Tobin hated the silence.
It hung in the air, suspended by the fog that blanketed the Green River, a wall that grew around him to stifle all sound. The quiet was so menacing that all movement slowed to a crawl, lest any motion measured in seconds be made to produce a sound. Tobin opened his mouth, not so much to speak, but just to make sure he still could. The silence choked him up, so that even should he need to yell, out of distress or as a warning, he would be less than able. The silence, just as the water around him, had the ability to drown.
Tobin dipped his fingers into the river. They raked the water, creating the smallest ripples that disappear into those made by the rudder. Tobin turned back to Alexandrov, who stood at the helm of the raft, guiding it through the swift current. This time the silence works to our favor, Tobin told himself. The current will take us all the way to camp. Our raft will glide through the water the way a breeze stirs a length of silk. Quietly. A feather in the wind.
The arrival will be effortless. As for the departure - it will be a miracle if they can manage to pull it off at all. Tobin closed his eyes. He breathed. His focus drifted away from the challenge at hand, to the cool sensation that kissed his fingertips. His hand turned numb from the icy touch that had crawled up his arm. But Tobin didn’t care. He liked it. To his surprise, as he thought about the Green River, he smiled.
Alexandrov’s firm hand on his shoulder broke his trance. His calm demeanor now gone, Tobin opened his eyes to find the faint outline of a riverbank ahead. It seemed inviting at first, the sight of a calm, flat beach along the river with no debris or snags to stop the raft. But as they drew nearer, the fog that covered the river thinned. It was then that Tobin saw what really awaited them on the shoreline: despair.
Up and down the bank, dozens of tents lined the river in random order. There was no structure to this shanty town. Each tent was unlike the one next to it, as all of them had been built from whatever materials were at hand. Strung together with thread and cords, the shelters provided little in the way of comfort or protection. All it would have taken is a single downpour to raise the river a few feet and all that the inhabitants had left would be lost.
Those that lived in this squalor varied as much as their tents. Some meandered outside their dwellings, in little more than tatters, mumbling to themselves. The sheer waiting for rescue after months drove some insane with anxiety. Others – through all odds – endured through hardships to make the most of their circumstances. How they escaped persecution to come to this refugee camp with any glimmer of hope was impossible to imagine. But somehow they carried on, as evidenced by how much cleaner their tents looked from others, in how there was always plenty of firewood outside their dwelling even though others helped themselves frequently. A deeper sense of pride, of wanting to raise themselves up from their hardships, burned within them. That was the range of people who dwelled in these camps. From the destitute in spirit to the enduring phoenixes, these refugees gathered on the Green River for whatever chance they had to escape.
This sight was far from a surprise for Tobin. This was his third visit in a month to the western banks of the Green River. His first time was more than fifteen years ago. Back then, he and two other villagers rowed three canoes upstream to the riverbank. There were only seventeen refugees camped out along the reeds. Tobin and the others were able to transport them safely back to the southern bank without incident in one trip.
The rescue excursions continued for a short while before conditions on the western banks turned for the worst. Within two years the scene on the shores could not have been more different. Following the melting ice of spring, Tobin and the two others who had been with him in the beginning, floated up the river during the third year that the Purge had touched Osley. But this time, waiting for them on the shore were over two hundred despondent souls. Though no immediate danger was apparent in the bordering forest, the crowd rushed forward into the river upon seeing the canoes. All three were overrun by the mob. It was only because of Tobin’s stature and his quick thinking that he was able to fend off the frantic, although his canoe did overturn as one or two of the stronger men reached the boat to try to climb inside. Tobin brushed them off before using his paddle to wade back deeper into the middle of the river, away from the panicked mob onshore. His two companions were not so fortunate. They drowned, trampled by the very people they had come to rescue. Whatever happened to their canoes, Tobin could not say. All that he knew was that he was the only one to return to Osley that night.
Afterwards, Tobin and those who still chose to help used the large raft that he and Alexandrov now guided up the river. It was a sturdy vessel, having originally been part of a barge that ferried cattle, and could carry up to twenty people at a time. But that was only during the best of circumstances, when all potential passengers behaved by waiting their turn on the shoreline. Naturally, Tobin was skeptical that people in peril would take the welfare of others into consideration in times like these. So as conflicted as he may have felt, he always insisted on carrying long rifles and sabers onboard to protect the crew from a sudden mob uprising.
Unfortunately for Tobin, his current crew consisted only of Alexandrov, a strong farmer who lacked combat experience but was loyal to the Chenian cause. All the others who had helped him previously had died, been captured, or escaped to Sagemark where they waited to be smuggled to the Maricanian colonies. Tobin wanted to postpone the ferry until he had recruited more volunteers, but the refugee camp was simply too large to ignore. He knew that supplies were scarce and tensions were high. Only a minor outbreak of cholera or a few deaths from malnourishment would be enough for the refugees to turn on each other. Tobin knew that as great as the risk was to ferry refugees now, he could not stand by as the situation grew worse.
When they were within fifty feet of the shore, Tobin grabbed the two long rifles from the middle of the raft. They were among the small pile of equipment that they had chosen for the journey, which included emergency rations, bandages, and rowing oars should they get caught in a snag. He handed one to Alexandrov. He took the other and raised the butt of the stock against his shoulder. There Tobin stood, ready to aim his long rifle at the first refugee who tried to storm onto the raft.
“Listen, and listen well, because I’m only going to say this once,” Tobin yelled. “We’re taking eighteen. Five women, eight children, and five men. Men, whomever of you wish to jump on board, you better well be ready to work, because we expect every one of you to help the women and children along. Those of you that don’t will be shot. Just like those who rush onto the raft will be shot. Understand?”
Tobin’s commands were met with a mixture of nods and grumblings. However many he said he could take was not enough to quell their discontent. There were simply too many of them who had been waiting too long for a chance of escape. But Tobin didn’t care. All that mattered was a quick and smooth journey regardless of how those onshore felt about him.
On the bank, amongst the shanties, Lili and Zurich scrambled to collect their belongings. They tore through the piles of goods lined up outside their shack. Most of it looked like garbage. Only some appeared useful. But in their haste Zurich and Lili did not distinguish. They grabbed at anything they could find.
Zurich looked up to find the outline of the raft floating offshore. He turned to Lili. There was a hint of childish desperation in his eyes, as if he was about to cry.
“We can’t miss this one. Not this time. I won’t let it happen,” Zurich said.
“I know,” Lili replied.
“Not again. I won’t watch another chance float away.”
“Dear, I know.”
“Are the kids ready?”
“Sadie, are you and your brother ready?”
Sadie peaked her head out from the shack. At seven-years-old, her cherubic face was woefully out of place in this squalid filth. One would not expect to find such innocence in a refugee camp. Yet here she was.
“He’s not here,” Sadie responded.
“What? Where is he?” Lili asked.
“I don’t know. The woods, I think.”
“I told you to go find him.”
“I did. I went to look but, but, I got scared in the dark so I came back.”
Sadie’s face brimmed with tears. Lili kneeled down to comfort her.
“I didn’t mean to lose him,” Sadie said.
“It’s fine, sweetie. We’ll find him.”
Lili turned to Zurich. His heart sank. He knew what he had to do. He nodded.
“Go,” Zurich said, “Wait by the river.”
Lili rose to her feet. She took Sadie’s small hand in hers. Together, they carried what supplies they could toward the river.
“Lili,” Zurich yelled, “If Yuri and I don’t make it there in time . . .”
His voice trailed off. He wanted his wife and daughter to escape the horror with which they have become so accustomed. But he also didn’t want to see them leave. Not without him and Yuri. He was torn.
Lili knew his torment. All she could do to respond was nod. She squeezed Sadie’s hand. Together, they trudged to the riverbank. Just the two of them.
A brown hare fed on a batch of clover that grew beside a fallen tree. Then it stopped. The hare raised its head.
A dozen feet away, behind the cover of sagebrush, Yuri waited. A smart but restless boy of ten years, Yuri eyed his prey like a hawk. Steadily cradled in his hand was a throwing stick, two feet of curved cedar stripped of its bark and sanded down.
The hare lowered its head to feed once more. Yuri saw his chance. He raised his throwing stick. He cocked his arm back.
The hare darted off. Yuri’s face fell with disappointment before turning to fear. He lowered his throwing arm. His shoulders sank. Yuri turned around to find his father marching up behind him.
“Yuri!” Zurich yelled again. “Where’ve you been?”
“I was, I was collecting wood,” Yuri blurted out. “For the fire. Then I saw a hare. I figured it’d be good for supper.”
“Yuri, do you know what you did?!”
Zurich towered over his son. His nostrils flared as he breathing quickened. He tightened his fists as he clenched his jaw.
“Do you know what you did?!”
Yuri recoiled. He was little more than a scared little lamb awaiting whatever punishment the man standing over him was about to unleash.
Zurich stared down at his son. He had seen him this scared before, when they first arrived at the camp, during the late nights when brawls would break out between refugees over food. There had been so many times when Zurich had to comfort his son when he had been afraid. But never had he seen him so scared of him.
What am I doing? Zurich asked himself. Not him. He can’t see me like this. Not toward him. Not now. Not ever.
“Son,” Zurich said in a gentler tone. “Come here.”
Yuri stepped up to his father, still cautious, but a little less afraid.
“Don’t wander away for so long ever again. Understand?”
Zurich cracked a smile. Yuri grinned.
Suddenly, the hare Yuri had been stalking raced past them.
“That’s him!” Yuri exclaimed. “The hare I was chasing.”
Zurich lifted his head. Not far off, a few quail fluttered through the brush, into the open night air. Away from something.
“Yuri,” Zurich whispered. “Whatever happens, stay quiet.”
Zurich pulled his son down to the ground, under the cover of the sagebrush. He cupped his right hand over Yuri’s eyes while he wrapped his other arm around him. Scarcely breathing, he waited.
Dear Ada, he prayed, not again.
Waist deep in the chilling waters of the Green River, Lili waded out to the raft with Sadie in her arms. The water rose just beneath her arms before she was able to hand Sadie off to Tobin. He sat Sadie down amongst the other children before helping Lili onto the raft. Lili crawled aboard. She looked into the eyes of the other passengers. Seventeen others sat on board, not including Tobin, Alexandrov and herself. Lili looked over her shoulder at the shoreline. She searched in vain for any hint of her husband and son. But she found none.
Satisfied that no incidents had occurred, Tobin nodded to Alexandrov, who knelt at the raft’s edge to pull the anchor up from the river.
Tobin turned to the shoreline. The faintest cry from a woman pierced the river’s silence. Those on the riverbank also took notice. They looked back to find the outline of a woman emerging from the forest’s edge. The blackness of the woods concealed much of her features but it was clear from the frantic waving of her arms and her high-pitched voice that she was distraught.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!”
A single crack, like the snap of a leather whip, shredded through the silence. The woman fell forward into the muddy path that led to forest’s edge.
Those on the riverbank stared into the pitch darkness of the forest. The shock and fear of the unknown overtook them. They scanned the trees, the brush and the tents for a sign of anything out of the ordinary. A few backed into the river while the rest cowered amongst themselves. They had nowhere to run, no place to hide, for as far as they were concerned the danger was everywhere and nowhere, in the far distance or only a few feet away, a force of one or a thousand. It was the unknown that kept them at bay.
Tobin tilted his ear toward the camp. He heard something. Barely. Of all the sounds to hear, he thought, what could it be? It was so slight that he could have mistaken it for his own finger scratching his neck.
At the same time, Tobin spotted a spark beyond the camp, past the line of tents in the otherwise pitch blackness of the forest. It was too far from the shelters to be a refugee starting a fire but it was close enough for Tobin to spot from the river. The spark was followed by yet another. A spark and a scratch, Tobin considered. What was going on?
“Oh no,” Tobin murmured. His eyes widened with the realization of what was to come.
The carnage that was to follow played out like a nightmare in Tobin’s mind. He had heard of such things happening before, from survivors who had witnessed and somehow escaped the onslaught. But there had been so few to tell the tale. To the horror of those on the shore and the raft, they were about to see why.
The scratching Tobin had heard and the spark he had seen was from a flint. After a few more strikes the flint lit a fuse. Then another. Followed by a few more.
After a moment that seemed like an eternity, the fuses, and whatever device to which they were attached, flew through the air into the campground. A few shouts and warnings from the refugees were all that were heard before the fuses burned out.
A flash, green and brilliant, exploded from the center of the camp, setting off several more that ripped through the shabby dwellings. The light, almost too brilliant to look at, forced Tobin and the others on the raft to shield their eyes. Soon, the powder from the blast made its way toward the river, further confirming to Tobin the explosive agent used: Czarian uranium.
Fire licked the sky as flames from the explosions jumped onto any kindling that lay about, from spare firewood to dirty rags. Through the flaming chaos, figures could be identified at the forest line, as they rose en masse to descend upon the camp. In their hands, shimmering from the soft glow of the engulfed camp, were sabers and long rifles. Those figures with long rifles, tall guns almost four feet in length which were fashioned out of polished black steel, lifted their guns at the crowd and fired. Those not killed or injured by the explosion now scattered for their lives as shots took out the panicked mob.
Despite the flames that now ravaged the tents and shacks, the figures that took aim at the refugees remained black, as if they were walking shadows that knew no light. With careful stealth and precision, they closed in on the screaming masses, executing with long rifles and sabers. A few of the refugees fought back with whatever weapons they had. Perhaps one or two had long rifles, maybe a few more had sabers; but most possessed only crude blades and sticks fashioned from used farm equipment. Their efforts were little more than displays of defiance than actions of defense that successfully warded off the invaders. The figures, ghosts of Death, were not deterred. Their wave of killing continued.
Tobin turned to Alexandrov.
“Steer the rudder,” Tobin shouted.
“But the anchor.”
Alexandrov scarcely finished his sentence before Tobin had drawn one of the sabers from the raft’s floor. He hacked through the rope that held the anchor. Alexandrov, knowing that Tobin was serious now more than he had ever seen him, jumped to the rudder and began to steer away from the shore.
“Everyone,” Tobin said. “Stay down.”
A shot buzzed within inches of Tobin’s head. He fell, not so much from fear, but from shock, only now realizing that they were within range from whoever was shooting onshore.
Tobin grabbed his long rifle. He weighed it in his hand. After all these years, he knew the difference between a loaded rifle and an empty one. There was a difference of only a few ounces between the two. But having spent so much time hunting, and now, fighting, he was able to tell. Fortunately for him, the long rifle he held was loaded.
Tobin secured the rifle stock against his shoulder. Then he lined the tip of the barrel to a target on the riverbank. His aim, through all the chaos onshore and commotion on the raft, was steady, as he focused his concentration on the figure that lay ahead. It was the closest one to him, or so Tobin thought, and probably was the one who had shot at them. Tobin pulled the trigger of his long rifle. A whiff of smoke rose from the tip of his barrel as the round fired. In the blink of an eye, the figure slumped to its knees before falling face down into the dirt.
Tobin kneeled to reload. Despite the fact that he had hunted for as long as he could remember, this was the first incident in which he shot his rifle in such a vulnerable position. Sure, he had scouted the enemy before, on reconnaissance missions to track their whereabouts and report his findings to refugee bands or resistance fighters. But now it was so much different, as he stood kneeling on a raft in the middle of the Green River, completely vulnerable. Only those refugees around him provided any sense of cover, a fact that weighed on Tobin’s mind as he prayed that they wouldn’t fall victim to any further gunfire.
Tobin steadied his long rifle again as more figures converged on the riverbank. Their heads, still obscured, tilted down to their fallen comrade, then up to the raft where Tobin kneeled.
Tobin paused. He could not see their faces. His eyes did not meet theirs. But he knew. They were watching him.
Tobin, through his sudden distress, pulled the trigger of his long rifle. It fired. A wisp of smoke rose from the tip of his long rifle. Then it parted suddenly as Tobin felt a thump in his chest. He looked down. On the right side of his ribcage was a dark spot. He reached down to touch it. His fingers found the warmth. He lifted them up to find blood on the tips.
More shots plagued the raft. Most skimmed off the surface of the water much like stones do when being skipped by schoolchildren. But those more on their mark struck the raft and a few other unfortunate individuals.
Alexandrov pulled the rudder from the water. Under any other circumstance, he would have guided the raft slowly back to the other side of the river, using breaks in the current to move across at a leisurely pace. But the situation had escalated beyond a mere ferrying service. Alexandrov knew that unless they put several more yards between the raft and the shore, they would be picked off. He leapt to the middle of the raft to hand the oars to the men and women.
“Row! Straight across!”
Those onboard, most of whom were farmers who had never witnessed a battle, hurried to collect the oars. They were in such a frenzy that they nearly knocked each other into the water as they paddled from the chaos. All through their haste a handful of shadows onshore continued their volley. Fortunately, most of the bullets either fell short of the raft or sailed overhead. Alexandrov, still green in his experiences with battle, knew that Ada had stepped in to guide them to safety. If only those still in camp had our luck, he told himself.
The raft caught a current mid river, which carried them up and further away from danger. Alexandrov turned his attention to Tobin, who remained on the floor of the raft, writhing in pain.
Alexandrov nodded to the man closest to him. “In the knapsack. Bandages. Hurry.”
The man nodded. Alexandrov knelt next to Tobin.
“Tobin. Can you hear me? Tobin!”
Tobin’s eyelids fluttered. Through his distress, Tobin could make out Alexandrov through the haze that was his vision. But that was all he could do. Tobin drifted off into a deep sleep as the sounds around him became murmured and his sight grew hazy. Darkness enveloped what little he could see before an overwhelming black cloak covered his sight. Then the silence, the lurking presence which had followed him and Alexandrov since cast off, clamped itself around his ears. Alone, void of any sensory perception, Tobin could do nothing. His final thoughts, before his consciousness faded, were not of sight or sound, but of touch and smell. He recalled the cold, clear water he’d use to clean his hands after gathering the summer harvest, before sitting down to a late supper of fresh bread, roasted lamb and baked apples. The warmth of such memories, that filled his heart when he sat down amongst his family when they were all still alive and within walking distance, gave him one final surge of life, long enough for him to wake for but a moment.
Alexandrov, standing above him, gasped at the sight of his friend’s eyes.
“Tobin! Are you all right? Say something!”
Tobin could only choke out one word before slipping back into the silence.“Petrov.”