Escape from Athabasca – A Short Story

Escape from Athabasca

 

He had fought with his wife over a small matter of how much he should pay for the new fridge, and then left home threatening never to return. Now he regretted it, but then it had become a matter of prestige for him so he continued driving on the highway towards Athabasca. The drone of the motorcycle engine and the stretching ribbon of the road, the whisper of the wind somehow spurred him on to a fate he seemed to have no control. It was a big cruiser bike, an expensive one at three thousand dollars, but then he had always wanted to buy a Norton Cruiser. Selma and he had fought over the need to buy the bike, but then rather surprisingly he found it parked in the courtyard one fine day. Selma had bought it for him!

Glancing at his watch Segan saw it was four 0 clock – he had been riding the bike for close to four hours now although he had taken a bio-break one hour after leaving Selma behind at Tenacre. He had covered a good two hundred kilometres and would soon be hitting the outskirts of Athabasca. It was getting brighter with the sun approaching the horizon. It had been a soothing ride in many ways and he knew that once he reached Athabasca, he would turn back for the return journey to Tenacre. He would apologise to Selma when she returned from work at the Tenacre Institute of Applied Sciences where she taught Psychology to University students, probably cook a savoury dish of mixed vegetables and fried rice (her favourite) and they would be friends. His thoughts now drifted to his job. He taught Mathematics at the Rangers’ High School and they were off for the week after the annual exams. He would be taking up a new class this term, grade eight besides the two sections of twelfth that he took. The school head wanted an experienced teacher to take a lower class alongside senior classes and he acquiesced knowing that it would add to his experience.

He was just ten kilometres short of Athabasca when he heard the distant sounds of trucks and helicopters headed in his direction. Strange though it seemed, Segan continued driving towards Athabasca. The closer he got to the town, he was dismayed to see people fleeing in all directions but North, for that was the direction from which a long line of military trucks seemed to be snaking towards Athabasca. Hovering above the trucks were military helicopters that were sweeping the area ahead the trucks, reconnoitring, it seemed possible obstacles on their way, or perhaps any opposition that they might meet. “Hey,” he mumbled to himself, “I hope that is not an invading army” he wondered to himself. Soon it became clear that he could not proceed further against the flow of traffic that was heading south, the way he had come from. He was headed towards the advancing cavalcade and it now seemed to be a bad idea. In any case it was now too difficult to turn around and head back towards Tenacre. Kicking out the Side-Stand of the bike, Segan dismounted the motorcycle and then accosted a decent looking man who was carrying a camera slung around his neck and a bag of camera equipment.

“Hi,” he addressed the man who apparently was a journalist, “I am Segan,  I have been driving towards Athabasca from Tenacre, what’s going  on over there?”

“Hi,” said the other man, extending his right hand to shake Tenacre’s. We have been attacked by the Tarkian army. They apparently want to use the residents of Athabasca as Guinea Pigs for their Bio-chemical weapon,” he remarked in a matter of fact voice. “By the way, I am Soldan Kermik, a reporter with the Western Herald News Syndicate,” he continued.

“Well,” Segan went on, “I am a Maths Teacher at the Rangers’ School at Tenacre, and I had decided to undertake a solo ride on the express way and here I am, not a good idea, I guess!”

By now the crowd had increased ten times, and Segan could see that it would not be possible to ride his motorcycle through this crowd. He finally unlocked the lid to his side Pannier and took out his extra tee shirt, utility box and then leaving lock in the ignition, for what would it matter, he began to walk back the way he had come. Soldan had left him with the advice to avoid any kind of contact with the Tarkian army regulars. He had also told him as concisely as possible that the Tarkian scientists had developed a bio-chemical weapon, a canister that contained millions of fine needles containing a bio-engineered agent that when dropped from helicopter would burst open, disseminating the cloud of needles which would then burrow into skin and flesh of human beings. The needles would then discharge their poison into the bloodstream turning the victim into a state of paralysis where the mind worked but the limbs simply refused to obey the commands sent by the brain. The state of paralysis, lasting a whole day would then give way allowing the victim to regain movement in the limbs. This would be followed by high temperature, a wasting disease that turned the victims into scarecrows, zombies who would be around for a week, biting, infecting and harassing those who had not been affected by the Bio-Agent. The Bio-Chemical agent had been programmed not to affect the Tarkian soldiers.

Segan walked with the crowd back the way he had come. He suddenly remembered that he was carrying his mobile and so on an impulse called up his younger brother, Stepan, a fire-fighter at Tenacre. In as few words as possible, he summed up the situation.

After a pause of a few seconds of listening to his elder brother quietly, he spoke, “Look Segan, you need to get to Dessie, about twenty-five kilometres from where you are, I will drive to the central plaza in the ATV and pick you up. The army has been mobilized and they will be marching towards Athabasca any time. You need to reach the town as quickly as possible; we are glued to the TV sets and know that the situation will soon turn volatile. Just get out of that place!” he exhorted his elder brother.

Segan protested that he was on foot, and would probably not be able to make it to the town of Dessie, but then his brother told him that he would have manage somehow. Before switching off his mobile phone, he told his brother to check in with Selma. He would not be able to call her on her mobile phone as the university where she taught did not allow its teachers to carry mobile phones into class, moreover it was Wednesday, a day when she had classes from eight in the morning to twelve noon. After his call to his brother, Segan texted his wife, “Sorry I fought with you, I will make with you by preparing your favourite savoury dish of stewed vegetables and fried rice. Love you and miss you!”

The trudge southwards had become more of a disorganised shamble and Segan could see very clearly that if they could not press on at a faster pace, the Tarkians would be upon them before noon. In desperation, Segan looked back towards the road leading to Athabasca, and he was shocked to see that the crowd had not only increased in size, but also seemed to have stopped moving at all! It looked as if it was a cork tightly wedged in the narrow mouth of a bottle. They were sitting ducks that could be picked at leisure by the Tarkians. No sooner he had entertained this thought, than there was a commotion at the back of the crowd, and a surge that pushed those in the front like a powerful wave pushing all obstacles out of its way. He could see that the Tarrkian advance scouts had reached the rear end of the exodus of humanity, and they were firing at the stragglers, ominously taking no prisoners.

What happened next was similar to an overflowing river bursting through its banks. The people left the highway and started running into the fields and farms abutting the highway. Segan also took to the fields in a lop that he hoped would take him away from the attacking Tarkian soldiers. However, soon progress became difficult as his feet began to sink into the freshly ploughed earth. Ten minutes of mad rush had left him exhausted so he paused, just for a moment to regain his breath and looked back the way he had come. What he saw at that moment would haunt him as nightmares for a long time – he saw what was a meticulous culling of the people who had fled from Athabasca. Men, women, old and young were being pursued by the Tarkians, mowed down, ambushed, and chased mercilessly. Those fleeing from their pursuers screamed while the hunters bayed, shouted and hooted even as they hunted down the hapless people.

It became clear that he had made a mistake in pausing to take a breath and turning round to look at the Tarkians for soon there was a shout and  he realised that the pursuers had seen him. Obeying the instructions of their officer, they split into two groups intending to trap him in a pincer like movement. Segan however had trained well, jogging and cycling in the early morning hours before going to school to teach. That training had given him an edge over his pursuers. He knew that the only way to escape from that pincer like movement of the enemy was to stay ahead of the two pincer-fingers. Thus taking a deep breath, Segan continued running. The game could not however go on for long because, while his pursuers kept on being replaced by fresh ones dropped by helicopters, Segan was the only one who had run continuously. He soon reached what appeared to be an abandoned farm, and throwing caution to the wind dodged into the low doorway of one of the barns. Finally exhausted and gasping, Segan decided to submit to what fate had in store for him. Inexplicably and strangely enough, his pursuers ran on for a few hundred feet before falling back. They returned the way they had come, called back no doubt. After what seemed to be ages, Segan stepped out of the barn cautiously and looking toward the north, where Athabasca lay, he saw to his dismay, a sky full of dark clouds that drifted slowly to the earth. It was a matter of time before that cloud was upon him, and then there would be no escaping from the deadly agent that those clouds contained. Desperate and helpless, he began walking due South hoping that the wind would slow down the movement of the clouds in his direction. After about  half an hour, he reached what appeared to be a working farm. At the farm he could see someone, a woman in her middle ages, ploughing the field with the help of a plough attached to the tractor. The farm strangely enough seemed to be devoid of anyone else.

Rushing towards the tractor he waved to the woman who immediately stopped the tractor. “Who are you?” the woman asked him.

“ I have just escaped from a bunch of Tarkian soldiers who have taken over the town of Athabasca. They have killed a lot of people, and now have unleashed a Bio-Chemical agent over the whole area. It is only a matter of time before the deadly cloud reaches us!” he gasped.

Marja, for so her name was listened to him before informing him that her husband and their two middle aged sons had gone to Dessie to visit his brother whose wife had just delivered a son. He immediately coaxed her to drive the tractor to Dessie along with him. At first she refused to budge, but then digging into his bag, he showed her a bundle of bills and told her that he would pay her two-thousand Fills. But then she was a tough one and agreed to take him to Dessie only if he paid her three-thousand Fills. Unable to argue further because of the urgent need to get away, he agreed however reluctantly. He  quickly collected bottles of fresh water , a can of diesel fuel as directed by his new acquaintance while  Marja collected some papers, which she said were cash bonds and a nasty looking rifle.  After locking down the barns and the farmhouse, they set upon the onward journey to Dessie – an odd couple, a young man and a middle aged woman who drove the tractor like a mad, Formula one race-circuit driver. They took the interior dust tracks which were more like tracks beaten out of the undergrowth by the passage of cattle and other domesticated animals out to feed on fresh grass. Many a times they came to ditches and culverts which seemed impossible to cross, even on a tractor, but then Marja managed somehow. It was getting dark and they had been travelling for ages it seemed before they reached the outskirts of Dessie. Marja took a break during this wild rush to call up her husband before hitting the highway to the town. The drive on the highway was so smooth that Segan nearly fell asleep. Strangely enough the highway was deserted, there were no vehicles on the road and an eerie emptiness engulfed them. Finally they reached Marja’s brother in law’s house at eight in the night. After a brief introduction with the other family member and relatives, for they were all prepared for the trip to Tenacre in the family minibus, he took his leave of them after handing over the cash and asking them the directions to the town plaza.

There at the town plaza was the red SUV bearing the Tenacre Fire Department Licence plate. The town was emptied of its inhabitants who had apparently fled the advance of the Tarkian army. Overjoyed by the sight of the vehicle he rushed to its side to be hugged at first by his brother and then his wife Selma. Without too much delay in the form of explanations about the strange incidents that had taken place that day, they rushed towards Tenacre, the last remaining people to escape from the advancing invaders. The highway was deserted, their vehicle being the only one to be seen for miles. Segan finally slipped into deep sleep, his head cradled by Selma on the back seat.

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