“Did you hear that?” Joshua whispered intently. “Trucks. Heavy. A lot of them. Let’s go.”
Esther dropped another tuber in the bag, shaking a bit of dirt off her left hand. Out of reflex she cupped that hand over her forehead and scanned upward into the blue horizon then down toward the enormous forest lining the opposite tree line, about five kilometers off—left to right—in a pattern that didn’t miss any areas.
The only things she could see in that blue sky were a couple of swooping brown hawks. On the ground was the usual scenery: an unnaturally flat and desolate clearing extending into a vast forest of aspen and pine in the far distance. The air was almost warm, but she could feel that warmth surrendering to a fading sun in the western sky. The shadows of the pines were growing longer, brushing their backs.
Soon enough, it would be dusk.
She knew the trucks were there for some time but pretended not to notice their exhaust drifting over the smell of fresh air, water, dirt and pine sap. They were things she wasn’t used to smelling, but they seemed bad all the same.
Joshua made the call. “Audio contact: multiple large vehicles approaching southeast at ten kilometers per hour, estimated range fifty kilometers.” Joshua then lowered his field binoculars and glanced at Esther. “Es, are you ready?” he asked, as his round green eyes flashed with a sharp, reassuring look that was betrayed by a tinge of nervousness.
She wanted to brood, but quickly released her frustration with a long breath. This was their time, and it was the only time they had in this place. But, it was quite amusing to see Joshua’s newfound earnestness. She lifted her eyes and studied his posture for a moment. He was sitting upright, one leg crossed over his other leg. His slim but toned brown body barely supported a set of nearly oversized camouflaged fatigues. His right arm cradled his rifle, barrel pointed down. His left hand simultaneously held the binoculars to his face while keeping his loose kinky locks at bay.
Esther reached for an excuse to say something. “We’re sticking to the SOP,” she said, while pulling up another handful of tubers. “Ma and Pa will get mad if we don’t bring in enough tubers, and that means the next time around you will have to pull more for your share.” She thought it a very reasonable response. No matter what Ma, Pa, or the other Guardians said, she wasn’t springing off like a hare every time some random truck or ancient airplane approached the Settlement only to work more the next time. They would get both jobs done, and that was that.
Joshua exhaled and sharply nodded, firmly and silently agreeing with her thoughts. She moved closer to him, probing another undisturbed spot in the cool soil with her field knife. She deliberately squatted near his sitting figure, making sure that he could see the cleavage of her modest breasts. Yet again, he kept his focus on the horizon, not even noticing that she was wearing new shorts and a tighter t-shirt than she usually liked.
I really enjoy going outside with him, she thought while cracking a smile. She could relax around him and say anything, and he wasn’t too hard on the eyes either, with his long black locks, full lips, and brown skin—a shade or two lighter than hers—positively glowed on days like this.
She turned her attention back to the hole she was digging and paused for a moment, staring in the last hole in the ground. It’s good that he’s finally taking this seriously. But if he’s so focused, then where am I?
Esther flicked the dirt from her bayonet knife and sheathed it in its webbing compartment. She tightened the string around the large knapsack and tightened her mental focus as well. Lowering herself to the earth she placed her forearm, palm flat, down on the ground. To improve her vibration detection she slowed her heart rate and breathing to a near crawl. After a minute, she could accurately distinguish between different sets of vibrations. “Confirm contact,” she whispered. “Twenty wheeled vehicles. Zero tracked vehicles. Bearing south-east at a ten kilometers-an-hour, range, four-eight kilometers.”
She stood up again and, out of well-trained reflex, checked her webbing, holsters, and magazines while making a random mental note on the range and stopping power of the rounds in her Trainee-issued .45-caliber ACP pistol. With the “threat” so far away, she was absolutely sure she wouldn’t need it but felt reassuring all the same. Freeing her hands, she finally reached up to tighten the black ribbon holding her light brown hair out of her face.
“Your perfume,” Joshua said, “it’s nice.”
Esther again didn’t feel like going anywhere. She felt like staying with him and talking about something, anything. She stifled a pang of guilt in her chest. Her grades and ratings remained at the top of her class, but she could still feel the hot breath of Ma’s recent outbursts, riddled with words she wasn’t used to hearing like “poor,” “frustrating,” “disappointed,” and last, but certainly not least, “a traitor to your genes.” Usually, she would simply relax and flash a smile that seemed to smother Ma’s anger like gravy over a tuber. Unfortunately, disarming smiles would only get so far, and she wasn’t going to blow the personal and planning time she and Joshua had going.
She noticed that all this time he never turned away from the direction of the threat, despite any conceivable threat being at least forty-five plus kilometers away. She laughed a bit inside, even more amused at the seemingly serious and focused man in front of her. “Hey, Trainee,” she whispered playfully while tapping him on the neck, “I’m ready. Let’s roll.”
Esther switched on her brain radio and broadcast the assigned return code. Joshua, apparently hearing the encrypted broadcast, pulled up out of his crouch and positioned his rifle across his chest. She casually slung the roughly fifty-kilogram bag of tubers over her shoulder and, without further signaling, took off running.
She rapidly increased speed up the grade which just as quickly rose into a rocky bluff densely lined with ancient, knurled juniper trees. The last of the snow this far down had melted, but there was still a chill in the air. She could hear Joshua’s footsteps right on her tail. She only half paid attention to her own movements—flying over rocks and between trees like a cougar chasing its quarry. Neither of them missed a single footing up the steep slope.
“You owe me a kiss if I win,” he said breathlessly.
She heard his movement cease, apparently to turn and cover their mock retreat. Again, she was taken by a pleasant surprise mixed with an anxious happiness. Still, her pride needed to make a real fight of it, and she huffed out a laugh of acknowledgement.
There was no road or marked trail on this approach to the Settlement. In the winter, a hemp rope might be stretched out to help the younger Trainees, because even the most skilled Trainee could fall to their deaths in twenty inches of snow up a forty percent graded incline. Esther recalled Sasha, a fifteen-year-old Trainee, caught in a blizzard outside The Wire three winters ago. It took almost a day to remove him from the snow and provide for his second burial.
She again elected for the riskier lines up the slope and deliberately picked faster but looser and more challenging footings. Despite her best efforts, she could sill hear Joshua’s footfalls close behind. Male Trainees were, of course, stronger but generally less agile, and she usually had no problem pulling away from anyone in tight and technical terrain. But here was Joshua, surprising her again with a focus and intensity on the run he rarely, if ever, displayed until today. Sure he was taking a less risky line, but he was actually keeping up. Now, she was far too winded to laugh.
She slipped on a particularly slick rock and her cranium came within inches of a large tree limb. Whoa! she thought, with a small tinge of excitement as a rush of endorphins overwhelmed her. She lost track of him but while moving and leaping at thirty kilometers an hour, she didn’t want to throw her attention any more on such a risky line. He’s usually the one doing risky things like this.
She could feel her muscles burning as she topped the crest of the ridge and exited the tree line. The first thing she saw was The Watchtower, which was by far the tallest thing in the entire Settlement—a soaring pillar carved directly into the nearest mountain bordering the Settlement proper. As a Guardian facility, it was completely unadorned with color, but compared to the squat, square, concrete and adobe buildings in both the Village and Guardian areas, it took on a monumental quality.
When she was younger, she thought the Sapientia herself descended and left it as a tribute to the Settlement. If that were the case, the Guardians had adorned the top of the Sapientia’s gift with an array of sensors that could detect everything in the electromagnetic spectrum—from radio waves to x-rays. It was also connected to a network of seismic sensors capable of recording every footfall for two hundred kilometers; as well as optical telescopes and radar capable of detecting every moving object in the observable sky. Reconnaissance drones disguised as chunky birds rested on the top ledge.
The better-regarded Trainees were allowed to spend some time in the Watchtower. She had been there at least three times, and she recalled that first fieldtrip like it was yesterday. After Carla gave a breathless introduction and a brief rundown of the sensor boards, the Guardian plopped into a reclined chair, closed her eyes, and activated her brain implant’s data mode that connected her brain to the Watchtower’s raw sensor feeds. Esther also entered data mode and sat uncomfortably in a plain metal folding chair, shadowing Carla through dozens of data streams.
Following the Guardian’s cues, she didn’t speak, sleep, eat, or go to the restroom for the entire twelve-hour shift. The room was stuffy, and the amount of data pouring in from the dozens of drones and hundreds of sensors was almost overwhelming. But when night came, Esther looked up at the visual sky sensors and counted the debris of decaying satellites and a large number of small asteroids falling into the atmosphere, exploding into a splendid display of bright orange shooting stars.
She remembered that visit fondly.
She paused about ten meters before The Wire. “The Wire” wasn’t actually a wire fence but a bunch of very serious looking metal signs. She heard there was at one time an actual wire fence, but there was clearly no need for it when automated smart mines and targeted-beam weapons were trained on every inch of the inner perimeter.
There was a demonstration once a year. All the Trainees and Traders would be seated together about two hundred meters from The Wire. A sick cow or goat was dressed in conventional anti-ballistic armor then coaxed, cajoled, or driven over the safety line. There were also a couple of years where the condemned was flung many meters over the ground from a slow-moving aircraft. The high-density fragmentation mine always jumped out of the ground, always honed in on its target, and always detonated with enough force to induce a mild headache. There was never any need to get around to what the beam weapons could do, because all that was left was a red mist. Every two-legged resident of the Settlement knew that to cross that invisible line without permission would be instantly fatal.
Today was Guardian Tim’s shift and, as usual, he took his sweet time sending back an entry code. While waiting and catching her breath, she looked back and saw her opponent dashing over the ridge. With her substantially more dangerous line, and carrying a trivial fifty-plus kilogram sack of tubers, she was only about four seconds faster. She was losing, and regardless of the prize or penalty, she always raced to win.
Esther took off but Joshua was right behind her and gaining. Flashing a goofy and victorious grin, he sprinted right past her and through The Wire with complete confidence that he wouldn’t die. “See you in a little while!” he yelled, continuing west to the Guardian Administrative Building. Esther, smiling but feeling slightly defeated, started in the opposite direction toward the Guardian Trainer Office to deliver her haul.
He earned it, she thought. It was his personal best.