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Last week’s story fork…
1. Surrender to save everyone else.
2. Stay hidden and let the situation play out.
3. Go on the attack and hope for the best.
The group chose #3 and here is how that played out…
Two minutes passed and I still hadn’t decided on the least worst choice. I had no doubt what would happen if I turned myself in. General Curtis would have me killed immediately. Or, if that was too publicly messy, he’d do it later when there were no witnesses. On second thought, his abhorrent threat against everyone in the marketplace proved he didn’t care who saw what or who survived and who didn’t.
I’d be killed immediately and he’d paint whatever picture he needed to in order to make cold-blooded murder palatable to the other elites living in the upper levels.
Trying to remain hidden didn’t seem like an option that would turn out any different. Not from the perspective of how I would end up dead either way. But it would be vastly different for all the innocent people in the marketplace who’d come here today not knowing it would be their last day alive.
How many mother and fathers, how many brother and sisters, how many children would die if I chose to stay hidden?
More than my conscience could bear. That much was certain.
Which left only one choice.
Outgunned and outmanned, and that was no slight to Martinez being a woman because I was happy for her to have my back, our chance of success was slim to none.
Zero to none was more accurate.
Maybe I could take Curtis down before getting taken down myself.
Would that make our sacrifice worthwhile?
Who would still be around to make that judgement?
Not me. Not Martinez.
But maybe it would help nonetheless.
The only remaining consideration was whether he was the type of man that led from the front?
Or if he was the type that stayed safely to the rear until the action died down and all that was left was the victory parade?
My brief encounter with him in the infirmary was all that I could remember of his character. And while he seemed like a ferocious bull then, it was easy to appear tough as nails when you were the only hammer around.
How would he be when confronted with an opponent that forcefully resisted with skill and tenacity?
None of it mattered.
There was no thinking a way out of this one.
It was time for action.
Time to spill blood until one side or the other stood unopposed on the field of engagement.
Still, I would’ve preferred knowing how the gamble was going to play out.
Was that anything new? Every soldier wanted to know the future, what the result of the coming battle would be. So long as that future was a victorious one.
Would anyone want to know about a future that was both inevitable and ended in defeat and death?
I turned to Grizelle. “Can you see the future in your candle?”
A twisted frown broke across her face. “I wouldn’t be here with you today if I could.”
“I’m sorry to bring my misfortune into your life.”
“Can you see the future?”
“Then there is nothing to be sorry about.”
“If we survive today, I’d like to come back and look into the flame again.”
Her eyes brightened and she grinned. “Oooh! He’s got a taste for it now. Well, I’ll be here. If I’m not a pile of ash.”
I reached for the battle rifle that Martinez held out for me. I checked the magazine and chamber and settled my mind.
It was time.
“You don’t have to do this,” I said to her.
She snorted. “Yes, I do. You think he’s going to let me say sorry and return to my post? Besides, I’m not done saving your butt.”
I tried to smile but the weight of her impending death weighed on me. “You’re a damn fine soldier, Martinez.”
“Save your blubbering praise for after the fight. If we die, I didn’t deserve it. And if we live, well, I’ll force myself to endure whatever flowery praise you feel obligated to spew out.”
Like I said, a damn fine soldier.
I smacked her shoulder and marched passed. As we emerged from Grizelle’s stall, Caleb was nowhere to be seen.
No surprise there.
I broke into a run, knowing Martinez would keep up. The sound of her boots hitting the ground confirmed it. The marketplace was a rat warren of narrow twisting lanes that was as good a maze as I’d ever seen.
Still, I noticed the markers I’d filed away at each intersection as we traced our way back to the entrance. The shop with the fat man smoking a long, thin pipe. The glassy look in his eyes. The stall with a carved statue of black rock that looked like an apocalyptic god with bared fangs and sharp claws. The table with toy soldiers made of scrap metal and other odds and ends.
We were getting close now, but also running out of time.
I ran through the details of the entrance to the marketplace as we continued on. The plan of attack would be simple considering the ticking clock and the forces under my command.
And forces was only plural because I counted myself as part of that contingent.
I’d take one side and send Martinez to the other with the hopes that one of us could gain a flanking position. If so, perhaps we could pin them down with overlapping fields of fire.
There was no chance for a big victory. Not in the conventional sense of defeating or routing the enemy. But victories came in different sizes on different days and situations. Perhaps we could draw them out and give the people in the marketplace a chance to escape. If so, that would be enough.
That would a worthy victory for this day.
Even if we died in the end.
An amplified voice boomed through the cavern.
“Time is up! Know that you all have brought this upon yourselves!”
A smaller voice replied. A voice I recognized and responded to with a mix of surprise, relief and fury.
“Shut your trap already, you egomaniacal windbag!”
I turned the last corner and skidded to a stop.
One of the last stalls before the open space and the exit corridor beyond rattled and shook. An engine roared and the entire stall inched forward into the narrow lane. It pulled out, revealing a long barricade of scrap metal. The entire storefront was attached to the front. It had clearly been constructed for the purpose that it was now being used for.
It screeched to a stop, blocking most of the ten foot width of the lane. At five feet thick and seven feet high, it was formidable cover and a welcome advantage.
A panel popped open on the near side and the owner of that voice appeared.
He sat there with a wild gleam in his eye and a megaphone in hand.
He held it out to me.
“You’re the spark. So light the fire.”
The twin apes appeared from a nearby stall carrying submachine guns. They hunkered behind the barricade with malevolent grins twisting their faces. They were the types that weren’t overly concerned with which side was right or wrong or what the ensuing fight might be about or mean to the winners or losers.
They were in it for the fight.
Plain and simple.
And that was okay by me.
If we had any chance of surviving, we needed every knuckle-dragging, chest-beating caveman we could get. A few more people drifted out of nearby dark corners and joined us behind the barricade. They carried weapons and looked like they knew how to use them.
So this was how a revolution started?
Had others started this way?
By a flashpoint of circumstance and not purposeful intent.
Had other leaders started in the same position of doubt and only in retrospect appeared confident and assured?
I barely remembered my own name.
Yes, more events were coming back. But a few flashes of memories seemed a weak foundation for a leader to stand upon.
CRACK. CRACK. CRACK.
Bullets pinged off the other side of the barricade.
Reflexively, I ducked, despite the barricade being tall enough to stand behind.
A whooshing sound and a wave of heat made us all drop to the ground as a cloud of flames billowed over the top of the barricade. It roiled out and down to the ground behind us.
One of the more barbaric tools of war.
General Curtis didn’t just mean to win. He meant to make a point. To make those who opposed him suffer so that others would know what waited for them if they chose the same folly.
A whistling trail of sparks raced overhead. An instant later, an explosion in the distance echoed around the cavern.
Rocket propelled grenades.
The screams of the injured followed.
Two more trails screamed by and two more explosions shook the marketplace.
I put the megaphone to my mouth and and squeezed the button. “General Curtis, you’re killing innocent people!”
“Hold your fire!” his voice echoed from their position beyond the barricade and blocking the entrance of the cavern. “Scout, their blood is on your hands.”
I sidled over to the edge of the barricade and peeked around the corner.
Seventy feet away, a unit of Grays were fanned out in front of the narrow entrance. All dressed in full battle rattle and armed to the teeth. The front line crouched behind a solid wall of overlapping reinforced kevlar shields. Bullets weren’t going to do more than annoy them. Grenades would’ve made a dent, but we didn’t have any that I’d seen.
Behind several rows of soldiers stood the general. A squad of soldiers covered him with clear protective shields.
“Is the fugitive Martinez with you?” Curtis yelled.
A bullet pinged off the clear shield directly in front of his face.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Martinez at the other end of the barricade with her rifle pinned to the side for increased accuracy.
She shrugged. “Worth a try.”
The general scowled. “Fire at will!”
A squad of soldiers carrying RPGs filed forward and took turns launching them into the cavern. A couple hit the barricade and the metal boomed as it absorbed the explosions.
It held together, but the explosions and screaming around the marketplace made clear other hadn’t fared so well.
We stayed put behind cover as a hellacious rain of firepower exploded all around. The orange glow of fires reflected off the cavern walls in the distance and made the growing cloud of smoke high above glow orange with reflected light.
The inevitable lull in the fight eventually arrived.
And I did what had to be done.
I squeezed the button and lit the fire.
“People of the marketplace! This is Scout. Come and join me in the fight! General Curtis has no intention of letting anyone escape! He’s going to kill us all to send a message! The time to fight is now! I will fight for you! I will die for you! Join me now if you want to live!”
The last words echoed around the cavern.
The sporadic report of gunfire was all that answered.
At first, anyway.
And then another sound overtook the gunfire and the crackling of raging fires and the shrieking of the wounded and dying.
It started weak and came from disparate voices here and there around the marketplace.
But it quickly grew as more and more joined in.
Until at last it shook the air and drowned out all else.
An unleashed fury so mighty it made the ground tremble. A pent up cry that released generations of injustice and transformed and focused it into action.
They came slow at first, in ones and twos, with righteous rage burning in their chests. Before long, streams of people filed in and filled the lane behind the barricade.
And they didn’t arrive with only their beating, bleeding hearts in their hands.
They came with cold rage in their eyes.
And they came armed with rifles, pistols, axes, metal bars and other instruments of violent revenge.
“I’d say we’re ready to roll,” Crypto said as cranked a steering wheel around and around. Hidden wheels beneath the metal carapace scraped and crunched the dirt as they rotated in place.
The engine roared and the barricade lurched forward.
And then I realized that it was no barricade.
It was an armored vehicle.
Then the engine coughed and died and the ram stopped.
Crypto cranked it over and over while bullets and RPGs hammered the far side, but it wouldn’t catch. He leaned out. “Push the damn thing!”
Okay, less an armored vehicle and more a rolling pile of scrap metal.
The two apes slung their submachine guns over their shoulders and drove into the side of the vehicle. Grunting like they were giving birth, the vehicle started to move.
“Help them!” I shouted to the others and soon the thing was rolling toward the line of Grays like a massive battering ram.
I turned back to the crowd of recruited fighters and waved them forward. I yelled into the megaphone, “Use the vehicle for cover and fire at will!”
Those not pushing it forward squeezed toward the center while Martinez and I held lead positions at the corners. Every time one of the Grays popped up above their line of shields to take a shot, we sent rounds downrange to make them drop back into cover.
Fifty feet away and the ram was going so fast we all had to jog to keep up.
An RPG shot forward and I ducked into cover to avoid getting my head taken off. It impacted to the rear and the explosion took out several people bringing up the rear.
Now thirty feet away and I could see the terror in the eyes of the first line of Grays. They were about to get ran over and they knew it.
I fired at one that leaned too far beyond the cover of his shield and hit him in the shoulder. He went down behind other shields before I could hit him again to ensure he was taken out of the fight.
Their line parted in the middle and collapsed to the sides.
It was almost like they were inviting us in.
And then I saw the reason for the change in formation.
A team of Grays hustled forward with a wheeled gun. The barrel was the size of a sewer main. Fully a foot in diameter.
We were seconds away from getting annihilated.
I reached into the cramped pilot cabin and grabbed Crypto by the arm and yanked him out. I shoved him into the arms of one of his guards and then yelled into the megaphone.
“Run for cover! Now!”
I took the lead to show everyone what to do. I aimed at the Grays and let loose with a withering barrage while darting sideways away from the rolling vehicle.
Martinez had already seen the danger and was pulling people away on her side while also laying down suppressive fire.
Only twenty feet away.
Maybe they wouldn’t have time to get the big gun into the fight.
The concussive force flung me through the air like a rag doll. I hit the ground hard and rolled to a stop. The pipe sticking out of my smacked the ground more than once sending stabbing pains radiating through my head. I squeezed my eyes closed and fought to keep from passing out.
Shrapnel screamed through the air in all directions.
A splinter hit me in the leg. The metal sizzling as it seared the surrounding flesh.
I reached down and found a bit of it still sticking out. I yanked it out, wincing as it burned the pads of my finger and thumb.
I rolled over and watched as the wreckage of the ram, like a battered flower of twisted and sheared metal splayed out from the impact point, slammed into the Grays.
It tore through their formation. The metal even more dangerous now that it was a thicket of razor edges.
I struggled up and fired at the distracted soldiers. One down. And another.
Martinez appeared at my shoulder and we laid down a hard rain of bullets.
Others on the ground nearby joined in to press the advantage.
But the Grays were pulling together again, recovering as well.
A fierce firefight at point blank range broke out.
Grays dropped right and left.
Brave men and women to my right and left did the same.
But the Grays were better equipped and better drilled. They quickly brought their kevlar shields to bear and took cover while dishing out fire from a protected position.
Straight into a mass of determined yet doomed resistance.
It would be over soon.
With all of us dead or dying.
The rebellion defeated before it took its first breath.
The revolution a flash of resistance before Curtis dealt out his final solution.
I looked around and saw the carnage. The inevitable end.
I may have screamed it aloud as I grabbed a nearby large fragment of metal. Holding it like a shield, I charged the Grays.
Knowing the outcome and not caring.
Bullets pinged off the panel, making my fingers numb.
A roar behind me and, from the corner of my eye, I saw Martinez and the two apes doing the same thing.
Seconds later, every surviving fighter had a shield of misshapen metal and was charging at the remaining Grays.
I slammed into the overlapping crease of two kevlar shields before the two soldiers holding them had time to fire. The impact laid them flat on their backs. I stomped over and kept going into the ranks behind.
Shots fired and I knew not everyone in the charge would survive. Least of all myself. The idiot who was leading the charge.
But if we failed, none of us would see another day.
A soldier raised a pistol toward me and I slashed the butt of my rifle across his chin.
He was out cold before his knees buckled.
A bullet snapped by, inches away.
I dropped to a knee, bringing the front sight up, and fired as it settled on the Gray targeting me further down the corridor.
It hit him center mass and he went down. Two more shots hit before he slumped over.
A knife slashed across my forearm and I jacked an elbow into the neck of the Gray holding it, sending him reeling, choking and clutching his collapsed trachea.
It was close quarters combat now. No room for a rifle.
Knife in hand, moving like a snake through water, I weaved in and out of striking distance from one target to the next.
An endless chain of violent action.
Time blurred by as the two sides fought with malignant and terminal intent.
Face to face, one or the other fell.
Until suddenly, it was over.
One side prevailed and the other collapsed. The rear contingent of Grays surrounding General Curtis beat a hasty retreat. They made it away before I or any of the others could disengage to pursue.
I wanted to go after them.
To finish the fight, but I had nothing left.
My limbs trembled with exhaustion. I fell back against the carved rock wall, my chest heaving and a hammering heart inside. Blood covered my front side like I’d been hosed down with it.
I wasn’t yet sure how much of it was mine.
The exertion left me light-headed and I fought to keep from swaying too much one way or the other.
Crypto marched over to a Gray lying on the ground, holding a gut wound that wasn’t going to heal. He slammed a boot into the soldier’s temple.
Then, as easy as if it was a slice of butter, he ran a blade across the soldier’s throat. He reached down and wiped his knife off on the soldier’s stained uniform before doing the same with his crimson-coated hands.
A psychopath with a hygiene fetish.
There was silence for a few moments and those of us that had survived, twenty or so that I could see in the immediate vicinity, paused to rest and let the victory sink in.
And then another cry rose.
This one jubilant and with a name attached.
Over and over.
Crypto stepped over the dead soldier and approached me with a broad smile on his splattered face. He swept a hand through his wild black hair. The blood in it smoothed it down like he’d just stepped out of a shower.
He turned and gestured at the crowd of victorious survivors. “I give you the seed of change.”
I didn’t share his enthusiasm.
Yes, we’d won this battle but the force we’d defeated wasn’t more than a sampling of the entire security force of Grays. General Curtis had underestimated the strength of the resistance.
He would be back and he wouldn’t make that mistake again.
I didn’t expect to survive another full day. And while these people didn’t yet realize it, they wouldn’t either.
Crypto turned back to me and extended an open hand. “I guess this makes us partners. Blood brothers, if you will.”
1. Shake his hand.
2. Punch him in the face.
What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!