Chapter 1: Ennis
I wake from a dream where my mother is still alive and we are fighting alongside one another to take down the dictatorship that plagues this world. It's the first time that I've cried in three years.
I sit up and wipe my face. My mother has been dead for eight years and back then I could barely hold a gun. She'd led so many attacks on Ballard's Empire that victory actually seemed like an attainable thing. That all changed after she died. People lost hope after that, many of them scattered. It's taken everything I can to bring people together again, build up our strength. Still, it may not be enough.
While under the reign of Ballard, the world I live in has withered. Empty cities are a common sight after the economy fell apart. It's not the entire world though, only half of it. The rest has protected itself with domes of energy and closed off its borders. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. They abandoned the rest of us to our fate.
The Red Rebels have many bunkers over the continent, but ours has less than one hundred people. We are called Red Rebels because people began to take arms against Ballard after the bombing of Rose Red City, which housed the most brilliant minds and most prolific schools. Education and intelligence are dangerous when you're trying to take over the world, you see.
It's still early and most of the base is resting. By the time I have washed up and made it to the meeting room, Judy is already there. She is much older than me, in her early forties, and she has two sons of her own. She is one of my most reliable planners and her boys are my best scouts.
"You're up early. Did something happen." I say it like it is a fact and not a question. I know that something happened to get Judy out of bed this early, I only need to learn what it is.
"Morning, Ennis. Yeah, no rest for the wicked, I guess." She says. She is toying with a radio and has the earphones pressed to her head, squinting and listening hard. "Got a distress call on this frequency 'bout ten minutes ago, but now they're not answering. Dunno if it's still worth a look, they could already be dead."
I hunch over her shoulder.
"All the way in Drigby, it'd take you a full day to get there."
"We can't turn our backs on people in trouble." I say. Judy knows that I will not budge on this and she smiles, "I'll get the guys ready, we'll head out in an hour. Did they give you coordinates?"
"Is that an actual question I hear?" she mocks my habit, and I look away. I picked it up from mother. Instead of questions, she'd state facts and required information. It gets people's attention, makes you seem serious, focused. Now I don't notice when I do it.
"Vague directions, yes." She says at last, "But they said they're trapped in one of the old train tunnels, and told me which one, so that'll help."
"Perfect. Could you please have that information ready for us."
"Of course sweetie," she pinches my cheek affectionately, "Bring extra radios, just in case."
I nod and leave her to her work, then busy myself with my own prep. I let the others sleep for another twenty minutes and stock the van myself. My friends barely complain when I wake them. They are all young like me, in their early twenties, and descendants of dead fighters. I grew up with them, and we have saved each other's lives often enough that trust isn't even a question. I would die for them, and they for me. It's not something that we've said out loud, it's an inferred understanding.
Soon, all five of us are piling into the van with Judy's information.
"You kids be careful," she says as she hands me the papers, "We still gotta bomb that factory in three weeks, don't forget."
"Like we would miss a party like that." Fran says from the driver's seat. She is one of my oldest friends. I mock-punch her shoulder and she rolls her eyes at me.
"Judy, you'll feed my fish right?" Ryan calls out the window.
"Don't I always?"
Ben and Hector are quiet in the backseat, focused on the directions that I've handed them. Judy knocks on their window and gets a wave out of them before they go back to their reading.
"Keep in contact." Judy says as Fran starts the car.
"Right. You're in charge until I get back." I wink at her, "Try not to work them too hard."
"God help them." Ryan laughs and ducks under the window when Judy gives him a look.
Fran pulls out of the garage before Ryan can make matters worse for himself and she honks goodbye as she goes. In moments we are on the road to Drigby.
"East tunnel." I hear Hector say from behind me, "Look, it says right here. We're going the right way."
"But what I'm saying is I don't think we're going East." Ben says, "Look, I don't care what the tunnel walls say, this is south."
"Guys, the tunnel curves and straightens out again, it'll feel like East when we reach the end of this bend." Fran says, exasperation weighing heavy in her voice. She is beside me but I can barely see her in the darkness. We train our flashlights dead ahead to avoid tripping hazards.
"See?" Hector insists, and I hear Ben grunt as if he'd been shoved, "I told you."
"Shut up." Ben says.
"God, can you two have a domestic when we're not trying to rescue people?" Ryan cuts in, laughing.
"Shut it, Ryan!" they shout in unison, and we all stifle laugher.
Hector and Ben actually are a couple, though no one would know by looking. All they do is bicker in front of everyone else. I try to suppress my smile as they start up again, adjusting the heavy bag around my shoulders. Extra radios, like they'd be of much use down here. Thanks Judy.
"Guys." Fran's voice is different, hushed. We all fall silent.
"Yeah." I agree, "We're getting close."
Space opens up as we arrive at a station. It's damp and ancient, tiles have fallen off the walls and mould grows on everything. But there are no people. Not even a trace that anyone has been here.
"I don't like this." I hear myself say, and I know we all feel it.
I hear Fran shuffle in her bag as something chilling occurs to me.
"The radios won't work down here." I say.
"Yeah, we're too far down." Ryan says.
"Then how would they have sent the distress call from here?" I ask.
Fran finally lights up the flare she's been toying with and hold it up high. That's when we see them, standing along the edge of the track looking down at us.
The wild boys.
The attack comes without hesitation. Everything is lit up red from the flare, and makes our attackers look like demons. We are all scrambling, punching and kicking. No one dares shoot a gun in the dim light, too many moving targets.
Someone has grabbed me from the back. I am being dragged backwards, away from the fray. I twist and kick, manage to free myself only for another attacker to shove me from the front. I am being separated, I realize. They are targeting me specifically.
"Ennis!" I hear Fran shout. She sees me being taken, but she cannot get to me, she is busy with another assailant. I see Hector wrestling to get another man off of Ben. I cannot spot Ryan.
I am dragged out of the track ditch and onto the platform, and no amount of connecting punches deters them. They are dragging me towards a staircase. With a twist of my waist I manage to catch them off guard, wrenching myself free. Before I can move I hear a crackle and someone grabs me by the bag on my back.
I am in agony. I can't discern where the pain is coming from, but it feels like everywhere. I am paralyzed by it. It ebbs, and I cannot fight them as the pull me. I am barely conscious, but my mind attempts to make connections.
A taser. I've been electrocuted. I cannot figure out where I am. I think I am up the stairs. I hear the wild things speak, they are calling to each other. I am passed to a different set of hands. I fight to stay conscious, I try to move my legs.
"Get him out!" I hear one shout, and then suddenly, a deafening crack, like thunder.
The sky is falling.
I try to blink. I realize that I must have blacked out for a few minutes, but it feels like I've jumped forward in time. I am lying on a pile on concrete and my arms are tied behind me. My backpack is missing. I try to sit up. There are voices. I turn to the left.
Men in combat suits, not wild boys. There is debris everywhere, and dust. I piece fragments together. There had been an explosion. They'd blown out the ceiling. I turn to the right, and there is a body crushed in rubble not three feet away from me. My heart races until I see the tattoos on his arms. It's a wild boy. He is lying on his back and angled downward and facing me, crushed from the waist down, arms spread like a sacrifice, dead eyes staring into space. He is so young, younger than me. A beaded necklace dangles from his neck, speckled in blood. I wonder what his life was like, what his dreams and fears were. My heart clenches in my chest. Do my friends share is fate? Are they crushed and buried in the rubble as well?
I turn left again and watch the men dressed for war. The answer comes immediately as I hear one of my captors speak into his radio.
"No sir, we've only found dead dogs in the rubble." He says, "The rest of the rebels got away. But the plan went off as you intended. We have their leader."
"Excellent." I hear a voice that I know all too well erupt from the static, "Bring him to the factory at once."
He will kill me. I know that he will, like he did my mother. He will make a show of it, an example for others. My pulse races and fear clouds my thoughts, but I am comforted. The others are alright. I can die happy knowing that they are safe and free. He cannot take that from me.
One of the soldiers is coming over to me. He has a needle. I cringe. I know that I am about to fall unconscious and I brace myself. I try to hold onto hopeful thoughts. The needle goes in, my world goes black.
I cough to wakefulness. I am standing, tied to something narrow, a post maybe. The first thing I see is Ballard's face.
The man is so tall that he must hunch to look me in the eye. His head is entirely bald, but his features are sharp enough to slice bread. He wears a suit, like always, and his perfectly styled goatee is flawless. He is surrounded by a dozen soldiers. This is the man that has brought the world to it's knees.
Instinctively, I spit on him. I have never spit on anyone in my entire life, but if I am going to die, I will die knowing that I have spit on this monster.
I enjoy the look of shock on his face. I am rewarded with a punch across my jaw from a guard, and I look up so see another one wiping my saliva off of Ballard's face with a tissue.
"My, you're feistier than I thought you'd be, Ennis." Ballard says, smirking, "Just like your mother."
I dare not react. I will not satisfy him in this way.
"I radioed your people to let them know about your execution." He says, smiling and holding up one of my radios, "I would have invited them to watch, but to be honest I'd rather have you die alone."
He drops my radio and stomps on it with his heel until the wires are poking out. I shake with every THUD of his boot, my gaze fixed on the radio. At last he stops and gestures around the room.
"Any idea where we are?" He asks.
I look around. I know that it is a factory, I heard them say so, but all I see in this room is old conveyer belts and a massive contraption in the center with a large door.
"This is an old plastics factory, seven miles from the train tunnels we dug you out of." He says when I don't respond, "And that," he gestures to the massive thing in the center, "Is the main oven."
My eyes grow wide. Ballard does not need to explain anything else, because I already know how I am going to die. He watches my face knowingly.
"Needless to say," he continues, "We got it up and running just for you."
One of the guards cuts my restraints and I try to run, but my legs are weak and I barely make it two steps before I am grabbed, one guard on each side of me. Ballard has not stopped smiling. He walks over to me as another soldier turns the hatch to the oven door and swings it open.
"Don't worry, you have plenty of time." He says, walking with me as the guards drag me to the oven, "I'm putting on the lowest setting. A slow-cook, if you will. I think about two hours should do it. I mean, what's the point if you don't suffer?"
I am thrown inside and I stumble, barely keeping my balance. I am surprised to feel that the interior is still cool. I turn to look at Ballard.
"We'll be turning it on after we shut the door." He says, answering my silent question, "The door locks automatically when the oven starts up, after all. Oh, I almost forgot." He is passed something by a soldier and throws it at me. After catching it, I realize that it is my spare radio. "Call your friends and say your goodbyes." He says, cocking his head and looking at me, "Just make sure you do it before it starts melting."
The door falls shut with a loud creak and a slam. I hear the locking mechanism, and immediately the oven hums to life. Ballard looks at me through the small square window in the door. His eyes are filled with pleasure. He waves and I run to the window and watch them start to leave. Ballard keeps his eyes on me until he leaves the room and shuts the door behind him.
When I am sure that he is gone, I test the door. It will not budge. I examine the entire space. It is five square feet long and wide, the same size as my bedroom was back at the base. I realize that I will never see it again.
I hold the radio close to my chest. Ballard would not have given this to me if he thought that I could be rescued. He also made sure that I don't know my own location, so that even if they were close enough, they would not find me in time.
The oven is getting warm. My hands start to shake. I consider not calling them, not putting them through this torture, but I am afraid. I have this one chance to say farewell to everyone. I cannot resist trying.
I sit cross-legged and turn on the radio, finding the frequency and speaking into the mouthpiece.
"Ennis to Red Rebels Six, do you copy." I say, and my voice shakes. I almost laugh at the suddenness of their response.
"This is Fran to Ennis! My God we thought you were dead! Where are you?!"
I look around the oven and rub sweat off my brow.
"Fran, is everyone okay?" I ask. I need to know, I can't die not knowing for certain.
"Well Ryan's got a broken leg, but the rest of us are fine!" Fran's voice echoes in the room, "We're in the van, a mile from the underground! Where are you?"
"Is everyone there?" My voice hitches without me intending it to.
"Ennis we're all here, you're scaring me, where ARE you?!" I hear the panic in her voice. She knows without me telling her.
"I'm too far for you to reach me." I say, my breath shaky, "And I don't know where this building is. But I don't have a lot of time."
"Ennis?" This time it's Ryan's voice, "Buddy, talk to me, what do you mean time? Tell us what's going on!"
The floor is warm now, and sweat soaks through my shirt. I wipe my eyes, and I'm not sure if I'm wiping sweat or tears.
"Ballard got me." I say as flatly as possible. "I'm…damn it…" I clear my throat, "I'm in an o-oven. It's locked. I'm…I'm not going to make it."
The silence on the other end terrifies me. I press the button again and continue.
"But I want you guys to know that I'm so…I'm so proud of you and I know you can beat this thing. Don't let this drag down the Red Rebels. You've got to take down Ballard for me."
More silence. I check my radio to make sure that it's still on. It is, but the battery is low. Finally, a voice comes through.
"…Oh God, Ennis, just…just tell us where you are!" Fran is crying, and I almost break down when I hear it.
"I don't know where I am, Fran, I'm s-sorry. I was unconscious on the way h-here…" I say, panting from the heat. It was getting strong now.
"Isn't there anything we can do?" Ryan says.
"Live a good life and keep fighting." I say immediately. It's what my mother always said.
"The battery's almost d-dead," I say quickly, "I'm going to be cut off soon."
"Shit man, we love you, we're with you." It's Hector's voice this time.
"Don't look for m-me," I add, "Just g-go straight home. Keep everyone motivated…"
"We will." Ben's voice this time, he is trying to keep his cool, "Don't worry, we'll take care of everything."
"I love you guys." I say, "I…"
My heart almost stops when the radio wails and shuts off. I throw it angrily, and it bounces off a wall. The tears keep coming, and for once in my life I let them, because if there's anytime that I should cry it should be now.
The heat makes my head ache. I reflect on my actions in life, wonder if I made the right choices. The more I think about it, the dizzier I get. The heat is killing me. I am being cooked like a roast in the oven. What would my body look like if anyone found me? My head is swimming. I can barely stay awake.
I don't fight it. I would rather fall unconscious that suffer through this slow death. I fade in and out, breathing is becoming difficult.
I hear something. I know that it is a hallucination but I welcome the distraction. Has mother come for me? I want to be taken away from the pain.
Creaking metal, cold air rushing into the oven, soothing my blistering skin. It can't be real. I must be dying, this is a dream. Hands are on me. I am being dragged. They feel real. I cannot move, cannot speak.
It takes all of my strength to open my eyes and see. A face. Messy blond hair obscures dark umber eyes, staring back into me. I cannot distinguish between illusion and reality.
The darkness creeps into my vision and I am gone again.