MITRA PREPARES FOR BATTLE.
Joe has been captured by the cultist raiders. Mitra faces a decision. The readers spoke and she’s chosen to wait for darkness and go get him. There’s no chance she’s leaving this place without her friend.
The only things I’ve ever shot at never shot back. Mitra eyed the raider’s camp through her rifle scope and thought about target practice. She’d shoot at tree branches and paint cans as Joe gave her advice. She remembered her rifle qualification course back at base. A little green marksmanship ribbon on her dress blues.
The flickering of fires and thin wisps of smoke rose into the night. Stars overhead on a moonless night. She remembered evenings back at her camp, the generators thrumming to life, powering garlands of lights over store fronts and above thresholds, and the street lamps bathing everything in an urban glow. Last Christmas she’d even put up a small ornamental tree next to her cot, lit with a smattering of tiny colored bulbs. She’d scavenged it from a Wal-Mart. There was comfort in the familiarity of light. Of electricity. A reassurance that despite the dead that littered the world, there was life in at least one small corner of it.
But below, all she saw was the primeval flicker of wood fires casting strange shadows on tents and shanties.
Then she thought about Joe.
These campground bastards don’t scare me.
She felt a swell of courage and moved into the camp.
Joe’s world came into focus. A heavy pain throbbed in his head, above his left eye where the raider had decked him. The rank scent of piss competed with acrid sweat.
He tasted blood and his head pulsed. It was dark, or his eye was too swollen to let in what little light there was in the cell. The pain melted into rage. He cursed himself for getting caught, for letting his guard down. For being foolish enough to enter this place at all.
He didn’t know how many hours had passed. For all he knew the raiders could have been marching on his camp right now. Or they’d discovered Mitra and captured her too. Or worse.
Assess the situation. Find an opportunity. Think.
At lease they hadn’t bound his arms or legs.
“Thought I’d seen the last of you,” a male voice said in the dark.
Joe found his voice. He needed water. His throat dry, his words wheezed out. “Who are you?”
“Robbie,” the boy said. “You left me and my uncle in the woods.”
Joe remembered the bear he’d killed. The grey-bearded man holding him at gunpoint. An empty rifle. That scrawny kid with a simple courage found in fewer and fewer souls these days.
“How did you get here?” Joe asked.
“These assholes tracked us down in the woods. My uncle and his friend are dead.”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re dead.”
Joe managed to stand. The kid stayed sitting cross-legged in the corner of the cell. His hair was matted and messy, and he was skinny. Skinnier than when Joe had first sighted him over the ridge through his binoculars.
A latticework of steel rebar enclosed the two of them. The bars were gnarled where others had pulled on them in vain, but the largest opening was only about the size of a fist. In the corner opposite the kid, a single bucket reeked of excrement. The stench revealed how long the boy had been there.
His eyes adjusted to the dark. In the dimness, he could see a torch-lit hallway, and other cells, about twelve of them. People coughed.
“Who are all these people,” Joe asked.
“They call them ‘transgressors,” Robbie said. “These people are all about this new way of living, they believe technology led to the disease which killed everyone. Anyone who resists they just kill. People like us are being ‘reeducated.”
Joe thought about the hatred in the big man’s eyes when he noticed his USMC tattoo. “I think they took me because I was in the military. Know anything about that?”
“They’re the worst offenders,” Robbie said. “They capture anyone they can from the military.”
The boy shrugged. Joe looked at the row of cells. The hushed assemblage of people. Someone else coughed again, a deep throated and hacking cough. People were getting sick down here.
“We’re gonna get out of here,” Joe told the kid. “She’s too proud to leave me like I told her to.”
Mitra withdrew a road flare from her pack. It reminded her of the signals the controllers would use back on base to direct F-16s during night ops training. That was another time. Another world entirely.
I hope this works.
She popped the flare open with a sharp twist, and a bright red glow exploded all around her. Then she hurled it through the air. The flare arced gracefully and traced a path directly onto a pile of dried hay.
She inhaled sharply and held her breath.
The haystack lit up in a flash. After a few seconds the flame was twelve feet high, and the inferno licked at the side of the barn where the raiders herded their cattle.
Over the roar of the flame, Mitra could hear the braying of animals. The camp came to life. Blades glinted in motion and rushed shadows darted about. Somewhere, a sentry blew an air horn. Despite her focus, the sound rushed forth a memory about a Seattle Seahawks tailgate party with her family.
She rushed off, hoping the diversion would work. She risked a glance behind and saw the barn doors flung open and cows rush out. One of them was ablaze, its haunches licked with flames, the animal bucking and jumping like a hellish rodeo bull.
She made it into the camp and ducked into a nearby tent.
Ok, Mitra. Now what.
She felt a renewed rush of panic. But the tent offered a new opportunity. She spied a garment on a bedroll and snatched it up and unfurled it. It was some kind of robe, a ceremonial garb of sorts.
She slung the SCAR-H over her back and cinched the strap as tight as she could to hide the rifle’s profile. Then she swung the robe over her shoulders and flipped the hood over her hair.
Men yelled and the ground above them pounded with energy. Joe realized he and the kid were imprisoned underground. Some kind of bunker or basement, maybe. A wine cellar. Joe gripped the bars of the cell and listened intently.
Other prisoners stood up too and approached the bars, and Joe could see their faces. A few old men. A woman here and there, a couple of younger boys. As much as three people in each cell. Maybe 20 of them in total, he estimated. Fear and confusion on their faces. A boy huddled close to an older bearded man and cried into his hip.
“What’s going on?” Robbie stammered.
Joe already knew it was Mitra. He felt a pang of fear for his friend. He wanted her to go back for help, but she wasn’t the kind of person to wait. The raiders could’ve done anything with him. He wasn’t even sure why he was still alive. Why the boy was alive. Too many questions to count. But he knew Mitra wasn’t interested in the answers. Only in changing the conversation.
And from the sounds of it, the conversation was getting louder by the second.
Gunfire! A semi-automatic rifle. It had to be Mitra. The raiders didn’t use guns. Joe panicked. Mitra was the best shooter he had, but he knew she’d never once been in combat.
Light flooded the hallway. Someone had opened the cellar doors. Was it Mitra?
A bald-headed raider moved in quickly. He was big. Heavier than Joe by at least forty pounds and a full head taller than him. His arms and head were adorned with tattooed symbols and glyphs.
In his right hand he carried a huge serrated combat knife.
People in other cells started hollering. Yelling and clanging at the bars with fist and chains. They recognized this tattooed jailor.
Joe backed away from the cell door as the jailor approached and began working the lock.
The lock clicked open and the jailor looked at Joe. Through his swollen eye, Joe saw hate in his intentions.
He’s going to kill everyone in here. And he doesn’t even need the knife to do it.
The cage swung open and the raider rushed in without a word. Joe didn’t wait. He charged and tried to shoulder the man as hard as he could, but stopped when the knife came forward. He blocked the stab aimed at his belly and locked his arm muscles, and the raider grabbed Joe’s throat. He hung on. He held the jailor’s knifehand as hard as he could with his right and he gouged at his face with his left. Joe was weak from the beating. The jailor lifted him off his feet and he flailed his legs. He was impossibly strong and his grip on his throat tightened.
Joe’s strength faltered. Hang on. Hang on, goddammit…
A splash of something wet. Joe smelled piss and shit. The hand released his throat and he fell. The jailor staggered back, drenched in the contents of the toilet bucket the kid had hurled at him.
Joe coughed for air and fell backwards on his ass but he wanted to get up. He wanted to grab the knife and plunge it into the jailor’s face again and again with every ounce of strength he had left. He wanted to live. He wanted to survive. He wanted to return to camp. He had a glimmer of a thought of Lydia, the book-loving kid back at camp. She’d be so disappointed that he didn’t bring her a new one to read.
He caught his breath, saw the glint of the serrated knife, and reached for it.
The sharp report of a rifle shot reverberated around the tiny cellar.
Mitra stood, backlit by the glow of a fire outside the cellar door, steel eye aiming down the sights of the SCAR-H. The shit-soaked raider lay collapsed on the floor of the cell, dark blood pooling from the ruins of his skull.
She stepped over the foe and into the cell and she and the boy helped Joe to his feet.
“I take it you’re on our side,” Robbie said.
“Who’s this?” Mitra asked.
“I’ll tell you later.” Joe’s ragged croaked out. “We gotta get these people out of here.” From the cell door, he withdrew the key the jailor had left in the lock and limped over to the next cell where the old man and the boy stood, the boy still huddled, teary eyed.
He fit the key in the lock and tried to turn it. It wouldn’t budge. He tried again, harder. Nothing. The old man and the boy looked at him, helpless.
Joe tried the lock on the next door. The key did not turn. He tried the next cell. Nothing.
The sounds of the inferno outside intensified. Any second now more raiders could flood in.
Mitra released the magazine in her rifle and checked her remaining ammunition. “I’ve only got one mag left. We can’t hold these guys off. We have to get out of here right now.”
Joe started kicking the closest lock furiously. Each impact slammed into his hip and rattled the cage door. The lock was thick and strong. He kicked harder.
The prisoners shouted. Pleaded. Arms outstretched through the steel latticework, voices yelling for rescue. Two dozen people in cages, unknown fates ahead. The flickering of flames casting shadows on their imploring faces.