Short Fiction: “Nine”

Nine

“Hurry!  They’re coming!”

Footsteps fell through the dark air, disturbing the silence.  They snapped twigs, splashed through puddles, as two pairs of legs pumped with all their might.  Above, ancient pines towered over them, aspiring for the heavens as their spindly branches stretched out in all directions, forming a canopy that shielded them from the light of the moons.  Darters flitted through the darkness, their iridescent wings reflecting the glow from their abdomens.  The runners swatted the pests from their faces as they dove toward them, attracted to their body heat.

Their pursuers would be upon them shortly.  Surrounded as they were by clouds of darters, they held no hope of escape.  Both paused for a moment to adjust their suits, and the flow of coolant across the skin sent the darters off on their way.  Free in the darkness, the two continued running.  They tore through the brush, their suits protecting their arms and legs as they surged forward, crushing through prickling scrub and low trees, their bodies heaved through the brush as though battering rams.  

When it felt as though they had run far enough, as though they had ran forever, at last they stopped, both sets of feet skidding to a halt with a shower of fallen pine needles.  Then there was silence; deathly quiet, save their panting.  After hours of nonverbal communication, at last one of them spoke.

“How far do you think we’ve gone?” Arshi asked, still catching her breath.  Ershi’er was not a name, but it was what their captors had called her, and the only name she’d ever known.  She was beautiful…as they all were…her light brown hair flowed in gentle waves to just above her shoulders, her features were soft yet aggressive, her nose sharp, her eyes blue and intense, her brow light but furrowed.

“I dunno…ten…maybe twelve clicks?” her companion, Chu, responded.  Jiu, also, was not a name.  But it was what their captors had called him, and probably the only name he’d ever known.  He was tall…even taller than Arshi, likely around two meters, muscular and chiseled with a prominent chin and a mouth turned slightly downward.  He’d been among the first of them, a yuanxing, their captors had called him.  He was old and wise…perhaps the oldest and wisest of those that remained from the early days.  When he had approached her, asked for her help in making his escape, she had agreed without hesitation.

In less than an hour they’d covered a vast tract of forest, yet even in this dense stand with its protective brush, twenty clicks might not be far enough.  By now, surely their captors knew they were gone.  Soon, the lieren would fan out into the woods, with rifles and drones that would pierce the darkness.  They could see better than the drones, but could not outrun them.  They could outrun the hunters, but not their rifles.

They exchanged worried glances.  How many hits from the rifles could their suits handle?  Two?  Four?  Five at the most.  Rest assured, the lieren would want them alive, yet surely they’d shoot to kill if threatened.  No, they had to keep going.  Unfortunately, Arshi had no idea where to go, and was not sure that Chu knew, either.  For both, this was the first time in their lives they had breathed fresh air, or felt the cold of night…or seen the stars, from which their progenitors had surely come.  Held in labs as though rats, poked and prodded, tested and augmented, they’d spent their lives in miserable captivity.  Like rats, they’d been put through their paces.  Like rats, their misery could end one way, and one way only.  There was, as their saying went, only one way out, and that was through the incinerator.

There was no time to lose.  Without another word, both tore off into the night once more, crashing through the brush, covering as much ground as possible with each precious minute.  Their suits adjusted automatically, massaging their muscles and siphoning off acids, maintaining their pace and stride as their ocular prosthetics cut through the darkness, lighting the way in eerie tones of blue.  Hours more passed, and as they moved further from the compound the forest came alive around them; primates with thick white fur clambered through the canopy, as hooting owls perched regally upon lofty branches, sharp eyes scanning the forest floor for rodents.  The presence of wildlife was fortunate; it would make their passage more difficult to detect.  

Suddenly, Chu stopped.  Arshi stopped as well, apprehensive as her companion stood tall, scanning the area.  She could see flashes in his eyes; his prosthetics operating…he was looking for something.

She opened her mouth to speak, yet barely uttered a syllable before he raised his hand, commanding quiet.  A moment more, and at last he spoke.

“Something’s coming.”

 

It was small, but fast.  A bright blue light, with four smaller red lights surrounding it.  The lights darted between the trees, the telltale hum of a drone accompanying them.   It was a dao yin tao, a seeker drone.  There would be others as well, one in every lateral direction, scanning the forest in a cross-hatched outward spiral.  Where one was found, a group of lieren would not be far behind.

Quickly, the two dove behind the nearest trees.  They stood stiff against them, arms and legs pulled in, minimizing their profiles.  They looked to one another, communicating nonverbally, as their prosthetics allowed them to.

What do we do? Arshi asked, fighting the urge to panic.  She’d known their captors would notice their absence, knew the lieren would come for them.  Yet, until it happened, there had always been that scant possibility…

I don’t know, Chu responded.  His answer did little to calm her nerves.  We can’t just destroy it, he continued.  One hit and they’ll know exactly where we are.

Arshi looked down for a moment, thinking.  Their brains had been enhanced significantly…surely their captors had given them sufficient intellect to solve this problem.

Well, she began, how far away is the nearest drone to this one?

Not far.  Probably only about twenty meters in either direction.  Twenty-five at most.

That did not help.  She had thought, perhaps, that even if they destroyed one drone, the loss would leave their captors with too much ground to cover.  They were faster, stronger…they could climb, hide, evade.  That would not help them if the drones were so closely spaced, and no doubt each drone was assigned to a group of lieren, who would follow close behind.  For that matter, the lieren would surely carry FLIR scopes, capable of telescopic sight.  The lieren might be able to gun them down in moments, from any distance, long before they could make their escape.

Suddenly, another thought occurred to her.  Wait…what about our suits?

Well, what about them?

They’re equipped with adaptive camouflage, aren’t they?

Well yes…but that requires a full charge.  Our suits are running on reserves.  We wouldn’t get more than fifteen meters before they’d run out.  

That’s all we’ll need, she replied.  She had a plan.  It was not, admittedly, a very good one, but it was likely the only one they had.

 

The seeker came and went.  It paused briefly over their position, likely detecting traces of their body heat, yet it passed on after visual inspection revealed nothing, save a light breeze rustling through the underbrush.  As it buzzed away, two pairs of unseen eyes glanced toward one another, sharing a quiet sigh of relief.

With the seeker gone, the two dropped their camouflage and prepared for the next phase of their plan.  They were fortunate; the brush in the area was dense, far thicker than the area closer to the base.  Here, in this wild place with monkeys leaping across the branches, they would blend in easily.  They searched desperately through the scrub until at last they found it; a small depression, little more than a ditch, yet large enough for two.  There, they waited, prone and close to one another, stuffed into the small hole as though sardines in a can.  Above, the breeze ruffled the leaves, and an owl called out as it descended upon its unseen prey.

The footsteps were distant.  At first it wasn’t the footfalls themselves, rather the peripheral sounds, that allowed them to track the lieren.  A bush disturbed, a twig snapping, the telltale whine of a rifle being primed, a muttered curse as one of them slipped.  They were noisy, oafish…they always underestimated their quarry.  They always had in the labs.  They did out in the woods as well, and here it would cost them.  Gradually, they grew closer.  The waiting was agony, as both Arshi and Chu breathed shallowly, laying as perfectly still as they could manage, taking care to do nothing that might cause a single sound.  

Soon, the lieren were nearly upon them.  Five of them, by Arshi’s count.  They progressed side-by-side, roughly a meter and a half apart as they plodded through the forest.  Though they crashed loudly through the brush, as they drew closer she realized their racket was deliberate, likely intended to drive them out and set them running, putting them squarely in the crosshairs of their rifles.  Always, they underestimate us.

While they held their rifles at the ready, they were hardly vigilant, and passed by the makeshift foxhole without so much as a brief pause.  In moments they were beyond the lip of the ditch, and with but a nod of silent accord, the two leapt into action.  

Five lieren, and not a one prepared.  All five pairs of eyes trained on them at once, a shout of “Shǐ dàn!” the only reaction from the lot of them.  Arshi took the first one to the right, jumping high into the air, legs spread, and driving her fist downward into the man’s skull.  There was a sickening crack, and the fool fell dead without a word, his uniformed body crumpled in a heap, the rifle clattering into the brush beside him.  She landed about a meter away from the next one, who gaped at her, unable to respond.  The fool dropped his rifle, but by then she’d already attacked.  She lunged forward, leading with her right leg, and her food dug deep into his solar plexus, sending him flying.  He was dead even before he hit the tree behind him, the impact eliciting a shower of splinters.

She turned to deal with the other three, but found two dead already, and Chu in the process of snapping the other’s neck.  There was a sharp cracking of bones, the hunter’s eyelids went slack, and Chu released the body to fall unceremoniously to the ground.  Their work complete, the two stood in silence for a moment, coming to grips with what they had done.  One way or another, there was no going back now.  

“How long do you think we have?” Arshi asked, aloud.

“Dunno…” Chu replied, still catching his breath.  “An hour?  Two at the most…”

“How do you figure that?”

“Well, I’m guessing each group of lieren reports in every twenty minutes or so.  They’ll try hailing them a few times.  Then they’ll send a team out from the base to check on them.”

“Why not have one of the other teams divert?”

“And risk letting us slip through?  Unlikely.  They’ll continue the search.  Once they find these five, they’ll take their place and keep looking for us.  We need to get moving.  Now.”

“But what if they send hoppers?”

“There’s no time to worry about that right now.  We need to get moving.  Come on.”

With that, the two of them turned to the east once more, fleeing on foot through the increasingly dense brush.  As they ran, Arshi’s mind spun.  She was still in shock over how quickly, how casually they had taken five lives.  To be sure, after so many years of brutality it was difficult to feel sympathy for the lieren, or any of their captors.  Heaven help her, there were some she might thoroughly enjoy killing…yet in the end, wasn’t this what they wanted?  The drugs, the prosthetics, the suits…the endless training, the prodding and pushing and increased resistance to pain…in the end, weren’t they supposed to be weapons?  To kill without hesitation, without compunction?

While these questions of morality troubled her, they hardly constituted their most pressing concerns.  Where were they going?  Chu had led them thus far, yet while he was far older than she was, Arshi was hardly convinced that even he knew much about the geography of this planet, or even the woods surrounding the compound.  Were they heading for an open plain?  A desert?  A lake, or a river, or an ocean?  And when they made it to some distant change in scenery, what then?  How would they get off the planet?  Wouldn’t they have to?  Wouldn’t they remain in constant danger should they stay?

She stopped dead in her tracks.  There were too many questions.  She hadn’t gone along with this, aided Chu in his escape, just to be gunned down in the forest.  If they had a plan, she deserved to know what it was.  

“Why are we stopping?”

“Because I don’t know where we’re going,” she replied, flatly.

Chu seemed puzzled.  “We’re…we’re escaping.”

“To where?” she persisted.  “So far, you’ve led me through this endless forest for almost the entire night.  You said you needed my help.  I helped you get out of the compound, past the nets…I killed for you.”

“You killed for us,” he shot back.

“How do I know that?  What’s your plan?  Do you even have one?  Is there a ship waiting for us?  Are we going to steal one?  Will we have to kill for it?”  She stepped toward him, her expression hard, and added poignantly, “Do you even know where we’re going?  Do you even know what’s on the other side of this forest?”

“Look,” he began, “I know you have a lot of questions, and I can understand that, but…” he trailed off, eyes up and scanning the treetops.  She heard it too: a strange, metallic buzzing, deeper and angrier than the drone they’d seen earlier.  This was different.  Whatever was producing it was larger, faster, and it was closing in on their position.  The two looked at one another.  Could the hoppers have been sent out so quickly?

Suddenly, the forest canopy above parted violently, as a bank of bright lights probed the darkness.  Both of them wanted to run, yet for reasons that escaped them they remained, paralyzed in the light as multiple columns of bright blue-white were trained upon them.  Above, a massive machine hovered as though a great mechanical dragonfly, jet black with various indicators across its nose as though compound eyes glaring down at them.  Four arms extending in an “X” pattern from its thorax appeared to bare weapons.  This was the end.

Chu turned to Arshi, preparing to insist that she go on without him.  He alone was strong enough, experienced enough, to handle this, buy time for her to flee.  He had lived long enough, and these fleeting hours of freedom, however stressful and cold, had been worth it.  Yet before he could even turn she was gone.  For a moment he assumed she had anticipated his instructions and fled into the brush.  Yet his eyes were drawn upward as the drone began buzzing frantically.

Arshi stood atop the device, feet planted upon its thorax as she restrained one of its weapon arms, her other hand firmly grasping one of its beating wings, producing a spin as the device struggled to right itself.  Hair billowing in the wind as the machine rotated, she looked down and shouted after him.

“Well don’t just stand there!” she yelled, “get out of here!”

He had no idea how to respond.  What was she doing?  “I…but you-”

“I’ll be fine!” she shouted back.  Seeing the confusion on his face, the regret, she bellowed down at him, “you know the plan, remember!  I don’t!  And more important…” she seemed to trail off, a tear falling down her cheek, “you…you know what happened here.  To all of us.  You know it better than anyone.  You have to tell them.”

“Them?” he yelled back at her.  “Who are ‘they’?”

“I don’t know!  I don’t even care!  But somebody needs to know what happened here, so they can stop this!”

He stared up at her, helplessly, as smoke began belching from one of the drone’s wings servos.  “I know what you were going to do…” she continued.  “It has to be you.  You have to go.  If you feel bad about this…if you wish it was you up here instead of me…make it mean something.  Let me be the last to die here for these monsters.”

Slowly, hesitantly, he nodded.  As the device began to right itself, bucking in an attempt to dislodge its attacker, Chu ducked and bolted into the brush, vanishing.  As he activated his adaptive camouflage, he increased pace, sprinting off to the east.  Beyond the distant end of the treeline, there would be a ship waiting for him.  It would be there.  It would be small…it might take weeks, even months, to get back to Earth, but he would get there.  He had to.

As Arshi’s screams pierced the night, far behind him, he narrowed his eyes, steeling his resolve and picking up his pace.  All of it had to mean something.  Someone had to know what had happened.

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