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January 30, 2023

A Voice for the Scavengers

By Tim McHugh

James strode through the black marble hallways of the government base twirling yet another gleaming silver coin between his fingers. Riding high on the fumes of his adrenaline, he wove through the chaotic masses of people as if a spring were in his heel. He turned his head here and there to flash a quick smile or give a charming wink. After a hunt like today, every casual glance felt like an admiring stare and he basked in the looks, absorbing them like rays from the sun.

“Wow James, did you kill a scavenger? So inspiring.” Jackson said sarcastically. He was another First Class Hunter and his iron eyes were sparked with jealousy.

James raised his eyebrows, “Glad you think so, too.” He gave Jackson a wink and watched as he stalked away. He was well aware one kill didn’t excuse this level of cockiness but he had a special knack for getting under other’s skin and lacked the willpower to let an opportunity slide.

The look on Jackson’s face was nourishing but not enough to dam the slow leak of energy for long. The raging flow of bodies thinned as James swung down a long hallway of individual bunks and it felt as if a cloud had moved over a clear sky. When he crossed the threshold to his own room, he felt the ache and fatigue crawling through him as it did every night.

He turned around the room stretching his back; it cracked in a few odd places. All First Class Hunters were given individual bunks; he had enough space for a small bed, a desk, and a dresser. The grey walls were decorated mostly with framed military medals and plaques but James kept space on his desk for a few framed pictures of his parents and his sister.

After relieving his muscles as best he could, he knelt on the grey marble floor, feeling the cold surface against his knees. He felt around under his bed until his hand wrapped around a small plastic bin; its contents rattled as he pulled it out. A heavy sigh escaped his lips as he dropped the bin heavily on his mattress and peeled off the lid. He picked up a handful from the dozens of sparkling coins with a straight face then let them fall through his fingers. When his palm was empty, he turned his newest trophy thoughtfully in his other hand.

One side read NEW WORLD GOVERNMENT in bold letters. A twirling metal vine with steel petaled flowers encircled the words. The other side had a skull facing front, the empty, dark sockets always gave James an uneasy feeling. Under the skull, the coin read HUNTER: FIRST CLASS in thin, slanted letters.

He ran his thumb over the face of the coin one last time, hoping the feeling of hard steel might help him regain that feeling he had walking through the halls. Deciding it was hopeless, he let it fall into the pile.

Most of the other hunters displayed their coins to show off how many scavengers they had killed. There were a couple who even tallied their kills with tattoos on their bodies, but James had always been satisfied with his bin. Pursing his lips, he picked up a coin with a patch of rust on the edge. He scratched at it, twisting his finger to get between all the grooves. As he worked at it, he wondered which kill he got this trophy for, but he was scraping away the only recognizable detail.

He sat back on his bed and rubbed his eyes, feeling aches in the crooks of his arms.

“James! I heard you had another kill today.” John swung into his open doorway.

He sprung from his bed and stood tall, trying to conjure the last bit of confidence he had left. John Barrett, his commander, was tall and bald-headed, with a wide, muscular frame. Clad in his normal uniform of black cargo pants tucked into black boots and a tight black t-shirt that hugged his massive arms, he had a glittering liveliness that never seemed to fade.

“Yes, sir,” James said with a pasted-on smile.

“Very good!” John took a step into the room, “So, why did you request to see me?”

James took an awkward breath and shifted his weight between his feet, “I think I need some time off, sir.” He rubbed the back of his head, grabbing his dry brown hair with his fingers, “Just a day to give my body a rest.”

Barrett lowered his head and put a firm hand on his shoulder, “It’s the home stretch James, another month and we’ll have the site cleared, I don’t think I could give you any time until then.”

James nodded, trying to keep a steady gaze, but Barrett must’ve caught his disappointment.

“Look James, I know it’s hard out there. And I know killing takes a toll, but think about what you’re fighting for…” He gestured out towards the hallway without breaking eye contact, “…The scavengers are evil. They’re trying to take our future from us. And I’m not just talking about our cities, but our people, our kids.”

James stood tall, “I know. Of course. I’ll take care of it.”

“Stop looking at each coin as a dead scavenger, James. Look at each coin as ten of us whose lives you’ve saved.”

James held his chin up, “Yes, sir.”

He closed his door behind Barrett and sat back on his bed, eager to sleep off the fatigue and prepare for tomorrow’s hunt.

* * *

The sun was directly overhead, casting an oppressive heat over the ruined city. James had been out since sunrise, hiking through the rubble, hunting for scavengers. The day had started off cool; when the flyer dropped him in the hunt zone he had been bundled tight in a heat retaining jacket, but as the hours passed he found himself stripping off layers of clothes and putting them in his pack.

James wiped the sweat from his forehead as he slowly stalked through what was once the lobby of a skyscraper, arrow nocked. Vines climbed the walls in thick streaks, choking the scorched and broken metal beams. He felt the crunch of broken glass under each step as he walked a slow circle around the room. He tried to stay along the walls, in the shadows, but heaps of debris and growth forced him toward the center of the room.

A rustle in the vines at the far corner of the building caught his attention. He tightened his grip around his long recurve bow, gaining confidence from the feel of forged steel and walked slowly towards the sound.

“Come out!” His words echoed off the walls.

The silence following his words was broken only by the low buzzing that sounded off the arrow in his right hand as if it were charging the air around it. He felt the subtle vibrations on his right cheek as he pulled the bowstring further back. Most hunters used laser guns, but James was one of the few skilled enough to control the powerful charge in the newer technology.

Another ruffle shook the wall of vines, then a low growl drowned out the buzzing of the arrow. James smirked and lowered his bow, just a wild dog. He dropped to one knee, careful not to kneel in any glass, and squinted into the tangle of vines. After a moment, the dog emerged with a small bird in its jaws, growling from the back of its throat.

James chuckled, “I surrender, the bird is yours.”

As if it could understand, the dog turned and retreated back into the shadows. James winced as he noticed the collection of scratches and scars in the scruffy brown fur along the animal’s side.

James stepped out of the building and back into the sun. His patience was beginning to fade the longer he walked. The glimmering fingers of heat rising off the ruins looked like movement in his peripherals. Every falling pebble sounded like footsteps behind him. He swung his body around and took aim too many times only to see a faint shimmer in the distance or a bird perched on a collapsed roof.

He hadn’t seen any sign of a scavenger and the heat was getting to him. He thought about abandoning his path, climbing up a structure to camp at a shady vantage point, but he quickly ignored that impulse and stuck to his training. His leaders had a complicated strategy; each hunter was given a path in their own hunt zones to maximize their resources, and he was only allowed to abandon his path if he found a scavenger or a sign of one.

It was another hour of trudging through tall grass before he saw a small figure silhouetted against the reflected light from a pile of metal scraps. At first glance, he thought it was another dog, but he stepped forward cautiously. As his eyes adjusted, he felt his heart pounding in his chest. It was a scavenger sitting on his heels rummaging through the pile.

He approached and saw the scavenger was no older than he was, and had no sense of the hunter advancing on him. The adrenaline pumped into him as he took slow, calculating steps. When he was close enough to hear the scavenger’s heavy breathing, he planted his feet and aimed at his back. The bowstring creaked as it was pulled taut and the scavenger lifted his head.

James smiled sharply, “Turn slowly.”

The scavenger whipped his head around, jumped to his feet, and made to run.

“Stop!” James demanded before he could take a step.

The scavenger turned slowly to James with his skinny arms already in the air. A brown pack filled with scraps of metal was slung over his ragged shirt.

“Are there any more of you nearby?” James asked forcefully.

The scavenger just stood there, beads of sweat cutting through the dirt on his bony forehead. After a half second of silence, his eyes clicked, as if the initial shock had worn off. As if he were standing across from an equal instead of staring down the point of an arrow. Still not saying a word, he put a hand forward and nodded innocently, signaling James not to shoot. Then he slowly reached a skinny arm into his sack. James was about to release the arrow but stopped as the scavenger pulled out a circular piece of black metal that fit in the palm of his hand. He loosened his grip, a puzzled look on his face, That looks like a…

The scavenger clicked a button on the side of the device and metal hooks shot out from the bottom. He quickly pushed it to his forearm and winced as the hooks anchored into his skin. James’ eyes grew wide, as he saw the rivers of blood running into the crook of the scavenger’s elbow, it’s a form-splitter.

Once the hooks were rooted in his skin, it looked as if the scavenger was starting to vibrate. His teeth clenched as the vibrations grew wider until his body was jumping back and forth between two spots. James shook off the initial shock and let an arrow fly. A purple beam striped the air as the metal shaft flew fast as an old-world bullet, but it missed somewhere between the scavenger’s form. The body moved so fast and with no particular rhythm, that James couldn’t tell where to aim.

The scavenger took off into the minefield of debris, his body jumping between spaces. James pulled another arrow from his pack and ran in pursuit, legs burning as he pushed to catch up, jumping across the gaps between cracked concrete, ducking through the scorched shells of broken buildings. He let another arrow fly before he had time to plant his feet and the purple streak flew well over his target’s head. The scavenger was leading him away from the city, towards the edge of a thick overgrown forest that encircled them.

As the buildings fell away, the scavenger ran down a slope into a field of waist-high grass, approaching the edge of the forest. James veered right, off the scavenger’s trail and towards a mound of rocks. He jumped from boulder to boulder as if he were stepping on air, then cleared a small gap, landing lightly on the highest rock, and analyzed his vantage point. He figured he had a few seconds before the scavenger broke the tree line.

James planted his feet and nocked an arrow, aiming slightly in front of the figure that was growing smaller by the moment. He let out a calm breath and released just before the scavenger disappeared. The arrow exploded off the bowstring and stung through the air, propelled by a rippling charge. It struck the exact spot where James had aimed, but the form-splitter was nearly impossible to anticipate and the scavenger faded into the trees unharmed.

James cursed under his breath and climbed down from the rocks, careful with his steps as he made his way to solid ground. Where did he get a form-splitter? Even James wasn’t authorized to use one while hunting. The government saved them for more formidable enemies, and even then, only special forces were equipped with them.

James slung his bow over his shoulder and rummaged through his pack for his canteen. He almost choked on the cold water as he breathed it in, feeling the cool stream on the inside of his chest as it filled him up. After a second long drought, he took out a small laser pistol, better for a wooded area, and began tracking the scavenger.

He started by following the footsteps in the tall grass, they were erratic, one step here, two over there. He saw spots where the scavenger got tangled in foliage and where he bumped into tree trunks. James smiled as he saw a streak of blood on a boulder, it wasn’t easy to use a form-splitter in a tightly packed area. The footsteps quickly became regular and more subtle when the scavenger deactivated the device.

As James walked deeper into the forest he noticed the peaceful silence. He heard bugs and small animals scurrying through the bushes but there was no background noise. He looked up at the green glow that seemed to emanate from the canopy above. The sun broke through the leaves and branches in random spots, casting spotlights along the ground. He watched every step so he wouldn’t twist an ankle on one of the rocks or sticks that littered the dirt.

The scavenger seemed expert in hiding his tracks. James noticed he had doubled back twice, but in such an overgrown forest it wasn’t easy to cover everything. He kept on the trail like a hound by catching snapped branches, rocks pushed slightly into the mud, broken vines, or any other subtle note. His world revolved around this forest, around these tracks, all of his senses were focused on finding any trace.

After another half hour, the tracks disappeared around a large mound of dirt and moss-covered rocks. James circled the mound eyeing it suspiciously until he noticed a patch of moss that seemed uneven as if it were sinking into the ground. Aiming his pistol at the spot, he quickly kicked the moss away with his toe. He lowered his pistol and groaned as he looked down at the thin hole the moss patch revealed. James pulled a flashlight from his pack and shined it down, hoping he wouldn’t see any tracks, but he noticed some dislodged pebbles and dirt where the scavenger had slid down.

James stood still for a moment biting his lip, anxiously imagining sliding down after the scavenger and being buried alive. He decided to check all around the mound for more tracks before taking the plunge, to see if the hole was some kind of trap. He circled the area three times but couldn’t find anything but a few deer footprints. The hole was too thin for his pack, bow, and arrows so he found a nearby tree that had a thick trunk with long twisting roots. He packed his supplies between two of the exposed roots and covered them with moss and leaves.

Breathing deeply, he walked back to the hole with just his laser pistol and flashlight. Without giving himself the chance to second guess himself, he sucked in his chest and scooted on his back, into the earth. The first five feet were so claustrophobic that he worried he’d have to climb back out, but once he squeezed through, it opened up a bit. The hole took him deep into the ground; he half-slid and half-walked for about thirty feet before the ground leveled out and the tunnel widened enough for him to stand up. He wiped himself clean as best he could and continued along the dark path.

His boots sank into the soft floor as he drifted through the tunnel, ducking between the thin roots that punched through the dirt over his head. He ran his light along a wooden support beam he passed under and saw it was mostly rotted wood but had been recently reinforced with metal screws and rods.

He felt completely encased by the darkness, unable to see the ground without flashing his light at his feet. He checked his back every few steps and looked around every support beam, choosing caution over speed. Thought the progress was slow, eventually a thick metal door materialized from the shadows as if it were emerging from a cloud of mist.

His beam of white light bounced off the surface, casting a larger sphere of illumination. He walked up to it puzzled and ran a hand along the cold, iron-studded surface. What is this place? He pulled hard on the handle but it wouldn’t give.

Taking a few steps back, he aimed his laser pistol at the lock. He paused, wondering if he wanted to face what was inside, but his curiosity overcame his fear and he pulled the trigger. Red beams lit up the passage and loud cracks filled the air, but when the smoke cleared, the door held strong.

James was thinking about his next move when he heard noises on the other side. Before he could walk up and put his ear to the door, the lock sounded and the door fell open. He immediately put his hands up as five people standing in the doorway pushed weapons into his face. At first, he thought it might be some secret government base he had stumbled across, but then he noticed the guns they held. One had a laser pistol similar to his, but the other four had old-world machine guns. No government man or woman, not even the lowest footman, used a weapon that outdated.

“Put the pistol down!” One of them yelled at James.

He didn’t even realize it when he followed their order. He had never seen more than a few scavengers together, and he never saw one with a weapon more advanced than a tactical knife. The scavenger in the middle picked up his laser pistol and smiled as he turned it in his hand. He looked up at James and smirked, “Thanks.”

Before James could think of a response, the man placed a pair of cuffs around his wrists and marched him at gunpoint through the door.

The doorway led into a short stone hallway, then to a second identical door. One of the scavengers banged twice and it immediately clicked open. James was pushed through the door and into a massive open room that stretched as far as he could see. James’ head spun as he looked all around to see hundreds of scavengers walking across the white tile floor, each with a sense of hustle. Some marched in squadrons, carrying weapons in matching uniforms. Others passed by, loaded down with large packs of equipment. One group held clipboards, taking inventory of massive crates as a hover-lift stacked them along the steel wall. All stared as he walked by.

He blinked erratically as he tried to take it all in, to comprehend it, but before he could make sense of any of it, he was pulled through a series of doors. He tried looking over his shoulder to see more of the spectacle but the door was pulled shut behind him.

“What is…”

His question trailed off and his stomach dropped as they walked onto a metal catwalk overlooking an airplane hangar full of weapons and aircraft. His eyes grew wide as he looked out over old-world missiles, burier bombs, laser bombs, fire missiles, and dozens of military fliers. They walked in silence as James racked his brain trying to estimate how much weaponry they had. Their boots clanging along the catwalk was the only noise until one of the guards smiled at James, “Thought you’d like to see this.”

“What is this place?” James finally got the words out.

The man just gave a cocky chuckle and kept walking.

They finally reached a long hallway with rows of red doors on either side. His captors picked a door on the left and threw James on the stone ground within; there were no furnishings or decorations, just stone all around. They tied his feet and closed the door, leaving him in complete darkness.

He had no sense of how long he sat there. At first, he tried counting the minutes, but he lost track pretty quickly. He even thought about taking a nap; he imagined a group of scavengers walking in, expecting to see a scared prisoner but instead finding a peaceful sleeper. As much as he would enjoy seeing the look on their faces, he couldn’t get comfortable with his hands behind his back. So he waited.

He would’ve estimated he was in there for an hour before the door cracked open and a beam of yellow light hit the wall. James squinted as the door slowly fell open and revealed the form of a woman. Once his eyes adjusted he could roughly make out her features; she was just under average height but had strong confidence in the way she stood, feet wide, hands on hips.

She flipped a switch on the wall next to the door and an overhead light flickered to life, revealing the rest of her. She had dark red hair pulled into a tight bun and brown eyes squinting down at James.

“What’s your name?” She asked with a sturdy voice.

“What’s yours?” James spat back at her while he shifted to try and ease the ache in his back.

She rose an eyebrow and responded, “My name is Valencia Barlowe, I am the leader of the revolutionary forces.”

James chuckled sarcastically and shook his head. In his hour of solitude, the initial shock of this hideout had faded. He had never expected the scavengers to be this organized, but in the end, they could hardly be called an army.

“You don’t believe me?”

James scoffed at her, adopting an air of superiority, “I’ll admit this is an impressive little arsenal for a bunch of scavengers. I was quite stunned when I found you…” He eyed her clothes and his voice trailed off. She was wearing a clean grey military suit. Now that he thought about it, all the scavengers had been dressed similarly. “Why have I never seen a scavenger dressed like that?”

She stepped in front of the overhead light and looked down at him, ”You hunters think we are dirty scavengers, so we play the part.”

“Very clever Veronica—”

“Valencia.”

“—but you think a hundred scavengers and a hanger full of old-world weapons can threaten the government?” James said with a slight smirk and a steady gaze.

“No.” She said casually, stepping back into the light. She looked around the room then changed the subject, “Tell me, why do you hunt?”

James let his head fall back against the wall, “Spare me the speech and kill me already.” He was surprised by how calm he sounded.

Valencia began to pace with her hands clasped behind her back, “Well that is our predicament.”

James smirked, she seemed formidable enough. “What predicament is that?”

“Well, hunter—“

“James.” He admitted.

“Well James, if I let you go, you tell them where to find us and they’ll come and bomb us. And I know you have a tracker there in your arm somewhere so if I kill you, they’ll check your data, see you died here and they’ll come and bomb us. If I take you somewhere else and kill you, they’ll check your data and find us along your path. If I hold you past sundown, well they’ll—”

“—Check my data, I get it.” He tilted his head, “Might as well let me go then, save your conscience some trouble.”

“Well, I think there might be a third option.”

She waited for James to speak but he just stared at her. After a few moments, she continued, “I talk to you. I convince you to join us. And I let you go as our agent.”

“HA!” James laughed, “Are you going to hypnotize me? Are you a scavenger witch who can cast a spell?”

She kept her face a mask, “I don’t need spells to convince someone to join a righteous cause.”

“OH! You call terrorism a righteous cause?” He scoffed, leaders could really twist anything into sounding honorable.

“We are not terrorists, James.”

“You forget, I’ve seen you at work, trying to stop the government’s progress.”

“And what makes you think the government is good?”

James clenched his teeth, took in a breath, then yelled, “They’re rebuilding our cities!”

Valencia walked over and crouched down behind him to unlock his handcuffs and cut free his legs. “We should have a talk about the government, but first let’s get some food.”

James rubbed his wrists and stretched his legs, “Okay but you better hurry, I have to check-in in a couple of hours.”

* * *

Valencia walked him down the hall to a well-lit room with a glass wall overlooking their hanger of missiles and aircraft. They both sat with a metal table between them, the chairs were metal too but James was grateful for the thin cushion attached to the seat. He stretched his legs and back feeling the fatigue deep in his muscles. Valencia just looked at him, drumming her fingers on the table.

They were scarcely in the room for a minute before a man came in with a tray of simple food and a plastic cup of water. James couldn’t keep his eyes off the man’s face; the whole left side of his head was deformed and scarred. Red splintered skin covered most of his scalp, his left ear looked like a pile of melted wax, and his eyelids were fused shut. The man caught James staring and he quickly looked away.

“His name is Greg,” Valencia said.

James was busy chugging his water.

“Did you see what happened to him?”

James wiped his mouth dry and put down the empty cup. “I suppose you’re going to claim the government somehow did that to him?”

She nodded sadly, “They firebombed his town.”

James sneered, “He could’ve burned his face in any number of ways.” He leaned forward on the table, “Being a scavenger is dangerous work after all.”

She shrugged, “Maybe. But the truth is, the government is not rebuilding, they are destroying.”

“Oh please, the blasts were what ruined these cities.”

“True, the ruined buildings and infrastructure were destroyed during the blasts.” Now she leaned forward, coming face to face with James, “But we rebuilt ourselves.” Her voice was soft and animated as if she were telling of some magnificent feat, “We built towns from the rubble. They weren’t sparkling cities, mostly wooden and stone structures, but we took pride in what we accomplished. And we were happy” Her voice was steady. “The government destroyed us.”

James leaned back uneasily, “And why would they do that.”

She twisted her face in disgust, “They wanted to build cities. Progress was the only thing that mattered, but we were happy with how it was and refused to leave” She let out a shivering breath, “So they started with firebombing runs, destroying all our new structure and killing most of us. And they had the nerve to claim they were doing it for our own good.” She looked at him with a vicious stare. “Then they sent in the hunters to root out the survivors.”

His face grew hot, “You are the evil ones! That’s why we kill you!” He breathed heavily through clenched teeth.

She took a deep breath and eased her tone, “I don’t blame you, James. You didn’t know.”

He shook his head, “Why would the government firebomb you? That makes no sense. They could just level your towns and avoid using hunters altogether.”

“They want to use the leftover infrastructure, sewers, basements, that sort of thing.” She shook her head, “If they evaporated us they’d have to start from scratch. I guess it’s cheaper to just use a bunch of disposable hunters.”

James banged the table, “How could you expect me to believe you? You haven’t seen our citizens, our kids… the government is good.”

“That’s what you were taught to believe. But we can prove it to you.” She continued, “I’ll take you to a town, there are thousands. Thousands that are just sitting there, soon to be burned.”

“No!” He pounded a fist on the table again, shaking the plastic cup.

“I’m offering proof!”

“No.”

She pursed her lips together, “Now you’re being willfully ignorant, James. Now that you know the truth you will be responsible for your actions.”

“Let me go, you have no choice. Or kill me. But do something, your revolution is done either way.”

Her face grew serious, “You have a choice to make; my conscience won’t be burdened but yours will be. I’m trusting you.”

“Bad choice.” His words were resolute but his tone lacked conviction.

* * *

In truth, James left the hideout with a dreadful thought rooted in his head. Had he really killed so many innocent people? As the roots of that thought burrowed into his mind a fit of anger blared that kept it from growing. James knew who he was. One conversation was not going to force him to throw away everything he knew. That anger burned deep as he called for a flier back to base, and it raged as he told his commander exactly where the underground hideout was.

It had taken half a day to organize a bombing party and as a reward, James was invited to sit in the escort. The sun was just cresting the horizon in the east, casting a pink glow over the sky as the flier’s wings tilted forward and propelled them toward the scavenger stronghold.

James sat in a four-person flier; two pilots were next to each other in the front, and James sat in the back next to a lieutenant in the government military who wore a dark green uniform. James had forgotten the man’s name as soon as he heard it and had been addressing him as ‘sir’.

Even though there was enough room to stretch his legs out fully, he kept them tucked at the base of his softly cushioned seat. He kept shifting, unable to stay still for more than a minute. As they took off, the grey-haired lieutenant gave him a wink and a smile. James just looked away, focusing on what was out the window.

To his right, he could see the massive bomber crawling across the sky. It had a colossal fuselage where the bombs were stored and thick wings with multiple propellers on each. The whole plane seemed to shimmer as the pink sky reflected off its shining surface. He couldn’t see any of the other three escort fliers but he knew they were buzzing around just out of sight.

Gliding at the bomber’s pace, it took over two hours, but finally, James could see the city come into view over the horizon.

“Here we go, kid!” The lieutenant said with hoarse excitement.

James nodded back and forced a smile through the nausea that was thrashing his stomach. There was no way to go back now. He felt his hands shaking and curled them into fists to steady them. His head turned slowly as he looked out over the heaps of shattered buildings far below them.

The bomber eerily coasted over the ruins, and over the trees, casting its monstrous shadow until it reached the spot they had found from James’ tracking data. The wings on the bomber twisted and propelled the plane to a halt. As it slowed, its wings leveled out until it was hovering in place.

A loud creaking sounded as the bomb doors opened from under the fuselage. James stared intently as a single, spherical bomb dropped into the sky. It whistled toward the ground and hit the trees with a loud, cracking thud.

He flinched as blades shot out from the bomb and began whirling around the explosive center. It started burrowing into the ground, spitting up clouds of dirt from the wide hole it was making. His chest felt tight as it disappeared into the earth. Only thirty seconds had passed but it felt like an eternity was lapping them. The pilots were looking at the lieutenant asking a silent question, Is it a dud? Part of James felt a sense of relief, maybe people wouldn’t have to die today.

Before he could realize how irrational his thought had been, a massive explosion cracked the earth. The whole forest exploded out from where the bomb had hit, dirt rose over a hundred feet into the air, and a blinding, pale blue light shined from the crater that was made. Trees half a mile away evaporated, leaving an empty brown circle of dirt, marking the spot where the scavenger rebellion had died.

James felt empty as the flyers soared over the crater.

“Well done! Well done!” The lieutenant squeezed James’ shoulder, “You’ll get a medal for this!”

James grabbed an airsickness bag next to his seat and heaved into it.

“Whoa! Don’t worry kid, next time it’ll be a lot easier.”

He heaved again. As sick and disgusted as he felt, he prayed this sort of thing never got easier

* * *

James walked through the same ruined streets without his usual zeal. He didn’t bother to carry a weapon, he had a laser pistol in his pack because it was required, but he left his arrows at the base. He walked the path he had two days before, passing through the lobby of the ruined skyscraper, floating between piles of rubble.

He kept feeling the urge to go see the crater, but his shame kept him from acting on the thought. He frequently stopped for water, feeling more tired than usual. When he finished a full canteen before noon he figured he would have to slow down so he didn’t run out.

After a few more hours in the hot sun, he finally gathered the strength to abandon his path and go to the crater he had made. The walk was slow, he dragged his feet as he walked, dreading what he would see. His mind raced; would he see Valencia dead? Would he see the man with the burned face? He knew they were all evaporated but still, he pictured a pile of twisted bodies.

He wove his way through a mile or so of thick foliage before it began to thin. First, he noticed the lack of vines that had tangled across the forest ground two days before. Then he noticed smaller branches ripped clean off their trunks. Then larger branches. Then the trunks themselves until he looked across at a hazy desert of dirt and scattered debris that touched the horizon.

He walked a bit faster now that he was under the sun again. His breathing grew heavy as he climbed over mound after mound of dirt, his pack weighing him down. He stood atop a larger hill and wiped the sweat from his face and eyes. Blocking the sun with his hand and squinting, he could finally see the edge of the crater. His steps came quicker, fueled by anxiety.

As he neared the crater, the shadow of a figure took form, its shape bent by the shimmers of heat. His first thought was of a deer or some other animal. He smiled, happy that something had survived the explosion, but as he edged closer, he quickly noticed it was a human. Had they sent another hunter into his zone?

The figure started to take form, and he saw it was a woman. He dropped his pack, not willing to take his eyes off the person as if they would disappear without his attention. He started to jog as he made out a grey military suit and began to sprint when he noticed the glint of dark red hair illuminated by the sun.

Valencia turned when he was within ten feet and gave him a sad smile.

“H-H-How?” James asked with a stutter.

“What do you mean?” She stood as she had in that stone room, feet firmly planted shoulder length apart, hands resting on her hips.

“We… The government destroyed your… community.”

She smirked, “Our network goes beyond one weapons hanger, James.”

Some hope sparked in him, “So.. your movement?”

“Alive and well.”

Color rose in James’ face, “So… What? You were testing me?”

Her hands fell to her side and she let a breath leak from her lips, “Yes, we were testing you. I thought you might be what we needed.”

His heart dropped at the disappointment in her voice, she had been his enemy two days before, but it felt like the world had changed since then, “Why are you telling me this then? Why haven’t you killed me for that matter if I failed the test..”

“Well against the judgment of my colleagues, I trust you, James.”

He took a step back, “But I betrayed you.”

“Well you weren’t on our side then, so I wouldn’t call it a betrayal.” She looked out over the crater, “It was too much for us to hope that you’d join our side after one conversation. Maybe you needed to see this…” she waved her arm across the crater, “…this ruthless destruction to make up your mind.” She turned back and locked eyes with him, “I’d gladly trade a weapons hanger for your loyalty.”

“And you don’t think I’ll betray you again?”

“Call it intuition. You put your faith in the government, and they betrayed it. They tricked you into hunting humans, and you’re angry. I think our cause resonated with you.” She smiled, “Either that, or maybe I’m just desperate.”

“Desperate for what?”

“A voice.” She had a sense of hope in her tone.

“I don’t follow.”

Valencia took a few steps closer to James, “We can gather as many scavengers as we want, but we’ll never be able to make a difference in the government. We need someone to cross the barrier for us, someone who can influence others, someone who they’ll believe when we say the government is evil.”

“And you think I’m that person?” James almost smiled.

Don’t feel too special, James.” She said with a smirk, “You’re just the first of many.”

He couldn’t help but chuckle.

“But James,” She grew serious, “you’ll be a part of something good, and you’ll give us a voice in a place that is doing all it can to silence us.”

He turned around towards the vast forest and looked in the direction of the city.

She read his mind, “I know it’s hard to admit that everything you built your life around is a lie, but you know the truth now. There’s no shame in changing sides, there is shame in closing yourself off to the truth just to feel good about your choices.”

He turned back to her, the look in his eyes was steady, but he couldn’t hide his shaking hands, “Where do we go?”

She smiled, “Follow me.”

They walked the edge of the crater side by side and talked. She told him about their cause, about what he meant to them, and about what he would have to do. He was scared, but each step filled him with nervous excitement. He would be the voice for the scavengers in the most deafening room in the world.

He hoped he had what it took.








Article © Tim McHugh. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-01-23
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Eric
01/28/2023
11:52:40 AM
Great story! I loved the vivid descriptions of the landscape and the setting. Very compelling characters that brought out the human side of a world ravaged by war and suffering. I really enjoyed this.
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