The Burning

By Jen South

Time Period:The Present

The door hung on a single hinge but John was careful as he pushed it aside
anyway.  Not only did he hate the loud noise it would have made had it
fallen, there was also the very real possibility of booby traps for all
that the place looked like a bombed out shell.  His combat boots were
silent in the ash as he stepped inside, narrow eyes searching, gun ready. 
Rob gave a low whistle as he stepped in behind him.
"Looks like we found the blast center, Captain."
John nodded, scanning the ruined room.
"Looks like" he agreed,  easing his way under a fallen beam as he headed
for the hallway, Rob close at his shoulder.  He couldn't blame Rob for his
nervousness.  Things had been going steadily down hill since way past the
time when it shouldn't have been able to get any worse.  This bombed out
section of the mall was just the latest of the terrorist attacks that had
been flying back and forth so quickly lately that it was impossible to keep
up with who was paying who back for what anymore.  John shouldered aside
the next door, ignoring the soot that coated the shoulder of his black
combat jacket for the effort.  There was so little left of the first body
they came across he didn't even bother check, just stepped over it and used
his shoulder again to knock a hanging plank aside.  The next one was a kid
and John knelt in the soot next to him anyway, even though he knew there
wasn't any point behind it.  Rob looked over his shoulder, moved on with a
mumbled:  "poor kid".  "Poor kid".  It seemed like they were saying that a
lot lately.  Way too much.  John reached down with a gloved hand, touched
the feather woven in the boy's dark hair.  Poor kid.
"Bad day for the Reds."
It was Anderson, toeing a body over to get a look at what was left of the
face.  John ignored him.  Anderson liked his job too much for John's taste.
And hated the Indians too much for John's comfort.  Official report said
that this was an attack by a extremist white group.  Once, John might have
believed them.  As he stood up, he shook his head.  No, not even then.  He
moved out into the outer room, the show room.  Where all the innocent
victims of the attack had been.  Not that Headquarters  would see anyone
who was here as innocent.  Reports had come in, reports of a gun smuggling
deal taking place in the back room of the local mall's EarthOutfitters
shop.  The SWAT team had been sent in to make some arrests and things had
fallen apart.  John more than half suspected that they had been meant to. 
There had been that explosion during opening shift at the local wood
cutting plant that was on Res land.  And the fire at the local library. 
The dug up, desecrated graves in the white church yard.  Those two boys
last night that had been jumped and beaten too close to death to stand much
hope of recovery.  Plenty of reasons for someone to want the bust to go
bad.  Looked like they'd gotten their wish.  John's hand tightened on his
gun and he pushed aside a fallen display.
The area outside of the shop was roped off but there was a good sized
crowd pushing and jostling against its border.  John didn't look at them as
he passed a blown out window.  He knew what he'd see.  Same thing this
always caused no matter what color skin the crowd had.  He didn't need to
see the anger, the frustration, the want - need for revenge to feel it
boring into his turned back.
Three hundred years.  It was a long time to bear a grudge.  A long time to
fight a war.  Three hundred years of whites pushing Indians off their land
and three hundred years of the Indians fighting back.  The whole nation was
a mismatched quilt work of Indian and white land.  The Americans resented
the harness on their movement.  The Indians referred to all non-Indian land
as the Lost Lands.  A sudden streak of anger burned through John.  Weren't
they all supposed to be American?  Not divided over something as stupid as
land that no one really cared about anymore any way.  The friction had
always been there.  But it was after World War Two and the fresh burst of
prosperity it brought that things began to fall apart rapidly.   Seems
prosperity always brought about leisure time.  And there was always
somebody who had nothing better to do with his free time than start feeding
First it had been squatters on land they didn't have a right to.  Then
Reservation land had been needed for expanding industries.  There had been
protests.  Protests had eventually become riots.  Riots had been put down
using force.  The protesters who rose out of that didn't act like
protesters anymore.  They acted like terrorists.  And that's when the
government had formed ACT.  The Army Counter-Terrorists.  At first it had
worked.  And then the Indians had formed the Alliance Warriors Society.  An
organized, well funded terrorist group.  And between them, the two groups
had managed to send everything straight to hell.
John climbed around some fallen plaster display rocks near the climbing
equipment.  Today's orders:  round up survivors for questioning.  Not that
there looked like there would be many survivors.  Just as well.  Anyone
hurt by the bomb wouldn't be able to stand up well to ACT questioning
methods.  Especially when it would be so easy to cover up the actual cause
of death and blame everything on the blast from the bomb.
John moved a surprisingly intact display rack of mountain jackets aside
and spotted another body.  She was fully intact and he was careful as he
eased over to her.  No telling when one of their women was packing a gun
and intent on using it.  Except she was in no condition to lift a gun, much
less use it.  She was laying against the far wall and it looked like she'd
been shielded from the damage of the blast.  Dried blood formed a dark
smear on the far side of her forehead where she'd been tossed against the
wall by the explosion and John knelt down next to her, lifting her eyelid
to check her dark, dilated eye before slinging his gun across his shoulder
by its strap and stripping off his glove.  She was beautiful.  No missing
that fact.  She had a lean body, long legged.  Absent mindedly he figured
she might come to about his eye level.  Her throat was long and her face
was tipped away from him, exposing its length as he checked for a pulse. 
It made her look vulnerable.  He shook his head, found the pulse.  It was
there, thready but regular in its beat and he let out a breath he hadn't
realized he was holding in, bowing his head for a moment in relief.  In his
mind, the dark woman in front of him stood for every innocent victim in
this stupid war.  Gentle, he brushed her ink black hair back from her
forehead, inspecting the lump starting to form there.  He touched her cheek
with his fingers.
"You're going to be all right, kid" he murmured to her, sliding a hand
under the back of her head to shift her into a more comfortable position.
"Hey, chief" Anderson called the term without respect behind it as he
eased his way around the plaster rocks.  Seeing the woman John held he let
out a low whistle and  stepped over to stand looking down at her.
"Reds sure do know how to breed pretty, don't they?" he commented  and
something about the tone suddenly made John's mind up for him.
"Doesn't matter" he stated, shifting her onto her side so her shallow
breathing wasn't visible.  "She's dead."  He winced inwardly as his casual
carelessness hit her damaged forehead against the stone tiled floor but it
did the trick.
Anderson grunted, already headed out of the artificial cave of clothing
racks and fallen wall.
"Just as well.  One less coyote to bear pups."
John sat still for a moment, watching, waiting, but no one else was
interested in finding him.  Reaching out, he pulled down a couple of
jackets from the tilted rack.  Gently rolled her over onto her back again. 
Clean up was almost done.  The store owners would be here soon enough with
their insurance forms and friends.  He hated leaving her here but she'd
hold out.  And then somebody who cared would make sure that she really did
get to the hospital.
She seemed suddenly small and terribly fragile as he tucked the jackets in
around her and he felt a pain move sharp through his chest.  She should be
out in the food court right now, laughing with her friends over root beer
floats.  Not tossed in a pile in the corner of a bombed out store.  People
like her were meant to laugh.  He leaned low over her suddenly on impulse,
pressed a soft kiss to her lips before he rested his forehead briefly
against hers.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart.  Sorry to get you in so much trouble."  He
whispered it to her before he rose easily to his feet.  He wasn't sure if
he was apologizing for himself, everyone involved in this war, or just the
world in general.  Without looking back, he strode out of the area, calling
out to round up his men.  The cash register was surprisingly intact and he
called Anderson and Chalker away from it before the look in their eyes
could turn into action.
"Time to go home, boys" he announced and headed out the way they'd come
in.  No sense in parading through the rest of the mall.  He'd gotten so
used to cat-calls and insults that he'd almost learned to ignore them.  But
the way things were right now, he didn't think he'd run the chance of any
gunplay.  He knew without a doubt that at least half the crowd outside the
store were either Warriors or else sympathetic to them.  No sense in asking
for trouble.  
Rob caught up to him outside, looking as tired as he felt.  John didn't
say anything, just tipped his head at the passenger side of his car, giving
Toby a nod as he stepped past and opened the driver's side door.  Toby and
Jack had both been left outside.  They were the youngest members of the
group assigned to him for this show and he hadn't known what to expect once
he got inside.  They'd been the perfect choice to stay behind and make sure
no one booby trapped the cars while everyone else was inside.
John ran a hand through his hair.  It was getting long again, time for
another haircut.  All he had to do was get up the energy for it.  
"You okay?" Rob asked as John pulled the car out of the parking lot and
headed back to base.  Without looking at him, John simply said:
"You know I hate this."
He hadn't always hated his job.  When he'd first joined ACT the
organization had still been young.  Young and full of energy.  Sure it was
doing what was right and sure that it could change the world for the
better.  A lot like John.  But then things had gone wrong.  Somehow.  He
never had figured out whether it had always been a bad idea or if it simply
became one.  He didn't see that it mattered so much now.  The simple truth
was that now, ACT probably performed as many acts of terrorism and
retribution as they stopped.
"You could quit, you know.  Just drop out."
"So could you" he told Rob, who shook his head.
"Don't like it any more than you do, Captain.  But family's got to eat and
with Martha's mom the way she is, ACT's the only group whose insurance
policy covers that kind of thing."
"I know, Rob."  They'd had this conversation at least a hundred times in
the past two years.  It had long ago lost any purpose other than to fill
silence and to show your partner that you still cared about him.
Simple truth of the matter was, John couldn't quit.  It was because of his
personality.  He never could just sit by on the sidelines and watch things
happen.  He always had to at least try to make a difference.  ACT was the
only way he could.  The only way he could get the information and the team
together to stop a terrorist bomb from going off in a private school.  The
only way he could stop a shipment of Peyote root from reaching the streets
and hundreds of stupid, clueless kids.  The only way he could save a young
girl from having to deal with both a concussion and ACT's questioning
department.  He shook his head.  Get her out of your head, John, he
thought.  Its only trouble when you start remembering their faces.  When
you start wondering about what happens to them after you leave.
Best to just forget about her all together.

To Be Continued...

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