We stared out the flapping, canvas frame of the infantry truck at the whirls of dust kicking off the dirt road. On one side were open plains blemished here and there by military installations; on the other, the wall that stretches across the breadth of our great state. It had been five hours riding through the night, and we were fidgeting in our seats. Still we had not yet reached the next pickup.
The order had come down while Brodsky and I were on watch. Manning our embrasures, we were collected for an impromptu briefing by our commanding officer, who, prior, had barely acknowledged our existence. He handed us each a cigarette and told us that two men from each sector were being sent for a mission at the easternmost reaches of the border. “Pack quickly,” he said. “The truck is waiting for you below.
Our sector fell just left of the wall’s geographic middle, covering a stretch of 2.9 miles that had seen little action since the end of the war. We were known in the capital, we soon learned, as Sector Dot, and, the Invisible Sector. After the initial sting we carried our rifles with pride. To us, the rest of the wall was invisible, as we had never seen another sector.
Every soldier from our sector came from the same county in the south of the state, most from the small cluster of agricultural hamlets near the mountains where I was born. We had grown up with the same stories our grandparents told about the hysteria before the war, countrymen fighting countrymen — kinsmen fighting kinsmen — and the jubilance afterward once our new state was established. We could all evoke the old state slogans pronouncing the evils of the Northern people as if they had been nursery rhymes whispered in our ears at night.
Brodsky was a distant cousin through a series of unsuccessful marriages. He was large and thickset, prone to breathing through his mouth. I had been told to avoid him when we were children. His grandmother was known to roam the fields at night searching for her husband who had died at the outset of the war. His family bore a reputation of poor military aptitude.
When our lottery numbers were called to serve our five-year terms our families rejoiced. A huge party was held for all the new soldiers, boasting a bounty of food from every corner of the county. The old folks told their stories, and we all listened in our freshly donned fatigues, not yet understanding the tedium of staring all night into the darkness of a silent, enemy land. We listened to the old men’s battle tales, our own feats of grandeur kindling within.
The sun was searing through a slit in the truck’s roof when we finally stopped. We had passed what we thought to be a sector station an hour before without adding new soldiers, and had begun to question the veracity of our CO’s intel. We jumped off the truck and stretched in the white light. Jutting from the base of the wall was a squat concrete building, much larger than our own, and closer to our vehicle, a small wood shed. In the distance the outline of a mountain etched the horizon. No one was in sight. I told Brodsky to question the driver.
Before the glaze had receded from Brodsky’s eyes, an officer came dusting toward us from the station, followed soon after by a pair of austere infantrymen. I stood at attention, relieved at the potential for clarity. The officer looked us up and down. He had a narrow face, sharp at the cheekbones, and a long, pale scar that meandered down his chin. The infantrymen passed us without so much as a glance and boarded the truck. We were told to use the outhouse if we needed, to eat if we hadn’t yet, we were already behind schedule. I asked the officer if he could tell us anything more about the details of the mission.
He squinted at me. “You’ll be briefed fully when the time comes.”
We climbed back onto the truck and took our seats. Our new colleagues sat closest to the cab. In the shadow of the canopied bed I could make out the hollows below their high cheeks, their stoic expressions. They looked so natural amongst the steel and machine screws and weather-beaten canvas that I began to feel fraudulent beside them. They wore the same uniform as we, the same flag upon their sleeve, but that was all we seemed to have in common.
I began checking my gear for the third time, trying to appear busy. Brodsky mashed at the charging handle of his rifle. I produced a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and, offering it to the new men, asked their names.
“Private Dunn,” one of them said, ignoring my generosity. “Private Dent.”
I had no idea which was which. I told them our names, and they barely acknowledged us. I asked if they knew anything about the mission.
“Two men from each sector,” one of the privates said.
The engine growled to life, vibrating the length of our metal benches. As we rode on, the cabin grew hotter, a distinct odor of sweat and gasoline baking around us. The land sprouted tufts of tan and mint green and hunter that reminded me of home.
We reached the next pickup later that afternoon. Brodsky and I swung our legs over the bumper and smoked. Dunn and Dent remained in their seats.
Adjacent to the station, there was a multi-car supply truck with stacks of unmarked crates beside a stock of provisions — enough for a company. An officer was overseeing a small team of soldiers doing the loading, marking items off a clipboard each time a new crate disappeared into the front car. When they had finished, two soldiers peeled off from the group and approached us. The supply truck gunned its engine. As our new conscripts brushed by onto the truck, I gazed up at the top of the wall. A pair of soldiers peered down from the edge, waving.
Once the station was out of view, I offered cigarettes to the newcomers. Ricketts, a short man with a protruding forehead, took one without thanking me.
“Bullshit,” Ricketts said. “This is just some bad joke bullshit.”
We all put an eye on him. Ricketts’ partner, Mankew, who was also short, sighed.
“Just a crank idea some egghead in the capital dreamed up to manipulate perceptions, give the speculators something to speculate about, push some market up a few points.”
I hadn’t heard this sort of talk since a brief furlough in the capital before deployment. It spoke of the conflict with a level of sophistication I had not encountered in our county.
“You know something more about the mission?” I asked.
“Quit it,” Mankew said. “I’m sick of hearing all your shit already.”
“They haven’t heard it.”
Ricketts stomped out his cigarette.
“Let me ask you fellas a question? How many are we here on this vehicle?”
Brodsky and I looked at each other. “Six,” Brodsky said.
“Yes, very good. There are six of us. Six of us so far on a mission where each sector should be represented by two men. How can this be?”
The inconsistency had not occurred to me. We had got on the truck at our sector just left of middle with no others yet aboard.
“One infantry truck,” Ricketts continued. “One supply truck. Where are the other men?”
“Hold your tongue,” someone said. I wasn’t sure if it was Dent or Dunn. “We have our orders from the State.”
“Monkeys,” Ricketts said.
I racked my brain. “There could be more than one envoy,” I said.
“There could be more than one,” Mankew repeated.
We drove through the night at a steady pace, no faster than forty miles an hour at any interval. Sometime near dawn, I startled awake: I’d had a dream about selling our land back home. Everyone was asleep except for Ricketts, who was peering out a frayed hole in the canvas.
“We’re close to the salt flats,” he said. “I can smell them. Got to be five hundred miles or so from the coast.”
The air was cool, the night clear.
“Do you know what a salt flat is, Pinter? It’s a lake where a lake has no business being. It’s the barren, shit-crusted example of why water and desert can’t coexist.”
“Do you really think there aren’t any other trucks?” I said.
“I don’t know, Pinter. I couldn’t say for sure, but I’ll tell you this: It might not matter.”
By first light we had made the next pickup. Two more men came aboard, reedy fellows named Hedgwick and Peersaw. I gave them cigarettes, and they started talking. They said they knew as much as we did, except for something their CO had whispered as he passed them in the barracks: “Be sure to pack a bathing suit. The islands get warm this time of year.”
We picked up more men: Kilroy and Shaker, Beattie and McIlroy. A second supply truck rode behind, its windows completely tinted. Ricketts said he knew where we were headed. There was a cluster of islands off the coast of the divide, disputed territory, lands that had changed hands at least a dozen times since the war. It was a secret war unto itself. The men began nodding as he spoke, all but Dent and Dunn who kept their own counsel away from the others.