Zoe knelt by the tiny trickle of water that seeped out around the rocks. She wet some dirt and caked it on the stings that liberally dotted her face and arms. Zoe breathed a sigh as the mud eased the discomfort. The little girl would be filthy by the end of the day, but she doubted anyone would notice.
There was a scuff of sound and Zoe whirled low into the deepest shadows of the rocks. “It’s just me,” came the whisper. Bright green eyes under a messy thatch of brown peered over the edge of the gully.
The little girl sagged in relief. Sam wouldn’t tell on her.
The boy studied his small friend. “I see you found the bee’s nest. Did you get the honey Robson wanted?”
The little girl nodded. She knew the man’s desire for the sweet. He had impatiently pried open the can and grabbed a honeycomb as soon as she delivered it last time. Zoe pointed to the large tin. She stood and brushed the drying mud off her palms as she moved to the container and lifted it into her arms. Sam shook his head at the picture. The tin seemed almost as big as she was. “You got that okay? Both of us have to get back to the work team. We’re late. I’ll see you there.”
Zoe shook the tangle of tawny-colored hair out of her eyes and nodded toward the top of the gully. Sam picked up his bucket of berries and, with a wave, disappeared over the rise.
The youngster scrambled up the slope. The tin was big and awkward in her arms and she stumbled, jarring the container. She struggled to get her balance. Though she knew Sam would have helped her, she couldn’t allow that. There were consequences if she didn’t pull her weight.
Stopping at the edge of the wheat field, she set the big tin down again and rubbed at the bee sting at the edge of her collar of obedience. Nothing could be done about that particular sting. It was just going to chafe against the hard edges of the band. The collar was impossible to take off. All the kids wore one. Robson had found them in the old prison storage room and used them to ensure the orphans did as they were told. The collar was constructed in a series of overlapping metal flakes. It reminded her of the scales of the snake she had seen near the compound last week.
With a sigh, she squatted down and wrapped her skinny arms around the tin. She got the weight balanced and started through the waving grass. Running was impossible, but she hurried the best she could. Sam was far in the distance and would reach the other orphans probably ten minutes ahead of her.
Robson had generously offered to take in the orphans of the war and teach the youngsters a trade. As long as he produced food for the military, he could use the old prison property for free. Nobody rebelled and lived. It was an efficient system and he didn’t need to pay any guards. He ran the whole operation alone. That was how the children came to be raising food for the war effort.
It was harvest time on the farm and the bigger children of her team were busy cutting the wheat. There was an age range from twenty-five years to six. Zoe was one of the youngest. Everyone worked except Warden Elder Robson, as he wished to be called.
She was given the task of collecting the honeycomb because it was work she could do and Robson took delight in choosing jobs for her that would cause her pain, knowing that she couldn’t complain. Zoe didn’t speak. She hadn’t uttered a word since she had seen her parents killed.
Zoe was in sight of her team. She was short for a six-year-old and the wheat was high. Between her sun-bleached blonde hair and her height, she was indistinguishable from the tall grass if anyone would have looked. She could see Sam reaching the work crew about a quarter of a mile away and a look of determination came over her swollen face as she pressed to increase her speed. Though the wheat field had a gentle slope, the rocks had long since been combed out so she needn’t watch her every step for fear of tripping.
A flash of reflected light caught her eye. Her attention became riveted to the road that wound through the fields. She paused. There was Robson’s jeep and a truck with a canopy stopping by her work crew. She had heard of the culling: the time when the orphans who were around age twenty-four and twenty-five were taken from the farm to fight as soldiers. It happened at the same time the government picked up the food for the war effort. So it didn’t make sense to see them at a harvesting. She knew there were none near that age in her group.
The tin slipped out of her nerveless fingers as several men jumped out of both vehicles. Tears of fear streaked down her face as she saw ten children roughly loaded onto the shadowed back of the truck. These were her friends! The only family she had left! She heard screams. There were some scuffles as a few resisted. Even at a distance she could see one of the older orphans thrashing and fighting the restraints. A big man with a black beret, who Zoe thought was Robson, clubbed the struggling teenage girl. Her body went limp and she could hear raucous laughter as the strangers tossed the girl’s unconscious body in with the others. There was a shout from the crowd as an older boy surged forward. Warden Elder Robson turned toward him and extended his arm.
As if nothing of importance had happened, the group of men got into their vehicles and left the sunny wheat fields.
Zoe leaned down, lifted the big tin and struggled to run. Her balance was awkward and she fell after a few steps, skinning her knees and banging her already sore chin and cheekbone against the container. She wiped tears away so she could see, hoisted the can higher in her arms and moved ahead in an ungainly run.
As she stumbled into the cleared area where the team had been cutting, she dropped her burden and ran forward. Nicholas was lying very still on the ground and the kids were clustered around. Some were crying while others were silent. Sam turned his head and saw her. He opened his arms and she ran to him, tears streaking her muddy face. He held her tightly as her body shook with sobs. Finally, she pulled back and looked into his face. He was one of the few who could understand her and her hands flew in a silent flurry of questions.
He held her against his chest and spoke the answers into her tawny hair. “Robson’s been gambling. He lost a lot of money to some bad men and decided to pay them in slaves.”
Zoe jerked in his arms.
He didn’t wait for her hands to express their denial and outrage. “No, I know we aren’t, but who is to question what he does way out here? The government just cares about the food we produce. Nobody checks on us and our welfare.” He smoothed her hair as he added in a murmur, “They mostly took girls.” His voice shook as he named those who were taken and Zoe’s small fists knotted in his shirt as she listened.
She was still for a minute then pointed to Nicholas.
“Did you hear the pop?”
“Nick’s dead, Zoe, and the others are lost to us. Nicholas went a little crazy when Robson hit Amy and Robson released the full charge of the collar on Nick. It broke his neck. This will happen again because we’re a salable commodity.”
The girl’s hands flashed in the air. Sam leaned his cheek against her hair as he answered. “You’re right. He needs us to harvest and prepare the food for the government, so he’ll wait a bit. But it will happen again. He’ll just get more orphans to fill the cells and the work teams. As long as he can control us with our collars, we are nothing but slaves.”
It was a somber bunch that finished the day’s labor and awaited the truck to bring them home to their dormitories. They loaded Nick’s body, the sheaves of cut wheat along with the bucket of berries and Zoe’s tin on the flatbed truck before the subdued youngsters got on and an older orphan drove them back to the compound.
Warden Elder Robson was standing out in the yard as they drove up. He held the controller device in his hand for all to see. “Unload the truck. Get the wheat into the shed. Team four will be threshing it tomorrow. The kitchen has a treat for you tonight. It’s a gift from me in thanks for your hard work, your continued obedience and your sacrifice.” He gave a soft chuckle at his witticism and looked at each face making sure that they were all cowed. Nobody met his eyes. They all pitched in helping each other unload the laden flatbed as he looked on. At last, the truck was almost emptied. Sam handed the big tin to Zoe and he grabbed the bucket of berries.
A grin spread across Robson’s face. “Ah! Our silent Zoe has found me some honey! Come here, girl!”
With downcast eyes, Zoe approached the big man with her tin. She set it down at his feet and started to turn away.
He grabbed her shoulder and held her there for his examination. “Bees got the best of you, eh?” He laughed and cruelly pinched a large sting on her face, causing her to wince. “Better you than me. Had a bad experience with those little buggers years ago. But I do love their honey. You run along now unless you want me to ask what took you so long today that you weren’t with the crew when I visited. You wouldn’t have been wasting time to get out of work, would you?”
Zoe was wildly shaking her head and backing up. She stumbled, lost her balance, and fell in the dust of the courtyard. Sam rushed to her side and helped her up as Robson gave a snort of laughter and picked up the tin.
Disregarding the children, he wrapped one beefy arm around the container and pried off the lid, knocking it aside as he stuck his hand in the gooey sweet.
Bees flew out of the tin. Zoe’s eyes opened wide in horror as she’d been unaware there had been any within the honeycombs. They took out their ire on the nearest human.
Robson staggered back and fought to get his hand free of the clinging honey and the bees in the tin. He was stung numerous times on his face, neck and arms. He looked in horror at the children. “Allergic . . . help m—!”
He slid to his knees, gasping for breath. The controller dropped from his fingers and the honey container rolled away. Robson’s neck muscles corded as he strained to suck in air, his throat closing.
Sam and Zoe watched in shock as the man fell over in the dirt. It was but a few moments later when the big man lay quiet. Word spread and a silent crowd gathered around the still form. At last, Chris, one of the oldest orphans, approached and knelt beside Robson to feel for a pulse. There was none. He reached over and picked up the hated controller from the dust. He slid a lever down the side, pointing it at the small tawny-haired girl. She gasped as she heard a click—and the collar dropped away.
“Thank you Zoe,” he said as he pointed the device at each orphan in turn, freeing them. “You didn’t know. None of us did. But I’m not sad he’s dead! That tin of honey has given us a future.”