Alif and his team tensed when they heard footfalls pause at the mouth of the alley. Boona, a member of Alif’s team, shifted the club in his hand, prepared to take down the Authority guard whose shadow blocked out the light. Fortunately, the guard turned back before a confrontation became necessary.
The number of Authority guards and drones on patrol seemed to have doubled since their Midling band entered the city. They'd taken refuge in the alley hours earlier, but instead of Authority presence easing, it intensified. Alif worried that they might not make it to McKinley’s compound.
Alif leaned against the brick wall. His heart galloped behind his ribs as if he'd been running. His breaths came in feverish gasps. His leg throbbed maddeningly and when Alif touched the bandage around his left thigh, he felt the thick clotted blood that had soaked through.
Initially, the curative tea Old Mother had brewed for him dulled the pain enough that he was almost able to forget the injury he'd received in the explosion. But now, the tea no longer did the trick. The pain was as great as it had been after the accident. Even more, if that was possible. Alif ground his teeth to keep from moaning. The pain extended to his lower back like a fisted hand, and as far down as his foot. The ever worsening pain had a parallel affect on his nausea.
Since taking refuge in the alley, temperatures had dropped considerably. This was Alif's only relief. The evening air was a blessing against his feverish skin. Alif wiped a sheen of sweat from his brow. Alif noticed Jayl, the third member of his team, a savvy and smart boy of seventeen, watching him closely. Jayl sat on the opposite side of the alley, directly across from Alif. The only light in the alley was cast off from a street light almost half a block away. Alif tried to read Jayl’s face but he found this impossible in the gloom.
"Are you alright sir?” Jayl shifted forward. “Looks like you’re in pain."
"That’s because I am. What of it?” Alif tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. “I mean, it's obvious that I am injured, isn't it?"
"In that case, sir, why did you agree to lead this mission?"
Ah. That was it. The boy wanted his chance. He wanted to show that he was strong and that he could lead as well. Any other time, Alif would have appreciated the boy’s ambition, but there was too much at stake now.
“I think I ought to be the one to lead the team to retrieve my own brother. Don't you think?” Alif's voice had risen higher than he'd intended, but with the pain almost choking his breaths, he was beyond caring. “Well?” he challenged, when Jayl didn't answer.
“Yes sir.” Jayl's eyes darted to Alif's leg, and he said something in a voice too low for Alif to hear.
“What did you say?” Alif's hot breaths burned his sore throat.
Boona patted Alif's shoulder. “Keep it down brother…” he managed before his voice trailed off. Boona placed a large cool hand against Alif's damp forehead, but Alif pushed it away.
“Don't tell me to keep it down.” Alif did lower his voice.
How would it be if they were caught in an alley by Authority patrollers before making it to McKinley's compound? Alif fully expected to be caught and jailed, or even killed before this was over, but he wanted it to be while fighting toward the goal of freeing his brother, not while cowering in an alley.
Alif kept his gaze pinned on Jayl who now refused to meet his eyes. A man who won't meet another man eye to eye is a man who lies. Jayl kept fidgeting with the flap of the pocket on the front of his vest. That pocket was large enough to hold a knife or a rock. All Midling men learned how to throw rocks as children. Most Midling men could kill a deer with a well thrown rock.
“I don't know what you're doing over there,” said Alif as he pulled his own knife from the pocket of his khaki cargo pants, "but, you should get away from me, before I slit your throat."
"Sir?" Jayl’s voice cracked, betraying his youth.
"You heard me," hissed Alif. Grunting and seizing with pain, Alif rose to his feet. Streams of blood coursed down his leg pooling in his shoe. Boona rose as well.
Alif could barely see the faces of Boona and Jayl, but he was able to recognize the alarm in the way they stood. Or was that aggression? Alif shook his head, his pale yellow locks flinging around his head.
"I’m the leader of this mission.” Alif swung the blade weakly back and forth.
"Sir," said Jayl again, “you should keep your voice down, please. The cops are patrolling not that far off and if they hear us, they'll investigate and catch us for sure.”
Alif shook his head again. A seventeen year old can't teach logic to an adult. A seventeen year old should know his place. "Don't tell me to shut up." Alif looked from Jayl to Boona. Boona was whispering.
"What are you saying to him?”
Boona stepped into the sulfur yellow light so that Alif could see him. He held his hands out to show he wasn’t holding a weapon. "You know me, man. We're friends, cousins. I wouldn't hurt you and I wouldn't plot against you."
"Right.” Face screwed up with the effort, Alif leaned against the wall. "Sure you wouldn't."
"Neither would Jayl.” Boona advanced a tentative step forward. "Why don't you tell me why you've pulled a knife on this little one? Jayl hasn't done anything wrong. He’s been helping you along the way by carrying your bag, hasn’t he?"
“That's because I'm hurt."
"Which is why you shouldn't be out here in the field," Boona tried to reason.
"You idiot!" shouted Alif. "That's my brother McKinley is holding. Airun is my blood! Who better to go after him than me?"
"Yes, yes," said Boona using his hands to signal Alif to be quiet. He made another gesture that confused Alif. Boona nodded to Jayl so slightly that had Alif not been paying close attention, he would have missed it. Boona said something as well, but too low for Alif to properly hear.
"What are you saying?"
"Listen," said Boona stepping yet closer. "I think that we should sit down and talk."
Alif shook his head again. A wave of dizziness wrecked Alif’s senses. He almost fell but he threw his hand up to catch the wall, to steady himself, but his knees buckled as he did this. It took all of his strength to keep from falling he to the ground. Airun’s face flashed in Alif’s mind. He had to keep going if only for the sake of his brother.
"No," said Alif.
"You're hurt, anyone can see that. Just sit."
Alif closed his eyes, but the spinning wouldn’t stop and his head hurt. Sweat dripped into his eyes and down his back. Alif’s stomach churned unbearably.
When Alif opened his eyes, Boona had advanced several more steps and his arms were extended.
"That’s a lot of blood.” Boona advanced another step. “Let me help you sit so I can dress that wound.”
Alif didn't refuse. He had no choice. His grunts sounded foreign even to his own ears.
“You’ll die if we don’t treat this infection soon.” Boona peeled back the dripping bandage. His eyebrows sprang up on his forehead. “This is bad,” he said shaking his head. Alif didn’t respond. He moaned softly now nearly senseless with pain and weakness. Alif didn’t see the white light flash brightly at the mouth of the alley.
Boona slipped deeper into the shadows and dragged Alif behind a dumpster. Jayl did the opposite. Club in one hand and blade in another, he darted out of the darkness to meet the patrolling Authority officers.
Trained to use stealthy hand held weapons and their environment, Midling men could easily outmatch the best trained Authority officer with his collection of modern weaponry. Jayl subdued the two Authority officers and pulled their unconscious forms into the darkness before being detected by any of the other Authority on patrol.
As if they had read each other’s mind Jayl and Boona stripped the Authority officers of their clothes and dressed in them. The uniforms fit a bit tight on both men. Midling men were made of sturdy stock.
A tinny voice echoed from the portable receiver on Boona’s belt as he hoisted Alif to his feet.
"Keep your eyes open for any suspicious activity. It is believed that both of the wanted fugitives, Honor and her twin brother Truth have escaped McKinley's compound along with a third named Taha. All are considered highly dangerous. Treat everyone as a suspect.”
Boona met Jayl’s eyes. “Do you want to turn back?”
Jayl shook his head. “No sir. We have a job to do.” The boy gathered in a deep hitching breath. He removed the electro-compliance weapon from his hip and adjusted it to its highest setting. “You go ahead of me, and,” he lifted the weapon to shoulder height, “and I’ll protect our back.”
Boona nodded. “What are we waiting for?”
Chapter 30 - Regroup / Chapter 32 -