Last Gen

By Bryan Alston Patrick

The old map may or may not even be reliable. Kenner has wanted to turn back more times than I can remember. Coy gives him shit every time he wants to bail.

He’s just tired and hungry like I am and Coy is. Deep down he knows there’s nothing back there. The elders are running out of food too. They have nothing to offer us anymore. They just can’t let go. Even though they know it’s better this way. Between the drought, the floods and the raiders, it’s a small miracle any of them are even still there.

They don’t want to admit they can’t take care of us anymore. We don’t want to admit it either, at least not aloud in words that would add to the despair already evident on their thinning faces, in their tired eyes, etched into visible rib cages and vertebrae. Bony trembling hands. Dwindling will. Total exhaustion.

Our guilt over abandoning them is another issue I try not to think about. Because I want to be here now, while we still can.

Our choice is to remain in a dying village to watch it die completely or to wander in search of whatever is left while we still have some time and energy. We met only two others so far, Nan and Cap they called themselves. They’re from out here where there really is nothing. It was hard to learn much from them because they know so few words. Back in the village, our elders know things.

My grandfather was a teacher. He died before I was born but he taught my father and mother and many others who taught us, as much as they’ve been able to, times being what they are. Dad says there used to be schools where kids our age went every day for many years, learning everything there was to learn about the past, present and future. You could learn as much as you wanted, he says, though not everyone did. Other people learned enough and went about enjoying the world as it was, eating and drinking and traveling.

Technically, we’re doing all those things now but not like the pictures in the old books show with boats so big they were cities floating on the water and grand tables packed with food so beautiful you might think it was just there for observation rather than eating. No wonder they made pictures of it. This world we’re traveling through now is sparse and daunting and very beautiful in its own way. We’ve had a lot of fun and few problems so far. But Nan warned us about others we might encounter out here who are not kind like her and Cap.

“You cain’t blame ’em not for how they was taught. They don’t know none but kill and rape. They don’t know not of love. They ain’t not enough man in ’em and ain’t not enough beast neither.” That’s what she said. I told her that frightened me. “Good then,” she said.

The road we’re on tonight is really the first scary place so far. During the day it’s beautiful with plants and grass and trees on both sides, and growing through the middle in places where the hard surface has broken down over time. What was once a smooth path for mechanical vehicles is now an epic flower bed. It’s a long, slender, never-ending garden.

Some of the plants I know from our studies: the poison ivy that makes your skin red and itchy if you touch it; milkweed that makes caterpillars into butterflies; white and yellow wildflowers that I never learned the names of or did but forgot them; green weeds that have grown taller than we are form walls along the sides of the road. Here and there, we pass clusters of trees—oaks, I think they are—with long arching branches that make a roof over our heads, connecting the walls on either side of the road and we’re completely enclosed and shaded from the sun for as long as it lasts. Inside one of these caves made of vines is friendliness, like the plants enjoy having us there. The sweetness of wild flowers takes turns on my nose with the pleasantly bitter scent of the big flat green leaves that wave to us as we pass through.

We’ve seen seven different kinds of birds out here so far, some of them I know, others I don’t or I’m not sure. The cardinals, sparrows and crows I know for sure. We’ve seen some snakes and rats of course. Two nights ago there was a large raccoon crossing the road. Dad says to always avoid them—that they are fierce and you don’t stand a chance against them. He says if you absolutely have to tangle with one, take out your knife right away and stab it to death as fast as you can—no mercy because it will surely kill you, if not with its razor sharp claws then with disease it leaves in your blood. Avoidance has been our main strategy so far, given our now bone rattling terror of raccoons that was my father’s parting gift to us.

Tonight we are surrounded by disembodied noises. Mostly it’s birds talking among themselves. But we did hear some sort of large mammal growling in the woods not far from the road. We kept moving and eventually stopped hearing it. Either the animal found easier prey to stalk or it’s quietly stalking us, waiting to strike. Kenner hasn’t relaxed since hearing it and won’t until the sun rises and we’re all still here.

It’s after dawn and all three of us are still walking. Coy is near exhaustion, having carried the heaviest portion of our load most of the way. He will have to rest soon. We’ll find some shade this afternoon and nap in shifts. Originally we were sleeping at night but it’s too dangerous and hard to relax enough to really rest so then we don’t rest at all. Then the hottest part of the day comes and we’re all wobbling along on rubbery legs.

Alongside the road the woods and brush are nearly always thick enough to hide in, though there is always the chance of being discovered by an animal or worse. Dad told us basically the same thing Nan said. Of the few people still surviving out here, many are more desperate and hungry than the animals because the animals are more efficiently designed to survive out here on instinct.

Kenner insists that Coy and I rest first when we find the right little clearing behind a thicket, red with wild rose bushes. Kenner must feel bad about his complaining and panicking. I offered to stay awake while he sleeps but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Gathering clouds move in on top of us with a cooler wind that breaks against the walls of our tent, turning into a slow, gentle breeze that lulls us right to sleep while Kenner stands guard outside. It’s the best rest we’ve had, I think. Thunder grumbles nearby like our stomachs. For some unknown time I’m drifting and dreaming.

When I wake up sleepily refreshed, Coy’s hands are on my hips. There is this tingling out in front of us that’s unmistakable. We just come together, first with our fingers, hands and bodies, then with our mouths. Then we need to come even closer. I roll on to my back and he follows, moving on top of me as though this is where we were supposed to be all along.

The rush I feel is similar to last year when we all three of us snuck into the village library and looked at the old papers the elders say we’re not supposed to see. The color pictures show naked people—the ancestors—with their huge, golden bodies—the men with huge, chiseled muscles and the women with huge curving breasts and hips and thighs. Truth be told, my body doesn’t look much different than Coy’s or Kenner’s. But Coy doesn’t seem to notice or care. He is fascinated by my body. I am his single point of focus. For however long this lasts, there is nothing but the sensations passing between us.

As a young child, I saw Mom and Dad in bed together like this. Once on a hot night they were sleeping without covers or bedclothes and I could see everything they were doing. At first I thought Mom might be in pain but then I knew it wasn’t that. She looked at me for just a moment like she was embarrassed or she was about to say something to comfort me but she let it go. The next morning she was calm and happy and so warm with me as though we had shared something important and she was grateful to have had that.

But as Coy moves into me I wonder if that wasn’t pain on my mother’s face, in her noises, all along. And then there is something beyond the pain I’m just beginning to connect with as I feel Coy become more and more excited. I lose what I had and surrender. Seconds later, he’s shuddering and kissing my forehead and my face. I think we were trying to be quiet but I’m not sure we were. There’s no way of knowing whether Kenner heard us. I have this strange feeling about everything. After I saw my parents together, I used to imagine myself in my mother’s place with Kenner in my father’s place. There were times when it felt like Kenner had the same idea but I guess he didn’t know what I was thinking. He never made it real. Coy just made it real.

We take a few extra minutes together but I know that Kenner needs rest too and I don’t want to keep him waiting. For some reason, I get up first and find my clothes. I want to wear my other pants but they need washing more than the ones I just took off. These are the ones Mom made me last year and they’re getting short and tight. But they are tough and tuck nicely in my boots. I’m shaking as I button them and pull on my boots—that takes some strength because my feet are swollen and blistered and the boots are still damp with my sweat and moisture in the ground and, that’s right, this morning we walked through a shallow stream. Coy is holding my shirt for me like I might forget it if he doesn’t wave it in front of my face.

I take it from him and make sure it’s mine. Kenner’s mother and sister made these shirts for all of us—for most of the village. They’re made from soft recycled cotton. Dana, Kenner’s mom, calls the pattern “tie-dye camouflage.” They are twisted and colored with different shades of green and brown. The pants my mom made for me are olive green and kind of blend in with the shirts.

Kenner looks content when I find him outside, sitting on the ground, maybe fifteen feet from the tent, far enough away that maybe he didn’t hear us. I don’t know. He’s eating one of the dried fruit bars that Coy got from his family. These have kept us alive. They don’t weigh much and we still have a lot of them although we’ve been serious about conserving.

Kenner seems distant when he sees me walking toward him. Between my legs it’s wet and I feel Coy inside me with every step I take. Everything will be okay. But I think Kenner may know that something has changed.

 

<<<<>>>>

 

“We were just here to build the better machines.” That’s what my grandfather told my father and my father told me. “We made a big deal of ourselves and look—it wasn’t ever even about us, was it?”

Dad says grandfather could have been wrong. Maybe it didn’t have to be this way and maybe we don’t know how things we’ll turn out. People started hating themselves some time ago and it stuck. “We ruled the plants and animals and now we live among them, even worse, we’re at their mercy much of the time.”

We used to be the “top of the food chain,” Dad says. “Now we’re just food like everything else.”

The new rulers don’t need food or water. That’s their advantage. They can live off light alone. And even when it’s dark they can survive on trapped heat. Nothing feeds off them. They have no natural enemies. And they need nothing from us.

Coy looks at me differently today. I think he feels responsible for me now or something and I don’t like it. Tension circulates among the three of us. I think about what happened yesterday in the tent and I don’t regret it no matter what. We have to live now. I’m fifteen. Coy and Kenner are sixteen. Everything will be fine eventually. I think I know how to handle this anyway.

The land has been hillier for the past couple of days but today we hit flatter terrain and we’re moving fast. We pass wild horses. They’re beautiful. One or two of them look our way, as curious about us as we are about them. Like us, they are the children of a different world. These flatlands were farmlands once. The horses’ ancestors worked the lands with men. Deeper in, you can smell the richness of the soil. In the dampness are hints of red and green vegetables.

My programming takes over and I’m off the road, wandering into an overgrown field in search of what my body knows is there. The horses know too. That’s why they graze here.

“Lees!” Coy shouts from the road.

His voice gives the horses a start. I turn back to him with a finger on my lips. I don’t want the horses to run away or anything else to run toward us. Coy knows better than to shout like that. Not to mention I don’t really like it that he and Kenner always call me Lees.

As soon as my nerves catch up with me a snake slithers across my boots, causing me to freeze for a moment. I know by it’s size and coloring it’s probably not venomous although I recall a picture of one with similar markings that is venomous. I’ll have to chance it. I shouldn’t have rushed into this tall grass. That was stupid. At least with the local horses munching on it daily it’s not any higher than my knees. But it’s still tall enough to hide small rodents and reptiles. And, of course, insects live in here too, as a swarm of mosquitoes quickly reminds me.

But what I’m looking for is close now. The smell of tomatoes on the vine is unmistakable. Not that many years ago, before the drought, we had small gardens growing everywhere throughout the village. Even after the rains stopped we managed to keep them going, walking in water from the nearest stream until that dried up. Plus we were hit by raiders twice during that time. Kenner and Coy and I were still pretty small then. Dad and the other adults hid us and protected us. Our mothers and some of the older girls offered themselves to the raiders, giving them what they wanted more than food or dry goods, hoping they would never come back. I’ve never understood that. If you give someone what they want, why would they not come back for more of what they know they can get? Why do some people give and others take? Why not fight for what’s yours? When you surrender and hope for mercy you’re leaving a lot to chance, it seems like. Anyway, during the time of the drought, the worse it got, the more meager the hunts became. The animals were hungry and thirsty too and their numbers were declining. Our numbers dropped with theirs. Mostly we lost our oldest and youngest. Dad told me not long ago the village population had dropped below two hundred people. When they first started the community, before we were all born, there were more than three thousand people.

The tomatoes are tucked along the edge of a grove that’s begun overtaking this part of the field, hiding the fruit. Somehow the competing root systems have coexisted this long. That’s very good news for us. These tomatoes are bright red and good sizes, some larger than others but all nice and firm and fragrant. I haven’t seen ones like these in a few years now.

As I’m picking and gathering them into my bag, I hear footsteps from somewhere inside the grove. I keep picking until I hear leaves crunching toward me. The noise may be less than ten feet away or I’m frightened and exaggerating slightly. But I’ve got nearly all the tomatoes off the vine and they won’t last all that long and I’m off, backing away cautiously at first and then running back for the road.

Kenner and Coy are there, waiting for me with annoyed looks on their faces. I can tell they’ve been fussing at each other as to which one of them was to blame for my running off. I show them one of the tomatoes and that changes everything. Now they’re following me down the road again and we’re back to something like normal.

A few hours later it’s time to rest again and, as I knew he would, Coy expects the two of us to nap in the tent again together but I remind him Kenner was lookout yesterday. He deserves to rest first. Coy agrees. I let Kenner have the tent and get settled first before telling Coy with no politeness added that I’m beat and need to rest immediately. I found the tomatoes after all and deserve an extended break.

He says nothing in opposition but I know from the tightening of his face and breathing that he’s not happy. I also know he’s hoping I’ll still be in the tent when it’s his turn to rest so he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of things, or vex me into rejecting him.

Kenner wakes up as soon as I crawl into the tent with him. He looks perplexed and sleepy. I take my clothes off immediately even though he’s been sleeping in his same clothes. He looks away at the tent wall.

“Are you going to nap like that?”

I nod, lying down on my side next to him, putting my hand on his chest. “It’s more comfortable. You should too. You’ll cool off some and your clothes will be fresher when you put them back on.”

He doesn’t move. I can feel his heartbeat speeding up. He’s so different from Coy. He’s not going to respond in the same way to me being here with him even though I know he wants to.

I move my hand down to his belt. “Let me help you.”

Kenner lets me help. Moments later we’re undressed together. I put my lips on his. He responds stiffly at first before getting into it. But he’s still so tentative. I have to get creative. He won’t roll on top of me like Coy did so I get on top of him. It’s tricky at first. Kenner keeps falling out of me but we make adjustments, following our instincts, feeling our way through and suddenly were in synch. This is a very different experience with Kenner. He takes his time with everything but his touch is lighter and more attentive I think. His hesitation inspires observation, or something like that. I’m not good at explaining things like this. I’ll just say what is awkward at first becomes the most natural thing, and leave it at that.

My mind goes wild being with Kenner. I can’t explain what it’s like with him except that I flashed on so many things Dad told me about life and history, building better machines but why then is there a force inside us so powerful it turns into what Kenner and I are doing and feeling together? This is our impulse to create more life. How could anything else be more important to us than this? Grandfather would say that’s part of natural selection. Our ancestors would never have survived the perils and basic misery of their existence without this incredible desire to live and make more life. Our great civilizations would never have been built. We’d have never built the “better machines.” Grandfather would have said it’s “simple numbers, darling.” I know his voice from the way Dad does the impression. “Our ancestors had to make enough of us to survive long enough to make more of us and still more of us long enough to reach our potential. Overpopulation was nature’s insurance that we would last long enough to achieve our technological goals.”

It’s the weirdest thing all this is hitting me while Kenner and I are naked together, grinding away. But I’m here with him even though my mind is racing about everything. His eyes are open the whole time, staring up at me. Mine meet his. Something is happening that didn’t happen with Coy. Maybe it’s my being on top, the way Kenner’s pelvic bone is contacting me. I don’t know. It’s like a deep itch yearning a scratch yet fearing it at the same time, knowing that satisfaction means its demise. But I can’t stop this feeling as it takes me over. Pretty soon my whole body is shaking. I can’t help crying out. Kenner looks afraid. I force myself to smile so he knows I’m okay. I remember my mother looking at me from their bed the night I saw them together. She was trying to tell me something with her eyes but she gave up and turned her attention back to my father, holding his head in her hands, looking into his eyes like Kenner is looking into mine. She was embarrassed for herself and for me, and trying to protect me but unable to stop what was happening so she surrendered, knowing everything was really okay. And it was.

And it is. As Kenner and I shake together, I know he’s holding back. We both know that Coy heard me from outside the tent. We both know there will be consequences. Kenner wants to cry out like me—I know he does—but he won’t allow himself to do that—not now.

Later, as we’re gathering our things to get moving again in the early evening, I can tell Coy spent his whole time in the tent awake and thinking silly thoughts. I feel bad that he feels bad but I have to do what I want. He has to know that I don’t belong to him. I’m sorry but it’s just the way it is and has to be. I believe it will all be fine in a while but even if it’s not, I’ll never regret what happened with Kenner because I know it was meant to happen. I’m almost certain now that this is what I’ve been after my entire life. That can’t be right and it sounds ridiculous but that’s the feeling.

We’ve been on the road less than an hour when a large brown rabbit hops out into the road. Without a second’s hesitation, Coy aims his wrist bow and shoots, piercing the rabbit with a black arrow, killing it instantly. This is one of the most shocking moments of my life so far. It’s not like the raids on our village—I know that. This is something different.

Kenner and Coy haven’t said a word to each other since leaving camp until right now.

“What the hell, Coy?” Kenner blurts out in a loud whisper without thinking.

We’re all so used to loud whispering after several days on the road that it’s the same as talking ever was back in the village. It’s just our new language that’s developed.

Coy doesn’t answer him. Just walks to the fallen rabbit and collects it, yanking the arrow out like an exclamation point clarifying his anger in case anyone hadn’t already teased it out of his pregnant silence and hostile body language.

“We agreed.” Kenner whispers again, even more loudly.

We had agreed, just as Kenner says. We weren’t to kill any animals for food unless we had to for our survival. The rabbit will have to be cooked and cooking attracts attention. The light and the smell will draw other animals and humans. This is a huge risk we don’t need to take. But now, out of respect the rabbit, along with our undeniable appetites for something more substantial than dried fruit, pecans and now tomatoes, we know that we will cook the rabbit and eat it.

Coy doesn’t say anything. He reaction was instant. He aimed and shot the rabbit. It’s done. And he did it not because he wanted to eat the rabbit. He did it because he is pissed off at me and he wanted to shoot something. Kenner and I should probably be relieved he didn’t shoot one of us.

All this tension washes away as rain pours down from nowhere. We weren’t watching the sky as the stars disappeared behind dark clouds. The darkness must have seemed like a symptom of Coy’s mood that has become our mood. But this rain is really coming down. We can’t see anything around us but the good news is that there probably isn’t anything out here hunting us. The animals would have known this was coming. For whatever reason, humans evolved beyond this kind of basic life preserving intuition that lets you know when natural disasters are closing in while you still have time to react.

We are all completely drenched. With the storm overhead, there is no moon and no stars. It’s completely black around us. We’re all holding hands somehow. That just happened. I don’t know if I reached out or if one of them reached out. This is how we have to move for now.

Alongside the road, the sound of the downpour has changed from pattering to splashing. A little farther down we’re up to our ankles and quickly up to our knees.

“There’s a river nearby.” I say out loud as if that’s somehow good news.

I’m not whispering because the loudest whisper would be inaudible against the frequent thunder crashes and steady decibel level of driving rain. Before long I’m hip deep in water. Kenner and Coy are each a bit taller than I am but only by a few inches. Things underwater bump into our legs. It’s hard to tell what’s floating and what’s swimming.

Years ago, Dad told me the story of the village down the mountain from ours that disappeared in a great flood. He said they were a decent peaceful people who traded with our village and gathered for social occasions. Torrential rains came one season and washed them right off the mountain. The few survivors joined us. One of them was Kenner’s father, Jurgen.

This is scary—the power of water. I’m in up to my chest, starting to panic when I feel hard uneven terrain under my boots.

We’ve wandered on to a large root system that may have been under a layer of topsoil that washed away. I had no idea we had left the road. There’s no telling where we are now with respect to it.

Kenner has already started climbing the tree.

“Reach up Lees!” He shouts from above me somewhere. “Reach toward my voice.”

Coy’s strong hands are on my ribs now lifting me. Kenner’s hands find mine and I feel my way on to a sturdy branch, slick with rainwater and moss. Coy’s head bumps into my shin as he climbs hurriedly out of the water.

In a few minutes, we’re climbing on to higher branches as the water continues rising. Up much farther and the branches may be too thin to supports us.

“Here.” Kenner shouts, guiding me and Coy with his voice and hands into a Y angle just big enough to cradle the three of us.

Our hands and bodies pile and intertwine as we try to settle in positions that can last a while. Birds and squirrels neighbor us on the outer branches. We don’t bother them. We’re all in it together.

Everything has changed now. I kiss Kenner on the lips and then I kiss Coy, running my fingers through their wet hair. They kiss me back and hold me tight. I know what they want to do but no amount of inventiveness could make that possible here and now.

The rain is finally letting up. It’s still coming down steadily but any decrease in volume is a relief. Enough moonlight breaks through the clouds that we can see each other now for the first time in hours. We all take off our belts and connect them around us and the strong tree branches. Strapped in, we quickly doze off and sleep until well after the sun has risen and neared the center of the sky.

Down below most of the water has run down the hill. I can hear the river from up in the tree and see where it’s coming through the brush, overrunning the banks. The thought of water that’s not stagnant animates me. I climb down the tree without much effort. Seeing where everything is makes it easy and fast.

And I’m on the ground as Kenner and Coy are still waking.

“Lees!” One of them calls after me and then the other.

I almost stop and shout back to stop calling me that. But nothing will deter me from the river.

It’s still raging as I reach the bank and some exploration is required to determine a safe point of entry. By then, Kenner and Coy have caught up with me. They watch me undress and rush in to the water.

“Wait!” Kenner shouts a moment too late, afraid I’ll wash away.

This is careless on my part but the water is shallow enough near the bank and I step carefully, feeling with my toes for any sort of sudden drop off. The slope is gradual and I’m able to get in far enough to start feeling clean. My arms and lower legs are covered with some sort of bite—probably mosquitoes or spiders or something else I’ve never heard of that lives in these trees. The cold water soothes my skin. I cup it in my hands and drink.

Kenner and Coy drop their things, undress and wade into the water with me. We drink and bathe each other and then of course they want more. What began with such lovely spontaneity has become totally predictable. Coy is kissing my back and neck and shoulders while Kenner and I face each other, touching, our fingers going underwater. I have to decide whether to stop this or allow it to continue. They will do what I tell them. But I’m torn and making no decision. I’m not sure I want this but I don’t know if we’ll ever be together like this again. The storm last night scared me. We are all hungry and weak and there are no guarantees anymore. I realize that last night I didn’t let myself think about it but there was a feeling so real that we weren’t going to see today. I can’t bring myself to stop these two boys. What happens happens. I don’t care at all and I care about nothing else. As I let them have what they want I feel their gratitude and tenderness and admiration washing over me like a warm dry river. They are so different and I can see now that they bring the best out of each other. Kenner makes Coy more sensitive. Coy makes him more assertive and forceful.

After drying in the sun and warming up we discover that most of our remaining food was lost in the flood. Two tomatoes are left. One is okay. The other is damaged. We devour them, watery, sour and all.

Our fruits and nuts are gone. The rabbit however has survived the storm in its coat inside Coy’s bag. It looks no worse for the wear and has become a necessity.

Everything is okay again in a sort of miraculous order. Had I not made love to Kenner and made Coy angry he might not have impulsively killed the rabbit and we would all be starving now. This realization calms me. Many ancestors believed in a conscious universe that looked after us. At the moment I feel that could be true.

We agree that the rabbit must be cooked and eaten. We agree the fire should be built near the river. That should disperse the smell and allow us to extinguish it quickly, ideally faster than anyone or anything can assess our location from afar. We work together. We feel together. The time we spent in the river has brought peace.

Gathering sticks and brush I think about the effect my body has on the boys. Many things I observed in the village over the years make more sense now. The way my mother handled my father when he was cross about something, say, getting outvoted in the council—that usually set him off pretty well. She was tender and flirtatious. This was deliberate. I’m not saying it was right but I see the effect. I wonder if most males are conscious of the power they transfer.

The fire is already going. Kenner took care of that. He has a mechanical sense. He’s encircled it with stones. Coy has fashioned a spit from a long thin branch with his knife. He and Kenner are turning it slowly to cook the rabbit evenly.

Debris from the storm made materials plentiful. We’ve worked quickly and in no time we’re eating. I don’t know if the meat is good or not. Hungry as I am, it rates with the best food I’ve eaten in my life.

We put the fire out with water from out canteens. When we’re certain it’s out completely, we head up river a ways, refill our canteens and keep moving. After such a close call last night, it’s ironic that we’re replenished and full of energy. I feel I could walk all night.

We’ve been on the road for what seems like a couple of hours, maybe it’s more like three. At first, the light in the sky looks like an errant moonbeam shining through treetops but it’s moving out of synch with the breeze.

Kenner sees it too and then Coy and we’re all looking up at the huge trees around us when it comes out from behind them. It’s a flying machine. We’ve all heard of them but none of us has ever seen one. From what we’ve been taught, the machines stay mostly around the desert where it’s dry and there is plentiful sunshine.

This one stops above and hovers like it sees us too. All three of us stand transfixed for several moments, wondering if it’s going to attack us. But I don’t believe it will, for some reason. And it doesn’t.

After a minute or so it resumes its course, heading slightly southeast if my bearings are still correct so long after having last glanced at the compass. The incident leaves us all in a strange mood. Again, a sense of wellbeing moves along with us. The machine didn’t seem dangerous at all. Somehow it seemed friendly. But that has to be in my head. A machine couldn’t be friendly in the sense we mean.

“I can’t believe we saw a machine.” Coy finally says with a lightness in his voice.

It’s such an un-Coy thing to say that Kenner and I can’t help starting to giggle about it. Coy hears it too. It’s a child in him that we’ve never known. The machine charmed him. He’s giggling about it too and it makes us all realize something. The village is behind us. We’re somewhere new and maybe that means we are also new.

Our guard is sufficiently down when the rough boys come. As Nan described them, they are more beast than man yet more dangerous than any beast we’ve encountered on our journey. They are dirty. Two of them are completely naked. They communicate in grunts and clicks with each other. We don’t understand their simple language but the meaning is pretty clear.

They mean to harm us—probably to kill and eat us. They moved on us very quietly and skillfully. This is their world. After all our planning and efforts, we weren’t deft enough with the fire. We’ve been found.

One of the three rough boys in front of us wears an animal skin over his upper body that hangs low enough to cover him down to his thighs. Around his neck is the jawbone of some creature. I would guess it’s from a wolf based on the size and shape. I would guess he is the leader, that the skin and bones signify rank.

There are three of them and three of us. We are ready to defend ourselves if that’s what we have to do. They are spreading out, trying to get at our edges. Coy shows them his knife and his bow. Neither deters them. Kenner and I both have our blades out now as well. But the rough boys are still closing.

Coy takes aim with the bow as a last warning. He’s trained on the leader who I don’t think appreciates Coy’s talent with the bow. Instead, he focuses on Coy, continuing to approach him, almost forcing him to shoot.

“Stop!” Coy shouts at him, even knowing the word means nothing.

His tone of voice means nothing either. The boys are still closing on us.

Coy has no other choice. The breeze tonight is gentle and will not impede the arrow. His first shot is perfect. It sails right past the makeshift jawbone armor and strikes the lead boy in his throat, stopping him in his tracks.

A moment passes as he figures out what’s happened to him. I don’t believe he’s ever seen a weapon like Coy’s wrist-bow. As he spins, around, dizzied and disoriented, we can see as starlight falls on his profile that the arrow has pierced his neck completely with the pointed tip protruding through the back. He doesn’t have long.

The other boys are clearly frightened by what they’ve just seen. Coy has another arrow ready to fire at either one of them but they are both transfixed with their young chief, now on his knees, pulling at the arrow, understanding instinctively that the force required to remove it will kill him just the same as leaving it as is. He topples to his side, trying unsuccessfully to fill his lungs in desperate blood gurgling gasps but the damage to his throat and windpipe will not allow it. He suffocates in obvious agony at the feet of his brothers.

We wait to see if they will move on us in revenge or flee to save themselves. The others coming up on us from behind are just as quiet as the first three. Before we even sense them, one has struck Coy in the head with a heavy stick and knocked him to the ground, nearly unconscious. My knife is knocked from my hand while my eyes are still on Coy. Two others have hold of me and they are pulling my boots and pants off. On their breath I smell the flesh and blood of a recent meal. They’re not hungry now and it’s another basic urge that animates them. I understand within seconds that they are going to rape me and there is nothing I can do about it.

Kenner understands this too. He’s trying to fight off three rough boys and get to me. I hear one of them yelp as Kenner strikes him with his blade. I kick one of the boys hard in the head as though I might have a chance and at the same time I discover more understanding of the past. Having always wondered how the women in our village could have allowed themselves to be violated by the outsiders, I know now the way the body reacts when survival is the immediate priority. There is something else in control of me now. I’m not making decisions. Decisions are making me.

I get another kick in but now a third boy has come to the aid of the first two in subduing me. I get a glimpse at Kenner on my way down. He swings the blade again in a wide arc, nearly cutting the boy in front of him as a huge rock sails in to the side of his head, dropping him to the ground. The other rough boys begin stripping away Kenner’s clothing. They are going to rape both of us and then kill us or perhaps, if we’re lucky, they’ll enslave us and we will have a chance to escape with our lives at a later time. This is what now passes for optimism in my life.

The lights in the sky go unnoticed briefly. They’ve arrived just as quietly as the rough boys. Before the boy in front of me can finish stripping my pants, something pulls him away and scares the other two into dropping me in the dirt. The short fall knocks the wind out of me. While I’m gasping for air, I see the most bizarre scene unfolding.

From the flying machines above us, thin walking machines have descended. They are wiry and spherical but incredibly strong and impossible to outmaneuver, though the rough boys are trying with everything they have, swinging wildly with sticks and kicking and throwing rocks.

But they are no match. Within just a minute or two, the machines have the rough boys completely bound in some sort of luminous twine around their wrists, ankles, arms and legs. Two of the flying machines land on the ground. The slender walking machines load the seven rough boys—two of them are actually girls, I can see now—on to one of the flying machines. Seconds later it’s back in the air.

Two other walking machines are tending to Coy and Kenner. Kenner is awake but Coy is still unconscious. I’m incredibly afraid I’ll never see him again. I can’t take my eyes off him and the machines as they examine him and carefully move him on to a device that comes off one of the two machines, unfurling into a gurney. Once Coy is on it, the gurney device levitates and begins floating toward the other flying machine, all on its own.

Kenner is up on his feet with the help of two other machines. I’m starting toward him when I realize one of the walking machines is at my side, escorting me. I turn to it as it enters my peripheral vision.

“You and your friends are safe now.” It says. “You are all healthy enough to survive.”

“Where are you taking us?” I ask it.

“We have a campus ninety miles from here.” It tells me. “You will be comfortable there.”