UPDATE: Because the post was so late yesterday and because I have a massive outline to read (Larry Correia has outlined Monster Hunter Guardian for our collaboration and sent it to me) as well as a project to finish, I decided to let this hang until tomorrow. Thanks for understanding.
*It’s unproofed. Forgive me. Of course, it’s also free. I’ll probably clean it and sell it in a tales of the USAians collection, eventually.*
On A Far Distant Shore
Sarah A. Hoyt
It was nothing. Less than nothing. A glimpse out of the corner of the eye, a flash of color. Tell me, is that something to risk life and security on? For a stranger? And one you never liked?
I’m not a fighter. My parents tried to make me one, at least as far as their religion demanded. Weekends of camping rough and weeks of training in survival and weapons didn’t make me like it any better. I didn’t like fights, and I didn’t like camping, and I didn’t like being prepared for a revolution that never came.
And after father died, I didn’t like anything my parents had taught me. It’s all very well to believe that some supernatural force endowed humans with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But where was dad’s right when push came to shove? He died like other men, and they burned his remains, and he was as gone as the mythical Usa, that land of freedom that was the core of my parents’ misguided beliefs.
I was not a Usaian. I hadn’t left the religion because it was forbidden. The proclamation that anyone found belonging to the cult would be killed hadn’t made me leave. It was that I could no longer believe in it.
I’d left home, I’d trained in accounting. I was suited to it. I understood numbers. Numbers worked for me. At the age of twenty eight I was in charge of all the accounts for Good Man St Cyr, the ruler of Liberte Seacity, one of the fifty most powerful men in the world, the men who between them controlled our entire civilization, managed all our technology and kept the world in peace and prosperous.
What did I have to do with the Good Man’s body guards, or a purge within their ranks?
There had been many such. The Good Man had the ultimate right to choose who serve him, to decide who had betrayed him. His word, his choice was the final decision. There was no appeal.
Sometimes, in the hallways, I walked past a clerk, or a cleaner, a guard or a bureaucrat, shackled, between armed men.
Sometimes I walked past a little earlier, while the person who’d displeased the good man was being shackled.
Which was happened that morning. The morning that would change everything.
The man leaning against the wall was huge. One of the guard commanders, judging by the stars on his shoulders. When Liberte was colonized it had drawn from all French speaking territories, including some African ones. This man looked like he drew a disproportionate amount of his heritage from Africa. Not pure African, but a mix that gave his skin the tone of dark bronze, his very short hair a black-blue glint.
He stood with hands splayed on the wall. One of the other men patted him down. What caught my attention was the sense of tension in the man being frisked. He felt like a spring, compressed and pushed, about to lash out.
I stopped, not wanting to get in the middle of a fight. Not that there was much chance of one, as four other men pointed burners at him. If he tried anything, he’d be dead before he could take a step.
But it was no part of my pay to get in the middle of a fire fight.
The guard frisking the man removed a burner, then another, then yet another from hidden holsters in the man’s uniform. I had the impression his tension grew, but he didn’t move. Another burner and then another made a small pile on the floor. Then the manacles came out and the guard shackled the erstwhile guard commander. Another guard just stood while the other frisked the prisoner.
The men with burners seemed to relax a little. They spread out. Two ahead. Two behind, and the guards who hadn’t drawn burners, one on each side of him.
And that was when the man dropped the thing he’d been holding, somehow, in his hand. Perhaps it had been in his sleeve when his hands had been spread on the wall. But now it was grasped tightly in a fist, just below the manacles.
He dropped it, unnoticed. The men around him were expecting something else. An aggressive movement. Not a dropped bit of cloth.
I saw it fall on the polished black floor, crumpled, rumpled, a scrap of cloth. In red, white and blue.
It was a flash at the corner of my eye.
I should have walked past. I should. And I’d still be the Good Man’s accountant, with a secure job and a bright future.
Instead, I stood, rooted to the floor, staring at the scrap of cloth on the floor, barely breathing.
My mind told me to walk past. My mind told me it was nothing. Probably not even fabric. Some note paper. Some discarded insignia. But I knew what it was. I knew what it was all along.
And when the guards had vanished, marching their prisoner around a corner, I approached the scrap and picked it up. It felt sweaty in my hand, the creases marked with dirt. It was no bigger than my palm, a scrap of some ancient material displaying a white star on a blue background and a white stripe with just an edge of red.
I smoothed the creases out of it, without thinking. Mine, that dad had given me shortly before he died was just a broad strip of white with red on either side. These pieces of flags that were said to have flown, once, over the mythical Usa were both the membership symbol, the object of veneration and the promise given to every Usaian. The man they arrested had been a Usaian.
It should mean nothing. Many people were Usaians. Before the seditious philosophy that men were born free had been banned worldwide, five years ago, they’d been woven through all the structure of the seacities, all the land territories, every protectorate and satrapy under the rule of a Good Man. In the territories where they had been welcomed they’d been prominent and all but ruled.
It was no surprise that the Good Men had forbidden the religion. What was surprising was that anyone had tolerated it so long.
Since it had been forbidden, there had been captures of the religionaries. Big and small ones, and some public executions and some private ones. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Usaians had been killed. I hadn’t been keeping track. I could even understand the rationale for the arrests and executions.
I willed my hand to drop the scrap of cloth, but it wouldn’t. Instead, exasperated, I shoved it in my tunic pocket, knowing I would be arrested or worse, should it be found on me.
The day slid by like a surreal dream. My steps seemed to loud on the polished black dimatough floor. The numbers wouldn’t add up. And the scrap of cloth on my back pocket radiated imagined heat. I felt like everyone could see I was carrying it. Everyone would know. Everyone.
I worked quietly. I probably looked absolutely normal to everyone else, but my senses were sharper, working harder than ever before. The slick, well worn buttons of the comlynk on which I worked seemed rough. The sounds around me, even my co-workers’ breaths seemed too loud.
“Samuel D’Avenir,” someone said. “A secret Usaian.” The cloth on my pocket burned against me.
I purposely tried not to hear, tried to compute the revenues from the Good man’s business at Shangrilla, but the numbers, always so easy, seemed meaningless. In my mind I saw the man named Samuel D’Avenir, and wondered if he was even alive still. He’d brought this on himself. My father had also brought his death on himself.
Then there was talk of a group of Usaians captured in Sea York, put to sea on a raft with no controls.
I realized I’d worked late, and was the only one left in the accounting office. There wasn’t anything particularly unusual about that.
What was unusual was that I couldn’t simply go home. And that I had a forbidden bit of cloth in my back pocket.
I don’t remember making a decision. Perhaps I don’t want to remember it. I found myself walking an unaccustomed way, behind the kitchens, to where the dungeons were in which prisoners from the household were confined.
My hands were sweating, my legs felt like they’d drop off, I didn’t have a burner, I couldn’t remember anything I’d learned in self defense or survival, I was going to die, and I couldn’t get my legs to stop walking towards trouble.
It is amazing how the lessons of childhood linger. I found myself thinking of a game we’d played at camp. It was called jail break. It was just a game. But the first step was to neutralize the guards. And then to neutralize the bugs.
All of it involved burners. Functioning burners.
Or not. But without burners it was more difficult, and only the bigger boys had ever won it. I wasn’t a big boy. I was a girl, who was out of shape, who came up to a meter fifty two if I wore a moderate heel and who massed 46 kilos. Maybe I could get up to 50 kilos, soaking wet.
I walked, casually, calmly, back to my dormitory. As one of the senior personnel, like the household manager and the land manager, I got to sleep in the house, in the basement. The quarters were comfortable, free, and much better than I could have afforded out in the seacity. For the first time it occurred to me perhaps they weren’t a perk of the job. Perhaps the good man gave us these quarters so we couldn’t talk about his business outside the house, and so we could be watched.
It wasn’t as though I hadn’t realized there was a bug in my room. As I said, some things you learn in childhood last forever. I’d brought out a little gadget when I first got the room, and I’d done a sweep for bugs, and before I hid what I must hide in every room I inhabited, I’d made sure the location wasn’t caught by the bug.
For the first time since then, I got a feeling I had perhaps been insufficiently cautious. It was that flag scrap burning in my pocket, making me thing of things I’d never considered before. What if that bug, which, granted, had been the only one in the room when I moved in, was no longer the only one? Since the Usaian cult had been justified, and since the Good Man of Olympus had sent assassins against Good Man St. Cyr, the Good Man had been far more vigilant, and it was quite possible this involved putting more spy bugs in the servants’ and functionaries rooms. At least in the rooms of those who had inside knowledge about the Good Man’s affairs, and who might be in the pay of his enemies.
My room was very small. I was one of the upper functionaries, but not a particularly important one. Just a number jockey whose only subordinates were data entry personnel. I rated a window, looking out over the sea, a comfortable arm chair, and another chair next to a built in desk with compartments for data gem storage, and drawers for my personal effects. Other than that there was a closet, where my clothes hung, and my shoes ranked beneath, in a neat line. And the single bed, against the wall.
The cell-like room opened to a closet-like fresher, which had all the necessities, as well as a small square unit that vibroed clothes clean.
I tried to move as I normally did, with no sense of urgency, not giving the impression of any worry. It was normal, when I came into my room in the evening, for me to change into my night clothes, before ordering my dinner from the refectory downstairs. As I contemplated what I should do, I decided it would be best not to break pattern. At any rate, the view from my window was swirling snow and the sound coming through it was the howling of wind. I realized for the first time the course I’d set on might mean going out there now. At least if I didn’t die first. So I might need my pajamas under my regular attire. I undressed, put my work clothes in the fresher and set them for deep clean, mostly because it would take a long time and make noise. Then I activated the link on my desk, and ordered a portion of today’s dinner, which is what I normally did, to avoid thinking.
I waited until the automated dumb waiter delivered it, ejecting it onto my desk from a slit on the wall. It looked like a savory soup of some kind, with a sandwich on the side. I’d never found anything so unappetizing. But I usually ate at least part of the food, so I started taking bites of the sandwich, while I opened the top drawer on my desk, and reached in to activate the bug-finder I’d hid there. It was cleverly disguised as a dictation receiver, and it actually worked as one, of course. The things my parents had given me to ease my way in the world tended to work. Centuries of refinement to make sure people stayed alive, I thought.
For the first time in years I thought of Mother. She’d stopped talking to me when I’d told her I no longer believed. The fleeting thought that she’d not stopped out of meanness but because it hurt too much to talk to me. My father had died believing in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He’d died believing that if you died faithful, you’d be reborn into a life a freedom and justice.
Most Usaians were Christian, and the two ideas of the ever after had melded into this idea of a happy ever after land – the furthest shore, one of our hymns called it – sort of like the summerland of the Celtic myths. And though being a Usaian didn’t even require one to believe in an after life, it seemed most people had settled in that image of the place good little Usaians went after death.
Stories to make children happy, I thought, but my eyes stung as I thought the reason Mother didn’t talk to me and returned all my remittances of money was that to her I was worse than dead. I wouldn’t meet her in the distant shore where Usaians prevailed and freedom rang. And it hurt too much for her to hear from me now.
For just a second, I considered calling her. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Not now, not when I might be watched, or when the recordings of what I’d done would be examined over the next few hours.
So instead I ate my sandwich and noted that there were three new bugs in the room.
I had two choices, neither wonderful.
One was to outright disable the bugs, but that would start alarms going. Sure, there was a strong chance my room was low priority and that there was no alarm in the bugs themselves. In that case I had an hour, maybe two before some bored functionary noticed that my bugs had been killed. And even then, given my impeccable past, there was a very good chance that they would think it was some sort of systemic failure affecting my room.
On the other hand – on the other hand, depending on how many Usaians the Good Man thought there were in the house, it was entirely possible everyone was high priority and that the failure of a bug – any bug – would cause an immediate search of my room.
I discarded that option with a heavy heart, because it would have been the easiest thing.
The other thing was running the shower in my fresher as hot as I could for as long as I could. Most of the bugs in staff rooms weren’t that sophisticated, and a fog of vapor would be enough to obscure that I was blinding the bugs. Oh, I don’t mean the vapor itself would blind them. Not enough. But it would make it possible for me to put something else in front of them and be taken for vapor. The something was easy. Pieces of the blind on the window, which was supposed to diffuse the light without stopping it. And if I suspended it about a palm from the bugs, it would look like it was just exceptional vapor, and anyone monitoring would wait for it to clear before coming to investigate. Until it didn’t. And by then I’d probably be in more trouble than just blinding the bugs.
So I finished my sandwich as I turned on the shower at maximum hot and flow. This wasn’t even unusual, as I often took long showers after a day when the numbers didn’t add up right for me.
Then I sat down at my desk, ate the soup, and sent the plate and bowl down in the dumbwaiter chute.
Once the fog in the room was thick enough, I checked in the drawer the positioning of the bugs. Fortunately none of them was fixed on the windows, so I could tear out pieces of the blind, without causing alarm.
I yawned theatrically, moved to the window, pulled the blind open as though to look at the sea. While staring out at howling wind and swirling snow, I tore little pieces of the blind. Then I climbed on the window sill itself, out of pick up of the bug, and folded and tied the piece of stiff material, so that it formed a sort of little umbrella about a palm out from the bug which was a hidden in a knot in the paneling. Now having more space that the bugs didn’t cover, I could grab my desk chair to climb on, in order to disable the other two bugs with their own little umbrellas of fabric.
This left me free to get down to business. The first business was pulling the drawer of my desk all the way out, and removing the false bottom I’d put on it. At the time I’d put it in, I had thought this would never be needed. I was determined to be a good subject of the Good Men. The revolution I’d drunk with mother’s milk was forgotten. I was never going to need any of these. And yet—
As I said, the things you learn in childhood are never truly forgotten. I’d thought it was crazy, but I couldn’t feel safe without a burner nearby that I could pull out in an emergency. Make that three burners: one so called lady-burner, small and compact and with short reach; and two battle burners which were slim and light, but had the reach needed for a pitched battle.
I now strapped on the holsters that would keep the burners hidden under my regular clothes. And then I took the other thing.
In the drawer was a piece of cloth, a white strip with a bordering of red. I stared at it a long time, before taking it up, and putting it in my pajamas breast pocket. The course I was one, there was nothing safe in. Finding this scrap on me wouldn’t make me any more dead than what I already planned on doing.
The piece of flag reminded me, and I went to the fresher. Under the glare of the bugs, I’d not dared take Samuel’s piece from the pocket of my daysuit. I fished in the vibro and brought it out, smelling much fresher, the colors much more vibrant, but still the same old piece of cloth.
I shoved it in the pocket next to my piece, but I left my day suit in there. It was all too entirely possible I would need to go outside, and the work suit – pants and tunic in severe grey – wouldn’t do it.
Instead, I slipped on the dark blue, insulated pants and tunic I wore when I must go outside on some errand. It looked lumpy over my pajamas, but it would be very warm. I finished the ensemble with insulated boots. I was going to be hot as hell while inside, but it couldn’t be helped. At least I wouldn’t freeze if I had to go outside for any amount of time.
As a last minute thought, I dropped my bug detector into my pocket.
Armed and with the two pieces of flag in my pocket, I let my shower run as I got out. A careful look down the hallway showed it deserted, and I closed my door behind me, and walked as non-challantly as I could to the lower levels, near the prison.
And then it occurred to me that the game had had a distinct number of steps: neutralize the bugs, neutralize the guards, neutralize—But all these assumed you were a known hostile to the regime, and that you could rescue your friends in the open, because they were already hunting for you.
I wasn’t a known hostile. I wasn’t even an hostile at all. I just had a fellow feeling for this man, Samuel D’Avenir, and I couldn’t leave him to die without at least knowing what he had done. It occurred to me, belatedly, that perhaps he was an assassin; perhaps he had murdered people without provocation, in which case his arrest was just. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. I had to at least know.
But I didn’t have to throw my whole life out on this. There was still time to go back to my room and look like I hadn’t done anything reprehensible.
Is a piece of cloth something to throw your entire life out over?
So I stopped following training, and started thinking. One of the advantages of being an accountant for a Good Man’s house, particularly the chief accountant, is that you know everything that happens in terms of improvements and building. Among other things.
One of the things I knew was that the kitchens had got a new system of ventilation, and that the shaft for that ran right behind the cells where members of the household were confined when they incurred the Good Man’s displeasure. That I knew, at that moment, only Samuel D’Avenir was thus confined. Which was good, as otherwise it might get rather confusing.
I ran the bug checker, but the hallways here had no bugs, or at least none that my apparatus could detect.
Glad of my military burners, I took a detour near the kitchens, and – glad the corridor was deserted – burned the lock off the utility tunnel, which would have looked to anyone non-initiated as just a section of wall save for that tiny dimple that I knew was a lock. I opened it and went in, closing it behind me to prevent being followed. It was very dark in the corridor, but my eyes got accustomed and I walked around two large fans and air-purifiers, ducked under a vent, and stood in the narrow space that this ventilation corridor shared with the jail. It was a very little space, like a narrow door. Only of course, it wasn’t a door.
I tried to think of the ways I could verify that Samuel was in there, and also blind the bugs. My bug detector told me there were five bugs in there. Blinding them was essential.
I triangulated their positions, then set my burner on burn. The problem was once I blinded the bugs, we were on a timer. It was possible that it was taken to be a glitch, since the door to the jail wouldn’t open. No one who hadn’t seen the plans would think of another exit to the jail, which, otherwise, was sunk in miles of solid dimatough which built the structure upon which the seacity had been grown.
And it was unlikely – given compartmentalization of seacity bureaucracy – that security had seen the plans for a kitchen ventilation tunnel.
I set my burner on maximum heat, and set it in a position that would allow me to reach in and burn all the bugs, without their seeing me, or my hand.
Perhaps at dinner hour it wouldn’t be a great priority to check on the cell, which would give me some minutes. Not a great many minutes, but some.
It took some minutes, which was the problem with this process.
But after some minutes, there was a hole in the dimatough. I reached in, just the muzzle of my burner, and on a tight burn ray, and following the position indication of my bug finder, I burned each bug, very fast.
From the other side came a gasp, and then, “Who?”
I couldn’t recognize the voice, and I was assuming it was Samuel. At any rate, there was a way to know, or at least to know he was one of ours. Few people remembered my namesake, which made my middle name significant. But Usaians would know. “Lucy Knox Ferrant,” I said, in a whisper.
The gasp again, and then something that sounded suspiciously like a nervous chuckle, “Sam Adams D’Avenir.” And a deep breath. “Is there an operation—are you rescuing me?”
I didn’t want to give him false hope. “I have your piece of flag,” I said. I’d got the burner on cutting and was aiming for the area where the newly-set wall joined the old ones. I made an exclamation of triumph as I realized the seal was ceramite and melted really fast.
Fast enough that in minutes, I removed the panel. Samuel Adams D’Avenir helped me push it through, then almost ran into the tunnel, and stopped, confused, when I wedged the piece of wall back into place, and started melting the ceramite to rejoin it.
“We don’t have time,” he said.
“I’m hoping this will delay them,” I said. “Certainly send the pursuit in another direction. But we have time. I’m going to take you through ventilation tunnels and passageways to—”
“No,” he said. “We don’t have time to save them. I think they’re outside and exposed. Have you seen the temperatures?”
I turned around and blinked at him. “The what?”
“Our people,” he said. “Who the hell sent you? Didn’t they brief you?”
“I sent me,” I said. “I caught your piece of flag. I couldn’t let you die.”
There was surprise first, and then a sort of slumping of his shoulders. He made a sound that might have been a hiss of frustration, and then said something that might have been “merde.” “I thought—” he said. “I hoped—Our fellows in Sea York—”
“Have been captured. They were executed by being set out to sea on a raft with no controls.”
He blinked at me. “But then we are—”
“Alone and I don’t know what you were doing, but we can’t do anything. We can save ourselves. Come. I’ll take you to—”
“No,” he grabbed my upper arm. “No. Listen to me. I was captured trying to figure out where they’d been taken. I had everything ready to rescue them. I just couldn’t figure out where they put them. I know it was outside and exposed, because it’s easy for the Good Man to say he’d just detained them, and it’s not his fault if that many people died of exposure, but theirs for not taking warm clothes. Listen. We must save them. There’s at least five hundred of them. I dropped the flag so they couldn’t be sure I was a Usaian and they wouldn’t question me and find any more that might still be free here or in Shangrilla.”
“Them? Who is them?” I asked, impatiently.
“Everyone they could find who was a sworn Usaian in the two isles. Entire families. Elderly people. Babies.”
My mother was in Shangrilla and would at least be suspected, since her husband had died a Usaian. My stomach dropped. “Where? Where did they take them? And when?”
He shook his head. “When was three days ago. I got word through the circuit. Where I don’t know. I tried to hack into a link. But they found me. They arrested me on suspicion of Usaian sympathies, and the only reason I’m still alive is that my men didn’t want to believe it. I used to command them.”
I realized I’d cackled. “Come,” I said. “Come.”
Tracing the way back to my office was easy. In his uniform, which they hadn’t removed, Samuel was probably less conspicuous than I was. I refrained from burning bugs on the way, because it would just make things more obvious. Instead, I gave the bug detector to Sam, and told him to keep his face averted from those.
My office was deserted, but it wasn’t the first time that I came back to work at night. I left Sam at the door, where he looked like no more than a guard, protecting a late worker.
Then I went to my computer.
If they’d captured them three days ago, no matter how coded or how hidden, there would be fuel and vehicles detailed to the transport. And there would be food. Because executing people through weather was one thing, starving them was another. The Usaians were not easy to isolate, having a lot of sympathizers everywhere. And an “accidental” death due to exposure was easier to swallow than starving a large group of people. Word would get out afterwards. People would know.
I found it almost without trying. It wasn’t the food. It was the potable water. A vast amount of potable water sent to the old algie farming station to the North of Liberte.
I came out and told Sam that. He nodded. “I have things in place,” he said. “Vehicles. But I was hoping…”
“Yes?” I said.
“To have got some buddies of mine from the seacity, only now I’m afraid of contacting them because –”
“You were arrested. They’re probably being watched.”
He nodded. “I only need another person. I have two troop transports waiting. I set them aside, with no trackers. We were going to swoop in and take everyone to… to a place in the continent. In the old North America. We were—”
I wanted more than anything to go back to my comfortable room, to resume my routine. This was too much to do for a piece of flag.
I fished in the pajamas pocket under my suit, and brought out his scrap, and handed it to him. He looked puzzled. “I’ll do it,” I said. “I had the training. I can fly anything. I was raised devout.”
He only hesitated a second, and then he led me through an outer door, and we ran through the blind snow. Behind us, alarms sounded. They’d either found he escaped or something else had given the alarm, but there was no one trying to stop us, and no guards at the transports which he’d hidden in a warehouse area, in the lower levels of the island.
I don’t know how low, and I don’t know how fast or how long we ran, only that I ran until my lungs burned, and that he had to stop now and then, so I could catch up, even so.
By the time I entered the large transport, my eyelashes were rimmed with snow, my eyes felt frozen in their sockets, and I wasn’t sure I could survive this.
But instinct and long-learning is a wonderful thing. I handled the controls by rote and without thought, took off at a sloping curve, and made it to the skies just before a flare burst to my right, making the ship tilt. I corrected by instinct, muttered “bombs bursting in air” under my breath, and set the fastest course to the old algie station.
Before I realized I’d reached it, I started taking fire. It took me a moment to realize that Sam’s ship, just ahead of mine, was returning fire, and a longer moment to realize these were equipped with defensive weaponry.
Firing them back was harder, and I can’t tell how much damage I did, rather than helping. I tried not to fire on the main station, as I was afraid of hitting people. I couldn’t see very clearly, but when Sam’s ship floated down for a landing, I went too, landing near him.
We had landed on a vast field of snow. There was a temporary fence of the sort that is made of interlocked dimatough panels, all around. Within the perimeter was a multitude of people. I had an impression of people without number, of mother’s clutching babies, of men trying to protect children from the bitter wind, and of people fallen to the ground, either dead, or having given up.
Sam jumped out of his ship and I followed. He shouted, in a voice that could be heard over the field. “I’m Sam Adams D’Avenir. Who are the leaders here?”
It took a moment and then two men emerged. I didn’t hear their names, and I couldn’t even hear what Sam was telling them. He spoke very fast and a lot of it seemed to be references to some pre arranged plan.
While Sam was talking, a gate opened in the fence, and men rushed in, in formation. They ran towards the ships.
Sam shouted “Take people in. Take them away.” And then he was running, positioning himself to intercept the column of men coming in, shooting at them.
I grabbed my burner and did the same, as did a number of young men. There must have been burners in the transports, though I hadn’t looked, because surely the prisoners hadn’t been armed.
There weren’t many of us, but there were enough to stop that column, and make it to the gate, before another one came in.
I sealed the edges of the gate, which were ceramite because it was hard to make moving parts in dimatough. Or at least it was hard to make them with any degree of precision.
Sam had climbed up on something, on the side of the gate, and was shooting down. I found the same footholds, part of how the gate was put together, and leaned over the fence. There were masses of Good Men guards charging the gate, throwing shoulders against it.
Other of the young men helping us, had climbed up on the fence and were shooting at these men. The men shot back, and if you failed to duck fast enough you’d get killed.
I realized I had engaged in battle, and in ducking, when my burner ran empty. I was handed two, as I turned around. A young man had salvaged them from the corpses now inside the gate, of the men we had killed to get to the gate and close it.
It seemed surreal to have killed so many people, but I hadn’t had time to think, and none of it was more than a feverish dream. Behind me there was the sounds of people being herded, very fast, into transports. Shouts, screams, babies crying. In front of me, there were people to shoot at, and the other defenders standing with us were shadows in the snow. My trigger finger hurt, as did my eyes. My hair was crusted in snow, standing all around me, a frozen bramble.
“Why aren’t they attacking from the air?” I shouted at Sam, who was nearest me.
“Because I made sure I burned all their fliers. They’ll get new ones,” he said. “But hopefully not till our people are out of here.”
“They must be calling for help now,” I said.
“They are,” he said. He looked over his shoulder, then shouted in that voice that he must have learned in command school, the voice that could be heard over the sounds of a rushing multitude, the sounds of battle, “The rest of you go. The ships are almost ready. Go, you fools.”
I looked outside the gate. There were too many men there, too many men shooting and rushing at us. If we let them get close enough to the gate and stay there, so they could melt the hasty seal I’d made on the edges of it, they would come in. They would overwhelm us. They would stop the transports and evict all those men and women and children, all those elderly people.
From somewhere behind near the transports, a voice called “Come on you fools. We’re taking off.”
There were sounds of rushing footsteps, sounds of snow kicked up, sounds of feet on embarkation ramps.
I wondered if my mother was in the transports, if she’d avoided capture, if — If she knew. If she knew I was here, and guarding the retreat.
“Go,” Sam shouted at me.
But there was a bright boy near the gate, applying burner to ceramite, and there was no way Sam could burn him at that angle. So I burned him, and the bright boy that took his place, and I called out to Sam, “If I do you’ll be overwhelmed before they take off.”
He said something that might have been swearing, then he shouted back, “I wish—”
“Yes?” I said.
“I wish we’d met before this,” he shouted back, and there was something like laughter in his voice.
Behind us, one transport took off. Sam’s shooting slowed down. I looked an noticed there was red all down the arm of his tunic.
The second transport took off.
I don’t know why I’m so cold, even with the pajamas and my insulated suit over it. I strain to hear and I’m almost sure that the only sounds I can hear are those two transports, roaring away to a place where they can be safe and free.
The front of suit is wet and sticky and warm. I’m making a mess of my scrap of flag. If one of my people finds it, maybe it will pass on to a new believer, but they’ll never wash off the blood.
Sam has fallen in snow and is no longer shooting. It seems like a lot to do for a little piece of flag.
The gate is shaking now, and in a minute they’ll be here and they’ll be on me.
It doesn’t matter. By then I’ll be away, on a far distant shore, where liberty blossoms and justice is ever flowing.