In the shining metropolis of New Los Angeles, a century into the Pace Concilianda, a little boy called Matt stumbled out of bed, and brushed his teeth. Awake enough to know that he is loath to do it, but too tired to care, he began to pull his education uniform on, blue slacks, black woven belt with a polished nickel buckle, white button up shirt tucked in, blue plaid sweater vest, and blue sport jacket with a golden roman numeral six pinned to the lapel denoting his year, the only personal touch allowed was the tie, and David opted for the highly unusual burgundy bow tie. All of the children of his tower, The Thumb, agreed that the education uniforms were unnecessarily stuffy, other towers didn't make their children wear suits to school, like the ones from The Jar, who could choose between black and blue slacks, and among black, blue, white and grey polo shirts. As if that wasn't unjust enough, the children from The Hive could wear whatever they wanted! Only the children from The Fingers, the tower group in which The Thumb was situated, had to wear such proper uniforms for education, and they hated it. Matt shuffled from his bedroom and into his floor's kitchen still begrudging the fact that he could still be sleeping, and said sullenly as he sat down at the table, "Good morning Mother, good morning Father."
His mother smiled and replied cheerfully, "Good morning Matt, I've submitted the permission form for that history trip you wanted to go on."
Matt's eyes lit up as a maid set his breakfast before him saying, "A spinach and gouda omelet Young Mister Smith."
Mat looked at his mother and said excitedly, "Really?!"
His father grinned from behind the holotext he was reading, and his wife shot him a silencing look saying, "Yes, we've decided that it's important for a young man to not just read history, but to experience it.
"I hope I meet a Scav!"
His father looked through the holotext at his son and said "If you do meet one remember to be very careful with your words. They are used to living with the constant threat of death over their heads, and are used to fighting and killing to survive."
"What does that have to do with what I say Father?"
"They won't hesitate to attack anybody who sounds like they might be threatening them, so remember they don't like being called Scavs, say Angelinos instead."
Matt hurriedly shoveled his breakfast down his gullet ignoring his mother's warnings of choking, and bolted to his floor's maglift bay. He jammed his thumb hard into the call button, but had a sudden impulse. He dashed back into his bedroom and snatched up his blue flat cap and dashed back to the maglift bay in time for one of three sets of doors to slide open and reveal five other students of different years, all attired much like him, except two of the three girls, who wore blue plaid knee long skirts. He stepped inside and said, "Matt smith, primary education school." The students grasped a shining handrail and braced themselves against the speed of the maglift's sudden ascent. After a few hundred floors they relaxed and let go of the handrail, because they knew there were no more children before reaching the top three floors designated for education. Matt found himself mulling over the stories he'd heard about the Old World in his head, about the tribes of wanders, the people inhabiting the ruins of the Classical Cities, the great warriors who did battle with the roaming bands of raiders, the still active battle bots watching themselves decay. The thought of meeting somebody who lives so adventurously was so exciting that he found himself bouncing from one foot to the other until the maglift slowed to a gradual stop. As soon as the doors had slid open enough for him to squeeze through them he shot off like a rocket to the sixth year section. He shoved and shouldered his way through the throngs of tired eyed sixth years who were trudging along to their morning classes reluctantly. He passed all the subject halls in search of the shuttle bay.
Twenty-three other students had been permitted to go on the field trip by their parents, and were talking near one of the twenty shuttle docks about what they expected to find. All except four boys, Geoffrey, a thin angular boy, who's uniform made him look taller than he was, and wore a crimson skinny tie, and a permanent cruel smirk plastered across his face beneath his neatly parted blonde hair, Biff, who was taller and broader, wore a black wide tie around his squat wide neck and an angry scowl across his flabby face beneath his spiked black hair, his older brother Buzz who was taller and more muscular than either of them, and wore a black wide tie and a malicious grin below his angry green eyes. The fourth boy looked out of place, with his round body, round face, disheveled auburn hair, kind brown eyes and black bow tie and sorrowful expression; it was obvious that George was with the others out of fear, but he was with them nonetheless. The other children called them Geoffrey's gang, and they had encircled a little girl and were shoving her to and from one another all on Geoffrey's orders, while the little terror himself was saying, "Come on Emily, gimme a kiss!"
Emily stumbled over to Biff to stay upright, and he told her before shoving her toward his brother, "Yeah kiss 'im!"
Her round face displayed a level of fury unique to women and girls, the kind that pierces the hearts of most men, but Buzz was either too cruel or too dull to care, probably both. He just shoved her back to Geoffrey saying, "Kiss him or we'll hurt you."
She tried to claw at him with her soft pink painted nails, but only scratched the thin air, and George decided to chime in with his quavering uncertain voice, "Guys, maybe we should let her go."
She had made it back to Geoffrey by then, and he caught her by the wrist, looked into her sea green eyes that were shining furiously from beneath her now disheveled hair, and said simply, "I'm the best looking guy in class, you're the prettiest girl in class. I know you want to kiss me, so just give in already!"
Her already amazing fury was compounded, and now comingled with such strong disgust that her whole body was trembling. Geoffrey leaned in to plant his lips on hers weather she liked it or not, and was genuinely surprised when she slapped him across the face with all of her might leaving a shining red hand print on his cheek. He was so surprised that he released her wrist, and Emily shouted, "You have an ugly soul!"
Geoffrey's malicious glee was wiped off of his smug little face in an instant, and when the shock finally left it as Emily finished speaking, it was replaced by childish vindictive anger. "Hold her!" he yelled, and as Biff and Buzz each seized an arm, he stared at her angrily, until an evil grin slowly broke across his face. "Fatty! Come here!" he commanded and George obeyed, "Hit her."
"But Geoffrey, I don't want to hit her."
"But, she's a girl."
"But Geoffrey, I can't hit a girl!" George was in real distress, his fleshy little hands were balled up into fists, his already wavering voice had begun to crack with emotion, and tears were welling up in his eyes.
Geoffrey grabbed George by the face and said softly, "If you don't I'll tell everyone that you put a holocapture in the girl's locker room."
George was so distressed by now that tears were running down his face and his body was trembling, so Emily told him, "It's okay George."
"B-but I didn't do that." He said pleadingly.
"Come on Fatty, who is everybody gonna believe, you or me?"
George closed his eyes, made a fist, and tapped Emily's shoulder with it then said hopefully, "There I hit her!"
Geoffrey's evil smile seemed to deepen as he said, "No, hit her so it hurts."
Matt wanted to help George, they had been friends once after all, but the fear of Geoffrey kept his mouth shut and tried to sneak by. George cast his eyes about in a desperate search for help, and they landed on Matt. "Where are you looking?" Geoffrey demanded, and followed his gaze to see for himself. He walked up to Matt and demanded, “Matt! Were you gonna do something?"
"N-no, I'm just walking."
"Biff, come over here and hit him." Biff released Emily's arm to comply, and walk over to them chuckling in anticipation. In an instant Matt was doubled over clutching his stomach, and Geoffrey and Biff were roaring with laughter, but Buzz was hopping on one foot, and waving the other because Emily had just stomped on it. She had used the momentary distraction to escape and retrieved Professor. Walker.
Professor Walker was a thin tall woman in her mid-thirties, with prematurely grey hair and a regal face with deep worry lines etched around her grey blue eyes, and she was not amused. She looked down on the four boys imperiously and asked, "Just what is going on here?"
Geoffrey put on a poor imitation of an innocent face and answered, "Matt here just called Biff a retarded hippo."
"Violence is not a solution Mister Brighton, and Smith, you shall be spending the afternoon copying down lines." Geoffrey comes from a very long line of distinguished administrators, and Matt is the son of an upstart, so Professor Walker considered the matter closed.
"But that's-” Matt tried to protest, but Professor Walker cut him off.
"I shall have all of your afternoons for the week if you insist on lying too."
"Now, it’s time to go, everybody into the shuttle."
The class poured into a short distance shuttle, sleek vehicles capable of vertical takeoff used primarily for flights that do not require supersonic speed. As soon as the children had taken their seats, the engine hummed, and the shuttle shot from the bay into the city. The children lucky enough to snag window seats pressed their face against the glass to see a sight rare even to the privileged children, the sight of New Los Angeles shrinking in the distance beneath them. Great shining towers of glass and steel groped for the heavens, some smoothly graceful, some elegantly angular, and only two stood out. One was the oldest building, resembling a great Roman temple, except it was nearly as tall as its neighbors, and had shuttles flying in and out between the columns, The Public Temple. The other was a simple structure that dominated the skyline, not quite cylindrical, not quite conical; its sloping edges exuded power, and it's landing rings supported by half arches seemed to defy gravity, the Hub, where The Leaders ran the city, and kept New Los Angeles connected to the other cities. The spaces between the buildings were filled with shuttle traffic flitting to and fro across the city transporting people or supplies or materials or goods from one building to another. As they flew further away the children could see the disk that the city rests on, and the four massive legs holding it aloft far above what had once been suburbs, but had been reclaimed by the desert, and four steady streams of airships following the cardinal directions to and from the city, trade from the other cities. Suddenly, the desert yielded to concrete, asphalt and steel, but it was all crumbling away. Steel skeletons of skyscrapers loomed in the distance, silent about the horrors that had twisted and charred them. Every so often the landscape of dilapidated concrete or brick buildings laid out neatly on a grid was interrupted by a massive crater, or else a grouping of smaller ones from shells or bombs. Tiny hundred person settlements clustered water and food sources, there was even a farm inside a particularly massive crater, people trying to squeeze a living out of the bones of the old world.
Professor Walker was explaining the expectations of behavior for the field trip as they flew over the war torn ruins, "We shall be landing in a relatively safe area, but be aware that Angelinos are very good at avoiding detection, so there's always a chance the scouts missed something. I don't mean to frighten anybody, so stick with the group and we should have a pleasant and educational time, our pilot, Captain Johnson, and his stun carbine, shall be accompanying us as protection. Now, with that out of the way, who can tell me what constitutes Graffiti art?"
A bespectacled boy in a green tie answered, "Graffiti art is art painted or carved directly on a wall or other visible surface.
"Correct, can anybody tell me a reason somebody might create graffiti art?"
A redheaded girl a dreamy smile said, "To express himself."
"Good, to express what?" That was all the girl had though, so Professor Walker asked, "Anybody else?"
Mat answered eagerly, despite how dismissive of him Professor Walker always was, "They usually wanted to express political or social dissidence."
"Verbatim from the textbook, a little originality next time Smith. What other reasons for graffiti art are there?"
Geoffrey hissed "Tell me something smart!" at George, and he whispered something back, then Geoffrey repeated, "The criminal element used easily replicated signatures to mark their territory and ward off rival factions."
"Very good Geoffrey."
"Like that's not out of the book." Matt mumbled sullenly.
"Excuse me Mister Smith?" Professor Walker asked accusingly.
"I said I wonder why that took." he replied quickly.
"Don't interrupt. Mister Smith's rudeness raises an excellent question though, why use art to mark territory?"
Emily answered tentatively, "They were already painting, right? So why wouldn't they? I mean, it makes perfect sense."
The shuttle began to descend, and Professor Walker lost her student's attention. They were instead enthralled by the close up view of a skyscraper's bullet hole ridden stone veneer, slowly crumbling away from the rusting steel beams beneath it, and of what were only small black rectangles from high in the air be revealed to be the burned twisted hulls of ancient motor carts. Captain Johnson put his shuttle down on a broken slab of concrete near a pile of shipping containers that had been upset from their neat stacks by battle or nature. "Stay here," he ordered before he left the craft and walked over to the pile of containers. He shouldered his stun carbine, looking through the sight, and it emitted six pale blue beams of light toward the heap. Where the beams made contact with solid objects, five more extended along whatever surface it had hit, connecting all six of the original beams with each other. The original beams moved in a circular pattern, causing the crisscrossed pattern to shift and turn mesmerizingly, then blinked out. Captain Johnson lowered the carbine and said briskly, "All clear."
Professor Walker and her charges all spilled out into the ruins of Old Los Angeles, all looking about in wonder at the rare close up view of the destruction wrought by the Two Century War. "All right children follow me," began Professor Walker. She started to lead them down a potholed street with tall weeds growing from the cracks, and continued, "As you can see the Two Century War was the most destructive war in history. It began when CENSORED attacked I am so not telling because this is all very plot relevant information, but you don’t get to know any of it until the protagonist does. This was of course a violation of oh, I'm sorry did you think Matt was the protagonist? bombs invented when the well, I suppose he is a protagonist which drew still not telling into what was then called the whoopsidaisy War. He won't be very important for a while, maybe not at all. Anyhow the people who you should be paying attention to have stopped paying attention now. Over here are some examples of graffiti art from that period portraying the artists' varied positions on the war."
"This is boring," complained Geoffrey, "Let's ditch these losers and do something fun."
George could not help himself from asking, since he was having a rather fun time, "Like what?"
Biff chimed in, "We could go exploring."
"B-but what if we run into a Scav?"
Buzz smiled and answered, "I always wondered what it would be like to kill somebody."
"Let's go." Geoffrey had decided, so the gang followed him through a hole in what had once been a steel roll up door.
The inside of the building wasn't really and inside anymore, the roof and three of the walls had collapsed, leaving the front wall standing for some miraculous reason, which was convenient for Geoffrey's gang because it provided a quick and easy escape from their chaperones. They scrambled over the rubble and through a gap in the wall of another building, which was more intact. The steel rafters still held the wooden celling aloft, and the four walls still stood despite the web of cracks across them, old fluorescent light fixtures lay on the floor or else dangled from one remaining chain, or supported by the electrical wires, old machines lay broken and stripped of their electrical components. It had once been a fabrication shop, what had been made there could no longer been known, but once it had been one of the cogs in the machine called industry. George stooped down and grabbed a yellowed scrap of paper and squinted at the faded ink on it and said, "I wonder what they made here."
"Weapons." Geoffrey said simply.
"Oh, you can't know that."
"Everybody made weapons." said Biff.
"They still needed other things like-"
"Let's see what's over there." said Geoffrey pointing to a twisted metal frame that had once held a glass wall in place, which had likely been where the front office was. The walked carefully over shattered glass into the street.
"Guys, we should get back to the group."
"Shut up Fatty!"
"Yeah, shut up Fatty!"
Despite George's weak attempt at protest the plunged on through the broken door of another concrete building with an unusual number of bullet holes in it. Within there were several mangled barricades made up of whatever junk the defenders could put between them and their attackers. Buzz took a step and slipped on something round, he waved his arms in the air and teetered on one foot for a moment, and recovered. Curious to see what had put him in such distress, he bent down and retrieved a large brass casing saying, "Cool." Eager to find similar treasures, the other three boys clambered onto the heaps of junk looking inside whatever containers were there and upturning whatever junk small enough for them to move, but nothing caught their interest. After a while, they grew bored of their treasure hunt, so they started breaking things by throwing them as hard as they could at the wall.
George said worriedly, "Guys, we're gonna get lost."
"Don’t be such a girl Fatty!”
"Yeah, don't be a girl!"
Geoffrey and his little gang abandoned their game of "break anything that will," and found what appeared to have once been a bar. Hanging lamps still clung to the collapsing celling, bits of stuffing from the leather booths riddled with holes from bullets and rodents littered the floor along with broken barstools, and every bit of plumbing had been torn from behind the bar composed of random blocks of wood fitted together like a game of Tetris. Speaking of the bar, there was a strange scraping noise coming from behind it, and when George noticed it he gulped loudly and asked nervously, "Guys, what's that?"
The color drained from Biff's and Buzz's faces, as they became aware of it as well. For all of their earlier bravado about killing people, and George being a wimp, their thoughts immediately turned to the stories of cannibals wandering the ruins of the old world told at sleepovers, by the light of a glow torch. There was a loud thump followed by the scraping of wood on wood, and all four of the boys screamed, "Cannibals!"
They heard a small laugh, and one of the misshapen blocks rose from the bar supported by a pair of small, but scarred hands. The hands were connected to wiry arms, which were connected to a narrow torso, clad in a stained and faded red shirt with a time yellowed thought bubble printed across the chest in such a way that suggested that it had come from the laughing boy's dirty face. He shook his matted blonde hair out of his shockingly blue eyes to get a better look at the four frightened boys, and said smiling lightheartedly, "Nope, just me. Come to think of it I shoulda paid better attention, since there are cannibals around still. I'm Joshua, who are you?"
Geoffrey quickly squared his shoulders, puffed his chest out and answered, "Your betters."
Joshua's smile faltered as he asked innocently, "Better at what?"
Geoffrey was completely astounded, nobody had ever questioned that statement, the most they ever did was contest it, usually weakly, because he never made it from a weak position. He just stood there and stared like Joshua had thrown a bucket of sand into the gears of his mind, and Biff offered dully, "Just better."
"That doesn't make any sense." Joshua replied, "You can't be just better. It's too general, no one knows what you're talking about."
Joshua began to walk around the bar, and Geoffrey gave a disjointed response because there was a loud tapping sound every other time Joshua took a step, "Better- just better people."
Step, tap, step, tap, step, tap, the sound was unnerving, and the sight of its cause made all four of the boys feel uncomfortable. The left leg of his torn up, sun faded, blue jeans had been ripped off, and where there should have been a left shin and foot, there was a wooden prosthetic foot shaped almost like a bow, flexing beneath his weight, and adding a slight spring to each left footed step he took. He put his face inches from Geoffrey's face, and stared deeply into Geoffrey's dark blue eyes with his startlingly bright blue ones, and asked, "What makes you a better person?"
Geoffrey was taken aback by the invasion of his personal space, so much that he took a step back and answered, "I have more money."
Joshua remained where he was, but the intensity of his gaze was not lessened by the distance. The quizzical inflection of his voice unnerved the four tower dwellers when he asked, "What's money?"
Biff, Buzz, and Geoffrey were all dumbstruck at the question, they had never considered it before, and couldn't seem to fathom not knowing what money is. George on the other hand, was scratching his head and looking in Joshua's direction, but not at him, as if he was searching for the words. After a moment he offered, "Money is what you buy things with."
Joshua's focus instantly snapped to George, who felt uncomfortable with those piercing eyes upon him, but the quizzical intensity of his voice would not be denied when he asked, "What does that mean?"
Geoffrey, Buzz, and Biff, scowled at yet another question they could not answer from one they thought beneath them, but George was enjoying being taken seriously. He thought a while and answered a little more strongly, "If somebody has something you want, you can give them money, and then they give you what you want."
A look of delighted understanding broke across Joshua's face and he exclaimed, "Oh, like a trade!"
All this talk about the conceptual understanding of money was making Buzz's head hurt, so he decided to stop Joshua's questioning by punching him in the face. Joshua had survived a dozen raids, four attacks by lone crazed cannibals, and had lost count of how many packs of coyotes had tried to make a meal of him. He hadn't done all that by being weak like Geoffrey's usual victims, so shutting him up through violence may not have been a great idea. Joshua blocked the incoming blow by putting his left hand in Buzz's elbow, and responded with a quick jab to his throat. Buzz staggered back sputtering and shocked that somebody had actually hit him, especially this half-starved peg legged specimen before him. Biff was equally shocked, but also enraged because the blow did more than just hurt his brother, it also destroyed the belief they were untouchable. He let loose an inarticulate bellow, rushed Joshua, and was surprised to find that instead of tackling Joshua, he was being lifted into the air by his abdomen upon Joshua's shoulder. Upon reaching the pinnacle of his lifting motion, Joshua slammed Biff to the floor. The combined force of both of their weight and Joshua's strength knocked the breath from Biff's lunges accompanied by a groan of pain. Geoffrey was furious to see his muscle resisted, doesn't he know how this is supposed to work? He thought to himself as he made to kick Joshua off of Biff, who was receiving a pummeling to his face. Joshua avoided the kick, and rolled to his feet, putting all of his weight on his wooden left foot bending it like a bow; he shifted his weight and it sprang up adding its force to a knee delivered in Geoffrey's gut. Joshua gave Geoffrey a hard right cross while he was doubled over in pain, and would have knocked him out cold, if only Buzz had not punched him in the stomach just then. Joshua took a step back, and Buzz tried to plant a kick in him. Joshua caught him by the foot, and lifted it up and back, causing Buzz to fall back on his head. In less than a moment Joshua was straddling his chest and was pounding his thick skull into the floor with all the force he could muster.
George had never been so terrified in the whole of his life, and worse still he felt that he should do something, anything, but was at a loss at what to do. He just cowered under one of the rotting booth tables and flinched at the sounds of blows landed as if they were hitting him. His whole body trembled with energy, and he wanted to flee, but there was nowhere to flee to. The sound of Geoffrey shouting, "You little naughty words!" assailed his ears. He watched as Geoffrey took up one of the half rotten barstools and broke it across Joshua's back. He watched Joshua roll away deftly dazed. He watched Joshua trying to struggle to his feet. He watched Geoffrey seize the wooden prosthetic, and did nothing as he tore it from its place. He watched Joshua fall to his knees, with a roar of rage at what had just happened to him. He watched Joshua turn and swipe at Geoffrey with the intent to grab him wearing a snarl like an injured animal on his face. He watched as Biff planted his knee in Joshua's face. He watched Joshua grab Biff's leg and use it to force him to the ground. He watched Joshua straddle Biff's chest and wrap his small hands around his thick neck, gripping tighter and tighter with every drop of blood that fell from a cut on his face onto Biff's bruised one. He watched Biff pound both of his fists into Joshua's face, and he watched Joshua's fingers inch closer together. He watched Buzz stagger to his feet, and he watched Buzz hit Joshua across the back with a table once, twice, thrice. He watched Joshua crumple under the third blow, and he mumbled to himself, "Thank goodness it's over."
"Grab him!" Geoffrey ordered, and his badly beaten but loyal goons obeyed. "Put him on the bar," he said while walking over to the booth where George had been cowering. He clambered onto the table, took hold of the wire that one of the lamps was dangling from, and hopped down, so that his weight tore the wire from the ceiling. He looked over to the bar where Biff and Buzz were holding the now struggling Joshua, and told them, "No, put him over the part with the gap in it." They slid him over the bar door, but had to struggle to keep him confined. "Fatty, come," Geoffrey ordered, and George obeyed; he took the wire, and looped it around Joshua's throat, with either end dangling under the bar; the wicked grin peculiar to sadistic sociopaths snuck across his face as he said to George, "Grab the ends." George shook his head as tears flowed from his eyes and Geoffrey said, "Do it." George kept shaking his head and Geoffrey said, "Do it or I'll break your legs and leave you here." George grabbed both ends of the wire, and Geoffrey tripped him so that the wire became taught around Joshua's throat. Joshua quit struggling to free himself and began to struggle to breathe, his one foot kicking wildly, and his fingers desperately trying to reach the wire. "You can let go of him now," he said to Biff and Buzz; as soon as they released his arms, Joshua's hands snapped to the wire, and he began to pull George's weight off of his windpipe.
Geoffrey took up Joshua's prosthetic foot, and hit him in the groin with it laughing and asking, "Why are you kicking yourself in the nuts, scav?" Biff and Buzz took that as their cue, and they began to sink their fists into Joshua's flesh wherever they landed upon his squirming body. Joshua, who would have been able to lift George's weight under normal circumstances, found himself fighting just to breathe. Every time a blow landed, his strength was sapped away, so the wire grew tighter and tighter across his throat. George, trembled and shook under the bar, hanging by his grip on the wire; he almost wished that it was him being beaten instead of helping beat this poor boy. He stared wide eyed at the floor as salty water pooled below his face, and wondered where it came from. Joshua felt a blow to his stomach, and George felt a blow to his heart, and he realized where the salty puddle came from. The source was his shameful terrified tears, he looked at it and hated it, and its source, he resolved that he would never feel that way again. Then, to his horror, the sound of Joshua struggling to breathe ceased. He gasped and released the ends of the wire, and the other three boys continued to beat Joshua, lost in gleeful cruelty.
George stood on shaky legs and croaked softly, "Stop." The others either did not hear him or did not care, so he repeated himself louder, and louder, determined to be heard, "Stop. Stop! Stop! STOP!" His voice cracked, and his whole body shook, but Biff, Buzz, and Geoffrey all stopped and looked at him with a kind of bemused curiosity, as if he was some kind of novelty toy.
Biff was the first to break the stunned silence, "Why?"
"You killed him."
Geoffrey recoiled in horror for a moment, then the sly smirk slid back across his face as he asked, "So what?"
"So, let's get out of here before his friends show up." George turned around and left the way they came, and the other three followed closely, the thought of angry scavs dogging their heels pressing them on. Instead of trailing behind the other boys, George lead them back to the group, so they couldn't see his tears.
A few moments after the four boys had left Joshua unconscious on the bar, his eyes snapped open and he gasped for breath. "Flip! Why did I set my knife down? Heck! Why didn't I train an arrow on the son of a dog?" Once he was finished chiding himself he rolled off the bar behind it where he had left all of his things, luckily those awful children had not noticed any of it. He put the block of wood he had extracted from the bar into a leather satchel, and put the strap over his shoulder, causing the contents to clatter. He slung his leather quiver bristling with black feathered arrows over his shoulder, he tapped the five inch long hunting knife that was sheathed hilt down in the strap of the quiver so that it rested across his breastbone. Next he slung his recurved bow over his shoulder with the satchel and quiver, and tested the bowstring. He wrapped his hands around a well-worn smooth staff a foot taller than him, and used it as a crutch to hobble over to a pile of broken barstools. He tore the seat off of a stool with only one leg left and set his stump on the piece of one of the cross braces that still remained and lashed the makeshift peg-leg to the remains of his calve with the wire that had been used to strangle him. He slowly followed a trail of destruction to a road where all the weeds were trampled in both directions. He could tell which way the obviously larger group was walking by the way the weeds lied, and he decided to follow the tracks to their source rather than trying to chase the four boys down saying to himself, "I can't go fast without my leg anyway."
He hated how slowly he had to hobble the short distance to where he found the shuttle that Geoffrey and his gang had come in. He sat down in its shadow and pulled out the block of wood from the bar, and stared at it intently. He had been looking it for half an hour when he heard a girl crying and running in his direction. When he looked up, he saw the prettiest girl he had ever seen in his life, and Emily wiped away angry tears demanding of him, "What are you doing here?"
Joshua shook the awe from his mind, and gripped the hilt of the knife and answered, "Planning, what are you doing here?"
"Planning what?" After the two stared at each other in silence for a minute she realized that he would remain tight lipped, so she answered his question, "Getting my lunch. Planning what?"
"Planning what to do with this," he answered gestured to the hunk of wood in his lap.
Emily walked right up to him, apparently deciding that he wasn't dangerous, and asked stared at the block intently and asked incredulously, "What could you do with that?"
Joshua looked intently into her eyes and saw only curiosity there, so he told her, "Well, one of the farmhands just got married, so his wife could use some new plates and bowls; I could trade a year's supply of fruit if she likes them enough. The farmer loves his little daughter more than any of his sons, and she has a love of dolls; the happier she is with the dolls I make her the more wheat, or potatoes, or vegetables I get. The butcher has a fondness for chess, but his set's missing half of the chessmen; I could eat meat three times a week for two years guaranteed, and he likes to bet on his chess games even though he's no good at chess. Basically, I'm going to make food out of it."
"Oh, food!" She exclaimed, and darted into then back out of the shuttle holding a pink lunchbox with the image of the popular Action Girl cartoon character printed across the front of it. She sat down in the shade next to him, and opened her lunchbox. She opened revealing a fresh, crisp Gala apple, a chicken BLT sandwich on sourdough, a bag of potato chips and a chocolate chip cookie, but Joshua's eyes were fixed upon the apple. His stomach growled so loudly Emily asked him, "Was that you?"
Joshua answered by plunging his hand into his bag, and retrieving a wooden bracelet carved in the shape of a chain of flowers, painted with bright colors while saying, "I'll trade you this for half of that apple."
Emily took the bracelet and turned it over in her hands to look at it from every angle in wonder and asked, "Did you make this?" He nodded in answer and she said, "I'll trade you half of my lunch for this."
"No, that's too much-"
"Anything less would be stealing!"
"Okay, can we start with the apple?"
"Sure." Joshua took the apple and tossed it in the air, and in one graceful motion unsheathed his knife and cut the apple in half while still in the air. He caught one half in his empty hand, and presented it to Emily while he caught the other upon the tip of his knife. Emily gasped in delighted surprise at the sudden display of dexterity, and asked, "Why did you do that?"
"So you'd remember my name; I'm Joshua, son of James."
She took the half he was offering and said, "You were unforgettable from the first moment. I'm Emily, Emily Snowfield."
"It's nice to meet you Emily Emily Snowfield."
Emily spit a chunk of apple onto the ground in laughter, and tried to explain, "No, it's just one Emily. I only said it twice because that's how a lady is supposed to introduce herself."
"Why should a lady say her name twice?"
"I think it's the preferred name first, then the full name."
"You know, I never got a good answer on that. Besides, where's your last name?"
"What? Why would I have a last name?"
"So everybody knows what family you're from."
"I'm from my family, what else does everybody need to know?"
"Who everybody else in your family is."
"I don't see how having two names would do that."
"Everybody in the same family has the same last name."
"Can I start eating now?"
"What? Why would you ask for permission?"
"I don't know how manners work for Sanctuarians."
"Well I think manners are stupid, I even spit!"
Joshua laughed a little then sang, "Apple, apple, so juicy and sweet, the best kind of treat!" Emily laughed at his little song, and he asked through a mouthful of fruit, "What's so funny?"
"I've never seen somebody so excited over an apple before!"
"Shut up! It's just that they're out of season so I can't get any right now. You must have gotten this one from someplace far away with cooler weather."
Once they had finished with the apple, she took the sandwich out of its little box and handed him two of the quarter wedges, and he bit one in half immediately. "This is very good bread! Your mom must be a good cook."
"My mom didn't make the bread," she said with a giggle.
"What?! She used somebody else's bread?"
"She bought it first."
"Is that the same thing as trading?"
"There's someone who just makes bread all day up there?"
"There's a whole bunch of people who just make bread all day up there."
"So, you can't tell me how to make this bread?"
"Nope. Want some chips?"
"What are they?"
"They're made of potatoes and I think there's some cheese in them."
Joshua took one of the potato chips, and spat it back out immediately saying, "That doesn't taste like cheese at all! You can keep those."
"Suit yourself," she replied dismissively.
"So, why did you come down here?"
"We came to look at old graffiti art," she answered between chips, “why do you ask?"
"It's just that Sanctuarians don't come down here much. Except for the Smashers."
"Who are they?"
"If your farm gets too big, they come down and steal your crops. If you get a lot of people to trust you, they come down and burn your house down with everyone inside. If you make something too beautiful, they come down and smash it to pieces and burn them up."
"Nobody does that!"
"A month ago the Smashers came down to a town called Jefferson, there was a storyteller who lived there, and he painted the town's story on the walls. My father went there once to talk to the patriarch for some reason, and he told me that the whole town was covered in beautiful murals. The Smashers burned the whole place to the ground and left hundreds of people homeless. Some of the families came to our town, but it's hard to start over with nothing."
Emily was aghast at how casually he said it, so she gasped out, “How can you say something like that?"
"With my voice."
"But, don't you feel anything at all?"
"Of course I feel bad for them, but it's no use crying about things you can't change."
"I guess you have a point, but still."
"My mom used to say that if you can get through the storm, the sun will shine again."
"So, which is it now?"
"Are you in the sunshine or the storm?"
“Right now, with you, this is the best kind of sunshine."
Emily looked down to unsuccessfully conceal her blushing, and saw the piece of half rotten barstool lashed to his stump. Suddenly, the casual attitude toward bad things happening made much more sense to her. She stretched out her hand toward it, and changed her mind, picking up the cookie instead. She broke it in twain, and offered Joshua the bigger half with a warm smile saying, "Here."
"What is it?"
"It's a cookie."
"What's it like?"
Emily sat and pondered for a moment chewing a mouthful of cookie, and finally settled on, "Good. That's really the best answer I can give you besides try it and find out."
Joshua sniffed his half of the cookie, decided that it smelled good, and took a small bite. He looked at Emily with pure wonder and joy in his eyes and said softly, "Old Songs that's good."
"I told you so."
Still speaking softly and looking at Emily like she was the only thing in the world, Joshua said, "This is the best food ever." Emily laughed at him without derision, and he suddenly wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her as if he feared that she would suddenly disappear. At first she was too stunned to move, but after a few moments she awkwardly returned the embrace, thinking to herself, he really needs a bath. When he felt her return his embrace, Joshua said with a cracking voice and eyes shut against tears, "I will love you for all time."
Emily had no idea what to do, so she stood up, and Joshua stood up still clinging to her. She tried to extricate herself and said, "It's no big deal, I mean it's only a cookie. There's better food than that." Joshua's grip slackened and he fell face first onto the ground, his eyes blank with shock. Emily, gasped in surprise, and then tried to rouse him by snapping her fingers in his ears and waving her hand across his staring eyes.
A shrill voice cut through the air, "Miss Snowfield! What are you doing with that boy?!"
Emily straightened herself and turned to see Professor Walker standing at the head of the rest of her class, and answered nervously, "I think I broke him, Professor."
"How do you mean, Miss Snowfield?"
"Well, I gave him a cookie-"
"Oh, you fed it? Now you'll never get rid of it."
"Excuse you I'm a person, not a stray cat."
The whole class gaped at the boy shaking the wonder out of his head and picking himself off the ground; nobody had ever dared tell Professor Walker off before. Her nostrils flared and her mouth tightened, but all she said was, "It's 'excuse me,' not 'excuse you.'"
"The way I see it, you're the one who needs an excuse, seeing as you're the one who called me an 'it,'" all of the children looked on, anticipating nothing short of a Vesuvian eruption, but, Joshua just searched their faces saying, "Where are you? No, no, not you, there's the fat one, oh, there you are! You there Pasty! I have come to trade for my leg back!"
The class all backed away from Geoffrey and his gang, and he answered smugly, "What could you have that I want?"
"I have pretty carvings that girls like, I have some new scales for your knife, or there's these shiny rocks; I'd even trade you my bow and quiver for that leg, arrows and knife too."
"Sounds like you're poop out of luck, scav."
"Well, there is one more thing in my hands you might want."
Quicker than the eye could see, Joshua slipped out of his bow, nocked an arrow, and drew it back with the deadly calm words, "Your life."
"What the fluke?!"
"You twitch for that plinker, and I'll put this arrow in his eye and loose another one your way before you can even aim it."
Captain Johnson's body had instinctively tensed, and he very nearly seized his stun carbine, but when he looked at Joshua he knew that was the wrong move. He put his hands up to his shoulders palms out, and said calmly, "Nobody's shooting anybody."
"That depends of Pasty there, now give me my leg back."
"Mister Wellington, just how did you come into position of that… thing?"
"We went exploring, even though it's against the rules because we just wanted to learn more about this place. We were collecting artifacts when he showed up and destroyed them all! Then he said that he was going to eat us and attacked, everything after that is just a blur. I don't really remember grabbing the leg, all I remember is running and running."
"That's a lie." It was calm, soft and strangely, not from Joshua, but George.
Geoffrey's smug confident smirk turned to an angry grimace as he hissed so only George could hear, "Shut up or I'll tell everyone that you have girl parts!"
"Tell whoever you want whatever you want! Tell them I have girl parts, or tell them I'm a pervert, or tell them I did something awful that Biff and Buzz haven't been caught for! I don't care! I'm not going to let you lie about this, Geoffrey!" His fists were shaking, his voice was cracking, and for the first time anybody could remember, George's face displayed something other than timid submission. "We met him in a bar, and he was taking a chunk of well, the bar for some reason. He told us his name, and he and I started talking about what money is. Then out of nowhere Buzz tried to hit him. Joshua fought with all three of them, and I just hid under a table, and he might have gotten away if Geoffrey hadn't knocked him out with a table. They put him on the bar, and Geoffrey told me to hold him down with a wire across his throat. I did it, and they beat him until he stopped moving. That's how he got the leg, he stole it."
"Mister Bolton! Stop telling tales! The Wellingtons are a distinguished family with a long tradition of-"
"I believe the fat one."
"What?! That son of an upstart?"
"That upstart started up by being honest, and hasn't stopped. Besides, if you ask around I think you'll find that Geoffrey here has a nasty rep."
"My father will hear about this you filth!"
"Your father's hearing it now."
"You piece of well that's not necessary! You'll be lucky to oh my! You really don’t want to know what he's saying right now. Trust me it's awful, what a potty mouth; I suppose whoever raised him never heard of a bar of soap. I think it might be safe now, hippopotamus nope! Gosh it's not just the words, it's what he's describing. Let's check again, and then you can take the pineapple and never mind, well, I think you get the gist of it anyhow, oh look he's winding down. Lean your place, scum!"
Captain Johnson said, "Yes sir." Joshua was too stunned at the stream of foul obscenities he had just heard, and was busy wondering why anybody would do that with a pineapple when Captain Johnson took up his stun carbine and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp "plink," and Geoffrey was hit by a shining blue ball that sent him flying three feet through the air before crumpling to the ground.
Joshua trained his arrow on Captain Johnson and shouted horrified, "You kill me, and I won't be able to hold the bowstring anymore!"
"Relax, nobody's killing anybody."
"You just killed him!"
"He's only stunned, here's your foot back." He picked up the prosthetic from where Geoffrey had dropped it midair, and tossed it to Joshua.
Joshua regarded the pilot with suspicion, but decided to put the arrow back in his quiver and sling his bow back over his shoulder. The moment he did, Captain Johnson's legs gave out from relief. The whole group was relieved to have the threat of violence removed, but none more than Emily, who had been standing right next to Joshua holding her breath the whole time. When she finally exhaled Joshua heard her and asked in a voice full of concern, "Did I scare you?"
"Well, that was scary."
"I'm sorry, please don't be scared of me."
Professor Walker had finally recovered from being told of by a boy young enough to be one of her charges, and then overruled by a man from The Hive, and she attempted to regain control of the situation, "Well now boy, you have what you came for. You'd best run along home now."
But Joshua and Emily were still in the moment and she asked him timidly, "Why did you do that?"
"Because I don't want to die."
"Would you really die without this?" Emily picked up his prosthetic and turned it over fascinated by its simple, but elegant curve.
Joshua took his prosthetic from her and sat down on the ground; while he replaced his improvised solution with it he explained, "I made this the way it is so that I can run and fight because down here if you can't run or fight, you die."
"Little boy, get along now," commanded Professor Walker incredulously, completely incensed at being defied by a child, and a savage one at that!
Suddenly, bolstered by George's display of courage, Matt was struck with inspiration, "Professor Walker, do you remember discussing fables last week?"
"Yes, I do. Why do you ask, Mister Smith?"
"Well, don't you think it would be beneficial for us to hear one from an Angelino?"
The rest of the class chimed their affirmation, and Professor Walker relented, "All right then, boy, tell us a fable please.
"Two things Professor Walker, I learned your name, so you can learn mine. Second, what do you mean by 'fable?'"
Emily saw Professor Walker's face tighten in irritation, and decided to save Joshua from her scorn, "A fable is a kind of story that teaches a lesson."
"Oh, you mean a kids' story! Sure I know lots of those, my mom was the town storyteller. Gather 'round children, gather 'round and take a seat and I'll tell you a tale." Emily noticed that again he used past tense when speaking about his parents while she and the other children eagerly complied seating themselves in a semicircle around Joshua like first years at story time, and Joshua continued, "Sit a while and listen, and I'll tell you a tale, I'll tell you Billy and the Talking Squirrel. Some time ago, there was a boy named Billy, and even if that wasn't his name it doesn't matter because he could easily be any of you. One day, after going for weeks without food, Billy found a squirrel in one of his snares. He was just about to snap its neck when it said, 'Wait, if you let me go I'll bring you fruit to eat instead!'
"Now, Billy thought a talking squirrel strange, but he the thought of sweet fruit was irritable, so he said, 'Okay.'
"He let the squirrel go, and the next day he found it in another one of his snares. Again, just as he was about to snap its neck when it said, 'Wait, don't eat me!'
"Billy hesitated to ask, 'Why shouldn't I? I don't have the fruit you promised me, but I have you.'
"'You only don't have the fruit because I got caught in this trap. If you let me go and tell me where the rest of them are, I'll trick a rabbit into one.'
"Now you might not know it, but rabbit meat is much tastier than squirrel, and bigger besides. So Billy said 'Okay,' and told the squirrel where all of his snares were.
"The next day Billy found the squirrel in one of his snares again, and was about to snap its neck in anger when the squirrel spoke again, 'Wait! The rabbit was too smart for me to trick, but the duck is stupid! Let me go, and I'll trick him into one of your traps.'
Now, duck was Billy's favorite meat, so he let the squirrel go again, but that night he went to sleep and didn't rise in the morning. Well now children, what do we learn from Billy?"
The other children had been listening with rapt attention as he spoke not only with his voice, but with his hands as well; he used motions and gestures to bring the story to life and draw his audience in. Something about the inviting way he smiled made one of the boys blurt out, "That Squirrels are liars!"
"Good, anybody else?" The notion that they were expected to just speak up encouraged some to say similar things, but others stayed silent, so Joshua said, "The lesson to be learned is: if your food starts talking, eat it right away because you're hallucinating from hunger."
Captain Johnson glanced down at his wrist and said, "Okay, time's up everybody in."
Professor Walker and her charges all piled into the shuttle, and took their seats except for Geoffrey, who was carried in and dumped onto a seat like a sack of potatoes by Captain Johnson. While they were still queued up at the shuttle's hatch Joshua started talking to Emily again, "I'm glad I met you today."
She smiled at him saying, "Me too."
"I promise not to ever forget this. Any of it."
"And you are unforgettable, Joshua."
"I mean it. Never ever."
"You make it sound like you'll never see me again."
Joshua smiled forlornly and said lightly, "That's life."
Emily was the last one in line, and on the threshold smiling hopefully, "Nobody knows how life is. We'll meet again, I know it."
The hatch was sliding shut behind her when Joshua suddenly remembered, "Thank the fat one for being brave for me!"
Joshua shielded his eyes against the swirling dust, and braced his body against the buffeting winds as the shuttle's engines hummed as it shot high into the sky. He stood and waved goobye at it until it was just a speck in the distance; then he began the long trek back to Brixton.