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.”