The voice came out of the muffled green forest to my right, tinged not with panic but with the cloudy film of distrust necessary for travel in the yellowing dusk. I’d never enjoyed walking at night, but the soldiers had confiscated my truck five years before, and if I wanted to work—which I did, or I’d go insane—the only shifts open to non-party members were brief and late. So I put up with the dark and the damp and the chill as best I could, and carried a small handgun for chance encounters like these.
“I won’t,” I said, lowering my gun but not tucking it away. “You can come out and walk on the road if you like. It’s definitely wide enough for two.” Five years before, it had been an interstate highway.
The green-black leaves shuddered and a slight, tired-looking woman emerged. My flashlight glinted on her hands and shoulders; she was wearing a leather jacket and gloves, and probably leather boots as well, but the summer mud caked them with dull reddish-brown. The woman carried a small suitcase, battered and ragged as old newspaper.
“Looking for work?” I asked, inclining my head sympathetically.
“In a way. But don’t worry about me,” she added, “I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m glad. It’s dangerous to be out so late. I thought maybe you were a wolf—I almost shot you!”
“Wolves hunt in packs,” she smiled. “But that you for not shooting, sir.”
I froze, turned my head and stared at her. She had called me sir. Not comrade, not Worker 918314022. She had used a word that didn’t exist, a deferential word, a word that was outlawed.
“Did…did you mean what you just said?”
She looked me full in the eye. Her eyes were brown, golden at the edges like the dusky sky. “Yes, sir, I did.”
“They could shoot you for that,” I said softly.
She inclined her head. “They could shoot me for a lot of things.”
“Who are you?”
“You wouldn’t recognize my name,” she said, “but the soldiers and the televisions call me Fugitive 135711400.”
Fugitive 135711400. The most wanted woman in the country.
I had never put my gun away, and I got it up and pressed it into her temple before she could reach for her own. She was much smaller than me; it was an easy matter to get her on her knees, hands raised to her shoulders.
“I won’t tell you you’re making a mistake,” Fugitive 135711400 said. “There’s a truckload of soldiers farther down the road, and they’d be happy to take me off your hands.”
“What are you doing here?” That could be several different questions, but I’d take the answer to any of them.
“I could make this easy on you,” she said softly. “Tell you I’m on my way to save an innocent man from execution. I’ve done that before, you know. But this time, I’m here to kill soldiers.”
“That’s despicable.” I lowered the flashlight to shine in her face. “What do you mean, make this easy on me?”
“I mean, you don’t really want to kill me. It’s easy to save myself—all I have to do is convince you I’m a good person.”
“I know you’re a good person,” I said reflexively. It was the truth—of everything Fugitive 135711400 was wanted for, almost all of it was admirable. Breaking innocents out of prison, defending young people from the soldier’s harassment, sabotaging torture chambers. Things I wish I could have done.
“All right,” she said. “Then I need to convince you that you’re a good person. I need you to make the right choice—and I can’t make the right choice easy, now, can I?”
“That doesn’t change—”
“They’re coming, sir.”
A greenish beam of light wavered on the road ahead. I turned my own flashlight and saw a soldier, his Dragon badge and number prominently displayed, jogging towards us.
“You there! Worker 918314022! You were due to cross the checkpoint fifteen minutes ago. What’s the hold up?”
Fugitive 135711400 whispered, “Think carefully.”
I looked down at her. She was wholly outside the beam of either of our flashlights, a single shadow in the dark. It would take very little to make her visible—a single turn of my wrist, and nod in the soldier’s direction. They rewarded betrayals, and this one would be paid for more than most. A better job. A new car. Life returning to normal…
“I know you’re a good person,” she hissed. “I’d bet my life on it.”
She had bet her life on it. But she was wrong.
The right choice was easy.
I cleared my throat. “There’s nothing, Soldier 610887423. I stopped a little while back—thought I saw a wolf. But it was nothing.”
The soldier lowered his light. “You’d best be on your way, then.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
But he was already out of range. No matter—one rebellion was enough for tonight. I tucked my gun into my pocket and followed him up the road, not looking back into the rustling darkness of the trees, not even when I heard Fugitive 135711400’s voice, faint and clear behind me.
“Thank you, sir!”
Friday, March 01, 2013