Chess, the master thief was running. After long hours of standing in formation, and the supreme effort of trying to will his exhausted brain to focus on unfamiliar tasks, simple exercise felt wonderful.
He crossed the open area in seconds, darted to the left, and hurdled several obstacles in his path. He was alone, outside, and the chill breeze moving over his face smelled like freedom. The pent-up stress of the past few weeks began to fade as he maneuvered. They were pursuing him, he knew; just behind him, but they would never catch him. In a dead run on a straight track, undoubtedly, many would be faster than him, but the area here was complex, full of obstructions: it was familiar, comfortable terrain for him. He dropped to the ground and began to crawl under an expanse of wire. It slowed his pace down considerably, but it would also slow the others, he knew. Despite the effort he was expending, Chess grinned. How could the king’s men ever hope to catch a master thief?
Past the field of wire, a little way off, a smooth, blank wall stood in his path. He inhaled deeply, studying the structure as he closed in on it. He had never tried to climb a wall quite like that before. Over to one side, a steep ramp led from the ground to the top of the wall, and he briefly considered taking that route. However, in the middle of the straight, blank face, a rope hung down as if someone had left it there just for his escape. He grinned again and lunged for the rope, bouncing chaotically against the wall as he pulled himself up. At the top, he balanced for the briefest second, exhaling hard, and tried to glance back. But he had to jump down before he lost his balance.
At the bottom of the wall he paused, listening for the thunderous sound of boots behind him. Unable to discern how close his pursuers were, he crouched and moved toward the edge of the wall, intending to peer around and gauge the distance. Suddenly, he heard a voice near him.
“What the --” a deep male voice exclaimed, and then there was a flash of movement at his side. “Don’t stop. Go! Go!” the voice, close to his ear now, commanded.
Startled, Chess raised his head. For a frantic moment, he wondered where he was, and then, instinctively, he sprang up into a run. Just behind him, a body came crashing down over the ramp end of the wall, barely missing him. “Hey!”
Chess stopped again and turned to stare, blinking, into the face of the girl with the freckles and reddish-blonde hair. Grinning, she darted around him and ran off. He followed.
Chess was not always the first to the finish line in the obstacle course, but he was usually one of the top few. He could have run it as many times as he wanted on his sparse free time, but he was so chronically exhausted that it was difficult, in those hours, just to sit on his cot and hold a conversation.
“So I heard they sent Homeland Defense in to dismantle one, for health reasons,” the girl with the freckles was saying. Her name, Chess had learned, was Mal… and the idea that she was choosing to hang out with him and Dallow was completely beyond his ability to understand. “A whole village. Not too far away from here – maybe a hundred kilometers or so,” she added.
Dallow, who was reading the army field manual on rifle marksmanship, looked up from his link-screen with a frown. “Why would anybody want to live out here, anyway?” he asked, rolling his eyes.
“I guess lots of people do,” Mal shrugged, “but they’re scattered all over the place.”
“Well, why do we have to maintain an in-country army to protect them?” Dallow grumbled. “If they want to live outside, they ought’a be able to protect themselves. I mean, it’s their choice.”
“Maybe they can’t afford to live in a city,” Chess said quietly, staring down at the sheet on his cot. He flicked at a speck of dust and then looked up. “I didn’t even know we had an army that was active within the country. I mean, apart from the soldiers that guard the city gates.”
“Oh yeah, them!” Mal laughed. “What a cushy job that is! You must really have to know someone to get that job: you’re in the army, get paid by the army, but you get to live inside civ!” She shook her head. “Yeah, most of Homeland Defense patrols the settlements outside. My cousin’s in that. My family hears from him once in a while – he always has the craziest stories from outside.”
Next page on Monday...
Among the enlisted men, however, the stress levels were exactly the opposite: their cortisol levels dropped as the attack drew near… (The researchers wrote): “These subjects were action-oriented individuals… Their response to any environmental threat was to engage in a furor of activity which rapidly dissipated the developing tension.” Specifically, the men strung C-wire and laid additional mines around the perimeter of the base. It was something they knew how to do and were good at, and the very act of doing it calmed their nerves.
War by Sebastian Junger
I don’t know what I can add to this! The perception that activity lowers stress is something that I have noticed in my own life, and it was reassuring to see it confirmed by a study done on people in combat. (Imagine having your blood drawn by researchers before and after a firefight!)
One idea that really stood out in this book, War, was the amount of time that the men spent waiting for something to happen. I will mention that difficulty in my story a bit later. Unlike those first-person shooter video games, people in actual combat apparently spend hours, days, and weeks just being “on guard.” Then something happens, all of a sudden, and they have to react instantly to it. That sort of seems worse than being in a situation where one is constantly active. And I think that experience alone would make me more than a little jumpy -- long after I was out of the field.
I hired men to row and took an oar myself, for I had always experienced relief from mental torment in bodily exercise.
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley
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