Chapter 33

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RUNNER

Jommy huddled under the plastic table as the ground shook again. The plastic box he called home rocked and the aluminum pot, along with a tray of utensils, slid off their shelves and clattered on the floor. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the sound of another explosion to catch up to the rumble that rippled through the ground beneath him. He felt the concussion as it squeezed the air around him and then heard the single crack of thunder. He opened his eyes just enough to see his father peeking through the door curtain and then stumble to the side as the shockwave from the explosion rocked the box hut again.

“Stay here!” his father yelled, and then stepped out of the hut, leaving Jommy to hide under the table. The ground started to rumble as the whine of vehicle engines rose above the continuous hammering of gunfire from the valley. He listened to the sound, trying to determine the direction they were coming from while the clay cups he had made for his mother rattled in their box now lying on the floor. Outside, he heard his father say, “Oh, God.”

His father ducked in, grabbed Jommy’s arm and yanked him to his feet. “We can’t stay here,” he said. As they stepped outside, Jommy saw smoke billowing from the valley while Terran Guard troops, hunched over with their weapons pointed straight at them, walked behind a line of four tanks grinding the plots of Dirt Hill under their treads. The hum of the Terran Guard rifles charging their coils made Jommy feel sick to his stomach. As the barrels angled and fired, his entire body went numb at the clatter of bolts ripping through the air and tearing into the bodies of farmers running from the first block of plots.

“Run!” his father yelled. Tears leapt from Jommy’s eyes as his father pushed him so hard he stumbled and fell. He reached out to his father, whose face was stretched with terror. “Go!” he yelled. Jommy heard a scream as a farmer flopped to the ground in the plot next to theirs. Several of the root vegetables that his father had watered just that morning flew into the air in a cloud of dry dirt as a round from one of the tanks hit their own plot. His father turned and started to stumble towards him, waving for Jommy to keep going.

Fueled by fear running through his body like electricity, Jommy jammed his feet against the ground and pumped his arms as he ran from the Terran Guard advancing across the fields. After he passed another farmer, he found himself in the lead as they raced from the plots of Dirt Hill. He looked back to see his father stumbling along, too far behind him.

“Come on, Dad. Come on!” he yelled. His father was wheezing hard and his legs moved as if they were tied to the ground and he was dragging a plow. Tears streaming down his face and his lungs aching from the dust he sucked in with every breath, Jommy coughed hard, gulped and forced himself to keep running. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another farmer fall down. A surge of strength seemed to come from nowhere and the wind whipped harder through his ears as he picked up speed. He turned again to look for his father, but couldn’t see him. He whipped his head the other way as he kept running, but still couldn’t see him.

A tank swung its turret to point its gun at their hut. The barrel recoiled and then the air seemed to be devoid of all sound. Jommy’s legs burned as he slammed his feet against the ground and his lungs felt like they were going to catch on fire as he waited to see where the round landed. Then, his home flew across the ground, tumbling like an empty box in a whirlwind as the tank round slammed through its resin walls. It landed on its roof and rocked gently a few times before coming to rest. Grunting as he gagged on the scorching air, he stared at the hole the tank had made in the side of the hut and thought of the clay cups. Maybe they were still there, he thought. Maybe they were strong.

He crested a hill and scrambled down its long slope. Unable to stop, he tripped and tumbled into a gulley at the bottom. The fall knocked the breath out of him and he felt an ache in his belly as he fought to start breathing again. He wheezed and coughed hard and then lay on his back staring at the sky as his heart hammered so hard he could feel it against his ribs. He shuddered and started to sob in between breaths.

Jommy stayed like this for a long time, sucking in air, cringing at the ache in his chest and belly and crying. Then something inside told him: enough. “I’m alright,” he said between gasps. “I’m alright. I’m alright.” He sniffled and groaned as he forced himself to stop crying and waited for his breathing to subside.

He fished for something inside his pocket. His hand found the radio the pilot had given him and he whispered, “yes.” He sat up and looked at the transmitter resting in the palm of his hand. He pulled out the tendril that served as its antenna and mashed the button on the front. “Hello,” he said, then let go of the button. The radio hissed as he remembered the instructions the pilot had given him. “Skydriver, Skydriver, this is Farmboy, over.” The radio hissed some more. “Skydriver, Skydriver, this is Farmboy, over.” Hiss. Jommy stopped breathing for a moment to listen, realizing that the hiss of the radio was the only sound he could hear. The clamor of tanks, guns and explosions was gone. So were the screams. Was it over?  Or had he just run so long that it was too far away to hear?  Whichever, it was enough. He didn’t think he could bear to ever hear it again. He thought of his father and tears welled up again. He punched his leg and said, “No. Not now.” He sucked in a long breath and the tears subsided. He let the air out slowly through his cracked lips and pushed the button again.

“Skydriver, Skydriver, this is Farmboy. Over.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence