Fort McCoy, Wisconsin
Boots clang on metal grates.
Mechanical shrieks accompany the barking of orders. “Move, move, move!”
Men pile into the Humvee, rifle slings tossed onto their camouflaged shoulders, helmets clipped securely under their chins. Equipped from head to toe in full combat gear, each man in the squad is armed to the teeth. This is not a training exercise for any of them. It is the real thing. And he is the cause of it.
Running. Steady breaths. He’s not outside yet—not clear of any of them. Gotta get out, he thinks, searching for the exit. Out, out, out!
The door stands ahead, security lights switching on. They flash in his eyes and he stops, momentarily blinded by red. He’s covered in it. Hands. Arms. Clothes. Wet, warm, sticky to the touch. Blood. It’s everywhere; the walls, the ceiling. He tastes pink spray and shuts his eyes. The sirens turn to screams and he presses his hands against his ears until they start ringing from the pressure. He opens his eyes and the room spins, forcing him to pin himself against the wall for balance. He breathes in the cold smell of concrete and steel rebar.
The pounding of heavy boots on the metal floor behind him reminds him that he is being pursued. Shaking his head, he pushes through the dizziness and sprints toward the door. Slamming his body against it with all his mass, he bursts through it and into the cold. Red lights continue to spin behind him. Darkness lies ahead.
Rocks crunch together under his bare feet, bruising and cutting his skin. He keeps moving, ignoring the pain and the cold, blood so full of adrenaline that all he can feel is the thrill of the night, of being out of that place. His first taste of freedom. His only chance to live. He was going to die in that place. They were going to kill him, slowly, one piece at a time. It had already started. But he wasn’t going to let them finish the job.
He sprints, muscles barely starting to burn as he leaves the manicured west lawn and starts up the slope. Bending, he claws his way forward, pulling grass and kicking with his feet to get to the top faster. Engines rumble at his back. Reaching the top, he stands on the ridge, surveying the darkness with a false edge of calm. Adrenaline still holds him steady all while pushing him to run toward the tree line in the distance. The tug and pull of his blood feels like the ocean. He looks up at stars, mouth open, drinking the sky. Swallowing the memory of vast, empty night. He won’t forget it this time. They can’t take this away from him again.
Two beams of light land directly on his white-shirted back. They’ve spotted him. A voice barks another order, sharp and distinct despite the vehicle’s noisy engine as it comes to a stop. A loudspeaker shrieks for two seconds. He flinches at the sound, frozen in the light. He can feel it buzzing against his neck as if it has already grabbed him. He’s in their sights now; the center of their crosshairs. Every weapon is on him.
“F-7-5-1-8, return to your bunk immediately. This is your first and only warning. If you do not obey this order, you will be shot.”
The voice is loud. The words are supposed to be meaningful. The threat is real. But the dark calls to him, louder than the rest. His muscles thaw and coil, ready to leave the light behind. He bolts, kicking up rocks and sticks and grass, feeling nothing but the pull of the night.
Sparks fly and bullets bite at his heels. They catch the air at his cheek and near his left arm, then they tear at his clothes, heat streaking skin. A round manages to find the flesh of his left thigh, tearing him open. Arms flailing, he swims through the air and he falls to the ground. His chin hits first and knocks his head back but he recovers quickly, rubbing the gaping wound on his thigh against the frozen earth as he presses himself down as low as movement will allow and crawls toward the trees.
The beams of light pour over the ground, searching for him still. A few feet from the tree line, he can hear them moving, branches creaking. The ground is frozen and cold, but his skin is hot. The trail of blood left by his wound steams behind him as he inches determinedly toward the woods. He needs to stop the bleeding, or they’ll track it. But he has to get out of sight first.
The Humvee reaches the trees and stops, backs up, and turns toward him. Light passes slowly over the ground a few feet away. He crawls faster, numb to everything but the pull of the dark. He grabs blindly at it, searching. His fingers scratch at something solid and rough.
The trunk of a tree.
Veins stand out along the muscles of his arms as he pulls himself into the woods, nails biting into bark. Bending his knees, he pulls his feet into the shadows last. Light hits the flattened ground where he was two seconds ago. There is nothing there now but the impression of warmth on the frozen grass.
Breathing heavily for the first time tonight, he presses his body against the tree as the vehicle slowly passes. It continues to survey the woods, beams curving and breaking up the dark. They go on for another few yards before stopping. Men pour out of the Humvee, spreading into the trees in perfect formation. He’s already moving again by the time they infiltrate the woods. There are eight beams of light now instead of two. Light that meticulously curves around every tree and bush, until it lands on a pile of blood-soaked leaves.
“He was here,” one of the men says, following the black drops deeper into the woods with his flashlight. “Looks like Sarge clipped him.”
Someone gets on the comm. “He’s headed Southeast, but he won’t get far. He’s bleeding out. Over.”
“Find him, Corporal. I want him back on base before 0500 hours. Acknowledge, over.”
“Acknowledged, Hawk. Squad proceeding southeast in pursuit. Over.”
“Good. Swift is heading your way. He will take point. Clear.” Another soldier hops out of the vehicle and stalks into the trees, quickly catching up to the six men moving silently through the dark. The Corporal falls back, Swift taking his place, rifle raised and ready. “Proceed with extreme caution,” Hawk warns. “There have been enough casualties for one night. Bring him back; alive. Colonel Williams will have all our heads if we compromise this asset. Over.”
“This is Swift speaking. Requesting authorization to use deadly force if the need arises. Over.” The comm in his ear remains silent for a full ten seconds.
Swift gestures with two fingers, leading the men deeper into the woods. “You heard the Sarge,” he says, voice directed at the men flanking him. “Let’s go get the asset.”
He breathes silently, then not at all as he waits for them to pass. They are all around him, but he uses his own blood to form false trails between the trees and they follow them. He knows what they watch for, and what they will do next. As the distance builds up between him and the squad, he backtracks and moves Southwest.
The map in his head helps guide him. He knows where he’s going, even though he’s never been there before. Removing his shirt, he ties the fabric around his thigh as tight as his strength allows, biting on the inside of his cheek to keep from making noise. Adrenaline still rushes through his body but he’s starting to become immune to it. Pain makes its way forward from the back of his mind and he can only keep it from affecting his speed for so long.
Move. Fast. Now.
Heading west, quickly, silently, he starts to speed up, then slow down again. Other pains come to life all over his body. Wounds he didn’t know were there until they started clawing at his attention, begging to be noticed, soothed. He lets them burn, using pain to fuel him forward.
Faster, faster. They’ll know soon. Retrace. Backtrack. Find me.
His first panicked breath bursts from his lungs and he breaks into a run, arms out to cast away the branches reaching for him, tugging his pants, slicing his skin. The dark envelops him, but it is a thin disguise, easily broken by the beam of a mounted flashlight. And when the beam finds him, so will the bullet.
It wasn’t enough to leave the barracks. The door he body-slammed wasn’t the last exit, it was the first. Now the door is harder to find, easier to miss, and further away. He knows where he’s going. He has a plan in his head. It’s been there so long that its roots have taken over everything, pulsing, writhing, demanding attention. That’s why he’s here now, in the dark, running. He can’t ignore it anymore; the cries are louder than any fear of consequence.
Free, he thinks. The word is ice on his lips, begging for a voice. I want to be free.
Dawn breaks through the trees but the light is weak. Everything is covered in ash, trees reduced by the cold to skeletons. His breath makes small clouds in front of his face when he exhales and he watches them dissipate by stepping through them. Forward. Always moving forward.
The sound of pursuit is near. He can hear branches breaking. Tactical gear shifts and clicks. Boots thump against the frozen ground. They are close. And there are more of them. Hawk must have alerted Major Fitzpatrick, who sent out a bigger team than Swift’s squad. If they didn’t find him soon, they’d have to wake the Colonel. But they will try to avoid that.
Hawk—Staff Sergeant Harkin—and Fitzpatrick will hunt him down themselves before they tell the Colonel that they have let his most valuable asset get away. Their weapon. They called him a prototype when he first arrived for training. Pre-conditioned at another base, they sent him here to polish his edges. Break him. And they had done it. In a thousand different ways, and always by his own hand. Anger boils inside him and he grits his teeth, pushing forward. Away.
Maintaining a steady pace, he stays close to tree trunks, using them to leverage himself forward as he grows tired. Energy drains fast from an open wound. The tear in his thigh is still bleeding, though his t-shirt forces it to slow down. It burns and his muscles began aching a while ago. Still, he keeps moving.
Consulting the map in his mind, he tries to figure out how much further he’ll need to walk. The numbers evade him, forcing him to stop and think harder. His breathing seems louder than before, the sound a new distraction. Think. Think. I know this.
Then it comes. A picture of the map on a desk he wasn’t supposed to see. The barracks tiny amidst the fort’s other buildings. Fort McCoy is almost as large as the town eight miles down the highway. He doesn’t know the name of the town, only that it is within reach. He can go there. That is the next door. The real exit. The way out.
He needs to keep west, the barracks at his back. He’s been moving for over an hour, covering approximately five miles. If the map was correct, he’ll need to walk for another thirty minutes to reach the town. He doesn’t expect the civilians there to help him, but they will have food and transportation. He will take what he needs.
He will hurt no one.
Alert no one.
They will not even know he is there.
Pushing off the nearest tree, he walks with a stronger step. A sharp pain fights his movement and he treads faster in spite of it, each step widening the gash in his thigh. Fresh blood warms his skin as it soaks into his shirt, dripping. He stops to drag his hand down his leg, pressing the fabric of his pants against the blood to soak it up. Behind him, something clicks.
He dives behind the tree before the shot rings out, a succession of five cracks to follow. The soldier fires another six rounds before she stops and waits. He shifts, looking for a path outside her line of sight. The trees are too far apart here, he realizes. He’s wandered into a clearing without noticing, too focused on his destination to pay attention to where he was currently standing. Stupid, stupid!
She speaks quickly into her comm. “Swift, this is Egret. Do you read?” her voice sounds breathy, panicked.
“Target spotted. I’ve got him pinned. Over.”
“Copy. What’s your twenty, over?”
She looks around, eyes wide. She isn’t sure. Her breathing speeds up. He can hear the fearful rasps, the sound of her finger shaking against the trigger. She’s a private. Barely out of basic. Probably stumbled upon him by accident. Obviously lost by the way she searches her surroundings without a shred of familiarity. He shifts, stealing a glance. She doesn’t notice that he’s moved. She’s still trying to figure out where she is.
“Repeat: state your location, Egret. Over.”
“Half a klick north of your last known location I think—I-I’m not sure—” she starts to say, but stops, distracted as he darts out from behind the tree to a closer one. She fires again, several rounds pelting the tree trunk shielding him.
He takes a deep breath and sprints again to another tree. She fires. He sprints. Rounds whiz by, chipping more bark from the trees, some snaking around him, others hitting him in the side. The rounds pass between his legs, by his arm, over his shoulder, right by his neck. He moves fast, despite his wound. Adrenaline is pumping again. He feels nothing but the pull of speed. Faster, faster, between the trees, in and out of sight. This is how he was trained. Focus on the target. Not the pain.
There is no pain.
She fires again and again until her rifle clicks, ready to reload. As she fumbles with the clip, he makes his move. Egret screams as he charges toward her at full speed, closing the distance between them before she has a chance to suck in another breath. His hand is around her throat, her rifle wrestled out of her grip and flung away. He pushes her against a tree, slamming her head back so that it hits the hard trunk, and pins her body with his right leg.
His fingers squeeze, his jaw clenched. He presses harder. She claws at his face and arms, his chest and neck—anywhere she can find exposed skin. Her face turns purple. He raises the fist of his free hand and brings it down, striking her. She stops moving. Drops, slumped, to the ground.
Seconds fly by. He’s breathing hard now, winded as his lungs try to catch up to his heart. It’s trying to beat out of his chest, thumping against his ribs. Gasping, he takes the extra clip from her gear, pulls the comm from her ear, and then grabs the rifle laying a few yards away. Slinging the weapon over his shoulder, he runs.
It’s harder to move fast with the weight of the weapon but he fights fatigue with panic. Shoving the comm in his ear, he listens.
“What’s your status, Egret? Repeat: Status update requested. Over.”
He hears voices echoing in the distance outside of the comm and knows they’re close. Right on his heels.
“This is Swift. We heard the shots and are on approach. Wait out.”
They’re looking for Egret now. Not him. They’re distracted.
Another call goes out over the comm. Swift alerts the station, reporting shots fired. “We have no eyes on the asset, over.”
Hawk responds quickly. “We’re sending Bravo zero-three to assist. Copy.”
“Bravo zero-one, copy that. Over.” Swift responds angrily. He doesn’t want an assist.
“What is your location, Bravo zero-one? Over.” Hawk asks.
Swift radios the coordinates of his squad.
There’s over half a mile between them now. He runs faster, his feet numb from the cold, his leg throbbing, his head burning hot. The trees are thinning, their trunks smaller. New growth. The edge of the woods.
His leg is beginning to drag along the ground, forcing him to slow his pace. He’s lurching, ragged breaths cut short by the effort it takes to lunge forward. He braces himself against each tree that he passes, leaning less than two seconds before limping to the next one. He’s slowing down. Looking up, he notices the tree branches are spinning in the sky.
Charred bones tangle above his head. He grabs his stomach, nausea burning its way up his throat. His hand comes away slick with fresh blood and he immediately searches for its source. A hole in his side the size of his pinky oozes. He hadn’t even felt the bullet go in. But he feels it now.
Pain radiates from the wound and he grunts, annoyed. Vomit shoots up his throat a second later, spraying out of his mouth like a projectile. Knees hit the ground. Hands plant themselves among the leaves and hold him up as he shudders, fighting the urge to pass out. Move, he thinks and starts to crawl. Keep moving.
Shrubs and foliage thin. Trees disappear. The sun is out now, glistening sleepily on the damp, empty highway. Grunting, he pushes himself onto his feet and limps out to the road, stopping once in the middle to straddle the yellow lines. He holds himself, the same feeling of aw striking him now as it did two hours ago when he looked up at the stars.
Shouts ring out in the distance, about a quarter of a mile away. They’ve gained on him, faster than he’d hoped. He looks back at the woods and sees shapes in the trees. They haven’t seen him yet. Still looking. Searching for their asset.
Gaping, he faces them and stumbles back to the other side of the road. They still haven’t spotted him. There are more trees on this side, rooted in an incline. He grabs at those roots and the new growth, pulling himself into a place the sun hasn’t yet touched.
Out, he thinks. Out of the barracks. Out of the open.
He trudges forward, no longer sure which way is south or west. It doesn’t matter now. The voices are fading. Swift and the others don’t know where he is. They’ve gone radio silent, which means they found Egret and they know he has her comm. They found her, but they can’t find him. He can feel it in his gut—the raw anxiety festering there since he left his bunk is finally fading to a dull thud.
Free, he breathes the word without speaking it. Almost free.