Red Flag – Part One

Fiction

Dreading the answer he would receive, he shouted into the darkness, a simple, “Hello!”

The echo came back, harsh and scalding, hello, hello, hello, hello

Silence. He pushed himself onwards.

One, two, three, four, step. Pause for seven… three, two, one, sidestep. Deep breath, jump, hands straight up, one, two, grab.

Monty hung there in the dark, swinging slowly from the metal bar off which he knew he was suspended. Sweat dripped from the thick blindfold tied tightly across his eyes. He preferred not to go blind.

The swished on around him; he could feel the slight breeze as the moving parts disturbed the air, as they had for thousands of years. He heard the tell tale sound of the last blade and swung himself forwards heavily, landing in a roll and throwing himself backwards immediately as a block thudded into the ground ahead. He felt for the trapdoor handle, pulled it open and promptly fell in head first, sliding down the short chute and onto the readily placed mattress. He ripped off his blindfold, and the trapdoor thudded shut behind him.

Monty blinked in the harsh light of the unshaded halogens, reflecting off the stark concrete around him. It was a wonder he had made it through. Get the timing wrong, even by half a second, he knew, and he would not be standing here now. Not with his legs and body still united, anyway. The corridor of #034 was not a safe place to be.

He stood up. The small complex had clearly been empty for some time. There was a stillness in the air that came only from abandoned places. Places where the occupants had left. Or died. Here, it could be either. Or both.

He made his way through to the small kitchen area, throwing open each of the cupboards in turn. There were still rations in them, and he ripped open a few packets, not caring what they contained. It all tasted much the same anyway, a mix between cardboard and dirt, and he was ravenous after a day on the run.

The red planet was inhospitable at the best of times, but some people just couldn’t let its occupants lie. They’d been dragged into the war just like everywhere else. Apparently the planet was strategic, and so both sides were fighting for it, and now he and others were fighting back. It was their home, and they intended to keep it, one way or another.

They had a great advantage over both sets of invaders, though. They knew the ground, and they knew it well. Mars could be a dangerous place, and they had a few tricks up their sleeve. The trap filled corridors under the ancient places were one of them, something they had figured out generations ago and were useful refuges in times of trouble, but this knowledge had never reached the stars. Probably because nobody ever went back.

Mars was a place that collected rejects. It drew in outcasts, people who had never fitted the mould anywhere else, those left by the roadside by society could always find a place there. Plenty of criminals too, sure, but plenty of the hard done by and the low down came, too. And when they got there they found it was just what they were looking for, and they made it their home. Strange, mysterious and almost always deadly.

Deserts, blinding sun, poison gases, engineered parasites, the lot. And yet it was home. When you put someone’s home under threat, it can really piss them off. So here he was, Monty, not a violent man, not particularly brave, but fighting a war all the same.

He should have found four of his comrades down in the refuge, but instead only echoes, cobwebs and silence. Something had gone wrong. He’d known it from the moment he got to the blast door and found it ajar. Knowing this meant blinding wavelengths of light would be permeating the corridors, one of the strange defence mechanisms, he had donned his blindfold and ventured in, where at least he could find shelter and break off the chase. The Eastern forces had nearly caught him the day before, and he wasn’t going to take any chances now.

Luckily he was faster than them through the rocky landscape, they didn’t yet know how to deal with a planet going through the withdrawal symptoms of a failing terraform. With nobody to supervise it for thousands of years, the atmosphere was unravelling above them, and the planet was returning to its roots.

Monty threw himself down onto one of the pallet beds and considered what might have happened to his friends. Perhaps they had deviated from the plan to help someone else nearby, or maybe someone (or something), had got to them. He would probably never know, one of the hardest things about this place. You tended not to find the bodies.

Lying there, he noticed the piece of paper lying face down in the middle of the room. He frowned, everything else in here was tidy and neat, this was the only thing out of place. Fetching it, he sat back down on the edge of the bed. It was a single sheet of paper, rough and grainy, recycled so many times it was soft and pulpy. On it were printed orders, and he rolled his eyes. His comrades should have destroyed them immediately after reading. But then a section caught his eye. The first half he recognised, as he had read the same thing only a day before. It was the second half, however, that surprised him. Obviously his friends had received extra orders that he had not. And they were not what he expected.

By the time his eyes had scanned the final line he was already up and moving for the trapdoor. He put on his blindfold as he ran, pushing up the small hatch and listening for a split second to get his bearings and work out the timings, then darted upwards, jumping forwards and then up, grabbing for the bar. He used his momentum to carry him onwards, swinging back the way he had come only minutes before.

Step, wait, count to eight, no, nine this time, now rush forwards and duck! Shoulder forwards and hit the door at a run.

He smashed into the door at speed, and as he had hoped it swung with him, though the jarring impact still sent a shockwave of pain through him. There was a muffled whump from beneath his feet, and he knew he had been right. The door slammed shut with a clang as the oxygen inside was consumed in an instant.

His friends had betrayed him, and his leaders were working with the Eastern Alliance. He was on his own.

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