"The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause."
Saturday afternoon, in the forest
The van's engine made a faint clicking sound. Lena began to pull over to the side of the road, when it completely cut out. Momentum carried them all the way off the road.
"What do you think it is, Anon?" She jumped out of the cab.
"No idea. You're the one with the licence," he replied, with a guilty flash of irritation.
She had the bonnet up in a flash, then swore. "Stone went right through the timing belt. Don't think they gave us a spare." She headed behind the car and checked, then shook her head in disgust.
"We're three miles out of the nearest town, judging by the milestone over there. If you walk in, there's a mechanic. Violet and I can stay here."
"Maybe head out into the forest a ways, so they can't see you by the car. Stay safe." She gave him a quick peck on the lips, hid her weapon in her handbag, and set off toward the town with it over her shoulder.
Anon watched her go for a couple of minutes, until she was around the bend, then took his backpack and headed out into the forest. Wildflowers bloomed in a carpet of colour anywhere there was a clearing, and grasses waved their seeds in the breeze. Around the shady trees, soft green moss and multicoloured fungi grew. At least Lena would have a nice walk.
He leant against a fallen tree, Violet drifting in and out of sleep in her sash across his chest, and took a book from his pack.
He woke with a start to an ant climbing his face. The sun had moved further through the sky, and there was no sign of Lena. Violet was a little restless, and he diligently shook up some formula in a bottle of water from his pack for her and fed her.
"What do you think, Violet? Head back to the van and see who's there?"
Violet gurgled at him.
"Yeah, me too. Let's go."
At the forest fringe her heard voices. He froze, and slowly lowered himself to the ground while peering forward. Three figures were visible, moving around the van. He crept backwards into the forest. Shit. If they brought in bloodhounds, he was done for.
Violet, so quiet until now, must have noticed the tension. She let out a plaintive little cry. He clapped a hand over her mouth, but the damage was done.
"HEY! I heard something! With me, private," ordered a female voice. Anon heard crashing through the trees. Throwing caution to the winds, he dropped his backpack and ran for it.
Through the wildflowers, crushing them under his feet, and past the trunk he'd fallen asleep against. The little wolf-pup tied against his chest was well and truly unhappy with him and screamed with every jolt, bouncing around in her sling. He felt for the grip of his pistol and held onto it as he ran downhill into a valley.
Seeing a rocky outcrop by a stream, he sensed an opportunity to lose his pursuers. He clapped his hand over Violet's mouth again—he really hoped this wasn't doing any kind of psychological damage to her—and crouched down among the rocks behind a screen of grass. Two lionesses in military fatigues pounded off down the valley.
Left hand pressed against Violet's mouth, he drew his revolver. Safety off, hammer back, forefinger along the barrel but ready to slip into the trigger guard at a moment's notice.
He doubled back much more slowly. They'd have a guard on the van, but he was confident of his chances against a lone anthro, and with any luck they'd arrived in a car he could steal. He could barely drive, but figured he'd at least be able to get it into third gear and drive to the nearby town.
Eyes on the van, now. He could see it through the trees. One figure—a tigress—stood leaning against its side, having a smoke and staring in the direction the lionesses had chased him. He circled around to the rear for an even better angle.
Line the front and rear sights up. Apply pressure to the grip mostly with the off hand. Finger on the trigger, now. Breath deep.
Furry paws yanked his arm to the side. His shot flew wide and smashed a little hole through the van's window.
"Gotcha, sunshine," said a voice, and he was thrown to the ground and roughly straddled by a droopy bloodhound officer, who clutched the gun in a vice-like grip and threw a punch at his chin. Violet began to wail.
Oh. There must have been four figures.
"Private, I caught us a hume cockroach, get your fat behind over here with the cuffs," the bloodhound yelled.
"Coming, Colonel ma'am!" yelled back the tigress.
Within moments Violet was gone and he was cuffed and hooded on the ground with a couple of gratuitous boot prints in his side, and by the time the shot brought the lionesses back he was bundled into the back of a car.
Hopefully Lena had the good sense to run.
The Colonel was in charge of a forestry work camp, to judge by the orders she spat out once they arrived. Anon was unceremoniously yet professionally thrown in a cell by the two lionesses, who bucked Anon's expectations and just frogmarched him straight through the camp without comment and without otherwise touching a hair on his head. The uncharitable thought that they were probably lesbians entered his head, and he quashed it. Lena proved anthro women could still have souls. Maybe they were just following orders and keeping their heads down.
They pulled the hood off his head and retrieved the cuffs before leaving, and he had a look around. The cells were prefabricated concrete with iron bars set into it, sturdy and lacking any obvious weakness. Most of the other buildings seemed to be rough-hewn wood. Violet was nowhere to be seen, and his sides were beginning to bruise.
Looking out the window to the entrance, he could see a wrought iron sign informing the world that "In Submission, True Freedom Waits" with blocky letters, above the path to the outside world. In the other direction stood squat huts surrounded by guard towers and hemmed in with chain-link fencing and razor wire. The camp was an ugly squat scab growing on a scar cut into the beautiful greenery of the forest.
Figures both anthro and human moved around under the watchful eye of guards—this camp might be the destination of anyone the regime caused to disappear. He knew there were very few human women and anthro men around, and the topic of why had been subject to intense speculation back in the city. Did the missing ones end up in camps like these? Were there towns and cities somewhere that mirrored their own, but filled with assigned human female on anthro male couples, as the National Anthro Workers Party claimed? Had something far worse happened to them? He stared at the indistinct silhouettes with morbid fascination, but couldn't make out the sex of any of them.
Birds chirped. Anon entertained himself by trying to scratch a portrait of Lena into the concrete with a pebble, to capture the black and white fur of her muzzle and the softness in her eyes when she smiled. The workers worked, and occasionally when they were beaten Anon picked up the ragged shouting and screaming. The sun gradually lowered. Nobody came near his cell. Chain gangs arrived from distant forest paths and trudged into their rough wooden accommodation, rifles pointed at them every step of the way. He wanted to be pretty much anywhere but here. Twilight was close.
As the harsh shadows of the setting sun cut against the cell wall, two anthro women entered the corridor outside his cell. He rolled his neck and shoulders, then stood slack and expressionless, staring at the floor. Best not to set them off.
"Private, cuff him." It was the bloodhound from before. He'd been hoping for the lionesses.
"Yes, ma'am. He's a juicy one."
"Mmmmmmmm. Take him to my office for interrogation."
The tigress yanked his arms up behind him and pushed him in front of her, out of the concrete prefab jailhouse and across a parade ground into a wooden hut. He was marched through a corridor and into a large corner office, then kicked hard in the back of the heel, sending him tumbling. He saw his backpack resting on a big wooden desk.
The Colonel strode in after the private. She pulled out a chair, and sat down across from him. Those sunken bloodhound eyes studied his face.
"Your race is meat. Your future is meat. Your job is meat. Your name is meat. You're a thick slab of human flesh laid out on the cutting board for me, nothing more."
She leaned down and grabbed his chin. "What's your name?"
"It's Anon," he said, some spark of idiocy compelling him to move his lips.
Her eyes looked like little brown pinpricks set in a raisin. She stroked his temple softly with her left hand, then lashed out with her right into the side of his eye socket.
"Meat," she said softly. "You answer to meat now. Say 'yes.'"
The human stared at her. Something inside him that had been strained to breaking point finally broke, in the opposite direction to what it should have. He grinned and then started giggling. "Fucking bitch. Fucking shrivelled up bitch wrinkly old military bitch." The laughter had him convulse for a few seconds. "Cunt like a rotten three-week-old peach black and dripping."
"Private, go and get my interrogation kit."
"Yes, ma'am," said the tigress. She saluted and left.
The bloodhound stepped lightly around him, studying him like he was a dissected specimen. She slammed a surgically aimed boot into him, then did it again.
"We have a strategy for difficult little hume roaches who don't know their place. Third and last chance for tonight, meat. Take off your pants, right here, right now."
Anon was half-laughing half-sobbing. "No damn way," he choked.
The Colonel pressed her foot against Anon's throat. "I won't fuckin' ask again, meat. Take. Those. Pants. Off." She began leaning her full bodyweight into his neck, slowly applying pressure, and little illusory fireflies of light started to swim before his eyes as his consciousness receded. She must be blocking his carotid. He felt his vision blurring and disappearing from the periphery inward.
A loud booming crack shook his bones: the report of a rifle, shattering glass, and a meaty thud, compressed into one wave of noise. Half the Colonel's head was spread across the opposite wall. Glass tinkled to the ground. Out of sight an iron rifle bolt cycled back and forward, and a discarded brass casing hit the asphalt with a ping. The bloodhound's body collapsed straight down onto his legs like a bag of garbage falling off a roof. It happened so fast, Anon didn't remember an actual event, just disconnected scenes: the pressing foot and sneer, the blown-away head, the heavy crumpled corpse.
He jerked his feet out from under her and backed up to the wall, hyperventilating and trying to get himself back under control.
The door slammed open. Lena had her sawn-off carbine up, but lowered it and ran to him. She dropped to one knee and grabbed his shoulders. "Anon, look at me. Look at me. Are you hurt?"
Anon shook his head.
"We're getting out of here."
Anon waved his cuffs at her. "Key. That bitch's belt."
Lena ignored the slur and fumbled for the key, grabbed it, and freed him with shaking paws. She held one out to him. He grasped it and she dragged him upright.
He breathed in and out a few times, and shook his head rapidly to clear it. "Shit. I love you so damn much right now, Lena. That woman is going straight to hell, direct flight with no stopovers." He turned his head and spat on the Colonel's body, picked a semi-automatic pistol off her corpse, retrieved his backpack, then followed Lena out.
Near the barracks, rifles popped and crackled.
"What's happening over there? Did you find Violet?"
"Partisans down from the mountains. Long story. The Colonel left Violet in town—I got her, she's with a friend now. We just need to get the hell out of here."
"Her car's just there, around the corner. You've got her keys, let's go."
As Anon rounded the corner, he nearly collided with the tigress, holding a rifle and running towards the barracks. On autopilot he aimed for her centre of mass and squeezed the trigger once, twice, three times, just like he'd practiced with his grandfather all those years ago. He stopped firing and she lurched forward at him, so he raised the barrel to her head and pulled the trigger one more time from a few feet away. She dropped like a bird hitting a glass door.
Lena inhaled and let out her breath. "Fights are over so quickly. I never knew."
"Me neither. Please, Lena, get us out."
She reached the car, opened the unlocked door, and started it. He jumped into the rear seat from force of habit and they took off at a blistering pace. His hands fumbled with the unfamiliar pistol until he found the magazine release. Four rounds left.
The highway was eerily deserted as they sped toward the town to collect Violet.