Escape (A Prologue)

There were miles left to walk. Tall, dry forest stretched over most of the way. The canopy was sufficient enough cover from the satellites above, but the trudging herd of nearly three-thousand civilians (many of them armed), would be easy to spot by any other conventional means. Despite the danger, they still felt some grain of freedom and hope growing in their hearts. At least the canteens were filled now… at least there was finally water and liberty for the people.

“How far past this forest?” whispered Silas into the Lieutenant’s ear. The Lieutenant’s voice came out quiet and strained from hours of overuse and disuse; “a day’s walk for a crowd like this—that’s about all that’s worth knowing as far as I’m concerned.” “Any signs that we’re being tracked?” asked Silas as he fell back a couple of paces, noticing the Lieutenant’s relative ease and the full volume of his speaking. “If there were, we’d be shooting by now,” Wesley replied from atop his horse, whose sturdy steps clamped the dead pine needles in swishing heaves. “You fire when I say so, Wes,” the Lieutenant sternly ordered, “besides, they’re going to try and negotiate—they can’t hide bloodshed from the media.” “It’s not a story they can pay off either,” added Silas. “Is ‘they’ referring to _____ Corp.?” Wesley probed. “Who else?” Silas replied, “they were the ones in position to buy out ___Tech territories before we left.”

Hours passed under the sun-specked summer heat in the forest as the faction weaved through. Very few words were spoken. They too felt the need to whisper rather than speak, and listen to their surroundings rather than to one another. The silence among them was pure enough that when a rumbling could be distinguished behind them, many took notice and Silas gave Wesley binoculars for spotting the pursuers. “I don’t see them yet,” Wesley reported. “They sound like they’re coming in fast,” Silas tersely remarked. The crowd was picking up their pace very slightly. Whimpers rippled among children and grim adults slid guns out of their packs and holsters. Wesley’s voice was clean and militant; “I’ve got visual on about seven vehicles so far—carrying soldiers, I think.” He lowered his binoculars and looked to his leader with fear. “They’ll negotiate,” the Lieutenant coolly repeated before looking back to the crowd and yelling “hold your fire!”

Large vehicles rode up in a fury and stopped short of the bristling mass that raised their guns and called out obscenities and threats. The vehicles opened up and the fully armored soldiers came pouring out, mirroring the crowd as they raised their own weapons. For a time, there was a stand-off. The Lieutenant spotted the _____ Corp. executive exiting the vehicle with a body vest, but no helmet or gun. The man pulled out a megaphone and spoke into it, spotting the Lieutenant in the process. His reverberated voice swept out after a click.

“We have no interest in a fire-fight, but have every intention of reaching a diplomatic solution here. The details have all been worked out and I think you will be pleased by _____ Corp.’s vision for your city: plenty of water, stable resources, job security, and strict adherence to all federal human rights regulations and practices. So I’d appreciate it if you could all lower your weapons and I’ll order my units to do the same.” The crowd resumed making threats, objections, and sentiments of skepticism, albeit quieter than before. The Lieutenant met the Executive’s gaze with a hard glare. They both searched for the future. The Lieutenant began to shout out and the crowd let their words fall so that his could carry.

“We only have interest in a mediated negotiation before a federal council. We seek asylum in a Neutral Zone as is our right to receive under the…” The Executive, furrowing his brow, raised a hand to his ear as a sign, remembered he had a megaphone and interrupted the Lieutenant. “Sorry, I can’t hear what you’re requesting. Can you step forward please?” “WE WANT A MEDIATED NEGOTIATION OF TERMS BEFORE…” the Executive’s hand came back up to his ear alongside an impatient expression. The Lieutenant scoffed and began to squeeze between civilians who eyed him with worry and determination. “Sir, don’t get too close…” “I’m fine, Wesley.”

The Lieutenant made it to the front line beside the members of his personally trained militia and repeated his request. The Executive brought the megaphone back up after the Lieutenant had finished. “Negotiations have already taken place between _____ Corp. and ___Tech; we recognize your request, but not your right to represent these people: the former employees, assets, and citizens of ___Tech which _____ Corp. has legally acquired.” This time the dissent of the crowd manifested in groans and whispers amongst themselves. The Executive continued. “We are prepared to review terms and, again, we wish for everyone to come out of this encounter safe and satisfied. Please lower your weapons and hear us out.”

As the people deliberated, never taking their eyes off of the statuesque throng of soldiers before them, the Executive lowered his megaphone and covered his mouth by scratching his nose. Meanwhile, he quietly spoke. “Do you have all armed targets in sight?” “Affirmative, sir,” came the reply in his earpiece.

By now Silas had shifted his way through the crowd to the front and began to his own announcement. “I remember hearing rhetoric like yours from _ Corp. to their territory citizens after _ Corp. failed to deliver aid to one of their outlying towns destroyed by raiders. The reason for their slow response? _ Corp. stood to lose more money by making the effort to defend the city than to rebuild it. Lives didn’t matter to the elite there—only profit!” There was agreement radiating among his peers; he continued. “And last year when the southern district of _____ Inc. was told to publicly address reports that the machinery in four of their top factories was malfunctioning– killing workers in explosions and fires— there was a cover-up instead! Did those ‘assets’ get a fair ‘review of terms?’” Again, the people remembered. “We know how elite business owners treat the public and we don’t consent to it! We are not tools, animals, machines, or slaves! We are free people of a nation that was born free—the true America!”

The Executive, with his jaw flexing and clenched, turned his eyes from Silas and back to the Lieutenant, still expecting the faction leader to calm his crowd. “MEDIATED RENEGOTIATION!” the Lieutenant stoically shouted over the clamor of his people’s fresh protests. The protests melded into a chant: “Renegotiate! Renegotiate! Renegotiate!” As they chanted, a man among them took aim at a Corporate soldier and, with an unintelligible swear, fired the first bullet. It pierced the soldier’s vest, but did not make any wound on its plastic torso. Behind its helmet, circuits moved uninterrupted signals.

In graceful synchronicity, the throng of soldiers shot their single wave of return fire. Bullets from hidden drones joined the wave, as did the streaking, smoky blasts of tear gas grenades. A thousand heads sputtered blood and in the span of two seconds came only the clatter of gear, knees, torsos, and heads hitting the ground. The Lieutenant was struck clean through the eye. In fierce ringing of sound through his mind, he dreamed of wild colors and faces from the past as his brain began to wind down. Silas took a bullet to his neck and fell with specks of a red, wet cough catching up to hit his face as it met the dirt and rattled a scream beside the ear of a dying friend. The remaining citizens were stunned and began to stampede away in mindless horror.

“SCATTER!” Wesley screamed to the rushing people as his horse bucked and turned to run. The pair didn’t make twenty feet of distance before Wesley discerned more vehicles parked a quarter mile in front of him with a new line of soldiers taking aim and closing in. Wesley raised his gun and a bullet cleanly pierced the very center of his heart. He slumped off the right side of his horse with his foot caught in a stirrup. As it bolted away, the horse dragged him a few yards before a spinal collision with a large rock cracked him loose.

The perimeter of soldiers had enclosed the area and the people knew now that running was useless. Guns would’ve made no difference if they’d still had them. Some shrieked and cowered, some spat and brandished small knives. “Who speaks for you now?” the Executive asked through the smoke, either forgetting or not caring that he was no longer holding his megaphone. The words came out again with volume and fury, reaching ears whose sweating, tired heads winced at their power. “WHO SPEAKS FOR YOU NOW?!”

-+-+-+-

“I take personal responsibility for the outcome of the encounter” the Executive began to say. The judge looked intently over papers that summarized the details— the body counts, the history of the faction, the total financial loss to _____ Corp., and more. “It was,” the Executive continued, “immediately evident, however, that the faction leaders had no interest in peace. We knew it would be necessary to bring some measure of precautionary force, as we’d already heard the damage they’d done to ___Tech security, property, and people during the escape. The rioting began before I could explain _____ Corp.’s offer and terms. Despite their militancy, I had hoped they’d see by our numbers that it was more practical to let us reach a diplomatic solution to their concerns, but…” The Executive looked worn and defeated; his head mournfully bent down toward the table where he sat. “This all took place after the negotiations were finished and _____Corp. had acquired the responsibility of and rights to all employees and citizens of ___Tech?” the Judge dryly asked. “Yes, your Honor.” The Executive replied.

“Does _____Corp. wish to charge any remaining members of the faction with insubordination?” “All armed members who made attempts to fire on _____Corp. security units were neutralized” reported the Executive’s tall female assistant. “The civilians were drawn in partly with bribery, but mostly by intimidation. We have witnesses among the remaining faction who will testify to this.” The Judge agreed to hear their testimony. First came an old man who told the story of how he was separated from his wife in the chaos of the escape. He insisted on staying in the city when members of the faction militia forcibly escorted him out and said “we’ll send for her, but you stay with us.” Next came a teenage girl who recalled being given gear and a gun after the escape and told it would soon be her duty to fight and possibly die for the cause of freedom. When she refused, she was coldly reminded of how selfish it was to refuse to fight for “the cause of true liberty.” A woman came next who admitted that her brother had been with the Lieutenant when one of his men successfully suggested making an appeal to a particularly notorious band of anarchist raiders for aid and protection.

More witnesses came and went and the picture they painted together was clear: the faction militia was a mob of well-meaning but deluded fanatics. As the witnesses took seats in the room, they each looked to the Executive for some sign of approval. Wisely, he did nothing. He was too preoccupied with analyzing the judge, eventually coming to the conclusion that she would find no legal fault with _____ Corp.’s handling of the situation, nor in the policies and provisions they would bring to the city formerly owned by ___Tech. Even the skeptical neutral media outlets would be forced to admit the same. No evidence to the contrary would be found. The Executive leaned back in his chair: pleased and unsurprised. Things were as they should be.

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