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.