1.3: "The Messenger"

Written by Carl Coetzee

Edited/Narrated by Zak Zaidi

Scored by Carl Coetzee

 transcript (Scroll down): 

"The Messenger" by Carl Coetzee

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this job, it’s that quiet doesn’t mean peaceful. Especially out here. Oh, sure, being in this desert gets quiet -- most times, it’s dead silent -- but that doesn’t mean you’re safe. It just means whatever’s after you is looking to get the drop. So the best you can do is keep quiet, keep listening, and hope that whatever’s hunting you gets taken out by something bigger first.

Mid-afternoon, the silence is broken by a loud ringing sound. The light on the left side of the room starts blinking red. Quickly, I jump from where I’m sitting and head over to the desk just in time to hear the beeping coming from my headset. Morse code. I jot down the message on a beat-up, dusty whiteboard and quickly tap it out again on my telegraph. I have to be careful -- if I relay it wrong, that’s serious trouble for me. I send the signal along before pulling  out a logbook from under the desk and recording the date, time, and message. Not long after, another alarm goes off and a red light on the right side of the room starts blinking. I re-grab my whiteboard and again relay the signal, sending it the other way before marking it quickly in my logbook.

In the old days, they’d be able to do this instantly. From what I’ve heard, they would bounce messages off of something in space. But communication’s been a lot more difficult since The Great Collapse. The technology’s not as good, mainly. So they’ve gotta communicate through wires instead.

The Settlement, where I live, is split into two cities -- the Eastern and Western Villages. Unfortunately, they’re separated by a miles-long stretch of desert, and the wires just don’t stretch that far. So they each took their longest wire and met each other about halfway in between. And they’ve got a small outpost out there where some poor Joe has to send the messages through. That’s me.

 

Yeah, the job’s lonely. And yes, it’s dangerous being exposed out here. But I’m more than happy to do it. Frankly, anything’s better than being out in that desert alone. Ever since the Great Collapse, the world’s been in a bad way. Everyone’s pretty much out for themselves. Try to survive, try to mind your own business, and chances are that whatever food and shelter you manage to scrounge up’ll be taken by raiders and bandits.  When I was younger, I wandered the desert for years trying to get my feet on stable ground. And I got beat up and chewed up and spat out more times than I can count. But it’s not like that in the Settlement. When I arrived at the Eastern Village, still bloodied from an encounter with raiders a few days before, they didn’t threaten me or rob me or beat me near to death. They took me in. And for the first time, I was given the chance to make a permanent life for myself. I was given the chance to find peace. Or at least quiet. It saved me. So I’m more than happy to help the place out by sitting in this shack and making sure the messages get through.

The sun sets outside, and eventually the messages stop. I put down the headset, walk across the room and grab a steel baseball bat before unlocking the door and venturing outside. Quickly, I walk the perimeter of the outpost, checking for danger before scurrying back inside and starting dinner.

At dinner, I read an article from an old newspaper about some folks outside the Settlement. According to the article, an alliance of travellers and nomads have spent the last few years developing what they call the Edenwood Package: an enormous stash of old, valuable resources. It has the usual assortment of valuable supplies, sure -- oil, steel, freshwater -- but it also has medicine, old textbooks, and rare plant seeds. Stuff real hard-to-come-by these days. It’s pretty incredible, actually- a lot of these resources haven’t been seen since the Great Collapse. That’s what makes it so important -- not only are they valuable for survival, but if you used ‘em properly you could rebuild society itself. The article says that when it’s completed it’ll be given to a group of nomads who’ll search the world looking for the right place to use it. They’ll be marked by a special symbol - a red leaf - to make sure that other travellers who know of them can recognize them and help them on their way.

Hey, maybe they’ll show up here one day. If anyone could help out humanity’s last hope, it’d be The Settlement.

After dinner, I get into bed but have trouble falling asleep. I keep being woken up by sounds of gunfire in the far distance. It isn’t strange to hear that kind of stuff out here, but it usually doesn’t keep me up. I sigh as I turn around, flip my pillow over and go back to sleep.

I wake up to the sound of an alarm as the red light on the left side starts blinking. Groggily, I pull myself out of bed and over to the desk just in time for the day to begin.

Most of the messages that come through aren’t special, just basic military orders. The Eastern and Western villages both have their own armies, and both patrol the same patch of dried-out desert. So naturally, they need a lot of communication to make sure they’re both on the same page.

Lately, though, there’s been a lot more military activity than usual. It’s not surprising; the Settlement’s been facing a threat. It started a few days ago, when the Eastern and Western villages caught wind of a group of invaders travelling through our territory. Naturally, we sent some guys to get rid of ‘em, but it turned out the invaders were surprisingly well-armed. Enough to keep us off them, at least. They’ve been slowly making their way deeper into our land, unscathed by anything we’re doing. Which means that both sides of The Settlement are going berserk. Which means I have my work cut out for me.

I get to work relaying the messages across The Settlement. However, I start to worry about what I’m hearing. Our attacks’ve been failing, and the generals are starting to use messier weapons. Your average skirmish can be surprisingly destructive, but with these new tactics there’s sure to be some serious collateral damage. It gets worse when I realize where the fight is headed; in an effort to keep the invaders away from the two settlements, the fight is moving straight down the patch of desert between them. In other words, it’s headed straight towards me.

Calm down, I tell myself. The Settlement’ll take care of it. All the more reason to do your job well.

Not all of the messages are from the military. A lot of ‘em are politicians talking about whatever it is they’ve decided to get done that week. They’ve really been cracking down on arrests lately, from what I can hear. Especially in the West Village. It seems like every day I’m hearing about some new guy who’s been found out as a traitor. A lot of them are charged with treason and the like. I don’t get it- The Settlement’s the only thing that will protect you out in this desert. Why anyone’d go and betray it is beyond me. Seems stupid, really. Lucky they never seem to get far. The Settlement always finds ‘em out before they can do a whole lot.

By the end of the day, I’m still busy with military updates. Apparently, it’s taking longer than I expected to deal with the invaders. Neither side’s let up. And the enemy’s getting closer. I take a deep breath. I’m sure The Settlement’ll take care of it in the end. Right?

In the night, I’m thrown awake by a large BOOM. Seconds later, both of the red lights start flashing and telegrams come flooding in. From what I can piece together, they tried to attack the invaders in the night, but one of the soldiers misfired and hit a large tank of oil. It’s not clear whose it was.

This fight is getting close. And it’s getting more dangerous.

Things don’t get much better the next day. The telegrams seem to be coming in faster than I can send them. A blur of coordinates, times, and unit numbers all swirl around my head. If I misremember a coordinate and men are deployed to the wrong destination, that’s a whole world of pain for me. Especially at a time like this.

None of our attacks have even come close to stopping the invasion, and they’re starting to take really drastic measures. Calling for more aggressive units. The most destructive weapons. If the fighting was dangerous before, it’s only getting worse. And it’s still heading my way. I’m starting to hear it, far off in the distance.

I close my eyes and take deep breaths. I need to calm down. It’ll turn out fine, I tell myself. Remember where you came from. You walked that desert for years. YEARS! And when you found this place? It saved you. They’re good people. If anyone could keep you safe, it’s them. You need to just trust them. And trust them by keeping at it. The Settlement saved you. The Settlement needs you. You have no reason to doubt them now.

Right before dawn, I wake up to the sound of someone walking along the side of the outpost. I jolt upright, running to the wall and grabbing my bat. Before I can get to the door, though, the man outside the house sees me and points his gun through the window. I freeze and drop the bat, which crashes and rings out on the stone floor. This isn’t one of our guys. He’s dressed in a mishmash of armor scraps and clothes made of old, dusty fabric. Yeah, this must be one of the invaders. And he’s got me at gunpoint. He holds me there for a horrible, eternal second. But then, suddenly, he lowers his gun and runs off. I breathe a sigh of relief. As he runs off, though, I spot something surprising; a red leaf, spray-painted onto the back of his armor.

My mind spins. Wait. A red leaf -- what was that? Where’ve I seen that before? Then it hits me: The Edenwood package. Was that one of the Edenwood nomads? No, it couldn’t be. All the way out here? We would’ve heard. Unless… oh no.

Are the ‘invaders’ really invaders? No, we’d never attack the Edenwood Nomads, right? Right? No, that couldn’t be it. What would that mean for us, that we’d attack humanity’s last hope?  Yeah, it’s valuable, but we’re above that sort of thing. We’d never do that. But...

Everything starts making more sense. The oil tank must have been part of the Edenwood Package. Their weapons must have been, too - that’s how they’d managed to fight us off for so long. They’d entered our territory assuming they’d be safe, assuming that we wouldn’t hurt them. And we knew who they were. And we still attacked them. We weren’t trying to defend our territory. We weren’t trying to defend ourselves. The generals, they knew. They were trying to steal the Edenwood Package.

The red light on the left of the room starts to blink again. Another message. It’s an attack plan. A real bad one. The Settlement was bringing everything this time. Explosive units. Flamethrowers. Tanks. All converging a few hundred feet from me. Enough firepower to destroy my entire outpost. And enough to destroy the Package.

My transmitter blinks, ready for me to send the message along. I take a deep breath, weighing my options. After a few moments, I put down my whiteboard and quietly tap out a telegram. Then, I tap out a second message and send it the other way. I turn off the transmitter and make my way back to my cot, waiting for what’s to come.

I wake up in the late afternoon to a loud banging on my door. Before I can answer, it is shattered open by two men wearing military uniforms. I don’t struggle as they lift me from the bed, tying my hands and carrying me out the door. Outside, they throw me into the back of an old pickup truck that rattles as it drives. I take one last look at the outpost as it fades over the horizon and disappears amongst the ocean of sand. From what I could gather, the attack hadn’t gone as planned. Apparently, some coordinates had gotten mixed up at the last minute; instead of intercepting the invaders, the army arrived to find nothing but sand. Something about a faulty telegram. Who would’ve thought.

A few hours later, we arrive at the prison. It’s an old, concrete building just outside the Western Settlement, caked in sand and surrounded by guards. Without much ado, they hoist me out of the car, fit me with a jumpsuit, and throw me in a small dirt cell on the first floor. When the guards leave, I brush myself off, get into my cot, and go to sleep.

Life in prison is pretty simple. We get up around sunrise, get dressed for the day and head over to the meal hall for breakfast. We work the whole day. At sundown, we eat dinner and go back to our cells. The kind of work you do rarely stays the same. Sometimes they’ll have you sweep the hallways, or wash the prison laundry, or cook dinner in the kitchen. Mostly, though, they’ll have you build weapons. Guns, bombs, flamethrowers-- if they can fight with it, I reckon it comes from here.

I eventually get to know the other prisoners, but to my surprise I’ve already met a whole lot of them. Well, not actually. I’d hear about them back at the outpost -- they’re the ones who get locked up for conspiracy, slander, treason. Enemies of the settlement, the politicians called ‘em. But it’s strange -- when I heard about them, they all seemed so evil. They don’t seem that bad in person. A little quiet, maybe, but fine guys. Normal.

Mostly, though, I keep to myself. The nights here are long, lonely, and full of remorse. I think about the times before I’d found the settlement, wandering the desert, searching for scraps. Scared at each turn that someone bigger would come along and take everything. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t that anymore. Suddenly, I had a plan, a job, a purpose. I’d made a good life for myself. And I’ve thrown it away. I’ve betrayed the only place that’d helped me in my entire life. And for what? To avoid conflict? To make sure some stupid package got across a desert?

But it wasn’t that simple, right? This wasn’t just any package. It might’ve been something bigger. It might be humanity’s only hope. And The Settlement was trying to rob it. Or destroy it. Or… what? I don’t know. But they attacked it. And they were willing to kill me to get it. What does that say about this place?

A few days after I arrive, I wake up to the sound of my cell door opening. Someone else is thrown inside, landing with a thud on the cold dirt floor. It’s dark, and my eyes take time to adjust, but eventually I realize I know who this is. It’s the man from outside the outpost window, the one who spared my life.

As he tells it, he came across my outpost as he was scouting ahead of the other nomads. It had been difficult to move such a large package with all the fighting, and the nomads wanted to know if there was any trouble further down the path. They were able to escape when I messed with the telegrams, but a few days later The Settlement had caught up with them again and captured him. They were after the Package, he told me. And they would probably get it.

Hearing that, I realize that I’d made the right decision. If The Settlement would willfully attack The Package, knowing full well what it was, probably destroying it in the process? I’d been working at that outpost for years. How many other Edenwood Packages had I destroyed? How many of those telegrams hadn’t been what I thought? But now I’m trapped here, unable to do anything about anything. The Settlement’s still going after the package. They’re probably gonna get it. In the end, it’s too little, too late. It’s all too late.

Or maybe it wasn’t.

 

Six months later, I walk into the workshop and plop down next to a thin, grease-covered man tinkering quietly on something. We sit quietly for a moment as he looks around the room for guards. When he sees the coast is clear, he discreetly passes me some parts and a folded message. I say nothing and keep working, putting the items under my leg. A few minutes later, I get up and head for the bathroom.

When I get there, I head for the furthest stall and lock the door. Immediately, I place the parts on the floor. A foot emerges from under the wall, sliding the parts towards it and into the next stall. Before I head back, I unwrap the folded message and begin reading. We have everything we need. These are the last pieces. Tell everyone. It happens tonight. See you on the outside.

 

I smile, fold the message back up, place it on the floor, and pass it along.

© 2020, Carl Coetzee