Against my will, I gasp.
The first thing that strikes me is the massive expanse of whitish ash that spreads almost as far as the eye can see. Fields and forests that have been consumed by frenzied flames and left barren. The second is the sheer amount of gray. Gray that rises in massive inclines to cover the mountains and tower above the gray grasslands below. Gray jagged rocks surrounded by loose pieces of ashy gray earth. Everywhere I look the color here has been diluted into a washed out palate, pale and lifeless. It’s an angry scar of scorched earth, a wound never healed.
“What happened here?” I croak.
She releases a steady breath and takes a seat on a larger rock close by. I’d join her but my legs are frozen in place. I’m captivated by the landscape in front of me, immobile as the rotted tress. Naomi seems to consider her answer carefully for a moment.
“After the People’s State took power, before it was the People’s State the way we know it now, it was just a satellite faction. You have to understand the world was a different place then. This country was being torn apart by foreign campaigns and the government was running out of men to feed the war machine. A sense of nationalism can only take you so far. People were tired of fighting and dying in wars they felt the government started.” She picks up a leaf and starts twirling it in her fingers. “As more and more soldiers started abandoning their posts, surrendering against orders, the government decided something had to be done.”
“EXCERP,” I breathe.
“Exactly. The government originally financed EXCERP in order to create an unstoppable army. And they succeeded. But the people with command of the soldiers had their own vision for the future.” Her face is grim. “People were unhappy with the current administration, but no one really intended things to go so far. On the day the magnificent success of EXCERP was to be demonstrated on television for the world to see, the soldiers were marched into a joint session between Congress and the Senate. They locked the doors and murdered every single man and woman in the building. It was a massacre. Not one ranking official survived. Everyone saw as their last bit of stability bled out on the floor.
People started rioting almost immediately. They marched to the headquarters of EXCERP and shook the fence, broke into the building, ready to make the people who made the call suffer. But the building was abandoned. All the files, computers, the people. Everything was gone.”
If Naomi wanted my attention, she has it. Through her quiet words I can picture everything so vividly.
“It wasn’t long after that communication shut down. Cell towers, cable, every communication device went dark. People were terrified. They had no way of knowing if their families were safe. The government was gone and no one had any idea what would happen next. For five days the entire technological world was shut down.” She pulls a bottle of water from her pack, unscrews the top and downs it before she continues. “On day five a man in a dark suit appeared on the television. He told everyone to be calm. That the People’s State had come to ‘liberate them from the oppression of the degenerate government.’ Everything would be fine as long as the people obeyed orders.”
“And did they?” I ask.
“What do you think?” She smiles grimly. “People were terrified but they knew that this was wrong. They attempted to organize in civilian militias but the soldiers were too well trained and the uprisings were disorganized. The only hope the early rebellions would have had was to overwhelm by sheer numbers, but there was no way to communicate between factions. On day eleven the man on the television re-appeared. He told the people that if they didn’t stop fighting there would be repercussions. Then the screen flashed and ten people were marched in a row, blindfolded and naked. There were two small children among them. A soldier counted to three and the people went down, shot in the head. It happened three times before the screen went black again. Thirty people, slaughtered in the name of obedience. People were paralyzed for a while.”
“I’m sure.” I state.
“People are incredibly resilient though, Eve. I think that in most people there lives a desire to right the atrocities of this world.”
“Not everyone.” I say, regretting the words as soon as they leave my mouth. She doesn’t need to know how little her story garners my sympathy towards her cause.
“Not everyone.” She agrees. “But people were a little different then. They were outraged, and not in the quiet way they are now where they’re too immobilized by fear to act. The rebellions kept happening, albeit in smaller pockets.” She stops her story for a moment and looks at me. “If your enemy’s strength is in numbers, the best way to defeat them is by lowering their population. Weapons aside, what is the most effective way to quickly decimate a population?”
Comprehension dawns on me as I face the blighted valley that sinks its way across the horizon. I focus in on it, trying to picture it as it might have once been. Great expanses of rolling emerald hills, fields that stretched beyond what I could see. Fresh tufts of grass and droplets of dew curling on the tips of plants in the morning. Maybe hundreds of men with rough hands working the earth, watching as the tufts of green grew to be food for their families.
“Starvation.” I say.
She nods and raises from her perch on the rock. “This valley used to produce food for the area. A lot of it was transported from the west, but when the People’s State first rose people stopped working and the trains and trucks with food stopped coming. The supplies of canned goods left couldn’t support a population. On day fourteen the EXCERP soldiers set fire to the fields and forests, poisoning what was left so nothing new could grow. It was simple logic. Control the food supply, control the population. On day fifteen the man on the television gave everyone a choice; submit to the reign of the People’s State or starve. By day twenty the rebellions stopped completely and by day twenty-five the EXCERP soldiers begin handing out provisions.”
“If the People’s State provides for you, why do you want to see it destroyed? Vengeance seems like a thin motive.” I say.
Her furious eyes turn on me. “Because the People’s State doesn’t provide for us at all. Do you know what the population was before their rise to power? Over 300 million. Discounting the soldiers in their program do you know how many civilians there are now?” I shake my head no. Her chest puffs with anger and derision. “Well neither do we. Safe to say it’s barely even a fraction of what it was. It’s not just a fight for retribution, although I’d be lying if I said that didn’t play a part. It’s a fight for the survival of a nation.”
I fix my eyes on her enraged ones. She’s appealing to the wrong person, and I’m amazed a person this perceptive can’t pick up on the fact that there’s something off about me. I attempt to contort my expression into a tragic one. I wonder if there’s a way of making the intensity of my voice match the fervent emotion in hers. Probably not.
To escape detection is to escape their control, and to that I need to play along. There’s not a doubt in my mind that the best way to survive their grasp is to lie through my teeth. But the best lies are the ones with roots in the truth. They provide the foundation and feed the falsehoods, allowing them to stand tall in the face of interrogation.
“I have no experience with toppling a government, let alone putting another one in its place.” I state evenly.
“You don’t have to, Eve.” She says. “You prove your ability to direct our men and we’ll take care of the rest.”