Monthly Archives: April 2012

Chapter 43: Assessment

The doctors examined the recovered bodies two weeks later. They were badly decomposed. The six burnt corpses were balloon pilots. They had been killed apparently when their balloons exploded on them. The burnt holes in each of the balloon skins were probably caused by lightning. The rest of the commandos, all present and accounted for, except for one, were blue from cyanide poisoning, probably from the cyanide gas canisters that had burst open on the rocks when the balloons had crashed. The missing commando was Sangor. So was the male corpse found hanging from the skag tree. The woman was his wife, Sirka.

Sangor had been a captive of the Rats. Maybe they turned him. Maybe his wife had persuaded him to betray his species.

The sector commander ordered a unit to round up Sangor’s neighbors for questioning, along with his fellow captives. The former captives confirmed that Sangor had spent a lot of time with one of the Rats and had not seemed to share their enthusiasm when the men had talked about escaping. Several of the men said the Rats were quick and devious, and smarter than most of us all put together. The Rats seemed pretty sure of themselves. They said the Rats were able to control the weather, that they were deadly accurate with lightning bolts. They said the Rats had some pretty advanced technologies, like that glass wall at the entrance to the cave they were kept in. The men had not seen any Rat soldiers or war materiel, except for that head Rat. It had been impossible to get any idea of what kind of forces our people were up against.

Some of what the former captives said was probably just ignorant speculation, but some rang true as a bell in a church tower. The picture of defeat and betrayal was becoming clear to the commander. Maybe the Rats had left a minimum contingent to defend their homeland and were preparing to launch an attack on us, the likes of which we could scarcely imagine. Maybe they had crossed Dead River and were already in Sector 127.

The Sector 84 Commander requested an urgent meeting with the president.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

 

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Chapter 42: Report from Point 24

The balloon had more patches on it than his grandmother’s quilt. The pilot climbed into the basket with his bag, checked the air-burner frames, and told the guard to cut him loose.

The balloon started to rise tentatively into the air, while the pilot looked for a breeze blowing in the direction of Dead River. He shivered at the thought and put on his fuzzcoat. The pilot radioed his position to the assistant. He glanced at the map and checked his direction.

The balloon floated on, mostly silent except for the times he had to turn on the airburners to maintain height. The sun was high. He leaned over the basket and saw his shadow running along the ridges and valleys underneath him. The pilot saw the thick grey clouds in the distance.

When he could make out the river, the pilot glanced at his map and saw that he was approaching Point 23. He released air from the balloon to drop altitude until he was floating downstream parallel to the river on his left, keeping a respectful distance from the river, the roiling clouds, and those damned lightning bolts.

The ridges and valleys moved slowly underneath him. He passed over a clearing in the woods and saw something that made his blood run cold: two naked corpses hung upside down from the limb of a skag tree. One of them was a woman. Well, it was a common enough sight. “They must have been Rat-lovers,” the pilot told himself. He trained his monocular on the dead woman a little longer than was proper or necessary. The pilot thumbed on his STU and reported the hanging bodies and their position to the assistant.

“That’s none of our business,” said the assistant. “You’d better be looking for those commandos, if you know what’s good for you.”

The pilot flicked off the STU. He adjusted the altitude to take the balloon in a little closer to the river.

He saw the three deflated balloons on the beach. As he approached the gutted balloons, he saw the commandos lying every which way on the beach. Not a one of them was moving.

The pilot reported what he saw to the assistant and asked him what he wanted him to do. The assistant told the pilot to return home. “Put as much distance as you can between you and that river,” the assistant ordered. “I wouldn’t want your balloon to be hit by some stray lightning bolt.”

The assistant laid his STU on his desk, walked over to the governor’s office, and stuck his head inside. “Sir, the scout balloon found the commandos at Point 24,” he told his boss. “49 of them, all dead, and 9 dracs. 6 of the commandos looked badly burned. The rest looked blue in the face. Oh, and the pilot said he saw two corpses, a man and a woman, hung upside down an hour northwest of Point 24… probably Rat-lovers.”

The governor nodded at his assistant and called the Sector 84 Commander.

The Sector 84 Commander ordered a unit of 10 men to go to Sector 127 to recover the equipment and bring back the remains of his commandos for identification and determination of what the hell happened. He ordered the unit to bring back the two Rat-lovers for identification in case they could be linked to others.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Part 7: Final Solution; Chapter 41: Look-See at Dead River

The Sector Commander’s assistant knocked on his commander’s door and waited for permission to enter the office. The Sector Commander answered gruffly, “Enter.” The assistant opened the door and saluted smartly from the doorway. The commander returned the salute cursorily and scowled, “What do you want?”

“Sir,” the assistant held the closed file in his outstretched hand, “We have not been able to raise the unit commander in Sector 127 for the last half hour.”

“Did you try his second in command?” the commander looked out the window.

“Yes sir,” the assistant answered. “The second doesn’t answer. Neither does the medic, the chaplain, or the cook… Nobody for the last half hour.”

“Well, keep trying to raise someone on the STU for another half hour or so,” the commander ordered.

A half hour later the assistant once again knocked on the door. After receiving permission to enter and saluting, he reported that there was still no response on the STUs. The commander was exasperated. “Get me the governor of Sector 127 now!” he ordered.

The assistant ducked out of the room. A couple minutes later, he returned to report that the governor of Sector 127 was on the other STU.

The commander thumbed his STU and growled into it, “Sector 84 Commander here. As you know, we have a commando unit operating in your territory near the river.”

“No, I didn’t know,” the governor answered coldly.

“Well, now you know,” the commander sloughed off the governor’s impertinence. “I haven’t had radio contact with my unit commander there or anyone else for that matter for the last hour.”

“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” the governor asked, not wishing to extend his resources or volunteer anything to this pompous sector commander.

“I need you to send a couple of scout balloons over the area for a look-see,” the commander said irately.

“Who’s gonna pay for my men and balloons?” the governor asked, thinking about his budget and his financial opportunities.

“You’ll get your money!” the commander scowled.

The governor asked for the last coordinates reported by the commandos. The commander nodded to his assistant, who pointed to their last known location on the wall map. The commander read the coordinates off the map to the governor. The governor said he’d let them know as soon as his balloon scouts got back.

The governor called in his assistant and requested him to send one of the scout balloons over to Dead River at Point 23 and float down as far as Point 27, looking for any sign of the commandos Sector 84 had lost. “Have him back before nightfall, one way or the other,” the governor ordered.

The assistant nodded and returned to his desk to call the duty pilot.

The duty pilot scowled, got up, stretched, and ambled over to the quartermaster at his own slow pace. The pilot asked the QM for a fuzzcoat, STU, map of Dead River, and a monocular. The pilot signed for everything he took and ambled over to the balloon master. “What do you have ready to go?” the pilot asked the BM.

“Number 3,” said the BM, stifling a yawn.

“I thought 3 had been retired,” the pilot grimaced.

“I thought you’d been retired,” smirked the BM.

The pilot signed for the balloon and walked out the door in search of 3.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

 

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Chapter 40: Blowing in the Wind

The commandos carefully loaded the cyanide gas canisters into the balloon baskets. They ignited the air-burners. The heavy cloth patchwork began to unfold and fill up with hot air.

When the balloons were perfectly round, two commandos jumped into each of the three balloons, and the balloons lifted slowly off the ground. The balloons tugged at their anchor ropes. Three of the remaining commandos hacked through the three anchor ropes and the three balloons rose slowly in the air.

When the balloons were two barn-heights above the unit commander’s head, they picked up a strong headwind blowing across the river. The balloons moved smoothly over the rushing river torrents, but then they seemed to stop in mid-flight over the river. The commandos increased the lapping tongues of flame in their air-burners in an attempt to gain height and possibly catch a stronger headwind blowing them toward the Uncharted Areas, but their balloons continued to be blown backwards toward their comrades.

The balloons reached a point high above the shore directly over their comrades and commander. Three lightning bolts split the grey sky, exploding the balloons, whose metal baskets dropped like rocks to ground. The baskets hit the rocky beach hard killing the commandos inside instantly. The canisters also hit hard, making sickening phew-w-w-w sounds.

The commander and the rest of the commandos near the crash site looked in horror at the bursting canisters as a scent of bitter almonds wafted through the air. The commander frantically fingered the button on his STU and shouted into it, “Commander, the mission is …”

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 39: Click Sirka!

By the end of the week, they reached Sector 127. Sangor scanned the hills around them with his monocular for signs of his wife. He saw none. He did not know whether to worry that she had gotten lost or worse, or be pleased that she had kept herself so well hidden.

The skies looked ominous, dark and heavy. There were lightning bolts splitting the sky in the direction of the river. Heavy drops of rain began to fall. Sangor feared for his wife. His finger itched to press the transmit button of the STU under his poncho but he withstood the temptation.

The commander ordered the commandos to move out.

The commandos reached the river bank by mid-morning the next day. They were being pummeled by hail the size of rocks banging down on their dented helmets. Sangor hoped the weather was better where his wife was or that she had some protection from the elements. The fog moved inland from the river making it difficult to see more than two steps in any direction.

Now! he thought. Now was the time to escape. He walked through the fog to the edge of the clearing, behind a clump of skag trees, opened his pants, and relieved himself in a long arching stream. Sangor closed his pants, ducked down, and moved as quietly as he could through the fog into the thick forest, pelted on his back by the hail. The sounds behind him began to die away. He looked back in the direction from which he’d come. He couldn’t see anyone. He ran up a hill and down into a ravine. Sangor heard his name called in the distance. He did not answer. Again he heard his name. Again he did not answer. He pulled his STU out from under his poncho and clicked the transmit button twice. Nothing. He heard nothing. Then he heard three clicks.

His heart raced with joy. He rushed head-long up the slope to the top of the wooded ridge. He listened to his STU and was not sure whether he heard clicks or static. Then he heard his name spit out harshly on the STU. Why hadn’t he thought about selecting a private frequency after the first two clicks and the three-click acknowledgement? Now they’d have to share their frequency with the commandos. Sangor heard his name again on his STU. The unit commander ordered some scouts to look for Sangor. There wasn’t much time left before they’d find him. Sangor was desperate. He shouted into his STU “switch frequencies — Sangor’s compromised this one!”

It worked! Sangor could not believe his luck. The frequency had gone quiet all of a sudden.

Then the silence was overwhelming. Where was his wife? Click Sirka! For God’s sake click, he thought. He heard four unmistakable clicks, weaker though than the three clicks of acknowledgement he’d heard before. My God! I’m moving away from her.

He looked back in the direction from which he’d escaped. Sangor would have to run around the commandos who were widening their circle in their search for him. He ran along the ridge, just below it on the far side to avoid being seen by the commandos, until he thought he had outflanked them, and ran back down the slope into the ravine and back up the next slope to the top of the hill.

He waited for a minute and heard four clicks, stronger this time. He continued running in the same direction, stopping to listen, and running again. The clicks were louder now. Sangor had a sharp pain in his rib cage from running but he continued breaking through the dense skag growth until he found a drac path. He ran up the slope and over the ridge. He slid down the loose rocks between the trees that parted into an open field.

Sangor’s blood ran cold. His wife’s naked white body hung upside down, her ankles coiled by rope to a thick branch of a tree on the other side of the clearing in back of a boulder patch. Blood trickled down from a gash in her side. He dropped to his knees in the dry grass.

He heard four clicks behind his back and everything went black.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

 

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Chapter 38: Cyan Skies

The plan was to fly over the Uncharted Areas with manned balloons. Commandos would fly under the balloons in metal baskets. When they found the fields and caves of the Rat enclave they would drop cyanide gas bombs killing every living thing in a three-day radius.

The sector commander ordered Sangor to lead the commando unit back to the point where he had crossed the river between Sector 127 and the Uncharted Areas.

Sangor’s heart sank in his chest. Everything was happening too quickly. He would not have time to prepare their escape. He could not leave Sirka at home alone to face the hatred of their countrymen when he betrayed them, as he surely intended to do. They would lynch her after they raped and tortured her. No, he would rather die, saving his wife.

Sangor asked permission from his commander to say good-bye to his wife. He swore on his honor that he would be back within the hour. The commander thought it was a small request from a war hero who was willing to risk his life a second time for his country and he assented.

Sangor ran home. Out of breath, he told his wife that she must follow the unit at a safe distance through Sectors 87, 84, and 127, almost to the river and keep an eye out for Sangor to come fetch her at the last moment before they crossed the river. He planned to lead the unit to the wrong point along the river, break away from them while they were organizing for the crossing, and come fetch her. Sangor had stolen an STU from the governor’s stores and pressed it into her hands. He said she was not to speak into it, only to listen. He would click the transmit button twice to indicate he had escaped and was on his way to fetch her. She would count to ten in her head and click thrice to acknowledge. Then once a minute she would click four times to indicate her position. He would try to triangulate her position with his STU. As soon as he found her, he would take her to the correct crossing point along the river. After they reached the other side, Sangor was sure that Lem or one of his friends would find them and bring them safely to the village. Sangor kissed his wife long and hard, and ran back to his unit, arriving just in time to answer his commander’s question “where the hell is Sangor, goddammit”.

By morning, supplies, materiel, and transport were battle-ready. The unit set out with a wagon train pulled by a team of dracs. Three wagons were filled with mounds of folded cloth and coiled rope. Three wagons contained light-weight braided metal baskets and air-burner frames. The last three wagons were loaded with large heavy disarmed cyanide canisters. Some of the commandos rode on top of the wagons and some walked alongside them. The unit made good time marching through the sector, much to Sangor’s consternation. He hoped and prayed his wife would be able to keep up with the unit, without being spotted. Please, God, not too close and not too far.

Sangor’s wife had no trouble keeping up with the unit. Sirka hitched their drac to their cart, after hastily loading it with food and water, supplies, and blankets. She followed the column of dust the commandos and dracs kicked up on the long march, at a half-day distance, parallel to the dust column on the other side of the valley. When they stopped, she would stop.

Sirka listened to the military chatter on her STU, careful not to brush her cheek against the transmit button. She did not allow herself to sleep. She worried about Sangor and their future. What had happened to their whole world? Sangor had come home from the Rat wars a decorated hero. The high commanders praised him. Their neighbors talked about him admiringly. Then Sangor came home and the world turned on its head. He told her the Rats were good and our people were evil. He said the Rats were strong and smart, and they would win the war against us. He said our government would lead us into catastrophe and extinction. The Rats knew how to rise from the ashes. The Rats did not hate us. They were only defending themselves. They would help us survive. Sangor had asked his wife whether she knew how many Rats had fought against our army. Just one, Lem, he said without waiting for her to answer. They can control the weather. They can appear suddenly and just as suddenly disappear. They can be many places at the same time. They see the future like we look across a field. She did not know what to believe. Maybe Sangor had been brainwashed while he was in captivity. She had heard of such things. He certainly was talking crazily. She felt sure the things he said about the Rats could not be true, but she knew many of the things he said about our army and our government might very well be true. What was a person to do?

A voice from the STU gave the command to move. She snapped the whip over the inert drac’s back and started to lurch forward.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 37: Sangor Comes Marching Home

Sangor and his fellow captives crossed Sector 127 diagonally in just under four days. A few of the men, the silent man among them, left the main group along the way to make their separate ways home in the northern part of the sector. Sangor and the rest of the men kept moving northwest towards the Sector 87. Once they crossed the border, the men cut due west over the vast flats, tasting dust and grit, but also tasting home on the horizon.

They lost several men to the hearth fires of Village 437 and 435. The remaining men made the border of Sector 84 in another three days.

Sangor reached his home base and reported to the governor. After Sangor told the governor who he was and where he had been the last few weeks, the governor told him to wait in the outer office while he closed the door and called the army sector commander on his STU.

The commander arrived at the governor’s office within two hours, passing Sangor sitting on an ornate chair in the outer office. The governor told the commander about Sangor. The commander called Sangor into the governor’s inner office and began the debriefing under the governor’s watchful eyes.

Sangor reported everything he could remember since falling captive to the Rats. He told the commander and the governor about the march to the river, looking for a place to ford the river, wading across, setting up camp on the far side, and being captured. Sangor told them about being forced to run blindly, chained to the others, about being released, and being allowed to wash himself and eat. He told them about staying with the leader of the Rats, but did not mention that he had known the Rat when they were children. He told them about asking to be with the other prisoners and about the aborted escape attempt. He told them about the Rat’s surprising decision to release them all, but he did not mention that he swore he’d never betray the Rats to his human commanders. Finally he told them how the Rat child had led the freed captives to the river where there was a boat to take them all across. Sangor told the commander and the governor how the child had disappeared just when the men planned to capture the child and bring him back to headquarters.

Sangor was awarded a medal of honor for his cunning and bravery. After the modest ceremony, he went home to his proud wife.

The sector commander called for a staff meeting and came up with a plan of attack that was certain to succeed this time.

Once home, Sangor told his wife, Sirka, what had really happened with the Rats. He told her everything he had left out of the debriefing.

“I want you to go back with me,” Sangor told Sirka as he held her in his arms, “to start a new life there.”

Sirka tensed her body in his arms. “You traitor!” she hissed. “You’ve betrayed your people and me! I don’t know what I should …” She looked away from Sangor, away from his beseeching eyes.

Sirka resisted but finally agreed to go with him wherever he went. Sangor was the only people Sirka had, the only country to which she owed her allegiance.

 

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

 

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Chapter 36: Down by the River

Sangor returned alone to the compound. His friends were surprised to see him alive, standing on his own legs. One of the men jeered, “What’s the matter, Sangor, didn’t they have room for you in Paradise?” The men around him smirked or chortled.

Sangor stared at the man and the men around him until the sounds died. Some of the men wondered what had happened to Sangor.

When he finally spoke, Sangor spoke so softly that the men had to strain their ears to hear him. “They’ve decided to let us return home,” he said. Nobody else said anything for a long moment. “Those of us who want to leave are free to do so.”

Still nobody spoke. A voice from the back of the cave asked, “What’s the catch?” Another said, “They’ll shoot us in the back as soon as we leave this compound!” A third man who had been part of the aborted escape attempt said, “So what, we’ll never find our way out of this god-damned hell hole to the river. We tried before and see where it got us!”

Sangor waited until the other men had run out of words and silence once again began to fill the cave. “A Rat will come in one hour to lead those of you who wish to leave to the river,” he said. “Anyone who wants to stay here can stay.”

“What are you going to do?” the silent man who had led the aborted escape asked.

“What do you think?” Sangor answered coldly.

 

An hour later, nobody noticed that a Rat child had appeared in the captive compound. “Hey look!” a voice said and all heads turned in the child’s direction.

“Follow me,” the child said. “I will take you to the river, to the point where it may be forded.”

The men stood up, testing and stretching their legs, after sitting or lying so long on the hard stone floor. They began to file after the child across the threshold where the glass wall had been and into the sunlight.

Many of the men, including Sangor, looked around themselves at the caves and fields, but mainly at the cloudless cobalt sky that stretched from one horizon to another.

The child led the men up the winding narrow path to the plateau from which they could view the green valley. The men kept their eyes on the child’s back, especially those who had attempted to escape on their own and kept returning to the same point.

The child went through a gap between the trees and disappeared from the view of some of the stragglers. They hurried their pace and latched their fingers into the collars or the pants of the men in front of them to make sure they weren’t left behind. The men up front disappeared through the gap between the trees, followed by a millipede of men holding onto each other for dear life, until the last straggler had made it through.

They walked along a forest path with a meandering creek running along between the trees off to the right of them. The water lapping the rocks gave them hope that they might actually make it to the river.

Three of the captives, one of whom was the silent man, plotted to overpower the Rat child as soon as they were in sight of the river. They’d take him captive or they’d kill him.

The men could hear the rushing torrent of the river. The child had fallen back, as some of the men hurried forward to see with their own eyes what their ears promised them. The man next to the silent man grinned to himself. This was going to be almost too easy.

When they reached the river bank, the three men turned on the Rat who had no place to run to, but he was nowhere to be found. They looked everywhere within a radius of 30 steps, careful not to lose a line of sight to the rest of the group. Frustrated, once again, they caught sight of a flat boat tethered to one of the trees overhanging the river. The men filed down the embankment to the boat and climbed onto it. One man untied the rope, letting it fall from the tree, and while the rope slid along the bank towards the water, the man jumped onto the boat grasped by the outstretched hands of his countrymen.

The men paddled the flat boat with great difficulty to the opposite shore and stepped gratefully onto the far shores of Sector 127.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 35: Betrayal

Sangor asked to see Lem. Actually he just thought about seeing Lem. When Lem came to the compound to get Sangor, he came with shackles and chains. Lem was sufficiently intimidating that none of the other prisoners rose to block him or to interfere with whatever he intended to do. A few of Sangor’s friends felt sorry for what they thought the Rats were going to do to Sangor for trying to escape. They also thought they might be next in line to get whatever was going to be done to Sangor. Sangor walked glumly past Lem toward the glass wall. Lem turned around and walked after him, scanning the closed faces of the prisoners on either side of him with threat in his eyes.

After they had left the compound and were out of sight of the prisoners, Lem told Sangor to halt. He removed the shackles from Sangor’s wrists and ankles. Sangor rubbed his wrists and then his ankles where the edges of the metal rings had bitten into his flesh.

“Why did you want to see me,” Lem asked, knowing the answer, but also knowing that Saps had to say a thought out loud in order to be persuaded by it, even if it was their own thought.

Sangor said, “I do not want to return to my countrymen… I would rather cast my lot with you and your people.

Lem was silent for a long moment. Finally he said, “That is a very difficult decision for you… You would be lonely and depressed for the rest of your days.”

Sangor said, “It’s what I want more than anything, but first I must return home to fetch my wife and bring her back with me.”

Lem said, “That would be very dangerous for you both. If your friends or countrymen found out what you intended, they would certainly kill you both.”

“I am prepared to take that chance,” Sangor said.

Lem told Sangor, “You must betray us. It is the only way your compatriots will trust you and let you live long enough to escape with your wife.”

Sangor looked Lem squarely in his eyes and said, “I will never betray the Rats, even if my life depends on doing so.”

Lem answered Sangor softly saying, “You must do so, if you wish to survive. The Saps will learn all you know about us. They will plan an attack to overwhelm us at our weakest point… The attack will not succeed, you may be assured.”

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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