by David Castlewitz
Red Eyes didn’t exist, but bionicals did. That the superstitious leaders of Hera State didn’t understand this truth gave Ryan Couch an edge, an advantage that told him he was better than the enemy he fought.
The plate embedded above his right ear vibrated, and Ryan looked for his partner. But then the vibration ceased.
He’d picked this corner of town, next to an exchange advertising rates for a variety of currencies on a slab of green-board. U.S. Dollars, Hera State Trims, Pesos from Mexico and Freeboes from California Free State, along with the international pseudo-currency called V-Rings and the underground Ogres — Off-Grid Rings — popular in many cities were listed in a neat hand, with lines separating the columns: Currency, Buy, Sell.
As evening descended, a palpable haze spread across the area, several feet above the squat buildings lining the street. Ryan’s eyes watered. Night brought out the flaming torches that illuminated the pushcarts and propped-up tables and the vendors who’d spent all morning in the desert’s cold air and all afternoon in its heavy heat. Now, the vapors from burning grease and dung fires and cook-grills punished people like Ryan, who weren’t used to this atmosphere.
Again, the plate above Ryan’s left ear vibrated. He saw no one signaling him. Nor did he hear anything. That comm-chip never worked right. It, the proximity plate, and his bionic right eye never synched. Not that the bio-surgeons had done a shoddy job. Most times, the features he needed worked. Just not in unison.
He focused on the wide street crowded with pedestrians heading to their homes. The buildings here were burned-out wrecks. A movie theatre’s marquee lay crumbled across the sidewalk. Caved-in store windows testified to the street-fighting between U.S. forces and the Hera’s People’s Army.
Ryan hadn’t taken part in those campaigns. His wounds came from an assault gone haywire in the coal fields of western Pennsylvania. The attack wasn’t out of the ordinary. He went in with comrades jammed into a glider launched slingshot fashion miles behind the lines. A shoulder-launched missile brought the craft down, killing four of the twelve soldiers, leaving Ryan maimed, the right side of his skull crushed, one eye poked out, an ear severed.
He liked the bionics they’d given him. He liked his new job. He liked infiltrating these border settlements and upsetting the plans laid by this domestic enemy, this so-called Hera State. He didn’t need to understand their philosophy or their religious beliefs or the pseudo-mythology that drove them. He just needed to follow orders and get back to base.
Again, the plate above his right ear buzzed. In the twilight, a woman approached, her hand cupped to her own right ear, the hood of her robe lying loose about her shoulders, her long black hair draping her front, the ends tied with white ribbons. He telescoped closer, examined the order of the knots in those ribbons and decoded the message.
“My comm-connect is out,” the woman said when she neared.
Ryan recognized her. He’d seen her around the base. “Grant? Mary Grant?”
“How do you know me?”
He smiled to allay the suspicion in her dark eyes. “Dormitory Thirty-One,” he said, referring to the four-story building where he lived. The two upper levels provided small apartments for married or live-together couples. Ryan had a cubicle on the ground floor. Females who didn’t want to partner with anyone of either sex lived in an open bay of three-decker bunks on the second floor.
“Ryan Couch,” he whispered. He sat with Mary on a concrete bench at the sidewalk’s curb. According to barracks’ gossip, Mary had served in Assault Squadron 504, a unit decimated at the Battle for Phoenix several years earlier.
“Yeah,” she said. “You look familiar. I tried sending you a message.”
“I’m not getting voice. Vibrations. That’s all I’m getting.”
Mary shut her eyes. Her reddish-purple lips moved. “And now?” she said.
Ryan shook his head.
“Never mind,” she said. “So long as your send-comm’s working.”
Ryan nodded. He’d tested it earlier, sending a modulated laser beam to a high-flying drone. The response, an ACK beep, rang in his skull like a Sunday morning bell.
When he noticed the red mark in the white of Mary’s left eye, he pointed and said, “On purpose? Did you poke yourself in the — “
“Yeah. I want to be ready.”
Ryan understood. Some local constable would see the mark and claim she was one of those fictitious Red Eyes these people feared so much, the infiltrators equipped with eye-borne weapons. She’d be arrested. And questioned. Ryan suppressed a shudder. He admired this woman, this Mary Grant. He’d never let himself be taken prisoner by these fanatics.
Mary pulled a sheet of paper from inside her robe. She unfolded it. At first, Ryan saw only the blank sheet, but Mary told him to adjust the contrast in his bionic eye. He did and faint lines came into view.
“I found an underground arsenal over here,” she said, and tapped a corner of the rectangle. “Get the coordinates and relay them.”
“Wait on the final target. We’re shooting three Hell-Screamers. Don’t waste any missiles on some empty marketplace.” She stepped away, but then looked back. “One other thing. Don’t leave me hanging.” She smiled.
Not funny, Ryan thought, and pictured Mary dangling at the end of an executioner’s rope.
* * *
U.S. dollar coins went a long way.
Ryan didn’t want to use the paper currency he’d stashed in his high-topped boots. His California Free State Freeboes were counterfeit, and he feared the currency exchange owner would know that immediately. But dollar coins — accepted without needing to exchange them for Hera State Trims — bought enough dried beef to last two days. A single coin got him a night’s stay on a shelf in a men’s shelter near the perimeter. Not a desirable location so far as the locals were concerned, he surmised. The edge of town bore the brunt of any attack.
Thus far, Ryan had identified one major target, the settlement’s communications and command center, a flat-roofed two-story building set back from the street in a sandy lot and surrounded by varied sized rocks painted white. A flagpole outside the building flew the Sign of Hera, a circle with a fat mother-of-earth goddess figure inside it. A sandy-haired soldier with a barrel-like neck looked to be in charge. Two silver stars in his red headband identified him as a Block Commander.
Ryan found the arsenal Mary mentioned, but couldn’t get close enough for a simple read of his GPS. He had to use the range finder built into his bionic eye, combine its output with his internal coordinates reader and derive a computed latitude/longitude. He made three approaches on the target, each from a different direction, to satisfy his need for accuracy.
Using his internal comm-chip, he sent this intel to a quad-engine drone, one of the quiet ones that stayed in the clouds and collected information to relay to headquarters.
Between the arsenal and the command center, Hera State would suffer a big blow, Ryan thought. It would stop their advance north to tackle the sparsely defended towns on the other side of the desert, along the base of the Jarret Hills and the fertile farmland adjacent to the Connors River. Ten years ago, nobody knew those landmarks. Now they were beacons for these Hera State fanatics.
Sitting near the currency exchange, Ryan tuned his ear — his real one — to the buzz of conversation that danced in the air. Stories told by bearded old men in shabby clothes elicited coins from an audience, with copper pennies of various currencies mingling in a hat or cardboard box. Two women, obviously sisters, entertained passersby with a trained poodle until they were chased off by a storyteller and his helpers.
Soldiers with the red headbands that marked them as members of the Hera State Army, wooden clubs swinging from loops in their belts, patrolled the streets, keeping order outside a tavern, checking weights at a grocer’s stall, strutting, showing off, acting official and important.
News about a Red Eye’s arrest surfaced that evening, starting as a rumor that a spy had been arrested. Later, a news-talker gathered a circle of eager listeners and told them of a Red Eye’s capture, providing enough detail that Ryan knew it was Mary.
He admired her bravery, her determination. Her part in this mission was to provide the target that would wreak the most havoc, and she showed herself ready to endure torture and humiliation and the possibility of death to get what she wanted.
The news-talker made an announcement, his booming voice gathering even more of an audience, his hand-clapping bringing silence when people started to talk amongst themselves.
“Two Heras,” he said, referring to the basic State coin, a metal disk stamped with the outline of a grotesquely obese Earth Mother on one side and the coin’s denomination on the other.
A young woman and an older man, the news-talker’s helpers, collected the coins, giving out tokens in exchange. The newsman stood with his hands clasped at his back, his short jacket bunched up at the waist, his ragged trouser cuffs hoisted above his naked ankles.
“Two Heras,” he said again, “and you get to see this Red Eye for yourself.”
Ryan glanced at the exchange rate on the slab of green chalkboard behind the money vendor. He dug a U.S. dollar coin from his pocket and swapped it for five Heras. The token he purchased was a flimsy circle of cork with a Sign of Hera burned onto the surface.
A crowd formed behind the news-talker, and a ragged formation left the marketplace and headed down a narrow street leading to the command center.
Mary was held in a shack outside the circle of white stones. A single guard sitting on a low stool, a machete across his expansive lap, eyed the news-talker and the large procession. A torch burned in a sconce attached to the shack’s wall. Elsewhere, other fires cast a haze across the settlement and the acrid smoke tortured Ryan’s eyes, making them water. Sweat broke out on his forehead and flowed in the cracks and crannies of his dark skin.
He fought his fear. The enemy had no reason to suspect him. He looked like one of them. He acted like one of them.
The news talker flicked a hand in the guard’s direction and the sentry pushed open the door and stepped out of the way. Ryan guessed, they’d made a prior arrangement.
A young woman cranked a battery-powered lantern, which she extended into the shack’s gloomy interior. Mirrors increased the lantern’s dim glow and illuminated Mary Grant squatting in a corner, ankles shackled, a thick chain running from her feet to a bolt in the wall. Naked, her body showed bruises and cuts; mud and refuse covered her thighs.
She didn’t look up.
Everyone took a turn looking in on the prisoner. A few people without tokens tried to get a glimpse, but the news-talker’s helpers chased them off.
Stepping back from the crowd, Ryan detected a lone figure standing in the dark, away from the light thrown by a flickering torch. The battery-driven lantern suddenly illuminated the interloper.
“She’s not a carnival attraction,” the man said, his deep voice conveying authority.
Someone whispered, “Ya don’t wanna get on the wrong side of that one.”
Ryan asked, “Who is he?”
“Jack Salley. Warden for this sector.”
Ryan rifled through the facts about the Hera State that had been crammed into him via hours of video presentations, lectures and audio books. “Warden,” referred to a religious-political authority that worked with the military to identify spies and interrogate infiltrators; they also assessed everyone’s adherence to the religious rules and regulations governing daily life.
The news-talker stepped out of the crowd. “She’s a Red Eye. Most folks never saw one.”
Salley snorted. “She’s a woman with a clot of blood in her eye. There’s no such thing as a Red Eye. If you look, you’d see, the wound’s just about healed.”
“She was caught snooping. She deserves to be hanged.”
Again, Salley snorted. “Get out of here. All of you.” He waved at the crowd, his gnarled hands slapping the air.
Ryan slipped into the darkness on the other side of the shack.
My comm’s up.
“Mary?” Ryan said.
It comes and goes. I’m okay. This Salley, this warden, wants information.
“He doesn’t know anything,” Ryan whispered. He repeated the statement when he didn’t hear Mary’s response in his head. Her communications unit linking her mind to his over short distances hadn’t worked earlier when they met before her capture; it stopped working now after a tantalizing exchange.
“She’ll hang,” the news-talker announced as he walked away.
“If she does,” Salley retorted, “it’ll be on my say-so, not yours and not Commander Franks’ or anybody else who doesn’t know the difference between superstition and fact.”
Ryan felt the heat of Salley’s glare. But, he reminded himself, it was in his mind. Salley hadn’t singled him out. Salley didn’t know anything. Mary hadn’t told him about the mission, her plan to maximize the carnage of a missile strike. Thousands of people attended public hangings. There’d be a crowd to watch Mary die.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by David Castlewitz