“How many, Simmo?”
“You don't have to do that.”
“Sorry, Ryan. Do you want me to take them out?”
“No, let’s see what they want first.”
Ryan peered through the night vision goggles his friend and lieutenant had vacated. Just outside the perimeter, through their makeshift, ancient barricade, he could see the rubber-suited troops as they tested their defence line. They strategically sought a place to break through the antiquated electrified fence. He stepped back to allow Simmo access again.
“So do you want me to take them out? They’re not wearing helmets, cocky bastards.”
“No, let them go. They won’t get through.”
Simon – Simmo – Jamison glanced at Ryan, his youthful yet weathered face scowling in disappointment. Sniper shooting government troops was sport to him.
“You’re no fun,” he grumbled and returned his eyes to the goggles. “They’re leaving. That’s the third time this week.”
“Yeah, well, they can keep trying. Hicks fixed all the weak spots. Come on, let’s go eat.” Ryan motioned to the young guard waiting to return to his post. “Nichols, let me know if they come back.”
Ryan rolled his eyes; he still couldn’t get used to the ridiculous need for a hierarchy. It made him feel old and he was far from it at twenty-four. He stooped to exit the lookout bunker with Simmo following close behind. The space being small and claustrophobic, Ryan spent as little time as possible in the domed rooms.
He proceeded down the dark corridors leading to the mess hall. Simmo mumbled something Ryan couldn’t quite decipher, but guessed it was probably a gripe about not being able to use the sniper rifle secured to his back.
As they drew near the end of a succession of concave dirt-walled tunnels, the glow and din from the refectory guided their way. They ascended the ladder into the large, stark room to find it, due to the late hour, only half full.
After collecting their rationed meal, they located a table in the corner. Ryan, out of habit, surveyed the space as he ate. There were various eclectic groups scattered around, mostly consisting of ‘soldiers’ or couples.
Occupants of the compound, particularly the women and children, all had the pasty look of those who barely saw the sun. Going aboveground was too dangerous. Although allotted protected time each week, they still didn't see enough sun. Only the ‘soldiers’ left the grounds to scavenge.
Ryan silently reminisced about a time when things were different, when he had a family.
“Hey, Taylor, are you listening?” Simmo broke into his reverie.
“Are we going out tomorrow?”
“Yeah, we should, supplies are getting low.”
Simmo studied him with curious dark eyes. “What’s up?”
“I’m tired of fighting. I want a normal life again.”
“Normal? No way, I’d miss the sport. So would you. We’ve been fighting since we were teenagers, Ryan,” Simmo said with a smirk between mouthfuls of food, shovelling it in like he didn't know when his next meal would come.
The crazy part was that it could happen one day.
Ryan shrugged. “I suppose. I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.”
“Are you telling me, if you ran into Edwards, you wouldn’t kill him?”
“You know I would.” Ryan clenched his jaw and flashed hate- filled eyes at Simon. “It would give me immense pleasure to kill his whole family.”
“That’s more like it. I thought you were becoming a pussy.”
“Are you going back out on lookout tonight?”
“Absolutely. If those pricks come back, it’ll be lights out.”
“Make sure you rest tomorrow, we’ll leave at dusk again.”
Simmo gave a curt nod, retrieved his rifle from the table, and strode off. Ryan knew the compound was safe with his tall, lanky friend on watch.
He dropped both their trays off to the teenagers on kitchen duty before descending the ladder with the intent of turning in early. The strain of being in command of the militia wore on him.
With his head bowed, he strolled through the low roofed tunnels towards his quarters. Being tall was one of many drawbacks associated with underground life.
Entering the solitude of his sanctuary was a welcome relief. He bolted the door to ensure he remained alone.
A small sitting room populated with old, tattered furniture discarded by citizens of Artinean, obtained during one of their scavenger hunts, was one of three rooms he considered home. The couch, in brown velvet, although patched and missing a leg, and thus propped with bricks, was comfortable and long enough for him to stretch out on. A small coffee table with scattered ring marks sat in front of the couch, its edges notched and dented. A bookshelf lined one wall, spilling over with dog-eared, spine-scored books, his only form of education and entertainment.
The room was separated from his bedroom by a sheer red curtain, which Ryan pushed aside as he entered carrying one of his favourite novels. His bed was a generous, reasonably clean mattress on the floor; a down quilt and one crisp black sheet his only bedding. He was thankful for the shared industrial laundry that facilitated the upkeep of clean linen.
Beside the bed sat a thick square of oak, also with legs of brick and covered in the same red curtain, serving as a table. The only light, ancient oil lamps, was ventilated by a fan in the ceiling which was actually the ground above. His only window into the outside world was a clear PVC skylight.
The year might be 2086, but the renegades, as the government named them, saw little technology. They lived amongst relics and antiques. Their one source of modern technology was a hand-held comp-phone. It was their only form of communication with each other, and also the rogue gangs tempting fate on the outside.
Ryan leaned over, illuminated the lamp on the table, and opened his book to the folded page. Reading usually relaxed his mind and readied him for sleep.
Three men approached the fence and tested it again. Armed with tree branches, they systematically threw them against sections of the seven-foot electrified fence. One after another, repeatedly looking for a weak spot, somewhere they could sever the wire.
Simmo understood, if they were to find such a deficiency, they would return with their army, send in someone to disable the fence, and horror would ensue. As much as he loved to fight and kill government troops, the thought of the innocent people they protected coming to harm turned his blood cold. He shivered. Hopefully Hick’s maintenance would suffice.
The only factor appeasing his fear was the knowledge that the entire perimeter was being watched by four identical manned bunkers around the compound. If a man breached, he could be shot down the moment he crossed the border. It would be a difficult shot due to the others’ armour, but all lookouts would do their best to defend the weak spots. The only problem was, the leaders out there would send another. It would then only be a matter of time before the defences came down.
Part of Simmo hoped they would get through, and then he’d have an excuse to shoot. He cursed. This time the enemy wore helmets. It wouldn’t be as easy to get a decent shot in.
As the thought left his mind, he watched with glee when a branch struck without a revealing spark. They’d found a weak spot in the fence.
The three armoured troops deliberated, and Simmo readied his rifle. He kept them in sight as one of them, who he guessed to be the senior member, nominated another for something. The nominated officer shook his head; he didn’t want to do it. After several moments of what looked to be a heated exchange, the trooper picked up the branch, and reached up to the spot they had just tested.
Simmo viewed his expression through the scope, and grinned. The trooper braced himself for the shock. When it didn’t come, he turned to his superior officer, who indicated again. The trooper removed his helmet, and Simmo sighed out the joy of a free head shot.
Now it was his turn to deliberate.
The trooper pulled a laser cutter from his belt.
Cursing again, Simon moved his scope from the head shot, knowing full well that Ryan would want him alive. He aimed at the small vulnerable point below the armpit where, if the soldier lifted his arm, a gap would appear, the only one within the full body armour worn by the ironically named Government Army Patrol - GAPs.
He waited. His entire body tense. Simmo’s capacity to remain still and patient, waiting for the right shot, was why he was the best sniper in the militia.
The moment came as the trooper reached up to cut the wire above his head.
His aim, perfect as always, struck gold and the GAP went down on one knee. As the other two drew weapons, Simmo fired a few pointless shots into their armour as a warning, with the aim that they would retreat, leaving the downed soldier behind.
He wasn’t disappointed.
Raised voices and a scuffle outside his door broke through the haze of drifting sleep. Ryan sat up quickly. His book fell, thumping onto the rug covered dirt floor.
What the hell was going on?