This is the last of the extracts I've taken out of my Atramento series. This story follows our blind hero before he meets the shield builder's family. This book is more of an extra to the rest of the series and it is because I fell in love with Megan and wanted to give her her own story.
The Islands May 2092
Natia called out to him, “Aren’t you finished yet?”
Toa shoved in the rest of his clothes into the small bag and yelled back, “Yeah, yeah. I’m coming.”
His mother added, “Hurry, Toa, the transport is here.”
He shoved the bag over his shoulder. The clothes had been the last he had to pack. The rest of his gear was the photos of his father and grandparents and food.
Toa knew the governments had promised that no matter where they went it would be safe and they would be cared for but he knew not to trust politicians. When he left the fale, he saw his mother was right. A large truck pulled down the rutted road. The vehicle was already half filled with refugees. No one appeared happy to be leaving. He had been here on this island most of his life.
Toa’s parents had made a deal with the island government. That as long as his father worked elsewhere and sent back supplies, then they could live on the island. Unfortunately, their father had died two years ago. They had hoped to stay until Toa was old enough to go off to work elsewhere and send back supplies. But the Island government had decided there were too many people on the island and were culling anyone who didn’t meet the criteria for residency.
Natia grabbed their mother’s bags and Toa picked up the others. Their mother tutted at them but took the help when clearly the soldiers weren’t going to help them. They struggled up into the high bed of the truck. Natia made sure their mother was secure and tucked in their bags close to them.
Toa eyed the men who looked grizzled by their experiences. He did not appreciate the look they were giving their gear. No one had much now and yet there were always those who wanted more. He shifted and let the men see he carried a machete. One grunted, but they turned their eyes away.
Toa shifted closer to his mother and his sister. There was no way he would let those men near his family. The truck lurched and they moved on to pick up other families along the way. It soon became crowded and he worried there might not be enough space for everyone.
It got even worse when they reached the airport. There was chaos as scared families waited to board the planes.
Natia said, “This is not good.”
Toa shook his head, agreeing with her. “I know. But where else can we go. The island will be entirely flooded the next time a storm rolls in.”
Natia hissed. “I know that but…” she left the rest unsaid.
Their mother had assured them the government would look after them, but Natia and Toa had grown up in a world which was falling apart. The governments of the world could hardly look after themselves let alone hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Refugee Camp April 2093
Toa was shoved around with sharp elbows and hissed words but he shoved back and held his own. They were all trying to shove their way to the front of the cue before the centre closed. Every day it seemed to be open for shorter periods of time than before.
Eventually he got to the front and the worker asked, “How many?”
Toa flashed the ID cards of himself and his family and said, “Three.”
The worker motioned impatiently and Toa offered his bowl. The worker scooped in three scoops of flour and motioned for him to leave. Yesterday it had been two scoops per person. He didn’t say anything as he knew if he complained they might take away his ID card and then there would be no flour.
Toa moved away and kept an eye on the others. There were so many hungry and there were some willing to commit crimes for food, even if it meant losing their ID’s as well. Some had already lost their ID’s so saw no risk. He headed to the tent where they were staying for the moment. There were six other families in the tent with them, but that was still better than having no tent to stay in. Those who were still arriving had that situation to deal with.
Natia asked when he approached, “How was it?”
Toa growled, “They have cut the ration in half.”
Natia sighed. “It’s a good thing we are resourceful.”
He wasn’t sure even that would be enough. Natia was growing some alfalfa in the hopes of supplementing their rations. They both glanced into the tent where their mother was. Neither of them said anything to her about the cut in rations. They didn’t want her to worry.
Natia asked, “Any trouble with the locals?”
Toa shook his head, but that was because yesterday he had beaten six men to the ground and the others had decided he was too rich for them.
Natia narrowed her eyes and said, “You know you don’t need to take on everything yourself. I’m not a baby anymore.”
Toa smiled at her warmly. “I’m afraid, little sister, you will always be the baby no matter how old and rickety you get.”
Natia mock growled and punched him in the arm. She took the bowl from him. “Don’t worry. It will get better.”
Toa realised without his sister’s optimism he would have already given up. He shook his head as she left to go cook up the flour into the only meal, they would have that day.
Refugee Camp June 2093
Toa cleaned off his knuckles. He had split the skin across three of his knuckles. He winced in pain. He didn’t make a noise because he was the idiot who had hit the man with a closed fist.
He glanced up when someone said, “I saw your fight.” The man wore a uniform, but it wasn’t like one of the workers or guards who patrolled the camp. He sauntered closer. “It was pretty impressive.”
Toa shrugged. He had always been good at fighting. After all, almost all of his family had been in the military. He had always planned to join one of the branches of the military. Except that last time his father had left, he had stopped Toa and explained to him the government wasn’t the same anymore. None of them were and they weren’t worth his loyalty or his life.
Toa wondered why his Dad had stayed that last time. In the end it had killed him less than two months later. He always wondered if they had him killed, but he didn’t have any proof.
This man reminded him of the government types who had recruited his father and the rest of his uncles. He almost walked away. But back to what? They were living in a tent on famine rations. They had nowhere to go and no future.
The muscles in Toa’s jaw jumped as he gritted his teeth.
The man said, “We could do with people like you.”
Toa knew the man was asking him to sell his soul. But it might just be worth it.
Toa said, “I have family.”
The man smiled, he knew he had him as he said, “I’m sure we can find something to accommodate them.”
Toa’s hands tightened into painful fists. “You will need to promise me more. I want them to have a home and a future. You need to get them out of this place.”
The man said, “I’m sure we can find them civilian positions with the army. You can keep an eye on them and see for yourself they are being looked after.”
Toa let out a breath. The deal was the best he was going to get. At least he could see if they went back on their promise.
Training Camp July 2094
Mud dripped off his nose and Toa desperately wanted to scratch at it. Scratching his itch wasn’t the only thing he desperately wanted to do. His legs ached and it was hard to breathe because he had been running the obstacle course in his fastest time so far. He might have even beaten his father’s time. He dreamed of just lying down. But he couldn’t move even an inch as his whole platoon had been ordered to stand at attention as a General inspected them.
Toa watched the man from the corner of his eye. He had heard of the man. He hadn’t been a General though when he had heard about this particular man. Just a mere lieutenant. His father had spoken of him and it was more of what his father hadn’t said than what he had said.
Toa didn’t trust the General, but that wasn’t unusual. He didn’t trust any of the men here. They all had their own agendas and they were openly using him for their own interests. His father had told him stories of when soldiers fought for loyalty and nationalism, but now it was about greed and what they could get from any given government.
General Murphy stepped in front of him and Toa wondered if he recognised him even though they had never met. Everyone said Toa looked like his father.
Murphy walked past with no recognition or even suspicion in his eyes. There was something to be said about being anonymous.
Toa’s heart slowed not only because he wasn’t running around anymore but he hadn’t expected to meet General Murphy here. His relief was palpable. His father had told him other things he knew the General would be very interested in. In the past Murphy had killed and tortured to get what he needed and he doubted the man had changed in the last ten years.
If he had the option Toa would leave. Except he didn’t have any options.
His commander yelled and they all moved. Without hesitation or question. That was the life of the soldier after all.
Military Camp November 2096
“Psst, wake up.”
Natia groaned and then her eyes snapped open. She went to speak, but Toa put a hand over her mouth. He placed a finger over his lips to indicate she was to be quiet. She nodded and the two of them slipped out of the tent.
Outside Toa looked around to make sure they were alone.
Natia hissed softly, “What are you doing here?”
“I saw Murphy.”
“You mean Dad’s lieutenant? What the hell is he still doing in the army?” Natia asked incredulous.
“Different army. The outfit that Dad was working for, got merged with this one. They don’t know about Murphy or his crimes.”
Natia rolled her eyes. “Typical.”
Toa studied her closely. She was skinny. Too skinny. He frowned and asked, “Are you doing alright?”
Natia said, “It was worse in the refugee camps so I suppose we are doing alright.”
Toa narrowed his eyes, suspicious at her tone. “What do you mean?”
She sighed. “It doesn’t matter, Toa. Did Murphy recognize you?”
“I don’t think so.” He said, “But they are sending me on more dangerous missions. I think someone is suspicious or just plain bored of me.”
Natia drew in a sharp breath. “You need to get out of here before they succeed and you are killed.”
Just like their father. He reached out to touch her arm. “Not without you and Mum.”
She shoved at him. “Get out of here. I’ll look after Mum. I’m Dad’s daughter as much as you are Dad’s son.”
He shook his head. “We will think of something.”
Natia frowned at his words. “Not if you are dead. Get out before they stop just trying to kill you and just shoot you.”
He didn’t tell her he thought they might have been trying to kill him from the start. Or at the very least they hadn’t cared if he lived or died. But he wouldn’t leave his sister and mother. Ever.
Military Camp November 2096
“Private Williams, you are to report to the Command tent.” Toa glanced up at the mention of his name. He packed up his rifle he had been cleaning and headed to the headquarters. The camp itself wasn’t anything more than a cluster of tents.
They had been there for a while so it had that established feel. The war was mostly at a stalemate. The other side was only protecting its borders as it was making a plea for a weather shield for its main cities. If it managed to entice the Shield Builders it would become the largest city state in this region.
This army would be the last holdout and would probably disintegrate once the money ran out. There were already signs of that as many of the military brass at the top were lining their own nests.
The MP on duty motioned him through and when Toa stepped in, he stopped. General Murphy was talking to his CO. That wasn’t a good thing. He must have made a noise as the two men turned to look at him.
General Murphy said, “I thought you looked familiar.” Damn. Murphy stalked up to him and asked, “How old were you when your dear old pop died? Ten?”
“Fourteen, Sir,” Toa snapped out. He kept his face neutral as he didn’t want the General to know he knew who he was as well.
The General smiled. “Almost a man at that age. Old enough for your old man to confide in you. I think you will do. I think you will do very well.”
Military Camp December 2096
The General paced and spoke as a soldier sliced small cuts into his back. “I knew your father when he was just a private, you know?”
Another cut. Toa groaned, but he wasn’t allowed to make any noise. He was gagged and hung at an angle that made him constantly in pain.
The General stopped in front of him and crouched down so he was in his face. “He was a tough son of a gun just like you. But he was weak at the end just like you will be.”
Another cut and another groan. The General stood up and paced away and then he asked the question he had been asking for an eternity, “Where is the cache? Where is the vault?”
He always called it the cache. Like it was filled with supplies or something else as innocuous.
The General’s man removed his gag and they all looked at him expectantly. It hurt to talk as the first level of torture had been a plain old beating. “Go to hell, Murphy.”
The General slammed a fist across his face. He growled out. “That is General Murphy to you, guttersnipe fugee.”
Military Camp May 2097
Natia gasped when she saw him. Toa who was still gagged couldn’t say anything. Murphy yanked her back when she tried to get to him.
The General smiled. “Take a good look at her. She is the last thing you will ever see.”
He motioned to his man and Toa was yanked back against the metal slab they had tied him to. He struggled and he saw Natia was also trying to get away. She begged the General to stop. The General’s man placed a hand on his head and dropped something into his eye.
Toa screamed as fire burned through his skull. The man held him firmer and another spear of fire went through his head. He floated in pain. As he was pierced again and again.
Toa eventually came to his senses when he heard the General say, “There. Now tell me where it is?”
Natia was sobbing as she said, “It is in the mountains. I have the co-ordinates. Oh, my goodness, Toa.”
He turned to look at his sister, but there was only a vivid pink of pain and no sight.
Military Camp May 2097
“Wake up, boy. We don’t have time for you to take a nap.” The words were harsh but the voice was soft with concern. A hand on his arm shook him. Toa opened his eyes but it was still blackness.
Toa had something pressed into his hands and his mother said, “Come on! Quickly! They have taken Natia out to the mountains and no one is watching you. This will be your only time to escape.”
Toa realised where he was and what had happened to him. The General had burned his eyes with acid to induce Natia to tell him about the vault. Toa vaguely remembered her giving in. Mostly he remembered pain.
Toa took his mother’s hand and she sighed sadly as she said, “Oh, my boy what have they done to you?”
Toa shook off her hand. “It won’t matter. We need to get out of here.”
When Masina spoke, her voice was sad, “I can’t leave Natia behind.”
He growled, “And you expect me to?”
Her hand tightened on his arm. He calmed and listened as she said, “If you stay here you will die. Leave. Find shelter and get better. Then come back for us. With you gone they might even just ditch us and we can find our way to one of the shielded cities. Come on, Toa, we don’t have a lot of time.”
She dragged him out of the tent and he stumbled after her. Toa wasn’t sure where they were going.
Eventually, she stopped and said, “You live. Don’t give up, just walk. Keep the sun on your left and you should be alright.”
Masina shoved him a little and he walked in the direction she indicated. He could hear her sniff and knew she was crying. It broke him. His mother didn’t cry often. She had when their father had died but he couldn’t think of any other time.
He turned to her and said in a pained voice, “Mum.”
She said, “Don’t worry. Trust in God.”
Toa wasn’t sure if God had survived the global crisis but he wouldn’t question his mother’s faith.
Military Camp May 2097
The heat was all Toa remembered. His feet were bloody but he couldn’t stop. If he stopped, they would find him. He had found a small stream yesterday.
Toa had filled the canister his mother had given him when Masina had helped him escape. He had walked for a while down the stream. If the General brought in dogs that would slow them down a bit. It wouldn’t stop them though. He knew the K9 unit was in another district even if the General was willing to tell people why he wanted the dogs to search for a blind soldier it would still take him awhile to requisition them. Dogs were too valuable to be traipsing across the country for no good reason.
Toa ran a hand over his head. The sun was merciless though he was used to the heat. He had grown up in heat like this. But even he was feeling the side effects of too much heat and too much sun. Still it was better than where he had come from.
He stumbled and fell on the ground. He bowed his head. For a brief moment he wished it was just over. He was dead and didn’t have to keep moving. He didn’t have to stay alive to make sure he saved his family.
Toa squeezed his eyes shut. Not yet. He still had things to do. Painful as they may be. He got up and stumbled again because he bumped into the side of a building. He felt his way along the wall there was a broken part and he climbed inside. The shade was lovely and he couldn’t help himself. He took the blanket his mother had given him and curled up in the shade and slept. Tomorrow was soon enough to try find a way to save his family.
Military Camp May 2097
The General shoved Natia towards the cave once they had made the climb up to the crack in the side of the mountain. “You go in first. We wouldn’t want to walk into any traps your dear old Dad has left behind.”
Natia glared at him but stepped forward. She had never been here but her father had sent a letter home which had explained about the cache and what it held. Also why it was so important the General didn’t get it.
Someone turned on a few torches and it pierced the darkness but it was still difficult to walk. She stumbled a few times but eventually got to the end of the cave. There was a large metal door.
The General stepped forward and growled. “Open it.”
Natia shook her head. “I can’t. I wasn’t told how to.”
The General motioned to one of his men. They came forward and worked on the door for a few moments.
They came back and said, “It’s Biometric and set to blow if it’s tampered with. Do you know who it’s set to?”
The General swore.
He turned to Natia. “You try it. You might be close enough.”
Natia wanted to sigh. He obviously had no idea how a Biometric lock worked. Now, her brother might fool it. He was a copy of their Dad but it was still unlikely. She had no chance in hell.
But she stepped forward. She didn’t want them to think she wasn’t co-operating. The General’s man motioned for her to put her hand on the plate. It flashed red and didn’t even ask for her voice print. It also told her that even her brother wasn’t going to be able to get through the lock.
The General’s man asked, “Are you sure the man who set the lock isn’t possible to find?”
The General growled, “He is dead.”
Natia blinked her eyes forcing tears away. It still hurt to know her father would never be returning. She turned her glare to him. Knowing he must have something to do with her father’s demise.
Secret Vault June 2090
Men moved past Williams. They were loaded down with artwork and bars of gold. He ignored them as he was setting the explosions to make sure no one tried to get to this before the right time. His superior had seen his faction was about to burn so he was jumping ship but he wasn’t intending to go out without a dime.
Over the years he and others in his command had been collecting things from the cities the army had been pillaging. Now he was putting it all into one place. Williams knew more. He knew his superior was also on the chopping block.
Word had come from the other group who merged with their city state he was not going to survive the merger. He knew others had decided they would just take up where they had left off. He had other ideas. He has followed orders to the letter but he doubted that his superiors would ever see inside the vault.
The last of the pillage was in the vault and Williams set the last explosive. He closed the door and spun the lock. No one would get in here anytime soon. Williams pulled the picture out of his pocket. The image had faded over time but he could just make out the faces of the three people in the world which meant everything to him.
Military Camp February 2091
Williams placed the picture of his two kids and wife in his pocket as he readied to leave. He was heading home and he would get to see them for himself soon enough. The merger with the two armies had finally taken place and it allowed Williams to cut his contract short and head home to his family.
He slung his duffel bag over his shoulder. He did a quick check to make sure he hadn’t left anything behind. There was a good chance he wouldn’t be coming back here.
When he went to leave the barracks there was someone standing in the door way.
After a minute he made out the figure and swore. “Damn it, Murphy. What the hell are you doing here?”
Williams went still when he saw the gun the man had. He stepped back and had his hands up to show he didn’t have a weapon, though that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous.
Murphy growled out, “Where is it?”
Williams shrugged pretending to not know what the man was talking about. Murphy had been dropping hints for weeks that they should take the loot the Generals had collected. Williams had made the mistake of telling the man there was a map. There wasn’t. Williams wasn’t that stupid. But he shouldn’t have said anything.
Yesterday the man had cornered him and demanded the map. He had given Murphy a fake. He didn’t trust Murphy. Murphy was cold. He had been hoping to get out of there before the man realised he had changed the map co-ordinates.
Murphy waved the gun. “Don’t play games with me Williams. Tell me where it is?”
Williams shrugged. If he told Murphy he would be dead anyway. He had one chance to get back to his kids and it was a slim shot at the best.
He dropped his bag on the ground and lunged when Murphy’s attention went to it. A gun blast pierced the air.
Military Camp February 2091
The contents of William’s duffel bag where up turned over the floor. Murphy had pulled up panels on the wooden floor and still there were no sign of hidden compartments or anything else.
Murphy came back to the body and gave it a solid kick. “You bastard, where the hell is it?”
There was a tap at the door and Murphy growled at the interruption but left. He couldn’t risk being caught here with the body. He stepped through the door and his man, gave him a look. His man asked, “You find it?”
He shook his head. Anger coursed through him. He hated he had to rely on others. This particular guy was getting a bit too cocky. His superior had asked if he knew someone who was good and also expendable. He might just give him his man’s name and that would sort out that problem before it was a problem. The man asked, “Did Williams tell you anything?” The man must know Williams was dead. The gun he had used had a muffler but it didn’t cover all the noise of the weapon. A gunshot was also very distinct. There was no missing he had shot someone. And a while ago.
Murphy spat on the ground. “We will get it another way.”
The only person who knew where that damn vault was, was dead. Stupid bastard for running at him like that.
Murphy ran a hand through his hair. “We will search for his family. They were a close bunch. I know he has a brother in one of the other units.”
His man nodded and slipped off. If William’s brother knew where the cache was then his man would find out.