“IT’S TIME, HOPE,” Thomas said, “the collector’s name is Bishop, and he is counting on you. Take this water and leave now. You should make it there by nightfall.” He unlatched the door and placed his hand on her back, “Godspeed. I must return to the safehouse now.” He watched as she began her journey away from the old safehouse and hollered after her one last time a word of caution, “The air is humid today, and the sun promises to be harsh. Stay close to the shadows to stay cool.”
Outside, the overgrown grass waved in the dusty wind. Hope pulled her scarf tight against her face to block the grime and began the trek away from the barn and her godfather. Through the fog, she could see the remnants of Vancouver in the distance. The cities had been all but abandoned. The air was too toxic, nothing grew. The leftovers of humanity that didn’t work for the Wayline had scattered throughout the countryside. They shared space with the slave farmers, but little more. If you didn’t have the mark of the Wayline Confederacy on your neck, they wouldn’t sell to you. The Free adapted to their shunning as best they could. They had a small trading network that they called ‘Link.’ If it couldn’t be stolen from the Wayline directly or their Confederacy, the Link found it for a price.
Link used many merchants for their purposes. They supplied the Resistance with ammunition and arms stolen by opposition sympathizers. They provided vital water to the independent farmers in exchange for some of the fresh crops. No matter the task, Link had someone that could help. Thomas was one of Link’s information specialists; he utilized her unique skills to pass messages throughout Sectaria.
As the mid-morning sun rose like a phoenix in front of her, she marched along the hillside toward the river Pitt. Kluuja pranced beside the girl, sniffing the thick air. The dog was a mutt of no discernible breed, but he was loyal and steadfast. He had a stout torso with long legs, short brindle hair, and deep brown eyes. Hope raised him from a pup and at five years, he was fiercely protective of her. She couldn’t imagine going on a journey without him. Hope named him Kluuja, a bastardized version of the Wayline word for strength and honor.
After a few miles through young forests and plains, the dog began huffing, snapping at the air. She thought about the stories she read about the clean air of the golden age but had never seen it. Some of the people she’d met in her journeys told stories about places that were still clean, but she thought they were only fables. They said that Califia was the richest of the districts, south of Sectaria, but even there a terrible drought had devastated their crops. For all its problems, Sectaria had no shortage of vital, life-giving water, so she tried to ignore that even in carefully sealed houses, a sheen of floating dust hung everywhere.
“You must be thirsty, Kluuja,” she stopped to take a saucer from her backpack and fill it with some water for the dog. He lapped it up while she studied a map of the area. Hope had drifted further south than she’d realized, and to correct course would take her between a Confederate-controlled army base and a Wayline supply depot. She cursed herself for not paying enough attention; she’d put herself into an untenable situation. The only other way would be to continue south to the Fraser and go around.
“Friend or foe?” Hope looked back to see two Confederate soldiers staring at her. One fat bumbling man and one tall and slender. They stood in the shade of an old dogwood tree with their rifles slung over their shoulders. The fat one swallowed. Hope figured she had surprised them while on a break. They were not prepared for a fight.
“Depends on who you’re asking,” she folded the map, placing it into the backpack with the saucer. “I’m a friend to most.”
“If you’re a friend of the Wayline, show me your neck.”
“I’m a friend of whoever pays me. Kluuja here, though. He takes a bit of encouragement. Did you bring a treat for him?” she asked.
“Show me your neck, little girl,” the fat one ordered. Hope saw in the curl of his eyebrows that his patience was wearing thin. Showing one’s neck to a stranger was customary in Sectaria. It provided proof of allegiance in a time when anyone could be the enemy. For her mission to succeed, though, she was their enemy.
“I’m just a farm girl gathering supplies for today’s luncheon in the west. Please don’t hurt me,” she said in a resigned tone, batting her eyelashes to appear younger than she was.
“Show us your neck, and we’ll be on our way, farm girl,” the thin one said with a sympathetic voice.
“Would you like to see the dog’s neck as well?” she asked.
“Why would we want that?” The thin one glanced at his companion with a confused look.
The fat man gripped his rifle but didn’t raise it. “Don’t listen to her. She’s Resistance, no doubt.”
Hope mocked resentment for the soldier’s accusation, “I just thought you might want to see the dog’s neck as well. I know he’d like to see yours.”
The thin man gripped the rifle that hung on his shoulder and hesitantly stepped back with his colleague. With fear in his voice, he said, “we don’t mean you harm, little one. We just need to take you in to have you registered. It will be painless.”
“Kluuja. Are these gentlemen our friends?” The dog bared his teeth with a deep growl. “I think they might be foes.” Hope snapped her fingers, and the dog leaped at the two men before they could draw their guns to take aim. The young woman split between the two as fast as she could run, south through the woods.
‘Kluuja will be fine. He’s survived tougher situations than this,’ she told herself while sprinting along. Her lungs burned despite a cooling breeze coming from the west.
The path ahead of her was overgrown with dry, yellowed wheat grass and juniper bushes that sprawled along the edge of the narrow road. The scale-like leaves whipped at her pants as she ran from the two soldiers to the nearby river. Hope noted to herself the increase in Confederate patrols in the area. ‘Is that what Thomas meant by retaliation?’ she asked herself. The air seemed to thin out as Hope neared the river. Ahead she saw the crumbled remains of the Trans-Canada highway. The old asphalt and cement superstructure that had carried people along the golden age had long since upturned and spilled out, slowly being reclaimed by the nature it had once sought to banish.
Hope slowed her jog to a trot, then a walk as she traversed the uneven road. Abandoned vehicles provided perfect respite for the blackberry bushes that had sprung from every gap in the old street. Kluuja barked behind, and she whistled to let him find her. He trotted along, jumping over a guardrail to her. “Good boy,” she said, patting him on the head. They continued along until she heard a whimper and looked down. “You okay, Kluuja?”
The dog looked at the sky and whimpered again, replaced by the whir of a Wayline ship coming overhead. The two hid under the remains of an overpass that was little more than a set of pillars now, but it was enough to mask their heat signatures from the ships probing sensors. As the vessel passed, she wondered, ‘why do they watch us with such vigor? Do they pay this much attention to the other sectors as well?’
Before the ship was out of sight, Hope and her dog were running down a small embankment toward the Fraser River once more. New Westminster in the distance seemed unscathed by the wars, the buildings lined the waterfront, blocking her view of the old river. Very few still lived in the cities. The ones that remained were unaffiliated. They didn’t sympathize with the Resistance or the Wayline and thus received no support from either side. Thomas once told her that the city dwellers had lost everything in the war and gave up on life. They were of no use to the war effort, hollow vessels that still looked vaguely human.
Hope walked between the port buildings and peered into the old blown out windows, watching the shadows dance inside. She couldn’t tell if what she was seeing was the tell-tale signs of people watching from inside the structure or a mirage brought on by the midday sun.
“Beware the city streets; there is no greater folly than to be trapped by the desperate,” Hope repeated Thomas’ warning. She’d been terrified on their first trip through old Vancouver after leaving the Shang. She remembered clutching her godfather’s calloused hand in fright.
Ahead she saw a boy watching from a shadow under the overhang of a factory roof, his clothes tattered and worn. His blond hair was short, cut with a blunt knife and he held a small stuffed animal in one hand.
“Hello,” Hope said cautiously. Her eyes darted around, aware that this could be a trap. “What are you doing out here alone?”
“My grandma is sick. Do you have any medicine?” the boy asked as Hope neared.
She crouched to eye level and offered a smile, “I’m sorry little one. I have some clean water, but no medicine.”
He looked at the ground and started to cry quietly, then turned and walked into a narrow alleyway between two buildings.
“I’m sorry,” Hope repeated under her breath as she stood and began walking again. She felt as though her heart was breaking but knew there was little she could do to help the child or his grandmother. Kluuja followed the child. “Where are you going?” she said, “Come back here.”
Kluuja ignored his master’s command for the first time since she’d known him. Perhaps he could tell that she hadn’t meant it, that deep inside she wanted to follow the boy. If there was anything she could do to help them, Hope couldn’t bring herself to leave without trying.
It was midday, and her stomach was beginning to ache. She could have crossed the Pitt by then, but instead found herself following a dog down a shadowed alleyway through a part of town she didn’t recognize. Ancient trash bags lay strewn and broken, narrowing her path between the buildings. The contents had long since decayed, but the smell of garbage and animal feces lingered in her nostrils. Thomas’ warnings about city traps came to the forefront of her mind. Hope took uneasy steps forward while she felt under her shirt for her pistol. “Where did you go, Kluuja?”
To her left, she heard the dog barking from behind a painted black door, the handle rusted but usable. Hope opened the door and waited outside for her eyes to adjust to the darkness before entering. Tall windows facing what had once been the riverside allowed enough daylight for her to see and she stepped inside, ready to defend herself if she had to. Kluuja was licking the hand of an old woman who was resting on a padded rocking chair facing the dock windows. She was smiling, petting Kluuja on the head as the dog’s tail wagged his approval.
The woman straightened up in her chair when she noticed Hope had entered. “This your dog?” she asked. “I haven’t seen a friendly dog in so very long. The ones here in the city went feral long ago.”
“His name is Kluuja.”
“So, you’re Confederate, then? Kluuja is a Wayline word.”
Hope studied the old woman for a moment. ‘A Resistance sympathizer?’ she thought. ‘No, she’s just curious.’ She knelt in front of the woman and looked into her eyes. The woman stared blankly ahead. Blind, she guessed. “It’s just a name. The Wayline word is Kluujin,” Hope said.
“A member of the Resistance that still has a sense of humor. I never thought I’d see the day. We don’t take sides in this house either way; this city is something of a neutral territory.”
“So, I’ve heard,” Hope repeated words Thomas had said the last time they met people from the city, “I’ve always wondered, though, how can anyone stay neutral in a world like this?”
“I don’t have to explain myself to you. The world isn’t black and white. Both sides have blood on their hands.”
“She doesn’t have any medicine, Grandma,” the little boy from outside said as he returned from another room without the stuffed animal in his hand.
“I do have some fresh water if you need.” Hope offered.
“That’s quite alright, Miss,” the woman laughed. “The river’s just a creek since they installed the dams, but there’s still enough to keep us alive.” Blood trickled from her right nostril, pooling at her lip. She dabbed it with a handkerchief and continued, “Don’t mind the boy, he just worries about me.”
“Where were you when it happened?”
“The war?” she asked.
“The rag in your hand, there’s blood on it.”
“Oh, that. We were in Fall City, just east of Seattle when the plants melted down. Jimmy thought going north could keep us from the radiation. That’s the thing about Washington though. There’s no accounting for the wind.”
“I’m sorry.” Hope felt a sudden pang in her stomach, hunger mixed with pity in an acidic battle within. The radiation had subsided thanks to Wayline air scrubbers quickly, but the damage had been done. Only those who pledged loyalty to them received medicines. The Resistance made do with the medication the scavengers found and what they could steal. No one in the cities could afford even that small luxury.
The woman readjusted in her chair and rechecked her nose. “Thank you, sweetheart, but don’t pity me. I’m one of the lucky ones.” She reached out, and her grandson walked to her. “This is Andrew, my grandson. I’m Eloise,” she said as she rubbed her grandson’s back.
Hope knew she shouldn’t ask but needed to know. “Where is Jimmy now?”
Eloise’s hand stopped rubbing Andrews back abruptly, pain sweeping over her face like a wave that promised to subside in a moment. “Andrew’s father wasn’t as lucky as me, I guess. He came up short trying to negotiate with a Link member for some medicine. When he couldn’t pay…”
‘Link killed him? That can’t be right,’ Hope thought to herself, ‘Link is supposed to help people.’
Hope stayed a few more minutes, trying to think of some way she could help the two with their struggles, but only platitudes came to mind. Truism and banalities can’t cure cancer. She thanked them for their hospitality and offered a bag of granola that Thomas had given her, then continued with Kluuja across the tamed Fraser River. Hope’s backpack baked in the early summer sun, pooling moisture everywhere it touched her. Kluuja forged ahead of every twist in the road to make sure it was safe.
HOPE KEPT HER mind off the heat by reciting the courier’s credo to herself, “The task is pure, and the path narrow, danger defines the freedom of travel.” Ahead she saw a fork in the road. The way to the left seemed clear of obstructions, and she figured it could cut half an hour from her journey. To the right, the forest thickened and inclined up a hill. She pulled herself between two boulders, scraping through the narrow path. “Keep off the path well-traveled for ease does not equal safety.”
As she crested the hill, she saw movement below. Ahead several Confederate soldiers had set up a blockade. Hope dashed behind a crooked oak tree and spied as best she could while motioning to Kluuja to stay quiet and back from the ledge. Six soldiers stood with their hands resting on their rifles, staring at the path from both sides. They were too far away for her to hear them. Kluuja began quietly growling, sensing his master’s worry. She silenced him with a finger and produced a small treat from her front pocket. “Silence, Kluuja,” she whispered. Hope crept forward between the trees above the guards until she could hear their conversation.
The only woman there tapped the shortest man on the shoulder while he fiddled with the straps of his rifle. “Did they tell you why we’re out here?” she asked.
“If I had to guess, it’s the same reason we were posted to Langley last week. Link’s getting too powerful in these parts and the Wayline is worried about another uprising. You know what happened in Eugene, the Confederacy took a blow down there, and it’s got the authorities attention.”
“I was dispatched for the Eugene clean-up. What a bloodbath,” she admitted. “Still, what harm can the Resistance do out here? The whole place will freeze over in a few months anyway.”
One of the guards that had been watching the other direction turned and joined the two. “Yeah, but in the meantime, they took out two ships just this morning. I’d say that’s enough for alarm, even if it’s only for a few months.”
“A lot of good people are going to go hungry without those supply drops. The savages will get what’s coming to them soon enough,” agreed the short man.
Hope whispered to herself, “Savages?” She was reminded of the fowl things her friends in the Resistance said about the Confederate soldiers. The first thing people seem to forget in war is that the other side is full of the ordinary, just like them. It’s easier to kill an enemy if you think of them as a monster instead of a brother.
“If we stop one Resistance member from their goals then this mission is a success in my book,” the woman pulled out a monocular and stared through it to the path ahead of her. “It’s hard to sleep at night knowing they’re plotting against us. My children still have nightmares about Burbank.”
“I say we cut them all down to size. One great cleansing to be rid of the problem once and for all.”
Hope crawled past the soldiers, Kluuja in tow. She felt sick to her stomach after hearing what the soldiers thought about the Resistance, her friends. ‘How are we the bad guys when they hunt us in our sleep? They took our children and burned our homes.’ Her anger was turning to rage. She wanted to line the soldiers up and send her only bullet through each of their skulls at once. Kluuja whimpered, sensing his master’s shift in mood.
Hope reminded herself of the mission at hand and calmed her breathing into slow inhales. When she was sure that she was out of sight and earshot of the blockade she began hiking through the path faster. The night would be coming soon, and she needed to set up a temporary shelter.
Her back started to ache from the day’s walking when she found herself in Walnut Grove. According to her map, it had been a neighborhood during the golden age. Most of the houses had long since fallen over, whether from the war or just age, she didn’t know, but she found a basement door still intact in the rubble. Hope crawled inside and turned on her lighted globe. She unpacked a small thermal sleeping bag while Kluuja sat panting beside her, begging for a meal.
Soon her eyelids closed, and she was taken far away from the filthiness of the real world, into a peaceful slumber where dreams were made. She dreamed of being lifted into the sky, with the wind rushing around her face. The atmosphere was bright, the most brilliant blue she’d ever experienced; a far cry from the hazy gray-brown she’d grown up with.
Hope looked down and saw that she was standing on a platform made of twine and rope fashioned into a basket. Above her an enormous, brightly colored hollow ball made of what appeared to be vinyl cloth. In the middle of the basket, a ball of fire protruded from a machine. “What is this place?” she asked. She smiled broadly, taking in the scene. Hope looked out at the land below. Gray streets cut through a green landscape. It all seemed so small from such heights. Houses stood out like ants lining the streets. She thought she could see a child playing behind one of the buildings, but it was too far away to be sure.
“Why are you here?” someone asked from behind.
Hope turned with a start and saw that she wasn’t alone there. The faceless man stared back. His face seemed encased in a deep shadow her eyes couldn’t penetrate. “I don’t know why I’m here. Where exactly are we?” she asked. He stood a foot taller than her, with broad shoulders under a long black cape. His eyes seemed to take shape in front of her for the first time, blue like the sky in the background. She felt comforted by them like those eyes could take her from her unfortunate reality.
“This place isn’t for you,” she heard the words but knew it wasn’t his voice. “Girl! Wake up!” The figure before her faded along with the floor of the basket she’d been standing on. Hope began free falling to the ground gaining speed every second. Her heart raced until her panic forced her eyes open. She tried to focus in the low light of her lighted globe, unsure of what had disturbed her sleep. A double-barreled shotgun took shape in front of her face. “Are you ‘Rate or Resistance?”