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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 33: Break

Lem stood up from the table and told Sangor to walk with him. He brought Sangor out of the forest to a cliff overlooking a fertile valley, dappled by sun and clouds. Beneath the clouds were sheets of rain that seemed to disappear after a few moments. The terraced hills on either side of the valley appeared to be pocked with holes. Sangor saw people, Rats, entering and leaving the holes. Lem led Sangor down a narrow path descending from the cliff into the valley.

Lem guided Sangor to his home, one of the caves Sangor had seen from the cliff. When they reached the third cave, Lem stopped and put his hand on the glass wall. The glass wall dissolved. They passed through the entrance into the cave, after which the glass reformed. Lem pointed to a sofa and told Sangor to make himself comfortable. Lem sat down on a chair opposite Sangor.

Yani offered Lem and Sangor a cup of water and a plate of fresh fruit. Sangor raised his cup and sniffed at the water suspiciously. Lem laughed, switched the cups, and drank from Sangor’s cup. Sangor raised Lem’s cup to his lips and drank down the cool thirst-quenching liquid in a few gulps. Sangor eyed the fruit with a combination of desire and suspicion. Lem smiled, reached over to the plate, picked up a prange, and popped it into his mouth. “You really should try the prange,” Lem said amiably with his mouth full of the tart pulp, “it’s fresh from our garden. My wife picked it just before you arrived.” Sangor picked up a prange from the plate and bit off the tip of the fruit. The tangy taste seemed to explode in his mouth. He ate the rest of it and reached for another piece of fruit.

Lem asked Sangor, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Sangor looked at the Rat with genuine curiosity. He struggled for a moment with his rebellious memories but eventually gave up the effort. “No,” he answered. “Should I?”

Lem said to him, “No, I suppose not” and then, “You and I were children at the same day care facility in Sector 87. I built a fortress of wooden blocks and you knocked it down.”

Sangor started to remember images and feelings from his childhood. After all, he had not encountered many Rat children in his life. He remembered one or two, but not much else; certainly no interactions with them.

“Now, do you remember?” Lem asked Sangor.

Sangor was confused. Suddenly he saw and felt what he saw and felt that day when Lem’s mother had brought Lem to the day care facility and that Rat child had built a fortress of wooden blocks. Sangor had been envious of the Rat’s ability to construct something so tall and was so frustrated when the Rat was able to avoid his blows so easily. The old hatred came back to him.

“How are your parents, Javid and Dorka?” Lem brought Sangor back to the present.

“Hmm?” Sangor responded. “My father died a few years ago. My mother is in good health, as far as I know… Why did you spare me? … I would have killed you if I’d had the chance.”

Lem answered, “It was not necessary to kill you at that time.”

“Will it be necessary for you to kill me at some other time?” Sangor asked defensively.

Lem told Sangor he would not understand the answer to his question.

Lem bade good night to Sangor after showing him to his room for the night. Lem told Sangor they would have breakfast together in the morning and talk some more.

The next morning Lem told Sangor he wanted to show him around the cultivated fields and the cave village. Sangor understood that he was a captive audience and so he assented.

They passed two other caves on the way to the path leading down to the valley. Sangor glanced into the caves as they passed. The caves were similarly protected by a glass wall. Sangor put his hand on one of the glass walls but it did not dissolve. He saw a small Rat child on the other side of the glass wall sitting on the cave floor under a table playing with a multi-colored cube. The child raised his blue eyes to Sangor and waved to him. Embarrassed, Sangor dropped his hand from the glass and averted his gaze.

Lem and Sangor descended the path to the valley floor. They walked through fields of tall waving stalks, of low clinging vines around green and orange tubers, orchards of plump yellow fruits Sangor had never seen before, and flowers of every imaginable color growing from trees whose trunks looked like tea kettles. Sangor had seen farm country in Sector 87 but he had never seen anything like this.

Sangor asked many questions, first about the different kinds of fruit, trees, and flowers he saw, and then about the seeding and the harvest. He asked what the weather in these parts was like. He wanted to know what kind of price the farmers got for their produce. Lem answered each of Sangor’s questions patiently, but Lem’s answers did not make any sense to him. It couldn’t be like that. It just couldn’t be.

Sangor was silent for a while. He looked up at Lem and asked, “What about my friends? Where are you holding them? How are you treating them?”

Lem said “You are welcome to visit them and see for yourself.”

Sangor nodded and said he’d like that.

Lem took Sangor to the captive compound. “I have some things to attend to,” Lem told him. “You may come back to my cave whenever you want.”

Sangor looked Lem in the eyes and said morosely, “My place is with my friends.”

“You may stay with your friends,” Lem told Sangor, “if that is what you want.” He turned back and left Sangor at the entrance to the compound.

When Sangor walked inside, the buzz of Sap conversation went silent. Heads turned in his direction. A voice in the back of the room called out, “Is that you, Sangor?” Another voice snorted “Look at him, all clean and hair wet and slick… Where’d they take you? To the governor’s wife’s own bath house?”

“You can jeer all you like,” Sangor answered huskily, “but I’m a prisoner here just like you.”

“You don’t look like us,” one of the men said testily.

Sangor asked him, “Didn’t the Rats offer you to bathe in the river and wear clean clothes?”

The man shot back, “Sure they did, but I refused… Wouldn’t take nothin’ from no Rat.”

“Did you eat the food they offered you?” Sangor asked him with a wave of shame undulating in his belly.

“And let them poison me?” the gaunt man said, defiantly proud of his own hunger.

Someone else spoke out, “How do we know we can trust this Sap?”

Sangor reached over the heads of some men who were sitting cross-legged on the floor, grabbed the man who had just spoken by his shirt collar, and dragged him through the line of sitting men. “How do I know I can trust you, Worm-Meat?” Sangor hissed at the man. “I marched along next to you and I saved your sorry ass when you nigh fell into the river rapids. Many of you have known me since I was a child. Maybe I did accept their clothes and food, and maybe I just bided my time til the time was right to break them or to break away from them…”

“Hey man,” the man hanging inside the shirt whose collar Sangor clenched in his fist wined. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it … I was just sayin’, ya know?”

One of the other men said, “Sangor’s all right. I’ll vouch for him.”

“Hey Sangor,” a man who had been silent up to that point said in a voice that carried above the others, “why don’t you come and sit down with us? Some of the guys have an interesting idea you might want to hear, if you don’t have other plans this evening…”

The interesting idea his friends had was a plot to break out of the compound and make a run for the river.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Story Line for Rats and Saps (Part 6)

Finally, I figured out Part 6. It feels like there’s going to be one more part, all in all seven, and then I can start writing the chapters. I believe Part 6 will definitely grab your attention.

Part 6:

  1. Sangor looked across the table at the Rat. He had never seen an adult Rat in his life, only Rat children. Even though they were both sitting, it was obvious that the Rat would tower over him, standing up, though Sangor was not considered short by any means. Small head, long neck, lanky muscular body and arms, dark blue skin, blue eyes, and blue hair. He looked like he’d come straight from the mine his father had worked in, that had eventually killed him. That Rat would be invisible in the mine if he’d strip off his clothes and close his eyes. Sangor calculated the odds in his head: there was just him and that Rat. Maybe Sangor could take him. Maybe not. Anyway he wasn’t sure how he’d find his way back to the river. His best bet was to check out the lay of the land. Funny how they had no maps of this part of the world. He wondered about that. Sangor should try to find out what he could and then, when the time was ripe…
  2. “Where are my friends?” Sangor asked Lem testily. Lem responded after a moment, “Are you feeling any better now?” Sangor said cautiously, “I suppose so. What about my friends, the other captives?” “They are facing the same dilemma you are facing at different tables in different parts of the forest,” Lem answered. “What dilemma is that?” Sangor demanded to know. “Whether your time line ends abruptly or extends into a future that you cannot imagine,” Lem answered. “What do you mean?” Sangor asked his captor. “Whether you choose death or life,” Lem explained patiently, “but you’ve already chosen, haven’t you?”
  3. Sangor had already chosen life. He had concluded from his captor that the Rat army was vastly superior to the Sap army and, one on one, they seemed quite formidable. It was also clear that the Rats knew the Uncharted Areas far better than his friends and he could hope to know. The smart thing to do would be to bide his time and wait for an opportunity to present itself. As it turned out, the choice was not so obvious. More than half the captives chose death; well, they didn’t actually choose death per se. They decided they’d be damned if they were going to play nice with the stinking Rat sitting across the table from them. They’d overcome the Rat and make a break for it or die trying. Almost before the Sap captives thought about lunging across the table at their captor or running away from him, the Rats reached across and snapped their time lines, almost as easily as snapping their necks, and all the Rats were Lem.
  4. Lem stands up from the table and tells Sangor to walk with him. Lem brings Sangor out of the forest to a cliff overlooking a fertile valley, dappled by sun and clouds. Beneath the clouds were sheets of rain that seemed to disappear after a few moments. The terraced hills on either side of the valley appeared to be pocked with holes. Sangor saw people, Rats, entering and leaving the holes. Lem led Sangor down the narrow path descending from the cliff into the valley.
  5. Lem brings Sangor into his home, one of the caves Sangor saw from the cliff. Yani offers Lem and Sangor a cup of water and a plate of fresh fruit. They sit down opposite each other. Lem says to Sangor, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Sangor looks at the Rat with genuine curiosity. He struggles for a moment with his rebellious memories and gives up the effort. “No,” he answers. “Should I?” Lem says to him, “No, I suppose not” and then, “You and I were children in the same day care facility in Sector 87. I built a fortress of wooden blocks and you knocked it down.” Sangor started to remember images and feelings from his childhood. After all, he had not encountered many Rat children in his life. He remembered one or two, but not much else; certainly no interactions with them. “Now, do you remember?” Lem asked Sangor. Sangor was confused. Suddenly he saw and felt what he saw and felt that day when Lem’s mother had brought him to the day care facility and the Rat child had built a fortress of wooden blocks. Sangor had been envious of the Rat’s ability to construct something so tall and was so frustrated when the Rat was able to avoid his blows so easily. The old hatred came back to him. “How are your parents, Javid and Dorka?” Lem brought Sangor back to the present. “Hmm?” Sangor responded. “My father died a few years ago. My mother is in good health, as far as I know… Why did you spare me? … I would have killed you if I’d had the chance.” Lem answered, “It was not necessary to kill you at that time.” “Will it be necessary for you to kill me at another time?” Sangor asked defensively. Lem told Sangor that he would not understand the answer to his question.
  6. Lem bids good night to Sangor after showing him to his room for the night. Lem tells Sangor they will have breakfast together in the morning and talk.
  7. The next morning Lem shows Sangor around the cultivated fields and the cave village. Sangor asks many questions. He asks about his friends. Lem tells him he is welcome to visit them and takes Sangor to the captive compound. Sangor tells Lem his place is with his friends. Lem tells Sangor he may stay with his friends if he wants.
  8. His friends plot to break out of the compound and make a run for the river.
  9. The escaped captives run up the paths they remember descending and into the thick forests. After several days they reach a clearing. Looking through the clearing, they see the fields of the Rats and their caves. They realized with sinking hearts that they had come full circle. They ran in another direction following a new path, careful to run straight as an arrow. After two days and nights of running and scarcely resting, they arrived haggard at the same cliff overlooking the Rat fields and caves. Disheveled, disheartened, and weak with thirst and starvation, they descended the narrow path to their cave and gratefully wolfed down the food that had been set on the tables inside the cave.
  10. Sangor asks to see Lem. Sangor says that he does not want to return to the Saps. He would like to cast his lot with the Rats. Lem said that would be a very difficult decision for Sangor and he would be lonely and depressed for the rest of his days. Sangor said it’s what he wanted more than anything. The problem was that Sangor had to go home to fetch his wife and bring her back with him. Lem said that would be very dangerous for them both. If his friends or countrymen found out what he intended, they would certainly kill them both. Sangor said that he was prepared to take that chance. Lem told Sangor that he must betray the Rats. It was the only way his compatriots would trust him and let him live long enough to escape with his wife. Sangor said to Lem that he would not betray the Rats, even if his life depended on doing so. Lem told Sangor he must do so, if he wished to survive. The Saps would learn all you know about us. They would plan an attack to overwhelm us at our weakest point. The attack will not succeed, you may be assured.
  11. One of the Rats leads those of the captives who wished to return home to the river where it could be forded. When they reached the river bank, three of the captives turned on the Rat to turn the tables on him. They had planned in secret to overpower him and take him captive or kill him, 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 climbed into a flat boat that had been tethered to one of the trees overhanging the river and paddled to the opposite shore.
  12. Sangor arrives home in Sector 84 and reports to the governor. The army sector commander was called. Sangor reported everything he could remember since falling captive to the Rats. Sangor is awarded a medal for his cunning and bravery. He goes home to his proud wife. The sector commander calls a staff meeting and comes up with a plan of attack.
  13. Sangor tells his wife what really happened with the Rats and that he wants her to go back with him to start a new life there. She resists at first but finally agrees to go with him wherever he goes.
  14. The plan is 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 they would drop cyanide gas bombs that would kill every living thing in a three-day radius.
  15. The sector commander orders Sangor to lead the commando unit back to the point where he crossed the river from the Uncharted Areas. Sangor asked to bring his wife with him. Sangor’s unit commander tells him to leave his wife at home. The battle field is no place for a woman. Sangor asked permission to say good-bye to his wife. He tells his wife she must follow the unit and keep an eye out for Sangor to come fetch her. He planned to lead the unit to the wrong point along the river, break away from them, and come fetch her. He had stolen an STU 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. When he found her, he would take her to the correct point along the river. When they crossed to 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 rushed back to his unit.
  16.  The unit sets 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 along side. They 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.
  17. Sangor’s wife has no trouble keeping up with the unit. She had sold their home and bought the first drac-drawn cart she could find. 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. She listened to the military chatter on her STU, careful not to brush 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 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.
  18. By the end of the week, they entered Sector 127. Sangor scanned the hills around them with his monocular for signs of his wife. He saw none. He could not decide whether to worry that she had gotten lost or worse, or be pleased that she had kept herself 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.
  19. 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. 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!”
  20. 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 next to 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.
  21. The commandos carefully loaded the cyanide gas canisters into the balloon baskets. They ignited the air-burners and 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 started to lift 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, the airborne commandos picked up a strong headwind blowing across the river. The balloons moved smoothly over the rushing river torrent and then they seemed to stop in mid-flight. The airborne commandos increased the flame in their air-burners in an attempt to rise up in the air and possibly catch a stronger headwind blowing them toward the Uncharted Areas, but the winds kept blowing their balloons backwards toward their comrades. When the balloons reached a point high above and directly over their comrades and commander, three lightning bolts split the grey sky, exploding the balloons, which dropped like rocks to ground. The baskets hit the ground hard killing the commandos inside instantly. The canisters also hit hard. 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 …”

Incidentally, I’d love to read some comments. I’ve seen a flurry of hits the last few days but the well of comments is as dry as a scorpion’s throat. Please don’t be bashful or lazy.

Mike Stone, Ra’anana Israel

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Story Line for Rats and Saps (Part 5)

Surprise, surprise!

 Part 5:

  1. The Sap scouts, cavalrymen, infantrymen, and other miscellaneous soldiers, who were never heard from again, were captured alive by Rat defenders. Their feet were tied so that their motion was limited to walking, their hands were tied behind them, and their heads were covered with bags preventing them from seeing. Each soldier was tied around his waist to the soldiers in front of and behind him. They were ordered to stand up and to begin walking, like a human millipede, through the narrow paths of the forest. At least the rain and the hail had stopped. The men were fearful of what lay ahead for them: a cliff, a firing squad, a prison cages not fit for human incarceration. After several hours of walking, humiliated by dirtying themselves with their own defecation and urine, hunger slowly replaced fear in their stomachs. The Sap captives could smell each other’s stink and it was nauseating. They stopped caring about what would happen to them. They only cared that it would end, as soon as possible. They kept walking until they felt the damp coolness of night on their skins. They were ordered to stop walking and lay down on the ground to sleep until they would be told to wake up and continue their march. The men slept deeply, like all soldiers who never know when they will be able to sleep again.
  2. An order smashed into their sleeping brains like a sudden fright blasting their dreams of mother-love and safety to smithereens. The men were told to get up and start walking again. Nobody knew how long he had slept, whether it was day or night. They trudged headlong to only God knew where. Some of the men cried out to their comrades or to God. The snake-like chain of captives was ordered to run and they ran until they were silent, needing all their concentration just to keep from tripping and falling. When they had no wind in them to cry out anymore, they were ordered to walk, to devote all their concentration to where they placed their feet. They walked, they urinated, and they defecated in their already stinking pants. They did not eat or drink. They hallucinated their captors and their surroundings. Just when they thought they could not take another step, they were ordered to stop, lay down in the grass, and to sleep.
  3. The head of the chain of Sap captives, not the leader but the first in line, was Sangor, son of Javid and Dorka. His sleep was light enough that he heard the whisper of footfall near his head. He heard a rushing swish of air come down and snapped his head away, cringing inside his gut. “Get up and start walking,” a strange voice sub-vocalized in Sangor’s throat, choking him because he knew it was not his own voice. Nobody else heard the voice that was so loud in Sangor’s ears. He got up awkwardly and began walking blindly. He tripped over a tree root crossing his path. The dark bag over his head nearly flew off when his face hit the packed dirt hard. Blood dripped from Sangor’s nose, down his swollen upper lip, and onto his cracked tongue. He wished that he could have felt his nose to determine whether or not it was broken but his hands were still tied behind his back. “Get up,” the voice vibrated under his jaw. Sangor choked on his spittle but got up and continued walking, more carefully this time, using his feet to feel in front of him as much as to transport him. He asked thickly, “How much longer?” “Shut up,” the voice jarred Sangor’s jaw. He released his bladder and his urine stung the open wounds on his leg.
  4. “Stand still,” the voice ordered. Sangor stopped walking and stood still. He felt warmth press through the bag and touch his ear and felt a coolness breeze by his sweaty neck. He heard a pleasant but unfamiliar warbling of birdsong above him. Sangor still tasted his own blood and smelled his own stink. Then he felt, as surely as if he could see it, a shot-blaster pointed at his back about where his heart was. The feeling burned through him, all the way to his chest. Sangor could scarcely breathe. He knew these were the last moments of his consciousness, his life. He closed his eyes and prayed silently.
  5. “Remove the bag from your head,” the voice said. “I can’t,” Sangor answered, “my hands are tied behind my back.” “No, they aren’t,” the voice said. “Try to place your hands on your head.” Sangor moved his hands apart from behind his back slowly, achingly, and lifted them up tentatively to the bag on his head. He grabbed the material of the bag in both fists and slowly lifted the bag over his mouth, his nose, his eyes, and then up entirely. He lowered his arms slowly in front of him, as though the bag weighed a great deal. His fingers released the bag and it fell lightly to the ground. He looked around himself and saw no one, nothing but thick trees, leaves whispering gently in the breeze, grasses undulating softly, and bright flowers, blue, red, and yellow. Sangor looked up and saw a patch of cobalt blue sky between the tall tree tops. He spun around but saw no one, nothing but the trees, the grasses, and the flowers. A pale yellow butterfly flitted past Sangor. He heard the gentle lapping of water between the trees. “You stink,” the voice said gently. “Go down to the creek, remove your soiled clothes, and wash yourself thoroughly. After you have done so, you will find clean clothes hanging on the tree by the creek. Put them on and where you saw the butterfly.”
  6. Sangor walked slowly, suspiciously, between the trees, down the sloping path to the creek. He kneeled down with both hands planted in the soft mud of the creek bank and drank thirstily from the clear cold water flowing by his hands. He drank long the sweet water for all the days he’d gone without drinking. Sangor removed his clothes that stank from urine and feces and treaded carefully into the cold stream, up to his waist. He submerged himself in the water and opened his eyes underwater. There were only smoothed rocks and pebbles, swaying grasses, and silvery fish darting past. He stood up and pushed his wet hair back behind his ears. Sangor looked around but did not see anybody watching him. He bent down and picked up a porous grey stone. He scrubbed himself hard with it to remove the filth and excrement that had accumulated on his skin. Sangor scooped up dripping handfuls of fresh water and splashed it on his face, his neck, under his armpits, and on his private parts. He looked around again but saw nobody. He noticed some white clothes; it looked like a shirt and pair of pants hanging from a branch of a tree on the bank of the creek. He walked toward the bank, picking his way among the smooth underwater pebbles. Once again, he stopped and looked around but saw nobody. Sangor slipped the white trousers over his wet legs, pulled them up, and closed the waist snap. He reached for the white shirt and pulled it over his head and arms. The clothes were damp from his bathing, but the dampness soon evaporated in the dappled sunlight and breeze. He walked back up the sloping path to the tree line and peeked out to see whether anyone was there. There was no one. Sangor saw a table set with a diamond-shaped cloth. There were bowls of fruit, loaves of bread, and a carafe of clear liquid, possibly water. There were two chairs beside the table, both empty. Sangor sat down in one of the chairs and tore into the bread and fruit, stuffing it into his mouth until he choked. He swallowed big gulps of water and stuffed more fruit and bread into his mouth. The urge to vomit hit him. He spun around and heaved his stomach contents into the bushes. Sangor had a bitter taste in his mouth and drank some more water to wash it away. He felt better now and he ate more slowly that before. He looked up and noticed Lem sitting in the chair opposite him for the first time. Of course Sangor did not know it was Lem.

Mike Stone, Ra’anana Israel

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