The forest had lost all of the appeal that it had had the night before. The shine that had been there when I had been on the hunt, the magic, had dissipated into the air along with the smoke.
“We should stay along the river,” I said quietly. “Most societies build close to a water source. If we are going to find another Enclave, that’s where it would be.”
“She’s right,” Four agreed, trudging on ahead.
We got to the water’s edge, close to where I had hidden the doe much earlier that morning. I bent down and splashed the cool water on my face, wiping off some of the grime from the fire. The grime of death.
“Are you okay now?” Ven asked.
I shrugged. “As okay as I can be, I suppose. I thought that Nine and I would always look after each other. I thought that she would always be there for me. And now she’s gone, and it’s all my fault….and I have to find her.”
“We will,” he said, taking up my hand that wasn’t holding the bow. “We’ll find both of them.”
“How can you be so sure?” We trailed down the path after Four, hand in hand.
“I just am. Sometimes, I just know things. This is one of those things. I know that we’re going to find them.”
Somewhere far in the distance, the sounds of bird calls drifted down to us through the trees. “We should catch something to eat,” Four said, slowing down. He pointed at the bow. “Are you any good with that thing?”
I remembered the doe. “I killed a deer earlier. I hid it in the rocks up ahead, because it was too huge to haul back by myself. That’s where I was when….” I couldn’t finish the thought.
“Well I would say good for you….under any other circumstances….but….” Ven stammered.
“I know,” I said. “But if it can help us now….”
The three of us crept towards the rocks and peered behind them. The doe was still there, stuffed into the makeshift hiding place. Four took a step back. “I’m going to start a fire. Ven, do you have a knife?”
“Good,” replied Four. He knelt on the ground and swept together a pile of leaves, sifting through them to make sure that they were all dry. Producing a lighter from his back pocket, he struck it until there was a flame and then set the pile ablaze. “Hand me a couple of rocks,” he ordered, pointing at the pile.
Ven and I scrambled around, bringing him a pile of smaller stones from around the base of the outcropping. He used them to make a ring around the flames, trapping them in one area.
Standing up, he brushed his hands together. “Now, let’s go get that deer.”
We walked for three days along the river before we saw any signs of other civilizations. The first thing that I spotted, from a distance, was their fire. “Ven,” I whispered, tugging on his sleeve. “Look!” I pointed in the direction of the flames.
Four and Ven both stopped dead in their tracks. “Fire,” Ven said.
“Friendly fire, or enemy fire?” asked Four at exactly the same time.
I pushed ahead of both of them, exasperated. “Come on, guys. Let’s just go check it out.”
I was the first of the three of us to step out of the cover of the forest, and I was met with a knife directly in my face for my trouble. A little boy, no more than five or six, held a knife above his head pointed right at my face. “State your business here,” he whispered.
I heard Four draw his own knife out of its sheath somewhere behind me. “Don’t hurt her. We’re from Enclave number seventeen,” he told the boy. “We’ve been compromised, and we’re seeking shelter.”
The boy lowered the knife slightly. “What sort of compromise?”
“We were invaded,” Four replied. “They took two women and killed everyone else. We escaped and came in search of help.”
The boy dropped the knife altogether. “I can take you to our leader. He’s my dad.”
When Four didn’t respond, I said, “That would be really great of you if you could help us out.”
The boy stepped back slightly and indicated that we should follow him. “Welcome to Enclave Five.”
As we moved forward into their complex, it occurred to me that I had never really given much ponderence to the existence of other Enclaves like ours. I knew that they had to be out there, that we couldn’t be the only ones. But to actually see another society was mildly jarring.
The door to the complex was amazing–two giant slabs of ornately carved stone that swung outward when the little boy pressed his thumb onto some sort of touch screen device on the wall.
“Whoa,” Ven said, watching the doors slide apart.
The little boy did not reply, but rather pushed through and kept on walking. As we moved down the corridor, the people that we passed acknowledged the little boy by way of bowing in his general direction–and there seemed to be a great deal more people than had been at our Enclave. The fact that his father was the Enclave leader would make him very important. We reached yet another beautifully carved door, and the little boy raised one hand and gave it a single knock.
“Come in,” came the voice from within.
The boy swung the door open. It was much lighter than the main doors had seemed to be. A man was seated at the desk, rifling through some papers by the light of a lantern. “Father,” the boy said, “These people are from Enclave seventeen. They seek our assistance.” The way that he talked so formally made him sound much older that he actually was. He sounded nothing like I thought a little boy of his age should sound, like he was a forty year old in a five year old’s body.
“Okay, Sixty Three,” he said. “I’ll take it from here.” He waved a hand towards the door as a ways of dismissing his son.
Sixty Three…that meant that he was the sixty third person born into the Enclave. Our Enclave had had all of twenty people, and most of them were not yet of adult age. Sixty three….that seemed unfathomable.
“Have a seat,” the man said, waving at the stone bench that was in front of his desk. “My name is One,” he introduced himself, “and I am the leader of Enclave five. You are…?”
I spoke up first. “I am Thirteen, and this is Four and Eleven,” I replied, pointing to each of them respectively.
“What can we do for you?” One’s tone was not impolite, but it also lacked any signs of warmth or friendship.
“We are seeking assistance,” Four piped in. “Our Enclave has been destroyed by the Others. They kidnapped two of our citizens, and slaughtered everybody else. We want to try and get our people back; we want to try and save them.”
One thought for a second before responding, “That’s preposterous. You have no hope of fighting back against them on your own.”
“That is why we’ve come to you,” Four said quietly, with the slightest bow of his head. “You hold the resources that we now lack.”
“What makes you think that we’ll help you?”
“Because they’re people too. Just like you. We are all people,” I replied.
He took another moment before asking, “Who are these people, that they are so important to you?”
“My wife,” Four replied.
“And my….sort of mother. It’s complicated,” I added.
One sighed. “It is not our policy to get involved in matters with the Others if we can possibly avoid it. It’s how we manage to stay so prosperous.”
“We were prosperous too,” I argued. “We stayed out of the way of the Others. We didn’t get involved.”
“Thirteen,” Ven said softly, laying a hand on my shoulder.
“No!” I snapped, shoving his hand away. “This isn’t right!” To One I added, “It isn’t right for you not to help us.”
“We can provide you food, shelter, and resources,” he told us. “But beyond that, we can not afford to get involved. You are welcome to anything here. But we will not go with you. We can not afford to take that risk.”
“Let’s just go have a meal and think about what we’re going to next,” Four said quietly. “We may as well take advantage of what they will offer us.”
One snapped his fingers over his head and whistled. “Sixty Three!”
The little boy came scurrying back in from the corridor. “Yes, Father?”
“Would you be so kind as to show these fine warriors to the dining area?”
“Certainly, Father.” He pointed back the way we had come. “Come, follow me.”
As we walked down the corridor, we took in the scene around us. “This is an artist’s Enclave,” Ven said, pointing at one of the many paintings that lined the walls. “The artwork is so beautiful. I’ll bet they make all of their money in trade. That’s how they have so many people. They never really have to go outside their walls.”
Sixty Three pointed up ahead. “That painting is one of mine.”
We came to a stop in front of it. “This is amazing,” I told him. I was struck by the fact that he was so young and was fulfilling the needs of his society already, while I was several years older than him and had yet to fulfill mine.
“It will be quite valuable. Father says that it could fetch at least six head of deer.”
“Wow,” Ven murmured. “That’s more than I bag in a week.”
We followed Sixty Three through a doorway and into what was obviously the dining room. “Oh my,” I exclaimed, taking in the scene. The walls were lined with gas powered lanterns, and there was a plethora of different types of food in a buffet-like arrangement in the center of the room.
“That is an amazing amount of food,” Four agreed.
The three of us loaded up our plates with as much food as we dared, and then settled in at one of the great stone tables. I took a bite of the meat. It could almost be called delicate, it was so delectable after days of eating almost nothing. It melted right in my mouth. “This is delicious,” I mumbled around my mouthful of goodness.
“Some sort of lamb, I think,” Ven responded around his own mouthful. “It’s amazing.”
We remained silent for the rest of the meal, chewing with earnest. When I had finished, I laid my fork down across my plate and stared at the guys. “What are we going to do now? How are we going to get them back?”
“Maybe we should just take whatever we can get from here and head out after them,” Four said. “This might be the only society we find. And we don’t want to head too far in the wrong direction.”
Ven looked down at his plate and mumbled something that I couldn’t quite make out.
“What?” I asked.
“I said, maybe we should just stay here,” he repeated. “I mean, they have it good here. And what’s the point? They’re probably already dead.”
I burst into tears and shoved back from the table, away from both of them. “How could you say that? How could you even think it? Sure, maybe they are gone. But we don’t know that. We won’t know anything unless we go looking.”
“I just….I don’t know if it’s worth it. I don’t know if it’s worth the risk,” Ven stammered.
“You’re just saying that because you didn’t lose anyone! Just because nobody that you loved is gone, you think that you can just say whatever you want. Well, you can’t. It isn’t fair.” I pushed the chair back and stood up. “If you can’t see that, you might as well just stay here, and we can go on without you.”
When I said that, Four stood up too. “Let’s go for a walk,” he told me. To Ven, he said, “Think about it, brother. Just think about it.”
Ven rested his chin in his hands, and Four and I turned and walked back out of the dining area. We walked back into the corridor with all of the paintings, and stayed silent for several minutes. Four broke the quiet by saying, “He’s just a kid.”
“So am I,” I spat.
“True that,” Four acknowledged. “But I believe that you’re much stronger than Eleven. You’re stronger than anyone has given you credit for.”
“Thanks,” I said, “I think…”
He nodded, and we kept on walking until we reached a large area that appeared to be for some sort of training. “This must be their area like our arena.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “So much is the same, yet, so much is radically different.”
“My father says you can have anything you want,” said Sixty Three from behind us. I hadn’t realized that he was following along. “You can use any of our weapons.”
I walked up to the weapons rack and fingered an absolutely beautiful bow, carved out of some sort of red wood. “This is exquisite,” I said.
Four hefted a spear, tossing it up lightly to test it’s weight in his hand. “I guess the arts thing carries over into crafting,” he responded offhandedly. Taking another step forward, he came to a selection of gun weaponry. “Oh my.”
“Have you ever fired one before?” asked Sixty Three. When Four and both shook our heads no, he added, “It is quite simple, actually. Much simpler than using a bow.”
I hugged my chosen bow protectively to my chest while still deciding which arrows to select for to fill the holder on my back. “I like my bow. Thanks though.”
Four, however, ran a hand over the guns with interest. “Would you show me?” he asked the boy.
Sixty Three nodded eagerly. He picked up the gun. “You put the magazine in here,” he said, loading the weapon. Once it’s loaded, you point, click off the safety, and shoot.”
A loud booming sound echoed through the chamber, and the middle of a target some 500 feet away ripped to shreds. “Whoa,” murmured Four. “That is somewhat awesome.”
“Somewhat?” I laughed, raising my eyebrows. “More than somewhat. Pretty damn cool.”
Sixty Three pushed something on the gun that made a long red beam appear out of nowhere. “And this,” he said, “helps you aim if you don’t know how. You point the dot where you want the bullet to land, and then you shoot. Easy.”
“Can I try it?” asked Four. I could practically see the drool coming out of his mouth.
Sixty Three carefully passed him the gun. I watched in awe as he leveled the red dot carefully at the target and then pulled the trigger. The momentum of the bullet blew the gun back against him slightly, and the bullet struck slightly off target.
“You have to account for the recoil,” Sixty Three explained. “Make sure that you have a really strong grip. Aim a tad lower.”
Four tried again and hit dead on in the center. He stared down at the gun. “This little tool is quite amazing. Why did we never have these?”
Nine would smack me if she knew I was even thinking about this, I thought to myself. But she would want me to help her even if it was dangerous. Wouldn’t she? After a moment of thinking, I replied, “Personally, I think I still like the bow better.” I hoisted it to loaded position, putting an arrow into nocks, and then raised it. Aiming for the bullet hole that Four had left in the target, I drew back the string and let the arrow sail right through the hole and skid to the floor below.
“You’re quite good,” Sixty Three told me.
“I had very good teachers,” I replied nostalgically, suddenly wishing that Ven was with us. To Four I asked, “Are you actually going to use that thing?”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “I don’t see why not. I mean, they have them. Sort of gives them an unfair advantage if we don’t.”
“You’ll need this.” Sixty Three pressed a box in Four’s hand. “Ammo.” At Four’s quizzical expression, he clarified, “Bullets.”
Four nodded. “Got it.”
“Now,” the boy asked, “would like to spend the night? We can give you beds for the evening. Or you can move out now. Whichever you prefer.”
Four and I exchanged a glance. “I would rather enjoy sleeping in an actual bed. It’s been a few days.”
“Me too, I suppose. Lets do it.”
Sixty Three led us each to our own rooms. Everything in mine was very plush, and I found that I didn’t really care anymore where Ven had decided to go. I hadn’t realized that there were such radical differences in between Enclaves. At home, in Enclave seventeen, my bed had been made of mostly stone. Here, the beds were made of material that I had never seen before–both hard and soft at the same time. There was a base of wood supporting the giant rectangle of strange fabric, and then a wide myriad of blankets and sheets draped across the top. I changed into the clothes that had been laid out, feeling guilty at laying on the nice clean bed being as dirty as I probably was. Crawling under the covers, I was passed out cold before another thought had the chance to cross my mind.