It was only five years. Five years and a chance of one in five that I’d return alive. I poked a stick into the swirling water, catching a small whirlpool and breaking it. This would be the last free day I had… the last time I decided where to go and what to do. Decisions were a luxury item in the Dunn. Decisions like talking to the girl that fished on the shore opposite me. Her long blonde hair would flicker in the sunlight like wheat on the day before harvest, and her laugh would tumble across the water. She was beautiful and elegant and her curves were that of a woman—not a girl. She was from Tanger and while we’d never spoken, in my mind we had. Who would marry her if I never returned? Maybe no one. There were so few males. Sometimes marriage to one girl meant you were taking on the care of all her unmarried sisters.
If I survived, I’d have my choice of females. If I survived.
Before I’d left, I’d been no more than a gelding to the girls around. I was an untouchable. There was no point to looking at a male who was younger than twenty-two. No reason to sow hopes that could be killed when their letter came.
I stabbed at a rock and watched as the soil beneath it spun into the current. What would happen if my letter hadn’t come? Would people have let my time go by quietly and sent their own males off to die? Would I have let them?
Maybe it was as well my letter had come.
Goodbye river. Goodbye fertile ground. Goodbye peace and quiet and hearing the birds in the morning. There were no birds in the Dunn. There was no peace. Not now. Not ever. It was on the front line of defense between the Anbots and the Humans. As long as there were more humans born and the Anbots manufactured more weapons, there would be war. I should be grateful it didn’t spill over into Tereslay. I should be. I wasn’t.
Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I didn’t start this war. I didn’t create the machines that began to feed on us and grow stronger. I would never create a machine smarter than I was. Any fool should have known better than that. I would never insist that every machine have a brain that could be turned against us. I was simply born into this world with its hell.
Father had tried to convince me it would be a growing time for me and I’d come back a man. I knew beneath my father’s word was the word “if.” For the next five years my life would hang on the word “if.” If I survived the first year, I’d most likely survive the next four. If I survived, it might be worth it to me. Veteran sentinels made a lifelong commission and could marry whomever they wanted. If I survived, I might be accepted into town sentinel forces where the worst you’d expect was separating drunks in fights and settling domestic disputes.
It was early, but the girl from Tanger was sliding down the other side of the swift river with a pole. She was sweet as honey and feminine. I waved… sentinel duty was making me bold. It was too late, but that was the way of it. She laughed and waved.
“I leave for duty today,” I yelled above the rushing of the river.
“I’m sorry,” she yelled back.
“What’s your name?” I called. Perhaps I could think about her at night while I tried to shut out the horrors that I’d only heard described. Well, if I wasn’t on night duty…. Perhaps thoughts of her would block out the darkness—the darkness around all hours of the day and night.
“Lauren Fister! What’s your name so that I can watch for you?”
Watch for my name in the casualties, she meant. It was always possible my name would be linked with an award of bravery, but it was still likely to be in the casualties even then.
“NO! Coby!” I yelled.
“Colby?” she yelled.
Eh. Close enough. It was unlikely she’d remember. It was unlikely I’d live.