Gunfire and light footsteps ring through the compound’s hallways - not an uncommon sound here, but I walk towards it anyway, because the fast breathing accompanying it sounds girlish, frightened. Picking up my pace slightly, I half jog towards the direction of the sound. I turn the corner and collide into a thin form, clumps of long hair flying on both sides. The other girl’s hair is brown, though - a Caucasian chestnut brown. There’s only one person in the whole Empire with hair like that.
“Run, Para,” Brenna gasps. “They’re coming.”
Annoyed that she isn’t being more specific, I follow her in the general direction that she’s sprinting. Soon I, too, am panting - curse her long legs! Someone yells behind us and I ascertain that he’s around twenty years old and Punjabi. I suddenly wonder why Brenna and I haven’t gotten to know our guards and officers better.
Apparently my running has slowed, because Brenna comes back and shoves me forward. I still don’t know where we’re going. Then I realize something and almost stop running: her hair is not bound into a braid. The only time I have ever seen it down is when she is re-braiding it. Now it is hastily stuffed into a dark brown ponytail to her mid-thigh. The hair band is wrapped around the ponytail only two times - very bad, since her hair is so slippery. Now I am sincerely scared and struggle to keep up.
“Brenna! Slow down!” I’m getting increasingly ticked off, and this girl must be feeling some serious adrenaline, because she’s already twenty feet ahead. Also, this problem is evidently pretty bad. Forget her hair, not even Brenna can ignore me when I’m yelling. Instead, she huffs and takes my hand, and then we’re flying. My legs stumble trying to keep up with her smooth, effortless gait.
She almost pulls my arm out of its socket, and I start to tell her that getting away from these people is really not worth losing my arm when something explodes behind us. Brenna leaps, always graceful, and I jump like some sort of disabled frog. Even in all the chaos, my stupid mind manages to think, Typical.
We’ve landed on the hard tile and I see that Brenna has taken most of the impact. Shakily, she stands and for once it’s me helping her. After a few quick breaths, she bursts into a sprint and my hand catches her arm just in time. Finally able to orient myself, I see that she’s dashing madly towards the courtyard—do not ask me why it’s called that—so that we can get our bearings in all this craziness. Although technically it would make us more open to attack…shut up, analysis.
Brenna slams something in front of us, and I’m surprised at her level-headedness, but then again, I always am. Bright sunlight burns my eyes, painful compared to the fluorescence inside the facility. Stringy, unloved grass bristles beneath my feet. More shots ring out, though by now I’m too panicked to tell where they’re coming from. We’re running at an almost unbelievable speed thanks to Brenna’s incredible sprinting, but I can hear her panting and I know we’ll be slowing down soon. Now is my time to take over, but I’m still worrying about whether I can keep up our speed.
It apparently doesn’t matter. I feel a rush of adrenaline - about time! - and my feet finally start moving. It’s slow going at first, but I have plenty of motivation, so it’s not too bad. Blasts echo behind us, almost shattering my hearing. The bombs cloud my consciousness and I don’t hear the helicopter blades whirring above us until a hatch opens and a small, lethal-looking dart flies out of it. I cry out, but Brenna’s energy chooses that exact moment to give out and she pants and stops, hands on her knees.
“Brenna!” By this time I know I’m wasting my breath. “Look out!” As if that wasn’t obvious enough already. She does look, but the dart has lodged itself into her shoulder. Terrified, eyes glassy, she screams, and I run in her direction. The helicopter has gotten there first. A man scoops her limp body up and I catch a last glimpse of her face. It’s white and no part of her is moving.
Like part of a bad movie, the world seems to shift into slow motion. I can practically hear the cheesy orchestral background music. I mentally hit myself and scream for the orchestra to shut up, but I’m not sure what I’m doing on the outside. I feel something wet hit my hand and will myself to stop crying, but my best friend just died, so what am I supposed to do? My knees hit the ground. It’ll make two nasty bruises. Then I jerk back to reality and I scream incoherently at the sky, at the rapidly receding helicopter carrying Brenna’s body away.
Wait. Why are they taking her?
My mind can’t seem to form any other coherent thoughts. It repeats over and over, strangely like the government announcements over the speaker in the facility. I sit there, staring at the helicopter in the blazing afternoon sky, India’s trademark summer blueness. I’m drenched in sweat and my thick black hair is forming a messy sort of halo around my head. The sun has a numbing effect on me, gradually burning away all feeling. I lose track of time and no one seems interested in coming for me or sorting this out. General Han should be here by now, I think. Why is no one...
I can feel the world slipping away from me, and too late I realize that my throat is parched and the sun is steadily sinking. It must be at least forty degrees Celsius out here, and I’ve been sitting for at least four hours, no food, no water. Not enough to kill me, but..
I struggle to conscious as the world fades. Something gleams on the ground. At this stage I could be hallucinating, but I feel the blade and my hand comes away bleeding. Almost like a papercut. Papercuts can be so vicious. My reason is definitely leaving me. My eyelids feel like lead and my tongue like a piece of sandpaper. I pick up the object. It appears to be a knife. I turn it over in my hands, but there’s nothing I can deduce in this haze.
Green flashes on one side of the blade. I turn it over to see something I’ve only seen slides of: a symbol from over fifty years ago. The image flashes before my eyes. I must be hallucinating. There’s no other way that I could be seeing this. But what part of my subconscious is reaching out to me here?
“Doctor Prasad!” I hear the shout of the firm general. His Hindi is heavily accented, so Chinese-sounding that I cough out a feeble laugh. I turn to look, but the sun finally catches up with me. The form of a white medic sways as I fall into their arms. “Doctor Prasad, speak. Did you see any men? Where were they from, do you think? Did you see Doctor Malhotra? Do you know what happened to her?” That last laugh has choked all of the voice out of me, but I want to tell him to stop talking long enough for me to actually answer him.
The small rectangle has burned itself behind my closed eyelids. I mull it over. I know I’ve seen it before, but I can’t place it. It’s like an itch that I can’t reach. Annoyed, I reach for the memory. Surely it’s there - my memory is photographic, and has never failed me. A slideshow... in a defense meeting... two years or so ago... yes! I’ve got it! But why would anyone use this sign? Who is sending this message and what does it mean?
“What is this, Doctor Prasad?” the general has found the knife and is analyzing it. He has pulled it out of the ground and is looking at me intently. I’m about to tell him the answer, triumphant that I’ve remembered it, but my throat is too dry and my attempt at words is a reptilian rasp. I need to tell him; this is important, but the sun is beckoning me towards blackness. Instead, a thought echoes in my head, so loudly that for a moment I think that I really have told him: