100 Prompts 21: War
Rezzi squinted through his binoculars at the brown hills on the far side of the desert valley. He saw no movement, but that only meant he wasn't looking hard enough. He knew the enemy was there, just as they always were at this hour. What mattered was how many, and what they were up to.
"How's it look out there?" Rezzi's uncle, Ben, propped himself up on his elbows, squinting fruitlessly at the distant horizon. "See anybody? I wanna get this done before it's time to eat."
Rezzi shoved him back down. "Watch your head! They still have a sniper gun, remember? And you're wearing that--bro, how'd you get that stupid orange thing back? Ma told you she was burning it!"
Ben slapped a defensive hand on his neon headscarf. "I can't let her burn it! It's lucky!"
"Lucky? Lucky for whoever's trying to shoot you, maybe." Rezzi went back to scanning the terrain with a grumble. "I don't see a soul, since you asked. They must be taking the second or third route."
"Oh, is it Tuesday already?" Ben lifted his head again, ignoring his nephew's glare. "I thought it was Monday. Those snakes aren't trying to break the rules, are they?"
"It's Wednesday, Unc," Rezzi growled. "They're right on schedule. Now stop trying to do my job for me and focus on your own, okay?"
Ben sighed and scooted sideways until he was visible to the sentry at the base of the hill behind them. He held up three fingers on one hand and two on the other to signal the enemy's potential movements, and the message was passed from watcher to watcher until it reached the attack team hiding at the edge of the flats. So far, everything was running smoothly, as full of the usual tension as it was full of the usual boredom.
Rezzi trained his binoculars on the gap in the hills where the enemy would soon be and waited patiently for them to sally forth. The latest rumors said the scumdogs only had nine all-terrain vehicles left after the last skirmish, but Rezzi knew that his cousin Sarya (who'd led the attack) was prone to warping the facts in her favor sometimes. No doubt they'd be charging out on all twelve trucks just like always, although there might be more duct tape on some of them.
Rezzi sighed, allowing his thoughts to wander. They'd gone through this exact routine more-or-less every Wednesday since the beginning of spring as part of a new arrangement between the leaders of the two armies. Since resources were dangerously low this year, and most of the trainees from the latest batch were still too young to lift their guns, the generals had decided to carefully organize every battle so that nobody died and as few bullets were wasted as possible. Different conflicts were carefully scheduled as well--pitched battles on Mondays, trench warfare on Tuesdays, ambushes on Wednesdays, resource thievery on Thursdays, parade days on Fridays, and sieges over the weekend. Well....sieges were more like unofficial break days by now, and parade days were just an excuse to show off and verbally insult the enemy, but what mattered was adhering to the rules. At this point, there wasn't any benefit to be gained by breaking them.
At least, that's what Rezzi thought. The army on the far end of the battlefield was about to prove it thought much differently.
He heard a shout of confusion from somewhere along his signal chain and was jolted back to reality. He caught a flash of movement to the left of where he'd expected the enemy to emerge and quickly focused on it, berating himself for getting distracted.
What was this? The fleet of trucks, clearly displaying the red-and-white flags of their allegiance, were driving into the open at top speed, as if they were charging. This was already against the rules since it was the other side's turn to ambush first. But they weren't even driving in the right direction. They veered south, sending up a huge cloud of dust as they raced not towards Rezzi's attack party, but towards.....
Rezzi's eyes widened when he saw it. A lone figure, walking down the center of the valley, clothed in brown and carrying a large backpack. He zoomed his binoculars as far as possible, but couldn't see the colors of either army on the figure.
Without wasting another second he shot to his feet and whistled to his uncle. "Ben! There's a Wanderer down there at nine o'clock! The Reds are making a break for it, tell Payne to intercept them now! We have to get to the new guy first!"
Ben popped up and started gesturing crazily at the guy down the slope. "A Wanderer! I haven't seen one of those around here in years!"
Rezzi resisted the urge to abandon his post and warn the ambush party himself. "And you won't get to see this one either, if we let the Reds catch him. Move, people, move!"
As Ben and the others of the signal chain frantically relayed his message to the base of the hill, Rezzi turned his gaze to the Wanderer once more. The man had stumbled to a halt and was staring with what was probably unease at the fast approaching vehicles. Rezzi panned to the Reds and saw the ragged soldiers waving and jeering in his direction from the open windows of the trucks. So they'd known exactly where the ambush was going to be all along.
Gritting his teeth, Rezzi switched out his binoculars for the cracked scope of his rifle. He might not be able to ensure their victory today, but he could at least pop some tires before the battle was done.
"Mobilize all units!" Payne shouted, standing up in the passenger's seat of their roofless jeep and pointing their gun to the southwest, where the enemy was speeding across the open ground. "Intercept the Reds and capture the Wanderer at all costs! Look sharp, they've got a head start!"
The soldiers quickly revved up their motley collection of jeep and dirt bikes, roaring out of the copse of dead trees they'd been hiding in and quickly weaving into a V formation once they were out in the sun. Payne remained standing at the front of the charge, staring with narrowed eyes through their sunglasses at the Wanderer in the distance. By now the poor man--or woman, it was hard to tell--had realized that they were being targeted and had started to run back the way they'd came. But it was no use. Both sides would reach the stranger in minutes.
Payne heard a gunshot from the right and flinched as a bullet tore through their jeep's green flag. By now the Reds were almost parallel to them a few yards away, and the two vehicles in front were racing neck-and-neck. A woman on the Red's side waved her gun mockingly and made a rude gesture at Payne.
"Suck it, Greenies!" She yelled, then ducked down with a yelp as Payne retaliated with a well-aimed shot that cracked the driver's windshield and made him swerve away. Payne's team cheered and managed to pull slightly ahead of their opponents.
Payne glanced up and saw their target approaching fast. "Veer right!" they commanded, and in an instant the Greens had cut in front of the Reds and sharply turned back left, circling off the Wanderer in a still-moving ring of growling machines. The bewildered stranger shielded his arms with his face, understandably terrified by this unexpected welcome party.
In the next few seconds, there were countless near-misses and brushes with death as Reds and Greens alike desperately tried to avoid colliding with each other. Luckily all the drivers had years of experience with this exact situation, and although it would have been possible to deliberately crash into an opponent to gain the upper hand, that was against the rules these days. So the Reds could only shout curses at the Greens as Payne's jeep screeched to a halt next to the Wanderer and they leveled their gun at him.
"Get in," Payne commanded. "You are now a prisoner of war, stranger. Act like it or I'll be forced to make you."
The Wanderer, who definitely didn't have a gun of his own, quickly scrambled into the back of the jeep, where two soldiers enthusiastically held him at gunpoint while a third took his backpack. Payne signaled to the driver and they screeched back into the circle of cars.
"Move out!" Payne called to their troops, and they broke away from the Reds with a cheer. The Reds half-heartedly chased them for a bit, then peeled off with many promises to get revenge next Wednesday. Payne ignored them--they had more important matters on their mind.
"Head straight back to camp," they ordered the driver. "Rezzi's group can meet us there." They glanced at their prisoner huddled behind them. "The generals will want to hear about this."
On the far side of the dusty valley, the Reds were returning to their own camp in a much fouler mood. The leader of the attack force in particular was wishing for a way to vent her spleen after that embarrassing loss. The lanky woman sat with her arms folded in the passenger's side of the lead truck, glaring at the dirt road ahead of them and silently seething.
The driver--her husband of thirty years--glanced at her to assess her body language, then sighed. "Brandy?"
He kept his eyes casually on the road. "Penny for your th--"
Brandy exploded. "That does it, THAT DOES IT, NOAH! We got owned back there! We made the call and took the risk, we saw the guy first, we had a head start, and those adolescent skink-bats still beat us like they do this every day! Like they could do it in their sleep! Who's in charge of training the troops around here, huh? Because whoever it is, I'd line them up in front of a firing squad if I thought there was even the barest chance that the firing squad could hit them! We're starting to look like a bunch of incompetent fools next to those AMATEURS, and I swear this had better not happen again or--" She ended with a semi-automatic burst of curses and threats that had the other soldiers in the truck flinching nervously.
Noah sighed, puffed out his cheeks, and generally ignored her. "I wonder where that Wanderer came fr-"
That set her off again. "Ooohhhh, it kills me to think of what those mangy tree-huggers are gonna do to him! Once they catch you, there's no escape from the clutches of their psycho-earth-friendly-meme-lord-conspiracy-cult-thingy-whatever! Soon the poor guy will start whining about locally-grown turnips and trying to recycle his mustache into paintbrushes or something. And what for, anyway? The Greens don't need any more fighters! Remember their parades the last couple Fridays? Have you seen how many toddlers with wooden swords they've got running around lately? I swear, in another few years we'll be overrun with them. And what have we got? We all should have retired ages ago, but still we continue to nobly defend our sweet lands and ideals, until our dying breaths if need be." A half-hearted cheer rose up from the soldiers, only to quickly cut itself off as Brandy whirled to face them. "What's so great about that, morons? The only reason we still have to fight those rugrats is because none of our troops can aim straight or hold it together during a charge. I could beat all of you single-handed, and don't you forget it! SHAPE UP, GOT IT?"
The soldiers nodded quickly. Brandy took another breath, ready to start in again, but Noah was bored of the conversation by now and decided to end it. "Hey, Honey?"
"Tomorrow, it's our turn. Thursday, remember? We'll just steal the guy, along with the usual food and ammo and stuff." He swerved to avoid a hole in the road and drove them into camp, flashing his wife a calm smile. "Okay?"
Brandy huffed, pretending to act offended for another few minutes before relaxing and smiling back. "Sounds good, dear."
"Do you want to go get something for your sore neck while I report in?"
"....Yes, thank-you, Noah. You're so sweet."
Oak had been a Wanderer for most of his life--even before the war, in a way. He'd been kicked out of his family's house at eighteen, and had failed to keep a job long enough to pay for another place to stay. He was used to traveling (and eating) light, making use of whatever he found, sleeping out in the open, and never knowing whether a stranger was going to offer him help or try to take what little he had. Solitude, he realized in his twenties, was truly pleasant to him, and he decided to travel the country by himself, seeing and experiencing as much as he could by himself with no money except the donations of strangers. Sometimes it took him years to get from one coast to the other, since he couldn't afford a car or bus fare (and since hitch-hiking meant being stuck in a cramped space with someone else for hours on end). In this time, he found a sort of peace in himself, came to terms with the world, and realized he wanted nothing more in life than to quietly relish existence. It was, in a way, a small spiritual awakening. He was rarely lonely because he didn't feel like he was missing out on anything. When he did crave human company, he would sometimes find a bar or coffee chop and try to strike up conversation...but somehow he always ended up regretting it later. For him, the road or path or trackless wilderness was enough, and each time he remembered this his love for his life grew stronger.
Then, the war started. Suddenly there was fighting everywhere--he couldn't escape it. Everyone was asking him to choose a side, never mind that he didn't understand current affairs or care who was good or bad. He felt trapped--on one side the cities were burning or being evacuated, and on the other side the previously empty forest and plains were now filled with dangerous monsters. Oak would travel for a week and see nothing but charred trees, then crest a hill and find himself in a mile-wide refugee camp. Several times he ran into soldiers who demanded to know his allegiance, and once, when he could not supply a satisfactory answer, they mistook him for a spy and almost shot him down. After that he retreated into the most remote places--the canyons, forests, mountains, and not-quite-barren plains in search of his old peaceful life. But then, he began to encounter one territorial Deorn after another, and realized that the earth no longer belonged to humankind. After several near-death encounters, he decided it was time for a change.
He swallowed his fears and joined a group of survivors. He taught them how to forage and hunt for food. In return, they taught him how to fight, how to drive a truck, how to handle weapons and how to get along with people. He learned how to tell a human from a non-human, how to avoid or end a Deorn attack, how to kill an Intunera, and how to effectively barter for supplies in a new world where money had lost most of its value. In those two years, he made a few friends, and even became a respected member of the group--but when the chain of command at last failed and paranoia began to poison the group, he was secretly glad to head off on his own once more.
Since then he'd had more luck on his travels. He'd drifted here and there, mostly just trying to stay away from everyone and everything. He interacted with others when necessary, but for the most part kept to himself. Now, in the achingly empty deserts of the southwest, he was slowly starting to find his inner peace again, and regain the connection he'd lost with the nebulous, unnamed magic in the air and earth that could possibly be called his spirituality.
Then....he'd made the mistake of entering this valley, thinking it was deserted. How wrong he'd been. Defending himself against a lone attacker was one thing, but against a fully-armed group, he had no choice but to surrender. Now he was in the back of a jeep, being bumped and jostled as they raced between the hills, hoping miserably that he wasn't about to be killed. The ragged, dusty strangers around him conversed with each other, but none of them spoke to him for the duration of the drive
They rounded a bend and came to the other side of the hills, where there was a large, complex-looking camp. The slope had been terraced slightly, and walls of earth and wood zig-zagged up to the top. There were a few ancient tents and pavilions on the flatter ground, but most of the structures that Oak could see were either made of mud and clay, or dug straight out of the hillside like burrows. The center of camp was marked by a well, and a few yard from that was an open space where a small crowd was waiting. It was here that the jeeps and dirt bikes filed in to park, going slowly so as not to run anyone over.
The tall, pale-haired twenty-something in Oak's vehicle, who seemed to be in charge of the fighters, started barking out orders to the onlookers as soon as they were in earshot. "Dani, go tell the generals I'll be reporting to them in a second. We found a Wanderer on the plain, he's in the back." Then more quietly, to the soldiers in the jeep, "Get him tied up and make sure he doesn't have any weapons."
Oak found himself being bundled out of the jeep onto solid ground and made his first attempt to speak. "Wait! Sir, please, can we talk about this?"
The teen spared him the barest glance, then turned away, ignoring him. One of the other soldiers gave Oak a cuff on the head. "That's not how you address them! Mir Payne ain't no man. Do they look like one to you, cross-eyes?"
Oak backtracked hurriedly. "No no, I'm sorry! I meant no offense, I promise. I just--I just wanted to let you guys know that if you want to rob me, I don't have anything of value. Also I didn't realize I was entering land that had already been claimed, so please don't punish me too harshly for trespassing."
Payne swiveled back just slightly to face him. "We're not thieves, and if we didn't like trespassers we would have shot you before you knew we were there. You won't be harmed while you're in our camp, as long as you behave."
Oak became confused and a little worried, distractedly allowing the soldiers to take his knife and slingshot. "Then...what am I here for?"
"Oh, it's part of protocol. If a stranger enters the dead zone, whoever reaches them first gets a claim on them. Recruits are hard to come by around here, obviously."
Oak was alarmed. "Uh....recruits for what?"
"For the war, toothbrain," one of the soldiers growled. "What else? You think we need competitors for a bake-off or something?"
"Oh," Oak replied faintly "The....war?"
Payne's expression was half pitying, half patronizing. "Yep. The war. Now come on, you can find out the details from the generals. I have other stuff I need to do."
Oak let the soldiers lead him into camp, too shocked to say anything. His mind was whirling. The war? They wanted him to fight in the war? What was going on? The last he'd known....
He shook his head and stared at the sky, wondering with growing alarm whether he was starting to lose his mind.
The last he'd known.....the war was over. It had ended almost ten years ago.
Sam had just been ambushed and wrestled to the ground by his two kids and was about to start a full-on tournament with them when the sentry poked his head around the tent flap. "General Carlson! Uh...." He tried not to grin at the sight of his commander being swamped by children. "The attack force is back...they'll be coming to give their report soon."
"Aw man," Sam complained playfully, tossing his two-year-old son in the air and catching him. "Can't Zee handle them today? I'm under a fierce attack here."
His slightly older son laughed. "Yeah! We're gonna kill him dead, Uncle Manny! Then we'll be the generals!"
Uncle Manny glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to the boys with an amused smirk. "Tell that to your ma, you little punks. She's headed this way."
The kids yelped and scrambled to hide behind the two chairs at the back of the tent, just as a tall, dark-skinned young woman came inside. She looked down to see Sam lying on the ground and halted. He put his hands behind his head, grinning sheepishly. "Hey, Zee."
She shook her head. "What are you doing now? Taking a dirt-bath? You should, really, it would greatly improve your appearance."
There came a chorus of quiet giggles from the far side of the room. Zee glanced sidelong in the direction of the sound, then smiled slyly and continued loud enough for all to hear. "I swear, if only your children could see you now. Show some decorum, Samuel."
Sam got to his feet reluctantly. "But I was ambushed," he protested, triggering another burst of giggles. "It was totally unfair, two-to-one. I still can't understand why they decided to spare my life." His eyes followed Zee's progress as she stealthily made her way around the table, towards the boys' hiding place. "Maybe they thought I wasn't worth the effort."
"Or maybe," Zee said, looming over her children with a grin, "They heard a mighty warrior was coming to the rescue and fled like a pair of cowardly Reds!"
This caused both boys to leap out into the open indignantly. "We're not cowards!" they shouted. "We're not like the Reds at all! We're not scared of any mighty warriors!"
Zee laughed and bent down, scooping them both into her arms with ease. "Well then, does that mean you won't run away if I tell you it's time for your training? I'm sure Aunt Sarya's wondering where you are by now."
The older boy whined. "But Maaaaa, we don't need training anymore! We're ready to fight the Reds now!"
Sam came over, brushing off the dust from his recent tumble. "Come on, my dudes. Do you really want to make your aunt mad? At this point she's gonna make you stay late if you don't hurry up."
His sons grumbled and scowled their way down from Zee's arms, trudging to the front of the tent and heading outside. The younger boy paused in the doorway, glancing at his parents hopefully. "After training, can we go up to the lookout spot?"
"Well..." Zee thought it over, then smiled and nodded. "Just make sure you find a grown-up to go with you. Grandmother, maybe. Now go on."
Once they were gone, Sam stretched and gave his wife a peck on the cheek. "Wonder how the attack went. I heard a couple shots but no signal flares or anything."
"We'll find out in a moment." Zee walked to the table and started clearing things off of it. "They came back early, so either the ambush was easier than usual, or they ran into some trouble."
Sam helped her polish the table and set up more chairs. "You saw them pull in, right? Did they look like they'd taken any damage?"
"Not really, no. Still, they could have been outmaneuvered or something." She glanced at the tent flap and called out to the sentry. "Mango? Are they coming or what?"
Uncle Manny popped back into view. "Mister Rezzi and Mir Payne are meeting up as we speak, Ma'am. It looks like.....huh." His voice became a bit puzzled as he watched the pair approach. "Looks like they have a stranger with them. Dunno what that's about."
Both generals perked up curiously. "Is it a Red?" Sam asked, his voice suddenly more businesslike.
"I don't see any of their scrappy regalia, but it's hard to say for sure. They've got him tied up so he can't be a friendly." Manny cut off as the small group came within earshot, and Sam and Zee quickly sat down at the head of the table. A moment later, Rezzi stepped into the tent, followed closely by Payne. Behind them, a scowling soldier escorted a scruffy man with short graying hair and nervous blue eyes. His clothes were old and colorless, and nothing about him indicated his place of origin or his allegiances. Sam watched him carefully, wondering why something about the man stirred a bad feeling in his gut.
"Report," Zee said, all smiles and softness gone from her face.
Rezzi and Payne both saluted. "Yes Ma'am," Rezzi replied. "The ambush went smoothly at first. We knew their position and were well-prepared to attack. Unfortunately, we were forced to deviate from the plan when we spotted this Wanderer approaching from the southern end of the valley." He nodded at the prisoner, who remained uneasily silent. "The Reds saw him first and made a break for him, but I alerted Payne and they broke cover to intercept."
Payne took up the account from there. "Confirmed. My troops were able to reach the Wanderer first and capture him with no difficulty. His possessions are currently safe-guarded in the weaponry."
"And the Reds?"
"After their initial deviance from the rules, they obeyed protocol and didn't try to protest our victory. It is my personal suspicion, however, that they will attempt to steal the prisoner from us sometime tomorrow, since the rules allow it at that time."
Sam shifted. "Well, see to it that he's heavily guarded. This is not something we want snatched away the second we find it."
After a pause, Zee turned her gaze coolly to the prisoner, appraising him. "What is your name, Wanderer?"
The man looked up. "...It's Oak, Ma'am. Oak of the Road."
"I see." She leaned forward, resting her elbow lightly on the table. "And why have you come here?"
"Well....I was following a riverbed for a while, but it dried up. I was trying to find a new source of water since I have a limited supply, you know, and valleys are usually a safe bet....I had no idea that anyone was living here," he added hastily. "And by the way, Ma'am, I'm sorry, but I'm not a fighter--I'm a pacifist, in fact, and I don't think there's any way I could help--"
She lifted a hand, and the soldier guarding Oak enthusiastically kicked him to make him shut up.
"That's enough," Zee said. "Don't judge a battle before you know the stakes, my friend. You will stay with us for a while, hear our stories of why we fight, and then we shall see whether you are a pacifist or not."
"Be quiet. Guard, take him to the pen. Only let him out if he demonstrates complete and utter loyalty to us, otherwise make sure he's watched day and night." She looked back at Oak once more. "We don't want to make you our enemy, Oak. By catching you, we've saved you from a much less pleasant fate at the hands of our enemy. If you need anything while you are here, just ask and we will see what we can do."
The guard marched Oak out of the tent. Once they were gone, Sam let out a breath and sat back in his chair. "Huh. Well....he seems harmless."
The others glanced at him. "Yeah," Rezzi agreed. "He acts like somebody's bumbling grandpa. But, uh....you think he could be faking it?"
Sam frowned at the table, shrugging slightly. "I don't know. My hunches aren't always correct. Something about him seems off...but on the other hand, he did sound pretty sincere." He looked up at Payne. "Either way, double-check him for weapons, and make sure the the guards stay on their toes. At the very least, he could be a spy for the Reds."
"Yes sir. Anything else?"
Sam and Zee glanced at each other. "Don't treat him too harshly," Zee added. "We do eventually want him to fight for us, and he won't do that if he hates his situation. The rate of our community's growth is good, but we're sorely lacking in adults with experience and ability. Any extra pair of hands we can find is worth the effort. So get someone to talk to him, ask him about his life, gain his trust."
"Who would you recommend, Ma'am?"
"I'll leave that up to you and Rezzi. Dismissed."
They left, talking quietly to each other. Zee stood up and started pacing, her arms folded. Sam watched her silently for a few minutes, lost in his own thoughts. Then he smiled and stretched like a cat in his chair.
"You're not worried about this, are you?" he asked her.
She looked up as if startled, then sighed. "My worries aren't always silly, you know. We haven't had a newcomer in this camp since the generals before us were young. And that newcomer, well....she was...." Zee grimaced.
"....Totally bonkers," Sam finished for her. "I know. But that was her. This guy doesn't seem unstable to me. He actually seemed pretty nice." Standing, he went over and gently caught Zee's shoulder as she walked past, stopping her restless movement. "It'll be fine. You know how I feel about it, right? You're the smartest, strongest girl I know, and it always surprises me that you worry about things so much. But it's okay if you're worried. I'll always have your back when you need me, no matter what."
Zee stared at nothing for another heartbeat, then slowly relaxed and turned to Sam with a grateful smile. "Thanks."
"Anytime." Sam hugged her tightly, then nodded at the entrance. "It's not quite lunchtime yet. Wanna go for a quick walk?"
"Sure." Zee linked arms with her husband and together they left the tent, already chatting about their plans for that weekend's siege.
Oak was not feeling well.
The "pen" they'd sentenced him to turned out to be a large burrow roughly dug in the side of the hill and fenced off by a deceptively sturdy wooden barrier. The sides of the hill were too steep and crumbly to climb, and at any rate there was a sentry directly above the pen with a stave, ready to knock Oak back down if he tried to escape in that direction. The inside of the burrow was cool and shady, which was a welcome change from the harsh late morning heat, but it seemed as if the place was rarely cleaned and there were small spiders everywhere. After wandering back and forth a bit, Oak sat in the mouth of the burrow, where the spiders were minimal and he could still avoid the combined glares of the sun and the guard above him.
There, he tried to think. Despite all his hopes and best efforts, age had not granted him confidence in social situations, especially when those situations contained danger. If anything, he thought he might have been better at this sort of thing in his twenties than he was now. He'd spent too much time alone, in silence, turning inward rather than outward. To him, life in a community was disturbingly loud and fast-paced, and people always seemed in a hurry, forming decisions and opinions with blinding speed. It made him feel weak and slow-witted by comparison, and he tended to give up easily when it came to making himself heard.
But this time, it seemed to him that he couldn't afford to be meek or hesitating. Already, he was pretty sure he'd been drafted into some kind of army, slated to fight who-knows-what for who-knew-how-long, and that thought alone was enough to make his stomach churn. He didn't want to fight anyone. He'd been so, so close to escaping the war and its dangers forever....and now it had snatched him back into his jaws without so much as a whisper of warning.
It didn't even make sense! Had he been wrong, all these years, in thinking that the war was over? His sources had seemed credible at the time, but looking back now, uncertainty gripped him. What if he'd just gotten lucky and managed to avoid the fighting until now? What if the war was never going to end? What if the only real escape from bloodshed was death itself?
Oak realized his heart was thudding painfully and his breathing felt restricted. He forced his fears out of his head for the moment and massaged his chest, trying to calm down. Settle, he told himself. Panicking won't help you. Just keep your eyes open and don't be afraid to ask questions. They said they wouldn't hurt you, so that means you have some power here.
The pep talk helped a tiny bit, and after a while his heart stopped sounding as strained. He risked another look at his surroundings, and at that point realized that he was being watched.
A young boy, maybe ten years old, had somehow climbed to the top of the fence and was hanging there with his chin resting on his crossed arms, considering Oak silently. His facial features, oddly acrobatic for someone his age, were conveying sympathy and compassion, but something in the quirk of his eyebrows seemed almost.... condescending as well. Once he noticed Oak staring back at him, he blinked and his expression changed to one of friendly curiosity.
"Hey," he called. "What's your name?"
Oak shifted uncomfortably. He knew almost nothing about kids. His last encounter with one had involved an antisocial toddler who'd bitten his finger hard enough to make him bleed. Not a good start. "Um....it's Oak....what's your name?"
"Finch," the boy said, starting to side-step his way along the fence as he spoke. "So you're a Wanderer, huh? Never met one of those before. What's it like? Is it nice? Don't you ever get lonely?"
Oak shifted, glancing uncertainly at the guard near the gate, but the stocky woman acted as if she couldn't hear their conversation and made no move to send the boy away. "It....um....it is nice. I don't really get lonely, no. I like being on my own."
"Really? I like being with my friends. Being all alone is boring." Finch grinned at him. "How far have you traveled, Mister Oak? Have you ever been out of the state?"
"Oh, yeah," Oak replied, surprised. "I've been all over the country, actually."
"No way!" Finch's eyes widened. "Have you been to New York City?"
Memories flashed through Oak's head, of standing on a hill next to a roaring freeway, shading his eyes, staring at the horizon in terror--the sprawling, seething city glittered like a mass of steel maggots on concrete bones--endless rivers of cars streamed inward, but none seemed to come out--the city's tendrils were crawling towards him, they had already surrounded him--
"No," he replied after a minute. "I'm, uh....not really a fan of busy places like that."
"Oh." Finch looked mildly disappointed, but let it drop without prying. "So where have you been?"
"Well....I've visited all the states except Hawaii, Alaska, and Florida. I've been to too many national parks and wilderness areas to count. I saw the Grand Canyon, and Mount Rushmore, and, um, the Sandhill Crane migration in Nebraska, and the Mississippi River, and all kinds of places like that."
"Which one's your favorite?"
Oak paused. "My favorite?....I don't know, really. They're all so beautiful, and peaceful. I mean, they were, anyway, before the war." His heart sank. "After the storms and fires went through, a lot of stuff was destroyed. I'm not sure how much is left these days."
Finch tilted his head, studying the old man. "You mean nobody protected those places?"
Oak glanced up at him sadly. "Maybe some people tried, but it wasn't enough. I've seen...terrible things out there, where there used to be nothing but beauty. if there's one thing I learned about the war, it's that it helped no one. So many people died or lost there homes, forests burned, valleys flooded--even the Deorns are struggling to survive now. And for what? Politics, that's what, and you don't see politics helping anyone now." At that point he stopped himself, thinking maybe he shouldn't talk this way to a kid. "I'm sorry. Your people told me they believe in the war, so maybe I'd better not criticize it too much. I don't mean anything personal, of course."
Finch shrugged. "Meh. Don't worry, we're fighting for good things. You picked the right side to get captured by. If we can take this border and force the Reds back, we can protect this land and make it a safe place again. We can plant trees and grow gardens and all sorts of stuff."
"Really?" Oak was still a bit dubious. "I mean, that's great, I think, but what if you don't win? What if the war just...keeps going and you don't make it to the end?"
"I will," Finch replied confidently. "We have rules now so nobody dies."
"Uh-huh. We don't got enough people on either side to waste 'em, you know? So if you shoot, you can't aim at anybody, and you can't crash your truck on purpose." Finch spoke as though there was nothing odd about this arrangement at all. "Stuff like that. The generals said they'll get rid of the rule once the new recruits are old enough to fight, but I think everybody likes the rule too much." He grinned. "They're sissies."
Oak struggled to grasp this turn of events. "Wait, so--you're at war with these other guys, but you can't actually kill each other? What do you do instead?"
"Well, we steal each others' stuff, and we have sieges, and ambushes, and it's all in a schedule. We can still have battles and whatever, as long as we know what we gotta do to win. Usually whichever side can put more holes in the other side's flag is the winner, or whoever can checkmate the other by surrounding 'em or something. See?"
Oak didn't see, but couldn't bring himself to admit it. "Right, so, how old are your new recruits, then?"
Finch squinted one eye, calculating. "Lessee....the oldest one's thirteen this month, and the youngest is....two. That's not counting the actual babies, obviously, since they don't even know what a war is."
"You have two-year-olds training to fight!?" Oak was a bit horrified.
"Hey, they've gotta start sooner or later! What are they gonna do, play house forever? You think we're made of soldiers over here? The generals say it's a tough life. Once you're over thirty, you're basically no good in combat anymore, so we gotta start early and get in as many years of combat as we can." Finch cast Oak a semi-scornful look. "I hear Wanderers don't do much fighting, so I guess you wouldn't understand. How old are you, anyway?"
Oak bridled. "I'm....sixty-five...."
That actually seemed to surprise Finch. "Sixty-five? Jeez, you might be the oldest guy here! How'd you manage to live so long without getting sick or, you know, weird?"
"Um.....I dunno. I ate healthy when I could, I stayed in shape, I tried to keep out of trouble...." Now that he thought about it, Oak had seen very few elderly people in this camp so far. "What do you mean by "weird", exactly? Why don't your people get old?"
"They just....don't. Hey, I ain't a doctor, don't ask me. I sorta figured it was, you know, normal." The boy shifted uncomfortably. "Anyway, that's not important. Listen....you know you don't have to specifically be a fighter if you don't want, right? There's plenty of other stuff around here that needs doing. What are you good at?"
Oak brightened tentatively. He didn't have to fight....? "Well, um...I'm good at finding food and water and shelter no matter where I am, or what the weather's like, or what time of year it is."
"I mean, you could be a Gatherer, I guess...got anything else?"