The army

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The boundary was marked with a low stone fence. A blonde haired man paused under a tree, his field half plowed. A few yards to the south was the barrier. It did not look impressive - a spaced out line of posts. Each glowed visibly in the night, but during the day the reflective stripes around them helped them stand out. He picked up a handful of stones and hurled them over the fence, towards the pole. Like the others, it was surrounded by about three feet of clear space, then the ground was littered with stones. As soon as the stones were about halfway to the post, a red column filled in the space not impinged on by the stones. A much larger translucent purple globe flared, its diameter about thirty feet, almost reaching the fence. As they had many times before, the stones bounced off the red shield, then both vanished. He sat on the fence and started opening his lunch.

"You do this often." spoke a voice.

The man startled, spinning in a defensive posture, lunch forgotten.

A tall man with long, black hair done in a braid stood by the pole. He was clad in a leather vest, moccasin boots, and a loincloth. Narrowing his eyes the man brushed his blonde hair aside.

"You're a black haired devil." he said.

The man grinned. "I suppose you would say so." he admitted, "But you can call me Akando,(pronounced AHKawnDOH) or Awky for short, if you like. What is your name?" He spoke with an accent, but not a strong ne.

The boy studied him for a long moment. "Mick. Why aren't you changed?" the boy asked.

"Personal shield." he said, tapping a small box attached to his belt.

Mick methodically picked up his lunch and began to eat it in a show of bravery.

"This is my land!" he declared, "What business do you have here?"

Awky shook his head. "Land cannot belong to people."

Mick considered this. "Then why the fence?" he asked, pointing to the row of posts. "Does not that land belong to you, and this land belong to me?"

Awky grimaced. "I don't think you will understand."

Mick snorted. He noticed another black-haired man, this one wearing a tunic and breeches, and sturdy boots, reclining against another of the poles not far away. He had already pulled his hat over his eyes and commenced snoring.

"What? Who is that?"

Awky looked the direction pointed. "Looks like Massy." He stretched and sat down himself.

"What are you doing here any way?"

"We're going to transform you, everybody like you." he stated matter of factly.

Mick snorted, but frowned. That was what the fence did - he well knew the stories. If you were caught in the purple globe you turned into a hare, or fox, or something like that.

"Over my dead body." he stated, "nobody is going to transform me!"

Awky shrugged. "Its not like you have a choice."

A bit further up, another was walking out of the brush. Mick decided it was time to go home.

As he ran along the fence, boots pounding the dust he saw more and more of the black-haired people. Some women, some young, some old. Each took up a post and seemed to be waiting. Some watched him pass with interest, others didn't even glance. He turned away from the fence line and sprinted up the hill. The town constable would want to hear of this!

"Calm down now." yawned the constable, stretching as he moved after napping in his chair. "What are you on about?"

"Black-haired devils!" Mick explained, "All along the border! One said he was going to transform everybody!"

"If you're joshin me," the constable growled, "I'll have your balls!"

"I swear!" Mick panted, "I saw at least a hundred of them!"

The alarm was sounded, the minute men assembled with their mish-mash of guns and pistols, even swords. Mick stood with them atop the stockade fence. A line of black-haired men was moving across the landscape. They seemed to move carelessly, but the line was almost rigidly straight and spaced.

"FIRE!" screamed the constable.

Guns exploded into action, filling the air with noise and smoke. The line kept advancing, occaisonally one of the nearer line members would be momentarily obscured by the red column and burst of purple. As they neared the walls, they sent out a sortee of calvary. The horses thundered towards them, their riders firing their repeating rifles.

Once they were about thirty feet away, the purple globes flared and the riders tumbled from their mounts, writhing on the ground. They were swelling grotesquely, their clothes ripping and popping as they grew. The line paused as several bent down with knives to cut the creatures free of the clothing. Arms and legs thickened, chests barreled, stomach's grew. Tails sprouted from their behinds, hooves replaced hands and thumbs and feet. Their faces swelled and stretched, teeth falling out and new growing in replacement. The line kept advancing, stepping around the twitching former-men. Some of the first to fall were already struggling to shaky hooved legs, grey fur spreading over their darkening skin.

"Mules." Mick muttered.

...

Mick leaned against a tree in the twilight, glaring at Akando.

"Hungry?" the man asked, raising his eyebrows.

"What do you think?" Mick snapped, "I haven't eaten since lunch!"

The man took a paper-wrapped package from his pack, and lobbed it underhandedly to Mick.

"Enjoy!"

"Awky! Que hace? Es buen comida, eh?"

"Whats he on about?" asked Mick, looking between Akando and the other.

"He just thinks I shouldn't give you food. You know it really is easier to just give in."

Mick snorted, and took a bite. It was a mildly sweet bread, not unlike corn bread. Very good, actually.

"So what is this all about?"

Awky considered Mick for a long moment.

"Do you really want to know?"

Mick sighed in exasperation. "I can't touch you, I can't even get NEAR you. You transformed or chased off everybody I know. Of course I want to know why!"

"Its all about our survival."

Mick frowned. "Don't be rediculous, we can't even touch you!"

Awky shook his head. "Are you familiar with the way?"

Mick rolled his eyes. "What, to all according to their needs, from all according to their abilities?"

Awky nodded. "That is one way of saying it. Another is that we extend opportunity to all because it is the surest route to our common good."

"You aren't extending me any opportunity." Mick accused.

"Sure we are. You have the opportunity to become a mule."

"What, and pull a plow the rest of my life?"

"Maybe sometimes, but not very much. Mostly you can graze and enjoy the sunshine."

"Look, I don't want to pull a plow at all! How is being a mule good for me?"

"Being a mule does not endanger our way of life."

"It ends mine, you devil bastard!"

Awky looked sad. "That is unfortunately necessary. I sincerely wish there was a better solution."

Mick shook his head. "What makes it necesary?"

Awky considered this for long moments.

"Well, you know how you live. You have money."

"Yes, sometimes, that is how I buy things."

"Like the gun on your hip."

Mick looked down at the pistol hanging from the gun belt. He had taken it in the chaos from somebody who very shortly thereafter became a mule. "Not in this case, but yes." he admitted.

"How does it work? How is it made?"

Mick blinked. "I put bullets in it, it fires them!"

Awky smiled a little. "Yes, but how do you make one?"

Mick snorted, "What, how'm I supposed to know? I don't make them! The gunsmith makes them!"

"The gun smith has more money than you." Awky stated. "A more comfortable house. Servants maybe?"

Mick blinked. "Well, yes. I'm just a farmer. He's a tradesman."

"You are both people." Awky stated, stretching out on his bed roll "Why should he have more?"

Mick shook his head. "He knows more. He knows how to make guns."

"Why didn't he teach you?"

"Why would he do that? If everybody could make guns, why would we buy them from him?"

Awky nodded. "Exactly."

Mick opened his mouth, then closed it. "Wait a minute. Do you know how to make guns?"

Akando nodded. "Sure." He considered for a long moment. "I don't think I have the words to tell you though."

Mick blinked. "How about your shield?"

Akando patted the box laying beside him on the ground. "Its really just a dual field generator with a single transform program. Much more simple than the fence poles. It uses... " He seemed to run out of words. He grinned ruefully. "I once again have no words to explain. But it is made of wire, and magnets, and... well, very much tiny things."

Mick shook his head. "So you have no tailor."

Akando shook his head. "This was made by one who makes many."

"So you don't know how to sew?"

"Of course I do. And how to spin and weave, how to tan leather, many things."

Mick snorted! "Hah! How can one man know so many things?"

Akando considered. "Mick, how can you know so little?"

"I know much of farming." Mick said defensively, "Learning things takes time! I have to work in the fields."

"You grow much food." Akando pointed out, "Far more than you need."

Mick looked exasperated again. "I sell what I don't need, so that I can buy other things!"

The twilight had faded into full dark. A small light emanated from Akando's box. He could seem similar glows along the line in bth directions.

"What do you buy?"

"Clothes. You know. Beer. Tools. Furniture for my house."

"You could make your own clothes. You can grow cotton or flax."

"Says you. I don't know how!"

"or make your own beer. You grow the grain."

"Well, maybe. But I don't know how to do that either."

"Fashion your own tools."

"Look, I'm not a brewer. I'm not a smith, or a carpenter. I'm not a seamstress, for crying out loud! I'm a farmer!"

"Why not? If you did them yourself, you would not need the money to buy them. You would not need to grow so much food."

Mick snorted and shivered. The night was going to be cool. He pulled down some pine boughs and made a small leanto, pulled his cloak around him and settled in to sleep, Akando's words swirling around in his head.

...

"Mick! Hey, Farmer boy!"

Mick snorted, and started awake, exploding half through his leanto.

"What? Who?" he blinked, trying to clear the sleep from his eye with the glare of the sun.

"If you don't want to be transformed today, you better get moving."

Mick scrambled up, half tripping as he moved away from the already advancing line. "You could give a guy warning!" he protested.

"Sun has been up for an hour. Isn't it a lovely morning?"

He kept well ahead of the line for some time, but then waited for them to near again. When Akando was in earshot he called out.

"Hey Awky. I been thinking."

Akando nodded, tilting his head curiously.

"Not everybody can do everything." he said, "It makes no sense. What if you were good at growing things, but couldn't spin thread worth beans?"

"Then you might need more practice spinning. But some people like doing it. You could probably get some yarn from them." Akando suggested, "or build a machine to do it, perhaps."


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