District 11, Sector 20 – 3529 AFT
He was told not to move. If he kept still—absolutely still—they wouldn’t see him; the suit he and the rest of his squad were wearing would shield him. It was hard for Garret to trust his life to what he classified as an assumption. He knew next to nothing about the suit. It was supposedly captured during a raid on a Ministry Security Force warehouse two months ago. “It’s one of their Thermo-G camouflage,” Carlsberg had told him. “Top-secret stuff. They’ve yet to put them into production. The boys on the Western Border discovered the warehouse on one of their recon trips. They had no idea what they had stumbled upon. They raided the place, and this suit”—Carlsberg had thrust the suit into Garret’s hands—“is what they came back with.” What the boys on the Western Border actually found was an entire platoon worth of suits, still in testing phase.
The test is over, Garret told himself. Any minute now they would discover whether the suits actually worked. Garret looked down at the bizarre sight covering his body. The suit was shiny and yet gave no reflection. It made no sense. It felt like plastic against his skin, and bore swirly patterns that changed in shape and color when light touched its surface, what supposedly made them invisible to MSF radar. How Carlsberg or anyone else knew that piece of information was beyond Garret’s knowledge. All he had of substance to trust was Carlsberg’s word, which wasn’t comforting considering that Carlsberg was an MSF reject who had bad personal hygiene and picked his nose. But times were tough and winning battles was crucial to their survival, especially when the battle he was about to face involved rescuing one of the most important men in modern era. So trust he must.
The moment when news of Corbin Byrne’s capture had reached his ears, Garret almost gave up his life within the Free People’s Society. Life was certainly not as glamorous as he had hoped. As a boy, he had heard all of the utopic stories told by his friends, how the Heretique could do whatever they liked, whenever they liked, and however they liked; that no one governing body ruled them and that each man and woman was responsible for him and herself; that the members looked out for each other and gave a helping hand when another struggled; and that each person could decide his or her own fate. Those stories were radically different from the life of his mother and father, of the life he was going to live, once he was of age. Garret’s father had come home each day after spending ten hours in the mines, covered in dirt, soot, sweat, and who knows what else; and each day his father would stumble—literally stumble from exhaustion—over to the only set of table and chairs they owned, and collapse down in a heap of rugged skin and bones wrapped inside one of two thick canvased uniforms he wore. Either his helmet would tumble off onto the table or floor, or he would pull it off and spin it onto the table as sweat and sometimes blood made vertical streaks along his forehead and face. Garret’s mother was very aware of her husband’s pain and would always have a glass of “clean” water waiting for him. “Clean” being the key, since getting uncontaminated water from the village well was a task of its own; nonetheless, she had made it a daily duty of making sure he had at least one glass of dirt-free water to enjoy after slaving to the point of death. Garret had witnessed this hideous routine his entire adolescent life, and when he had received the results of his Cognitive Examination, he knew that his fate would be no better, and that was the day he had decided to run. But as already mentioned, life amongst the Free People wasn’t candy and cake. His skill with the axe and hammer was all he had brought with him; his life in manual labor was inevitable; but doing it because he could was somehow different from doing it because he had to. As the Cognitive Examination showed, Garret was not the sharpest tool in the mine, but he didn’t have to be in order to understand that there was a difference between “can do” and “must do.” But all of that was before. Now things were different. Once again, Garret was using his manual strength to survive; however, this time it was in arms and not in mines. Over thirty some odd years had passed since he took up life within the Free People, and inside those years he had grown externally strong, even though he still felt internally weak. It wasn’t until volunteering to rescue Corbin Byrne that Garret had finally found the strength deep within his heart. They had said it would be a one-way ticket for most involved, and yet it was that promise that gave him the power he so desperately needed. Never in his life had he truly felt like he had made a difference—even after joining the Free People—until he had stood at the gathering and tossed his hat into the ring. This was finally going to be his moment to “shine”—as long as the damned suits did not.
“You hear that?” asked a nervous voice from behind. Garret didn’t recognize exactly whose it belonged to nor could he look back to see; they were all face-first on the ground, weapons underneath them. Garret had the privilege of lying on top of what was known as the Equalizer: a weapon used to bring down MSF hovercrafts. It was a bulky, metallic tube that unleashed the most menacing beam of energy he had ever seen, capable of destroying or damaging almost all of the MSF light and medium-armored vehicles—thus the title. “It brings the MSF to our level,” as they said. The Equalizer came to exist in the Free People’s Society by some helping hands working within the Ministry, people who were sympathetic to the Free People’s cause but concluded that they were more useful staying within the Collective instead of leaving it.
Garret tilted his head slightly to listen for any out-of-place sounds.
There was nothing.
Garret could feel his heart pounding through his chest and against the Equalizer. Sporting that large cannon was a hell of a job; it typically took two people to hold and fire it, but Garret, being the strong manual labor type, was capable of handling it alone, which was crucial for their mission. Garret knew that once the hovercraft carrying Corbin passed overhead (and as long as the suits protected them against the MSF radar) they would have a few seconds of total surprise to act. Every man had a place he needed to be, and no two men could be spared to carry out a single task.
The challenge with operating the Equalizer, outside of its enormous bulk, was prepping it to fire inside such a short window. Like all laser weapons, it needed to charge. But none of the weapons could be charged prior to attack without alerting the MSF. So, again, once they passed overhead, Garret was tasked with not only lugging the cannon into firing position and accurately aiming it, but he was also burdened with getting it ready for use—a minimum of seven seconds—which in actuality wasn’t a long amount of time; but in battle, seven seconds could seem like forever.
“Did you hear that?” asked the nervous voice again.
Garret listened closer but only heard the wind cutting through the wild grass surrounding them. “Stay quiet,” ordered another, calmer voice.
The men behind Garret were there for fire support. Their weapons charged faster and could unleash a barrage of attacks while he prepared the Equalizer. Far out in front of him, lying in the grass, were three teams of six, forming a rudimentary triangle. The idea was to down the hovercraft in the middle of the triangle, making it prone for a three-sided attack. The plan sounded great; the problem was that almost nothing went as planned.
Garret took a deep breath and blew it out against the metallic tube pressed against his lips. Relax, he told himself. Relax. There’s no use getting upset. Everyone dies. It has to happen sometime. Today may be your day or may not be—just relax. His mind flashed visuals of his father sagging at the family table, eyes drooping from exhaustion, rough stubble poking through his face, his father’s scraped knuckles and dirt filled fingernails. You’re fighting for him, for men like your father. You’re fighting for something better.
Garret considered their situation for a moment. Code Zero was absolutely dependent upon the success of their mission, and Garret played a key role in either its achievement or its failure.
Code Zero was Corbin Byrne’s brilliant conception. He understood that a time would come when his capture was inevitable. He also understood that dead leaders were more powerful than living leaders. The problem, however, with dead leaders is that they are dead and can no longer lead, yet Corbin conceived of a way to have both the power of being a martyr but still retain the ability to lead.
When Garret first heard of the plan he thought there was no way it would work. “People will never believe it,” he told Hugh Townsend, his squad leader.
“Of course they will,” Hugh said boldly. “A rescue mission gone awry; everyone will believe it, especially when we broadcast it across the planet.”
“The MSF will know the truth.”
“Will they? I think not.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because . . . we will annihilate everything. By the time the MSF arrives there will be nothing to find but smoldering ashes.”
“But what if I . . . I mean . . . what if we fail? What if he dies in the attack?”
Hugh laughed. “That is the brilliance of this plan; if we shoot them down and Corbin dies, then we still win: Corbin will be the martyr he desires.”
Garret didn’t look too convinced. Hugh wrapped a long arm around the broad man and said, “Relax. The only way we fail is if we don’t shoot them down and the MSF changes their minds about Corbin’s execution. All we have to do to win is shoot the hovercraft down; that’s not too hard, right? Just try not to kill the big man, aye?”
Garret took in a deep breath and released it. “Aye.”
A breeze blew in around Garret, pushing against the suit protecting him; the air tickled his nose. He heard birds sing their peaceful songs, and for an unprotected moment, Garret’s mind was allowed to wander from the upcoming doom and bring forth a wistful memory of his youth, when things had yet to become too complicated . . . back before he understood the world and his meager place within it.
A low murmur was heard way off in the distance, and the memory vanished.
The murmur was accompanied by several higher pitched whines.
Garret knew the hovercraft would be escorted—but by how many? The answer was coming quicker than Garret was prepared for. They’re moving fast. He wanted to turn and look in order to gauge what they were up against, but that would have only granted him death, which he figured was coming along just fine on its own.
Garret slid his hand down the Equalizer and placed his fingers overtop the Power Save button. The smaller, light-armored hovercrafts were above him now and moving at a very high velocity. The sound of the hovercrafts’ engines ripped through his ear canals. It was very loud—too loud. Garret struggled against the instinct to cover his ears.
“NOW!” screamed one of the men from behind.
There was no time for fear. Garret pushed the Energy Save button and popped to his knees. He looked down at the Equalizer and saw the charge light blinking. His eyes looked up to the hovercrafts high above; they were quickly flying into the distance. Garret realized that they had waited too long. He gripped the Equalizer and threw it up to his shoulder like it was made of cardboard. His right eye trained through the electronic sight that automatically focused in on the central subject: the medium sized hovercraft reportedly carrying Corbin Byrne. Certain that seven seconds had passed, Garret’s right index finger closed on the trigger . . . but nothing happened.
“FIRE!” shouted a voice from behind.
At once, the sky zipped to life with beams of light, cutting through the white cotton clouds separating them from the hovercrafts. Almost simultaneously, the three teams making up the triangle in the distance began to fire as well. But no one was supposed to fire before Garret, and everyone was exposed now. . . .
The plan was quickly falling apart—I’m supposed to be the first to fire—but nothing happened when he squeezed the trigger again. Shoot, damnit!
Seven seconds was the difference between life and death.
And then it did.
A brilliant red beam blinked out of the Equalizer and severed the medium hovercraft’s right mounted engine. Garret loosened the trigger just before the beam slashed into the cargo hold.
Through the viewfinder, sparks, flames, and smoke began pouring out of the right engine. The hovercraft turned onto its right side as the left mounted engine over compensated. The hovercraft immediately began to lose altitude and continued to turn sharply to its right. It was coming down.
There was an explosion of cheers from behind.
The two lighter hovercrafts turned in unison, departing from their damaged comrade.
And then reality hit.
Complete loss of the right mounted engine proved too much for the crippled hovercraft and it came down a lot faster than anticipated. It splashed into the field right were one of the attack squads was positioned. Upon impact, the entire hovercraft rippled and bent. The tail swung overhead and then slammed into the ground. A guttural roar followed as pieces and parts exploded off. Garret watched this scene in utter horror.
Burnbeams scorched a patch of grass next to Garret and his attention snapped to the light hovercraft bearing down on him. His support team returned fire but the beams from their burnboxes did little damage to the tough exterior of the hovercraft. Garret dropped to his knees and blindly aimed the Equalizer up at the hovercraft. He squeezed the trigger but nothing happened. It needed to finish charging again.
Screams bellowed out from behind. Garret looked back just in time to see his entire support team cut in half by a second burnbeam attack. All four men toppled to the ground in pieces.
Some were still alive.
Garret pulled the trigger again and the Equalizer blew out a beam of red light directly above the attacking hovercraft. He then slashed down with it, severing the cockpit through the middle and heavily damaging the hull. The hovercraft began to slowly spin and drop downward. Flames shot out of where the cockpit was located before crashing into a heap in the field about a hundred yards in front of him.
Off in the distance, the second light hovercraft was in battle with the surviving two attacking squads. Garret looked back at the medium hovercraft and saw several injured MSF agents tending to each other. There was little hope that Corbin had survived the crash. Regardless, Garret needed to try and find him.
He lowered the Equalizer from his shoulder and began recharging it again before breaking into a jog toward the crash site. To his left he heard cries coming from the burning hovercraft he had just shot down.
An explosion erupted from the light hovercraft battling the two attacking squads, followed by a billow of heavy grey smoke. The hovercraft lowered to the ground and attempted to land. The survivors of the attacking squads charged in and surrounded the craft, concentrating their firepower on its main hull. Garret turned his attention to the downed medium hovercraft. There were more survivors gathering at the spot, armed with laser rifles—about eight at this point. He considered stopping and firing the Equalizer at them but he knew that the beam would cut through them and into the hovercraft behind, further risking the death of Corbin Byrne, if he was even alive.
One of the agents amassing at the downed hovercraft noticed Garret through the swaying weeds. He limped behind a chunk of the wrecked hull and called out something inaudible. Three other agents looked in Garret’s direction and raised their laser rifles. Garret was a sitting duck.
Without thinking, Garret aimed the Equalizer at the closest of the three agents and pulled the trigger. In a flash, the beam hit the agent dead center and released a poof of red carbon matter that used to be his body. Garret then slashed the laser across the other two agents, killing them instantaneously, before painting the remaining men, which included the piece of hull insufficiently protecting the agent with a limp.
After three seconds, it was all over.
Garret cautiously jogged toward the hovercraft while checking on the other downed hovercraft, which seemed completely overtaken by his comrades.
When Garret arrived at the wreckage, he clearly saw all of the damage he had single handedly done. The sight was beyond gruesome. It took him several seconds to connect what he was seeing to what he had done. He then began to vomit.
Two of his fellow attacking squad members came running onto the scene, battle ready. They stumbled to where Garret was trying to recover, and one of them said, “Jumpin Ginger-shit, what happened here?!”
The other man walked over to Garret and patted him on the shoulder; it was Hugh. “It’s alright, son. Better them than you.”
“You used the Equalizer on them?” asked the other agent, Jack something (Garret had not learned his last name).
“I . . . I had no choice,” Garret stammered out.
“Shit-on-a-stick, I guess not. Damn. Is there anybody alive?”
The question fell hard on Garret’s ears.
Hugh said, “We better take a look.”
Garret nodded and stood on shaky legs.
“Why don’t you wait here, son. Just take a breather.”
Jack went around the hull and found a hole leading inside. “Hello? Anyone alive?” He flipped on a light and shone it inside. “Damn. What a mess.”
“It came down too fast,” Garret said through shaky breaths. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
Hugh continued to pat him on the shoulder. “It’s not your fault.”
Jack shouted out again, “Damn! What a mess!”
“We were supposed to save him.”
“Nothing could be done, son. We tried our best.”
“He can’t be dead . . . he can’t be.”
“He’s just a man. We all tried. Nothing can be done. May God have his soul.”
“Crap-on-a-branch, you guys need to get in here!”