One, two, three, four.
Auden pushed the steel poker into the soil with each count. He held his breath, waiting to hit a landmine, and found nothing. Exhale. He crawled forward—only a couple of feet—and breathed in. A red bird with viridian-tinted eyes perched on the tree above and watched. The breeze, colder than yesterday, shook the branches, whistling as it passed.
One, two, three, four.
Nothing. He exhaled. Crawling forward, a faraway soldier called out that he found one. Auden dropped his poker, then covered his ears with cupped hands. A minute passed. No detonation—another mine diffused. The bird stayed perched on the tree.
One, two, three-
Auden swallowed. His pulse beat against his neck. With shaking fingers, he removed his poker from the dirt, placed it aside, and clawed at the soil with his bare hands. It stained his fingers and nails. A centipede rushed out from the ground and made him flinch.
The landmine, buried six inches below, glowed a dim black. Like a faded lamp. Its battery would burn for decades to come, and each mine next to the other rendered the forest uninhabitable.
“Got one,” Auden said, barely loud enough to be considered a shout.
Just like in practice, he breathed in deep to steady his pulse, and reached a hand for the centre.
- - -
“None of us are your friends here, understand?”
Auden stood in line with hundreds of other Solan prisoners. Tired, hungry, and bloodied—they’d been dragged from their cells and out to the fields, where armed soldiers guided them into formations. None of them hesitated to shove.
“Under no circumstance, will you expect kindness from us,” the Tien general continued. He spoke a fluent Solan tongue. “Tien has been under Solan rule for the last twelve years. For twelve years, we’ve dealt with your abhorrent race. The atrocities you sand-rats have committed cannot be taken back. Now, your war of conquest has finally come to an end.”
The general, wearing a decorated uniform, paced to the tables set up beneath a canopy. He grabbed a drill cane from his belt and tapped it against a map pinned to a board.
“Your kind has planted over four-point-one million landmines across our forests, where you thought our allies would advance from. You were wrong.” The drill cane slid across the map, to the east. “Our wildlife now struggles to thrive, our woodworkers unable to do their jobs, and where a child may get lost, they will be found limb by limb.”
The general looked over the crowd of prisoners, right to left.
“Nobody wants to see Solans here,” he called. “You serve only one purpose to us. You’ll clean up your mess, and then you’ll be given passage home. Understood?”
No one shouted in agreement.
They trained in sandboxes. An officer walked down a row of soldiers, stopping to yell in their faces. Dozens of inactive mines littered the sand. Auden stood at the end of the line, back straight, hands at his side. The officer approached him.
“Give me your name,” he shouted, his words carrying spit, “sand-rat!”
“Auden Skali, sir!”
“How old are you, Auden?”
“I’m eighteen, sir!”
“And where did you fire your weapon last?”
The officer hit him across the face with an open palm.
“Do not hesitate with me, soldier!”
“I was a medic, sir!” Auden’s voice trembled. “I worked off-field, sir!”
Moving back up the line, the officer gave them their set of instructions.
“You’ll poke for the mine with a steel rod. Once found, you’ll uncover it, then twist the centre. Next, lift the battery. Do not hit the side of the mine with it on the way out. Dispose of both the battery and explosive shell, and carry on to the next. I will not repeat myself.”
As he worked, an officer stood beside him, one hand on a cane. Auden twisted the landmine’s centre—too much force—and fumbled the battery.
“Your face is blown off.” The officer said. The cane came down hard against Auden’s back, and he winced. “You’re dead. Put it back together, and do it again.”
A day later, not given a choice, he rode out on a truck to the forests of Tien.
- - -
His heartbeat would not slow.
One breath. In, out.
A stream trickled further off. The red bird with its viridian eyes watched from above. If he fumbled the mine, the bird would go as well. The soldier next to him turned his head and covered his ears. Auden reached for the centre—it’d be the same as twisting a bottle cap—and then stopped.
A copper wire glinted in the corner of his eye.
“Hey, hey,” Auden said to the soldier beside him. He kept his fingers hovering above the landmine’s centre. The wire dug into the soil, leading to the right. “Hey! Listen to me.” The soldier turned his head.
“They’re connected, our mines. We have to diffuse them at the-”
An auburn-furred deer ran by the trees, branches breaking under its hooves. Both Auden and the soldier ducked their heads. The deer froze to stare at them before brushing its antlers against the ground and ambling off.
After a minute, they both exhaled in unison.
“Luckiest animal I’ve seen,” the soldier whispered.
“Yeah,” Auden said. “If we could only switch places.”
With a nervous laugh, Auden pointed to the soil a step ahead of the soldier. He nodded and dug, noting the copper wire connecting the two. Auden raised three fingers. His ally nodded.
Both batteries came undone—the landmines powered down, their shadowy glow fading to nothing. Auden set his aside and lifted the shell, nodded his head, then stood with the components in hand and made way for the wheelbarrow. The soldier caught up beside him.
“Zeyn,” he said. “Good catch. I wouldn't have seen it.”
“Surprised I did.” Auden disposed of the mine, then shook hands. “Auden.”
At nightfall, he broke his bread in two—there hadn’t been enough rations to go around—and handed the half to Zeyn. They sat outside the cabin alongside other prisoners. Stars found their way into the night sky. A Tien soldier patrolled with a rifle in hand.
“Where are you from, Auden?” Zeyn asked.
“No shit.” He laughed. “I wouldn’t have guessed it. Where in Sola?”
Auden laughed too, careful not to choke on the stale bread.
“Eastern,” he said. “Far Eastern, where we still have sun temples and arenas set up. But go any further east and it’s all soft-sands, where the worms breed to the size of mountains.”
“Really?” Zeyn said. He bit off another piece. “You ever seen one in person?”
Auden nodded. “My brother worked to pilot one—he manned one of the artillery cannons mounted on them. I thought it was great, to see him parade an armoured sandworm through town. Now…when I think of the letters he sent, of how he levelled cities to break morale, I can only hope they’re all dead when I get back.”
“You know, when I get back,” Zeyn said, “I’m looking forward to seeing my mother again. And I’ll tell her I was wrong. She didn't want to me to go, but I was told I’d be a hero when the recruiters came to my doorstep.” He laughed, emotionless. “We were assholes, weren’t we?”
Silence. Crickets chirped in the bushes nearby.
“I was stationed at a field hospital,” Auden said. “Outside Tien, before we surrendered. We weren’t allowed to operate on anybody who wasn’t Solan. We kept anyone else in the hallways, no bed. Most of the time, our soldiers would drag them outside and…” Auden imitated his fingers into a gun going off. “Recruiters told me the same thing. We were supposed to be heroes.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Sola, if you couldn't tell.” Zeyn forced a smile. “South of the capital. Lots of dry, cracked ground. Where we mine the rock used to power those batteries-”
The Tien soldier approached and called out in choppy Solan,
“It is time of sleeping! Lights out, and make no of noise!”
The days passed by, one by one, seven to eight landmines diffused per morning hour. Stacked up in trucks and driven to a disposal site. Progress in the forests came acre by acre. During the nights, Zeyn spoke of wanting to start a bricklaying company—to rebuild Sola from the rubble—and Auden agreed to help.
Then came the rain.
The downpour soaked his hair. Auden shivered in the cold, and the mud rendered the ground slippery. The officers didn’t bother to provide jackets. Crawling forward, he pushed the steel rod into the mud, four times before moving on. Verdant green leaves stuck to his skin.
“Auden,” Zeyn called from the right. “I haven’t seen this type before.”
“It’s boxed. It’s our make, but I don’t know how to diffuse it.”
“Uh…” Auden closed his eyes. “Run a finger along the side to find the latch. Push up and lift slow.”
“Right. Except, the damn ants or termites have chewed-”
A mine exploded further off, and the ground trembled. Auden’s teeth chattered, and he looked over to Zeyn, who began breathing hard. Rain pelted a river, loud enough to muffle their voices.
“Hey, I can’t find the latch. The wood is all ruined.”
“Go slow. It’ll be metal.”
“There’s a damned swarm of these termites, I can’t find it, by the sun-”
A second exploded, closer this time. Auden shoved his face into his arms. Next to him, Zeyn fumbled with the landmine as the ground shook, then tried to recoil back.
A geyser of mud spattered the air, trees swaying, blood raining down. The ringing echoed through his head. Auden got to his feet, staggered, then fell next to Zeyn. He was missing his right arm, blown off to his shoulder. Torn sinew made up for what remained.
“What happened?” Zeyn mumbled. He blinked slowly, dirt covering his eyes. “Oh, by the sun, something’s wrong. I can’t move my fingers. Something’s wrong.”
“Breathe, alright?” Auden said. “I need help!”
Over the downpour, not a soul could be heard.
“Something’s wrong. What happened to the rain? I can’t hear.” He shook his head. “Auden, I can’t hear you. I can’t see…why can’t I…” Zeyn blinked again. “We have to keep finding the landmines, Auden. So we can go home…”
“Help me!” Auden cried. “Somebody!”
Auden struggled to lift him up, tripping in the mud. By the time he lifted him again, Zeyn’s breathing had slowed. He dragged him back to the starting point, where the Tien officers laughed.
“Lost another?” one spoke.
“We’ll drag him to the trench for you,” the other said. “Now get back to it, yeah? You still got a lot more to go. Then you’ll all be walking the forest’s grounds, every square inch, to make sure you got every last one.” He whistled. “Goddess knows I’m looking forward to that.”
Auden kept a rock in his pant leg as the day ended. In the shed the prisoners slept in—locked from the outside—he spent days scraping at a plank of wood near his bunk, pushing it out of place until it would break.
“What’re you…” a voice yawned on a nearby bed. The man turned on his side. “What’re you doing?”
“Leaving.” The board came loose, fresh air seeping in. Auden pried and tore, then threw it aside. “They don’t plan to send us home.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Are you?” Auden said. “I’ve had enough of all this. Do you really think the thousands of us won't be beneath the soil by the time we finish? They’re happy to be killing us off.” He slipped out before the man could reply and only made it a few steps before meeting the barrel of a rifle.
“Out past your curfew,” a Tien soldier said.
He raised his rifle into the air and pulled back on the trigger. Auden ducked. The sound echoed in the night, owls hooting and flying off trees, deer running off.
“Go,” the soldier said. He lowered his firearm. “They’ll all think you’re dead. Run south and avoid the road. It’s Middknight territory miles from here. Look for their blue uniforms, crest of a lion on their left shoulder-”
“Why?” Auden whispered.
“Because my people should be ashamed, and I’m more than disgusted with this war, seeing you kids die. Middknight’s soldiers won’t like you, but they’ll treat you better than we are. Go, now. Before another patrol comes.”
Auden nodded, and took off running.
It’d be a long way to the border.