There is a world where beauty remains untarnished and magnificent; a world where people live among the fish and the birds, where the sky is eternally decorated with twinkling stars and pastel colors, and where all creatures are free. In this world, all speak one tongue. In this world, it rains multicolored drops and music fills the air at dusk. It is a world spirited by rebirth, resurrection, and magic. Such a world didn’t always exist. In fact, it took blood, sweat, and many tears to create. You see, in the beginning, there was nothing. The people froze, sometimes to death. There was little to drink and next to nothing to eat. The people died from cancer and starvation, but most often they were killed. Yes, the world was plagued by death, evil, sadness, mourning, and loss.
One night in the old world, darkness enveloped the planet. If it were not for the fire, there would not have been a speck of light. The severity and permanence of the situation humanity now found itself in hung heavily in the air. No one had imagined that when the smoke cleared, this is what would remain. And, yet, The Resistance was more hopeful as a group than they had ever been as individuals. The days were long and hard. Men and women scoured The Camp, a vast empty wasteland of ash, poisoned animals, and dirty water, for anything they deemed edible. At night, hundreds of the people gathered around the fires they spent all day finding wood to build. The smell of whatever fish, fowl, or beast the hunters had caught that day wafted across the campsite. Calla’s stew simmered over a fire they’d made just to cook the food.
The fire crackled. Little embers danced in the night. Naxbee stared into the flames, only somewhat listening to the heated argument Artemis and Gerel were engaged in. She could faintly hear the whispered complaints of her people, the people of Band One, quietly questioning how long they would be expected to live this way. Even less acute, were the soft cries of the mothers who’d lost a child that day or the husbands who’d lost their wives. Naxbee usually concentrated on the future; a future that, in her mind, was bright. She often contemplated what life after victory would entail. She could not, for the life of her, imagine a life without struggle and she was sure that the victory she envisioned would be one of many long fought for. Tonight, Naxbee didn’t focus on the future, but on her past. She was thinking about the family camping trips she took as a child with her dad and Mama O’Laris. Whenever her mom got sick, which was fairly often, they would go camping and Naxbee would look forward to sitting by the fire, cuddling Mama O’Laris and listening to stories about her grandmother’s childhood. She looked over at Mama O’Laris now. The old woman was sad, weathered, and silent. This was nothing like the camping trips from her youth. Back then, she thought it was fun going to live in the wilderness for the weekend. Now, this was her life. Now, she needed the fire to keep warm night after night. Despite this newfound hardship, Naxbee much preferred her new life to her old. Before, she felt helpless; unable to change anything about her life, unable to protect those she loved, unable to make the difference her father died trying to make. Naxbee’s mind was flooded with memories of her father. She looked around at the people she led; people covered in ash and grime, people dying from illness and suffering from deep depression. Would Daddy have been proud of her? Would he have understood that in order to free her people, she’d had to allow them to suffer, temporarily? There is no freedom without struggle, her father used to tell her. She was unsure if her father could have imagined the type of struggle The Resistance now faced. Her followers sacrificed unlimited access to clean water. Some of them sacrificed the three meals per day they were accustomed to, settling for one. Instead of beds, each of them slept in a thin sheet that they cocooned around their bodies. The thin material did nothing to mitigate the discomfort they experienced at night, lying on the cold, hard ground. The deaths were, by far, the worst part. Everyday there was another funeral and, with so little joy, Naxbee found it hard to keep Band One motivated to push forward. She knew they were running out of time, but her efforts to stabilize their band and reconnect with the other twelve were unsuccessful. The other bands were dying off as well. Most of the people in her camp were too weak from illness to make the journey necessary to amalgamate. Naxbee knew that despite all the reasons for her apprehension, she would soon have to make the difficult decision she’d attempted evade.
“After everything that has happened, everything that they’ve done, you want to talk to me about respecting their lives?! You are unbelievable!” Artemis was now yelling at the top of his lungs, as he often did during conversations such as these. His long, dark hair fell into his face. The canteen that hung from his neck shook as he gesticulated, in frustration. He brought his hands down to meet the ashen rubble that surrounded him and dug them into it, resisting the urge to hit someone.
“Artemis, you’re missing the point,” Gerel chimed in, his voice level and calm. Gerel never lost his temper. If he was angry, it was so cold and controlled that it could be mistaken for aloof indifference. He stoked the fire and stared at Artemis, intently, with his small, crescent moon eyes. “If you do unto them as they have done unto us, you will suffer. It’s bad Karma. We should kill only when necessary.”
“Here you go with your Buddhist bull shit,” Artemis snapped. He stood abruptly and paced; his hands on his hips, his eyes hidden by his hair.
Jochi, leaning back on his elbows, burst into laughter, no doubt taking joy in the trivialization of his brother’s faith. Naxbee studied Jochi’s too-relaxed posture and shook her head at his big, goofy smile. He never handled tense situations well. Actually, he rarely handled anything well. Somehow, in spite of everything, Jochi had managed to retain a child-like innocence and naivety that not many others possessed. Everything was a joke, something to poke fun at or laugh about. Even his brother’s spiritual beliefs were comical. Yet and still, Jochi was one of their best fighters and they all saw potential in him.
Gerel glanced at Jochi, but didn’t acknowledge his outburst. “Think what you will, Art,” he responded serenely. “Your brutality will spell unhappiness for you, in the future.”
Artemis’s face took on a red hue as his voice rose. “You act as though you haven’t killed! How can you sit there and lecture me, Gerel? Did you empathize with the man you shot in the chest? Hell, man, did The Joiners empathize with your parents? Your parents are dead, Gerel! Merde! Jochi told us what they did to them! I love you, brother, but be reasonable, here. What kind of foul shit did your parents do to deserve what The Joiners did to them, man? Think! There is no fucking Karma. We make our own! We are the only ones that can make them pay. Not the fucking universe, Gerel. Come on, man.”
Everyone grew silent.
January 16, 2031
Gamshgiin. That word rang through Khanbogd many times during the war. I can still hear the screams. I hear them at night when I close my eyes. Yes, Gamshgiin is every night for me. I’m sure I can feel Jochi’s body wracking with sobs beside mine. Every night I’m sure that I’m soaked in my father’s blood, inhaling the smoke billowing from my mother’s burning body. The others say they want justice. They say they want retribution. They’re either young and foolish or driven to recklessness by their anguish and frustration. There will never be justice delivered by any man. There will never be retribution at the hands of a human being. Eej Ni and Etseg are gone now and they’ll be gone forever. No debt that is owed them can ever be repaid.
Hours after Artemis’s argument with Gerel ended, Naxbee lay in the ash, staring at the starless sky. She hardly noticed the chill of the now fireless camp as her belly grew hot with anger. She thought of all the people in Death Camps who were still being subjected to the torture Gerel’s parents endured. Her throat stung with sorrow as she imagined children witnessing their parents’ deaths the way he did. The fate of those children was in her hands. Every day they received news of more death, of surrender. It was becoming too much for the others to bear. Naxbee could feel their spirits breaking. She could hear the defeat in their voices but she would never give in. She thought of her own father’s death. She thought of his sacrifice. This was her destiny. There was no other way.
Footsteps interrupted Naxbee’s thoughts. She pushed herself up, onto her elbows and turned to see Gerel’s thick, muscular frame making its way through the darkness. She relaxed and continued to gaze at the black sky. Gerel settled beside her. He had tan, weathered skin that appeared to be freckled and colored by the sun, although there often was none. His eyes were kind and friendly, crinkling at the ends even though he rarely smiled. His neck, arms, and chest were very muscular. Naxbee thought they looked uncomfortably so. He was taller than most men of Mongolian descent, but just two or so inches taller than she.
“Naxbee, we heard from the Fourth Band. The Geneva Death Camp raid was not successful. There are no survivors there,” he whispered in his thick accent. He sat on the ground with a straight back and strong neck. He was the opposite of his brother in mannerism, never appearing relaxed, physically.
“And the Fourth Band soldiers?” Naxbee asked, willing her voice not to betray her emotion. She could not believe they had lost another Death Camp battle. Their failure spelled death for hundreds of people. She didn’t need more bad news, now. In fact, she’d been hoping for news that would inspire Band One to keep fighting. She thought back to their whispers and worried looks. Soon, those worried looks would become accusatory and she would be left with followers who no longer wished to be led down a path they believed ended in death.
“The Fourth Band remains strong,” said Gerel. Naxbee’s heart soared. “But we haven’t had word from the Third, Sixth, Seventh, or Tenth in months-some of them a year. They’re either dead or they’ve surrendered.” Naxbee hated when Gerel spoke this way. Not a single Band of the Resistance had ever surrendered. They were all committed to this cause, even if their belief that they would eventually succeed was waning.
“Don’t you dare insult them, Gerel. They would never surrender,” she said. He had little faith in people. It was funny how he and Artemis had that in common. Essentially, they agreed that people were not often to be trusted, but disagreed on how to interpret and address their betrayal.
“Well,” Gerel replied; his deep baritone as even and calm as ever. “They are dead, then.”
Naxbee remained silent. She turned to Gerel, hoping to make his expression out in the darkness. She envied his stoicism. It was true that she always put on a brave face for The Resistance. If she ever felt doubtful, if she was ever uncertain, she never let them see it; it was never readable in her expression, never present in her speech. Still, it was the fire in her soul that had gotten her this far, it was the grief for her father, her brother, her uncle that pushed her. She wondered, as she searched for sadness, hatred, anger, anything in Gerel’s expression, if stoicism would make her a better leader. Would she have developed better strategy if she were less emotional in her pursuit? Could she have saved more lives if she were less personally invested in their safety and well-being?
Finally, she broke the silence. “How many of us are left?” She feared the answer to her question. She knew that their numbers had steadily declined over the past two years.
“You know I don’t have the answer to that,” Gerel answered, solemnly.
“You must have an idea, Gerel. We have the reports from the last three years. Are you telling me Artemis isn’t keeping record?”
“Of course he is…..”
“Well?!” Naxbee always became too aggressive, almost hostile when she knew she was about to hear something unpleasant.
“We began with approximately one hundred thousand that you disbursed over thirteen Bands. We’ve lost four Bands entirely. Cancer and starvation have weakened the Second and Twelfth Bands considerably. A young man from Band Five arrived last week, claiming that he escaped the mass suicide the infantry opted for-”
Naxbee interrupted. “I still can’t believe they took the coward’s way out. They could have saved so many lives. I will never understand that way of thinking.”
“They wanted to die on their own terms, Naxbee. They were, in all likelihood, extremely afraid. They didn’t surrender. They didn’t actively contribute to the oppression of the people they swore to protect. That would have been true cowardice. You need to remember that we’re dealing with actual people here-”
Naxbee couldn’t believe her ears “I need to remember?! I need to remember?! Don’t you ever tell me what I need to do, Gerel! I need the people in those Death Camps fucking rescued before they die! I need to find uncontaminated water for the children in this Band, and in every Band to drink! I need to come through for the thousands of people relying on me. You think I don’t know that we’re dealing with people? For what other reason would I send men and women into those Death Camps to risk their lives? I’m doing it for the little boys and girls who are watching their parents be set afire! I’m doing it for the mothers who are mourning their sons! I’m doing it for the fathers who can’t protect their girls from sexual assault! You think that I don’t know that we are dealing with people? Band Five should have had the courage to live for other people. Don’t you ever insinuate that I don’t understand how difficult this is. Band Five made a commitment to people, Gerel and they should have followed through on that commitment or died fucking trying!”
It was too dark to tell, but Naxbee was sure that Gerel didn’t bat an eye during her outburst. When he opened his mouth to speak it was in his normal soft baritone. “You need to breathe. Getting yourself worked up doesn’t change the fact that the Fifth Band is gone. We’re down six Bands. I’d say there are less than forty five thousand of us.”
Naxbee sighed. She would never admit it, but Gerel was right. It didn’t matter how Band Five died. They were dead. Now, she needed to develop a new strategy based on their limited numbers. “I want to sit down with Artemis tomorrow and get the exact figures,” she said.
“I’ll get him up and to your ger first thing in the morning,” said Gerel.
They sat, for a little while longer, in silence. Naxbee, hearing a low growl, and feeling unruly hair brush against her neck, realized that her pet had come to find her. She reached up to stroke her lion’s thick, golden mane before he settled down next to her, resting his fifty pound head on her lap.
“Hello, Jhahaan.” She said. Jhahaan gave a low growl of acknowledgement and rubbed his massive head, affectionately, against hers. She ran her hand along the lion’s emaciated body, her heart sinking as she realized that he still wasn’t gaining weight. Gerel watched the interaction, intently. He was one of the few at camp who had never been afraid of Jhahaan.
“How did you come to have him?” He asked. Naxbee was surprised. Gerel almost never asked questions about her life before The Resistance.
“After my father bombed The Capitol, his supporters became increasingly militant,” she said quietly, keeping her eyes on Jhahaan. “The more force the government used in attempts to regain control, the angrier the community became. People were desperate to have their voices heard. The government was scared.
Imprisoning prominent members of the organization and shooting activists in the street wasn’t enough to scare people into compliance. They needed something more intimidating.”
Gerel looked at her, expectantly, waiting for her to go on but she didn’t. “I don’t understand. What does that have to do with Jhahaan?” he asked, finally.
Naxbee sighed and continued. “They used animals against us in the beginning. We weren’t sure what was happening at first; with monkeys and lions and wolves attacking us in the streets, but it soon became clear that they were somehow weaponizing animals.”
Gerel shook his head. “I never experienced anything like that during the war. Most of the animals native to Khanbogd died of starvation.”
Naxbee nodded in understanding. “Anyway,” she said. “A bunch of animal rights fanatics led an attack on one of the labs, determined to rescue the poor things. Mama O’Laris was furious with them for recruiting me, but I was excited to make a difference. There was very little I felt I could do for my community, for the humans that were dying…but these animals, I could help. It was terrible when we got to the lab. The animals were kept in sterile cages that were nothing like their natural habitat. Some of them were deformed; others had horrible wounds and scars. Many of them were rabid, which we expected. We had to put those down. What we didn’t expect were the unusually docile creatures. Jhahaan’s mother exhibited the behavior of a typical tabby before she died. Jhahaan was just a cub.”
“How were they controlling the animals?” Gerel asked.
Naxbee shrugged. “I don’t know. Jhahaan is definitely not as docile as his mother was, but any other lion would have started picking off the camp, by now. He’s starving. He needs meat. None of the training I’ve given him should be as powerful in his mind as his desire to survive.” It was bittersweet. Had Jhahaan posed a threat to Band One, Naxbee would have had to kill her best friend. She was relieved that wasn’t the case, but it hurt her heart to see him go hungry.
Suddenly, a loud moan erupted from one of the gers. Jhahaan raised his head, alert, ready. Naxbee turned, looking around at the many round, tent-like homes they’d built, trying to ascertain which the noise had come from.
“Oh! Shit! Baby, I’m ‘bout to bust. Fuck! Baby, I’m ‘bout to bust!” A man’s elated voice rang out across the camp.
Naxbee and Gerel looked at one another, knowingly.
“I’d bet anything,” Naxbee muttered. “She just brought a little happiness to the lone survivor of Band Five.”
Gerel said nothing. He stood up, brushing the ash from his deel. “Why do you still wear that?” Naxbee asked, referring to the dress-like garment Gerel donned. She was sometimes impressed and sometimes annoyed by how fiercely Gerel held to Mongolian culture during these times. Surely, the t-shirts and cargo pants they’d found at military bases would be more comfortable and more practical. Still, Naxbee couldn’t deny that Gerel’s determination to hang on to custom and tradition had helped The Resistance maintain functioning camps. Many of their everyday practices were implemented by Gerel, who enjoyed seeing aspects of a culture that had all but died in his everyday life. Naxbee had been unsure what they would sleep in before he had explained what a ger was. It had taken months to find wood for the thousands of gers they built before dividing into bands. Naxbee remembered that it was almost fun sewing the material together to make sheets big enough to hang upon the house-shaped lattices. The best part about the gers was that they were portable. When they were ready to regroup, they would bring their homes with them. It wasn’t the most convenient or effective way to travel, but they couldn’t afford to waste material that they weren’t sure they could replace.
“I’ll wear it until I can’t anymore. It’s the only thing I have that belonged to my father.” Gerel responded, seriously; and, with that, he left their spot under the starless sky, heading back to his ger.
Naxbee continued to stroke Jhahaan as she watched Gerel walk away. When she’d met him, in the beginning, a freakishly large man who didn’t speak a word of English, she could never have predicted that he would become so valuable to The Resistance.
January, 16, 2031
It was about fucking time. The number of people that had to die for this to happen saddens us all. We mourn them daily…..but it was time. The truth is, all of the people I loved wanted this more than they wanted to live. Daddy. Phauxus. Screw. The Minister. They were all prepared to die. For a long time, I wished that I’d gone to the Capitol that day. Now I know that moment wasn’t mine. This is my time. This is my moment. Back then, no one wanted to accept the truth. In the beginning, no one listened to Daddy. Now, all the people who called him crazy, stand behind me, just as fed up, just as militant, just as “crazy” as he was.
“My God! That was good, Babe,” the man exclaimed after he ejaculated. Out of the corner of her eye, Calla saw her ugly, little sphynx staring at them with contempt. His eyes were narrowed and he was hissing incessantly. No doubt, all the man’s ruckus had interrupted his sleep. The sweat from her lover’s saggy butt dripped all over Calla’s thighs. She prayed he would get off of her soon, and wriggled beneath him in discomfort. She had never encountered a man who perspired so much during sex. It was disgusting. She was disgusted. She didn’t let on, though.
“Was it, Handsome?” And, disgusting or not, he was. He was the most handsome man she’d had in her ger. She could hardly believe it. Most men’s looks were spoiled by the Third War. They were often covered in keloids, with hair loss in strange places and, sometimes, severely affected by malnutrition. She studied this one closely. He was ripped, which meant he’d been a Band Five soldier. All of The Resistance fighters were required to undergo an intense, ongoing training that Gerel developed. They were fed more than other members of their respective camps, to prevent fatigue associated with malnutrition. In fact, Calla had been instructed to feed the soldiers only protein-heavy meals. It was a challenge. Game was scarce and, even when there were animals to hunt; most of them weren’t safe to eat due to disease. Feeding the soldiers in accordance with Gerel’s standards meant that none of the other members of camp were fed any meat. Calla tried to tell herself that this practice was fair, that the soldiers were their first line of defense if there was an attack and that; therefore, it was in The Camp’s best interest to keep the soldiers well-fed. That being said, she couldn’t help but feel that malnourished children should be prioritized above the soldiers. The fighters weren’t the only fit members of the camp. It was almost impossible not to be in good shape with all of their physical activity. It wasn’t like the old days when you sat at a desk all day, then went home and ate take out on your couch. All day Calla searched for healthy soil so that she could grow vegetables to feed The Camp. She went to the river to find live fish, which was no easy feat. Most fish didn’t survive the radiation, so she brought plenty of dead ones up with her net. It was always risky eating anything, but they had little choice.
“I haven’t felt this good in a long time,” said the god like figure atop her. He rolled over, taking his side of the sheet with him, and sighed in relief. Or maybe it was ecstasy. Calla wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she had brought pleasure to this man’s life after he had suffered a very traumatic loss. That’s all she wanted; to be someone’s sunshine. She knew it was pathetic. She knew it. She deserved a little happiness, though; even if it was only a handful. She needed a little joy in the midst of all this gloom, and she wasn’t going to apologize for it. What was the point in living life if she didn’t have someone to share it with? What was the point in fighting for a better world, if she didn’t get to enjoy it while she was here? No, she wasn’t going to apologize for wanting to be loved.
“I’m glad I could do that for you,” she purred. She tried to ignore the cold that was settling over her body without the other half of the sheet, and pulled her body closer to his, hoping he felt as warm as he looked. She stroked his shining face with one hand and allowed her other to roam his body, appreciatively. There was something about his eyes. They were tight, as though he was of Asian descent. His chocolate skin said otherwise. He was the color of the Hershey bars she and her sisters used to split when her parents first took them to the United States. That wasn’t the only thing he had in common with candy. He sure had melted in her mouth. He was bald. She wondered if that was from the radiation. She ran her head over his smooth head, wanting to feel as much of him as she could.
“You know what else you could do for me?” He asked, a playful gleam in his eyes.
“What?” The people of Band One just didn’t get it, Calla thought. They were all so focused on making the world a better place for their children and grandchildren. Half of them weren’t even going to have children or grandchildren. Her eyes stung at the thought. She’d never imagined her life without children. The Resistance had been fighting this fight for three years and people were dying left and right. They died at the hands of Jersieg. They died from cancer. They died from infectious diseases. They died from malnutrition. Calla was determined to make the here and now a better place. Forget the big picture, she thought. You only get one life.
“You could tell me your name,” the man responded.
January 16, 2031
My mother’s kitchen always smelled like love. Her house overflowed with laughter. There were always people making conversation in her living room. My father would come home with flowers for my mother every day. He’d say “Abeba, I get to experience unmatched beauty every day I spend with you. I just want you to have half as much beauty in your life as I do.” To this day, it’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard. My mother named all of her daughters after the flowers my father brought home for her. That’s how I came to be called Calla. I haven’t seen a single flower since the war ended. Now, all of my sisters have been taken from me. Now, my sweet father and beautiful mother have been taken from me. What have I left? There are those among us who believe that this all happened for a reason. That, now, we can make the world a better place….but I fear there is no one left for me in this world. If so, how good a place can it be?
Artemis heard his nephews snoring before he stepped into his ger. He smiled to himself, thinking that they were so much like young versions of their father and him. From the moment they woke up, the boys were seemingly full of unlimited energy, but of course just too tired to do their chores. They were always in search of fun, always in high spirits. Artemis’s eyes began to well up with tears as he remembered their father. He and his brother were so different. Pierre was a punk if there ever was one. When they were teenagers, he would skip school and come home high. He remembered his parents’ mortification when they came home and discovered Pierre screwing Adelaide, his girlfriend.
“Petite pute!,” his mother spat. Little whore!
Artemis chuckled, remembering that Pierre was so outraged he swore to his mother that he would marry the petite pute and she would like it. And he did. Before any of them were of age, Adelaide was pregnant with her first child, a girl. Pierre married her as soon as it was legal. Artemis remembered how in love with Adelaide his brother was. It was amazing watching the two of them together. It was like they alone knew the secret to happiness, and they couldn’t share it with anyone else if they wanted to. For years after Artemis graduated college, his mother begged him for a new daughter in law; someone a little more respectable. Unfortunately for his mother, Artemis had never been interested in women.
January 16, 2031
The crimes committed against humanity in the Third War were countless. The beasts we fought were total barbarians, consumed by their blood lust and greed. I want them dead. Yes, every man that raised a finger against innocent people, will die. Let there be no mistake, I won’t stop with them. No. It isn’t them I want most, anyway. I want the men in the three piece suits who never saw the battlefield. I want the ones who were pulling the strings and pushing the buttons. I want to kill those sons-of-bitches more than I want anything else. I will get what I want. I promised my nephews that I would avenge their mother and father, as medieval as that sounds. They will know that justice does exist in this world, even if only at the hands of their uncle.
Artemis was startled awake by rapid rapping on the door. It was strange having a door. For a long time, he and his nephews lived under a large sheet, with each corner of the fabric tied to a different tree. He sat up and looked around his ger. It was like the little efficiency he’d occupied during college, except with fabric walls. There were two long wooden stokes grounded at the center of the tent. The boys liked to carve pictures into them. He eyed them, warily. They were going to be impossible to wake up after staying up to tell spooky stories well into the night. He walked over to the folded sheets on which they were sleeping and shook them awake. He didn’t feel at all guilty for taking more than his share of sheets to provide extra comfort for PJ and Arnaud. His job was to give them the best life he could. Each day that Jersieg remained in power, marked another day he had failed to avenge their parents. The least he could do was make sure they were warm enough at night.
“Artemis! Council meeting,” he heard Gerel’s husky voice call through the fabric.
Council meetings almost always meant an upcoming Death Camp excursion. Artemis usually looked forward to the raids, but he was growing tired of bringing home the little fish. He really felt it was time they organized an attack on Jersieg’s Domain. The trouble was that they had so few bodies. Artemis could hear Naxbee, in his mind, telling him that their first priority had to be the safety of The Resistance and the retrieval of the Death Camp prisoners. He agreed that those things were important, but they were not going to win this war one Death Camp at a time. They needed to be more aggressive and take an offensive stance. Artemis prepared for the argument he knew he was sure to have with Naxbee during the council meeting as he pulled on his cargo pants.
PJ and Arnaud were dressing as well. Calla was insistent upon making life at The Camp as “normal” as possible so she’d asked Naxbee’s grandmother and Old Man Camen to facilitate classroom activities for all the children in a large, circus tent like structure that Gerel built. Artemis pulled his long hair back, tying it with a vine he’d been using for years and turned to his nephew.
“Has that old man been teaching you anything?” Artemis asked, ruffling Arnaud’s hair.
“Oui, Oncle!” Arnaud exclaimed, happily. “I can read you six pages from The Book.”
The Book was the novel Calla found in one of the Death Camp raids. It was the only book in camp. They’d all read it at least a hundred times. Artemis was surprised Arnaud couldn’t read it front to back, by now. His nephew had grown so bored with reading stories the older children wrote for him in the ash. He glanced at PJ who was staring gloomily at the shoes Calla and the Camp Girls had fashioned for him out of old leather.
“What is it PJ?” Artemis asked, knowing what his nephew’s answer would be.
“I wish things could go back to the way they were before the war, Oncle,” PJ lamented. “I’m tired of going to this putain ecole.”
“Watch your mouth, PJ!” Artemis warned, but his mouth twitched. PJ was just like his dad.
“Je suis! Quel est le point putain?!” PJ often reverted to French when he was upset. Artemis didn’t mind. At least he was speaking English at all. When The Resistance first formed, he was sure his nephew would never make friends with the other boys, unless he met some that spoke French. What’s wrong with French, Oncle? PJ had asked. It is my language, afterall.
“The point, PJ,” Artemis said, trying to sound as stern as possible. “Is for you to learn something that will enable you to contribute to society.”
There was more tapping on the door.
“Damnit, Gerel! Stop knocking on my damn tent!” Artemis burst through the feeble wooden door, looking wildly for Gerel. Of course, he was sitting in the ash cross-legged.
“Your tent?” Gerel quipped. “Who built this ger, Artemis? Was it you?” Artemis could never tell when Gerel was actually joking. He wore the same stoic expression when he delivered his punch lines that he wore when he delivered his blade to the hearts of the Jersieg Joiners.
The two men headed to Naxbee’s ger. They navigated through the many gers Gerel had constructed. Some people had attempted to add their personal touches to their homes, embroidering the fabric with pictures of the sun they rarely saw, or with the names of the people they’d lost. Artemis wondered how long they would have to wait for Naxbee. She bathed in the community tub, a huge tin basin that they filled with water they attempted to filter with tree branches and plastic tubes, early in the morning when everyone but the school children was still asleep. She claimed it was because she felt it peaceful to bathe with little disruption, but they all knew she was self conscious about her weight. Bathing was a very public thing in The Camp. People stopped averting their eyes the first year. The soldiers loved it when the Camp Girls bathed together. Artemis was sure that was why they did it.
Naxbee entered her ger still draped in the ragged green towel she used to dry. Her short, curly, copper colored hair dripped water onto her thick, nutmeg brown neck. Her breasts, which were huge, sagged beneath the towel; swinging left and right as she moved. She moved rather gracefully for a woman of her size. Artemis remembered the first time he’d seen her in battle. She was one of the fiercest fighters among them, rivaled only by Gerel and Jochi. She was stronger than almost all of the other men, and he’d be damned if she wasn’t the best shot he’d ever seen.
“Did neither of you think that maybe it’d be better to wait outside?” Naxbee asked, in a quiet voice.
Artemis glanced quickly at Gerel, whose eyes were glued to Naxbee’s face. Quiet was never good. Artemis knew that bad news was coming. Naxbee rarely said anything to anyone without looking them in the eyes. When she became withdrawn, it meant that something devastating had occurred. Usually, Artemis was the first to hear of things beyond The Camp. What could she have heard this early and from whom?
“Our apologies,” Gerel said, solemnly. Artemis knew that Gerel, too, sensed something was coming. “We’ll wait outside and allow you to dress.”
As they stepped outside, Artemis heard the soft crunch footsteps and glanced up to see an attractive, fair skinned woman with blue-black hair and dark features gliding through the ash. She looked out of place in their wasteland of a camp, wearing a long, silk, red dress and no shoes. The woman moved as if she were making love to the air around her. Her heavy, black eyebrows framed her beautiful, almond-shaped dark eyes and her pouty, pink lips sat in a perpetual smirk.
“Hello, Katar,” Artemis acknowledged the woman, begrudgingly. He was not in the mood for her antics.
“I take it she’s told you?” Katar asked leisurely, ever aloof.
“Not yet,” said Artemis, shaking his head in frustration. “How is it that you know already? Didn’t you just arrive this morning?”
“Who do you think brought the news?” Katar purred, smiling her devilish smile.
January 16, 2031
These people act as though somehow their banding together means something. It means nothing. Jersieg will beat them down the way he beat every army that dared oppose him. There is no winning unless you abandon the team. The little black girl and her followers are so focused on “the greater good.” It’s hilarious that they are all so desperate for direction, they’ll follow a child. It’s funny that they now choose to kumbaya and rally together. Under different circumstances, few of them would even speak to one another. In the old days, they spat in one another’s faces and hated each other from a distance. Now, they believe they can come together? This is as much a game as it ever was, and I accept that. I’ll play this game until Jersieg’s heart is beating in my hands; until I can take from him what he took from me. I know this is the end. But before I draw my last breath, I will witness Jersieg’s. When I can bask in his horror, and take pleasure in his pain, I will be prepared to leave this god forsaken world a happy woman. Until then, I’ll play.
Gerel opened his eyes at the sound of Naxbee’s voice, calling to him from inside her ger. The others were all there waiting. He could see the anxiety in all of their faces. He was not anxious. He was not nervous. What was to be would be. He glanced at his brother, Jochi. He remembered when Naxbee insisted that he participate in these meetings.
Gerel, she’d said. I know he’s your little brother but he is one of our best fighters. True, he is immature but, give him time. I see so much of you in him. He is more adept at strategizing than any of the others and, surely, you have made him familiar with the Buddhist teachings you attribute your wisdom to. He will get there, eventually….and if anything were to ever happen to you, I fully expect him to take your place.
Gerel rose from the ash, nodded reassuringly at the others, and entered the ger that he’d built for Naxbee. She was sitting on the floor. Her face was hidden behind her still bare knees. She hugged her soft, muscular, brown legs. Gerel rarely saw her wear anything besides the cargo pants and white linen shirts that the men in the camp wore. The thin, sheet-like towel did little to conceal her body. He could make out her long, full breasts and flabby stomach beneath the white cloth.
“Get dressed,” Gerel said firmly. “You won’t want the others to see you like this.”
“Give me a minute,” Naxbee responded softly. “I just need a minute.” She raised her face from her knees. There were tears streaming down her face. Gerel could see the keloids on her neck and shoulders. “Gerel, we may be the only surviving Band. Katar drove in this morning to tell me that Jersieg bombed five camps in the dead of the night. He didn’t even ask for their surrender. He knows that we plan to fight to our deaths.”
Gerel didn’t say a word. He watched Naxbee’s face, waiting for it to betray her thoughts. She was so young, but so strong. He respected her for her passion, for her undying love for and loyalty to the suffering people of the world. He never gave unsolicited advice in situations such as these. Naxbee was a strong leader. He knew that there would be no Resistance if it were not for her. She had to trust herself, her own instincts. He could not interfere.
Finally, Naxbee spoke. “Bring the others in,” she said as she rose from the floor.