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|Strangers and Surprises|
The low rumble of an engine woke him. He opened his eyes and the light of the sun was unbearable, he snapped his eyes shut and winced from the pain ebbing in his head. His mouth was as dry as the Si Wong Desert and Kaito sat silently for a few minutes in confusion, trying to piece together the previous day.
He wasn't sure how long he had been unconscious; it could have been days ago and he wouldn't have known. He waited a few minutes to try and collect his thoughts and then forced himself to open his eyes.
After his vision adjusted and some of the pain had subsided he looked to his left expecting to see Kazuma. Sitting there instead was a large bald man, his hands bound in chains, and his face adorned with tattoos. He looked like a prisoner. Kaito sat up straighter in his seat at the realization of his surroundings and noticed a pair of chains wrapped around his own wrists. "This is bad," he said quietly to himself and looked around the prison bus.
The people who occupied the seats around him all wore exactly the same dark gray uniforms, their hands all bound, and none of them looked as surprised as Kaito to be on a prison bus in matching attire. Towards the back of the bus he saw a familiar face; it was the Airbender who had stolen his wallet. She looked as pretty as yesterday despite the gash on her head. She had her eyes fixed to the floor and paid Kaito no attention.
"I'll never get that back." He realized aloud referring to the picture of his father and brother; the Yi Yang would have searched her and taken her things before they put her on the bus. She was a bender too, it was safe to assume that all of her possessions had been confiscated and already picked through by the Yi Yang patrolmen. He kept scanning through the rest of the bus for a sign of Kazuma when his gaze met an elderly woman's who had been staring at him unbeknownst to Kaito until now.
She was extremely small and frail and well, elderly. Her long gray hair was messy and dirty looking and for the first time in his life Kaito wasn't reminded of the absence of grandparents when he saw an older person. She didn't look like she would enjoy being a 'milk and fried dough' grandma. The old woman and the Airbender were the only two females on the bus, both looked out of place but the little old lady seated right next to a towering prisoner was the stranger of the sights.
She didn't look away immediately when his eyes met her, she studied his face, and then looked towards the window to the left of her and apparently Kaito had been forgotten. There was no sign of Kazuma and Kaito began to worry. They had never been separated especially not during a terrible time like this.
Where would they have taken him? Where are we going? He thought to himself.
There was a man driving the bus, and two Yi Yang watchmen stood shoulder to shoulder at the end of the aisle, blocking the doors of the bus so that no one could escape. Bolas, tasers, smoke pellets, platypus bear sting-spray, and all the rest of their little gadgets hung from their belt in case of any incidences.
The Yi Yang all look identical. Their faces are covered by black visors or gas apparatuses, their uniforms are a dark gray and somewhat metallic looking (that's because it was flame retardant), trained to fight and act in the same fashion so that they were indistinguishable from one another. It was hard to even tell they were human. They were fast, efficient, precise, and armed to the teeth in the most advanced weaponry for containing benders.
"We're about five minutes out if you want to start prepping them." The bus driver had looked away from the road momentarily and looked over his shoulder to speak to the two guards.
"Prisoners!" One of the guards boomed loudly. "We are nearly to the gate of Camp Hu Saia. Once we exit the bus you will form a single file line. Those of you who are registered citizens of the Republic State will line up at Marker One, if you are not a registered citizen of the Republic State you will line up at Marker Two. During processing you are only to speak when spoken to, do not speak to one another, or any other prisoners being processed at other markers." He finished giving directions and returned to his professional standing position.
No one survives the prison camps. Kaito thought to himself. He had seen the Yi Yang burst into diners or shops and throw families in the back of their vans bound for the prison camps. They would snatch people off the street and they were never heard or seen from again after they were taken.
His heart felt like it had dropped to his stomach and then sunk like a stone. He started to recall every horror story he had ever been told about the terrible place and it certainly wasn't helping him to calm down. He had heard that they starved the prisoners, worked them to death, and even experimented on them. If you were a bender they would have you squat on your hands and knees and using some kind of explosive mounted to a special glove they would launch shrapnel into your brain, but somehow the executioner would survive the blast. Kaito couldn't even fathom something like that, or the place he was about to be in.
The camp was located in a huge field of desolate earth that was comprised of mostly dirt and gravel. It was the only flat land that the eye could see, however, the camp was surrounded by a ring of mountains and it's land was lush with green but the rocks and jagged edges of the mountain were unyielding, it seemed impossible to escape.
He looked out the window and saw the huge fenced in complex. It was surrounded by a huge iron fence-line; at the top of the fence were mounds of barbed wire wrapped around the top of the perimeter. There were a dozen or so small huts positioned towards the front of the complex which was obviously for administration. The prisoner barracks were long rectangle shelters made of tarp and wood but they were completely empty.
Out in a large field was the entire prisoner population. Yi Yang guards were sprinkled about and supervised the working prisoners. He saw a line of women putting out laundry to dry, some men were digging what looked like trenches in the ground out near the outhouses, some prisoners were gardening and others were knitting. It seemed to be a self-sustaining facility with plenty of variety in jobs but the people looked defeated. They all looked extremely famished. They had sunken eyes and bags of skin hanging from their bony arms and legs. It made Kaito uneasy to look at them so he stopped, That'll be you soon, he thought to himself and buried his face in his hands as the bus came rolling to a stop.
"Welcome to Camp Hu Saia. Stand up. Remain quiet. We'll dismiss seat by seat and I hope you didn't forget where you were supposed to line up. If you did, you've already started your stay here on the wrong foot." The guard boomed. The prisoners followed his directions and everyone stood.
Kaito looked back to the Airbender. He didn't know her but it was the only familiar thing around and something about that was comforting during this dilemma. He felt another pair of eyes on him and for the second time on this bus trip he met eyes with the tiny old lady, this time he looked away immediately. She's probably a murderer, Kaito. Stop staring. He thought. The guards had started to dismiss the pairs from their seats and Kaito waited in torment for them to finally get to him.
"Go ahead seat twelve." The guard had dismissed him and his colorfully tattooed seatmate and the two sidled out of their seats, down the aisle and off the bus. Kaito had to squint his eyes half shut so that he could see after he had stepped off of the vehicle, the sun was harsh today but the wind slamming into the flat expanse the camp was located on was much harsher.
He followed his bus partner and saw a small sign wooden sign sticking out of the ground with a two painted onto it. A few of the faces he saw on the bus in the seats in front of him had lined up in front of marker two, the others were in front of marker one. Kaito found his place in the line of marker two and looked back to bus, curious to see which line the Airbender would line up in.
Prisoners continued to pour out the doors and then just as out of place as she had looked on the bus; out hopped the little old lady, her tiny wrinkled frame and gray hair was the only break in pattern of huge menacing men until he saw the pretty girl climb off of the bus. The Airbender had filed into his line a few spots behind him, and behind her was the old woman with the staring problem. He was examining the gash on the girl's head when she spoke to him sternly and suddenly.
"I obviously don't have your wallet anymore, so quit staring at me." The Airbender said to him, he hadn't even realized she had seen him but either way he wasn't staring at her directly but now wasn't the time to explain. He felt embarrassed for being scolded by the pretty girl but then suddenly got angry.
"You're the only reason I'm here lady!" He pointed a finger at the girl, his wrist shackles clinking against themselves.
"A little gratitude would be appreciated! You stole my wallet, someone knocked you on the head and I had to catch you! They would have killed you if my brother and I hadn't have saved you! A 'thank you' would be nice or maybe a 'sorry for stealing your wallet'!" Kaito had exploded and realized after he was through screaming that nothing he had just said made much sense to anyone besides him and her. He didn't get to kick himself in the head for long, however, as someone had actually kicked him in the head with a boot. Kaito hit the ground face first and his temples started to pulsate again like it had on the bus and now his mouth was full of dirt.
"No talking!" A voice yelled above him that he recognized as the guard from the drive in and most likely the owner of the aforementioned boot. He laid on the ground and closed his eyes.
This couldn't get any worse. He felt a hand on his back and it grabbed a handful of his uniform. He was pulled up from the ground and set on his feet, the guard must have been as strong as an ox-boar because he didn't struggle at all while lifting the teenager. Kaito spit out some dirt and his mouth was impossibly drier than it already had been.
He stood in line miserably and all he could do was wait his turn to be processed. The line inched along for about an hour until finally Kaito was being questioned by a guard with a clipboard.
"Name? Home nation? Age?" The guard asked briskly and didn't look up from his clipboard; he had a pen in his hand and awaited Kaito's response so that he could scribble it down on the paper attached to the clipboard.
"Kaito. Fire Nation. 15." He answered.
"Hey, Granny! Back in line!" The man had looked behind Kaito and was yelling to one of the prisoners behind him. Kaito turned his head and saw the old woman a few prisoners in line behind him. She had stepped outside of the line and was leaning forward, obviously watching and listening to the interaction between Kaito and the guard. She didn't say a word or move to get back in line right away, she kept her gaze fixed on Kaito and out of confusion his eyes remained on her. She eventually nodded to the guard and stepped back into line.
"Your prison number is 341. You'll be staying in House Seven and sleeping in bunk fifty-nine." The guard said to him. Kaito's attention snapped back to the man in front of him who pulled a silver bracelet from his side, he had a ton of them hanging on his belt like a set of keys. He placed the bracelet around Kaito's wrist and pulled another tool from his belt that looked like a small rod, he took the rod and shoved it into a small lock box on the chains and with a crank Kaito was officially Prisoner 341.
"They'll take your cuffs off when you get into the yard. Head through the gate there." The guard instructed him and pointed to a small doorway built within a huge inner wall, the 'gate' had two iron gates opened on both sides. "Move along, move along."****
Kaito trudged towards the gate and searched the incoming prisoners behind him for Kazuma. Either his brother wasn't here, or had been processed earlier and was inside of the prison camp already. He neared the gate and saw a guard on the other side who motioned him through to the main yard.
It wasn't really a yard. It was more of the main field.
The Prisoner Barracks were housed in this section of the camp. There were kids running about but there was no laughter from them like you would expect.
Everyone seemed dangerously skinny and completely broken. No one looked at him in the eye and he could tell by their body language that these people had no hope. This was all they knew now and soon it would be all he knew as well.
LATER THAT NIGHT
Kaito had spent the last remaining hours of daylight wandering the camp looking for Kazuma but had found no trace of his brother or any reasons to be hopeful for escape. He would be designated a job tomorrow and in Kaito's mind that would be the remainder of his life. Digging holes, breaking rocks, or watering fields all while being starved and beaten didn't sound like a very happy ending.
You never checked the gardening area near the bath house. The hope of finding Kazuma was the only thing keeping him on his feet. In the back of his mind, Kaito knew that he wouldn't find his brother but continuing to search distracted him from his surroundings.
There was steam drifting from the windows of the bath house and the sound of crying children, muffled coughs, and running water could be heard. Not a good idea to become a peeping-tom in prison. He decided not to check inside the bath house and continued towards the gardening area.
This was the only place in Camp Hu Saia that had any greenery to it, but even still it was scarce. There were lines of recently tilled Earth before him and in equal distances apart were little sprouts reaching towards the sky. It smelled like fresh soil and oddly something else.
That's incense. The sweet and smoky smell was terribly out of place. He took a big whiff and realized it was coming from behind the gardening shed. It smelled so good Kaito found himself following the trail of the scent without even realizing it.
He turned the corner behind the shed and saw an older man, he had long brown hair with streaks of gray and he was kneeling on the ground. His head was bowed and his hands were intertwined and resting on his lap.
On the ground in front of the kneeling man was what looked like a little house made of various twigs and was all strung together with fishing line. The incense was burning in a wooden holder inside of the tiny stick hut. The faint glow of the ember and the rising smoke from the incense made the house look comforting despite its size.
The kneeling man was suddenly aware of Kaito's presence. He licked his finger and extinguished the incense and then looked up to Kaito. "Please don't tell anyone! It brings me peace, please! I have some spare silver!" The man pleaded with Kaito and pulled on the bottom of his shirt and then dug some silver from his pockets and tossed them at Kaito's feet. It was apparent that he was frightened for his life.
"I'm not going to tell on you. Don't worry." Kaito smiled and bent down to pick up a piece of silver. He cowered when Kaito raised his hand to return the silver. "I'm not going to hurt you or tell on you. I don't want your silver either, here." Kaito tried to sound friendly and threw the man his silver back.
He caught it and after a few moments of awkward silence he started to relax.
"What were you doing, though? I thought you were asleep." He had seen those little houses before but he couldn't remember where. It felt like something he should have known.
"That's called tranquility my friend." The man smiled to Kaito. "I was meditating and paying respects to the spirits with that shrine," he said to him and pointed to the small box Kaito had noticed on the ground.
"The Spirit of this Prison? Seems like a bad thing to honor." Kaito didn't like the sound of it. People who believed in the spirits were the most discriminated against and if they honored something as menial as prison spirits then Kaito could see why.
"No, the Spirit of Lake Saia." The man stood and collected his little twig house and held it up so Kaito could see it. On the inside of the small shrine was a crudely drawn picture of some sort of dragon.
"This was once a huge lake that you couldn't reach by any road. It was untouched by man for centuries and the lake became an oasis for the animals of the forest. Saia, spirit of the Lake within the Mountains, protected them and this land. "The man sighed as he put the shrine under his arm. "Yes, there was much life here before the Republic drained the lake for the iron in the sand. "
"If Saia was real, why wouldn't he intervene? Why would he let the Republic destroy the forest and the lake?" Kaito asked curiously. He had never had much 'spirituality' in general but especially not when it came to the spirits. He could thank growing up in the Republic State for that.
"The Spirits have their own world. They gave us our own world to influence and embodied some of their greatest traits within it so that we could live fully. Saia chose to come to our world out of love. He protected this lake out of love. Mankind betrayed him when they chose to destroy the land the spirits gave them; the lands that he loved so much that he swore to protect. How would you feel?" The man raised his eyebrow inquisitively.
"I would feel like 'spirit-blasting' some Yi Yang butt." Kaito answered confidently.
"A more malicious spirit may have reacted that same way but Saia was benevolent and kind. He was disappointed in us but instead of choosing to retaliate he instead left our world; never to return and that was our 'punishment' in a sense. Do you understand?" The man wanted reassured that Kaito fully understood him.
"I think so." Kaito was half-lying when he answered him. The man must have been able to tell because a moment later he spoke again to clarify.
"The Spirits aid us to be better beings and we disgraced Saia. When we attacked the trees and destroyed the lake he saw it as indirect attack upon him. When the Spirits cross into our world they become mortal and are able to be killed. If we were willing to destroy our own livelihood, the forest, what was to say we wouldn't kill him for sport? What was left for him to here to enjoy and protect except the humans that caused the problem? I do not blame Saia. I would have left mankind to twiddle their thumbs and deal with the chaos on their own as well."
"You talk about this Lake Spirit like it's a real thing." Kaito was intrigued but he wouldn't be fooled.
"The Spirits are a real thing, my friend." The man seemed so sure of himself. He smiled eerily wide.
"Not according to the Republic. They say mankind invented the Spirits so that we could feel as if we had some sort of control or understanding of our own lives and the world we live in." Kaito debated.
The man shrugged.
"You are what you worship. The Equalists worship power and eventually that's what they gained. They want absolute equality which sounds like a good thing but they use a distorted version of the word. The world cannot always be equal because life isn't equal. People get sick while others get rich, people get fat while others starve, and people die while others are being born. Life gives you misfortune and fortune, but never in absolute equal doses. It's up to you to not allow the misfortune to scar you or the good fortune to blind you; you must be at peace within yourself and grateful for the chance of life you have been given."
The man was now staring to the ground and seemed sad. "There are very few spirits left in our world. I'm not sure if the mass exodus of spirits back to the Spirit World is their choice or not but either way the disconnection between the worlds is mankind's fault."
"What could we have done to drive them away?" Kaito wondered aloud.
"We have done many things. I assume that it was an accumulation of many wrong-doings, not just one specific incident. The majorities of people believe that the Spirits have abandoned us or were never real but I believe something is hampering the connection between the Spirits and our world. What I find most troubling is that the very spirit that is the bridge between our two worlds hasn't been reincarnated physically. The cycle has been interrupted but when that Spirit returns to us then the cleansing will have begun." The man smiled hugely and hopefully.
"You mean the Avatar, right?" Kaito had heard the legends. Every kid, even in the Republic State, knew of the old tales of the all-powerful Avatar. The only Bender that could command all of the elements and that was the spirit of the world incarnate.
"Shh!" The man shushed him. "Yes, but do not speak its name. Not around here it only leads to trouble."
The bell started to toll for the prisoners to return to their barracks.
The man smiled and gave Kaito a small carved figure made from some kind of white wood. Kaito took it from the man reluctantly and then examined it more closely. The figurine was of a small dragon who seemed to be smiling maniacally. The dragon was spewing something from its mouth and Kaito assumed it was fire and then realized it was in fact rushing water.
"Is this Saia?" Kaito asked curiously. He traced his fingers along the intricate lines carved into the wood.
"No, Saia is much bigger. It's a figurine of Saia." The man smiled widely again.
"Wow. I would have liked to have seen him in person." Kaito looked up to return the figurine to his new friend but he was gone. He had either mysteriously vanished or snuck off silently within a few seconds. Kaito was baffled.
The bells tolled again for the prisoners to get to bed.
Kaito began to make his way back toward House Seven. He couldn't help but reminisce of the enlightening conversation he had with that man and before he knew it he could see the barracks up ahead.
Even numbered Houses were for the women and odd numbered Houses were for the men. He saw a large group of female prisoners making their way into House Eight and one of them trailing in the back was a face he recognized as the girl who had gotten him into this whole mess. He shook his head in disbelief; This is what you get for trying to help somebody. He continued to berate himself in his head as he got closer to the ramp into house seven when he heard a voice.
"Kaito?" A gravelly voice asked him and it belonged to the old woman who had been on the bus and eavesdropping on his processing with the guard.
"How do you know my name?" Kaito approached her slowly and tried to see if he recognized the woman. It's possible she could have just heard his name earlier and remembered it but something about the way she had been acting seemed as if she knew him. The last of the stragglers had entered their Houses and now he and the old woman were the only prisoners left in the yard, a group of guards started making their way towards the House entrances to lock them up for the night.
"I heard you say it to the guard." She answered simply and smiled at him. Kaito was starting to feel uneasy by her presence. She must have seen the look of confusion on his face and started to explain. "You look very much like your father." She finished.
Kaito's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "You knew my father?!" He half-yelled when he asked and the guard nearest to them looked in their direction.
"Hey! 341 and 367! Get to your bunks!" He yelled at them warningly. The old woman put a finger to her lips for Kaito to be silent and she disappeared up the ramp and into House Eight.
Kaito stood in shock. She has to be lying. How could that old woman know my father? Those questions and many more were racing through his mind and his knees started to feel weak.
"341! Don't make me tell you again!" The guard yelled at him again, Kaito snapped out of it and hurried to his bunk. He was eager to fall asleep so that he could question the old woman first thing in the morning, suddenly prison wasn't so bad.
- Star Wars, Stormtrooper to O-B-1 and Luke on Tatooine reference.
For the collective works of the author, go here.