[Inspired by this map]
“Everyone up! Company meeting in thirty minutes! Breakfast available in the mess hall until then,” yelled Sergeant Tucker. Even in my groggy state, I realized instantly that something unusual was happening. Getting woken up after no where near enough sleep wasn't unusual; in fact, it was becoming the norm. I suspected that the Californian Peoples' State's attacks had been carefully timed to fuck up our sleep as much as possible. They might not even have been seriously trying to capture territory, just wearing us down.
But the lack of urgency in Sergeant Tucker's voice was unprecedented, and he was giving us time to eat breakfast before doing anything else. There was no sound of gunfire, too.
I dressed and followed the rest of the platoon out of the barracks and into the mess hall. It was bright out already, but was in the middle of my sleep anyway because of a grueling firefight we'd had in the middle of the night, in which we'd repelled an attack that had threatened to cut off our last remaining access to the canal.
After a breakfast that was no more appetizing than what we’d been eating, though oddly generous in quantity compared to the carefully rationed meals we’d been getting, we were hurried out of the mess hall and into the briefing room.
Captain Smith began the briefing, “We have surrendered to the Californian Peoples' State.” Hearing that was a relief, to be honest. We should have surrendered months ago, but Colonel Fitch was such a hardass I’d thought it was never going to happen.
Captain Smith continued, “We've reached a deal where, in exchange for surrendering the Sutter pocket, we will be given transportation to Reno instead of being taken prisoner. The first of the buses will be arriving in Sutter in about an hour. Bring your gun on the bus with you, and for God's sake don't ruin the deal by firing at any Californian soldiers. UN peacekeeping forces will be present to ensure the Peoples' State doesn't break the deal. The Californians will try to convince you to surrender individually to be taken prisoner instead of coming with the rest of us to Reno. Do not listen to them. Conditions in Reno are much better than here, so don't think you're better off in a prison camp than in Reno or anything foolish like that. If you have a family here in the Sutter pocket, they'll be coming with you; you're dismissed now, so you can go get them. Everyone else, pack up and reassemble here in twenty minutes. We'll be marching to the bus stop together. Dismissed!”
I was in shock. Why would the Peoples' State offer us this deal? If they'd just kept up the attacks for another couple weeks, we would have collapsed, and I would've thought the Californians would've caught onto this. Maybe the Californians were afraid that Free States of America forces in the Tahoe area would break the siege on the Sutter pocket soon? But at the rate the war's been going, that didn't seem likely, and besides, if Colonel Fitch suspected the same thing, there'd be no way he would have accepted the deal. Maybe the Californians were just bending over backwards to avoid incurring a few casualties (some of which would inevitably be civilians) in the process of taking the pocket by force. Or maybe it was a trick and we were all going to get taken prisoner anyway. The promise of UN peacekeepers made that last possibility seem somewhat unlikely; we all figured the UN was a bit biased in favor of the Peoples' State, but it was unlikely they'd let them get away with breaking an evacuation agreement.
Like most of us, I didn't have family with me in the Sutter pocket (or family at all, for that matter). I packed my things and regrouped with the others, and we marched into town. Another group of soldiers were already waiting at the bus stop when we arrived, and more groups joined us shortly thereafter. Soon, six green buses pulled up and stopped in front of us. It looked like the buses collectively just about fit all of us gathered in front of them, which was a small fraction of the total number of Free States of America soldiers in the pocket, even accounting for the fact that those with families in the pocket weren't present. Probably others were getting picked up in the small portion of Yuba City we still controlled instead of consolidating us all in Sutter first.
Some Californian soldiers and UN peacekeepers got out of the buses. There weren't very many UN peacekeepers; not enough to make much of a difference in a fight if anyone broke the agreement, anyway. But their presence was still useful, since no one wanted to piss off the UN.
A Californian officer held up a megaphone, and spoke, “To encourage you all to give up your arms instead of going to Reno, we're sweetening the deal. If you stay, instead of becoming a prisoner of war, you will gain the rights of California citizens, able to live and work freely in California, and exempt from the draft, with the only additional restrictions being that, until the war ends, you will not be able to own weapons, and someone'll check in on you occasionally to make sure you're not up to anything fishy. If you'd like to go to the war zone in Reno anyway, you may now board the buses. If you'd like to stay, you can just walk right past the buses and hand over your weapons to any Californian officer on the other side of the buses.”
The bus doors opened, and we were ordered onto the bus, officers and senior NCOs standing to the side and glaring at us lest anyone think of not boarding. For the most part, this seemed to work. Everyone near the front of the lines boarded the buses, though once someone walked past the buses, a few more people down the line followed them. I got on the bus. Looking out the window, I saw that the proportion of people choosing to stay was increasing towards the end of the line, but still most people got on the buses. After the rank and file boarded, the officers and NCOs followed. Most of them anyway; many stayed behind, not to give up their arms, but because they had civilian family in the Sutter pocket and would take a later bus with them (a higher fraction of officers and NCOs than rank-and-file soldiers were married, so in particular, more of them had family in the pocket, though still most didn't). Though I did see one sergeant in another company approach a bus, hesitate, and then run past it, to a visibly negative reaction from his company's officers.
The bus's engine started and the doors closed. “All right, let's go,” said the bus driver, “We'll be taking a slightly roundabout route so that we can stay within California-controlled territory until we reach the front line in Reno, but we will get you there in a few hours.” That sounded slightly suspicious, but the officers didn't seem worried, and there were a couple UN peacekeepers on the bus, so I was pretty sure we weren't getting kidnapped.
The bus pulled away, and we were on our way. It was a slow, very bumpy ride across the Sutter pocket and through Yuba City; the war had not been kind to highway 20. But once we left Yuba City and turned South, the ride was pretty smooth. Many of the other soldiers fell asleep. I wished I could do that, but I've never been able to sleep on the road, apparently not even in my current exhausted state.
Just past Placerville, the bus pulled over and stopped. “We're gonna have to stop for about 45 minutes to recharge the bus,” announced the bus driver, “Meanwhile, you can get out, stretch your legs, and have some lunch.” Most people had woken up, and I could tell by looking around at everyone's faces that I wasn't the only one to be surprised by that announcement. It wasn't surprising that these silly electric buses would have to regularly stop to recharge for an extended period of time, but no one had mentioned that they'd feed us, and I wouldn't've expected the Californians to give enemy soldiers free food if the deal didn't require them to. I don't think even the officers on board had seen this coming.
The doors opened, and the food aroma was overpowering. Whatever it was, it smelled delicious. I was ravenous despite having had a larger than usual breakfast about three hours previously, and I think everyone else was too. Some soldiers at the front didn't feel the need to wait for the officers to confirm to us that it was okay to leave the bus, and once they got up, the rest of us followed.
We were parked near what appeared to be an impromptu outdoor kitchen staffed by beautiful young women. We approached them, and were each handed generous servings of food, and immediately started scarfing them down. I stood in silence while I ate, next to Jones and Johnson, who were making small chat while they ate, though I wasn't listening to what they were saying. When I was about three-quarters of my way through the meal and starting to slow down noticeably, a lady with a dazzling smile approached the three of us.
“Hey, I'm Trisha,” she introduced herself, extending her hand. We each shook her hand and introduced ourselves. “How y'all doing?” she asked. There was a bit of a pause as we all processed how to answer that.
I came up with an answer first. “Relieved, but also exhausted,” I said.
“Yup, that,” echoed Johnson, and Jones nodded.
“We've got some cots nearby if you want to lie down for a bit,” she said.
“Sure, that'd be great,” I said. She glanced at Jones and Johnson, but they both declined, and Jones mumbled something about not wanting to miss the bus.
Trisha gestured for me to follow her, and I did. “Do you want to be woken up before the bus leaves?” she asked. I thought about it for a while without answering.
“If I say no, is it the same deal we were offered back in Sutter?” I asked.
“Mhm,” she said.
“What about all my stuff that's still on the bus?”
“We'll get it for you.”
I didn't say anything after that, and she didn't press for a real answer until we reached the door of a building that I gathered was where the promised cots were, and she gave me a questioning glance.
“I'm not getting back on that bus,” I said.
Trisha smiled, said “welcome to the Californian Peoples' State,” and left. I entered the building, fell onto a cot, and fell asleep almost instantly.
I awoke, feeling only somewhat refreshed, but desperately needing to pee. There were several other Free States soldiers on other cots now. I got up, I found a bathroom, and relieved myself. I saw there were showers, with a sign saying “10 MINS MAX” by them. I used to take showers twice that long all the time, but now being able to take a shower for 10 whole minutes sounded like unbelievable luxury. I wasn't sure whether the showers were for me or not, but I decided to just go for it instead of trying to find someone to ask. A clock started counting down from 10 minutes when I turned the water on. I used up almost the whole 10 minutes, and when I got dressed again, it struck me how much my uniform stank. I'd already known we'd been filthy, but I guess I'd adjusted to it and it was only apparent again now that it contrasted with my clean body.
I left the building and immediately ran into a Californian official who asked my name, told me to fill out some paperwork (which fortunately wasn't too long), took a picture of me, and printed out and handed me an ID hard.
“Your duffle bag's right over there,” he said, pointing to my belongings (sans gun) in a pile of luggage, “You can take it now or leave it and come back for it whenever. You can stay in this building again tonight. Tomorrow morning, some of those buses'll be heading back to Yuba City, and others'll be going to Sacramento and the bay. There will be job and housing fairs in all those locations, and also one in Placerville in case you decide to just stay here. We've got some pamphlets here summarizing what the available options will be in case that helps you decide where you want to go. And if you want to go somewhere else in the Peoples' State, let me know, and it is likely we will be able to help you out. Any questions?”
“Not right now. Thanks,” I said. I took a pamphlet, folded it up and put it in my pocket without reading it, and walked back to the bus charging station. The outdoor kitchen was still in operation, or perhaps in operation again. But the people there were different. Most of them were older than the women who had been there when I'd first arrived, and there were also some children present. Their genders were much more balanced, though still majority female. There were also some recently former Free States soldiers like me hanging around.
A woman waved at me as I approached, and it took me a second to realize it was Trisha; apparently not all the women who had been here earlier were gone. She was dressed much more conservatively than she had been earlier.
“This is how you dress when you're not trying to manipulate enemy soldiers?” I guessed.
“Um, not really. There's actually another bus coming soon with the families from your company,” she said.
“Oh, so you're dressing to manipulate a different demographic of enemy soldier.”
“Hm, I didn't exactly sign up to stand here so my fellow soldiers on their way to Reno could stare at me on their way by and judge me for abandoning them.”
“Well, you better scram quick, then. The bus'll be here any moment now. Some of your comrades who joined us are hanging out over that hill,” she said, pointing.
I thought about it. “Actually, you know what, my buddy Kyle and his wife Ashley would probably be on that bus, and as awful as telling them I defected to their faces sounds, letting them find out later in Reno without the chance to say goodbye sounds worse. I'll stick around.”
“I bet you don't eat like this every day,” I said, gesturing at the kitchen.
“Not quite,” she said, “Though there haven't really been food shortages, so we've been eating pretty well. The main limitation is that anything that takes a lot of water to grow is a bit expensive, since we can't grow it in California, and the war hasn't been great for trade. If you're wondering about shortages causing problems, the main thing is water. There's enough to drink, of course, but the water rationing is tight enough that I usually don't get to shower and wash my clothes as much as I'd like. We got a water bonus for participating in these greeting parties, so everyone around here is a bit cleaner than usual. Though we always get to shower and do laundry more than it looks like you guys have been, no offense, so I'm not sure if we really needed to bother cleaning up more than usual. Anyway, I usually shower for about 5 minutes every 3 days and use up my water ration.”
“So that 9-minute show I just took...?” I asked.
“Was part of your defection bonus. You didn’t just use up all your water for the week; don’t worry. I’m just warning you about what things will be like once you settle in. Though not for too long, hopefully. We expect the water crisis to end this year, so it's really only a short term problem.”
If they expected the water crisis to end this year, that meant that they expected to capture sources of water from Free States of America. Holding sources of water and denying them to California had been a deliberate strategy by the Free States of America to try to weaken California, which hadn't yet been terribly effective. We were all starting to figure California would recapture most of those water sources from us instead of collapsing, but if the Californians thought that was going to happen this year, then they were feeling even more optimistic than we thought they should.
A green bus pulled up. Trisha excused herself and ran off to take care of something. I watched people file out of the bus, looking for Kyle and Ashley. Instead, I saw Sergeant Tucker, Lieutenant Dan, their wives, and Sergeant Tucker's five-year-old daughter get off the bus and walk vaguely in my direction. I looked away and pretended I didn't see them. They kept walking closer.
“Private Carlson!” said Lieutenant Dan, “What the hell are y'all doing still in Placerville?” Dammit!
“Goddammit, Carlson! You defected, didn't you?!” said Sergeant Tucker, with a stern look. I nodded sheepishly. This was even more uncomfortable than telling that to Kyle and Ashley would have been. Fortunately, the tension was interrupted by a Californian boy, maybe about eleven or so, carrying boxes of food and handing them out to us. I took one even though I wasn't sure if it was only intended for the newcomers.
The kid stuck around and introduced himself as Ben, and we took turns introducing ourselves to him in between mouthfuls of food.
“They're making you do this?” Linda Tucker asked Ben.
“No, my teacher told us about it as a volunteer activity. No one had to be here,” said Ben.
“Wait, the schools are still running here?” asked Mrs. Tucker.
“Of course. Summer break doesn't start until May,” said Ben. Sergeant and Mrs. Tucker exchanged glances.
“Have things changed around here in the last few years, you know, with the war and all?” asked Mrs. Tucker.
“Yeah, my Dad's away on the front line near Redding. I haven't seen him in almost a year.” Ben looked sad.
“That's it?” asked Mrs. Tucker.
“Uh, I guess so. Mom and my siblings and I are doing fine,” said Ben.
Sergeant and Mrs. Tucker exchanged some more glances. No one said anything, but it looked like they were having a whole private conversation with their eyes.
Sergeant Tucker looked away and made some awkward eye contact with Lieutenant Dan just as Mrs. Tucker said, “We're not going to Reno.”
Lieutenant Dan looked exasperated. “Linda, you goddamn hippy! You know everything's gonna be fine when we get back to the Free States, right?”
“We're not going to Reno,” Mrs. Tucker repeated. Sergeant Tucker nodded. Lieutenant Dan rolled his eyes and let out a disgusted grunt.
While this was going on, I overheard a conversation behind me between a Californian and a Free States soldier's wife who had apparently overheard Mrs. Tucker's exchange with Ben, and asked, “Is school mandatory? I wouldn't want to send my child to a public school.”
“No Ma'am, lots of people homeschool their kids,” said the Californian.
“But people who homeschool their kids still have to pay taxes for other people to go to public schools, right?”
“Well yes, they do pay taxes, Ma'am. Although, actually a fairly small amount of that has been going to schools lately.” The lady seemed reassured by this somehow, even though it was really just a diplomatic way of saying that funds had been diverted from schools to the war effort. I wasn't a big fan of taxpayer-funded public education myself, but I had trouble imagining why anyone would think that was any better.
I heard Ashley's voice, “Hey, there's Cole!” I turned my head and saw Kyle and Ashley running towards me. I left the gaggle I was in, ran towards them, and hugged both.
“So, you defected?” asked Kyle, sounding surprisingly not that disappointed.
“We were thinking of doing the same, honestly,” said Ashley, “Just don't tell the brass over there.”
“Actually the Tuckers are also defecting,” I said.
“You're shitting me!” said Kyle.
“No, they're really doing it.”
“I guess that would explain the tension you can see between the Tuckers and the Dans right now,” said Ashley.
Word about the Tuckers defecting went around pretty fast, and seemed to start a sort of domino effect. When the bus continued on its way to Reno, there were maybe a handful of people still on it. Not including the Dans, amazingly enough.
Soon after, another bus pulled up from the other direction. Private Jones and a few other soldiers disembarked. I saw Jones look through the crowd until he found Private Johnson, who was turned away and hadn't seen. Jones ran towards him and called out to him. They hugged each other. Kyle, Ashley, and I wandered over to see what was going on.
“I thought you were going to Reno,” said Johnson.
“The bus pulled over in South Lake Tahoe next to another green bus, and they told us that since they were both only half full, they'd be consolidating into just one bus for the rest of the trip. After I got out of the bus to board the other one, I asked if it was too late to change my mind, and ended up getting back on the same bus, turning around, and heading back here,” said Jones.
“Wait, I thought they said the bus would be staying in California-controlled territory all the way until Reno. Don't we control South Lake Tahoe?” asked Johnson. “We” might not have been the best pronoun to refer to the Free States by, now that we'd all defected to California, but no one pointed this out.
“Not anymore, we don't,” said Jones, “There were Californian soldiers all over the place. No Free States soldiers or signs of fighting to be seen.”
“Jesus. I wonder why they went that far before consolidating into fewer buses. They could have done that here in Placerville,” Johnson pointed out.
“I don't know, but my guess is they just wanted to flex on us by parking us in front of a California garrison in South Lake Tahoe,” said Jones, “One other thing. Get this: Just before we pulled in here, we passed another station just like this one. I saw a green bus pulling away from it in the other direction towards Reno. Then I looked at the people still milling around there on the ground, and there was Mrs. Fitch with her kids.”
“The Fitches defected?!” Johnson asked incredulously.
Jones shook his head, “Not Colonel Fitch. I only saw Mrs. Fitch and their kids.”
“Yeah, but you might have just not seen him. I mean, if his wife and kids were there,” said Johnson.
“Yeah, sure. I can't prove beyond all doubt that Colonel Fitch was on the bus. But if you seriously think that crazy son-of-a-bitch would stay with his wife and kids instead the Free States of America, then I've got a bridge to sell you.”