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    Mawgrim
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Ten Years After - 1. September 2050

The train wound southwards through the parched countryside of Germany. The carriage was full of holidaymakers returning from their summer breaks in Scandinavia, away from the grinding heat of southern Europe. Those who could afford it always holidayed in the cooler northern countries. Once they might have gone to the UK, but not anymore.

Tony turned away from the window and gave Ben a small smile, then rummaged in his rucksack and took out the sandwiches they'd bought earlier. Thanks to a portable ice pack, they were still cool, as were the bottles of juice. They sat and ate companionably while the unchanging landscape went by.

Trees wilting in the heat, grass scorched brown. Inside the train it was a comfortable 22 degrees. Ben glanced at his weather app. 34 outside today, even in the first week of September. He picked out the different languages being spoken; mostly Fransk, with a smattering of Tysk in this carriage. He and Tony spoke Norsk to each other, although no one would ever take them for natives of the country. Tony's Italian ancestry gave him a Mediterranean appearance, while Ben looked like the Englishman he had been born; mid brown hair and a propensity to burn in the sun. He only spoke Engelsk when he had to, usually for work. It brought back too many memories.

Tony carefully folded the eco wrapper that had been around the sandwiches and put it back in his bag. ‘That’s better,’ he said. ‘How long until we reach Paris now?’

Ben looked at the app. ‘Maybe five hours.’

‘Glad we booked a sleeper.’

Some families had saved money by sleeping in their seats, but as this was a special occasion, they’d decided to splash out. ‘Me too.’ The twenty-three-hour journey from Oslo was something of an endurance, but it was the only way to travel long distance, since flying had been banned for all except freight, or the armed forces and roads were subject to heavy tolls.

‘You’ve got the hotel details?’

‘All on here.’ He waved his phone again. ‘You were there when I booked everything.’

‘I know. I just can’t help worrying.’

Ben smiled. ‘You’ve always been the same.’ There had been times before they escaped he’d been concerned Tony might not make it. Thousands had committed suicide; more still killed by the authorities. He remembered watching footage of the riots in Brighton where people were brutally beaten. The streets had run red while buildings burned. It had been the last protest before the big crackdown.

They fell silent, Tony watching the countryside passing while Ben checked the news stories. It was his form of personal torture, reading about what was happening in the country of his birth. As he did several times a week, he wondered how his family had fared. Mum, dad and Clara. She'd be twenty-six now, probably pushed into marriage by the repressive laws of the land. She might have children herself. Children he’d never see, not even on the phone. Communications of all kinds were blocked.

There had been more skirmishes on the Scottish Borders. Scotland was still free; aligned with Europe. EU forces had been deployed there for years. The English had built a huge fence the length of Hadrian's Wall to stop people escaping, but some succeeded nevertheless. That had been one of their options, but Kent was a long way from the border with Scotland, so it had made more sense to cross the channel.

‘You shouldn’t read all that. It’s so depressing.’

With a sigh, Ben closed the phone cover. ‘Don’t you ever wonder…’

‘No. I have no family anymore.’

You couldn’t blame him for feeling like that, given what they’d done. Ben reached out a hand to Tony's. No one on the train would care. In Europe, thankfully, same sex relationships weren’t frowned on.

The train passed through kilometres of dying forest. Tyskland - Germany - had once been so leafy. He remembered the pictures they’d seen in school of forested hectares and people in quaint national costume, which were meant to be funny. Most of the lessons had been disparaging about European countries; their stupid belief in climate change, their left-wing ideology leading to tolerance of anyone who wasn’t ‘normal’. Even when he’d been eight or nine, the education service had taught that such things were not the English way; that they should be grateful they lived in a decent, morally upright country, never mind the food shortages and the power cuts. The coalition government of mainly far right parties, Conservatives, The People's Party and other anti-European factions had decided that in order for England to be great again, they needed to rewind the country back to the nineteen-fifties. That meant undoing many of the hard-won rights that had been established since then. His parents had sometimes talked about the way it was when they were young; how women had been encouraged into further education, there was equality in the workforce, employment rights and such like. Couples such as he and Tony were allowed to marry. It sounded like a golden age.

‘So why did you let this happen?’ He’d often asked, once he got to his teens and found out life in England had once been very different.

His dad had looked shamefaced. ‘It sort of crept up on us. We didn’t ever think it would go so far. And then, when it did, what could we do? We’d have ended up in a camp, with you and Clara taken away from us.’

He didn’t blame them. With hindsight, he could see how his parents tried to protect him and Clara, how dad tried to shield them from the realities of the world they were growing up in. Until, eventually, Ben had needed to make a choice: accept that if he stayed, he would be forced to live a lie, forever. Tony had to escape, too. After being released from the conversion camp his parents had sent him to, he’d wanted revenge. He kept talking about going back and burning it down, of killing the so-called therapists who had twisted his mind.

‘Looking forward to seeing Calais again? Tony asked, disturbing his thoughts. ‘Our ten-year anniversary of landing in France.’

‘I know. Sometimes it seems like it happened to other people. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”’ They’d both watched Star Wars before it was banned. Anything that gave a positive view of rebellion went that way in the thirties.

‘It’s still going on over there,’ Tony said, sadly. ‘Other people aren’t as lucky as us.’

After celebrating on the beach where the small boat had come ashore, they intended to tour the Normandy coast. Most of their holidays so far had been in Norway or Denmark, but Tony had insisted they travel further afield for this special anniversary. He’d talked of it as cutting himself free of his past. Ben realised how important it was to him.

Ben’s phone rang. He glanced at the number. The Agency. Tord, his boss, knew he was on holiday, so it had to be something urgent. He answered quickly. ‘Yes?’

‘Sorry to disturb your trip, but something’s come up and you’re in the right place to deal with it.’

Ben sighed. ‘What is it?’

‘Two people have recently landed. It’s vital that we get them to a safe place quickly.’

They must be important. ‘Where?’

‘I’ll send the details on encrypted messaging. And I’ll make sure you’re recompensed for cutting your holiday short.’ Tord cut the call.

Tony had noticed his expression. ‘What did work want?’

‘There’s a job that needs to be done.’ He glanced around the carriage. ‘Tell you later.’

‘That Agency! They ask too much of you.’

He’d said that enough times, although work had slowed down these days. When Ben had first started, he’d travelled a lot at short notice, been involved in a lot of action. Tony didn’t really mind. He knew how vital it was to help new arrivals; folk like they had once been, stepping ashore in a foreign land.

The phone pinged, and he quickly opened the messaging service.

Calais refuge centre. Seventeen-year-old boy - Max - and nineteen-year-old girl - Anna. Engelsk agents trying to force them to return. You are authorised to hire a car and get over the border to Tyskland promptly. You will be met there by other agents.

The French officials were only concerned with getting refugees out of their country as fast as possible. Who took them and where, they weren’t too fussed about. Ever since people began to leave England, the policy had been pas ici. Not here. French people could be very insular. They didn’t want foreigners settling, not unless they were wealthy. Few of those who crossed La Manche fell into that category.

‘So?’ Tony asked.

‘Can’t really say, here.’ Old habits die hard. He was already thinking through all the possibilities. They needed to get to Calais as soon as possible. It might be faster to hire a car than wait for the next train. He checked the travel apps on his phone and found the nearest car hire to the station, using his encryption software and the company’s VPN. You couldn't be too careful.

Tony left him to it, engrossed in his ebook.

Finally he had it sorted; reservations made and route planned out. They'd been intending to go to Calais after a couple of days in Paris. This way, they'd just get there sooner.

Tony looked up and smiled. ‘All done?’

He nodded, then leaned back and shut his eyes. It was best to get as much rest as possible while he could. Tony returned to his book.

Everything went smoothly as they transferred from train to car. Tony knew a little French, which helped. Very few people in France spoke any of the other European languages. It was part of their character and culture, but it could make life difficult.

Naturally, the car was a Renault; one of the newer models with improved hydrogen fuel cell technology. It was well equipped and more importantly, fast.

Activating the blocker on his phone (it wasn't likely the car would be bugged, but he always went by the book), Ben pulled out into the traffic. Back in the days when most people owned their own cars, Paris had been a nightmare, but nowadays most of the traffic tended to be self driving delivery vehicles and taxis, so it was far more relaxed. The car was equipped with a self driving mode, so once they reached the toll road, he activated it.

‘So, are you allowed to say where we're going now?’

‘Same place we were heading to before. Calais.’ He gave Tony the brief details he already had. Control had sent him more information about the refugees; names and descriptions.

‘Wonder why they’re getting out? Sounds as if the family’s well off.’

‘Could be any number of reasons. One of them - or both - could be gay, bi or trans. Everyone has to marry by the age of twenty these days, so maybe the girl isn’t happy with whoever she’s been assigned?’

‘I didn’t think it could get much worse over there.’

‘From what I’ve been hearing, it has, especially now the government and systems are well entrenched.’

‘Why don’t they just rebel? “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”’ He sang the refrain of the old song. That was banned now, too.

‘Ordinary people are afraid. Many of the activists have fled, been imprisoned or executed. Most folk probably reckon it’s best not to stick your head over the parapet and hope things will get better.’ Sometimes, the situation made Ben despair. Although he had a good life in Norway, it was hard to come to terms with never being able to return home to the place he'd been born. To not know what had become of family and friends.

The roads were fairly clear, and they made good time. He’d been back to Calais a few times over the years, but this was Tony’s first look at the place since their arrival. The refugee processing buildings had been scaled down as the crossings dwindled. The ferry port too; very little traffic came and went to England, although container ships still ferried goods to and from other ports around the world. Ben had heard some horror stories of refugees paying huge sums and promised onward travel to other countries in the EU or beyond. Once the money was paid, they were hidden in containers with little food or water. Many had been found dead through suffocation, or heat.

He parked the car close to the exit making sure it faced the right way to drive straight off. They went inside. He had to show his ID and special passes from the encrypted wallet on his phone. They scanned the implant in his arm as well.

Tony didn’t have the same level of clearance. He was forced to wait in the reception area while Ben was taken to a small interview room to meet his clients.

Anna and Max were ushered in. They looked unkempt and tired, as he’d expected, each carrying a salt stained rucksack containing everything they’d managed to pack. They both seemed wary, too, as well they might.

Ben introduced himself in Engelsk. It didn't feel natural anymore, even though he had refresher courses every few months.

Anna did most of the talking. ‘How do we know you are here to help us?’ she asked. ‘You might be an English emigration officer, come to take us back.’

He showed her his ID, even though she might think it was faked. ‘My husband and I will be taking you to the border, to safety.’

‘You’re gay?’ Max asked.

‘Yes. We escaped together ten years ago. That's why I chose to work for the Agency, so I could carry on helping others. Adjusting to a new country isn’t always easy.’

‘We have relatives in Spain,’ Anna said cautiously.

‘That’s where we plan to go,’ Max offered.

Anna glared at him.

Ben carried on with his questions. He didn’t want to deal with reluctant passengers, so it was best to tell them how it was. ‘How long since you’ve been in contact with them?’

Max answered again. ‘A few years. They used to email or message, then when that got difficult, they’d send letters. They always said we were welcome to visit. Plus Aunty P lives with another woman, so she's bound to understand.’

Anna nudged him this time. ‘Don’t tell him too much.’

‘You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. I only asked that question because you might not realise what it’s like in Spain nowadays.’

‘Don’t say they’re getting as intolerant as our country?’

Ben shook his head. ‘No. They’re still a democracy. But climate change has made much of the country unliveable. Many people from the southern regions fled north. There's an internal housing crisis going on. Your relatives may have had to move several times. Perhaps that's why they’ve lost touch?’ More likely their letters had been intercepted by the censors, but he needed them to figure out going south wouldn't be a good move.

‘Oh.’ Max sounded disheartened.

‘My instructions are to get you over the border to Germany. It’s safe there. Here in France, it’s not so good. Once you’re there, you could try to contact them.’

Anna nodded slowly. ‘But I thought we were safe as soon as we crossed the channel.’

‘That’s true, for most refugees. But I’ve been informed that emigration officers have been sent in pursuit of you both. Hence the need to get to a safe place quickly.’

‘I told you they would.’ Max turned to his sister.

‘How can we trust you, then?’ Anna asked.

I’ve shown you my ID. I’ve been honest with you. If I was in your position, I probably wouldn't trust anyone either. Maybe when you meet Tony, he can give you more proof we’re genuine. But if you stay here too long, you're sitting ducks.’ It was all he could do.

Anna stared at the grubby table for a few seconds. ‘I guess we’re going to have to.’

‘Good. We should get on the road as quickly as we can, in case they’re already here. I suggest you use the toilets before we leave, as we won’t be stopping very often.’ He’d already worked out they’d need one refueling stop on the way, particularly as he’d be driving fast.

He was tense and wary as they signed out. He didn’t like leaving a trail, but the French loved their bureaucracy. Mind you, they’d probably be equally as awkward with the English emigration officers, whenever they turned up. Tony had brought the car up and Ben made sure the teenagers and their luggage were safely inside before taking the driver's seat.

‘Are you two really married?’ Max asked, as the car began to move.

‘Sure. Eight years now.’ Tony turned around to talk to them. ‘It would have been sooner, but there was all the immigration stuff to get through first. Getting jobs, learning the language.’

‘Where do you live?’

‘Norge,’ he replied. ‘Norway is what the English call our country.’

‘Norge,’ he repeated slowly. ‘What’s it like?’

‘Very beautiful. Lots of countryside. City life’s good, too. And the people are welcoming.’

Ben chuckled. ‘Plus, the language is fairly easy to learn for an Engelsk speaker. That's why he chose it, lazy bugger.’

Tony grinned. ‘I’d poke you in the ribs if you weren’t driving.’

‘You can poke me any time, but not in the ribs.’ He switched to Norsk, not wanting to offend the passengers. Tony’s expression probably gave away most of the meaning, and Max chuckled.

‘You do this sort of thing all the time?’ Anna asked.

‘Ben does. It’s his job. Me, I’m a teacher. Much safer.’

As he drove, Ben checked the mirror frequently. It didn’t seem as if anyone was following, but an experienced driver knew all the tricks. He did too, which was the reason for being extra careful. He felt some relief when they got onto the autoroute, setting the car to maximum speed, but within the limit. It wouldn't do to be stopped by the Gendarmerie.

Anna riffled through her bag. Ben decided it was time to see if he could get her talking. ‘Was it a rough crossing?’

She shrugged. ‘Not too bad, I suppose.’

‘It was horrible,’ Max put in. ‘The boat kept filling with water. Everyone was bailing with anything they had. I thought we were going to die.’

Pretty much the same as it had been for them. You paid your money and took the chance the boat was relatively sound, the crew knew what they were about and the weather didn’t turn.

‘I threw up constantly,’ Tony said. ‘I’d never really been to sea before, except for a couple of boat trips on holiday. On a map, the Channel looks so narrow. It doesn’t feel that way.’

Anna nodded. ‘They agreed on a price, then wanted more. They wanted him…’ she gestured to Max. ‘Fortunately, they weren’t too choosy, so I was good enough.’ She laughed, but with little humour. ‘At least if they take me back, no one will want to marry me. Spoiled goods.’

Max gave a little sob and hugged her. ‘You never said…’

‘You didn’t need to know. And I’d done it before, anyway.’

‘With Kit?’

‘You don’t need to know that either.’ Her voice was hard and brittle, like something that might shatter at any time.

Ben wanted to know so much more. Who was Kit? Had Anna been in love with him? And, if so, why couldn't she have married him? Maybe he’d been considered unsuitable by the family, particularly if they were wealthy and he wasn’t. Ah well, she’d tell the story when and if she wanted to.

They reached the first set of toll booths. He didn’t need to stop, as long as the car was moving slowly enough, the scanners picked up ID and payment details. As he’d hired this one through the Agency’s account, they would be billed for the journey. As he slowed, however, he noticed a blue car four along to his left. Unusual in that it was a Vauxhall, a make not generally seen in Europe. As he accelerated away, a glance back proved the driver and passenger were both men, wearing business suits. Of course, they might just be going to a conference or event and one of them might have a passion for British made cars, but that seemed too much of a coincidence.

‘What is it?’ Tony asked quietly.

‘Think we might have picked up a tail.’

‘Shit.’

Anna heard that, too. ‘We’re being followed?’

‘Maybe.’ He accelerated to the cruising lane, noting that the other car did the same, albeit leaving two vehicles between them. Coincidence perhaps, although he had a feeling it wasn’t. There was no way of evading someone on a straight autoroute. Taking a turn off and using the country roads might work, but there was less traffic there, meaning more chance they’d try to intercept and seize the runaways. Five years ago, two agents had almost been forced off the road while ferrying an English ex-government minister to the border. ‘I’m going to have to do a fuel stop in another fifty kilometres or so. If they’re innocent, nothing to worry about, but if not, that’s where they might try something.’ He thought through all the tactics in which he’d been trained. ‘If anyone tries to break into the car, make a big fuss. Scream, strike out and shout you’re being kidnapped. The French for that is “Je suis kidnappé! Aide-moi!”’ He noticed them mouthing the phrase in the rear-view mirror.

‘How far to this border?’ Anna asked.

‘Seventy-five kilometres.’

‘Can’t we get there without stopping?’

‘If this was a car I knew well, I’d risk it. But I’d rather not run out on the open road.’ It was an overcast day, too, so the rooftop array of solar panels weren’t doing much to top up the electric cells.

Tony glanced at him and squeezed his hand. ‘It’ll be fine. You might be wrong about that other car.’

‘I might be, yes. But it’s best to prepare for the worst-case scenario. So, when we stop, everyone stay inside the car. If they stop as well, we can be ninety-nine percent sure they’re following us.’

‘Do you really think they’ll try something?’ Tony asked.

‘It’s going to be their best chance, even though there are people around, unless their plan is to force us off the road in a quieter place. But if they’d intended to do that, why not already? They’ve been hovering behind us for almost thirty kilometres now.’

‘Summoning reinforcements?’ Anna suggested.

‘Unlikely, here in France. The authorities here may not be welcoming to refugees, but they also dislike the English. They wouldn’t help you, but they won’t help them either.’ Once again, he wondered why this pair was so important.

It was Tony, of course, who asked the question. ‘Why do they want you back so badly?’

‘Our father is a minister in the Department of Conformity,’ Max said. ‘The publicity would be bad for his career. And Anna’s betrothed to one of his junior colleagues.’

‘Like hell I’d marry that snake,’ she spat. ‘Kit’s worth three of him.’

‘Kit’s in prison, though.’

Anna glared at her brother. Eventually, she spoke. ‘If we’re going to have to stop, then what if we could delay them to get a head start once you’ve refuelled?’

‘How do you suggest doing that?’

‘Well, someone once showed me a good way…’

‘Kit again?’ asked Max.

Anna ignored him. ‘Have you guys ever been camping?’

‘A few times, yes.’

‘So you’ve probably used one of those bomb things to kill insects in the tent?’

‘Sure. Very effective.’

‘Throw one of those in that car and they won’t be able to drive it for a good ten to fifteen minutes until the smoke and fumes clear.’

‘Great idea,’ Tony said. ‘But where are we going to get one?’

‘The services. They must sell camping stuff, surely, especially in summer.’

Ben mulled it over. Even ten minutes would allow them to get well ahead. There would be more stops and checks at the border, but he doubted the English emigration officers would try anything there, surrounded by witnesses. ‘Okay, change of plan. When we get to the services, I’ll drop you at the shop while you have a quick look. I’ll put the windows on full dim setting, so they think you’re all still inside, then start filling up. That’s when they’ll be most likely to try something. So, while they’re having a go at me, fling the insecticide in their car, then run back and get inside as quick as you can.’

Tony shook his head. ‘That sounds dangerous.’

‘I’ve been in worse situations.’

‘And what if they don’t have any insect bombs?’

‘Get something oily to spray on their screen. It’ll still hold them up a while.’ He felt charged; alive at the prospect of confrontation. There hadn’t really been any for a few years. Back in the early days, they’d called him gatekjemper because of his eagerness to fight. Back then, he’d still wanted revenge, even if he couldn’t get to any of the people who’d hurt Tony. He recognised the same look in Anna’s eyes.

Max sat up straight again. ‘They’ll never take me back to that place alive,’ he said firmly.

‘What, England?’

‘The Wellbeing Centre.’

From the corner of his eye, Ben saw Tony’s shoulders tighten. ‘A conversion centre, you mean?’

Max nodded, then rolled up his sleeve to show the barcode tattooed on the inside of his wrist. ‘Can I get rid of this easily?’

‘There are plenty of places who will do it. But maybe you won’t want to.’ Tony revealed his own tattoo. The barcode had been subverted by a vibrant design of rainbows overwhelming the plain black and white. ‘When I first got out, I felt the same as you. But in the years since, I learned you can turn something bad to something positive.’

‘It’s so stupid,’ Anna said. ‘Everyone knows conversion doesn’t really work. It’s just torture for no good reason; a way of keeping people under control.’

‘It wasn’t really torture,’ Max said. ‘There was a lot of talking, trying to convince us how much happier we’d be if we chose to be normal. They used to wake us up in the middle of the night for more of it. I just wanted to sleep, but then they threw cold water over me.’

Tony nodded grimly. ‘We had cold baths and showers. And sensory deprivation rooms, only they didn’t call them that. They were…’

‘Quiet rooms,’ Max finished. ‘Only the worst cases went in those; the stubborn ones. By the time I’d been there a week or so, I decided the best way to get out sane was to pretend I was going along with it. Then, once I was released, Anna and I began planning our escape.’

Tony said nothing. Ben knew he’d been in solitary confinement in those rooms for weeks. Proper counselling once they were free had helped him, but sometimes he still woke up screaming.

‘Will we really be safe in Germany?’ Anna sounded cautious.

‘Totally. The German authorities are welcoming to all refugees, but particularly those from England and Wales. They’ll help you trace your relatives and give you information on where you might want to settle if that doesn’t work out.’

The car’s warning chimed as another bar on the fuel display disappeared. Ben hated the way they did that. He knew the car was low on fuel and charge; he didn’t need a red display and beeps every thirty seconds to remind him of it. ‘I’m going to turn off at the last minute, cut a few lanes. If we’re lucky, they might go sailing past.’

A sign showed five kilometres to the services. The Vauxhall was still steadily following, two cars between them; a blue Skoda and a white Citroën. He disengaged the auto cruise and took the controls. ‘Hang on when we get near. This will be a bumpy ride.’ Another, smaller Renault packed with a family and their luggage, was in the lane directly to his left. If he cut across them, the car’s auto assistance would force it to brake and swerve. That might cause another obstacle to the English agents. It might even propel them past the entrance slip.

One kilometre to go. Behind him, the Citroën began indicating, obviously intending to visit the services, too. The auto assistance slowed it down and steered to the inner lane. Good. There were now two obstacles for his pursuers to contend with. He moved slightly ahead of the heavily laden family car, as if he was intending to carry on along the autoroute. The Citroën pulled over to the slip road, still slowing.

Three, two, one. He wrenched the steering wheel over and cut in front of the little Renault. The car blared out loud proximity warnings as they scraped by with centimetres to spare. As expected, the Renault’s auto assistance braked hard, and the car went slightly sideways a few times before grinding to a halt. He cut in front of the white Citroën and drove like a demon toward the services and fill-up station, screeching to a halt just in front of it. ‘Out, out!’ he shouted. The three of them ran inside.

His arrival had caused some consternation. Many of the innocent motorists stared at him as they re-fueled their cars. He quickly moved off to a parking space. The Agency would be getting a bill for quite a few traffic violations in a couple of days. From the slip road came the screech of tyres and the unmistakable sound of cars crunching together. The Vauxhall was one of them. They’d be a while getting out of that. Feeling relatively safe, he pulled up to the nearest hydrogen pump and locked in the fuel nozzle. As he produced his card and entered the pin number, he kept an eye on what was going on. They might not need that insect bomb after all. Although both cars' insurance details would have automatically been exchanged, there was still an old-fashioned need to vent fury when your vehicle was damaged. He heard a torrent of rapid, vituperative French from the innocent driver as he pointed to the damage the English agents had wrought. They were trying, in vain, to calm him down. Now that Ben could see them more clearly, he had no doubt of their status as emigration officers. They wore suits of the same conservative cut, albeit in slightly different colours. Both had neatly groomed short hair and were clean shaven. Individuality wasn’t encouraged in England and especially so in the government departments.

The indicator showed the rate of fueling; almost a third done. He felt twitchy, as the adrenaline kicked in. Part of him wanted to avoid confrontation, while another wished they’d bring it on and get it over with. But his instructions were to get Max and Anna to the border with as little fuss as possible.

Other cars had stopped on the slip road. Horns blared. The French driver made gestures at them. More people got out to see what was happening. A full scale argument was brewing, with much gesticulation and pointing. In the meantime, the others had emerged from the shop, hurrying across.

‘We got it!’ Anna said.

Once again, he recognised that glint in her eyes. She wanted a fight as much as he did. She might make a good agent one day, if that was the path she chose. ‘Don’t think we’ll need it.’ He pointed up to the slip road.

‘Thank goodness for that,’ Tony said. He looked a second time, for longer. ‘I recognise that one in the light suit. He worked at the conversion centre.’

‘You can’t be sure, at this distance.’

‘I’d remember that face for the rest of my life.’

For a moment, Ben feared he’d do something stupid. Then the car beeped as fueling finished and the pump cut off. ‘Back inside,’ Ben ordered. ‘Let’s get going.’ Reluctantly, Tony obeyed.

He pulled away, leaving the carnage behind. The agents would probably be delayed by even more than the fifteen minutes the insect bomb would have given.

Tony sighed. ‘Guess I’m not as over it as I thought.’ He stared at the grey-carpeted floor.

Ben took his hand. ‘Once we’re over the border, it’ll be back to holiday mode.’

‘I don’t think I really want to go to Calais now.’

‘Okay, we can change plans. We could visit Noah and Karl in Frankfurt for a few days. They’ve been nagging us for a while.’

‘True.’ He seemed to be settling down again.

Ben watched the rear-view mirror as the services grew smaller. There was no blue Vauxhall to be seen and only twenty-two kilometres to the border. He forced himself to relax.

Anna kept looking through the rear window. He didn’t blame her. Caution was a good habit. He let the car take the strain, although he was ready to press the auto disengage button at any time. Memories of old films in which black helicopters appeared out of nowhere just when the good guys thought they’d got away haunted his imagination. That was highly unlikely, of course. English resources didn’t stretch so far, not even when they’d tried to snatch back that government minister on the run.

The kilometres counted down. The French countryside changed from wide fields, golden where the crops had already been harvested to the more rolling, natural contours of western Germany. There was still some preserved forest here and he breathed in the comforting smell of pine and larch.

The road widened at the border crossing. He pulled up at one of the booths and showed his ID. The French border guard peered inside the car to check who was there.

Ben’s adrenaline crept back up. He hoped this wasn’t going to take too long. On the Tyskland side, just a couple of hundred metres away, he could see an Agency car waiting just beyond the barriers. So close…. He forced himself to stay calm, answering all the questions politely in his bad French. Tony filled in where he didn’t understand or where he didn’t know the words.

‘Et ces gens?’ the guard asked, gesturing to the pair in the back seat. ‘Ont-ils une pièce d’identité?’

‘They’re refugees from England. Of course they don’t.’

Tony translated that.

The guard shook his head. ‘J'ai besoin d'une autorisation,’ he said, turning back to his little cabin.

‘He needs permission,’ Tony said.

‘I got that. Why hasn’t it all been sorted?’ He started to feel twitchy again, constantly checking the wide road behind them.

‘What’s happening?’ Anna leaned out.

‘Just a few more formalities,’ he reassured her. Inside, the guard was talking into his phone, his free hand making small gestures of impatience. Long minutes passed. Finally, he emerged again.

‘Vous devez tous sortir.

‘We have to get out, he says.’ Tony looked nervous.

‘Sorry, can’t do that. Stall him.’ Ben picked up his phone and called the hotline number to the Agency, while Tony showed the guard their passports again and began talking in rapid French. Ben explained the situation quickly, keeping an eye on the guard, who seemed more edgy by the moment. People could be bought. Maybe this had been the English plan all along, to stop them here?

‘Stay calm,’ he was told. ‘Es wird ordnet. It will be all right.’

He saw the Agency car on the other side move slowly forward as the barrier raised. That would even out the numbers, at least. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he saw a small blue speck racing towards them. That was why the French official wanted them out of the car; to make it easier for the English to snatch their quarry back.

‘The Vauxhall is coming up, fast. Keep your seatbelts on and brace.’ He didn’t know for sure if they intended to ram the car, but it was likely.

‘Wouldn’t it be safer to get out?’ Max asked.

‘No. Let the car take the impact. It has far more built-in protection than your body.’ He glanced at Tony. ‘I’m sorry you had to be involved in this.’

The border guard tapped on Ben’s window. He definitely wasn’t in a safe place, if Ben’s instincts were right. ‘Filer, filer!’ he shouted, gesturing to the speeding vehicle growing rapidly larger in the rear-view mirror. It was only in the last few seconds, as the man realised what was about to happen, that he stepped back, waving his arms in vain.

‘Brace yourselves,’ Ben called out, just before impact. Then they were spinning madly, and it seemed the car might roll over until the crash protection kicked in. Good thing it was made by Renault; one of the safest manufacturers in Europe.

The Vauxhall hadn’t hit them square. The driver had evidently intended to turn the car over. He can’t have been aware of Renault’s reputation, either. His car had spun a couple of times and ended up on its left side. Caught in the impact, the border guard lay in a crumpled heap. Ben took in most of this as the car settled and the air bags slowly deflated.

‘Everyone all right?’ he asked quickly.

‘I think so,’ came Tony’s reply.

‘We’re fine,’ Anna confirmed.

‘That was like the best fairground ride ever,’ said Max.

Ben got the airbag under control. More border guards were rushing over to help their injured colleague. The Agency car had stopped just on the other side of the barriers. He recognised Dag, Emma and Filip as they got out.

Tony opened his door and started to do the same.

‘No! We should stay here.’

‘I want to get that bastard. It’s my only chance for payback.’

‘That’s not our job. Let our guys sort it all out. We’re safe. That’s what matters.’

Tony took no notice. He was out of the car and striding towards the battered Vauxhall before Ben could stop him. Cursing under his breath, he followed.

There was only one way out of the Vauxhall, and that was through the offside window. The driver was trying to climb out, but it was clear he was injured. Blood spattered his white shirt from a cut in his head. Tony got there and started to pull him out roughly, punching him in the face a couple of times. He fell back inside the car. Tony tried to grab him again. Dag and Filip arrived just a few moments later and pulled him away.

‘Keep clear, everyone!’ Emma shouted. ‘This car may explode.’

Ben knew that wasn’t because of ruptured fuel cells - although they had caused fires in the past - but because the vehicle might have been rigged to do so. Although it wasn’t a common occurrence, it had happened once or twice over the years. He should have thought of that before telling them all to stay in the car.

‘She’s right. They might have explosives on board. Let’s get the kids away.’ He hauled Tony back to the Renault.

‘Explosives? Why?’

‘In a few cases, when it looks as if someone important might escape, that’s the only way to prevent it. Everyone dies, job done.’

‘But they’d be killed too.’ Tony looked back at the car.

‘They’re brainwashed to believe service to Brittania is an honourable way to die.’ He opened the rear door. ‘Come on. We should get well clear.’

Anna and Max climbed out. Max rubbed his shoulder. He’d probably have some bruises from the seat belt. They all would, but at the moment, Ben had too much adrenaline flowing through his body to feel anything. He led them all to the edge of the forest, keeping an eye on Tony and hoping he could control his emotions.

Dag and Emma were still monitoring the car, keeping a wary distance, while Filip made sure the stunned French officials knew what was going on. Everyone was giving the crashed Vauxhall a very wide berth.

Sirens sounded in the distance. Inside the car, even at this distance, Ben could see the struggles of the trapped agents. In films, people always made it look so easy to get out of cars stranded on their side. From training exercises, he knew better. If the car had landed passenger side up, it would be less of a problem, but having the steering wheel in the way, plus activated airbags, meant that unless the people inside were very small, or contortionists, they were better to wait for the fire brigade to cut the car open.

‘What will happen to them?’ Anna asked.

‘Arrest, questioning and deportation. They’ve failed a mission, so the English emigration department won’t treat them well.’

‘Good,’ Tony said. ‘It’s what they deserve.’

Two large fire engines - les pompiers - arrived at the scene, together with a large gendarmerie vehicle. The gendarmes carried assault rifles. The fire officers brought out their cutters. Dag went over to explain the situation, Filip and Emma were still watching the car. As they all stood talking, it happened.

The sound of an explosion ripped through the air. Ben pressed his hands over his ears, turned everyone away and tried to provide cover as pieces of chassis and electric motor flew in all directions. A wheel fell to earth, bouncing away into the trees. Something else landed to their right; a foot, still encased in a shiny black shoe, but severed just above the ankle. Anna gagged at the sight.

‘Don’t look,’ he advised. Finally, pieces of debris stopped hitting the ground. Turning back, he saw the remains of the car blazing fiercely, the pompiers springing into action. Everyone seemed more or less unharmed, although Dag was sitting in the road, clutching his arm.

Tony gazed at the mess, the fire reflecting in his eyes, giving them a wild look. ‘One less of the bastards,’ he muttered under his breath.

Ben couldn’t blame him for that. He put an arm around his husband. ‘It’s over now. We’re free; Anna and Max are too. It’s time to put it behind you.’ That had been the purpose of the Calais trip, after all; to let the past recede with the outgoing tide. Maybe this ending, traumatic and bloody as it had been, had given Tony some kind of closure. He hoped so, anyway.

Apologies for any language mistakes to native speakers!
Copyright © 2022 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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It is with great sadness I must announce the death of Mawgrim, Promising Author on GA. He had been in declining health for some time and passed away on Christmas Day. Mawgrim worked for decades as a cinema projectionist before his retirement and was able to use this breadth of knowledge to his stories set in cinemas. He also gave us stories with his take on the World of Pern with its dragon riders. He will be greatly missed and our condolences go out to his friends, family, and his husband.
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12 hours ago, GeoffreyP said:

Thanks for a short wild ride of a tale. You’ve become one of my favorite authors! I particularly love your tales in the world of Pern, and sincerely hope more are on the way. 

They will be, but I've a lot of other stuff I need to finish and post as well.

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