Cities of Refuge
Keeler was running through the ruins of his city. Its adults might be worried, but it was a darkened, broken paradise for its children.
The planet of Caldari Prime had recently been re-taken by Caldari forces after more than a hundred years of Gallentean occupation. Keeler was Gallentean and so were his parents.
Thanks to rising tension the city had been segregated even before the invasion, which kept the occupying forces from having to indiscriminately slaughter Gallenteans when they came in. Keeler remembered the day when the rains came; thunder and whine, red clouds at night, and black shapes in the distant skies. After the local military had been levelled the skies had darkened again and mountainous shapes had descended from the skies. Smoke and fire gusted from their blackened hulls as they settled on whatever was beneath, reducing it to rubble. The hulls had opened and armies of Caldari soldiers poured out, and whatever forces the Gallente could muster didn't stand a chance. Keeler had run out of sight before seeing what happened, but he'd heard the sounds. For weeks after his parents had been too shocked even to talk about it.
But the children saw it differently, for it was frightening and exciting like a child's life always is, and the ones who saw things they shouldn't have - blood on the sidewalks, shots fired into flesh - merely incorporated it into their imaginary worlds, needed now more than ever, burying it so deeply that it surfaced only through fantasy. Keeler envisioned it as two animals, one large and bulky like a toothless old dog whose flesh hangs slackly from his bones, the other a sleek, sharp cat with tensed muscles writhing beneath its skin, ready to attack and tear its prey apart.
As Keeler approached his hidehole in the silence of the late evening, he heard a noise.
All the children in this city, Gallente and Caldari both, had hideholes unknown to others, little cities of refuge, and if you found out someone else's you kept it to yourself. The hideholes were holy, as were all the secret paths through the cordoned-off parts of the city.
If the invading soldiers had realized this they probably could have dominated whatever remained of the city's initial resistance, but the children saw no pressing reason to help them, and they apparently so no pressing reason to talk to children.
Keeler stopped, having all the time in the world, and listened for the sound. There was a breeze and at first he thought the noise might merely be a piece of something flapping in the wind. As he listened on, he discerned a raspy tone to it, and a stifled irregularity punctuated by longer, harsher gusts. Someone was in there, coughing.
For an adult this might have been an agonizing dilemma: run away and hope not to get a bullet in your back; find a guard and risk betraying one of your own; or go in and investigate. For a child, no dilemma.
Keeler went in.
The man had crawled deep into Keeler's hiding place, stopping only when the wall barred his passage. He lay there in a fetal position, apparently asleep. There was precious little light in here, but enough that Keeler recognized his clothes as the old Gallente army type. They were torn and dirty, and soaked, which was bad news in the cold climate on Caldari Prime. There was still a little snow on him, which meant he hadn't been here long. Whatever remained of the previous occupying army - which the media called guerillas and the locals called freedom fighters and Keeler's dad called a goddamn pain in the ass - had retreated to the open country and the mountains, where they still held out and relied on outlying towns and villages for supplies. When Keeler had wondered how they could survive under those conditions, his dad had given him a look and said, well yes, for a city kid like you there's nothing in the frozen countryside except perhaps all the food a civilized society needs. But heaven help them if they need any lawyers.
In the gloom Keeler noticed what looked like small pieces of rectangular paper lying on the ground, some of them soaked from blood that had trickled from the man's legs. He leaned down and picked one up, and found that it was thick, lukewarm and much drier than it should be. It rustled in the silence.
The soldier cleared his throat and said, "Stimpacks. Bodywarmth."
Keeler froze. He thought the man had been asleep.
The soldier seemed to hear his thoughts. He slowly rolled onto his back, looking directly at Keeler, and said, "Didn't dare sleep. Been listening out for intruders." His face twitched into a smile that turned into a cough. The soldier clamped his hand over his mouth, trying to choke it down. When it had passed, he added, "Didn't hear you for a second."
Keeler said nothing. In this ruined city there was nothing to say.
"You going to tell on me?" the man asked. There was an evenness in his voice, a tone of equanimity. No hint of the condescension from adults who appended "kid" to everything they said, but no forced camaraderie, either. The soldier was speaking to him as an equal.
Keeler shook his head and saw the soldier exhale deeply.
"Why are you here?" Keeler asked.
The man took a while to answer, taking in slow, deep breaths. Keeler wondered whether he was badly hurt. His legs looked in really bad shape; the strips of cloth that had been tied around his thighs and ankles were dark with blood.
"I have a message," he said. "An important one."
"To who? Secret military message?" Keeler thought it over for a second, remembering some of the gooier plots he'd seen in books and vids. "Or to your loved ones?" he added.
The soldier grinned, or grimaced. "Why can't it be both?" he asked.
Keeler didn't have an answer. Instead he said, "I'll take it for you."
"I can't ask you to convey it," the man said. "Even if I could, I wouldn't. It's mine to bring. But I am going to ask you not to tell on me. I promise I'll try not to put you in danger."
"The troops would never catch me. I can stay safe," Keeler said.
The soldier barked a breathless laugh, leaned back and closed his eyes. Sweat glistened on his face in the fading gloom. "I'm sure you can," he said in a tired voice. "Probably better than me at this point. But I got this far. It's all on me. I'll see it through."
He stared at Keeler for a while, but Keeler got the impression the soldier wasn't seeing him. Eventually his eyes rolled a little up in their sockets and he leaned his head back, exhaling. Keeler stood there for a while, waiting to see if he'd say anything else. Eventually it got too dark to see, and when he heard faint snores from the man, he left and went back home.
They were having dinner, an eternal affair measured by the ticking of the clock on the wall. Keeler slowly mashed his food together with one hand, resting his head on the balled fist of the other. His dad was talking about a possible promotion.
"You say that like nothing has happened," his mom said.
"I'm still trying to rise in the ranks, hon," his dad replied. "We've got new leadership in some places, but it'll take them years to sort out the ownership issues with the Caldaris. Until then, whoever's proven useful might be kept on staff."
"There are other changes, too," she said. "Or haven't you looked outside recently?"
His father shrugged and kept eating.
"All those deaths-" His mom seemed to catch herself, casting a glance at Keeler, and continued, "All this tyranny, and it means nothing to you?"
"What means something to me is my family, and the food I put on your table," Keeler's dad said very quietly, staring directly into his mother's eyes. "Right now the millions dead out of billions still alive, the destroyed houses in cities that still stand, the loss of money in an economy that somehow still rolls on and puts food on this very table, everything is secondary. It has to be." Without even looking at the plate, he speared a piece of beef and stuffed it into his mouth, chewing in defiance with bulging cheeks.
There was a clatter as Keeler's mom put her fork down hard, then picked up her plate, stood up and said with a tremor in her voice, "I'm going to eat in the kitchen."
After she'd left, Keeler quietly laid down his own fork on the still half-full plate.
"You're not going to eat?" his dad asked, too loudly.
"I'm not that hungry," Keeler said. He added, "Dad, can I take some leftovers? I'll just eat them later."
His dad looked at him for a little while, then seemed to accept the peace offering, smiled and said, "Sure. No problem." Then, as he almost always did, he added, "Don't go too late to bed, now."
Keeler nodded. His parents were much too busy with their own worries to add him to the mix. As far as he knew, they never checked on him before bedtime, and so long as he washed off any visible grime they had no reason to think he'd been out late. He packed away the dinner, took it to his room, put on his sneaking clothes - greys and browns, a life in dust and dirt - and left through the window, the food warm in his hands.
For a city that had recently been invaded, it was in surprisingly good shape; tattered but working. Military and rescue workers had done an amazing job clearing out the fallout from the invasion. Keeler had spied on their progress and seen his first corpse, dragged out of the rubble of a barracks. There had been massive destruction, but the Caldari had been attacking a planet partly populated by their own people, and they had been as careful as they could. Some incidents during the invasion had forced them to go in with a heavier hand than planned, but most of the casualties had still been connected to the military. Everyone knew of someone who'd died, but not every family had lost a member. People still went to work. Order, such as it was, had been restored. Nobody knew what would happen tomorrow, and there were conflicting tales of all the past yesterdays, but for now they were alive and living. For some, including Keeler's dad, that was enough.
Keeler had to weave his way through areas cordoned off by Caldari troops. There were mobile soldiers stationed at checkpoints - they used the MTACs less in the cities after the invasion - and their sleek movements in their black body-warmth outfits and thin grey helmets made them look like hovering ghosts in the dark.
Getting past the main checkpoints was the hardest bit. Heat- and motion-seeking equipment was plentiful, but mostly focused on the paths that an adult would reasonably take. Even if the troops didn't go too hard on the kids they caught, you had to be careful, lest an annoyed guard lead you to explain a bloodied ear to your parents. In general the guards had been pretty good to people here, and mainly picked up the ones who caused major disturbances.
In one of the increasingly common arguments over the dinnertable, Keeler's mom had pointed out that the temporary peace was only that, while people got their bearings and took stock, and that a major civil rebellion was inevitable. Keeler's dad had replied that be this as it may, it wasn't as if they'd been left all huddled together in empty buildings, lighting fires with dead people's furniture, and that every man needed to have a good, long think about what exactly he was fighting for, and what would happen to those he loved if he lost. Aside from being unable to travel outside their sectioned area, he said, and having less money to spend than before, things hadn't changed all that much. Keeler's mom had said that this fragile semblance of daily life was the least those murderers could have done, for if it hadn't been established then the occupying forces would have had to pacify a lot of angry people with too much time and too little food on their hands. She had left the table early that time, too.
Sometimes it felt like they were living in two cities, each trying to become something different.
Keeler entered his hiding place, dinner in hand, and found nobody there.
The next night at dinner they had the vid on, common for post-argument evenings when they, in the words of Keeler's dad, just wanted to get through one damn dinner without one damn argument and pass the damn potatoes, will you please.
Keeler, still wondering what had become of the soldier, didn't pay much attention to the vid or anything else until the announcer's voice caught his ear. A Gallente militant had been caught in the city. Brown hair, medium build. Badly wounded legs.
According to the newscaster, the militant had been responsible for several deaths of both Caldari and Gallente, including civilians. He was likely here to seek shelter with conspirators or terrorist sympathizers.
"Good riddance," Keeler's dad said.
Keeler's mom said nothing. Keeler looked to her and said, "Is it really true? Was he a murderer?"
She looked sternly at his dad, then to him. "Maybe," she said. "It's hard to know, these days."
"Maybe they're lying," Keeler said with much more emphathy than he had expected to have. "Maybe he just wanted to bring an important military message to people here. Or a message to his loved ones."
His mom smiled at him. His father grunted and said, "Man was a killer. Not some heavenly messenger."
Keeler's mom snapped, "You don't know that."
Keeler looked at them for a while, then asked in honest wonder, "Why is always one or the other? Why can't it be both?"
While they were both taking deep breaths for angry answers, he got up and left the room.