This week's submission is from KC on Facebook:
“You might as well just come out. You’re making a racket.”
The voice resounded in her head. The fox emerged cautiously from her hiding place. The hare watched her approach.
“I thought I did better that time,” she thought at it.
The hare nodded; an almost imperceptible movement of the head. “You have improved,” he said, “but you need more training. Unfortunately, time is not something that we have.”
A polar bear appeared behind her. “You have to remember to watch your back,” his voice growled in her head. “The last operative picked that up much faster than you.”
“I’m doing the best that I can!” she protested.
“You need to do better than your best,” said the hare. “We have less than twenty-four hours to-”
“I know!” the fox shouted before being immediately hushed by the other two. “You’ve been telling me this since I got here but you won’t tell me why.”
“Let’s go back,” said the hare.
The fox knew it was hopeless to argue further.
Snowflakes drifted toward the ground as the three animals trudged single-file over the powdered terrain. None of them said a thing until they reached the glacier that the fox had come to know as home. She peered up at its exquisite beauty, the soft undertones hidden beneath the washed out exterior and a familiar warmth grew in her stomach. Yet, at the center of that warmth was a deep and abiding fear. The hare hopped up to the ice wall and turned his head. A green light scanned his eye and a silent door slid open before them. When will I get approval for that? the fox wondered.
“When you prove yourself worthy,” the bear answered.
An ermine came hurrying toward them. “So?” she asked eagerly.
The bear shook his head. “She’s improving,” said the hare. The fox was thankful for the positive response until he added, “But not fast enough.”
The ermine let out a squeak of impatience. “Come on, Fox! The operation is tomorrow!”
“This is not helping!” the fox screeched. “I’ve only been here five days! You’ve had months to figure this out. Why didn’t you work this out so it was just the three of you?”
“This is a four-person operation,” the ermine said.
“Four-creature,” the bear corrected her.
“Do you really think this is the time?” the ermine snapped.
“The people are the enemy!” the bear avowed.
“That’s right!” the hare interrupted. “The people are the enemy and if we want to survive, we have no choice.” He turned a hard eye on the fox. “We realize that you are very new, but we could not foresee the circumstances that led to our last operative’s untimely demise. The operation was crafted with a fox and through some leniency of Providence, the unwitting repetition of the humans, or perhaps a combination of both, a fox has been brought to us. In doing so, the humans have brought about their imminent demise. Neither I nor the ermine is strong enough to carry the bomb and the bear is too large to escape notice. The bear will perform his duty of distraction. The ermine will perform lookout. You will carry the bomb into enemy territory and grab the key code in exchange. You are the swiftest of us, but you will set off sensors within seconds if you cannot control your thoughts!”
“They can’t hear our actual thoughts,” the fox protested. “They can only detect the frequency.”
“Which is still more information than they should have,” the bear asserted.
“I was much happier when I didn’t have to worry about every thought being transmitted via the airwaves,” grumbled the fox.
“We all were,” the hare agreed, “but unfortunately, none of us had any choice in the matter. The only thing that I could do was fortify this cavern with white noise so nothing gets out. Now, we can either use the technology to our advantage and perhaps create a life of our own or we can be pawns for human entertainment.”
“What happens if I can’t control my thoughts?” said fox. “Can’t you create a white noise thingy around their encampment so that they can’t detect us even when we’re outside?”
“Don’t you think I would have done that if I could have?” the hare snapped.
The fox lowered her tail in defeat. “I’m sorry. I just thought that maybe we could disrupt their equipment.”
“It’s been tried. We just don’t have room for another failure.”
The fox was silent. “What happened to the other fox?” she finally asked.
“Died,” said the ermine.
“He got arrogant,” said the bear. “Wanted to prove he could do it all by himself. Got sloppy.”
“But what happened to him?” asked the fox.
The hare sighed and looked at the other two before turning his attention back to the fox. “The humans captured him.”
“They did tests upon him,” said the bear.
“They tortured him,” said the ermine, “then they killed him. Now, they’re coming after us.”
“Us?” said the fox. “Why would they do that?”
“They realized that their little experiment had unplanned effects,” said the ermine in a dark tone.
“Such as our intelligence,” said the hare. “It seems they were trying to enhance our natural abilities, but the chips implanted in our brains had a much different effect than planned.”
“If they knew about you, then why was I brought here?” the fox wondered.
“Sleeper agent,” said the bear.
“Programmed to bring us in or kill us,” said the ermine.
“I would never-”
“Don’t concern yourself,” said the hare. “We reprogrammed your chip before we allowed you to join us.”
“You- what? How?” the fox asked.
“Very carefully.” The ermine smiled.
“Suffice to say, you are no longer a threat,” said hare, “but the humans still are. You are our only chance to escape.”
“Escape?” the fox asked, a quaver in her voice. “Where will we go?”
“Away from here,” said the ermine. “This isn’t our home. This was never meant to be our home. The humans brought us here.”
“It’s called Antarctica,” said the bear. “Call it by its name.”
“That really isn’t important right now!” hissed the ermine. “What’s important is that we get the key for the transport pod and get out of here.”
“So you see,” said the hare, “there isn’t a moment to lose. We didn’t even want to let it last this long, but…” He trailed off.
The fox caught the gist. “I can do it,” she said. The ermine scoffed. “I can.”
“Prove it,” said the ermine. “You have a perfect memory, so use it.”
“It was built into your programming,” the bear explained. “Probably because you were supposed to report everything you saw and heard back to the humans and this was a way to assure that what you said was true.”
“So start using that perfect memory to get yourself up to code,” ordered the ermine. “We attack just before tomorrow’s daybreak. The humans will be just waking up so they’ll be caught unawares.”
“We need to practice if we’re going to be successful,” said the hare. “Let’s run the simulation again.”
They practiced late into the night. The fox did everything she could to keep her thoughts below the radar, but no matter how calm she felt, beneath it was the layer of terror that threatened to overtake her if she gave in to it. With each run, there came another level of exhaustion, another layer of frustration. The ermine snapped. The fox cried. The bear threatened to quit. Finally, just a few short hours before dawn, the hare called a halt. The fox’s jaws ached from the weight of the bomb.
“I think that’s as good as it’s going to get,” said the hare.
“So I got it,” said the fox.
“He didn’t say that,” said the ermine.
“It’s time we all got some sleep,” said the hare, trying to head off an argument. The bear growled his assent. The ermine stared at the fox, dark eyes glittering, but she said nothing as she slinked off to her chamber.
“Sleep well,” said the bear. “See you afterwards.”
“I…yeah, um, you too,” the fox stammered. After he left, the fox turned to the hare. “I won’t see him until after the mission?” she asked.
“It’s better if you just focus on your part,” said the hare. “None of us will see each other until the mission is complete.”
“What is your part of the mission?” the fox dared to ask.
“I know everyone’s part except yours. What will you do?”
“I will use the key code to control the transport pod,” the hare told her. “Now, it’s time for you to get some sleep. I will see you after. Good luck.”
Not knowing what else to say, the fox simply said, “Thank you. You too.” Then she walked to her chambers. It wasn't much, but she had never been a demanding creature. She crawled to the corner, curled up, and was asleep almost as soon as she closed her eyes.
It seemed only a moment later that a whining noise sounded through the room and the fox sprang awake with a start. Her body was moving even before her muddled brain could figure out the next steps to be taken. She padded through the main room where she had trained only a few hours prior. It felt desolate without her companions. She had only known them a short time, but she had come to depend on their presence. Even the ermine.
Relying on sheer muscle memory, she kept her focus on everyday things while her body moved through exercises. She ate a small helping of food; enough to sustain her, but not so much that she would feel sluggish. She felt calm, controlled, though there was a humming beneath the surface that energized her muscles. The next step was to retrieve the bomb. Her eyes raked the room, searching for the small device, but it was nowhere to be seen. Searching her memory, she recalled that the hare had been holding it in his paws as she went off to bed the night before. Perhaps he had been working on it, she thought as she walked toward his room. A quick scan of the almost bare room revealed a small bed on one side, a number of papers with diagrams and blueprints spread out on the other side, but no explosive device. Confused, she returned to her own room and there she found it waiting for her. Her concern cleared as she picked the bomb up carefully in her teeth and hurried on her way. Just before leaving, she paused to take a breath and calm her mind. A moment later, she was outside.
The stars were already starting to fade, preparing for their daytime rest. A clean wind blew across the snow, trailing a powdered sparkle in its wake, but otherwise, the air was clear. The fox took all of this in as she ran. She wasn’t thinking; she was just breathing and running. It had been almost an hour when she saw the lights of the human encampment. It looked exactly as the hare’s diagram had. She slowed as she drew closer and peered toward the scientific enclosure, sighting her destination. It was near the center of everything. She crouched down, preparing to run.
Suddenly, there was a chittering sound and a huge crash and people came pouring out of their enclosures, running toward the far corner. The fox took off. Her limbs stretched and she actually felt a rush of exhilaration. The hare’s plan had worked beautifully; there were no humans in sight. Laser lights scanned her as she tore into the enclosure and an alarm sounded. She dropped the explosive device and left, dashing to the commander’s demesne. The key code was on a ring resting near the commander’s bed. She snatched it in her teeth and was back outside in less than ten seconds.
The hare was waiting for her at the transport pod. “Get in!” he shouted. The fox leapt through the doorway, the door crashing down behind her. She dropped the key code and whirled.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “The others aren’t here yet!” The hare was already punching buttons and screens were lighting up. His ears were drawn tight over his head and he was quivering with excitement. The fox shouted, “Stop!”
“Why should I?” asked the hare. “I’m almost done.”
“Done with what?” The fox was bewildered. She looked around. The schematics viewed in the hare’s bedroom suddenly flashed to the forefront of her mind. “This isn’t a transport pod!”
“You noticed that, did you?”
“It’s a conversion chamber,” said the fox aloud. “You’re going to send out a pulse that will deactivate our chips. We’ll become dumb animals again!”
“You’re as good as dead anyway,” the hare sniffed.
“Why would you do this?” the fox demanded.
The hare’s paws didn’t stop moving, but his eye focused on the fox. “Survival of the smartest,” he said. “I will make this place mine.”
“But the humans-”
“Can’t survive out here without their equipment and they won’t have that very soon, thanks to you.”
“You brought the bomb, didn’t you?”
The fox paused, realizing. “The humans were never a threat to us, were they? You made it all up.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said the hare, shrugging.
The fox growled and leapt at the smaller creature…and smacked a shimmering blue wall. “Force field,” the hare explained. “You didn’t really think I would leave myself wide open, did you?” The fox shook her head, trying to clear it, and the hare laughed. “Does it hurt? Don’t worry. In a few seconds, you won’t even know where you are.” Indeed, the whine of building energy echoed through the chamber.
Time slowed for the fox. The energy was nearing its release. She analyzed her surroundings, looking for some reprieve from the hare’s plan. Pushing herself to her feet, she hurled herself across the small chamber and slammed her paw down on a tiny lever.
The hare’s eyes widened as it realized that the fox had reversed the focus. He had almost slammed his paw on the button to release the force field when the blast of energy, instead of radiating outward, flashed through the inside of the chamber. The fox heard a terrifying shriek of loss and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, there was the hare, hopping around the chamber in a panic. His eyes were wide in fear, but they were empty. The fox saw the button to release the door and she pressed it.
The hare shot through the egress and was quickly lost among the smoking ruins of the human encampment. The fox was slower emerging from the pod. She blinked in the dim light burgeoning through the dissipating smoke. There were no humans on site, but she could hear them approaching, so she sped away. She had no idea what had happened to the ermine and the bear, but even as she wondered, a wind came out of the east.
She scented the hare long before she saw it.