⇓ Index ⇓
Blistering pavement, the sun beating down on thick grasslands, not a drop of moisture in the air to stop the rays from cooking the back of Daniel’s neck. With no water beside the sweat drenching his shirt, his throat had turned scratchy and voice hoarse. Valtteri hadn’t fared much better, his light skin had turned tomato-red in the harsh sun. The motorbike had sputtered, choked by the heat, while Daniel’s stomach growled in starvation. Endless highways laid before him, and every sign he passed had said the next town was a millenium away. The Western Range foothills were taunting him and his cracked lips and sandpaper tongue with their unending glory. His mind and body were ready to lay down with the roadkill and bake. That is, until a smokestack rose in the horizon behind tiny trees. His tired eyes squinted at the desert oasis. Except, he had been in the middle of the Central Provinces, not the Abrassian Desert, and the oasis was no illusion.
A year of light-wood cabins dotting a field of swaying wildflowers and tall grass, with snow capped mountains piercing the distant heavens, and the aroma of wheat and songs of birds and grasshoppers, was the oasis—a commune. People were scattered about it as they did their daily work in the wide crop fields, picking corn and harvesting wheat, or pumping pails full of water and bringing them to the pens on the north side of the commune. Some sewed, or cooked meals for other workers, or helped build cabins for new arrivals. The community had been growing steadily over the past year, especially since the war had displaced so many families. Daniel and Valtteri were just two of the many wandering souls who’d found the thriving commune while heading south. And as he wiped the sweat off his forehead, stepping back from the motorcycle he was repairing while gazing at the towering peaks beyond the garage door, he hoped his family would soon follow him down.
A familiar face and pair of glasses poked around the garage entrance and, when she saw what Daniel was staring at, she gave him a goofy smile. “Whatcha looking at?” She stepped onto the cool concrete floor and her red-rose covered sundress came into view. Her black bob fanned out at her shoulders like little wings, striking against her light brown skin, and a flowing ribbon wrapped around her straw hat. They could be fighting in a rain-soaked ditch and Rui would still look utterly gorgeous. Rui had been Daniel’s best friend ever since he’d arrived at the commune, she’d taken his hand and pulled him around the steadily growing community, showing him their town hall where The People’s Assembly gathered, the single-roomed school and students taking notes in the wheat fields behind it, the repair shop—oh, how Daniel had fallen in love with that garage the moment he saw it, its workbench piled with blueprints and walls lined with tools—and finally, she’d helped him settle into his new, humble abode. A cabin, like every resident and their family had.
“Mountains,” he replied.
“Again?” Rui hopped up on the hood of a car. A wicker basket plopped down next to her, Daniel hadn’t noticed it before. He set an oily rag on the motorcycle and climbed onto the hood beside her.
“Oh—lunch!” She beamed, throwing open the basket lid. She shoved her hand inside, rustled around, then yanked out a partially smashed ham sandwich wrapped in gingham patterned paper. “You always show up to the dining hall late, so I thought I might as well bring it here. Ah, oops, it got kinda squished by the beer,” she said, finally looking at the mess of meat and mustard.
Daniel smiled and shrugged as he took it from her. “A sandwich is a sandwich.” The paper crinkled when he folded it back to take a bite, his eyes returning to the mountainous horizon. They sat and chatted about their days while they ate—how the bike Daniel was fixing nearly fell on him because he didn’t secure it well enough, how one of the kids Rui helped teach nearly brought the wrath of a beehive down on herself.
There were a few trees in the field, but none near the school. “How’d she even find a hive?” A grin spread wide across his face alongside his jovial laugh.
“It was high on the back of the schoolhouse. I caught her throwing rocks at it! Rocks! The bees were already starting to swarm around the roof... I guess she thought it looked cool or something, ‘cause she didn’t stop.” Rui sighed fondly, shaking her head. “I appreciate the kids’ curiosity about nature, but sometimes they can be a real pain in the ass.”
Daniel’s gaze slowly shifted back to the peaks. “That’s the exact kind of thing Marie and I would do when we were young.”
"That explains a lot."
Daniel gave her an exaggerated glare. “We never actually hit a hive, though, just next to it.”
She returned his glare with a smirk. “Explains even more.” Daniel lightly shoved her, she yelped and grabbed onto his arm to avoid falling off the hood. Their eyes met, then both broke down into titters.
Rui steadied herself, her smile fading to something more somber. “Is that why you keep looking at the mountains?”
Daniel stiffened. His expression turned bittersweet. “If you mean Marie and my parents, yeah.” He peeked into the basket and grabbed a beer. “I wish I could’ve saved them when I fled… I just hope they’re doing alright, wherever The Federation took them.”
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked at it to see Rui, a hopeful gleam in her eyes. “You’ll see them again,” she promised.
Daniel’s shoulders relaxed. “Thank you.” Rui pulled her own beer out of the basket, opened both, and clinked hers against Daniel’s. They took a sip.
The town hall door flung open and a red-faced blonde stormed out, not bothering to shut the door behind him. Daniel watched the man stop at the bottom of the town hall’s steps and paced, arms crossed, kicking up dust.
Rui noticed where Daniel was looking and followed his eyes. She groaned when she saw where he was looking. “Valtteri is bothering the assembly again with his nonsense?”
He had no idea why Valtteri spent so much time with the Assembly, considering he always walked out of their hall looking like he did now. “He seems super pissed this time.”
“He always seems pissed, Danny, because he is. Nothing can make that man happy short of murder.”
Daniel flashed her a look that said, “seriously?” but she didn’t take it back. Her and Valtteri had always butted heads ever since they arrived.
Daniel sighed, “I’m gonna go see if he’s okay.”
“What?!” Rui accidentally exclaimed. She cleared her throat and settled her tone, but her eyebrows still furrowed in worry and a hint of frustration. “He’s obviously not. Why do you keep trying to make yourself his punching bag?”
“First of all, I bet he can’t fight for shit,” Daniel said, “and second, I’m not his punching bag. We lived next to each other for… well, all of my life, and most of his, so I know him. He just needs someone who cares enough to help him.”
"Help him with what?"
“That’s what I’m gonna find out.” And with that, Daniel started for the fuming blonde. Rui didn’t try to stop him but he could sense her nervous eyes on the back of his neck.
Valtteri was still pacing, muttering to himself, when Daniel walked up to him. He didn’t even seem to notice Daniel at first, completely lost in his thoughts. “Hey, Val, are you… okay?” Daniel asked cautiously.
Valtteri’s head whipped to face him. His ice-blue eyes were wide in surprise, then his lids dropped back to their constant half-opened gaze. “Ah, Daniel, good. They’re still refusing to listen to me,” he grumbled through his teeth, heel grinding a hole into the dirt.
“About our situation!” Daniel blinked, not sure how to respond. “I honestly don’t know how you all can’t see it. One day,” he began, “the Federation is gonna swoop down here and wipe us all out, or capture us, just like your family. We’re relying on some corn and the occasional deer to pass through for food. Hell, even our guns are outdated and rusting!” Valtteri took a breath, then exhaled loudly. “We need to join the modern age.”
They were silent for a minute, Valtteri crossing his arms as he waited for a response. Daniel stared at him, hoping his confusion wasn’t too visible. “Why do you think that’s gonna happen?” he asked. The commune had been flourishing, at least for the past two years Daniel had been there. Their population was growing steadily and sustainably, and despite that they’d never had any issues with food shortages. Besides, even if the deer and other wild animals stopped passing through, they still had their cows, pigs, and chickens. Everything Valtteri said was pure paranoia as far as Daniel was concerned. He’d always been a bit out there, and at first it’d been humorous, like the outlandish theories he’d tell when they were teens about how the emperor was using birds to spy on his citizens, or that Andinity was a government tool used to control the population rather than an actual religion. All jokes, Daniel had assumed, but over the past few years he’d been getting… more extreme, and more sure of himself.
“Oh don’t give me that look. Ansfield was eons ahead of this place, and look what happened to it.”
“Ansfield was right on the Empire–Northland border. I’m not sure the Federation would be interested in a tiny commune in the middle of nowhere, Val.”
A smirk spread across Daniel’s face. “...Wanna bet on it?”
That got his attention. He raised his eyebrows, looking down at Daniel with careful consideration. “How much?”
Valtteri’s eyes widened. “Where’d you even get that much from—? Y’know what, nevermind. Deal.” He offered a hand and Daniel took it, giving an exaggerated shake.
A deafening crash—dust rumbled down from the peaked ceiling, plates and bowls clattered around in their cabinets. Daniel shot awake, panic gripping his chest. He stumbled out of bed and ran to a window. Had The Federation found him? His heart pounded—was his home being invaded again?
Crackling, then a BOOM! And a gust of wind, then all was quiet. Except for the rising shouts of panic and confusion. The room swayed, his head spun with vibrant fear. He shoved off the covers and, taking a deep, shaky breath, he yanked on a pair of sweatpants, bolting out into the cool summer night.
Even from his cabin he could see and feel the heat of the bright orange glow over the corn field. Half the commune was racing towards it, emergency rifles in hand. Daniel joined them, too stunned to ask what was happening. As he ran towards the fire, he saw a mangled steel wing peeking above the crops. His stomach leapt into his throat—it was a fighter jet, though he couldn’t tell who’s.
Icy realization shocked his heart. Where’s Rui? Val?
He scanned the crowd for his friends, but couldn’t find either of them—
His breath caught. A silhouette layed amongst the flattened corn, unmoving, red pooling around its head, staining its blonde hair.
Blonde. It’s not Rui.
His muscles relaxed, but guilt swiftly devoured his relief. Focus, he still needs help. He glanced to the plane, then Valtteri, and breathed in the smoky air.
Daniel jumped the fence separating the commune from the crash without thinking, despite the gathering crowd’s sharp protests. Valtteri was only a couple yards from the crash. Flames licked at Daniel’s dark brown skin and toxic fumes stung his eyes. He tried to see into the cockpit, but only caught sight of a smoldering black lump before having to look away.
Daniel rolled Valtteri over and hooked his hands underneath the injured man’s arms. He grunted as he hauled an unconscious Valtteri back toward the fence, trying to look away from the blood-gushing gash that ran from his hairline across his nose and to his jaw.
Medics greeted him once he finally slumped Valtteri against the fence, and only once they were both over and Valtteri was on a stretcher did Daniel notice how hard his heart was beating. A medic’s worried, yet grateful, words seemed miles away as two others carried Valtteri to the medical building. Daniel couldn’t help but wonder, was he too late?
A door creaked open. “Daniel?”
He quickly rose from his seat, stretching his legs. He’d been waiting outside that room so long that the sun had started to rise. “Yes?” The anticipation was impossible to keep out of his voice.
The doctor smiled. “He’s still unconscious, but he’ll be alright. I’d say you got to him just in time.”
A relieved breath whooshed out of Daniel’s lungs. “Thank the Lord.”
“Would you like to see him?”
He paused, remembering the horrible laceration, unable to help feeling guilty about it for some reason. “...Yeah,” he sighed. It wasn’t his fault, and he did want to see how Valtteri was doing.
The doctor held the door open for him and gently closed it after he entered, leaving him alone with Valtteri. Daniel inhaled sharply when he saw the red-stained bandages covering the entire left side of his childhood friend’s head and face. His right eye only just peeked out from the cloth. Realization swept over Daniel—Valtteri had been a hair away from losing an eye.
Daniel swallowed as another revelation gripped him. He knew he couldn’t outrun violence forever, but for it to come so soon and with such fury…
He knew the war had found him.
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