Dire Redemption

by

Ishmael O. Ross

Action Thriller Dystopian

When Jonas arrives at the border-wall surrounding the Federated States of Europe, his dreams of safety turn into a living nightmare.



Dire Redemption cover image

Published by

The Unseenig Eye

Available in

Hardcover (2020) ISBN 978-9916-4-0184-2
Paperback (2021) ISBN 978-9916-9589-5-7
Kindle (2021) ISBN 978-9916-4-0186-6

Coming soon in

Epub — ISBN 978-9916-4-0185-9

Learn more



Violent Borders

A man is running for his life. An army is deployed to hunt him down. He has no right to be there, he has no right to live. He is not considered human.

Alex Lewis is on a humanitarian mission. He is looking for the hunted, for whom the right to exist has been denied. He is trying to save them, to deliver them to safety, to give them a chance of life.

The year is 2058. The world’s powers have stabilised, the citizens of the newly formed super-states are living in peace and prosperity. But when humanity is a privilege of the fortunate, liberty becomes a radical idea. For those born on the wrong side of the wall surrounding the Federated States of Europe, the price of survival is unimaginably high.

When fate brings the two men together, they struggle against time, hostile forces and their own prejudices, towards a conclusion neither of them would have thought possible.

“By the end of 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees and migrants reached European shores, undertaking treacherous journeys from countries torn apart by war and persecution.” — USA for UNHCR, Refugee Crisis in Europe

“By the end of 2017, 68.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.” — USA for UNHCR, Refugee Facts

The Italian sea rescue operation Mare Nostrum, which had saved thousands of displaced people from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, officially ended in October 2014.

In October 2015, Hungary erected a four-metre-tall barbed-wire fence along its southern border to stop the flow of refuge seekers.

Between 2013 and 2019, at least 18,600 people died on their way to Europe while searching for safety, many of them women and unaccompanied children.

This book is dedicated to their memory.

May they rest in peace.

Dire Redemption

Characters are well-imagined and tautly written; they are multilayered and the author’s deft handling of their humanity shines through the narrative. Dire Redemption is a fast-paced, episodic, and well-crafted thriller that explores the perennial struggle for equality and shared humanity. The social setting has hints of contemporary divisions and the author comes across as a master in writing conflicts and creating a world that readers can relate to.” — Christian Sia for Readers’ Favorite

It keeps the reader completely captivated with the pace of the action. It’s close to non stop, there is always something going on. Something to think about. Kept me guessing in the best way. The cover is a little plain, would love something that shows how powerful the read is, but the writing itself is just wonderful.” — On a Reading Bender

The plot is fast-paced, there is action at every turn. It will keep you engaged throughout.” — The Indie Express



Read an excerpt from
Dire Redemption by Ishmael O. Ross


 

Chapter One

The cargo hold of the vessel was crowded with people just like him. Black skin stretched over bones, eyes bulging like they would fall out of their sockets any time. Jonas steadied himself as the floor rocked, struggling to stand upright. Everything moved. Everything always moved, like an unwelcome premonition of what his life would be like from now on.

He looked around, then turned his gaze back down. Disgust and despair struggled to break free behind his hollow eye sockets. He felt his thoughts move with the ship, disturbed by the constant movement, disturbed by what he was looking at, by what he had seen, and what he had left behind.

A bony hand grabbed his shoulder. Jonas looked up into a face older than his own. Most of the old man’s teeth were missing, the skin dry on his sinewy arms. His hands shook as he held out of a piece of what looked like meat, some of which the man was struggling to chew in his toothless mouth. “Eat,” he said.

Jonas made no reply, just looked at the man with empty eyes. I will not become like that. I cannot, he thought, then tore his gaze away from the old man and the silent feast. His stomach ached, for all he knew he had not eaten for over a week, but there was a line he would never cross. There had to be.

He took a few shaky steps, walking just far enough away that he would not hear their teeth clatter as they chewed on the raw meat. In his mind, he understood why they did it, knew it was wrong, and that he would also have to partake if he wanted to live. He also knew that it would never happen. He would rather die of the hunger that had made his soul so numb, none of this really upset him anymore.

The door at the top of a long metal staircase opened, and two men appeared with guns. Some heads turned as they came down the stairs, but nobody moved or said anything. The feast continued until the armed men went over and knocked two of them down with the butts of their old-fashioned assault rifles. They said something in their own language and spat at the two lying on the floor, then one of the armed men shook his fist at the others.

Everybody was watching the two armed smugglers now. They moved across the crouching black figures, two well-fed, visibly strong white men, appraising their cargo. The smarter among the people living in the cargo hold already knew to stay close to the pile of bodies and excrement in one of the corners, as the smugglers never went near that part. Jonas instinctively moved a few inches closer to the decay and held his breath in anticipation.

The two armed men stopped and one of them picked out a young girl who was crouching next to the wall all by herself. She was barely able to stand as one of the smugglers motioned to her to get up. The smuggler soon lost his patience and picked the girl up, with one hand under her armpit, lifting her off the ground with ease. The two men laughed. Jonas watched the ghost of the girl. She was half dead already, her eyes were empty, apparently unaware of what was happening to her. Jonas thanked God she would not know what was about to happen next.

One of the smugglers casually fired a shot in the air, and everybody pulled themselves as tight as they could. Nobody moved. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, and Jonas was sure it wouldn’t be the last either. Those girls never came back, but all knew what happened to them. The first time the smugglers had come down to take one up the stairs, they had heard her scream for hours before the gunshot had rung out. The next time they had come—nobody knew how soon, as time had long lost its meaning—some of the men tried to protect the young girl the smugglers chose. They were severely beaten, then shot in front of everybody. Nobody had tried to help the girls any more. Whatever happened to them, had become an inevitable part of their reality, like the hunger, or the ever-growing pile of bodies in one of the corners.

Jonas thought it strange that they gave up their freedom voluntarily, most of them even paying unbelievable sums of money for this trip. All this for a faint promise of hope, and the will to believe in the fairy-tales of a faraway land called Europe. He was not sure how much of that was true, about the white man’s land with no war or hunger. It seemed almost as fantastic as the children’s stories about New Mutapa far down south, where black men prospered, and the white soldiers never came. That was a beautiful dream and nothing more, even though he wished it to be real. Still, he had found himself believing in the white man’s land more and more as the time passed.


Jonas awoke with a jerk. He didn’t remember falling asleep; this happened more often as the time passed, and he was getting used to it. Then another jolt came. At first, he thought it was only his body twitching, as he pulled himself back into consciousness with more effort than it should have taken, but then it came again. The whole ship seemed to shake under him and, looking around, he saw the others were as confused as he was.

He no longer kept track of time, had no way to know how long he’d slept, but waking up proved to be more difficult than he would have expected. He moved closer to a group of men who had never partaken in the ungodly meals, as far as Jonas knew. They looked at him with appraising eyes, then one of them, a strong, tall man called Moses, nodded approvingly. Jonas felt something build up in his chest, pushing away the apathy and even the hunger.

He saw the excitement in the others as well. Some were smiling. Some were gathering up their belongings. Everybody seemed to be expecting something to happen. When the doors on top of the metal staircase opened, he instinctively pulled himself tighter, and so did almost everyone else. Some of the women started to cry, a few crouched low. But nobody came.

After a short while, a figure appeared at the top of the stairs, shouted something at them, and motioned with his arms for them to follow. When nobody moved, he yelled louder, gesticulating wildly, then pointed at one of the younger men, beckoning to him. The boy trembled with fear and looked around himself. The others looked back, wide-eyed, bewildered, but nobody said a word. Then the boy started to ascend the stairs, at first slowly, but as the man on top kept shouting he picked up his pace until he reached the door, then stood there not knowing what to do. The smuggler grabbed his arm and pulled him out through the doorway, then came back shouting and gesticulating wildly. Still, nobody stirred, so the smuggler spat and disappeared. Chilly air was streaming down from the empty doorway that stood ajar, abandoned.

A murmur begun to rise when the smuggler came back, pushing in front of him the boy he had picked out before, shouting at him this time. But the boy’s eyes were as bright as the sun, his smile so wide all his teeth were showing at once.

“We arrived!” he said, tearing up. “This is Europe!”

 

Chapter Two

There was a rustle in the bushes. Jonas’s heart skipped a beat, and he held his breath. When nothing moved, he exhaled slowly. Beside him, Moses also looked relieved. The others were looking at them for advice, but Jonas was as clueless as any of them, and he was sure even Moses would have no idea what to do now. The wall before them seemed too tall to scale, and the watchtowers looked threatening.

They were weak, half-starved and exhausted after the weeks-long journey through wastelands and strange forests, through abandoned villages, and burned-out towns. Only the weather turning colder every day reminded him that they were no longer in Africa. They had met no people on their way. The few they had seen had run away long before they could make contact, or ask any questions. They ate what they could find, and whatever the strange forests provided, but it was scarce, barely enough to keep them going. They never stopped, only for a short rest every once in a while. The land of promise was there, must be there, they had only to find it, to endure a little longer, maybe one more day, maybe two.

When the smugglers had brought them to the shore in life-boats, they had shown them a general direction then abandoned them in the cold night. The people had been confused and directionless, but they had stayed together and begun walking. Jonas and Moses had stuck together ever since then, with a few younger men clinging to their sides like an entourage.

By the time they had arrived at the wall, there were only the six of them left. The others had either given up, seeking refuge in the ruins of abandoned buildings or died of starvation and exhaustion along the way. Those who had stayed behind could not be persuaded to move on, and Jonas was sure they would die out there, alone, in the cold wilderness, as the weather was turning against them day by day. He pressed on among the more determined few, not wasting effort to try and save those who wanted to be left alone. It was their choice, and Jonas had made his own too. He chose to live and to live well, and free. It was only a question of getting to Europe.

Looking at the wall now he thought that must be it. A place as well guarded as that must be rich. The people on the other side seemed to have much to protect. He could not understand what they defended themselves from; there was nothing in the forest to threaten anyone. Perhaps the war reached this far, or maybe slavers were coming in to take the people, like they had in Africa. Either way, the wall itself was reassuring in a way, promising safety and protection for those on the inside. It was only a matter of getting through somehow.

There were no doors, no gates, nor any other entrance; the wall was seemingly endless, continuing well into the darkness in both directions. Jonas was contemplating moving a little farther, to see if there was any chance they could gain entry, when Moses beside him broke the silence.

“We climb.”

That was all he said, and nobody argued. Jonas knew he was right, that the shortest way was straight in, that if they tried to find a point of entry they might be stuck on the wrong side for days or even weeks, without food or shelter. He knew he probably would not survive that. Maybe some of the younger men would, but not him. He was too weak to even think about it.

They chose a spot halfway between two watchtowers that were some distance away, far enough that they could not see if there were people behind the dimly lit windows, and Jonas was sure they would not be seen either. The darkness and the distance were on their side.

The wall looked as tall as three men, but as the outside was pockmarked and rough, he could find foot and handholds easily enough. Every muscle in his body protested at once when he pulled himself up. He felt faint, his hands threatened to let go, but he climbed on with the last of his strength. He knew he would scale that wall if it cost him his life. He pressed on, grunting, wanting to scream out loud, but he was too afraid to make a sound.

Twice his toes slipped, and his hands were chafed on the rough concrete as he tried to hold himself up. His fingers ached, his arms went numb. He stopped for a breather, looked up, and saw that he had cleared most of the height. A little more effort, then. Glancing to his right, he saw Moses climbing a few metres away, while one of the younger ones had almost reached the top. Jonas smiled. We will make it.

There was a yell and a thud as one of the climbers fell. The young man dropped from a great height and now lay on his back, moaning. Jonas was beginning to wonder if the man could ever get up again, and if it would be wise to go back and try to help him, when the searchlights lit up. Blinding white light flooded the wall, and suddenly the climbers projected long black shadows, criss-crossing under them in two directions. Then a gunshot rang out, and the moaning stopped. Jonas looked down. Half of the fallen man’s head had been turned into a pool of blood.

Then another shot rang out, and the adolescent boy who had almost reached the top, fell without a sound, hit the ground, and never moved again. Jonas screamed and started pulling himself upwards as fast as he could. He heard another shot. Another man fell. He pressed on harder, Moses panting beside him. He’s still breathing then.

One of Jonas’s fingernails broke, but he never noticed it. He tried to pull, but his shoulder gave out, red-hot pain stabbing his left arm and his back. He let go with one hand, hanging by his right and felt his feet starting to slip, when a bullet burrowed itself into the concrete, just where his head had been a moment ago. He tried to lift his left arm, but there was only more pain. He grunted with a low gurgling sound that rose into a roar as he raised his arm, pushing through the pain, and grabbed the new handhold the burrowing bullet had made in the wall’s surface.

He pulled. Jonas wasn’t sure he was getting anywhere, but he pulled again. The world blurred, he felt like throwing up, but his empty stomach only produced acid. He pulled again, pushing with his feet. He heard a sound like a bullet bouncing off a wall near his head, but he no longer paid attention to it.

Another gunshot was followed by another thud as a body hit the ground below. Jonas pulled harder then, reaching up, he felt a ledge. He pulled with all his strength, pushed up with his right foot and tried to move his body over the top. For a long moment he hung there, half way between the top of the wall and falling; between salvation and certain death. He glanced down and saw four unmoving bodies. Then, with a last effort, he pulled himself up and lay on the top of the wall, shaded from the searchlight, panting.

He heard a rustle from one side. Raising his head, he saw Moses not far from him, trying to crouch up from his prone position, while still staying in the shadows. Jonas collected his remaining strength and got up as well, keeping his body folded and his head low. He felt the duress that had given him the strength to climb melt away, and his body began to tremble. Jonas smiled. Almost there. Moses looked at him, and nodded, the same approving nod he had once given Jonas on the boat, which now seemed a lifetime ago. Jonas nodded back, still smiling. Moses’s lips began to curl up too, when new searchlights lit the top of the wall, flooding them with a white glare. They leapt down at the same time.

It was a long drop, and Jonas rolled on his back when he reached the ground until he came to a halt. His legs ached, his left ankle was in pain. He had hit his head, and the world became a blur. He could faintly see Moses get up and limp away, disappearing into the shadows without looking behind. Jonas realised he was on his own now.

Then there was a short burst of rapid gunfire. Jonas strained his eyes, trying to see if Moses had got away, but he could only see the motionless darkness, contrasting with the sharp beams of searchlights as they swept across the black grass. He pressed his trembling body against the stone wall as tightly as he could and dared not move. He lay low to make sure the lights did not follow him. He tried to be as still as he could, holding his breath and closing his eyes until the dull pain in his head subsided somewhat, and the trembling quieted down. When he opened his eyes to look around, nothing moved, and even the searchlights began to fade. He lay there for what seemed to be a long time after the lights died away, but nobody came for him. There was no more sound of guns being fired.


Lance Corporal Peter Markovic approached the tunnel’s exit, checked his gear one last time and made sure his position was being correctly transmitted so his movements could be traced. He was on lone duty, expecting a quiet night, but with nobody to clock him he had to rely on the built-in systems. Finding everything in order he stood at the bottom of the ladder leading up to the surface, waiting for this patrol time to start. He always arrived a few minutes early, not wanting to risk anything at the last moment. His behaviour was monitored, and he was sure that a record of keenness and punctuality would help any future promotion. He suppressed a yawn, mentally rehearsed his route once more, gave the voice command for the gear to report his departure, turned on his torch, then began climbing the ladder with slow, deliberate steps.


After a few more minutes of lying still, when he felt sure that nobody would find him, Jonas got up and instinctively reached for his only possession, a small photograph he carried in his pocket, only to discover it was gone. He crouched down and felt the ground with his hands for the little frameless picture. The grass was hard and crumbled under his palms into pieces of charcoal, but he felt nothing else. He got down on his knees and swept the ground with his aching hands, but the photograph was not there. Sweat broke out on his forehead. What if I lost it on the other side?

Then something seemed to move far ahead in the darkness. Jonas stopped. He held his breath. Nothing. He looked for more movement, but only saw the motionless night. He began to crawl backwards slowly, and as carefully as he could, then pressed his back against the wall once again when he reached it and tried to stay still. Everything remained quiet, so he let out a shallow breath, thinking about risking to get up, when he felt a familiar texture under his palm. Jonas picked up the frayed piece of paper and kissed the treasured image with a deep sigh. It was the only thing left he could hold onto.

He put the photograph back into his pocket, then started to creep away from the wall, moving as slowly as he could. He dragged himself on shaky elbows, keeping his head close to the ground. He could feel the hardened grass crumble underneath him. He smelled burned leaves and smoke, mixed with a stinging chemical odour.

After a long crawl, Jonas finally crouched up and looked around. The towers were far away now, and there were no searchlights visible. He waited and listened. There was no movement. He tried his legs; his ankle still hurt, but he ignored the pain. He got up and started to run with a limp. It’s over! At last! As he ran, he felt all the pain in his body melt away, his hunger subsided, and the feeling of cold and the dampness of the alien weather no longer bothered him. Jonas laughed, first just to himself, then out loud. He focused on gaining speed. He ran with heavy breaths and unsteady steps, but with the strength of determination and hope. He had almost forgotten what hope felt like, but now it was giving him life and making him light, urging him forward, making him feel that he could run forever. He ran into the darkness, into the freedom, into his new life, across the burned flatland, towards safety. The next moment he ran into a sudden sharp light and saw a soldier pointing a gun at him, shouting something he could not understand.

 

[…]

 

Chapter Seven

Jonas was sitting on the floor of the windowless prison cell the soldier had taken him and the other hostage to. He huddled up and kept his knees as close to his chest as he could, trying to keep himself warm. His ankle still hurt, he was aching with hunger, and the cold dampness of the night made him shiver.

The two white men were arguing between themselves now. Jonas watched in silence for a while, trying to make sense of it all, but he could not wrap his head around all that had happened, it was all too fast, too irrational. Everything is upside down! These people are mad! First, the soldier wanted to execute them both, and now he had brought Jonas and the other captive into a prison cell, and the two white men began arguing between themselves! What were they talking about? If the soldier wanted to kill them what was he waiting for? What good was it to lock them up there? And the heavy man with the light coloured hair, he now behaved like he was Jonas’s captor too. How am I now a prisoner of the other hostage? He was a hostage before! Nothing made sense and even Europe was a disappointment. He expected it to be safe, safer than Africa, but all he had found there was confusion and hostility.

Life in Africa was dangerous, but at least it was predictable. His village was protected by a cruel militia who kept other armed groups at bay. Their leader—who called himself ‘the general’ and always wore a flat red hat, going about with two machine guns to show how much more powerful he was than his soldiers—was a wise man despite his roughness. He made sure that the village provided the militia with livestock and grains and, in turn, they protected the people from armed robbers, and from the tribal fighters from the north, who regularly raided the land. Even though the general never let his soldiers push the people too far, their presence meant living in constant fear. They often kidnapped and raped women or killed the men just for the sake of showing their power. Looking back now, that life seemed more bearable than the cold hostility of this place, and these strange people.

When he had fled his village, Jonas had known nothing of this faraway land called Europe. All he had cared about then was to get to safety, and away from the vision of death and destruction still so fresh his mind seemed to clench on it like a fist. His heart was filled with shame and guilt, and his only thought was to run away, to go as far as he could. So he ran through inhospitable woods and crawled across barren wastelands with only dead stumps where trees once stood. He struggled through scars in the Earth, where mountains had been dug up for everything the land could offer, pressing on towards nothing, hiding from armed men, seeking refuge in forsaken mines and caves at night.

He passed though demolished towns and infertile plains blistered with burned-out tanks and armoured vehicles, scattered remains of flying death-machines and charcoaled human corpses, until one day there was only water in front of him, and he could not go on any longer. As despair, hunger and exhaustion overcame him, he finally lost himself in the darkness, listening to the waves of the great water he vaguely remembered was called the ocean.

When he came to, Jonas found himself in a camp in what was once called Gabon. The man who had found him and taken him in said it was safer inside. He told Jonas all about Europe, and the boats that took people there. He was also waiting for his turn, he said, for the ship to come and take him as well, away from the camp, and into the promise of safety.

The camp itself was like a huge open-air prison. There were so many people there, men, women and children, Jonas never thought could live in all of Africa. They took shelter in makeshift huts, all waiting for one of the ships that would take them away, often for many years. Some of them disappeared, never to be seen again, and there were rumours about other boats leaving secretly. Still, most people never talked about anything else but what they would do first upon arrival, how their life would be different once in Europe, how they would have nothing to fear anymore. They were filled with so much hope, Jonas soon began to feel some of it himself. The man who saved Jonas had paid the price the boat-people asked, well in advance. When he came down with malaria for the first time, he made Jonas promise to take his place on the ship in case the illness claimed him, so that the money would not be lost. Jonas was sceptical but saw no better way to get as far as he could from the memories that still haunted his dreams every night. Leaving the camp seemed as good as anything, so he promised he would go.

Food was scant, and their means of living meagre. Jonas never had any money, and his friend had spent all of his on the trip to Europe. Living near starvation meant he was sick more often as the time passed, but they could not afford any medicine. One night the fever finally took him, and Jonas buried his emaciated body, prayed for his tortured soul, then took the man’s place on the waiting list as he had promised.

When the ship finally arrived, it seemed bigger than any building he had ever seen. It must have once been a trading vessel of sorts, but now the cargo hold soon filled up with people, Jonas among them. Inside the light was scarce, and most of the time they travelled in thick darkness. They were to stay under decks, the smugglers said, it would be safer that way. After a few days, the smell of unwashed skin and human excrement had filled everything. After a few more days he had not even noticed it any more.


The sharp pain in his stomach reminded Jonas of his hunger, bringing his mind back to the present. He watched his two captors. They were still arguing, but they did not look violent. Jonas’s thoughts were more confused the hungrier he became. He had not eaten for days and had very little food for the past several weeks. The spasmodic pain from his stomach was now clouding his mind. Perhaps they cannot agree on what to do with me. One of them wants to kill me, the other wants to lock me up. Maybe he is a slaver, and he wants to sell me later.

Jonas was exhausted, his nerves shattered. He felt his eyelids close shut. He struggled to stay awake, afraid to lose himself in sleep. Who knew what would happen to him when he woke up. If he ever woke up again. Jonas still heard the distant voices of the white people. Sometimes they stopped talking, but then they started again. He must be a slaver…

He felt the fatigue overtake him, but could not completely let go of his consciousness. His mind was too exhausted to wind down, he floated between dream and reality. He heard distant voices, the thought of slavery still echoing in his head. In a half-dream, he saw his captor among the white slavers in Africa.

Jonas was slowly losing consciousness, sliding deeper into the numbness of sleep. His thoughts now mingled with dream-shapes, all forms and events lost meaning. He saw the face of his wife calling out to their children. Jonas smiled. How he had missed them! Then the children came running, blood gushing out of their slit throats.

He tried to turn to his wife, to warn her, but her expression was frozen, her eyes wide open, her mouth forming a soundless scream. Her mutilated body was covered in blood. Jonas shook her hard, but she would not move. Then he tried to scream, but he was crushed by the growing weight of his wife’s body.

He turned, and muttered to himself in his sleep, as his half-conscious dream was becoming more disturbing than reality. He saw a light-bearded white man in a flat red hat jump in front of a black soldier who appeared out of nowhere. Then the white man grabbed him and yelled at him. He was shouting, shaking him and shouting endlessly…


The American was shaking the illegal’s shoulders violently, shouting into its ears, “Get up! We need to move!”

Peter laughed to himself.

“What’s that for?” he said. “It does not understand a bloody word of anything.”

The American ignored him, and the illegal seemed to come to his senses. Peter looked away. The sight was disturbing; it looked like he was trying to bring a dying man back to life.

OK, get up now, easy… That’s it. Find your balance,” he heard the American say.

As Peter turned to face them again, he saw the illegal slowly regain consciousness, and Alex helping it to its feet.

“All right, Mister Save-The-World,” said Peter in a determined voice, “it’s time to get moving. We have less than three minutes left before they make contact. And that’s only if my estimate is right. I’ll lead the way out, you follow closely. We aim for the nearest bush, there we make up plans.”

OK,” said the American, but Peter was not listening.

He was vaguely aware of the other tugging on the illegal’s arm and starting after him. His senses were elsewhere now. He needed all his skills if he wanted to get them out of this alive, as the tunnels could quickly become a death trap. Peter stepped out of the room and listened. He heard men talking, and the heavy thumps of running military boots from far down the tunnels. From the sound of it, they were five or six corners away, which meant they still had a few minutes before the soldiers would catch up.

He climbed the ladder and peered out through the open trap door. All was clear, the night as quiet as he could hope for. He signalled to the American to follow. The illegal came out first, bewildered, half-conscious like he could not bring himself to fully wake up. Then Alex’s head appeared.

“Hurry up!” hissed Peter in what passed for a loud whisper.

Alex jumped out, and he closed the door slowly, careful not to make a sound. Peter detached a heavy, rubber-handled metal rod from his belt, and tried to block the trapdoor with it. It did not work, so the baton went back to its clip. He waved at the other two to follow, then started to run towards the north, the direction judged by experience. The others followed. Alex was keeping up, but the illegal seemed to have difficulties. The American dragged it by the arm, but it was causing more harm than good.

“Leave it behind!” said Peter in a hushed but hurried voice. “It’s only slowing us down! You’ll get us both killed!”

“No!” Alex sounded resolute. “He is coming with us.”

“Fine, then make him move.”

Peter still did not understand how anyone could so easily refer to an illegal as a human person, but this did not matter much now. Instead of arguing, he pressed on.

“I can see the edge of the Zone,” he said after a short while. “There seems to be a wooded patch there.”

Peter’s eyes were already accustomed to the darkness so he could make out what looked like the contours of bushes and trees. The American nodded, but he was struggling for air. The illegal moved silently beside him. Peter heard them panting as they ran. They had to move faster if they wanted to avoid detection. The troops would be coming up to the surface soon.

“Wait!” He heard Alex’s voice from behind him, it sounded both hushed and forceful at the same time.

“Come on, we have no time!” Peter urged in a loud whisper.

“Do you hear that?”

“No, but we’ve got to move,” Peter started to protest, but stopped short. There was a quiet whizzing noise, high pitched but barely audible, that was somehow coming closer. It took him a moment to place it.

Drone!” he yelled, no longer caring who might hear them. “Run!

They sped towards the darkness before them. He knew where they were headed, more or less, but could not see much in front of him, and he could not use his torch. Giving visual clues to the patrol probably already in pursuit was no option. They ran on, blindly. The whizzing came nearer; the drone was closing in. He heard a muffled thump and a moan. As he turned around, he saw the illegal lying on the ground, struggling to get up. The American did not seem to notice. Without thinking, Peter ran back, yanked the man up and prodded him into a run. The illegal limped but ran along.

There was shouting behind them, and small points of light started jumping up and down. The squadron has arrived, thought Peter. A machine gun coughed up somewhere near. In the meantime, the drone was getting closer. Its quadruple rotors now whizzed right beside them, relatively noiseless, but clearly audible. It was well within range of engagement too.

“Keep your heads down!” he shouted. “Run, run for god’s sake, run!”

They all did. Some shadows in front of them, thicker than the darkness around, grew larger and came into plainer sight. If they could reach those before the drone opened fire, they would probably have a chance.

The troops were still out of firing range. Their short barrelled assault rifles would only stand a chance if they altered the set-up, pulling out the retractable barrel from the body of the adaptive weapon, and changing the clips to those housing longer range ammunition.

Of course, they had no time for that, and this was their chance, but the drone was equipped with long range, heavy machineguns that would not miss from a great distance. What was strange was that it had not fired yet.

The drone whizzed several metres above their heads, apparently in circles, like it was trying to find the best position for lethal engagement. The thicket was in front of them. He heard gunshots and the squadron commander yelling orders behind them. Then he could hear the drone’s heavy machine guns click into focus.