32. Keys to the City
Will worked feverishly to box the most important files. The signals from the Daily Mail have been down for weeks but today was the day they’d be turned back on. He knew it but no one else at the Daily Mail did. His boss didn’t know what to make of it when the Uprising army came charging in. He looked a bit dumbstruck and scared because they’ve been trying to get their signals back up to broadcast Faction news.
The soldiers filed in, rifles in hand and took up positions along the lobby, the office cubicles, and even where they housed the mainframe system. Their commanding officer came marching in with long assured strides and declared in a loud voice that no transmissions of any kind were to leave the building and rounded up the employees into the lunchroom for an announcement.
Will could hear his boss’ objections to the order as he was shoved into the lunchroom with the others. The anchorwoman was called out and handed a document of what to say on the air. She eyed the page with astonishment as she tried to steady her trembling hands.
“Are we being invaded? What’s happening?” She asked, confused.
“No ma’am.” The commanding officer said, “we are taking over and taking the country back for the people. You’ve got 10 minutes to go over what you need to say and after which I want you to put on your best smile. Ensure the people that all will be made right in the world again.”
Then Will’s boss interrupted with his shaky voice, “we’re a Faction broadcast, owned and operated by the Falconal-”
The commander cut him off, “not anymore. You broadcast for the Uprising now. Choose not to and we’ll block your signals again.”
“But,” he objected with a stutter.
The commander leaned in and towered a full head taller than him. Looking down at him he said, “or I can just fire you and find someone else to take your place.”
The man looked up at him and pursed his lips shut in defiance but said nothing in response.
The anchorwoman read the page and her eyes lit up with intrigue. “This is amazing.” She looked up from the paper and said to the commander, “I’ll be ready to go in 10.” With that she hastily walked out to get ready to go on air. Several crew members followed her.
The remaining employees looked like dear caught in a headlight until their boss broke through the silence, “well what are you all waiting for? We’re on in 10.” It was all that was needed for them to jump into action.
The days were warming up, but the nights were still freezing cold in spring. Darius found himself wandering the outer reaches of the Uprising encampment. The men at the front line looked worn and tired, dirty, and disheveled but they were alert and quick. When he approached, he had to put his hands on his head, walk slowly and allow himself to be searched for weapons. When they found him to be harmless, he asked to join their ranks.
Two men escorted him through the camp that had taken over a portion of the city. Some of the old storefronts that lay empty for years were being used as temporary barracks with cots lined up in rows. Armored vehicles took up position in the streets as soldiers gathered their gear and some climbed in. Darius wondered if they were preparing for a mission. Heavy boxes were being unloaded from a box truck and the men carried them away by handle, two by two. He wondered if there were weapons in those boxes.
“Sir.” One of the men said. They stopped another man that was walking with a group of people and saluted him.
“At ease.” The man replied.
“We have a volunteer sir, this man wants to join the Uprising.”
The man looked at him, he wore clean camouflage compared to the others, but his face was hardened with years of war. Lines formed around his eyes. His hair was so closely shaved that only grey stubbled poked out of his cap but his face was smooth, freshly saved.
“I’m General Graham,” he said shaking Darius’ hand. His hands were rough and warm and he had a stern handshake.
“Darius Reem.” He replied.
“Well Darius, do you know how to shoot?”
“Kind of. I’ve never fired a real gun but I know how they work.”
“We are in the middle of a war here so the less I have to teach you, the better.”
“I am a fast learner, and I was always good with my aim at carnival shooting games.” He said recalling the time he won 10 stuffed animals for Nora in one night at the carnival. It was their second date and he wanted to impress her. He almost smiled to himself thinking about how she complained that she did not have enough arms to carry them all. They shared their first kiss that night too.
A few chuckles escaped the men behind the general and the general himself looked amused with a slight twinkle in his eye. “Carnival games, huh.” He shrugged and to one of them behind him, he said, “Jeffers take him to get squared away.”
“Yes sir.” Jeffers replied.
General Graham looked back at Darius and said, “Jeffers will help you get settled in. Good luck, son.”
Jeffers took Darius to one of the shops on the corner that was now their makeshift administrative building. The check in process took all day and he was handed over to another person, Specialist Marcos who guided him through the procedure of paperwork, uniforms, dress code, armor, and finally, his rifle. He was asked about his track card and when Darius revealed he did not have one, Marcos just nodded and said, “good because none of us do and that’s just one less thing we have to do then.”
Before he was to be placed in a unit, Marcos took him to the firing range which was really the side of a warehouse with thick concrete walls, a few blocks away from the rest of the camp. Soldiers patrolled the area while a few men were already shooting.
“Put these in your ears.” Marcos said, handing him a set of orange squishy ear plugs, “you’ll thank me later. Better to protect your hearing when you can.”
He went over the basics of the rifle as Darius put in the ear plugs. He squished then with his fingers, placed them into each ear and waited as they slowly formed a seal inside his ear.
“You hear me good?” Marcos said.
Darius nodded. Surprisingly the ear plugs didn’t muffle his voice at all but it did somehow combat the popping sounds of a single shot and the rapid bursts of a full automatic.
“Alright, lets see what you can do.”
Marcos gave him a slight tap on the shoulder and took a few steps back. Darius brought the rifle up to his face and looked through the site, lining up the first target, the closest of the 5 and took his shot.
“Whoo hoo, that’s a bullseye.” Marcos yelled behind him. “Next shot is 200 meters. Let’s see what you can do with that.”
Darius steadied his breath as he looked down the site again and aimed at the target. He pulled the trigger and this time hit the inner ring near the target.
“The farther you get, the more you gotta make adjustments. You’re aiming low, try aiming a little higher this time.” Marcos brought a pair of binoculars up to his eyes.
Darius made the adjustment, aiming slightly higher this time and hit the bullseye. He followed suit with the other 3 targets, making more adjustments as he went along. Meanwhile another man strolled up to Marcos and said, “looks like we got a sharpshooter. That’s good. Take him to Romantic, he’ll be happy to get another sniper.”
A week later Darius found himself in the back seat of an armored vehicle, riding with a small group of soldiers destined for somewhere in Pennsylvania. He talked to Nora the night before but couldn’t tell her anything about where he was going, only that he was going on a mission to meet his new unit. She was concerned about the situation but did not cry or convey her fears on him and he appreciated her strength in the matter. The fighting had moved on from their Munich Hill community and now the Faction army was on the run, slowly being forced out, their numbers dwindling.
It was unsure if the Faction would replenish their ranks with fresh soldiers from abroad, but as the outcome tipped in the Uprising’s favor, the people braced for a massive counterattack. Darius had been training and working on his marksman skills for the past week from sunup to sundown and now was the time for reckoning. There was no questioning, when the time came, should he pull the trigger? He only prayed that his aim would be true.
The voice that was less like an actual voice and more like a feeling he could hear when the world was quiet and still reassured him from time to time. It came when he doubted himself and his ability, it came whenever he felt lost or unsure, it came at times when he was not thinking anything at all, and it came always when he least expected it, not that he ever expected it at all. Everything boiled down to this moment and his belief that no matter what, he had a part to play in all this and by God he was going to play it.
The group of 4 vehicles came to a stop and pulled to the side of the road. One-and two-story buildings dotted the landscape. Some were houses and others were various types of repair shops. There was even a feed store shaped like a barn and painted red, indicating that somewhere people held livestock. Someone at the first vehicle got out and said something into the walkie talkie in his hand. The man was in full combat gear, in fact, they all were with loaded rifles, ready to go. One of the vehicles moved out of line to block the two-lane street and while several of them stayed behind to pull security, the rest of them got out and entered the only 3-story building there.
Upon entering, they were greeted by another soldier, dressed in the same uniform but wore an insignia, different from everyone else on his shoulder like a backwards 3 with sharp pointed edges where the curves should be and a small letter c that connected to the middle point of the backwards 3. When the man removed the dark sunglasses from his eyes, Darius nearly gasped aloud at the man’s most aberrant feature - one green and one grey eye looked back at him - the distinguishable calling card of the Sigma-C. The lead soldier pointed to Darius and said something to the man with the peculiar eyes that caught the light like two polished stones.
“You must be the FNG. Welcome to your new home.” He said to Darius as he put up his arms at the empty space around him. “It isn’t much but hey, at least you’re not buried in a foxhole somewhere. I’m Mr. Romantic but you can just call me Romantic, all the ladies do. Which is how I got my name, but you must be my new asset.”
He held out his hand to Darius who stood perplexed for a moment before blinking back to reality. Mr. Romantic grinned, “no worries, I tend to have that kind of effect on people. I get it. It’s my perfect bone structure, isn’t it?”
The other soldiers laughed at the irony, and Darius felt a rush of embarrassment. He was making a fool of himself, starring at someone else like they were an alien from another planet. Mr. Romantic stood an inch or so taller than Darius so how could he not notice the man’s two-toned irises? He recalled the rumors about their eyes and the speculation that the Sigma-C originates from the DNA of a single male donor, and they all are born with the same corollary result of one blue and one grey eye.
Darius hastily shook his hand and smiled nervously. “I don’t know what an FNG is but I guess I’m that guy.”
Mr. Romantic looked amused barring a set of straight white teeth through a hearty laugh, “It means fucking new guy,” another round of laughs erupted. “For a second there I thought you were mesmerized and that’s okay too. I get it from my mom, she’s a beauty with perfect olive skin. A damn saint if you ask me, and I grew up praying the rosary so if you hear me rambling to myself in Spanish, no I am not going crazy.”
Another quandary struck him as the group of soldiers left and Mr. Romantic led him up the flight of stairs to the rooftop. This man prays? Apparently, God had survived the ages in more ways than the book he still carried with him, tucked at the bottom of his ruck sack. He thought of the journey he and the book had gone through, the feel of the fragile pages between his fingertips, the way the light shone through each one like the translucent tracing paper he used in high school art class. He wanted to flip through it again.
“So here we are, tu casa.” Mr. Romantic declared as they reached the flat open rooftop. “you’ll meet the rest of the crew later. They’re taking up points in the red building and that tower.” He pointed respectively to each location. “So now here’s the real test, do you belong in my team? We shall find out. I’ll be your point man for now. It’s like my duty to make sure you’re worthy. I don’t care what the rest of the army says, I get to pick who I keep. We’ll see if you can cut it.”
He laid out the mission and indicated the possible traveling routes of the caravan they were planning to ambush. Intelligence called it a treasure trove of weapons that they wanted to capture for the Uprising. Supplies had dwindled for the Faction forces west of their location so now they were routing them by sea from Europe using ports that normally accommodated fishing boats. Lookouts were stationed near the port of entry, but the takedown would happen here - the roads they’d have to travel through to get out of the quaint fishing city.
In the days that followed, Darius only stood to full height when he had to go downstairs for the restroom. He ate on the rooftop, relieved himself on the rooftop, and pulled his helmet down on his head as far as it would go to shelter from the sun. Midday was the worse because there was no shade and the only upside to it all was that it was only spring, but summer was around the corner. His concrete world was uncomfortable to sit on, crouch on, and lay on but he used what he had to create a makeshift pillow when he slept or a bulky cushion to sit on.
The highlight of each day was they mystery meal that came in a heavy duty green plastic bag. He had 6 MRE’s for the mission, one for each day. Marcos suggested he take a variety of the ready-to-eat meals with him because eating the same one would get boring, fast. Even though each MRE was labeled, it didn’t mean that it actually tasted like a home cooked meal. Romantic showed him how to heat them using the instant heater that came with it. The heater was just a flat device inside a slim bag, big enough to place his package of chili and beans on one side and cheese spread on the other. Within minutes, the food was warm and ready to eat by tearing the side of the pouch with a knife lengthwise, rather than using the notches at the top. It was easier to have more room to stir his food, create a concoction mixed with cheese spread and crackers.
Darius sat in the receding shade of the building’s heater eating from a pouch of spaghetti and meat sauce while Romantic scanned the horizon with the sight of his rifle. He looked like a slow-moving statue, perfectly still as if posing for a portrait with the sun glaring down on him, his shadow clinging to the sides of profile, a sliver of a dark line in the high noon sun. A voice came over the radio at his belt hoop and he put the rifle down to answer the call. “This is Scavanger-1. Go ahead, Seagull.”
Static and then, “movement on the horizon Scavenger, get ready. Coming your way southbound. Over.” Darius quickly forgot about his meal, propping it up against the wall and taking up a crouched position behind the low ledge of the roof.
“It’s showtime.” Romantic snickered and then said into the radio, “roger that get ready Scavenger 2 and 3, over.”
Static and then a new voice chimed in, “Scavenger 2 ready, over.” And then another voice, “Scavenger 3 ready, over.” Static.
“Beautiful, I’ll see you guys in Valhalla, over and out.”
Romantic picked up his rifle to scan the deserted streets below. The Falconal Faction didn’t know they were there, but the residents of the city knew what was left of them anyway and they stayed behind locked doors and braced for another battle that may kill them all.
“I hope you’re ready to party, Reem because you’re about to get your shot.”
Darius was already scanning the streets.