Saturday, December 19, 2015

Magna Fuga

     Kent Wheelock lay, unconscious, in a congealed pool of his own blood and bile. A poultice made from a falcon-regurgitated poppy covered his missing left eye. Fulco stood on the footboard of the collapsed bed in the corner of the dilapidated shack. The fireplace grating groaned as it was pushed aside by a bald old man who clambered up and out. Fulco cawed. Kent moaned, but did not move. From inside his fur-lined cape, the old man pulled out a long thin cloth. He knelt beside Kent, then lifted the young man’s head to wrap the cloth around the injured eye thus securing the poultice in place.
     The old man scratched his goatee, “it is one thing to owe a bard a favor, it is another to get caught up in a mess like this,” he shook his head sorrowfully. “I’ll be damned if we’re not even now, Fintan.” He pulled a smelling salt capsule from a pouch on his leather belt. After popping the capsule, he waved it across Kent’s nose.
     The young man bolted upright, his torso weaving, one eye open, “wha-?” Kent scrambled backwards through the congealed mess, “who in Iphi are you?”
     “Shh, boyo. Name’s Bonnie Taylor. I’ve been sent to help.”
     “By who?”
     “Where is that old bastard?” Kent growled, “he did this to me.”
     “I told you, be quiet,” Bonnie Taylor whispered, “the forest is crawling with soldiers. You want them to hear you?”
     For the first time in what seemed ages, Kent remembered his escape from Camp Polkner. He shuddered. As he glared up through the partially fallen roof, he realized the moon was moving unnaturally. What Kent had thought was the moon, was actually the searchlight from a low-flying reconnaissance drone. The search teams were finally in the Smoking Forest. He had to get out of the shack before they found him.
     “How can you help, you’re just an old man,” Kent said.
     “Old mountain man, actually,” Bonnie Taylor responded, “which means I know things about this forest and these mountains. Now, follow me without questions and we can make it to safety before they get any closer.” As the old man stood up, his ankles and knees popped.
     “Where are you gonna take me?”
     “Either shut up and follow,” Bonnie Taylor hissed, “or sit and wait to get caught.”
     Kent quickly considered his options, “alright,” he mumbled as he attempted to stand. A dull ache pulsed through his head. A wave of nausea hit, he weaved, almost fell, then took a step forward.
     “Go. I can watch from the trees,” Fulco said.
     Before Kent could respond, the old man cursed, “I wish damned bird would shut up. If he keeps cawing like that they’ll come looking.”
     Fulco ruffled his feathers, scratched his face with one foot, and said, “go tell it on the mountain, low-born.” In disgust, Fulco flew up and out of the battered roof.     
     For a second, Kent thought the old coot would reply, instead Bonnie Taylor motioned him into the fireplace. With only one eye, walking was a whole new challenge. Kent bumped his head climbing into the pit, causing his whole head to thrum. Cursing under his breath he managed to find a foothold. Once Kent was on the ladder, Bonnie Taylor surveyed the room. The puddle of nasty Kent left behind would be a dead giveaway that the young man had been in the shack; aside from that, Bonnie didn’t see anything that might lead them to the escape ladder. He climbed most of the way down before he pulled the grating into place. Just to be on the safe side he spread some of the ancient ash around the opening, with luck no one would notice his finger marks.
     The tunnel under the shack was cold and grey made of reinforced concrete built in another era.The old man pulled two piezo-electric flashlights out of the pouch on his belt, “you’ll need this.” Bonnie Taylor grabbed Kent by the arm, then whispered, “don’t speak until I tell you. We’re not safe yet.” He passed the boy, “follow. Be quick and quiet.”
     Shrugging and rolling his one good eye, Kent silently obeyed. About 50 ft. later the tunnel took a sharp left, opening into a well-crafted bunker. Taylor pushed open a water-proof hatch, once they were both inside he closed it, and spun the wheel to engage the locks. The old man held his breath as the steel pins screeched into place. Kent opened his mouth to speak, but Taylor shook his head, ‘no,’ and motioned forward. The main room was set up like a standard living room. Kent wanted to sit a while, not that it mattered, he hadn’t gotten anything he wanted since landing in that hellacious prison. They went through three more hatches, locking each after they passing. Finally, they came to another ladder well which Taylor promptly climbed down. This time they weren’t in a simple concrete tunnel, rather they had entered an enormous underground crossroads.
     Place names with mileage and arrows were etched into the walls beneath a winged eye. If asked, Kent would have sworn the eye blinked. Taylor took the road to the right, “Divers City, 125 mi. à.” The young man tried to read the other signs, unfortunately, they were moving too fast for him to focus. He hoped they weren’t about to walk 125 miles. A shockwave pulsed through Kent’s left eye socket. His equilibrium was thrown off as he simultaneously saw Bonnie Taylor’s flashlight bobbing down the road and a reconnaissance drone cartwheeling through the sky. While Fulco attacked the drone, Kent upchucked on a southward road headed towards Divers City.

     “Bird strike?!” Commander Randle Dante, Sr. yelled into the phone, “put boots on the ground. Search the area where the drone went down. Get that prisoner.” He slammed the phone onto the receiver, hollering at his secretary, “Ensign Baeckerei! My car! Iphi be damned if that bumbling fool, Major Peters, is going to mess this up. All he has to do is catch one escapee. Bird strike on a drone! Un-fucking-believable.”
     Ensign Gunter Baeckerei banged his knee on his desk when he jumped. From memory, he dialed Lt. Musgrove’s cell, “Commander wants his car. Now. I’d hurry if I were you.” He rubbed his hurt knee while watching the commander pace. One more year, Baeckerei mused, then I can change duty stations. This SOB has lost it. By the time the old man was out the door, Lt. Musgrove was squealing wheels into the parking lot.    
     “Where we headed, sir?” Lt. Musgrove asked.
     “Search HQ. On the double, Lieutenant,” the commander ordered. “I swear if that worthless sumbitch can’t catch one escapee…What in the name of Iphigenia do we even have a search team for? Major Peters, boyo,” the commander muttered, “your daddy may be General of the Southern Battalion, but you’re a top-notch moron.”
     Lt. Musgrove remained silent while Commander Dante continued to spew verbal acid, another first in the two years he’d been driving the old codger. Either he’s lost his mind or this prisoner is high-value, which doesn’t make a lick of sense. You don’t send high-value prisoners off with a couple of grunts who barely made it through basic. Lieutenant Anthony Musgrove listened carefully while the commander broke the cardinal rule of leadership: never lose your cool in front of subordinates. As they pulled into Search HQ the commander jumped out of the vehicle. For the second time that day the lieutenant followed.
     “Major Peters!”
     “Attention!” the desk private yelled.
     “Yes. Yes. Where’s Major Peters?”
     “He’s in the War Room. I’ll buzz you in, sir.”
     The commander crossed the waiting room, managing to pull on the door just a moment before the private hit the buzzer, “private!” 
     “Try it again, sir.”
     This time the magnetic lock disengaged and the door swung into the commander’s face. He paused, his jaw clinching and unclinching, one more thing goes wrong, I swear… Eight strides in he left-faced and pushed down on the War Room handle.
     Inside the War Room, the major paced between a white-board with a map of the search area and the computer bank where four pilots were observing real-time video from their drones. As sectors were cleared, a tech sergeant grayed out areas on the white-board. With everyone’s focus on the search, no one noticed the pissed off commander standing in the doorway.
     “Attention!” the tech sergeant called out. The major spun around, shocked by the sudden intrusion. Three of the pilots ignored the call, one jumped out of her chair.
     “At ease,” Commander Dante ordered. “Major, report.”
     “Sir, we’ve cleared half of the search area. There’s been a bird strike on one of the drones. The other three are still flying. Alpha and Bravo teams are in the Smoking Forest. Charlie is north of Red Quarry. And, Delta is…”
     “So, you’ve lost a drone and can’t find the prisoner?”
     “In short,” Major Peters responded, “yes, sir.”
     “Show me where the drone went down.”
     “Over here, sir,” the female pilot called as she sat back down, “I’ll have to cue the vid. Just a moment.” She fiddled with the buttons, then said, “okay, sir. If you’re ready.”
     “Just play it, Captain.”
     She hit play. The Smoking Forest whizzed by. Without warning the image shook violently. A black wing blocked the view, suddenly the images alternated between sky and forest. The video ended with the drone smashing into the forest canopy.
     After the second viewing, the commander turned to the major, “that wasn’t an ordinary bird strike. That was an attack. Which team did you order to recon the area?”
     “Delta team,” Major Derrick Peters answered while thinking to himself, an attack? He’s lost it. Birds don’t attack.
     “That’s Master Sergeant Locos team, correct?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “Good,” the commander relaxed a bit, at least Locos has a clue. “Major, get Charlie team out of the quarry and to the downed drone, we both know the escapee isn’t headed to work the pits. Tell Locos to search that quadrant with a fine toothed comb. Switch the drone cameras off night-vision and onto heat-seekers. And, for Iphi’s sake, somebody get me a cup of fucking coffee. I’m not leaving until we find him.”
     Major Peters suppressed a groan. It was hard enough to find missing prisoners without having the commander hovering about and second guessing every decision. Fine, the major thought, you want to run this show, no problem. Its your base…for now. He nodded to the tech sergeant, who had to step around Lt. Musgrove to leave the War Room. “Rydel, better order a pot and enough cups for everyone.”
     “Yes, sir,” Tech. Sergeant Rydel answered as the door closed.

     Bonnie Taylor closed a hatch, swiveled a locking bar, then said, “we should be safe for awhile. Even if they make it to Junction 27, they won’t know which road we took. We’ll stay here for the night. Tomorrow, we go to Divers City.”
     “I’m pretty good with geography,” Kent said, “but I’ve never heard of Divers City.”
     “Doesn’t surprise me. How old are you, boyo?”
     “That’s what I thought. Same as my son would have been. You’re too young. Curriculum’s changed a lot since I went to public school. They’ve watered down the history lessons. Used to teach about the ancients, the fallout, unification of the Poterits, and civil war. These days, they just teach Thicket’s version. A bunch of nothing. What a scam.”
     “Uh, what?” Kent asked.
     “A scam. They haven’t taught you anything. Made you stupid. It’s not your fault. Divers City used to be the major port for Poterit Montis. When the war broke out between the Unified Poterits, the ports were blockaded. Shelling drove the people north. The ports have all been abandoned. Well, mostly abandoned. There are always smugglers who stay behind.”
     “So, why are you taking me there?”
     “To meet a smuggler who will take you to Poterit Don.”
     “Who said I want to go to Poterit Don?”
     Bonnie Taylor laughed, “well, you sure can’t go back. Unless…you want to be killed?”
     Kent thought it over, “okay, so we go to Divers City, meet a smuggler, go to Poterit Don. Then what? Everything has been crazy since I got picked up on the Strip and hauled off to Camp Polkner. What am I supposed to do in Poterit Don with one eye?”
     “I’d say anything you want, but that’s not your destiny. Fintan has a plan for you. We just gotta get you to him.”
     “A plan? For me? That snake in the grass. I don’t care what his plans are,” Kent sat down on a tiny couch in the main room of the bunker, “I’m not going.”
     “We can argue about it in the morning,” Bonnie Taylor smiled, “in the mean time, there's a shower, clothes, and cots in that room,” he pointed to a hatch behind the couch. “I’ll be in the kitchen fixing some grub for us. You should probably clean up and get some rest. If you feel like a history lesson, you know where I’ll be.” Taylor ducked through the hatch in the left wall, careful to avoid the knee-knockers.
     For a few minutes, Kent didn’t move. He sat with his arms folded and his eye closed. The left-side of his head was killing him. Finally, he walked around the couch, food and history lessons would have to wait. What he really needed was sleep, right after he scrubbed off his first epidermal layer. A real shower, he nervously chuckled, remembering the fire hose 'showers' from Camp Polkner, I hope it has hot water.

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