A Stranger’s Death

My father woke me by kicking my door open. The wood planks reverberated but held together through the recoil.

“Can’t you ever get up with the sun, boy?” he asked, not intending on getting an answer, so I didn’t give one. “Can’t you hear the gunfire? There’s a battle going on over beyond the ridge. Let’s go before it ends, and bring some food with you.”

I slowly rolled over and sat up. I could faintly hear the gunfire he mentioned and adrenaline chased the sleep from my limbs. I pulled on my trousers and boots and wrapped what was left of the last deer in a cloth and shoved it in a bag before taking off through the door.

I heard a faint pop as I headed toward the ridge to the west. Before too long, I could hear the rat-tat-ratat of drummers, and then I was there. I crested the hill and below, on the green field, stood two masses of men. Two large colors of blue and grey at each end and a murky blend forming in the middle. A mixture of blue and gray and red and purple. The battle was maybe a quarter mile away. Shouting could be heard as officers gave orders and men died.

Some of the neighbors had come by to watch too. Strangers also who brought chairs and even a small table. The women wore dresses and brought parasols for shade even though the sun was barely up. I made my way to my father. He never took his eyes off the battle below but took a swig from his bottle. He never went anywhere without it. At least that I’d seen. I sat on the dry grass and began eating. He knelt down and grabbed a few pieces himself. Everyone else kept to themselves except for the strangers who mingled and ate and drank and laughed. I imagined this is what they did in their expensive city homes. Their manners were dead giveaways. The battle seemed to be just a side attraction. They focused mainly on themselves and each other. My father and I said nothing. We sat and ate our meager meal. He drank and watched. Every so often I would hear him mutter “Yankee bastard” under his breath.

He always talked about how everything got split. How things that were simple turned into a right and wrong. How nobody could force us to change our lifestyles just because they wanted live their own certain way. He always talked about how in a few years I’d be old enough to fight. How he’d walk me into town to sign up. He never talked about fighting himself unless it was in the bar.

I never said a word. I just watched. Wishing I had an eyepiece like the rich folk a ways down to see better. There was one lying on the table and I thought, for a moment, of snatching it. They probably wouldn’t even notice. Instead I strained my eyes to see the the men below. Killing. Being killed. A coldness ran through me and I wanted to leave when I heard glass shatter and a short scream followed by laughter.

“It must have been a stray bullet from down there,” someone said.

“We’ll have to go down afterward to get a few souvenirs,” said another.

I watched the men die while the strangers waited simply to steal from the dead. To take what they could afford from those who gave everything. A hatred grew in me, but there was no place to put it so I swallowed it. It made me cold even in humid air and morning sun. If I joined the army to fight, I’d never fight these strangers. Not the ones who watched. Only other strangers like those below. Of which I would become one, and be left to rot in the midday sun. Lost in a sea of blood.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This weeks book recommendation is The Eyes of God by John Marco. This is book one of a trilogy with The Devil’s Armor and The Sword of Angels being the consecutive books. Fret not, these are not theological books. They are rather a fantasy trilogy I first read roughly ten years ago. I remember them quite well and will read them again sometime. That’s what is so great about books. You can read them as many times as you like and they will always be different. The difference being your perspective each time you read. The words will remain the same, but we as readers change and thus some books gain or lose value to us. I think when I do read this series again, I will still appreciate them (despite my initial hatred of one character’s decisions and her consequences, but we don’t always make the best decisions for ourselves I guess). I believe the three are roughly over 2200 pages together if I remember correctly, so it is a journey in itself, as most books are.

The Last Expedition

The glacial plains are much like the deserts from history, my grandfather told me, except they are a little more forgiving. He was a boy when the sun had been brighter and the oceans were liquid. His father had told him once that the ice was almost all melted back then, but that is a tale too far gone to be believed today. Much like how there used to be millions of people that once lived here. Now there is little but the ice.

My brothers and I had left the village two months ago. Our expedition consisted of the three of us and a bare fraction of the food the old expeditions had when they left. The last was three years ago. It was the fifteenth and the send off was less a celebration and more a funeral. I remember crying as Sal turned his back to go. I’d given him my best knife because I knew I’d never see him again and I wanted him to have something to remember me by. The hope of our people had run out long ago. It’s been thirty years since the first expedition was sent out. Now we were the last. Our father hugged each of us tightly. He hugged Erel the longest, and though I know he meant for no one else to hear it, I couldn’t help but catch the words on the frozen air. Erel still hasn’t shared it with Dante or myself. I’m not sure he ever will.

For two month’s we’ve been taking turns pulling the sled. It took little effort due to the sharp skis and the light load, and none of us complained of the responsibility like we would have when we were younger. Our food was nearly out. We came across a tent a few days back. After some trouble, we were able to pry the jackets off the corpses and found a few dried strips of meat that had been taken by the frost. Dante still packed them on the sled. “Better than nothing,” he’d said. We’d returned to our glum silence afterward.

The deserts, apparently somewhere far below the ice now, were made of endless sand. The sun would shine bright and burn you during the day, and when the sun set the heat would disappear and leave you freezing during the night. Such were the stories we were told. The glacial plain reflected the dim sunlight and made the daytime bearable. At best, maybe a millimeter of ice would melt by midday. Enough to make the sled glide almost on its own. It would refreeze before nightfall. We would use the state of the ice as the time of day. Shortly after the ice froze again, we would set up camp and huddle together in the small tent, relying on each other for warmth to last the night. Every night we weren’t sure if we’d make it, but every night we slept soundly.

And so each day went by. The monotonous repetition of wake, walk, and sleep. We would gather the small snow that drifted atop the ice and melt it for breakfast. We’d run out of solid food two weeks ago and made do with hot water for meals. Erel handed the sled off to me, then I to Dante, then Dante would decide where we’d camp for the night. Day by day we kept going because we had no other path to turn to. We wouldn’t have been able to make it back to the village even if we’d turned back three weeks ago. We kept our path despite knowing that we weren’t going to make it. The peaks we’d first seen two weeks ago were on the horizon. Three little hills of black rock above the white and blue of snow and ice. There was a small chance we’d find villages there. Even if we had, the chances of them having food were just as slim. Yet they remained forever on the horizon. Day after day, we would cover miles, but the hills were never closer.

We kept silent as the days went by. Conserving energy was our top priority. We knew each other’s thoughts though. We were brothers. Erel would set the pace. Dante and I followed. Dante would stop pulling. Erel and I would set up the tent. Our once thick, muscled bodies were thinning. I felt it each night. Less heat. If we hadn’t taken the jackets from the dead men, we would have joined them days ago.

Luck found us during the new moon. We were trudging along when, just before midday, the ice shifted. A cracking, then an eruption. The noise was deafening against the soft whisper of the breeze. Off to our right, something had broken from the ice. Steam shot out from underneath and slowly dissipated to reveal a large metal cone protruding from the surface. We spent the remainder of the day making our way to it. We reached it just before nightfall. A warmth radiated from the hard surface. We made camp before the sun had completely disappeared. Each of us slept with our backs to the metal as it provided more warmth than we could for each other.

I was woken before morning by a high pitch squeal and a rumbling. The metal was retracting. Erel and Dante woke before it was completely gone beneath the ice. Steam rose from the hole it left and we tried gazing in. With silent nods we decided to see what lay below. First Erel then Dante walked slowly into the cloud of steam. I followed but the air was thick and hot and I could not see a foot in front of me. I was grabbed by two figures and they dragged my further in. I had no strength to fight them and their very presence gave me hope that I may be able to eat something solid. The steam disappeared and I was brought before a masked man.

“Another one?” he said, his voice muffled by the mask. His eyes were visible behind clear goggles. My handlers said nothing. “Take him to the infirmary too.”

I awoke in a dark room. Light came from little spots on the wall, but it wasn’t sunlight. The air was harsh but warm. Erel and Dante were in beds next to mine. They wore thin clothes that hardly covered them. I looked down and saw I wore the same. For three days we were confined to our beds, but they fed us more in that time than we’d had the past two years.

On the fourth day, a large, rough man came and escorted us out of the room and had us climb into a metal box on wheels. It began moving before we sat down. I could not accurately predict the flow of time having not seen the sun or the ice for three days. We must have been in that box for the better part of one day before it stopped. The doors opened and we were ushered out and into a small room with a table and chairs. The door opened and a man walked in.

“Welcome, my friends,” he said. We all remained seated. He drew his knife and laid it on the table. I recognized it immediately.

“Sal?” My voice cracked. It was the first I’d spoken in over a month. Erel and Dante looked at him closely. Sal hugged me. I knew it was him. My brothers observed a little longer before they were convinced.

“Sal,” Erel said. His voice seemed foreign even to me. “So it was true?”

“It was,” he said, “Welcome to your new lives boys. It’s not too easy, but it’s just as the stories predicted.”

“But what about the village?” Dante interrupted. “We have to go back.”

Erel shook his head. “No. We can’t.”

“But ma, and pa, and Elle?”

“We are working our way to them right now,” Sal said. “Once we found this place, we’ve been having them work back to the village. I thought we were close. How long have you guys been up there?”

“Two months,” I said.

“Shit. Well, we’ve probably got another few weeks of drilling then, but we’ll get to them. How are my parents?”

Erel shook his head again. Our father’s words echoed in my head as they did every night since we’d left.

“There’s no need to go there,” Erel said. “They’re all dead.”

“What?” Sal and Dante said in unison.

“Pa told Erel not to come back for them,” I said.

Erel glared at me.

“I heard him whisper to you,” I admitted.

“But why?” Dante asked. Sal crossed his arms and waited for the answer as well.

“They ran out of food before we even left,” Erel said. Dante sat back down.

“I’m sorry,” Sal said. He was visibly shaken, but he held himself well. “We will still go back. In case any are still alive. We can at least set give them a proper goodbye.”

I thanked him. He left us alone in the room for some time before coming back to get us. It was faint, but I could tell he shed a few tears as well. We were to start a new life here, beneath the ice, and I for one was more than ready.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s recommendation is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  They did make a movie about four years ago that I enjoyed, but left many people who hadn’t read the book a little confused. It’s a fusion of six stories in one that are linked together in various ways despite occurring at different times across a few hundred years.

Xenophobia

“It’ll be fine dear. They didn’t find anything last time and we’re already in the third trimester,” Masnik said.

“I know, but they say it can happen any time. I just….I just don’t know what I’d do if they found anything.”

“We will just have to see. It’s not like we can just skip out on the examination.”

“We could,” Lariel said, running her hands over her large stomach.

Masnik glared at her, “And do what? Run? There is nowhere we could go. Every country has signed the SAP Accords. They’d hunt us down within minutes.”

“It was wishful thinking.” Lariel could feel the baby moving.

“Come on, we don’t want to be late.” Masnik got out of the car and opened the door for her. Together they entered through the solid, sterile doors of the medical facility. Unlike most hospitals of the past, this building was dark. Black laminate flooring reflected the fluorescent lights above like a pool of dark water. The walls were a lighter shade of black. There were no pictures or wall decorations. They walked down the hall to their checkup center that was identical to the rest of the building. The lack of color made Masnik uneasy, but he tried to keep his nerves calm for Lariel’s sake. He hated these checkups just as much as she did.

“Good morning Lariel. How are we feeling today?” The nurse greeted them and took them straight back to the examination room. They had arrived only minutes before their appointment. If they’d waited any longer in the car, their greeting would have been much different.

“A little nervous,” Lariel replied.

“And that’s normal, but you’re,” she looked at the chart in her hands, “seven months along now. I’m sure everything will be fine. It’s very rare to see anything new pop up once the third trimester begins. If there were anything, it would have shown up in month five.”

Though the words were encouraging, the black scrubs and face-mask she wore made it seem insincere. The nurse made Masnik sit down in a chair in the corner while she helped Lariel up on the table. She had Lariel pull up her shirt to reveal her large stomach and then with black latex gloves smeared a clear gel across Lariel’s skin. She picked up the ultrasound device and began tracing lines through the clear gel. Masnik and Lariel watched the screen intently along with the nurse. Though they weren’t sure what they were looking for, they hoped that if there were any abnormalities, they would be able to spot it themselves. The room was quiet except for the occasional squish of the gel as the nurse moved the wand back and forth to view the entire womb.

“Hmm.”

Lariel’s eyes grew wide. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing to worry about,” the nurse tried to reassure her, “Just a faint area I’m unable to scan. I’m sure it’s nothing, but the doctor may need to take a sample. I’ll be right back.” She left Lariel and Masnik alone in the room. As soon as the door shut, Masnik was by her side.

“I’m scared.” She gripped his hand tightly.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said, but was not convinced by his own words.

“But what if it is an abnormality?”

Masnik didn’t want to think about what would happen if that were the case. He’d only heard stories of what happens when such things were found. That nothing is ever the same again.

“Even if it were something, I’m sure it’s small enough that they would let us keep him,” he finally answered.

“You think?” She looked less frightened for a moment.

“I do,” he lied.

There was a knock on the door and the doctor entered. His dark grey coat might have well have been white with how much it clashed with the rest of the building. A guard, also in all black, came in behind in and blended in with the wall he posted up against. Masnik took his seat before being asked.

“Alright,” the doctor said, “Let’s see if we can see this blank area.” He took up the wand and began scanning Lariel’s stomach. Thirty seconds passed. Masnik felt his hairs stand on end as he eyed the screen.

“There is a small area the scanner isn’t picking up. I’ll have to perform a small invasive procedure to get a sample of the area just to be sure. It’s nothing to worry about and you won’t feel a thing.”

Lariel let her head fall to the pillow. Tears were welling in her eyes and Masnik held back his own. The doctor pulled a tubular device from a drawer and prepared it. He used the scanner to guide the tube to the area in question and pulled it back out.

“That was easy, right? I’ll take this to the lab now and we will have the results in just a few minutes.”

He left the room, but the guard remained. Masnik glanced at the pistol on the guard’s side. He knew there was nothing he could do, but he started making plans anyway. He’d grab the gun, if he was able to, then they’d run to the car. They’d drive. But to where? That’s where his plan stopped. There was nowhere to go.

A low, rumbling alarm sounded throughout the building. Masnik stood up, but the guard had drawn the pistol and told them both to remain seated. Masnik sat back down. Lariel looked at him as tears rolled down her cheeks. There was nothing left to do but sit and wait for their child to be taken.

The alarm quit after two minutes. The guard kept his gun at the ready until the doctor came back and told him to holster the weapon.

“It’s alright, everything is okay,” he said, “I apologize. Someone accidentally hit the building alarm instead of the room alarm down the hall.” He flipped through the papers on his clipboard. “I have good news. You’re going to have a healthy baby boy.” He smiled, but Lariel and Masnik were both still on edge.

Masnik finally spoke up for both of them, “So what was it? The dark area?”

“A blood pocket. Nothing out of the ordinary. The scanner just wasn’t able to read the area because of the density. It happens every so often. I assure you that there is no foreign genetic matter. Your baby is 100% human.”

They both relaxed. Lariel smiled. Masnik did too until he remembered the alarm. He was grateful it wasn’t meant for them, but he knew it was meant for someone.

“We’ll see you back here in two weeks. Then only one more time after that to be sure, but you two are pretty much in the clear. Congratulations.” The doctor offered Masnik a hand and he shook it.

Masnik took Lariel back to the car. She was all smiles. He tried to be happy too. He was, but he couldn’t stop hearing the alarm in his head. He tried not to think of all the children never to be born because they would have been just a little different.