2130, July. Continent B.
The darkness was more quiet now. The flashes of light that blazed in the distance no longer illuminated their surroundings. The ground no longer shook with each blast, and all was quiet aside from the distant rumbling that sounded more like thunder than anything else. The pitch black night surrounded them on all sides, and above them, the sky was heavy with black smog, choking out the moonlight.
Jaax squinted, straining her eyes to see in the darkness. She didn’t want to waste her flashlight’s battery until it seemed necessary. Without light, the ground looked like a mess of twisted snakes that crunched beneath her feet.
They’d been walking for quite a while before a single spot on the ground caught her eye. It looked darker than the rest, as if it had been dyed or covered with something.
“Hold up,” Jaax said as she came to an abrupt stop, digging the flashlight out of her utility belt. Sal stopped beside her just as she clicked the light on. The white stream of light cut through the darkness like a knife, and they saw it. The black stain of blood that had seeped into the soil before them.
“Shit,” Sal said.
She traced outline of the bloody pool with her light until she stumbled upon a body. Both she and Sal shrunk back for a moment.
The body was a rebel, based on the grey canvass uniform, and it was fairly intact. That is, it hadn’t been blown to bits as she’d expect from the mortar fire. She couldn’t know for sure at a glance if it were a male or female, but given the smaller stature she assumed it was a female. She’d been shot multiple times in the head and chest. The mutilated face had been shot in the maxilla, just where the upper teeth would have been, and the bridge of the nose. Teeth jutted from the gaping hole were the upper lip had caved from the impact. The dead eyes were looking in different directions, staring at both the night sky and the tree line. The whites of the eyes were red from hemorrhage, and blood seeped from the tear ducts. Red platter stained the pale white skin on her face, but most of the blood had come from the chest wounds, which had likely severed the aorta and directly punctured her heart.
“At least it was quick,” Sal said.
“She was killed at close range,” Jaax said. It hadn’t been a sniper; no sniper opens rapid fire like that. One shot, one kill. That’s how they operate.
He nodded his head, swallowing.
“We need more than just one body to convince me that we should call Jerusha and Mark out here,” he said. “Let’s go just a little further and see if there’s anymore bodies. This is pretty far from the set point we were given…”
He looked down at his navigation pod, squinting against the sudden light shining in his face.
“I don’t know,” she said. She looked back down at the body. Nausea and fear washed over her again. It was becoming an all too familiar friend. She squatted and leaned in closer as Sal was distracted.
Jaax tilted her head. One of the droplets of blood on the rebel’s cheek was still wet; it glistened as the light hit it just right. Jaax reached out and touched the bloodied cheek with the back of her palm. The sudden warmth against her skin sent her hair standing on edge and her heart pounding in her chest. She clicked her light off, leaving them in complete darkness.
For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. It was as if the air had been sucked from her lungs. Time felt as though it didn’t exist, as if it had evaporated along with the oxygen, leaving her in this dark, space-like void.
The dark consumed her as she turned to Sal, eyes wide.
“Sal,” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper, “we’ve got to get out of here.”
A single movement. It caught her eye just behind Sal. She looked past him, her eyes focusing through the darkness just enough to see a shadowed figure and a muzzle flash.
“Get down!” She screamed just as the gunshot shattered her eardrums.
Time crawled with every second that passed. She tackled him down to the ground, falling on top of him with a hard thud. She was now pressed against the M17 strapped across her chest, trapping it beneath her body, but she whipped her pistol out of her utility belt and opened fire over Sal’s head. The blasts were deafening; the flashes blinding her in the darkness.
“Stop, or I’ll shoot again and I won’t fucking miss,” a voice said. Hollow. Cruel.
“You’ve already seen my handy work.”
Jaax felt a shiver go down her spine. She looked down at Sal, who’s eyes were wild with fear.
“Toss your guns,” he said.
She and Sal locked eyes for a moment, their hearts beating against one another’s as if they were going to pound through their chests at any moment.
Another gunshot rang out, sending dirt and rocks spraying over their faces from its impact site a few inches away. Jaax let out an involuntary scream.
“Quickly!” He bellowed.
Jaax tossed the gun, her hands trembling. Sal dug into his belt and tossed his.
“Okay, now get up. Slowly. Arms in the air.”
Jaax crept off of Sal. Keeping her arms up and standing with all this weight on her back and chest was difficult, but she locked her eyes onto the man ahead of them and used her legs to steady herself. She wasn’t interested in getting shot. From what she could see, the man was at least six foot. He towered above the two smaller figures even from a distance. He was wearing a black gas mask and a black canvass jacket, almost perfect camouflage for him to disappear into the night. The mask covered his face completely, with cylindrical glass eyes that gleamed in the night.
Sal stood behind her, grimacing every inch of the way.
“Hurry!” The man barked.
“He’s been shot!” She said, realizing she hadn’t taken him down soon enough to miss the bullet.
Sal looked up at her, sweat pouring down his face as he struggled to hold his arms above his head. She saw blood soaking his uniform over his shoulder.
“Oh? I guess I didn’t miss. Heh.” He said. She nearly gagged at the sound.
“Please, let me help him,” she said.
“Oh yeah, why would I do that?” He snarled.
“Jaax, don’t…” Sal whispered.
“Because he’s a doctor. I’m a nurse. We could be valuable to you if we aren’t dead.”
She could swear she saw the man smile, though she couldn’t see his face behind the mask. He tilted his head at them like a clown.
“Is that right?”
She could see him mulling the idea over in his head. Probably debating whether or not to just kill them and save himself the trouble. She didn’t know why he didn’t in the first place.
“Glad we got the right people this time,” he laughed. “Not like the last straggler.”
Jaax and Sal looked at each other just as the man burst out into howling, hyena-like laughter.
“Yeah, we already know who you are. But don’t you worry your pretty head about that,” he said, snorting away his laughter. Like a switch had been flipped, he leveled his gun at them again and stood erect, straight as a board.
“Now toss your rifles,” he said, his gravelly voice serious and dark, cutting through her like a knife. “You can help your friend when we get where we’re going.”
“He’s going to keep losing blood if I don’t help him now,” Jaax said.
“Well too fucking bad!” He said. “Now toss your guns!”
She obeyed, shaking, pulling the strap off her back and using both arms to hoist the M17 away from her body. Sal struggled to do the same, clenching his eyes and biting his lip to get through the pain as he took the strap off his shoulder. He tossed his rifle weakly to the side with one arm.
“Alright, now we’re going to walk. And you’re going to walk ahead of me. If you try any funny business I won’t hesitate to kill you,” his voice sounded like a garbage disposal grinding gravel.
Sal and Jaax walked in step, a few feet ahead of the masked man.
She looked over at Sal. She could still seal the beads of sweat dripping down his forehead as he clutched his shoulder. He looked over to see her staring.
“Don’t worry, he didn’t hit a vessel,” he whispered, his voice weak. “It just hurts like a bitch.”
“Quiet!” the man yelled, jabbing the barrel of his gun into Sal’s wounded shoulder. Sal grunted, staggering forward. Jaax reached her arms out to steady him but stopped midway as the mask leveled his gun at her. Sal nodded at her as he straightened up. She grimaced, swallowing down the anger burning like a fire in the back of her throat as they turned and kept moving, going wherever it was this masked man was making them go.
After they’d walked maybe fifteen minutes, Jaax could see they were coming upon a dense set of trees. The forest provided an even darker cover than before, making visibility almost zero as she strained her eyes to see where they were going. She stumbled over a stump or two before the masked man finally said something.
“Okay, we’re here. Now sit, doc,” he pointed the gun at Sal at a downward angle. Sal struggled to his knees in front of a thick oak tree.
“Take off your packs.”
They obliged. Another mask then appeared out of the forest; this one a woman with short blonde hair. Her mask only covered the lower half of her face, leaving two bright blue eyes that shone brightly, even in the darkness. The new mask stared at her with wide eyes and brows furrowed with intensity before squatting down and unpacking their bags, flinging the medical equipment and rations onto the ground like they were trash. She pulled out Jaax’s extra knife and examined it before tucking it into her own utility belt, then kicked the bag out of her way.
She stood up abruptly and reached around Jaax’s waist. Jaax staggered back with her arms up, but the masked man jabbed the gun in her direction and grunted. She felt her utility belt click and pull away from her waist. The blonde threw it to the side without another thought.
“Spread ‘em,” she said, her voice garbled beneath the gas mask.
The blonde rolled her eyes and kicked at Jaax’s ankles, forcing her legs apart. She searched her, patting her down from her boots all the way up to her ponytail.
They were thorough. That meant they probably intended to keep them here for a while or to take them back to the enemy frontlines. If they planned on killing them they would have done it already and wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble.
Jaax thought they would search Sal in a similar manner, but instead the blonde straddled him while he was seated and reached around his back, aggressively pulling his jacket off and tossing it to the side. Sal was dead silent, his eyes fixed ahead on nothing as she eyed him like a piece of meat. She pressed her masked face against his cheek, slowly drawing her hands up along his torso underneath his shirt. He grimaced as she ran her hands over his wounded shoulder, and the blonde laughed. Bringing her hand away with blood on it only seemed to fuel her. Sal steadied himself, his eyes shut and jaw clenched as she continued to harass him while searching the rest of his body. Jaax could feel her blood boiling as she clenched her fists behind them, powerless.
After the blonde was done assaulting her friend right in front of her, she pulled his arms behind his back. He let out a bellow in pain and it seemed to further fuel her aggressive movements as she cuffed his hands behind his back.
“Okay, now you can work on the doc,” the male mask said, his gravel voice grating in her ears.
The blonde picked up his backpack—the one she hadn’t searched—and slung it over her shoulder before she disappeared into the forest.
Jaax wasted no time in squatting down next to Sal and rolling up his sleeve just enough to see the wound. He was right, it’d gone straight through the flesh of his upper arm without breaking a bone or severing an artery. He was lucky. The wound was still oozing blood, but she could fix that with some stitches and silver nitrate. She rifled through the medical supplies tossed about on the ground to get the suture kit and a cylindrical tube.
“Do you want some pain medicine?” She asked.
“No,” he said, shutting his eyes. “Save it for someone who actually needs it. Just get it done.”
She stitched the wound closed on both sides, sewing together his skin. He cringed in pain each time she threaded the needle through his flesh and pulled the wound closed tight.
“I’m sorry,” she said. He bit his lip and shook his head in response.
She popped open the tube and pulled out a stick of silver nitrate. When she touched the stick to his skin, the black substance began to form around the bloody tissues, singing them in a chemical reaction that stopped the bleeding. He clenched his jaw but didn’t utter a sound.
“Okay, I’ll just bandage you up now. You’re really lucky.”
“I’m not lucky,” he laughed dryly. “If I am, you’re my good luck charm.”
Jaax stared at him for a moment. She felt herself blush and hoped he couldn’t see it in the dark.
She looked over her shoulder at the masked man, who sat a few feet away slumped against a tree. He was cleaning his gun, seemingly paying no attention to them. But she couldn’t tell with the mask on.
“What do you think happened?” She whispered as she unfurled a clean white gauze and started wrapping his shoulder.
Sal pushed his head against the tree behind him.
“I think you were right. They hacked us. Maybe they knew we would split up if we weren’t near the front. I don’t know exactly,” he said. “But I’m always made a fool when I don’t listen to you.”
Sal looked at her, his blue eyes full of sorrow. Regret.
“There’s nothing we could have done differently,” she said. “You know that? This isn’t your fault. If anything it’s my fault, I suggested searching the perimeter.”
He smirked at her.
“It’s definitely not your fault.” He sighed. “I don’t think any of us could have known the right thing to do. I just know that right now, we’re fucked.”
She finished wrapping his shoulder. The masked man came to handcuff her and interlaced their cuffs so they couldn’t move. They sat together underneath the oak tree, back to back.
Sal grasped her hand in his between the cuffs. They rested their heads back against one another’s as they drifted into what could be their last moments of sleep. She hoped to have just one more dream.
She didn’t know what Sal would dream of.
But she hoped she would dream of Anyse.
To be continued…
-Copyright: Jennifer K Fuka, 2019.
Image found at: https://twistedshelf.com/index.php/category/crime/