by David Castlewitz
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Ryan tried not to be conspicuous when he neared the shack. The afternoon hours brought a different guard than the overweight machete-wielding one from last night. In fact, there were two guards now, both women armed with bulky rail guns, both wearing red armbands and snug, brimless round hats. He wondered about the significance of their uniform. Militia instead of regular army? Local police? Religious police?
His proximity plate vibrated. Mary wanted to communicate. He shut his eyes and concentrated, even though his bionics didn’t depend on wishing or other supernatural gestures. As he neared the shack, he saw Salley stride into view, a tall and heavyset man beside him, ammunition belts criss-crossing his chest.
Commander Franks. Ryan had seen him outside the command and control center. Three guards armed with long barrel rail guns accompanied Franks, their weapons glowing blue at the breech. The weapons were fully charged. Their energized magnetic rings could propel an explosive bullet two hundred yards with accuracy. Up close, the ordinance was more than just deadly.
“I won’t argue whose prisoner she is,” Salley said.
“Stick to questioning priests and checking who eats on a fast day,” Franks said, one hand on the wooden butt of the pistol in a holster clipped to his belt.
“Investigating infiltrators is well within my scope,” Salley said.
Are you getting this?
I can hear them arguing.
“What’s going on with our comm-units?”
I don’t know. But this Jack Salley is getting in my way.
Franks put his hands on his hips. “You get an order from Lord Eggerston. Then I’ll consider the request.”
“I don’t need anyone from Phoenix to authorize my assessments,” Salley said.
Eggerston? Ryan couldn’t place the name, but assumed he was on the Council, Hera State’s ruling body that oversaw the pseudo-religion’s rites and observances. That so many people were gullible enough to find the worship of an Earth Goddess valuable to their everyday existence puzzled Ryan. He didn’t believe in the supernatural or a Higher Power or witches and warlocks or god or anything that smacked of superstition.
“I intend to hang that woman,” Franks said.
Salley retaliated. “If she’s a refugee from the north, she deserves to be let loose. If she’s an infiltrator or a spy, then she should be questioned. Either way, killing her doesn’t—”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Salley. The people here, they need something to cheer about. We’ve been fighting a static war for more than a year. We hit them. They hit us. And the people suffer. All your religious proclamations and feast days and days of fasting and all the rest don’t relieve their suffering.”
“But hanging this woman does?”
Franks nodded. A firm, unyielding nod. A soldier’s commitment. Ryan had seen that look so many times, from squad leaders ordering an attack to high-ranking officers sending armies into battle.
“People will cheer,” Franks said. “You want to report me to the Council for speaking up, go ahead. I’ve been sanctioned before. I still got my rank and my command. Wardens like you aren’t going to lead us to victory. You can’t protect the State.”
“Hera State needs you,” Salley said, again in a calm voice. “But they also need Hera’s rules and regulations, feast days and fast days and adherence to Hera’s Commands.”
See what I mean? Dangerous. He brought me a robe last night. He didn’t think I should be naked.
“I’ll execute her right now,” Franks said.
“And not entertain the people?” Salley shot back. “Defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”
Frank seemed to swallow whatever he wanted to say. “Question her all you want.” He turned away. “She dies tomorrow morning.”
Good. He’s not backing down.
“She’s going to Phoenix tonight,” Salley said.
A pickup truck rumbled forward. More civilians massed nearby. Ryan realized, people had been gathering all the time he watched and listened.
A soldier — red armband and striped pants — stood in the bed of the truck, at the tripod mounted gun atop the cab. An ammunition belt ran from where it lay folded in a canister, through the gun, and out the other side. No room for someone to feed the mechanism and keep it from jamming, Ryan noted. How many shots could the gunner get off before he ran into a problem? Just enough to scatter Franks and his squad?
Franks lips moving as though he counted how many were on his side, how many were curious civilians, and how many belonged to Salley’s corps of religious fanatics.
Salley signaled and a hooded figure loped from the crowd, picked up an axe from the tools lying by the shack’s wall, and pushed open the door. Ryan tensed. He heard a scream. Sweat beaded on his high forehead.
Bastard. Thought he’d kill me with that thing.
The hooded man pushed Mary ahead of him. A short chain joined the shackles around her ankles. Even at a distance, the bruises on her back, and the cuts on her face and arms, were vivid testimony to how she’d been treated. The chain that connected her leg braces to the bolt in the wall dragged behind her. The axe had severed the link, leaving nearly a foot of steel to bounce across the ground.
The machine gunner moved his weapon slightly, as though sighting on Franks and his soldiers. Salley motioned to the women guarding the shack, and they took hold of Mary and started pushing her into the bed of the truck, lifting her to the lowered tailgate. The hooded man climbed in from the side, nimble like an athlete.
Mary resisted her captors.
If they take me to Phoenix, the mission fails.
But there’s still the underground arsenal and the command center, Ryan thought. Two of three targets.
Silence descended on the crowd. Franks opened and closed his huge hands, his fists as useless as the soldiers standing with him. Salley had planned this well. He had this truck, this gunner, and enough red armband-wearing men and women to get his way. Maybe he didn’t believe in Red Eye infiltrators, but he obviously didn’t think Mary Grant to be an innocent refugee. Why else did he insist on taking her to Phoenix, which Ryan guessed housed a proper prison and a host of ways to persuade Mary to talk.
“She’s our prisoner,” Ryan shouted, and stepped away from the crowd. “She’s ours to hang, ours to punish. Our prisoner, not yours.”
“Ours to hang,” the crowd repeated. They shouted it. With fists raised. They demanded Mary be returned to their custody. The machine gunner swiveled his weapon, raking the crowd but not firing.
Franks pulled Mary off the truck and the crowd surrounded her. They slapped her face, her back. Someone pushed her into the shack.
“She dies tomorrow,” Franks shouted. “Hanged for the Red Eye she is.”
The crowd cheered.
Salley didn’t move at first, but then he motioned to his guard detail and gave the gunner a “stand down” wave of his hand. In a moment, the pickup truck maneuvered through the mob, its tires scattering gravel and sand. Head down, Salley followed on foot.
Ryan listened for Mary. He heard buzzing. Nothing else. The comm-connect had stopped working again. Did she approve of what he’d done? He’d saved the mission. She should thank him. At the very least, she should acknowledge the action he’d taken.
* * *
Ryan turned sideways and lowered himself from the shelf where he’d slept. Gently, he hit the floor, mindful of the two bodies below on similar shelves. He listened to the rattle of pots and dishes, the early morning activity of the two women who ran this hostel. They offered breakfast to everyone: a lump of oatmeal or bulgur or some other grain.
Outside, Ryan found one of the women stoking a fire pit, churning the hot coals left over from last night. The other woman carried a large pot in one hand and a burlap bag under her arm.
Sunrise stretched across the distant horizon, at the other end of the flat gritty landscape. A man in a white robe, hooded, a wand or branch in his hand, led a procession to prayer in a hollow scraped from the Earth. Ryan couldn’t hear the words of their chant, but he had a sense of something meaningful and religious.
Hera of the gods, he thought, and heard himself ridiculing these people. Earth Mother, goddess, a symbol fashioned from myth and legend, Hera provided focus for the movement. Ryan understood the need of these people to find solace in the worship of a higher power, but he didn’t approve of forcing that belief onto those these fanatics conquered.
Ryan didn’t want to eat, in spite of his growling stomach. He wandered to the shack where Mary was held, but couldn’t get close enough for even a mild vibration of the proximity detector in his head. A guard detail of twelve men and women stood in a ring around the small toolshed-cum-jail. They all wore red headbands: Franks’ militia. Nearby, Salley’s religious police stood watching.
Not knowing where they’d hang Mary, Ryan couldn’t compute and transmit the coordinates for the site. He sent a message regarding the quad-chopper they’d need, making sure it remained on standby, the pilot primed for takeoff, batteries fully charged, all motors checked and double-checked for efficiency. If the mission failed, it wouldn’t be his fault.
Three guards entered the tool shed. They pulled Mary out. She wore the long coarse robe Salley had provided her, but then Franks appeared and he motioned to the guards, and they stripped her. Ryan flinched. Mary held her head high, as though she paraded in a ballroom fully clothed in her finery.
Which made Ryan smile. Mary wasn’t one to ever wear “finery.” Heavy boots and bloused trousers and a blue denim shirt with a lot of pockets to store things were more Mary’s style. The few times he had seen her with her friends at the Base club, she was in combat gear, as though always on a mission.
The guards prodded her with their clubs. She stumbled, but then regained her balance. Nearby, civilians assembled in small groups. Commander Franks’ soldiers ushered the crowd towards the execution site.
Ryan ran ahead, confident that the town center would be where they intended to hang their captive. When he reached the plaza, the one-time location of an open-air shopping mall, crushed buildings and mangled artifacts stood as tribute to the past battles to take this desert community. A steel-and-wood crane stood atop a slab of concrete.
Ryan heard cheering. Followed by chanting.
“She’s ours to hang, ours to hang.”
The words reverberated across the open ground. Two men pulled Mary by her arms. She resisted, dragging her feet, falling to her knees. Part of the act, Ryan knew. Quickly, he used his bionic eye’s rangefinder to take a reading on the crane. His built-in GPS, combined with the reading, calculated the coordinates, which he beamed to a high-flying drone. The quad-chopper should be taking off now, engines humming, props whirling.
Mary had to be listening for the chopper.
Jack Salley emerged from the crowd. He argued with the guards. Ryan couldn’t hear what they said to one another, but Salley held out a robe and Ryan imagined he insisted on awarding Mary her dignity.
She spat at Salley, spat at her guards, one of which slapped her across the face. Salley retreated. Ryan sensed sadness in the man’s light blue eyes.
The guards tied Mary’s hands behind her back. She looked up. Ryan heard something, but it couldn’t be Mary communicating with him. He wasn’t close enough to her. He looked to the sky and saw nothing. Did she see nothing as well?
Commander Franks put the noose around Mary’s thin neck. The crowd roared its approval.
Ryan knew he should pull back now. He’d done his job. He’d conveyed the coordinates. He should escape, as planned.
He watched the rope tighten. He squeezed his eyes shut but then opened them so he wouldn’t miss what happened. If this mission went wrong, he’d be questioned and re-questioned. Endlessly questioned because HQ would want answers.
The crowd chanted, “Ours to hang.” The taut rope pulled at Mary’s neck and the men at the crane’s base turned a crank, which lifted Mary off her feet. Her legs twitched.
The crowd’s cheering diminished when a quad-chopper dropped from the sky. An eight-sided vehicle, with huge props extending from four of its corners, the chopper had room for a pilot, a gunner, and two passengers, with cloth bucket seating in the middle and bullet-proof plastic sheeting all around.
A chain lowered from the center of the chopper’s undercarriage and an air-rescue specialist in skin-tight black clothing dropped from the gunner’s seat. He threw a strap-and-ball-on-chain at Mary. The device wrapped around her waist and snapped in place, the smart-lock doing its job. Then he poked a laser cutter at the rope leading to the noose around Mary’s neck.
Shots rang out. The black-suited rescuer fell, leaving Mary to dangle and choke, while the crowd cheered and the quadricopter suddenly gained altitude and escaped.
Ryan knew he should bolt now. How many seconds did he have? A mental picture of missiles leaving a military drone high in the sky flashed across his mind.
The crowd at the hanging-site cheered and stomped their feet and shouted at the sky, while Mary slowly spun at the end of the rope.
According to plan, this site would be hit first. The arsenal would be hit last. Sometime between the first missile strike and the third, the communications-and-control center would be destroyed.
As he ran, Ryan heard the blast behind him and pictured the devastation wrought by the missile. So few people on the streets, he noted as he loped to safety. Even the market was near-empty, with children minding the stalls and pushcarts their elders had left so they could watch Mary’s execution.
A blast signaled that the arsenal was hit. More explosions. More blasts. Weapons that could be used against the federal army were destroyed in an instant. Along with the two-story wooden building where Franks commanded. Ryan wondered if Franks would be one of the dead at the hanging site. What about Salley?
He stopped near the town’s perimeter. Behind him, amid the flames and still-exploding ordinance, with the screams of the victims filling the air, Mary remained in place, her blackened inert body a testament to the martyrdom she’d caused. Headquarters would want to know what went wrong. A successful mission didn’t make up for losing an operative.
They’d ask him questions and demand answers. He had none. He watched Mary’s body suddenly fall into the fire, the flames licking at the crane. She was as much to blame for this as anyone, but HQ wouldn’t want to hear that.
A klaxon sounded. Trucks filled the streets. Soldiers ran in several directions, the Hera State army mixed up with the local police and the religious militia. Ryan didn’t fight back when he felt himself pulled along, taken back to the carnage, passersby insisting that he follow them.
Water from some reserve kept somewhere in town sprayed across the square. Men and women armed with clubs kept everyone away from the arsenal until the many small explosions had all died down, first to a trickle and then to nothing at all. At the command center, two hoses manned by civilians pressed into action fought the fire. The shack where Mary had been kept burned brightly.
Ryan let himself be herded with others to the main square. Bits of bodies littered the center, but there were people who crawled, moaning, on the edges, far enough away from where the missile struck that they had a chance to survive.
He helped rescue those who could be saved. He didn’t want to run now, though he knew he could, because so much attention was paid to saving people and fighting fires that no one would notice a lone man rushing into the desert. He could take water and some food and cross over on foot. He could reach HQ in two days. It wouldn’t be difficult.
But it was easier to stay here. Blend in with these people, become one of them, hide the bionics that would give him away. If he went back, he’d face questions, angry questions, and they wouldn’t want to hear his answers.
Copyright © 2017 by David Castlewitz