No one remembers what started the war anymore.
All we know is that there's a barbed wire fence between us and the Other Side and every house has a bomb shelter out back. Most people don't cross the fence, but sometimes rockets do. We huddle in our shelters until the threat is gone. Afterward, each side claims the other started it and life goes on as usual until the next strike.
Some would call us crazy to keep on living in a place like this, but this land is our home. We'd no sooner leave it than cut off our arms. When the rockets aren't flying, we're all normal people. Like anyone else, we go to school and work and live and play. The grown-ups work in the factory or become Teachers or Healers or Machinists.
I wonder if it's the same on the Other Side. To hear the Teachers talk, the people there are nothing like us. Savages, every last one of them
, they say. From the time they can walk, they're taught to fight and kill, and even the smallest are to be feared. They're not to be trusted.
Though I have no real reason to doubt the Teachers, sometimes I do anyway. Can the people on the Other Side really all be killers? Or are they people with thoughts and dreams and feelings just like us?* * * * *
Sweat trickles down my cheek as I crash through the underbrush. Summer has just begun, and already it's so hot that even breathing feels difficult. Running should
be out of the question, but I'm doing it anyway.
I'm making too much noise, but I don't care. All I want is to get to the hollow tree. Since I found it a year ago, it's become the place I go whenever I need to get away. Pushing aside branches and wiping at my face, I press onward. Thorns tear at my clothes, but I barely notice.It's not fair.
The refrain repeats inside my head, punctuated by my footfalls.
Finally, I'm there. Parting the ferns that surround the tree, I crawl inside its trunk. Leaning against the ancient wood, I close my eyes and sigh loudly.
The male voice practically makes me jump out of my skin. My eyes fly open and I let out a startled shriek. Disoriented, I look around, trying to find the owner of the voice.
"Where the hell are
you?" I yell.
A grinning face appears just outside the opening I crawled through moments ago. Its owner looks to be about my age. Though his skin is brown like mine, he has yellow hair and ice blue eyes. I look at his broad smile and my face burns with righteous indignation.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I shout. "This is my
spot, eh?" I can hear the laughter in his voice. "Who are you, anyway?"
"I'm Calla," I tell him, pushing a clump of sweaty hair out of my face.
"Pleased to meet you," he says, sticking out his hand. "I'm Kalen. Care to tell you what you're doing in my
I'm about to protest. Then I see the twinkle in his arresting blue eyes and realize he's teasing me.What the hell
, I think. Might as well have someone to talk to.
"I'm hiding," I tell him.
"Hiding from what?"
"My future," I reply. "The City Council voted today."
Kalen looks confused. For a moment, I'm as bewildered as he is. He must be nearly of age too
, I think. How can he not know of the City Council's vote?
Then, it all clicks into place. He's from the Other Side - must have climbed the fence. Strange, he doesn't
"Where I live," I explain, "The City Council meets at the beginning of the summer. During the meeting, it votes to determine the future careers of all graduating students."
"And... you graduate this year?"
Tears spring to my eyes and I blink them away. Since I can't trust my voice not to break, I only nod. The Council has tapped me to become a Teacher. I'd much sooner draw or paint or sing for a living, but none of those are approved professions. According to the Council, it is my calling to indoctrinate the next generation. When summer ends, I will begin teaching them of the evils of the Other Side.And I'm not even sure I
believe they're evil
, I think. Kalen seems like any other kid my age.
In fact, Kalen seems pretty nice. Part of me wants to confide in him, but the rest of me can't stomach the idea of blubbering in front of a complete stranger. With forced cheer, I change the subject.
"Now, how about you tell me why you're in my
Once again, Kalen adopts a teasing, almost sing-song tone. "Pretty sure I found it first. I've been coming here since I was just a boy."
"Yeah," I scoff, rolling my eyes, "because now you're sooooooo old and adult."
"I'll have you know I'm old enough to work," he replies, eyes alight and voice full of mirth. Then the laughter drains away and he says quietly, "and I'm old enough to fight."* * * * *
Sweat runs down my back as I lean against the wood of the hideout I now share with Kalen. It's midsummer and the air is thick and heavy. The shade provides some relief, but it's not enough.
"Summer is halfway over already," Kalen groans, cracking his knuckles. "I can't believe it."
"Ugh, don't remind me. I'm not looking forward to shaping young minds." I punctuate the words with air quotes.
"At least you don't have to go out and kill people, Calla." All of a sudden, the humor is gone and Kalen looks morose. I can't say I blame him.
"Are you sure there's nothing you can do to get out of that?"
"Short of permanently maiming myself, not really," Kalen sighs. Why talk about something we can't change anyway? Instead, I change the subject.
"So, when are you going to tell me what's in the box?"
At the mention of the box, his eyes light up. It's more like a trunk, and he's sitting on it like it's a bench.
"You really don't recognize it?" Kalen asks. "Where I come from, everyone has this game."A game?
I wonder. What kind of game comes in a giant trunk? The people on the Other Side really
are a bit odd.
"Here, see for yourself," he says, jumping off of the box and opening its lid. For the first time, I notice the words "ROBOT SCRABBLE" stamped on its side in red block letters.
"Robot... Scrabble?" I ask, wondering if this is some kind of joke.
"Yup," Kalen says. "It's just like regular Scrabble, only better. Every time you play a word, you get to build part of your robot. And then at the end, your robots fight to the death."
For a moment, I'm dumbstruck. Leave it to the Other Side to turn a completely innocuous word game into an act of war.
"Um, don't take this the wrong way," I say, "but is there anything
your people do that doesn't involve fighting?"
kind of a way of life for us," he admits.
"Well, I guess it is for my people too," I say. "Too bad we don't even know what it is we're fighting about."
"Hey, that reminds me!" Kalen says, "I was browsing the Splinternet the other day and I came across an old message board. The government was supposed to have shut them all down, but I guess they missed this one somehow."
I nod as if I have a clue what he's talking about. Kalen is a computer person, but in my City computers are rarely used outside of school. I barely even know what the Splinternet is, let alone a "message board".
"Anyway," he continues, "Someone on the board posted an old map of our region."
"Yeah, so?" Maps and history remind me too much of school, something I'd prefer not to think about right now.
"My people used to keep these archive-buildings back in the day," he says, "called them 'libraries'. The map shows one not far from here."
"A library?" This could actually be interesting. "Do you think it's still there?"
"Who knows?" Kalen says. "Maybe the ruins are. You want to go look for it sometime?"
"Sure, why the hell not?" I say. "But first, my robot is gonna kick your robot's ass at some Scrabble!"* * * * *
Sweat beads on my forehead as I watch Kalen working. Summer is nearly over, but the heat shows no sign of breaking. Right now, though, it could be a cold winter's night and I'd still be perspiring.
"You sure you want to do this?" he asks for the hundredth time. "I won't hold it against you if you back out."
"I told you, I'm in it 'til the end." My palms are clammy, but I'll die before I admit how terrified I am.
"Just making sure." His eyes are mischievous. "I don't want to turn you into a savage - you know, like my people."
"Yeah, it's totally your
people's fault," I say. "We're all a bunch of idiots."
We've been working out the details of this plan since the day we found the library. Before then, we never would have dreamed of doing something like this. I would have meekly gone to my destiny as a Teacher, and Kalen to his as a soldier.
Now we've got no choice but to fight this with all we have.
Kalen's forehead scrunches in concentration as he fiddles with the wires. I glance up at the sky, hoping to God or whatever is up there that he knows what he's doing.
"Finished!" he announces a moment later.
"All right, then. Let's do it." I raise the bullhorn to my lips. An eardrum-rending squeal issues from it and I jump. I hold it farther from my face and try again.
"Attention, all citizens. Please gather at the border. Attention. Please gather at the border." A tremble tries to creep into my voice, but I hold it steady.
It takes a couple minutes, but faces begin to appear on both sides of the fence. Voices buzz, first with curiosity and then with puzzlement. One of the braver ones speaks out.
"Why have you called us here, child?"
"Don't call me a child. I am of age, as is my friend. We are old enough to read and learn and question. And we are old enough to demand that this war end now."
I pause. The droning voices grow louder, angrier. As the people press closer to the fence, I imagine torches and pitchforks in their hands.No way are we getting out of this alive.
Before I can say another word, I hear the sound of marching feet. The crowd on the Other Side parts, and a group of armed soldiers emerges. Their faces are hard and grim; their eyes, blue like Kalen's, are cold.
"You're under arrest in accordance with code 666781-2222 of martial law - tampering with the border."
That's when Kalen grabs the bullhorn from my hands. He holds up the detonator, his finger on the button. The voices rise in panic. Raising their weapons, the soldiers step forward as one.
"Everyone remain calm," the leader says. "Let the boy speak."
"Do you even know what you're fighting for?" Kalen's words ring out across the sea of faces, silent and terrified.
"Once upon a time, our peoples were friends. They traded goods - we churned the butter and they baked the bread. They made the straws and we made the drinks. But wouldn't you know it, we couldn't leave well enough alone."
Shock registers on the faces I can see. I hear murmurs but can't make out the words.
"One day, they decided our prices were unfair. 'This drink isn't worth what you're charging,' they said, 'We'll just make our own!' It took them years to get the recipe right, and during that time everyone grew more and more angry. The trade agreement fell apart and the feud began. Before long, our peoples were bitter enemies who barely spoke. The physical fighting came later, but in our hearts, the war had already begun."
The crowd is buzzing again, like a hive of angry bees. People don't believe what they're hearing.
"That's right," Kalen says. "This war began because they drink from red cans and we drink from blue. That's it. Now step away from the fence before we blow you to bits."Author's Note:
This story is set in the same universe as this one
, although it's intended to stand on its own. For those who have read the original story, this one is set in the past, just before the final stage of the Great War referenced in the first piece.