28 Aug Chapter 1: Run
It’s amazing how mad some people can get. The Oliot for example. It’s not like I double-crossed them and sold nerve agent to their enemy. Oh, wait, I did.
Which is why I’m now running as fast as I can through this wasteland that used to be a city. I was hoping there’d be buildings here to hide in, but as far as I can tell any possible hiding place has been carpet-bombed to its foundations. I keep trying to recall the layout of the city and battlefield beyond that I saw from the shuttle window when I arrived on this miserable planet a few hours ago, but my brain isn’t complying.
The Oliot torture squad chasing me is still a minute or two behind, but they’re gaining. My feet skid on the gravel as I jump over a pile of bullet-scarred helmets and head toward the only surviving structure I can see—a battery of giant guns pointing towards the sky. At least the Oliot squad isn’t shooting at me. Probably because they were ordered to take me alive. Which is not comforting in the least.
I vaguely remember learning in school why the war that caused all this devastation started in the first place. Something about religious differences I think. As if there’s much of a difference; if I recall correctly the Oliot and their sworn enemies the Plutoch believe in the same god, but have been fighting for a generation over whether ‘the Almighty’ has one holy son or two. They’re both apparently so fundamentalist, so humorless, so stick-up-the-butt about their almost identical sects that they’re willing to scorch their entire planet to the ground rather than concede an esoteric point about doctrine. And now they’re going to gas the other side—over dogma.
I pass a huge pile of black-charred bricks that are what’s left of a school building and reach an open field. I was hoping it would now be easier going, but as my feet fly across the dead grass I notice the field is filled with hundreds of orange spray-painted circles. There’s some kind of rusty metal disk with a pin poking out in the middle of each one. I don’t know for certain but I assume these are land mines, so I avoid them like the fun insta-death obstacle course they most likely are. I can faintly hear the squad yelling at me. Maybe they’re trying to tell me not to go this way, but screw them if they think I’ll stop and turn around.
My goal is to get to the Bavul off-world shuttle that brought me here—if I can do that I should be safe. There are actually two reasons I need to get to the shuttle before they catch me—the main one is of course the fact that after I sold a huge shipment of nerve gas to the Oliot, I turned around and secretly trafficked the same amount to their enemy.
The second is more personal: because of the ultra-conservative culture here, it will be especially bad if they find out about me—specifically my gender, or lack thereof. I’m what’s called intersex. In my case that means I have ambiguous genitalia—somewhere between male and female.
As far as my general appearance I usually rock a fairly androgynous look, but even though I wear mostly men’s clothes more people mistake me for a girl than a guy. So on planets like this where they don’t take kindly to anyone who doesn’t fit strictly-defined gender roles, I make myself up to look as female as possible. It seemed to work earlier when I met with the Oliot command missionaries to sign papers and transfer the pallets of gas canisters—they didn’t seem to toss any strange glances my way. But if I’m captured and strip-searched it’ll be a different story.
The lamest thing is that I don’t even really need to be here. My company Mizem Holdings sends chemical shipments off-world without an accompanying official representative all the time. But the Oliot insisted a top company official show up to sign the papers, so here I am. I guess they like the personal touch—they are pretty low-tech. I mean they’re still fighting old-style trench warfare without airplanes, radar, or even radios. They still use bulky wireless tap-tap code units!
By this point I’m almost through the minefield. A minute back I stepped on part of an orange circle by accident and thought I was a goner, but I’m still here and still have feet and legs and stuff. I’m feeling more adventurous now so I run right along the edge of each circle which speeds things up a bit. Maybe all the mines are duds—they do look pretty old. Or maybe I was wrong and they’re not mines at all.
I look back and see the torture squad still far behind me. They’re not yelling my way anymore but one of them is barking orders at the others. It looks like the leader is getting them to fan out to look for alternate paths through the mines. The soldier in the lead changes course and is abruptly replaced by a flash and a column of dirt shooting up out of the ground. A split-second later the crack of the explosion hits me—the shock of it trips me up. As I’m heading toward the ground I turn in time to see I’m about to fall on a mine right in my path. I stiffen my stomach as my hands shoot out and hit orange dirt. Gritting my teeth, I look down with one eye and see that my shirt is a few threads away from touching the pin sticking out the top of the mine. Afraid to breathe, I slowly move up and to the side, being careful to only touch the ground furthest from the mine. My back arched, I creep my way off the orange-sprayed circle and stand up, panting.
I glance back—the rest of the squad is stepping over what’s left of the soldier that was hit and are making up ground fast. I’m tired but I continue running, being a little more careful this time but still moving as quickly as I can. I’m almost at the gun battery and can see just how massive it is now. Rows of smokestack-like black barrels twenty stories high shoot up at all angles. I’m guessing these were built decades ago and are now useless as the front line has moved too close for them to be able to hit anything.
I dash to the left of the wall of concrete in front of me that makes up the arched mount of the closest gun. I’m hoping to see a doorway in the pitted concrete as I make the corner but none appear. I pass by the first gun barrel which looms above me at a low angle, casting a deep shadow on the yellow and black striped concrete platform beneath. I rush by two more guns and can now see a possible problem up ahead—one of the massive barrels is almost completely horizontal. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to squeeze under it. I look behind me and see that a few soldiers have just rounded the corner.
The closer I get, the more it looks like the gap under the horizontal barrel is just big enough for me to slip through. As I reach it I fall into a roll and tumble under. My tumbling abruptly ends when my head hits the underside of the imposing iron gun. I try to ignore the pain radiating from my bruised cranium as I squeeze into the smaller-than-I-hoped-for gap. The only way I can get through is on my back, with my head turned ninety degrees and my stomach sucked in. I’m almost through when my ear gets stuck on the lowest part of the cylinder. I wiggle my head forward, one ear pressed tight against the cold iron above and the other scraping along the painted concrete below. Luckily I don’t have much in the way of breasts to get lodged under the barrel. The seconds tick by as I painstakingly creep through.
Finally I’m past the worst part, and I get up as quickly as I can and start running again, my head throbbing. I look back but don’t see any of the pursuing soldiers—maybe none could fit underneath.
I make it past the last of the line of pock-marked gun platforms. Ahead of me are more rubble and smoking ruins—the only intact buildings I see are a grouping of rough wooden sheds, so despite my exhaustion I run in their direction. As I get closer I see each has a skull painted on the side. I’m halfway to the closest shed when yellow light blinds me. A wall of superheated air knocks me backwards, and right before I black out I think to myself ‘they blew up one of their munition depots just to stop me?’