Monty threw himself down behind an untidy stack of dusty red boulders. They were a common feature on the red plains, and also very useful when trying to hide yourself on the endless open terrain that made up much of the continent. He heard a shout in the distance.
They were gaining on him, slowly, but still gaining. One man on foot cannot outrun a contingent of highly trained soldiers with full kit and a fleet of support vehicles behind them, and he had been running even before he got to #034, and even that was five hours ago now. His only hope now was to make it to the next safe house in time. Even then, with the high command compromised there was no guarantee that it would be truly safe.
Peering out from behind his shelter, he could see them now, spread out to cover more ground, coming his way. The moment he broke cover they would spot him for sure. Maybe best to get it over with then, he thought.
Monty pulled himself up slowly, hand on the rough, weather hewn rock, and looked up at the clear sky. It was always clear. The atmosphere was shredding layers into space like an onion, thinner and thinner. Eventually there would be nothing left. Another shout. Time to go.
He pushed away from the rock, breaking into a sprint, but keeping in line with the outcrop to keep himself out of sight for as long as possible; those precious seconds could mean everything to his survival. He pounded across the red landscape, knowing he was a clear speck of movement in a sea of bare, motionless silence. The faint sounds of his pursuit changed, becoming more purposeful. They’d seen him then.
Grim faced, Monty pushed his tired limbs onward. A harsh whine struck up amid the thudding of his boots on the ground, gaining in pitch until it was almost inaudible before releasing a wave of energy in a huge flat crunch. A small boulder ten metres to his right became a pool of liquid rock, bursting and splashing across the desert like spilt milk. He winced, and changed direction slightly. At least they were lousy shots.
The whine begun to climb again, and he looked back, just for a moment, to see the barrel being moved around to adjust their aim. In hindsight, he should have looked where he was going, because all of a sudden there was no longer packed red earth beneath his feet, but open air, and he was rapidly falling through it. Bugger, he thought, just before he hit the fast approaching slope. He landed hard on his side and rolled and bounced down hill for what felt like a long way, punctuated by sharp ridges and even sharper rocks before coming to a rest, spreadeagled and aching in the dust.
A section of the far side of the dip he was in turned to ooze as another shot from the energy cannon discharged into the rock, and Monty raised his head, dizzy. He should have realised how close he was to the canal. Struggling to his feet, he tried to get his bearings, the knock on his head had made him fuzzy and confused. The canal….
He spun around, memory shooting back in an instant. He had been trying to get to the canal before they had found him. He quickly cast around, searching for a landmark, something that would tell him if he had been heading in the right direction. He needed to find the mark.
There! Up high on the steep side of the deep, dry canyon was an innocent looking burn mark, just like those found all over the surface of the barren old planet. Except he knew this one had been put there on purpose, and pointed directly at a very handy hideout, with a very useful piece of kit inside.
He started towards it, wincing at the stabbing pain he could now feel in his left ankle. After a fall like that it was a miracle that was all the damage he had done. The sounds of his pursuers were once again getting louder, and he urged himself on, fear only now setting in as the adrenaline wore off and the pain took over.
But there, by another nondescript rock, a small trapdoor. Or at least, he knew it to be one. To any casual observer it was nothing but another rock. Monty heaved it aside to reveal a short, narrow passage down, roughly hewn into the bare bedrock, and plunged inside, pulling it back over the opening behind him. Total darkness was instant, not a speck of harsh sunlight invaded the cramped space he was now in.
He found himself at the bottom of a chute, about the height of a man and to his touch, speckled with makeshift handholds. At least he could get out again eventually. He waved his hands in front of him, totally blind, searching for something in the darkness. Scraping his fingers down the wall, he found it. A small torch in a bracket to his right. He clasped it hungrily and switched it on, light flooding the tiny space and blinding him for a moment before his eyes adjusted to the sudden flare.
Before him he found a room cut from the rock, about three metres square all in all, and no more than two high. A little table stood by the far wall, and on it there was a strange looking handset. It was a bright powder blue, with three yellow stripes, a curved plate of metal with a handle at either end. The rocky hollow was otherwise entirely empty. Monty started forwards and grasped the instrument in both hands. It was comfortable to hold and warm to the touch, and it sprang to life to life at his touch, vivid screens lighting up across the near surface and displaying figures, menus and readings. They knew how to make tech, those Western Empire boys, he thought.
The characters flashing across the screen were mostly alien to him, but he could read enough of them to get a general idea of where to go to find the communications array. He ran his fingers clumsily over the controls on the back of the handles, cursing as he selected the wrong item, or reset the message he was hastily composing. But soon he had the communicae ready, and hesitated just for a moment before he hit the send button. It was a dangerous move, but he couldn’t see another angle. He hit the button, placed the handset back upon the table, sat down on the stone floor and waited.
Monty’s head was slumped on his shoulder when he heard the device on the table squark into life. The room was lit in a cool glow from the once again active screen, and a harsh voice was coming out of the small speakers. He shook himself quickly awake, jumped to his feet and rushed over to the entrance to listen. He could hear nothing but the barked commands from the Empire gadget behind him. No, wait. There, an undulating whistle, coming closer, and fast. He smiled grimly to himself. They were here.
The explosion rocked the bunker, nearly knocking Monty over in his unsteady state. Dust drifted down from the ceiling, and he could hear shouts and screams, and the whine of the cannon starting back up.
Reporting the Easterners position to the Western Empire would lead to repercussions across the entire sector, and a pitched battle between the two warring superpowers. The trick would not work again, the Empire would quickly realise the message had not in fact come from one of their own agents, but he was safe, and great casualties would be shared by both aggressors.
He slid back to the ground, weariness setting in, and let himself slip away into blackness again. Hopefully his little hideaway would escape the carnage, but he was too tired to care. Let us all burn, he thought. The planet doesn’t care.