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Can you survive?
It's the year 2122, seventy-two years after the Upheaval that changed the world.
The Earth is nothing like it once was -- rivers became oceans, waters washed away sands and soil to leave jagged cliffs, earthquakes reformed mountain chains, climates grew cold, freezing northern lands, and technology was lost or without resources to continue.
Humanity struggles on. Farming and protecting the wall guarding civilized borders from cannibalistic outsiders called the Oceaners are the main priorities. One stone citadel full of armed forces stands outside the wall’s center. Two more stand at the northern and southern borders. But good men to fill them are scarce.
For reliable help and information, Darvid Squire, leader of the citadels, relies on Scout, a nomad girl he met in the wild lands outside the wall. She knows much about humanity’s past and she knows things of the future before they happen. She also knows the secrets of the haunted outer lands everyone else fears.
When Oceaners band their forces to unconquerable numbers, citadel leader is taken captive and Desire with her knowledge along with a new recruit who has secrets of his own become humanities last hope to stop the devouring and torture of the remaining world.
Mankind destroyed itself. Desire snapped the end of a sweet, crisp carrot between her teeth with the thought, chewed hard, and kicked aside another dead branch. Her father’s stories always began with those words. Her memories held full of the upheaval accounts as he reported them. Yet Desire knew very little details about how or why the disasters happened. The exact time the world changed had also been muddled through the years. The one fact Desire knew beyond doubt was only four generations separated her from a very different existence.
What was so wrong with questioning the story facts? Why had her father felt the need to raise his voice as if she were a child? She had no doubt what he said held mostly truth, but for some reason, she couldn’t accept it as absolute unbending fact anymore. He’d changed too many of the rules. Then he wondered why she wouldn’t go home.
Four generations before her, life changed as they knew it, but somewhere at the start of that generation line, one of Desire’s ancestors saw it coming, or felt it. Somehow. One of her mother’s ancestors, not her father’s. None of her maternal family remained living to satisfy her roaming qualms.
Desire dragged her heavy one-wheeled cart through a stream, its clear water licking her boots, seeping in around the buttons and laces. Her feet were already wet, nothing she wasn’t accustomed to. What she didn’t look forward to was the skin irritation the pollution in this water would cause. Sinking sunrays glowed ahead, revealing the grassy field between her woods and the citadel. Her destination.
Maybe it was true. Her prolonged visits to the citadel did make her question how things were done at her birth home. She didn’t believe they should adopt anything of the citadel culture, but seeing the life in it, hearing the tales from the troops who traveled from the west, she couldn’t help questioning the beliefs pounded into her head. And she couldn’t help thinking her ancestor hadn’t wanted things as closed-minded as they were.
A grandmother or grandfather, she didn’t know, but her ancestor began teaching in the early turn of the twenty-first century. Teaching how to survive in a destroyed world without things they took for granted everyday while stockpiling as much technology as they could. Things in Desire’s great-grandmother’s books. Something called the World Wide Web was the hardest for her to understand. No electronic webs existed in any known position now though she knew it once had for certain. The one working computer remaining in her family’s compound gave hints of some such system. Telephones, those she understood. She knew the location of each communication post, had been to the one in the compound just ahead and witnessed its use herself. Electricity existed only because of the sun, wind or water.
Shouts sounded from the field. She halted. A training order to stand at attention. She recognized Darvid’s booming voice and furrowed her brow. He rarely trekked into the field for training, preferring to stand watch in the citadel tower and view his majors in action with the junior officers.
She tugged the cart forward beyond water’s reach. Through a wall of twisted and thorned tree limbs and withered brush, she saw a group of men numbering larger than those she left five hours ago. No group so large in need of training resided at the citadel. Unless…
Reinforcements from the interior lands weren’t the best hope for any of them. They weren’t taught to fight. They were recruited by government, made promises, and sent east. The truth of it ground hard against her already tight nerves as she watched the pathetic excuses for fighters practice battle swings in the sun streaked and muddy field. Each spring, summer and autumn, men and sometimes a few women would arrive from the inland garrisons by the hundreds with false notions and false confidence that they could handle anything. Those who kept those notions turned up dead within a month. Those willing to change and learn usually lasted longer. But not always.
Desire crunched another bite of carrot between her teeth and chewed her thoughts. Darvid didn’t have time to train and he had few men intelligent and able enough to teach anymore. The Oceaners had evolved their ships quickly over the last year and were hitting the coast fast and hard more often than ever before. It also meant they were killing more than before.
She wrapped the strap of her cart in her fist and hooked it over her shoulder as she moved from behind the trees and brush. The cart-full, included with what she previously stored that morning, held precious few vegetables for those she knew to reside in the citadel, not for new arrivals, but it would have to do. She would check her traps again, see if she could stir up some protein for the new troops, but the field crops had little left ready to give for at least a week.
Darvid shouted to the dozens of men before him, his domineering form casting a deep shadow over her path as she passed. He glanced her way, his eyes narrow in the sunlight. She shot him a quick, tight-lipped smile. She had no doubt he would complain of her absence during the reinforcements’ arrival. He always wanted her there to gauge each junior officer so she could later advise what garrison to place them with, the north or south — or keep them there.
She scanned the new juniors, most of them too malnourished and gray haired for her comfort. Dressed in leathers or fur it was hard to judge muscle mass. That she could only tell by watching them in action. The majority held their gazes low at their own feet or the twisted and crimson-stained grasses. Few met Darvid’s demanding stare as he paced before them. At his silence though, more cast their eyes upward. Some spotted her.
Timid farmers she guessed. Nowhere near warriors. She hated to tell Darvid such, but she would. He would have to keep them north or in the back lines if he hoped to keep any new arrivals for more than a few battles.
Tom Washman stood against the citadel’s outer wall, its sun bleached wood just as pale as his thick hair above water-blue eyes. Age curved his slight shoulders.
“Wha’cha got good for me this eve, Miss Scout?”
She pulled a few bundles of tender orange carrots from the sack, placed them on top then dug into the second pouch for potatoes and into her pockets for the clusters of wild onions she unearthed.
Tom waved a carrot at his mouth and sniffed deeply. He smiled at the onions and lifted the still dirty clumps from her hand.
“Oh, these will go quite nice with them deer you brought in this morn’ and what I’ve got rationed,” he said. “I can smell the big pots of boilin’ stew already.”
She handed him the thick cart strap. “I stashed four other loads in the storeroom when you were out, added to what I saw in there, if we’re careful, it should be enough to go around for two days or so.”
“You know, if you’d show me where you’s gittin’ these pleasantries, it would save you from haulin’ all this in for me. Might not be able to bring in the game you do, but I kin dig roots.”
Desire smiled. At least once a week, Tom tried to whittle the location of the crops out of her.
“Now, Tom, how many times have I told you I won’t do that?”
“Ah, but Miss, what if, God forbid, somethin’ were to happen to ya. The rest of us would starve.”
She chuckled. “You know that can’t happen,” she said and patted his shoulder as she walked away. He didn’t need to know she had arrangements with Darvid if she would ever fall. He knew the location of papers with directions to others who knew of the hidden crops, and Darvid was the only person at the citadel she knew who could read them. Telling anyone before she was dead wasn’t an option as far as she was concerned. It would take only one greedy person to seize too much and destroy it all. They didn’t know her family had been nursing the fields, working the dirt, collecting seeds in the fall, doing it all for no less than seven decades to yield the sizeable variety of crops they had. It held strong to feed the several hundred head in the citadel she pretended to call home, and the eight hundred at her birth home but wouldn’t if more was taken.
A careful balance. A balance too many people didn’t understand. Desire couldn’t help believing the human condition of take without giving back had contributed to their dire way of life now and would completely destroy them if they weren’t careful. She trusted that message from her father’s stories.
“And, ya know, Miss Scout, if’n I’d been diggin’ these roots, you wouldn’t be in fer the steamin’ Darvid’s apt to give you fer not bein’ here to inspect them new juniors.”
Desire twisted on her heel and grinned, nearly laughing.
“You really are getting desperate there, Tom, to even think Darvid could give me a steaming.”
Tom lowered his head and shook it through a hearty chuckle. Desire hurried over the stone passage to the well and reached through a group of several resident roosters and hens, ignoring their noisy protest and flapping wings. Thirst raked her throat raw. She pulled up the wooden bucket and dipped the tin scoop into it. The water was warm, but clean and wet, coming from one of the few less contaminated underground rivers and run through filters and conditioners kept in the citadel foundation. The waterways were slowly clearing, though few were yet totally safe for consumption without filtration.
The crunch of stone under many feet sounded behind her. She turned to find Darvid leading dozens of human forms through the stone archway followed by more. Counting them wasn’t her agenda. She wanted to see their faces. They each stopped by the citadel records keeper who set up a chair and small folding table. He filled out a form for each of them, handed them their government issued supplies, consisting of a tin plate and fork and folding knife, before directing them away.
She wiped water from her lips and shook her head at Darvid Squire. He acted as if he led a herd of bovine. The hint of amusement creased his thin lips.
“Took you long enough,” he said, speaking from the corner of his smirk.
“You should’ve called for me.”
“Now why would I do that? My scout should always know when she’s needed just by using her skills.” He tapped his cheek below his eye and then his ear.
“Even when I sleep.” Desire couldn’t stifle her smile.
“Since when do you sleep? I’ve never seen it.”
“That’s because you sleep like the dead more often than any mortal should need.”
Darvid chuckled. “Enough with the evening insults and tell me what you think. Any hope we’ll keep any of these for long?”
Desire scanned the dozens of new faces, all lined with age or wear or both. She stepped around Darvid, staying in his shadow. She studied their eyes but too many refused eye contact. She spun from them.
“Timid,” she said. “Should listen to you with no argument though.”
Desire watched Darvid from the corner of her eye. He had sounded as if that was a bad thing. He knew she listened to no one but herself. He knew it when he asked her to unite with him in his cause to protect the thousands of people struggling to reestablish a civilization close to the one of old on a devastated continent. Desire still wasn’t sure his goal was a smart one. Not considering what she knew of their original demise.
Someone closed in from behind. Desire moved quickly, spinning to the two who approached. She recognized Jacob instantly. A man only a few years older than her own from the far shores of Tennessee. She’d known him since he crossed the citadel’s west gates three years prior. A good fighter with a sharp eye and quick reflexes, he’d survived longer than most others who joined at the same time. He held one of the highest ranks now, Sergeant.
The man beside him, she didn’t know, nor had she ever seen his face before. She furrowed her brow; she’d missed this one entering the compound. He certainly wasn’t old or timid. His deep brown eyes shined below a lengthy fringe of dark hair and settled on her, then Darvid.
“I wanted to introduce my brother first hand, Sir,” Jacob said.
Darvid nodded to the pair and shook hands with the new recruit. Desire slipped behind Darvid and closer to the wall into early evening shadows.
“Good to have you,” Darvid said.
“Rand Caldair’s the name.”
Unusual from a family whose first son they called a solid biblical name, Jacob. Desire blinked away the thought and climbed two dozen steps to the wall overlooking the field. Her own name fit no such pattern in her family so she had no right to judge that of another. She slipped inside the south tower and up steep narrow stairs to her room. Night would soon fall but not stay long and she had much territory to scout come dawn.
Rand blew out a breath when the massive man Jacob called Commander Darvid finally left to speak with the others. It wasn’t hard to see why Darvid ruled the largest group of garrisons in the states.
“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Jacob said. “Helps that he likes me.”
“And you just had to single me out,” Rand said.
For as far back as Rand remembered, Jacob always insisted on strutting him around in front of people. Their mother told him it was because he was a proud big brother. Rand didn’t care; he simply wished it would stop. Jacob slapped a firm hand to his shoulder and pushed him forward, not saying a word about where they were headed next.
“I didn’t single you out for nothing. I’ve introduced, my next step is to ask you be added to my troop. We don’t usually have a choice, but I’m hoping he’ll take my input on this. Can’t hurt to let him see we’re on speaking terms.”
Rand rolled his head side to side, stretching his stiff neck. For a month he walked with the group, carrying his large pack with what little clothes and weapons he had, all self made.
“We doing that now?”
Jacob laughed. “No, I do know the art of timing. Right now we need to find you something to eat, at least some jerky.”
“Great, something I haven’t had constantly for weeks.” He groaned, not looking forward to chewing more leathered meat.
“Fresh stuff is a bit rare out here and kept for evening meals. I’ll warn you though, the cook stretches everything to the max, so don’t expect much.”
Rand scratched his itching scalp. Muck from swamps, then dust from the road and dry grasses of the fields had plastered to his flesh and added stiff weight to his clothes.
“What about that girl, she had a fresh root in her hand,” Rand said, though the root hadn’t been all he observed about her. He noticed her the moment she stepped from the woods and strode across the field before all of them with not a second’s hesitation in her stride, her shining crow-black hair blowing behind her in the breeze. The cart she led appeared heavy on its single axle, but she showed no sign of it. Her dark, scrutinizing eyes had halted him in position even through several rows of men. She pierced them all with a mental syringe, though he wasn’t sure anyone else noticed.
Up close he saw an exquisitely designed and vicious looking stone-handled battle axe against her right thigh, some kind of sheathed blade on her left, both held tight to her long, black-trousered legs by golden rawhide the same shade as her wrapped shirt. The shirt was clean, but showed signs of repaired tears at the arms and down one side. The skin of her arms and face was flawless, though tanned or maybe of the Hispanic race, though these days, with so few people and such strong intermixing through the years, it was hard to tell. She hadn’t stayed long enough for him to catch much more about her, not even her name.
Jacob huffed. “Oh, that’s Scout. Not sure she qualifies as a ‘girl’ exactly. She’s a lot annoying, comes and goes and does as she pleases when and how she pleases and no one complains. Not right, especially for a female. Darvid uses her as an advisor. He wouldn’t take the crap she does from anyone else here though. Not sure how she gets away with it all, but I doubt she does anything special for him like some say. Some say she wears witch symbols on her weapons. Sometimes I doubt she’s even human.”
She didn’t seem odd to Rand in the slightest, but he wasn’t about to argue. “So that’s her name? Scout?”
Jacob shrugged. “That’s what she’s called around here. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone other than Darvid and the head cook who’s actually talked at length with her. You won’t see her much and if you do, you most likely won’t notice her. You’ll never have to deal with her. Here, this’ll be your room. I have the top bunk on the left, the bottom is open.”
Rand peered past the dirty curtain his brother held aside into a dank little area with three bunk cots barely big enough for a full grown man. He suddenly wondered if leaving the valley farm was the smart thing to do. Sure, things had been sparse, the house small, but not near as depressing as the huge stone and wood expanse surrounding him. The smell of dust and must mixed with sweat and some underlying hint of rot created a mood he could only describe as despair.
He spent years fighting off the few Oceaners dumb enough to try travel inland along the west coast, only five of those years in the Tennessee Guard. He’d heard tales stating what was once called the south east of the United States was under water, but not so far under to let huge vessels pass far north to dry land without at least a day’s trek through reptilian infested swamps. So many ships had sunk, they made their own blockade and the confrontations there had dwindled to nearly none.
Boredom struck. He wanted adventure, wanted to do more with a chance of accomplishing something larger than a winter’s worth of food. And he wanted to leave ugly memories behind. When the recruiter made his yearly visit from the capital in Kentucky in search of men to help hold the east walls secure, he’d grasped at the chance. Maybe too fast.
Jacob left three years earlier and their mother had cried. Jacob was the one his parents expected to take over the family farm. When Rand spoke the news of his leaving, she shed some tears, but also admitted she had expected as much. All they asked was for him to send word as often as possible of his and Jacob’s well being. Jacob had never been one for the written word. Rand didn’t mind it.
Now he wished the stories he read from yellowed paper bound between hard covers in the small town library had satisfied his restlessness. Or maybe he was just weary of the month long constant change and uncertainty.
He stepped into the room and tossed his meager pack onto his cot, drooped in the center. His back ached from the sight of it.