenched his fists. He had the urge to jump up and beat the shit out of the bastard.
But he had no right to do such a thing!
It wasn’t that he’d snapped his neck like nothing and murder would probably make him feel better, but rather that the bastard had saved everyone in the boat!
He was the one who hadn’t let the two whose faces he refused to remember to get into the boat.
He got rid of the first one quickly.
Two kicks to the face.
Then he finally remembered.
The other one… the other one? The other one? That was… But it was a girl! How old could she be?
She was sitting in the back.
Actually, no, she was in the front with her parents and her sister. Yes, the one who lost her hand!
She swapped seats with him.
Because… because she wanted to talk to the loud-mouthed American woman he was originally sitting next to. She asked him to switch seats with her for a while.
She saved his life.
And this bastard drowns her like a kitten?
“Then why didn’t you do something about it, you coward?”
I didn’t have a chance!
„I didn’t have a chance! I didn’t have a chance! I didn’t have a chance! Fuck off with that shit!“
I didn’t have a chance, I didn’t have one fucking chance!
The man hit the back of his head three times against the wall.
What did you say to me again, Diana?
You had to know we wouldn’t make it!
No one noticed his desperate gesture.
The man reached into the back pocket of his trousers and pulled out a gold chain and pendant. He chewed it between his fingers and began to pray silently.
* * *
The morning seemed kinder. The guards brought them lukewarm tea of a bland taste, a tray of dry biscuits, and some worn clothes.
They let them eat.
Then they loaded them into a minibus. It looked unusually civil. It didn’t even have bars, and if it weren’t for the blue lettering on the white sides that read Local Court of the Northern Territory, you might have thought it was a tour bus, except for the handcuffs in the armrests.
The county courthouse was a short walk from the city park. The snow-white, fairly modern structure didn’t give a daunting impression. On the contrary. The judicial guard was already waiting outside the entrance.
The trial would start in an hour. They were taken to a windowless basement room. Half an hour later, a man in a suit arrived.
He introduced himself as DeWitt, the public attorney. They are charged with trespassing on Australian territory, a serious offense under the new law.
The request for a translator is not worth making, it will be refused. Don’t worry, it’ll be quick, he tried to reassure them.
He wasn’t lying. Ten minutes later, it was over.
The judge read out the charge and the sentence at the same time. Ten people from the left are sentenced to deportation to the Zone. She didn’t explain what that meant. The judicial guards escorted the ten out. The rest are sentenced to five years in the labor camp.
“You will report to the labor camp by tomorrow morning! Your lawyer will give you the details.”
“The trial is over!”
young German, a Scottish doctor and his wife, and a man with thinning hair of middle-eastern appearance were led by a guard into an austere office with two chairs, one desk, and a glass-fronted cupboard, behind the desk of which sat an unsympathetic woman of advanced years. In front of her were four glass vials.
The guard left, and the woman opened the cabinet, from which she took an instrument and ran a scan on the German.
“You won’t need it here.”
“If you think.”
She put on a pair of gloves, sprayed his hand with the spray, and then made a small incision with the scalpel. She removed the chip and used a semi-automatic stapler to sew up the wound. With another instrument, she injected a similar chip, only into his shoulder. He did the same to the other three. Then she escorted them out into the hallway, where the defense attorney was waiting.
The guard removed their handcuffs.
The attorney brought some documents for them to sign. Just sign it, he said. Then he motioned for them to follow him. They followed him like obedient sheep. Not far from the building, at the edge of the park, was a mobile food stand.
“You must be hungry. I invite you,” he smiled.
He bought them hot dogs and cans of local cola. Then they moved to a table in the shade of a mature tree. It was absurd. They couldn’t speak, but then the Scottish doctor spoke. So they’re free, are they?
“No,” he replied.
He was not smiling so much now.
“What’s going to happen to us?”
“Eat quietly and I’ll tell you later.”
So they ate.
A balding man in his early forties, a little too close to his body, told them to call him by his first name. Marteen was originally from Holland.
“I guess you understand I’m here more for form,” he said, taking a bite with gusto.
He was talking mostly about himself.
He’d moved here twenty-two years ago, when things had, as he put it, “gone to shit” in Europe. It was still possible to get to Australia legally. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible. He was lucky, and in a way, so are they.
What about the others?
They’re just unlucky and there’s no point in worrying about them.
What’s the Zone?
It’s like a refugee camp. Only on the water. They’ll find out eventually, but they won’t ruin a nice day, will they? Anyway, he gave them a stern warning.
“If you do anything stupid, you’ll end up right there, and you don’t want that. Anyway, there’s no point in running away from the camp. There’s nowhere to go, you know. You’ll be caught in twenty minutes and escorted to the Zone. You wouldn’t be the first. Got it?”
Then he finally explained what they had to prepare for and what awaited them at the camp.
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