by Tishaun Dawson
available on Amazon
04 • PERMISSION GRANTED
Sanaa’s mouth opened slightly as she unconsciously drew air into her lungs. She had dozed off, and Ade had knowingly allowed it for a handful of minutes, sitting perfectly still as she rested her head on his shoulder. He had sat there in silence as the darkness of night crowded in around them, unwilling to disturb the temporary peace she’d found in sleep. The worry had sunk in unending lines along his settled face, when a sharp knock banged up their front door.
“What fresh hell is this?” Sanaa was startled out of her reverie, sitting straight up.
She whipped around cautiously, momentarily unaware of her surroundings. Ade stared at the door in suspicion, quietly watching with seemingly no intention of getting up to answer it. The knocking continued, rapid and forceful, rattling the dark brown oak on its brass hinges. It sounded nothing like the polite, tentative knock of a neighbor, but Sanaa jumped up to open it.
“Wait,” Ade motioned towards the door. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Sanaa switched on the porch light and looked through a peephole Ade had torn in the trash bag he used to cover the window in the door.
“Ah. It’s just my commanding officer,” she realized. “I probably should have checked in with him when I landed.”
Before Ade could stop her, Sanaa threw the door open, and the frosty night air burst in along with the milky light of the moon.
“Good evening, ma’am,” General Athens said, taking off his hat, and placing it under his left arm to greet her. “Or should I say, welcome home, Sanaa.”
The general wore his full dress uniform—a navy blue hybrid suit—that was flawlessly pressed. His boots were skillfully shined and laced tight enough to cut off his circulation. He stood a few inches taller than Sanaa, wearing a bushy handlebar mustache that hung over his top lip.
Standing beside her, out of the general’s field of vision, Ade got Sanaa’s attention.
He can’t come in here, he mouthed silently, pointing towards the general still standing outside the door.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” General Athens prompted.
Sanaa turned back to the general. “I’m sorry, is there something I can help you with?”
“Okay. Perhaps you’ll step outside, then?” The general offered, as he turned, and began making his way down off the porch, onto the front lawn, expecting her to follow.
Sanaa looked over at Ade, who shrugged, unsure of how to instruct her to answer. Outside had been violently chaotic hours ago, but now the scene was strange, ghostly calm, and quiet. The only sign that their front yard had been filled with a crowd hours before was the flattened grass.
“Of course,” Sanaa replied, stepping out of the house.
Ade followed behind her, stunned by how peaceful the night air had grown. With only their porch light for illumination, she stopped at the bottom step of their front porch, Ade a step above her. They focused on the general before them, and hadn’t thought to look any further, to squint into the darkness across the street. Then, the general raised his right hand and night turned to day, as more than a dozen Humvees flicked on their high beams, pointed at their home.
Ade sprung into action, stepped down, moving in front of Sanaa as they both shielded their eyes with their hands from the blindingly painful light. Their irises began to close, adjusting to the extreme illumination, and soon, several soldiers that had moved into position around them became visible.
“You good?” Ade asked.
Sanaa didn’t answer, instead placing her hands on Ade’s shoulders, holding onto him firmly, her fingers fisting the soft fabric of his shirt. “Athens, what’s the point of all this?” she asked.
“Relax, relax. We’re just welcoming you home properly,” The general assured her. “You’re the first to return from the mission. And from what I hear, you’ve been through hell and back. We’re just paying our respects,”
“Lower the lights though, I can’t even see you,” Sanaa stated, moving to the side to come down a single step. She wanted to close some of the distance between herself and the general and get a better look, but before she could, Ade stepped to the side to cut her off.
“Please stay behind me. This doesn’t feel like it would be procedure,” Ade whispered.
“Sure, sure. We’ll lower the lights when I’m ready for them to be lowered, sweetheart.” The general stated nonchalantly.
Sanaa cringed, her fists balled up into rocks. “What is it with you people?” she mumbled, where only Ade could hear.
General Athens took a step toward them, crossing his arms around his chest. “We understand you corrected a network issue with Carbon Sunset. Is that right?” he asked.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sanaa replied.
The general chuckled with a condescending tone that set her teeth on edge. “You know those machines you stole control of? They are property of the military, part of a highly classified program, code-named Carbon Sunset.”
“Ah, yes. Your little project. We need to talk about that,” Sanaa began, struggling to keep her tone calm, but betraying none of the frustration and fury that she was beginning to feel.
“Sure, sure,” The general continued. “But right now, our technicians are here to resume access on behalf of the federal government, young lady. There’ll be plenty of time for all the discussion in the world after we get everything back online.”
“With all due respect, that’s unacceptable,” Sanaa insisted, her voice defiant. “We’ll talk first, and then perhaps…”
“Hey! We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” The general shouted. “Your choice.”
“We’re going to do this my way or no way.” Sanaa maintained.
“What a rookie mistake,” The general laughed out loud. “You’re so much smarter than this.”
“Bitch, please,” Ade snapped back.
At the sound of Ade’s retort, the soldiers drew their weapons, aiming them at the ground where Sanaa and Ade stood.
“Everyone relax. Hold your fire, men. Hold your fire,” The general commanded through the cynical smile infesting his face.
“You’re really going to try to take the machines by force? After I saved you all?
Those machines would have destroyed everything on this entire planet.” Sanaa spat, her voice cracking with disbelief as she looked the soldiers in their eyes, one by one. “You’re really not going to discuss this with me rationally?”
“Like I said, it’s your choice,” Athens hollered, removing his service revolver from its holster and pointing it at Ade’s forehead.
The breath that Sanaa had been in the middle of inhaling left her instantly. Her soul was engulfed in terror. A cold sweat broke out across her forehead, across the arch of her lips. Then slowly, as if taunting her, the general used his thumb to release the gun’s safety switch The sound of the weapon powering up hummed at a high pitch. It was the very worst of things, the sight of a gun pointed at her husband’s head.
“General! Sir! I’m the one you want,” Sanaa screamed desperately.
Although Ade fought to keep her behind him, she outmaneuvered him, stepping down onto the lawn.
With the barrel of Athens’ gun now trained on her, she felt a small bit of relief followed by a sense of conviction. She would not let Ade be hurt in her place—not if she could help it. Sanaa raised both of her hands toward the sky, holding them high above her head in surrender, “I’m the one you want. I’m here.”
Just then, the first of the machine ground forces she had given permission to join her on Earth broke through the cloud cover, becoming visible in the night sky above them.
Everyone’s head turned to watch in awe as the machines seamlessly lowered themselves toward the earth, the cluster of metallic forms rearranging and circling into a complex yet efficient formation as they neared.
There was no light beneath them, no visible means of propulsion. Their ascent picked up no wind, nor did it cause the leaves of nearby trees to blow. Akin to a soldier parachuting to the earth, the machines landed upon the ground with little more than a whisper of sound in a triangular arrangement, with Sanaa and Ade gathered in the center.
Shaped like thin prisms, the machines glistened with sharp edges of a metallic silver color, illuminated by the lights of the military vehicles. A violet column of energy flowed down through a single edge of each of their builds, pulsing like an electrical current.
Sections of the machines extruded and contracted seamlessly into their perfect forms. They stood several feet taller than Sanaa and Ade, completely shielding them from the general’s view, but they could see through as Athens and the battalion backed away in fear.
As she recognized the rising alarm in their eyes, Sanaa hoped they would give in to their instincts and flee. But even as panicked as they obviously were internally, the soldiers moved no further than a few feet back before regrouping and standing their ground.
For a long moment, the tense standoff increased in intensity. The general had ducked down behind the line of soldiers pointing weapons at the machines, and appeared to be speaking to someone on a handheld device. Sanaa and Ade, however, were slowly easing back up the porch.
Breaking the silence, two loud pops cracked the air, followed by the sound of glass shattering. Sanaa and Ade instinctively dove to the ground behind the machines.
MACHINE: Sniper fire. 9700 meters north. Permission to defend. “Permission granted,” Sanaa replied without a second thought.
A single machine near the front of the group swiveled to the left within formation. A long rectangular section of its build slid out from its side like an arm, and rotated to a horizontal angle. The tip of the arm briefly glowed before two blasts slipped out, too quickly to be seen. A second later, the machine turned a few degrees to the right and swiveled its arm up. It pointed over the soldiers’ heads, toward the sky beyond a distant patch of trees, and fired a single blast.