Escape from the Regime
Howard Gaukrodger 20.04.14.
Practice: Fiction. Thriller, dramatic present. 1,500 words.
Stop breathing! Too loud! Shreds of a soiled shirt stick like wax to my blistered skin. Jungle clings to my bloodied legs and blackened face, sucking energy. I drink the thick, hot air. It’s dark. Foliage drips. Dehydration is killing me. I don’t know if I’ll make it. It’s been hours. But the soldiers must quit their post before I drop to the river.
The British-held Falkland Islands were due south, 1,700 km away. For Argentina and its allies, they were known as the Malvinas, a South Atlantic island group with oil reserves worth billions. MI6 knew that General Galtieri, leader of the military regime, was planning an invasion. But when? And where would they attack? I was the sleeper agent activated by London to infiltrate the Junta’s strategy meeting in northern Argentina. I was tasked to find out. My name: Kim Jensen.
The military is everywhere. My face is in the papers. Someone’s spilt the beans. The Russians? Eight years in disguise, and I get 35 minutes on mission. Better than nothing. Got something for White-bloody-hall. They better like it. Can’t come back. Might not get out. I send my last message to London. The handler’s reply: “Get to grid-point -26.993056, -54.486944, San Vicente Aeroclub. Fence cut, north-west end of runway. 05:30. A node, Juan, will fly you to an airstrip south of Iguazu. Walk due west, 3500 m to ferry. Cross Río Paraná to Paraguay. Rendezvous with extraction team at grid-point -25.662240, -54.692706, Los Cedrales. End.” Sounded easy.
I dump the hire car. Stage 1 complete. Juan, where the hell are you? The field’s empty. It’s 05:30. No one flies so early. I wait. I hate waiting. 05:35, 05:40. A whirring throb grabs my attention. Light flashes in the sky. From the east, a tiny, STOL bush aircraft escapes the rising sun and touches down on the club’s runway. Hurry! Come on! The door swings open, engine running. Pulse at 160, I belt up. We’re taxiing, turning. Full throttle now. Juan pulls on the joy stick. We rise over the fence and away from the clutches of La SIDE, the secret police.
The noise is deafening. Communication is by gesture. The whining engine, vibration, a scything crosswind and icy fear rattle my thoughts and bones in the doll’s house seat. We roll and yaw, drop and rise; we’re a feather in a gathering storm. My hands are sweating. Why?
“Nearly there?” I shout, pointing to my watch.
Juan looks at the massing clouds and shrugs.
Can’t be more than 15 minutes to the drop-off. I sigh, but relief is short-lived. We don’t see it coming. Invisible, lethal. Juan is flying low. Maybe too low. Thirty kilometres from our drop-off point, the hydro reservoir, Lago Uruguayí, appears over the dash. It grins a treacherous blue. We’re crossing the dam at the eastern end when…
The storm front is rushing west. A pocket of turbulent air hurtles up the wall of the dam, compresses and punches into the space above, blasting everything within 500 metres. Our midget aircraft has no chance. The starboard wing flips up. Chaos erupts in the cockpit. We’re out of control. Upside-down, I’m hanging in my belt, straps cutting my neck. Juan’s yelling. He’s fighting the controls. Memories flash before me, family, loved ones. Somebody’s swearing. Oil. Engine oil. It smothers the windscreen. Can’t see. Seconds last forever. We’re going down. I remember the clenched teeth, the eyes of terror. But Juan’s getting there. He’s getting control! The plane’s about to level off. Another 30 seconds and we…
Trees smash into the fuselage. Wings break off. Glass shatters. Propeller’s gone. The body of the plane cartwheels, oil, fuel everywhere. I’m thrown to the forest floor and life goes black.
The nibbling doesn’t hurt at first. It’ll go away. I just want to sleep. My head hurts. Grey shapes swim before me. Consciousness returns, and I feel the ants, hundreds of them, marching up towards my bleeding thigh. “Shite!” I brush off the insects and struggle to my feet.
The Paraná pines and trumpet trees fight with laurels and cedars to hide the shattered skeleton that was once a plane. An arm hangs from the cockpit. It’s not attached. Juan has bled to death.
I grab the military-issue, MOLLE pouch that my erstwhile companion had prepared. Inside: a GPS, spare batteries, water, purification tablets, dried food, tin mug, torch, first-aid kit, money – and a suicide pill. “Sorry,” he’d said. “I can’t take you over the border. No permit.” The flight, my escape, had cost him his life.
Alone, my senses shriek with new impressions, the smell of humus, the squawks and whooping of birds, shimmering sunlight and the pressing fog of humidity. Think! Think! I have to leave Juan. It was an accident. I don’t need to be here. Where’s here, anyway?
The GPS device is almost useless under the canopy, but a fleeting signal reveals I’m 35 kilometres from the Paraná crossing, 32 kilometres further away than planned.
I’m into the second day, fighting, slithering through the undergrowth. Bearing: north-west. Illegal logging tracks offer occasional respite. Pine plantations hasten my progress. Then it’s back to primordial bush. Stop, start, stop, start, every fifty metres I check the GPS, only to swear at the mass of overhanging trees. Connect, you bastard! Connect! My food’s gone. I’m surviving on water.
What’s that? There’s a whisper, a hiss. I can’t tell how far away it is. A wasps’ nest? Mosquitoes? But it gets louder, more consistent. My spirits rise. Is it the river?! Blood trickles down the shaft of my forest baton – the blisters of my palms long broken and leaking life. I wade through ponds of fetid water, slashing at vines. Once a shirt, the khaki cloth is now torn into strips and bandaging my legs. My chest is raw, scratched, red, black. Burnt skin stings. And that noise? It is the river.
Waiting. I’m waiting again – waiting for the for the pencil-thin riverboat to arrive, waiting for the gun-toting soldiers to leave. They’re young and bored. Nothing ever happens out here, they’ll be saying. And still I wait, 70-100 metres away. I’m going to dash aboard at the last instant, darkness my friend, dirt my disguise.
Lucky they don’t have dogs. My body smells foul: unwashed skin and the uncontrolled shit of terror. I stare down the incline in the buzzing, clacking, moonlit night, mesmerised by the roiling torrent of the Paraná. The lights of safety wink from the distant bank: Paraguay.
Here it comes! Out of the night looms a 20-metre narrow-boat, no glass in the windows, no paint on the wood. To cross the river, the ferry points upstream. A hint of rudder, and the unforgiving current does the rest. It’s my only route of escape. The soldiers mumble, then roar with laughter. They watch with apathy, as the ferryman ties up at the jetty.
Soon now. Very soon. I check my once-proud passport, count the American dollars and hyper-inflation notes of the local currency – smallest denomination: 10,000 pesos. I watch the firefly- cigarette buts shoot to the ground and count: 1, 2, 3, 4… Must stay calm. No rush. The soldiers check the ID cards of incoming passengers, see there are no outgoing passengers, and wander off like tumbleweed towards their post. I count again. Easy boy. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…
The ferry engine kicks into life. Is it my imagination or did the ferryman just lift his head and nod? He unties the boat. It’s now or never! I crash through the vines, slap at umbrella-sized leaves, and run to where danger had stood just a moment before. 25 strides long, the rickety jetty groans as I stomp onto its spiny frame. The soldiers pause. Will they turn? They laugh again, then dissolve into the unctuous humidity.
“Espere!” [Wait!] I cry, afraid the boatman will leave,
The barnacled face looks up, jaundiced by the single tungsten bulb swaying over the wheelhouse at the stern. He puffs on a hand-rolled cigarette, then waves me aboard.
Kicking the shoeless feet of cross-river labourers and reed-baskets of chickens, I apologise, “Disculpe”, “Disculpe”, and stumble to a vacant seat. Let’s go! Please!
The ferryman retrieves the mooring rope. I catch his eye, his stark features silhouetted against the moon. With the concern of a grazing cow, he flicks his cigarette into the muddy river, and winks at me. He’s one of ours.