The missile hit without warning.
We didn’t know we were under attack until, well, we were under attack. It was fast. It was violent. I had no idea what it was all about, other than the fact that I had only been on this strange territory for a few minutes, and I already wanted to leave.
Uncle Press was walking maybe forty yards ahead of the Travelers. The small missile screamed in and thumped down in the space between us. If it had landed twenty yards farther ahead, Uncle Press would have been liquefied. Twenty yards back and every last Traveler of Halla would have been obliterated. Our final stand against Saint Dane would have been over before it had the chance to get started. We were lucky.
Lucky? That’s a relative term. After the first boom, good luck seemed to be in short supply.
“Down!” Uncle Press screamed as he ran back through the burning debris that hung in the air.
Too late. I was already down. The force of the blast had knocked me off my feet. My eyes stung from the cloud of dirt that hit me. My ears rang. Since I had been leading the group, I hoped that I had taken the worst of it. I rubbed my eyes with the sleeve of my Second Earth sweater, desperate to clear my vision and get back some control before another missile arrived.
Again, too late. Two more explosions erupted, though not as close as the first. I was halfway to my feet and got knocked down again. I heard a scream of fear. Not of pain, of fear. That was good. Fear was better than pain. It sounded to me like Elli. She was an older, frail woman. She hadn’t experienced anything like this before. If any of us needed help, it would be her.
“You okay?” Uncle Press yelled at me.
“Yeah, where’s Elli?”
“I got her,” he said, then screamed out to the others, “Scatter! Find cover in the ruins!”
Ruins? What ruins? All I had seen of this wasteland was a bunch of dust in the air. At one point I caught a glimpse of a tall, tilted building through the haze, but it was too far away to reach while trying to dodge a storm of incoming missiles. I wiped my tearing eyes to scan for something closer.
I heard a loud whoosh and sensed, more than felt, a dark shape swooping by overhead. Looking up, I caught the fleeting image of a low-flying aircraft. It could have been a small helicopter, but it seemed more squat than that. I didn’t hear the typical sound of a chopper engine, either. Whatever was powering this thing, it was pretty quiet. Was this the beastie shooting at us? It flew by at treetop level. That is, if there had been any trees in this barren place. As I watched in wonder, I was hit with the beam of a powerful light. Turning quickly I looked up to see two more of these flying craft headed toward us. Each had a single headlight that swept the ground. Searching.
“We must find shelter,” came a calm voice at my shoulder. It was Loor. She was still in one piece, I’m happy to say. Looking around I saw that none of the Travelers seemed hurt. Uncle Press had an arm around Elli’s shoulder and was hurrying her off to…somewhere. Everyone else was following Uncle Press’s instructions and moving in different directions to find shelter.
Kasha, Gunny, and Spader scrambled together in one direction, Alder and Patrick in another. Siry led Aja off, holding her hand like a protective brother. To him she was a living legend from the distant past of his own territory. I knew he would protect her. They all disappeared into the swirling smoke and sand. Only Loor and I still stood in the path of the oncoming aircraft.
Two more missiles tore at the ground. These flying craft weren’t just searching. They were attacking. I grabbed Loor’s arm and ran. I didn’t know where we were going, but we ran. We sprinted blindly through the thick dust that hung suspended in the air. I heard the sounds of more explosions. Some distant. Some closer. The only thing I knew for sure was that nobody was shooting back at them. These craft were hunting, uncontested. I was totally disoriented. The only thing that felt real was the deafening roar and the shaking ground as the missiles exploded around us like a violent fireworks display.
“Structures,” Loor announced, looking ahead.
Through the dust I saw the outline of several small stone buildings. None looked higher than maybe two stories. They were clustered together around a central, open area that could have been a courtyard at one time. I say “at one time” because these buildings were bombed out. Destroyed. Empty. Whatever they were, they were no longer. This war we found ourselves in the middle of wasn’t new. We were surrounded by destruction. The derelict buildings looked to be made of gray stone, much of which was shattered and scarred. As we got closer, I saw that the courtyard area held a large, empty hole in the dead center. It wasn’t a bomb crater; it looked like a man-made pool of some kind. Or a moat, since it was basically a trough surrounding a pile of large boulders. There was no water in it though, only dirt and debris.
“We can take shelter in there,” Loor suggested.
The two of us ran to the edge of the trough and jumped in. The sides were just above head level. I had to stand on tiptoe to peer back out.
“Where are we?” Loor asked. She wasn’t even out of breath. “What is this territory?”
“I was hoping you knew.”
“I do not. Nor do any of the others.”
“The flumes exploded,” I told her. “I saw them. It was like I was floating in space and they just…self-destructed.”
“I know,” she said calmly. “I saw it as well. We all did. Wherever we are, Pendragon, we will not be leaving.”
Two of the dark helicopters swooped overhead. We ducked. We didn’t need to. We weren’t the targets. The marauding shadows headed for what seemed to be a long, low building around forty yards from us. They hovered over the dilapidated structure. Their headlight beams cut through the dust, trained on a large, jagged wound in the wall that had probably been a doorway at one time.
An amplified voice blasted from one of the gunships. “Walk out of the building,” came a no-nonsense command.
The dust seemed to be clearing. It gave me a better view of the ships. They were indeed helicopters, but without the familiar tail and rear rotors. Instead, a single overhead rotor controlled the craft. Two pontoonlike skids hung beneath. Affixed to the sides of these pontoons was the bad news. The rocket launchers.
Who were they? Why were they coming after us? Where the heck were we in the first place? My momentary thrill of being reunited with Uncle Press and the rest of the Travelers had turned into a confused nightmare.
“I want to get a closer look,” I said to Loor, and made my way around the boulders in the center of this dry pool. She tried to stop me, but I was already moving quickly toward the far side of the moat, closer to the building that was being targeted. Loor followed. The two of us stood peering up over the lip as the scene unfolded.
“Did any of the Travelers go in there?” Loor asked.
“No idea. Maybe. They ran off in all directions.”
The amplified voice boomed again. “There is no option. You must surrender immediately.”
“Or what?” I whispered to Loor.
I sensed movement to my left. Somebody was creeping up on us. I tensed. Loor did too. I gave her a quick glance, as if to say, “Ready?”
She nodded. She knew.
We quickly dodged in two different directions. If somebody was going to attack, they wouldn’t get us together. I hit the inside wall of the trough, crouching, ready. Loor swept her wooden stave from behind her back and held it out, poised to fend off whoever was dumb enough to attack us. We froze. Neither of us understood what we were seeing. Actually, I understood it better than Loor, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t confused.
What we were both squared off against, ready to battle, was a penguin. I’m serious. A two-foot-tall, black and white penguin. The goofy little bird stood in the center of the trough, staring at us as if to say, “Who are you two clowns?”
“Is it dangerous?” Loor asked, confused.
It was actually funny seeing Loor coiled up, ready to battle a little penguin. I guess it’s more funny now as I think back on it. At the time I didn’t feel like laughing.
The amplified voice boomed one more time. “You have been warned.”
What followed can be best described as obliteration. Both flying vehicles unloaded their weapons on the building. One drifted slowly to the right, the other to the left, as they launched a series of missiles at the already damaged structure. Sharp pieces of stone flew everywhere. That broke the penguin’s cool, and it waddled off quickly. Fire erupted inside the building, licking out of the glassless windows. Thick black smoke billowed from every crack, new and old, like blood pouring from open wounds. If any of the Travelers were in there, they were going to get hurt. Badly. I made a move to jump up onto the lip of the trough to see if anybody needed help, but Loor held me back.
“What would you do?” she said calmly.
She was right. There was nothing to do but watch and hope.
“Look!” she declared.
On the far left end of the building, people were crawling out of a window, escaping. People we didn’t recognize. They wore raggy, nondescript clothes. I guess back home in Connecticut I’d say they looked like homeless people. They didn’t quite look Flighter nasty, but they were definitely people who were having a rough time. A few of the men actually wore what looked like ragged business suits. Some women wore blue jeans and sweaters. There were a couple of kids, too.
A powerful-looking guy with long black hair that touched his shoulders stood outside the window, helping the others out. He wore jeans and a faded, torn sweatshirt. It looked as if he were in charge. At the very least he was taking control of the situation. He seemed more worried about getting the others to safety than about his own getaway.
The gunships hadn’t seen them. Yet. They continued their methodical move toward each end of the building, firing away.
The guy with the black hair was doing all he could to get those still inside to hurry. He was too far away for me to see exactly what he looked like. He wasn’t big, but he was strong. His chin was covered with thick beard stubble. He pulled the others out of the building, mostly helping the smaller children to safety. He waved for them to pick up the pace. No sooner did he help one person down than he reached back to get the next.
“Brave man,” Loor said under her breath.
From Loor that was high praise.
“He’d better get out of there,” I said.
The missiles were drawing closer to the escapees. The brave guy kept glancing at the approaching helicopter, calculating how much time he had, trying to get as many people to safety as possible before jamming out of there himself.
The barrage stopped. For a second I thought it was over. It wasn’t. I quickly realized what was happening. Whoever was piloting the craft had finally spotted the runners. The second gunship stopped firing and flew quickly to join the first. They must have been in communication. They hovered, side by side, their rocket launchers rotating slowly toward the window where the frightened people were making their escape.
The brave guy didn’t stop pulling people out. As each new person dropped out of the window, they jumped up and ran off, leaving him to his work.
“There is no longer a need to fire,” Loor announced. “They have found their quarry.”
“I wonder if he’s going to surrender,” I said.
The attackers didn’t make another announcement. They didn’t ask the people to stop running and come forward. They didn’t land and take prisoners.
They opened fire.
Both gunships unloaded on the building. The people in the window jumped back inside, but there was no way they could survive the barrage. The brave guy who helped so many escape dove around the corner of the building. I didn’t know if he lived or died. One thing was for sure, whoever these people were, they did not want to be taken alive, though from the looks of things, the attackers weren’t there for prisoners.
“It’s a slaughter,” I declared.
Another sound broke through the torrent of rocket fire and exploding stone. A sound that made no sense. It was hollow and haunted, like the bellow of a forlorn animal. It was loud, and it was coming from behind us. I turned quickly to see that we were no longer alone in that deep, concrete trough. Standing a few yards away was a very large, very angry polar bear.
Loor and I froze.
Its eyes were wild and scared. It seemed to be just as terrified of the bombing as the victims were. Maybe more so. There was nowhere for us to go. The trough was only five yards wide. Its walls were too high for us to scale quickly. At least, quickly enough to escape if the bear decided it didn’t like us. We could always turn and run, but judging from the size of the bear, it would be on us with a single leap. We both realized that we had only one choice. If the bear were to attack, we would have to fight.
“Maybe it’s tame,” I whispered, without taking my eyes off the behemoth.
As if in answer, the bear reared up on its hind legs, towering over us. It held up two mighty paws with dangerously long claws, howled…and attacked.
It wasn’t tame.
Copyright Â© 2009 by D. J. MacHale