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Riot Act

A Fairlight Tale by Paul M. Carhart

"Do you think it will work, Nik?" Skyler asked.

The oldest of the three men rubbed the back of his hand across his graying whiskers. He made eye contact with the other two men. The firelight danced across their tired faces. Nik Tavarone could smell the ash as the sparks drifted upward between them. "It'll be a bit dodgy."

That's a whopping understatement, Nik thought. But the consequences of failure ...

Nik didn't even want to contemplate it as he glanced at his surroundings. The triple tier, ion-charged fence topped with barbed wire encircling the cleansing camp told him enough. They would find no escape that way.

"I just wanna get outta here and get a hot cup of coffee," Drake said. "Whatever your idea is, it's gotta be better'n gettin' my brain fried."

"They don't fry your brain when they cleanse you," Skyler said. "They just ... change it somehow."

"You don't know that. Have you ever talked to someone once they been cleansed?"

"No. But ..."

"Stop this bickering," Nik interrupted. "We'll need to work together if we're going to pull this off. We need to focus. The enemy is not sitting around this fire."

"He's right," Drake conceded.

Skyler nodded in agreement.

"Thank you." Nik let out a sigh.

An Enforcer interrupted them from where he stood near the fence. "You three. Separate."

Nik stood and turned to face the helmeted soldier. "Give us a break, will you officer?" He smiled. "It's a cold night and we're just trying to keep warm."

"Rules are rules, old man. Stay apart. Maybe you'll get to go home sooner."

Sans my creative aspects, Nik added internally. He was an actor, mime and imitator ... At least he had been before they put him in this "cleansing" camp. Cleansing, he thought. Such an enchanting word for mental rape. Cleansing would strip him of his talents. Without them, he wouldn't be himself. Even before he had been captured, he had decided he would rather die than part with any aspects of his personality.

Takes the term "out-of-work actor" to new levels, doesn't it?

He'd been in the camp for two days. Skyler was there already and Drake had joined them yesterday. Nik didn't imagine the Government would keep them around much longer before getting around to cleansing them, or killing them if they made too much trouble.

"Step aside," the officer ordered.

In his periphery, Nik caught Drake sliding away from the fire and inching toward the far wall. "Whatever you say, officer." Nik brushed off his pants and walked the opposite direction, leaving Skyler with the fire.

Nik glanced around the compound. It was a small camp compared to the one from which he had recently come and not very well guarded. The other inmates were docile. They had apparently already opted to go through the cleansing process and get back to their mundane lives. Most of them had not been there as long as he had—another reason Nik believed his cleansing was imminent.

Still, they didn't deserve their fate, even if they refused to fight for themselves.

Pathetic souls ...

Nik really did want to help but knew he could do nothing for them, unless he could first save himself.

He had discovered a day and a half into his stay that his first plan would not work. However, he had high hopes for his current scheme, which he'd spent most of the day on. Nik had originally planned to wait until everyone slept to make his move. However, he could not pass up the opportunity of having only one guard.

A script is a great idea, but the key to a truly successful performance is improvisation.

"Excuse me, Officer ..." Nik ventured as he stepped closer.

The Enforcer paused as he was turning away. "Yeah?"

Nik squinted his eyes. "What on earth is that up there?" He pointed to an imaginary gargoyle on the top of the guard's helmet while contorting his face into a look of utter revulsion.

"Wha ...?"

Nik reached out and pulled the Enforcer's helmet visor down over his face. Disoriented, the guard could do little before Nik's knee punched him squarely in his gut, successfully knocking the wind out of the soldier. Maintaining his hold on the helmet, Nik finished the man off by slamming the guard's face against the same knee.

The guard crumpled unceremoniously to the ground.

Distasteful work, Nik decided. He wondered if he could pull off the rest of the plan with a little less hands-on violence.

He brushed his hands together while glancing around the curious inmates. Drake and Skyler joined him.

"Not bad, Nik," Drake said, patting the lanky older man on the back. "I can almost taste that coffee."

"Indeed." Nik started giving orders. After all, he was the one with the plan. "Skyler, you get his sidearm. Drake, take the rifle. If we're going to escape with our personalities intact, we'd better get moving."

His two sidekicks clapped each other on the back and nodded in agreement. Now time would work against them. A guard could pass by any minute. Nik intended to be elsewhere when that happened.

"And Drake," Nik added, "get rid of this guy will you?"

Drake nodded, thumbing up the power on the rifle.

"Aww, come on," Skyler whined. "Do we have to kill him?"

Nik considered for a moment. Drake rolled his eyes. "Alright. Don't kill him. Just make sure he doesn't wake up and sound the alarm."

Drake nodded and picked the man up by the feet, dragging him into a nearby lean-to.

Nik scrutinized the other inmates, who had gathered to watch the action with interest. If one of them thought they had something to gain by ratting them out, he or she would do it. What could he do to keep their mouths shut?

An older woman with frantic eyes stepped forward from the crowd and skewered him with her gaze. "Are you taking us with you?"

Nik wanted more than anything to say "yes." However, he could not.

"I can't stage an exodus, madam. I can send help back though."

She looked away from him. "By then, my daughter will have been cleansed. Perhaps even me ..."

Nik licked his parched lips. He didn't know what to say, but he did know trying to free everyone would be suicide. It was better that someone managed to leave a cleansing camp who could actually remember the tale to tell. That had to be valuable to someone.

"Whaddya think?" Skyler asked.

"Not if we want to succeed," Nik breathed before snapping back to the situation at hand. "Come on. Let's go."

Drake joined them from the nearby shelter, where a pair of shiny boots protruded from inside.

It'll have to be good enough, Nik thought. Time is ticking ...

A small building stood between the three of them and freedom. Inside, Nik expected a metal detector, a key code pad, maybe a hand scanner and at least two guards. Despite his desperation-inspired dispatch of the Enforcer only a few moments before, Nik had never been a soldier and was perfectly at ease not carrying a firearm. In fact, the thought of violence usually turned his gut. But he had no way around it this time. His identity, indeed his life was at stake. To Nik that justified a sort of proactive self-defense.

His two compatriots, on the other hand, each carried their weapons as if they had been born with them. That boded well for the mission and suited Nik just fine. Indeed, it was the main reason he had included them at all.

An inmate closer to the building fixed his eyes on the three men closing in and started to say something. Skyler rewarded him with a boot across his face as they passed.

"That'll shut him up," Skyler commented.

"Enough of that," Nik muttered. "These people are bad enough off. Now spread out. When I draw the guards out, you two take them down."

Skyler tucked the pistol into the back of his pants and meandered off to Nik's right. Drake held his rifle up against his leg and vectored off to the left.

Right, then. Time for my next performance. Nik continued at a brisk pace. When he reached the building's ten-foot perimeter sensors, a floodlight illuminated the grounds.

Immediately, Nik's gait changed. He was limping, as if he had been doing so all along.

He came upon the building door and scratched pathetically at the handle. "I'm thirsty. Please ... give me some water."

A window in the middle of the door irised open and a man poked his head out. "What are you doing?"

"Please ... Give an old man something to drink," Nik whimpered.

"Get back to your quadrant! If I give you something extra, it'll start a riot!"

"Please ... Just a small cup."

"Aww, alright but then you're gonna have to shut up. You're interrupting my concentration!"

"My sincerest apologies, kind sir."

The door slid open a few seconds later. The man appeared with a cup of water. Nik stretched out a trembling hand, snatching away the drink just before the soldier took a laser hit in the chest and teetered backward. Nik used his free hand to push him out of the way as he scurried up the steps into the building.

Another Enforcer sat at a small table. He was facing the door with five playing cards fanned out in his hand.

The soldier spotted Nik and stood, sending his cards fluttering as he went for his sidearm. Nik dumped the water at the Enforcer's feet. The man skittered on the slick surface before toppling forward and smashing his face against the table.

Nik knelt down and checked the man's pulse. Still alive, the lunk.

A large rack of electronic equipment occupied the other side of the room, its colored blinking lights casting an eerie glow across the room. Beyond that, a corridor stretched out, terminating in a distant sliding door, the ultimate goal. Nik was certain that the hallway was lined with metallic sensors.

Skyler and Drake joined Nik, dragging the other solder in behind them. Nik sealed the door shut.

"You should have finished him off," Drake said.

"The stun setting will still do the job," Skyler replied. "I don't go for unnecessary killing."

Nik smirked. "Drake, you both had a clean shot. Perhaps you should dedicate yourself to becoming a better sharpshooter if you want your targets dead."

"Very funny. Can we get out of here?"

"Quite," Nik agreed. "First step is getting past the hand scanner." He glanced over at the ill-fated card player. "No problem there. Skyler, pull that lummox over to the scanner and put his hand in the receptacle."

"No prob." Skyler hefted the man over his shoulder and plopped him down next to the equipment. Another few seconds found the unconscious man's hand in the scanner, which twittered, beeped, and flickered before a green light flashed over the corridor entrance.

"Key code's next," Nik said. "Any ideas?"

"You don't have a code?" Skyler asked.

Nik shrugged. "Hey, I can't think of everything!"

Drake sighed. "Maybe we could wake this guy up and force his code from him."

"No time. Maybe I can try a few things and we'll luck out."

"Not likely," Skyler commented.

Drake stepped forward. "Look, if we're going to start guessing, let me give it a go. I used to be an Enforcer."

Nik's eyes went wide. It occurred to him that he really knew very little about either of his cohorts.

"Surely, they would have retired your code," Skyler pointed out.

Drake smiled lopsidedly. "Maybe. But I knew a few codes I wasn't supposed to know. Why do you think I'm in this dump?" He stepped up to the keypad and punched in a six-digit number.

"Incorrect code," an electronic voice announced. "Please input a correct code. You have six seconds."

"Damn!" Skyler said.

"Hold on," Drake rasped through clenched teeth.

Again, his fingers flew across the keypad.

"Incorrect code. You now have three seconds to input a correct code."

Drake's tongue traced across his lips. "Just one more try ..."

Another green light appeared next to the first. "Correct code."

Drake slumped a little and sighed. "Would you believe, lucky guess?"

Nik grinned. "That should take care of the metallic sensors as well." He stepped into the corridor. The walls were bare and plain white. On the other end was the doorway to freedom. "Let's get going," he said as he headed down the hall. "Your coffee's getting cold, Drake."

He stopped only when he heard the laser fire from behind him.

"Hold it right there," Skyler's voice echoed down the corridor. Nik put up both hands and turned around.

Skyler was still in the control room, his pistol leveled at Nik. Drake lied face down on the floor, smoke rising from his burnt back. "I can't let you go any farther, Nik."

Nik's mind raced. Who had he thrown in with? Before he finished asking himself the question, he had the answer. "You're a plant," Nik breathed. Realization blindsided him. "No wonder you didn't want to kill any of the Enforcers ... only Drake."

Skyler nodded. "Drake was a traitor. Now come on back," he said, gesturing with two fingers.

Nik shuffled his way back the eight steps to the control room. "Why?"

"Why else? To root out resistance members for interrogation."

"Why don't you just let me go? I'm not resistance."

"I know. If you were, I would have let you go and simply followed you home. Instead, you'll be cleansed tonight. In twenty-four hours, we'll have you running a hot dog cart at the corner of Broadway and third. You won't remember any of this—Drake, me, anything.

"Which is just the way we like it."

Nik glanced down at Drake. On the floor not far from his right hand, lay the fully charged rifle he had carried.

Skyler followed Nik's gaze. Long ago, when he had first started performing, Nik had learned that the audience's eyes almost always followed what an actor looked at. It was staging 101.

So, rather than going for the gun, Nik brought his opposite leg up and around quickly, knocking the pistol out of Skyler's hand and sending it clear across the room.

"You're determined to make it hard on yourself, aren't you?" Skyler asked as he hunched himself over in a wrestler's stance.

"Not really." Nik grinned. "I'm actually more determined to make it hard for you."

Skyler lunged and Nik danced to the side. Again, Skyler came forward, but Nik slipped away.

"We can do this all night, Sky."

"Not likely, old man."

Skyler leapt for him but this time Nik slipped between his legs, came up quickly, and kicked him hard in the ass. He knocked the larger man off balance and into the wall. Nik immediately pounced on him. He grabbed Skyler by the hair and slammed his face against the wall twice. Then he pulled the near unconscious man's bloodied head back one more time.

Nik had never realized that he was capable of such brutality. He'd always possessed a mild temper, a jovial personality. Still, his irrational mind could find no reason to spare the man who would have killed him if their places were reversed.

"And this one's for Drake!"

But before he could deliver the final blow, the man collapsed from Nik's sweaty grasp and crumpled to the floor.

Nik rolled him over with his foot. Skyler stared wide-eyed at him, either unable or unwilling to move.

"I don't much like unnecessary killing either, you sorry sonuvabitch," Nik muttered, grappling with his sanity and winning. He kicked his opponent hard in the ribs. Blood dribbled from the corner of Skyler's mouth.

Nik looked the room over one more time. His gaze fell upon Drake. The scorch marks across his companion's back told Nik that checking Drake's pulse would be a waste of time.

What am I doing waiting around here? he thought as his senses flooded back to him. I need to get the bloody hell out of here!

Without looking back, he darted down the corridor. When he reached the halfway point, the computer spoke once again.

"Welcome back from your lunch break, Lieutenant Fairlight."

Nik skidded to a stop. The door at the end of the hall opened and a lone Enforcer stepped inside.

Nik's gaze locked with his enemy's cold blue eyes. Neither of them made a move. Experienced with firearms or not, Nik desperately wished he had picked up Skyler's pistol.

Then, as quick as lightning, the Enforcer drew his sidearm, brought it up and fired.

Nik had never seen a man draw a gun so quickly. The corridor was not wide. He had nowhere to go and nothing to do except brace himself for his demise.

But the shot went wide. Judging by the warmth on his face, the blast had missed Nik by only a few inches.

Nik let out the breath he hadn't realized he held. From behind him came the clatter of something against the hard floor.

He spun to see Skyler leaning against the corridor wall, scorch marks emblazoned across his chest. At his feet lay Drake's rifle. Not a second passed before Skyler folded, joining the fallen weapon on the ground.

This Enforcer just saved my life, Nik realized. He brought his eyes back around to meet the soldier's. This time, the man's blue orbs were not without compassion.

The lieutenant did not say a word as he turned, opened the door, and left.

Nik figured he would have been shot dead if he had been armed. However, without a weapon, Nik had not posed a threat to the newcomer. Not knowing the full story, the Enforcer had acted to spare Nik, the defenseless victim.

As it stood, Nik was not about to question fate.

Instead, he charged headlong down the corridor and straight through the door. He continued running into the cool night, finally free of his prison. He hadn't planned this far ahead and had no idea where he would go. However, he guessed the only place he would find a home now was within the ranks of the resistance.

If they'd take him.

It's irony worthy of Shakespeare, Nik thought. He would never forget Lieutenant Fairlight's name. If any kindness could be found in the heart of one Enforcer, perhaps the world stood a chance after all.

And if I ever run into that bloke again, Nik vowed, I'll buy him a drink and shake his bloody hand!


Chronology Note:

Riot Act takes place several years before the events detailed in any of the Fairlight novels.


  © 2002 Paul M. Carhart, all rights reserved, all media.