There’s no accurate way of knowing how long it’s been. Every heartbeat pounces against James’s chest increases. The fresh bullet wound in his right arm throbs with aching pain, slowing his pace as he travels through the thick and twisted Amazon rainforest. The wound is wrapped with a piece of cloth taken from a sleeve, and his current plan is to make it back to base before going into shock. Forcing one leg in front of the other becomes even more perilous, as he lacks both weapons and defensive gadgets. Neither UWA soldiers nor AI units are currently on his trail, at least as far as he can tell. There still lies the possibility that an animal will attack him in his condition.
James swings his left arm to move aside the foliage blocking the path. The little amount of light from the full moon creates bright spots on some of the brownish foliage. His mouth dries, which becomes too much to bear. James tries to swallow, but only coughs from the uncomfortable feeling in his throat. Any drop of liquid would be enough to satisfy his thirst.
Streams of dried-up tears stretch down his dirty face. He tries his best to forget the tragic event that took place hours ago. If there’s one thing James wants more than anything, it’s to have everything wiped from his memory—entirely, if possible. Or have history repeat itself in order to trigger an alternate outcome. How did he mess everything up? The plan—no, his plan, actually—should have been perfect according to his calculations.
Clouded thoughts and emotions circle James’s stressed mind. What will happen once the militia generals and captains find out what transpired during the mission? If they don’t already suspect something due to his failure to check in with them. Many of the soldiers and leaders of the Amazon militia already dislike him. Maybe he’s too free-spirited, but he doesn’t think it’s in a negative way. The last thing he needs is to have both the Amazon militia and the Federation as his enemies. But he has no other choice than facing the music, taking into account both his injury and condition. James hopes to explain his story and stay on the militia’s good side.
James slips his good hand inside his chest pocket and touches a familiar rectangular object. He draws out the pocket Bible Benita gave him before the attempted rescue mission. The emotions hit James once again like a ton of bricks. After spending the last minutes, if not hours, trying to forget about her and the incident, it kills him once again to be haunted by the memories. His eyes burn as tears form.
“Benita, I’m so sorry,” he muscles out in a weak, soft voice. “None of you deserved this.” He slips the Bible back into his jacket and continues to travel through the tangled brush.
By morning, James turns up back at the secret militia base. The place is well hidden within the thickest sections of the jungle. Multiple metal door entrances to underground bunkers become visible the farther he travels within the base perimeters. Upon entering the place, James recalls accidentally tripping a few of the security sensors about a half mile back. There’s no explanation as to why he didn’t take friendly fire as a result. The militia probably noticed him on a few of their hidden cameras in the foliage once the sensors went off.
A couple of Amazon militia soldiers in dark green uniforms come into view before James reaches the bunkers. They both take a side and assist James to his sleeping quarters and quickly tend to the injury. From there on, no one says a word to him, and it’s clear to James why. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this one out. The fact they saw him approach the base without any of his soldiers gave them every reason to treat him like they don’t know him. The medics didn’t even give him the proper care and medicine for his arm, which is still in just as much pain as before, only with an appropriate bandage covering it. And it’s not as if the base is dry on painkillers, because a squad retrieved some on a mission not too long ago.
James ignores everyone on the base and walks into his pitch-dark sleeping area. He pulls some pain pills, for the headaches and toothaches, from inside the thin mattress and swallows them, knowing they won’t be strong enough to make the pain subside. He’s finally able to stretch out on his back on the springy mattress. The stinging pain keeps James awake until his weighted eyelids close for the night.
Sometime during his sleep, a sharp feeling travels through his leg, like the weight of someone’s boot has impacted it. The hazy vision clears as the bright light from a flashlight points directly at his face. Three militia soldiers in full combat gear tower over the cot, and they don’t appear to be making a friendly visit.
“Commander Janis, you failed to brief General Murilo after your mission,” one of the soldiers says harshly.
“Was just on my way to meet him. Just needed to rest my eyes for a couple of minutes.”
“It’s been twelve hours.”
James’s eyes widen as he catapults to a sitting position. Had he really slept that long without filling Murilo in on the mission? This situation is going to look even worse than it already is. It’s a better decision not to waste any more time with these guys.
“I’m on my way,” James says.
The soldiers escort James down a tight, dark, descending underground hallway. They enter a concrete-walled interrogation room with a large metal table in the middle and two chairs on either side. Minimal illumination fills the room from the dimming light bulbs. The small powered-up generator in the corner chugs like an old automobile. James notices fifty-five-year-old General Murilo sitting in the chair on the opposite side of the table, smoke billowing from the long cigarette in his mouth.
The scruffy-faced general wears his damaged, green camouflage uniform that has a few metals pinned to it. The soldiers force James to take a seat in the vacant chair. The three soldiers spread out around the room, taking guard positions.
Every eye in the room is directed at James, all with the same suspicious stare. He cracks open his lips to say something, but then presses them together. He directs his attention to the table, which is the only place he’ll be spared the sight of someone’s stare. Both he and the general sit in silence for about a minute, making things so much worse. James doesn’t know whether to break the silence and explain things or not, but was that a smart move? The silence is much worse than if the general flat-out yelled at him from the start.
“Are you planning on sitting there mute, kid?” Murilo says, his tone unfriendly.
“Oh . . . uh . . . look. I messed up a great deal. I’m sorry to report my whole team was . . .”
“My team, James.”
James ignores the snobby remark. “We were ambushed by the UWA. There were no survivors. Look, we intercepted some UWA communications during the mission. They were going to move on that village tonight—I’m sorry, last night. So we had to rescue those civilians before they came.”
Murilo takes another puff of his cigarette. “Your job was to perform a recon mission on the village and report back to me. I would’ve sent a larger, more competent force to extract the civilians. Continue.”
“Anyway, we decided to take a secret path, but that’s when the Federation attacked us. We all fought as hard as we could, but the UWA forces overwhelmed us. The soldiers and AI troopers mowed down every civilian in sight, taking no prisoners. I was fortunate to escape with my life. I wish things went differently. I wish I was the one who died, not all of those people.”
Murilo leans forward, blowing a large cloud of smoke in James’s face. The expression on the general’s face indicates he isn’t buying the whole story. He ditches his current cigarette in exchange for a new one.
“Look at me, Janis. I, as well as many other leaders of this militia, have risked our lives building a force to oppose the Federation. My entire family was slaughtered fighting to keep this whole thing together. The UWA chips away at our forces and resources daily. The last thing I need is for a young, hasty, insubordinate person like you taking things into your own hands and killing off our men.” Murilo throws his lit cigarette straight at the young man’s face.
James’s reflexes kick in as the lit end of the cigarette bounces off his right cheek. “I didn’t try to walk the militia’s soldiers to their death. Who could’ve predicted the UWA would ambush us when they did? I only wanted to protect those people from torture and death.”
“You just proved my point. You were only concerned about your objective. Your squad members had families. Or whatever family they had left.”
“Those civilians were made up of families.”
“Do not interrupt me!” Murilo’s voice rings off the walls. “Now, I have to explain to the families you got their relatives slaughtered, that the bodies are just laying out there in the jungle. Can’t even have a proper burial for the dead. You can’t possibly know how critical this all is because you have nothing to lose.”
James hates where this conversation is going. In his confused mind, he can’t figure out what the general’s trying to say. Anything James says can and will be used against him, but he can’t let this guy say anything that comes to mind.
“That’s where you’re wrong, General. There was a young woman among those civilians—we were close . . .” James begins to show some emotion. “I also watched in horror as everyone in my squad as well as every civilian from that village got slaughtered, and believe me, I have a scar that won’t leave me as long as I live. I made a difficult choice to help those people, but the unexpected happened. Why am I even telling you? I can clearly see you don’t care about anything I’m saying.”
James tries to stand but catches the soldiers reaching for their weapons. He decides better and sinks back down into the chair. “I didn’t want to disobey orders, and you can demote me if you wish. But I couldn’t leave that village knowing the UWA would most likely be there within hours after we left. I couldn’t let them die.”
He’s trying his hardest to push his point through the general’s tough skull but is failing tremendously.
“Why do you speak of these people in the present tense? They died because of your poorly excused efforts. And you can save your breath about being a young Christian man with a passion for saving and protecting others. Because as of now, you haven’t accomplished much of that, either. You can’t deny that, can you?”
James prays he can keep from walking out on this meeting. There is no denial he heavily messed up his mission and should be punished for it, but why should he have to hear all these personal attacks in the process? Can the general put a sentence on him and be done with it?
“But I didn’t bring you in here only to discuss your failed mission or accept apologies. Many of us have been further reviewing your partially secretive past and some of your personal records, and I’ll say you’re an interesting person. You and someone named Kevin Schultz attempted an escape across the border from the US into Mexico. This guy is shot, but you survive somehow. You were captured and taken to a Federation death camp in Colombia, which you and a few other prisoners attempted to escape after a mass earthquake damaged the place. They’re all shot dead, and you once again escape with your life. A couple of weeks ago, UWA gunships attacked and destroyed one of our bases you were stationed at. You were again one of the few sole survivors. And last night, you claimed your men and the village people were the victims of a Federation ambush. Everyone else is killed, and the fact we’re talking now concludes my sentence.” Murilo leans across the table and zones straight into James’s twitchy eyes.
James, straightaway, catches on to the direction of the conversation. How can the militia even come up with an absurd theory, that he’s a Federation spy? His blood stirs as the accusations spill out. He cautiously reaches into his jacket pocket and grabs the flash grenade he smuggled in there earlier. Now he needs the definitive moment to make an exit.
“I’m not an expert, but when I see a pattern with someone, I investigate further. Well, you fit all the traits of a Federation spy. For all I know, the Federation left you alive last night so you can lead them to this base. I know this is unexpected for someone of your young mind, James, but the truth is—”
“The truth is that I learned something my whole life. Many individuals are predictable, and you’re as predictable as they come. The fact you had me escorted here like a prisoner blows your subtlety. You set this meeting up in an interrogation cell. I figured this out well before. The truth is that I wondered when my time in the Amazon would come to an end.”
James quietly pulls the pin from the grenade in his pocket. He surreptitiously checks behind him to verify the door is still open. He turns back toward Murilo, who is unquestionably moving a hand to the sidearm strapped to his belt.
“Here’s my gratitude, General Murilo.” With that, James moves snappily and pitches the flash grenade on top of the table before rapidly shielding both eyes with his arms. Before Murilo and the soldiers can react, the large, white blinding flash fills the entire room, blinding everyone save for James.
He springs from the chair and bolts for the exit. Everything seems to be moving in slow motion. He makes it through the doorway and swings the door shut behind him. The ring of the soldiers’ suppressed weapons erupt from behind, hitting the door.