Diella ran faster. She could hear the hum of the trucks, roaring on their gas pedals. Drat this open terrain. Just a little farther to the forest, where she knew the trucks were good as elephants on the cliffs. And there, she was a falcon.
Something hit her in the shoulder. Drat Drat Drat... She didn't have time to look, but in her head she was already figuring if her muscle or bone was hit. No pain yet. Figured. She was drunk with adrenaline. Seeing every blade of grass shoot past, aware of every straining muscle. Alert and alive as only the hunted hare know, alive as those who are about to die. If it had just hit muscle, just a matter of pain, she could climb the trees. But if it hit her shoulder socket, she would not be able to climb the trees. Not able to climb the trees....
They were firing now, and pretty good range too, she saw some vegetation cut down 10 meters to her right. She was running, running with every milliliter of adrenaline in her, her blood roaring in her ears. A bullet whistled past her ear. Now would be a good time to start praying. If she knew to whom.
There was a loud sound behind her, an explosion, but she had not time to look, even breathing felt a horrible delay in her one purpose, run. The forest neared, its first trees with their welcoming branches reaching out toward her—they shot past her, all around her, and she was up, up swinging higher and higher into them, gripping their familiar great branches, lost in the leafy masses of their ancient boughs. She flew up and out, her fingers remembering the holds before her mind could interfere, she was up, over the old compound wall, on the old oak...the pain hit her. Nausea. She gripped the branch before her, wrapping her arms and legs firmly around the old wood, catching a dim glance of something burning on the road beyond the treetops, before the darkness started closing in.
Peter knew something was up when he heard the roar of jeeps. There was usually only one, or at the most, two, patrolling this backwater road round the old forest preserve. Usually just some guard driving fast and trying to get this bit of the patrol over with around shift change, not paying that much attention, or driving slowly, enjoying the ride, with the windows down and the music high, often eating donuts. Peter patrolled this area of the wood. He'd watched the watchers for a while, perched high up in the treetops with his rifle, radio, and journal. And books. Sometimes. But he really tried to keep his eyes and ears open, though mostly it was just the handful of patrolmen. And squirrels.
He's learned a lot about squirrels. How they act up in the nests, when they don't think anyone is watching, how they lined their nests with bunches of leaves, how they chirped to each other in the world of the treetops. He liked squirrels.
But today, the squirrels had scurried off, even at the first dull roar of a jeep. Peter knew that meant something was up, he wasn’t sure what. He’d prepped his AR-15, tuned his radio, and melted into the lookout branch. There were jeeps alright. A good 4 of them. The most he’d ever seen here. And they were roaring along, not just like men trying to finish out the route, either. More like the way the wild dogs would run on a chase. And then there was rabbit, a boy, running up ahead, in green and brown, his long hair streaking out like the tail of a kite. Running. Then there was a flash from the jeeps, several flashes.
It took a long 3 seconds for it to sink in, there a person down there, and they are trying to kill him. Peter swung into action, he aimed at the left window of the first jeep, where the flashes were coming from, and fired away. It only hit him as he reloaded, that there was a person behind those flashes. His stomach felt like he was going to throw up. The flashes were still coming from more windows. He aimed for the front tire of the first jeep, and neatly took both a front and back wheel out, then took out both back wheels of the second jeep, and one of the third, before he had to reload. But it had worked, the jeeps were screeching to a halt. Where was the boy? He saw him running toward the forest—no wait, was it a girl? And she was hit, blood flew out and hit the path. But he ducked his head down, some foliage twenty yards to his right shredded by a real automatic. By the look of the random fire, they hadn’t seen him exactly yet. But the fugitive was still be in range. He had to distract them. He fumbled for the grenades he kept with his snack crackers, pulled the pin, swung up, and aimed for the trucks. Only at the last moment, seeing those little toy men down there, he aimed wide. Then swung down against the branch, waiting for the explosion, “Dear God, don’t let this kill anyone.” If they’d seen him, it was over for him. “or them get me” he added, the detonation going off with his Amen.
She fought off the darkness—it was like a ring of shadow, of greyness—pressing in from the edges of her vision. She gasped for breath. Her arms felt like they were turning into someone else’s, disobedient to her commands. Hold on. Breath. Hold on. She clung to it like a drowning man to driftwood, drowning in a sea of treetops. She couldn’t hold the greyness, it rushed in, with incredible nausea, sealing out her vision.
He lay in the treetop quite a long time. He could hear the murmuring voices below him, his silence-trained ears could hear the crunch of the leaves far down below where they trod. It seemed there was some sort of heated argument.
“…you kidding, and start a forest fire?”
“What do you suggest, we start *&^*&^&* logging?”
The response was something indiscernible.
The cacophony of their tones reassured him, over the hammering of his heart. Then another voice cut in, a shout, but full of authority.
“Idiots! What do…..watch….set a watch….what goes up must come down…”
His heart was hammering afresh. He could live a good while in the treetops, but not without water. He only had one and a half canteens left. Then how long before dizziness and dehydration kicked in…God help me. Make them stupid. Make them leave.
There was more indiscernible chatter, some of it pretty agitated.
“I’m telling you it was a copter! One of those new quiet ones…”
Yes yes, it was a helicopter. Please make them remember a helicopter, God, please.
There was more debate. His heart was hammering so loudly now, he wondered if he was wearing it out. His uncle had once said you only had so many beats before you heart wore out. His uncle said that to justify not exercising, but Peter believed it now. His heart felt like it was bursting, squeezing all the life out of it. He realized he was breathing too fast, the green leaves above him seemed to tremble. He was getting dizzy. This was not good. He began to pray the Lords Prayer over and over, trying to block out the arguments below.
“Our Father who art in heaven…
“Crazies don’t have that kinda technology! If you are saying…”
“…saw a copter …. the treetops”
“Your kingdom come, Your will be done…”
“….A copter here, and none of the surveillance picked it up?”
“They don’t survey this place much, now do they?”
“A copter that fires off single rifle bullets?”
“But deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom…”
“…Civilian copter with silencers? To what, not to disturb the tourists?!”
“…. saw it hovering over the treetops....”
“Makes no &%&^%& sense, why’d they have a …. silencers….undergunned….”
“…(^&)*(&(*& crack shot. You think a strafing copter could get out 5 wheels?..”
“…aiming from the cockpit…”
“Forever and Ever. Amen. Our Father…”
The voices were lower now, he couldn’t make out the words, just the faint sound of argument. Then perhaps one voice going on a while, he couldn’t tell. Finally, what sounded like commands. Then sounds that may have been spare tires coming out. He wondered about the window he’d fired into, if whoever had been there was arguing below, or was wounded, or…gone to eternity. He wondered if the girl had gotten away, if she’d been hit, if she was alive or dead somewhere in the woods once the adrenaline wore out. He was so tired. Finally he heard the sound of jeeps driving away, but couldn’t tell how many motors had ignited, wasn’t paying enough attention. But the squirrels hadn’t come back out of the nests yet. He wasn’t moving.
He watched the light angle deeper and deeper along the branches, turn gold, and fade away from the darkening leaves. The squirrels were back out, chirping along, leaping along the branches. Finally, as the darkness clung and grew in the tangles of twigs, he eased himself up along the branch. They had infrared, he knew, so best be careful. Very careful. Slowly he eased himself up along the branch. A squirrel across the road burst into a horrible altercation, probably a dispute over nests. That should distract someone not used to squirrels. A burst of fully automatic fire said that it had. He peered down, right there, with a back to him, were a couple of figures sloppily hidden against the rocks. Peter had excellent night vision, even if he was far sighted. They didn’t know two cents worth about stealth, the moonlight gleamed on their canteen cups as they drank their coffee. They were whispering together, both of them turned toward the offending squirrel. Probably rookies, left here to watch. But he couldn’t shoot those rookies, with their backs turned to him, drinking their coffee. If only he had a gun like those in his books, with the stun setting.
Best stay here till the moon set, and get down then. But the girl, what if she’d been hit. A nagging feeling, like every minute mattered, kept tugging at the corners of his mind. He had to get down. Soon.
An owl hooted. Another clip went off in that direction. Wow, these guys were idiots. Probably city kids, must be new to the patrol, probably had never spent the night in the forest before. A lot of kids never got out much these days. What with the war aftermath and all. Schools and parents didn’t want kids wandering the wilds, with discarded IED, and chemical weapons, and gi-hirion threat and all. It was safer to have the kids inside. It was sad, not knowing what rivers and mountains were except from computer games. Like the reality was in the scripted games, and real owls and squirrels were the imaginations in the dark, the backdrop of horror films, the unreality. But what was reality to them? Their scripted show of their politics and tailored news. They wanted the script. Slowly he eased himself across the rough bark, moving an inch or two, waiting for the moments when the wind stirred the leaves and brought the whole forest roaring like the sea, their leaves silver in the moonlight. It felt like hours. He didn’t even bother to touch the splinters and the sap that worked its way into his flesh. Finally, he was at the base of the tree. A good wind had picked up, and was sending clouds over the moon. A sudden curiosity seized him, to know what those two rookies were speaking of. He had to go that direction anyway, if he was going to look for the fugitive. He crept along, silent as a cat in the darkness. Soon he was so close he could hear their s’s. They definitely didn’t know 2 cents about stealth. Emboldened by their ignorance, he came so close he could hear their whispers.
“Charles, you are shooting at animals. That was an owl, I think”
“Oh shutup, Susanna, you let a whole clip go at that freaking monkey”
Monkeys indeed. It was a threatened squirrel. Did these kids think they were in the jungle? And anyone with the name Susanna should never be allowed in secret ops.
“You think it was a copter?”
“Sgt. Jennifer says she saw one”
“Yeah, Sgt. Thomas didn’t seem to think the terrorists had copters with silencers. And all his fuss about the weapon used an all. He didn’t think it was possible”
“Well, Sgt. Thomas is a %^$^%$. He thinks cuz he knows weapons and planes and copters that he’s better than anyone else in this unit. “
“But would they fire a rifle from a copter? And a &*^(&* good shot too”
“Dunno, coulda been an open cockpit”
“None of us saw it”
“Were you looking?”
They lapsed into stung silence.
“I think Thomas would say anything to contradict Sgt. Jennifer. He hates her taking his place and all. And y’now, her being a woman “
“You think he’s a sexist?”
“He tries to hide it, but yeah”
They lapsed into silence. Peter began inching his way away, wishing he’d done it when they were still talking. Another owl hooted, and he could feel them tensing up in the darkness.
“Who was that runaway, do you think?”
“Captain wouldn’t say. I think it was one of those right wing terrorists”
“You sure? She didn’t seem to have a weapon”
“Could have been a spy, gathering intelligence.”
“You don’t think it was an escapee?”
The boy snorted.
“She’d be in a fluorescent jumper then. Not some sorta Lord of the Rings outfit”
“Lord of what?”
“Its…just a game I played once”
“But she could’ve been a prisoner.You know they say there’s a prison compound here. Under the forest”
The boy grunted.
“You think its true?”
“Why’d they have it here? The fighting’s on the front.”
There was a silence, finally the girl spoke as one choosing words carefully.
“Rumors are that it isn’t for war prisoners”
“What is it then for, terrorists?” There was a sharpness to his tone.
“You know how the rumors are” studied nonchalance.
They were silent. He began to inch away toward the rocks.
Suddenly both of them leaped up like a released bowstring, fully automatic weapons flashing clips after clip. He ran.
The blood screamed in his ears. The crack of bullets. His feet crashed into ground; his heart crashed in his chest. Scrambling up the rocks, he was up up, the old tree, and over the wall. Looking back, he saw the muzzle points still flashing, facing off to the west. They were assassinating a herd of deer. He caught his breath. Idiot, he’d been as jumpy as the rookies. They could have seen him running with no cover, if they hadn’t been busy with the deer. He caught his breath, and swung across the branches, slamming into something, he stifled a scream.
It was a body. Still warm, slumped over the branch, his hand came back sticky with blood. It was the fugitive; he pulled back her cloak and pushed into her neck, feeling for a pulse. It was the longest second of his life. It came. He breathed again. It was weak, but there.
Quickly he felt for the wound, peeling back the cloak, right there, in the left upper arm. Ugh, a mass of blood clots. And was this bone sticking out? His fingers felt around the wound, as he tried to remember everything Ariel had taught him about staunching and major arteries when Caspar had been hit.