War cry, p.1
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       War Cry, p.1
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           Brian McClellan
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War Cry


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  The war began before I was born, and for as long as I can remember, someone had been telling us it’s almost over.

  When I was a kid, sitting in the factories, using my smaller hands to help put together the engine components of our bombers, the radio crackled peace talks half a world away in Ven. I can still recall the newspapers and their inky headlines, when I was a teenager, promising us we were just months away from forcing the enemy’s surrender.

  And now? Now it’s their leaflets, dropped by the millions, coating every inch of our bombed-out cities and pitted wildernesses, telling us to give up because defeat is minutes away. On good days we use the leaflets for toilet paper or to start our cookfires. On bad days . . . on bad days each of us silently considers the offers of amnesty, sees the desperation in the eyes of our friends, and tries to remember the faces of the people we’re fighting for back home.

  It’s early morning as Aleta and I crouch over our tiny campfire, hands practically buried in the flames for warmth while she coaxes the last bit of flavor from month-old coffee grounds. We shelter in the shade of a narrow canyon, cold but safe, and listen to the distant drone of enemy bombers heading toward Bava while the rest of the platoon gets some rest inside the caves we’ve called home for the last six months.

  Aleta takes her pewter pitcher off the fire and sniffs the contents, giving me a hopeful smile. “It’ll be good today,” she says.

  Coffee hasn’t been good for years, I want to respond. I bite my tongue. Aleta is twenty-nine, an old woman as far as the war is concerned, and widowed three times over. She can shoot better than anyone in the platoon, and sometimes her cooking actually has some zing to it. Unlike mine. Mine’s always shit.

  Aleta has earned a little respect. I keep my bitter comments to myself and listen to the distant bombers. I haven’t heard the report of an explosion today, which means they’re dropping leaflets again.

  Aleta can see my tilted head, and cocks her own to listen. “Nine days in a row,” she says. “No bombs. Just paper.”

  “Think they’re out of bombs?” I ask.

  Aleta shrugs. “We can hope.”

  “There’s always hope,” I echo, though I don’t feel much. Nine days is a long time to go between bombings, especially when the enemy has the upper hand. I wonder what it means. Last month the radio claimed that the enemy was out of some kind of chemical they used to make their explosives. Who knows? Whatever the cause of their leaflet campaign, I won’t argue.

  I belong to a tiny platoon of rangers stationed in the Bavares high plains. We protect a vast stretch of scrubland between Bava in the south and enemy territory in the north. There are twenty of us left. Eighteen, maybe? It’s been a while since I bothered to count. We have one radio with a broken antenna. From time to time it spits out propaganda, news, coded messages. It goes in and out depending on whether the enemy has managed to bomb our radio towers in Bava faster than we can rebuild them.

  We have enough carbines to arm the platoon twice over: a few good rifles, and one machine gun. We have ammunition from the last supply run. We have some fuel for our little one-seater, open-cockpit fighter that the crew affectionately calls Benny. We even have a pilot and a runway, which if the enemy propaganda is to be believed may be the last functioning runway our side controls within six hundred miles.

  Our mission is to harass the enemy, to keep them on their toes while the hats back in Bava try to work out a strategy to push them back. We are very good at our jobs. The hats are less so at theirs.

  My mind is wandering again, and it takes Aleta several moments to get my attention.

  “Teado,” she repeats, finally reaching across and tapping me on the shoulder.

  I come out of my reverie. “Eh?”

  “What are you thinking about?”

  “Bread,” I lie, giving her a smile. “The kind of bread my mother used to make with the braided dough. Soft like a cloud. Spread with orange marmalade.”

  “Ach,” Aleta responds, touching two fingers to her stomach and falling backwards on her haunches. “You’re making me hungry.”

  I’m making myself hungry. She hands me a cup of coffee. It tastes like slightly bitter water, but I thank her because it’s hot. Aleta is a good woman, and I think she’s been flirting with me.

  “Teado,” she says.

  I look up from my coffee. “Hmm?”

  “Did you . . .” She pauses, as if searching for the right words. “Did you have midnight watch at the radio?”

  “Yes.” She knows I did. The watch roster is written beside the radio. Her face is serious and this puts me on edge. “Did I do something wrong?” I try to think back on the previous night, and wonder why Aleta makes me feel like a schoolboy. Technically, I outrank her. But out here, a platoon of rangers on the enemy line, rank means very little.

  She continues on. “I had it after you,” she says. “The radio was tuned to enemy propaganda.”

  I freeze, coffee halfway to my mouth, tongue suddenly dry.

  I’ve spent every night for two weeks hunched over our equipment, earphones pressed against the sides of my head, listening to enemy propaganda during my shift. I try to smile. “Their music is better,” I say, waving a hand in dismissal. I hunch closer to the fire, feeling suddenly defensive, hoping she does not prod further.

  “Their music is better,” Aleta says.

  This makes me glance up. Back in Bava, listening to enemy propaganda is a shooting offense, and we both know it. “You . . . ?” I ask.

  Aleta stirs her pot of coffee and gives a little shrug. “By accident, of course.” There is a long, drawn-out silence. I glance furtively at Aleta till she sighs and continues on, “No, not by accident. We all listen, Teado. We all wonder if their food is better, or their beds and clothes warmer. We all look toward the enemy air base and wonder if we could make it there without one of our friends shooting us in the back for desertion.”

  This admission startles me and makes me feel guilty, all at once. I’ve been considering those very things for weeks. I’m not sure what to say. She looks me in the eye. “Commander Giado took me aside last month and told me that if any of us makes a run for it while I’m on duty, he would not question me if I miss.” She mimes making a rifle shot.

  I can hear nothing but my heart beating, and I look around to make sure everyone is still asleep. This is treason. She has as good as told me that I could make it to the enemy if I wanted. I wonder if this is some kind of test, but I think I know Aleta better than that. And she has been flirting with me. She wouldn’t flirt with someone she might have to kill.

  She stares at me expectantly, and I realize that I made up my mind about the amnesty days ago.

  “If I took their offer,” I say carefully, “they would make me turn over the location of our platoon.”

  “Likely,” she agrees.

  “I think . . . I think that I could betray my country. But I could not betray my friends.”

  This last bit brings a smile to her face, and she reaches out to clink her coffee cup against mine. She gives a happy sigh, and I can sense the issu
e has been settled. A great weight lifts from my shoulders.

  “They really do have better music,” I say.

  She laughs. “Just make sure you change the radio when your shift is over. We should be a good example for the others.”

  We fall into a companionable silence. I turn my attention away from propaganda and toward the scorch marks on the canyon walls above us. I can tell by their inconsistent pattern that they don’t come from bombs, but rather sorcery, and I wonder what kind it is. The Fire-Spitters on both sides are all dead. There are just a handful of Wormers left in the world. They say the only wizards to survive this long into the war are the Smiling Toms and the Changers.

  They’ve always said wizards would decide the fate of this war. I find it funny, because they’re almost all gone.

  We’re almost all gone.

  A third member of the platoon finds her way out into the morning air, sniffing at the faint aroma of coffee. Bellara is sixteen, still chubby-faced despite our inadequate food supplies, and barely five feet tall. Her hands and cheeks are dirty like everyone else’s, but her clothes are brightly colored and mostly clean. It’s a point of pride with her kind, and we let her have it.

  Bellara is a Smiling Tom. Her illusions keep us hidden in these canyons no matter how many scout bikes and flyovers the enemy sends. She hides the smoke of our campfires, the smell of our gas, and even Benny and the runway.

  “Coffee?” she asks hopefully, and downs two cups before Aleta cuts her off. We can hear her stomach rumble and Aleta points to the tin of triple-baked biscuits open beside the fire.

  “Breakfast.”

  Bellara checks the biscuits, looks between us and then toward the caves. “How many tins do we have left?” she asks.

  “Two,” Aleta responds.

  Her face is at war with itself. She’s desperately hungry—we all are—and since she’s keeping us hidden she knows no one will question her for taking a double ration.

  Her cheeks twitch, and she takes half a biscuit. “Any sign of Benny and Rodrigo?”

  Rodrigo is Benny’s pilot. He went to Bava two days ago for supplies and hasn’t come back. Maybe he was shot down. Maybe he couldn’t find a smooth place to land and had to ditch. Maybe he ran out of fuel. “Nothing,” I respond.

  Bellara’s eyes are a mask, zombie-like. Rodrigo is her brother. She silently heads to the mouth of the canyon to check on her illusions. Aleta and I share a glance, but we remain silent.

  One by one, the rest of the platoon joins us. There is muted conversation. Commander Giado is the last to emerge from his sleeping roll, limping along, dragging one gangrenous foot behind him. Giado is a good officer, even wounded and tired. Two weeks ago the town where his wife and child live was all but wiped off the map by an enemy Wormer. He has not smiled since, and I think only his dedication to duty keeps him going.

  Harado, our medic, tells us a joke he claims that he dreamt. It’s instantly forgettable, but genuinely funny, and gets a few chuckles. Commander Giado snorts, as if exasperated, but I can see the corner of his mouth twitch. The tin of biscuits is passed around.

  I leave Giado and Aleta to talk about a possible raid and follow Bellara out of the canyon, walking slowly, hands in my pockets. The canyon floor is littered with motorcycle parts and empty supply canisters, most of them stolen from the enemy. Selvie has skipped breakfast and gone straight under one of the bikes, trying to repair an exhaust manifold, and I kick her gently as I walk by. She swears at me and asks for a #3 wrench. I find it for her and then continue on after Bellara.

  They say that the Bavares is the largest plateau in the world. It is a featureless, inhospitable place covered in scrub brush and devoid of animal life but for the llamas and ground squirrels. The plains are occasionally broken by jutting towers of rock, a spine of mountains that stretch for a thousand miles in either direction. I wonder sometimes why the enemy bothers trying to conquer us, when we live in such a shitty place.

  Our platoon shelters in one of the countless canyons that snake through the mountains. We are a few miles from an inactive volcano that makes the air smell like sulfur, and our canyon lets out directly onto the plain where a tiny smuggler’s runway provides a safe landing spot for Rodrigo and Benny. It is a risky hiding place, easily discovered by anyone with the air superiority of our enemy—or it would be, without Bellara’s illusions.

  I exit the canyon to find Bellara sitting in a small cave on the side of the mountain, perched above a forty-foot length of scree. She has taken to sitting there every morning for the last few weeks. It is not a good lookout spot—it faces southeast, without a vantage of either the enemy air base across the plain, or our own tiny runway.

  I decide to find out why she likes that spot so much and pick my way carefully around the scree slope. The cave is just a few feet tall and half as deep, and I have to crawl on my hands and knees to position myself beside her. She looks at me sidelong, then sighs, and it occurs to me that perhaps she wants to be alone.

  Too late, I’m already here. Bellara tolerates my presence, turning her attention to the scree slope below her. I sit in silence for several minutes, trying to follow her gaze, and am about to ask what she’s looking for when a ground squirrel pops its head out of the rocks below us.

  It is soon joined by another. They chase each other through the stones, sure-footed, unworried by the occasional shift of the scree. They chatter at each other, one catching the other by the toe, the other nipping at the nose, running and playing. I realize that, despite a cold morning wind blowing across the plain, this cave shelters us both from the wind. It catches the morning sun, warming the rock, and in short time I almost want to take off my old canvas jacket. It is the warmest I’ve been in weeks.

  “Don’t tell the others,” Bellara says.

  “Eh?” I ask.

  Bellara nods at the squirrels playing in the scree. “Aleta will want to make them into a stew. She’ll set traps, and I’d rather she not.”

  “They’d be good eating,” I suggest cautiously, trying not to let on that the same thought had been going through my mind.

  “But they don’t deserve to be eaten.”

  “Does anything?” I ask, laughing.

  “Maybe not,” Bellara says seriously. “But they’re happy. They don’t know there’s a war on. They don’t give a shit about the bombers. I like that. So please don’t tell Aleta.”

  It’s the “please” that gets me. Bellara may be just sixteen, but she’s been fighting since she was old enough to hold an illusion. She knows her place in the world. Giado is deferential to her. Bombs do not scare her. I don’t even scare her, and it took the others several months before they would get close to me. Some of them still keep their distance.

  “Okay,” I say. “I promise.”

  Bellara squeezes my hand. “Thank you.”

  “It’s very warm up here,” I comment.

  “I know. I like that, too.”

  We listen to the distant bombers for the next half hour. I can hear both our stomachs rumbling, and wonder if it’s worth venturing out on the plains to hunt llamas tomorrow. Giado will object, because he’s been very cautious since we got word of his hometown. But we could use the meat.

  “They say,” Bellara broke the silence, “that before the war we were used for entertainment.”

  “We?” I ask, though I know what she means.

  “Wizards. We’d put on shows for hundreds of thousands of people. Fire-Spitters shooting flames toward the moon. Changers dancing in the flickering light. They say Smiling Toms were given leave to create anything they could imagine.”

  I snort. It seems like such a childish thought. These days Smiling Toms are forbidden from using their strength for anything but the war: stratagems, camouflage, misdirection.

  “It’s important,” I say, repeating a bit of propaganda I heard once, “that we dismiss the childish fancies of our yesteryear, and fight for a better tomorrow.” I scowl even as I speak, the words sounding callous. On
e glance at Bellara’s face shows that she disagrees.

  “What is more important?” she demands in a gentle voice. “Killing the enemy? Or creating wonder for children?”

  “Winning the war,” I say automatically, as if the answer is obvious.

  Bellara scoffs. “You’re right,” she admits. “But you’re also wrong.” She looks at her fingertips showing through the ends of frayed wool gloves. “I want to create something wondrous. I want to dazzle. I want to make people smile. I don’t want to just hide or distract.”

  “Perhaps,” I say, wondering if she’s been considering the same offers of amnesty from the enemy, “that is the better tomorrow we fight for.”

  “Then why am I forbidden from doing so now?”

  “Because you have to save your strength.”

  Bellara sighs. “If we allow ourselves no happiness, and we win the war tomorrow, then what have we fought for? We will be a bleak generation on a broken world, and we will never know joy again.”

  The proclamation seems incredibly poetic from someone her age, though she’s only a couple years younger than me.

  “Don’t you want to dance?” she asks.

  “I don’t know how,” I respond. My mother used to dance when she made bread, but that was a long time ago.

  “Is there anyone left to teach you?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Bellara spreads her hands, as if to indicate the futility of it all. “I would like to dance,” she says. “I would like to create light shows that make children and adults laugh. But no one ever taught me, so if this war ever ends I will be forced to teach myself, and then to convince everyone else that it is no longer taboo.” She speaks as if it’s a burden that has been placed upon her. Her face is set, stubborn.

  I open my mouth to assure her that someday the war will end and she will find someone to teach her. It’s a happy lie, as these things go. But a change in the air stops me, and I tilt my head to listen. I shift, crawling out of the cave.

  “Where are you going?” she asks.

  I point at my ear. “Single engine, flying low.”

 
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