Of all possible postings for an empowered soldier, there was something exquisitely forboding about the Adirondack Bases. They formed a ring of encampments around the namesake mountains, and looked out on a tidy two mile ring of dry, flattened, utterly devastated earth. Every here and there were the ruins of past invasions. Halted tanks that had been twisted like a giant hand had reached down and wrung them out. Airplanes downed by electrical storms that had been conjured out of nowhere. Bones. Far too many bones. Often the occupants of the mountains would not even allow people to go in to retrieve their dead. They were all empowered families of the Elemental lines, and they had claimed the mountains as their Arcadia.
In the best case, a soldier stationed to one of these bases spent months or years training and watching before moving on. On seven occasions over the past fifty years, the powers that be had decided they had a perfect plan for finally ridding America of this rebellious blight, and reclaiming the mountains. These missions tended to be short on survivors.
But still, the Adirondacks were officially part of America, so every now and then, the soldiers would wake up to find they were part of the latest mission. True surrender of this goal was political suicide. Even the bases were a peculiar compromise between temporary and permanent; a handful of metal barracks and training rooms, but mostly tents. Even in winter. Why go on record as the one who proposed a plan for more long-term structure? That did not go well with career advancement.
The generals were currently project confidence that their new asset would guarantee victory, a week from next Thursday.
The asset was an Arcadian guide. Nobody had seen an Arcadian since they had first laid down their border of wasteland. He looked displaced from time. Handwoven, undyed flannel trousers, rough rusty red tunic, and a cloak dyed woad blue. His escorts into camp spread a rumor that he did not even own another set of clothes, but instead just washed and rewashed the same pair. He used a basin in his own tent, and a bar of hand soap.
He was a short man of about twenty, with thick black hair all over his ears and eyebrows. Even if it was not for his clothing and grooming, he would stand out by the way he walked; not solid and purposeful like the soldiers. He moved like a ferret or a squirrel, with attention that flitted from subject to subject while retaining sharp clarity of focus, and poised feet light enough to seize a prize or flee a threat at a moment’s notice. At dinner in the canteen, he sat alone with a bound leather notebook and scribbled notes with one hand, eating with the other.
On top of the track record of previous invasions and the obvious allegiances of the young man who had their lives in his hands, the word “distraction” was floating around. Nobody knew whether its source was credible or not, but it affected the mood all the same. Soldiers did not like hearing that they were going in as a distraction. Best case scenario, they succeeded with all the risk and none of the glory. Worst case scenario, they were intentional cannon fodder.
It was Private Sorenson who turned the whispers into action. Because of course it was Sorenson. The powers that be might provide the recruits, the assignments and the contacts, but it was Sorenson who judged their worth. The strength of an army was in its unity, and when those on high could no longer inspire faith and determination, the Sorensons of the world stepped in. Whether his test was a fistfight, a bit of banter, or just a night on the town, that test counted for as much as all the arms and supply lines combined. It wasn’t even that Sorenson’s judgment was particularly good. It was more that he knew how to look for all the things that nobody in charge thought to look for. The things that made no difference to the people writing the plans, but every difference to the people carrying them out.
Even before the test began, though, there was something different about Sorenson’s approach. His face was tense, his fists already clenched. The little wrinkle that usually marked his eyes, that newbies missed but that old friends knew to look for, was not only reduced, but completely gone. Today, the canteen audience looked without looking like they were looking.
“Hey,” Sorenson said, towering over the scout. “I got a fucking question for you. Been bothering me for a fucking while now. If your people are such fans of simple living and nature and green shit, what the fuck is with the goddamn desert you made?”
Sorenson was, of course, impossible to ignore. He was leaning over the table, his shadow cutting a circus wrestler outline across the plate of the Arcadian. Even so, the Arcadian made a show of slowly taking another forkful of canned beans and instant potatoes, replacing the fork on the plate, and following the bite with a sip of water before taking a look.
“Well, you keep driving tanks over that particular area, and you must admit it’s a little easier to see them this way,” he said. His voice was surprisingly soft, especially given that his tone was not. He had that deep, old fashioned New England accent that could almost be mistaken for an original English accent. Perhaps that was how all Arcadians spoke now.
Sorenson gave a low, almost gleeful whistler. “Now, of all the fucking answers you could have given, that was not one of the smart ones.”
“Listen, since this is clearly a test of some kind, can we just get to the part where I find out if there’s an answer that will actually pass? Because, and I say this with considerable experience, this is not feeling like one of those conversations that I can get out of without being punched.”
“Sure you fucking can. You can admit your crunchy ideals are all a bunch of hypocritical bullshit.”
“Well, in my experience, any sufficiently large group of people gets hypocritical about something.”
“Really? Tell me, on this side of the mountains, what do they say happened in 1776? Something about choosing to leave a parent nation?”
Sorenson lifted the scout and threw him to the ground. The scout was knocked breathless for a moment. He coughed, raised himself halfway, brushed some dust off his shoulder, and sat back at his meal.
“Now that you’ve got that out of the way, can I assume we are done now?” he said, nodding towards the book.
He was struck in the face, and toppled back into the ground. His upper lip was split and pooling blood onto his teeth. With a sigh, he pulled himself back up into his seat.
“Is your hand all right? I think you got my teeth there.”
Sorenson shrugged, and held up his fist. There was a cut on his knuckle, but the skin pulled itself together and sealed the wound without so much as a mark. He gave a maniacal grin, one his friends had never seen. If someone had suggested that the ghosts of the unburied dead soldiers had swooped in to possess him, half the camp would believe it, and the other half would pretend to be more skeptical than they were.
“Oh, good,” the scout said, even more dryly than before. “We’re all fine then.”
Another strike put him back in the dust, and this time, Sorenson did not give him a chance to get up. The scout had to roll quickly to avoid another strike, and wriggled under the table. Sorenson grabbed him by the ankle and dragged him out. He pinned the scout by the chest, and raised his fist.
“Enough!” A sandy haired soldier grabbed Sorenson by his collar, easily hauling him to his feet despite being nearly a head shorter.
Sorenson pushed him back, but the soldier shoved him back harder.
“Enough, I said. You really gonna kill our only scout to make a fucking point?”
“Maybe if I make the fucking point, bastards on high will find one who isn’t a goddamn crunchy,” he muttered. But his shoulders had already taken on a deflated look, and he stomped back to his meal.
The sandy haired soldier sighed and held his hand to the scout.
“Come on, let’s get you to the clinic.”
“I’m all right,” the scout said, but took the other man’s hand.
The soldier put his hand on the scout’s soldier, and muttered in a low voice, “Trust me, you want to clear the room for a minute.”
The scout nodded, and reached back to grab his notebook before letting himself be lead away.
“I’m Nick Barnes,” the soldier said, when they had left the tent. Sunset was now just a reddish smudge on the horizon, and the first stars were coming out.
Nick Barnes did not say nice to meet you or anything of that nature, but he gave a nod, and the two walked on. Under his hand, Nick could feel a slight tremor in Matteo’s shoulder. There was no external sign of it. Matteo’s face was as carelessly unfazed as it had been during the entire fight (if something so one-sided could be called a fight). But the shaking was there, and the evening was too warm to account for it.
“He’s not usually like that,” Nick said.
“Oh? What is he usually like?”
Nick tried to decide whether he was being mocked or tested. He could not make up his mind. “He’s always rough around the edges, but he’s pretty friendly. Kind of like a big dog, you know? He’s got a sense of humor.”
“Not usually quite so murderous, then?”
“I don’t think he really would have killed you. Might have cracked a rib or two though. When you spend all your time around people who can crack a rock one handed, you forget what a normal person can take.”
“Funny. I’ve never forgotten that most people are flammable.”
“Oh. Still, it’s not like Elementals can’t burn.”
“Not my point.”
“Yeah… all right, it was a lousy excuse. We’re all just pretty tense right now. It’ll get better in the morning.”
The medical tent was nearly empty. The cots were unoccupied except for one private who had broken his ankle yesterday. He had stepped in a gopher hole while playing baseball. The nurse on duty was dozing in a canvas chair. Nick went straight to the supply cabinet and pulled out some wraps and ointment.
“They don’t like most of the guys doing this,” he said. “But I can get away with it.”
“You do this a lot?”
“Just with the guys who throw a fit letting the nurse look at them. So long as I leave the big stuff to the pros and put everything back where I found it…”
Nick ran some hot water through a cloth. He put a hand to Matteo’s neck to tilt his head up, and clean off the blood and dust.
Having nowhere else to look, Matteo studied Nick’s face. It was a nice one, almost too nice. It was one of those faces people put on propaganda posters and advertisements, because it was exaggeratedly just how faces were supposed to look. It almost looked fake. His eyes mitigated that somewhat by not being the ideal piercing sky blue, but just a watery, grayish blue. You had to look closely to notice they really were blue, and not gray or hazel. Matteo liked them for two reasons. First, they made him look a little sad and much more real. Second, Matteo himself had vivid, grass green eyes, but a sort of odd, elfin face, made up of parts that should look nice individually, but somehow didn’t quite belong together. He had gradually come to like it, but only by telling himself that it was charmingly homely rather than actually ugly. This made Nick’s face a sort of perfect reversal of his own, and Matteo liked the symmetry of that.
“All right, it’s not bad. Just bled a lot at first,” Nick put the cloth down and picked up the antibiotic ointment. “Put a bit of that on.”
Matteo cringed at the smell but obeyed. It didn’t sting. Even felt soothing.
“Cut up anywhere else? Anything feel like it’s swelling?”
Matteo shook his head. “Just bruises, I think. I’ve had worse.”
“All right. Just head back to your bunk. Sarge will yell at everyone in the morning, and they’ll leave you alone.”
Part of Matteo wanted to bite back again, but most of him felt done with snark for the evening. He also felt he should say thank you. It was hard to explain what made him start to leave without saying it. Maybe it was the matter of fact way Nick was already cleaning up, like he was just doing some perfectly ordinary duty, and to thank him would be embarrassing more than anything. Even so, before he reached the entrance of the tents, Matteo turned back and said, “Thank you, by the way.”
Nick looked startled, then looked back down and nodded a brief acknowledgement. Matteo started to walk away, but paused again at Nick’s voice.
“I can get you some fatigues,” Nick was saying.
“You know, like what we’re wearing.”
“Oh, that’s all right.”
“Just thinking, maybe part of the issue is that they think if you’re still dressed like that, maybe you can’t be trusted. Like if you’re still in their clothes, part of you is still loyal to Arcadia. Not logical, but that’s people for you.”
“Actually, I am completely loyal to Arcadia. If there was anything else I could do for her, I would do it.”
Matteo waited to see if Nick expected more of an explanation. But it did not seem that he did.