Jeremy Hanson sat nervously in the corner of the bar. He waited while a second man ordered a beer and brought it and a glass to the table. “Hanson,” the other man said in greeting, nodding as he took a seat across from Jeremy and began pouring his beer into the glass.
“Connors,” Jeremy said in response. He glanced around surreptitiously, but no one else in the bar seemed to care or even to be aware of the two men’s existence. “I suppose you know what this is about?” he asked in hushed tones, leaning low over his own beer.
Alan Connors had been working in this country for three years – just after the civil war had started. He himself considered it more of a rebel-empire sort of civil war, one easily squashed by more ruthless governments, but the current people in power seemed strangely content to let the upheavals continue with minimal repercussion. “I imagine you want to be part of the local unrest,” he answered. “But I don’t see why. You’re not the type to want to take advantage of situations like this.” In fact, Hanson had shown himself to be a very sincere sort of missionary; his focus had been on helping everyone – no matter what side they were on – without question or reservation. Connors waited while Hanson sipped his beer and thought about how best to reply.
“I don’t like what’s been going on in Ritika,” Jeremy said finally. “But I can’t get in there. They know who I am; they know I don’t favour what they’ve done. Last time I tried to sneak in with another group of missionaries, they turned us all away at the gates – rather aggressively. They made it clear missionaries were no longer welcome.” He sighed. “And I don’t really want to die here,” he added wearily, and took another sip of beer.
Connors was aware of what was going on in Ritika. The whole place had a forty-foot wall around it, and inside was a massive compound, built by fundamentalists who had sought an enclave to follow their own religious and political views. They had even declared themselves their own country, but the country they were in – despite the constant upheavals – were not willing to let go of such a big corner of their little piece of the world. “There are places like that all over,” he said to Jeremy. “Why is this one such a big deal to you? I mean, if they’re willing to shoot at you about it, maybe it’s something you’d be better off leaving to the military.”
Jeremy scoffed. “This isn’t some part of the local crap,” he said. “This place was built by my people – missionaries who came here to spread good words, and ended up walling themselves in there like hermits!”
Connors tilted his head to the side and watched Hanson curiously. “Like a lot of other people,” he pointed out. “They’re hardly the first to use the words of their god to justify controlling their fellow men.”
“That’s true,” Jeremy acknowledged. “But that doesn’t make it right.” He looked up at Connors. “And it means what’s happening in Ritika has nothing to do with the civil war. Most of them aren’t even from this country. They openly assault local government at the gates, and nobody – not even the government – seems to care!” He realized he was talking more loudly, and that men at the next table had glanced in his direction; he quickly adjusted his volume, and leaned closer to Connors. “They’re holding people in there as slaves,” he went on intensely. “They’re forcing children into their army.” He shook his head. “If we can get in there, get in to Ritika, maybe we can start educating people in there – people who haven’t seen outside the wall in thirty years – and help them take advantage of the rebels’ situation.”
“That sounds great,” Connors said. “Except for how difficult it is to get in there. They don’t even let missionaries in, Hanson. Not to mention that the people you’re talking about have never been outside the wall, not in thirty years. They may not want to come outside, especially into a country overrun with civil unrest. They may be better off not coming out.”
Jeremy’s shoulders slumped. He hoped this didn’t mean that Connors wasn’t willing to help. Connors was his last chance. “I understand what you’re saying,” he said. “But I think it’s never okay to be a slave. And I think people have the right to know about their own situation. I would do it myself,” he added. “But they won’t let me in.”
“And I suppose you wouldn’t be very good at it, anyway,” Connors said with a faint half-smile. “You don’t seem like the infiltration type.” He drank deeply from his glass. “Well,” he said. “Every place has spies. I’m sure someone’s already in there, figuring out how best to turn Ritika into a tool for their own ends.” He stood up, glass in hand. “I’ll find them, see what I can do.” He bent down and rested his free hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. “But make no mistake, Hanson – we’re starting a tiny little civil war ourselves if we do this, and just because you want to help people doesn’t mean they’ll be helped. The government here has let Ritika thrive for thirty years because it’s gaining something from that set-up, and the rebels have left it alone for reasons that I can only guess at. We could be opening up a really big can of worms.”
“I know,” Jeremy said. “Don’t you think I know? I’ve been trying for a year to get into Ritika through official channels. You’re the only one who’s even agreed to meet with me.” He frowned. “Everyone has the right to be free,” he said.
“I agree,” Connors said. “That’s why I came to this country in the first place. That’s why I’m taking your money, and taking this job. I just wanted you to be real clear on what we’re doing, that’s all.” He patted Jeremy’s shoulder, then casually drained his glass and set it down on the table. “And after this, Hanson, I won’t be able to contact you; you’ll just have to trust that it’s moving forward, and see what happens. This kind of thing can take a while – years, sometimes, if it works at all.”
“I understand,” Jeremy said. He watched as Connors walked out of the bar, then, finishing his own beer in a few gulps, he got up too, and walked out into the midday heat. He thought about his brother Cal, who had come to this country eleven years ago and had never been heard from again – he had disappeared without a trace behind Ritika’s fortified walls, and Jeremy was only here now in search of him. “I understand all too well,” he said to himself, and walked down the narrow street toward his lodgings. “We’re starting a war today,” he murmured to his absent brother. “We’re gonna find you, Cal. I promise.”
With Connors’ help, Jeremy would find his brother – and, hopefully, bring Ritika’s walls down.