The Last Ingot
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The sand was starting to look a lot like gold. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the exhaustion, or maybe it was his mind fixating on why he was out here in the first place. The sheer folly of walking across a desert was more and more apparent with each step he took, his legs aching and his throat crying for water. The only reason he was even out here was in the river valley ahead. As vain and selfish as it made him, he was in too deep to even think about doing anything else.

But that wouldn't matter if he died of thirst on his way there.

He walked on the road, aching feet pressing on the worn earth, his pace measured. Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other helped him ignore the pain, and the distracting thoughts of what would happen to him if he was caught. Or how he'd get out of the country, for that matter, if he even found what he was looking for. Backpacking, bartering, and begging his way to a place like Europe or Antipodia would be hard enough without having bars of gold on his person.

Gold. His battalion had elected to go off on its own and fight the Coalition for their stockpiles of the precious metal, even though it was of no strategic objective in the war. The officers wanted it for themselves, and had convinced enough of the troops to go along by promising them some. Perhaps the unit would be punished for it, much like he would if he was found. As far as he was concerned, if they had been fighting for the same thing that he was now looking for, then he couldn't be judged.

He'd still be judged anyway. That's generally how it went.

Miles passed. The river, when he reached it, was a godsend. He knew from looking at the map in his pocket it would be there, and for all he knew it was contaminated, but his empty canteen and his thirst came first. The abandoned forward operation post on the other side came second. This was definitely used by the battalion.

Despite the swollen river, he had little trouble wading across and climbing the bank on the other side. There wasn't much to scavenge in the outpost, though the handful of nutrient bars one of the buildings was a miraculous find. He did not need use of the artillery guns now sitting silently just outside the perimeter.

The abandoned jeep presented its own question. He'd have no problem starting it up and driving it for as long as it had gas, but there was a risk of being mistaken for an enemy by whoever was left in the area. He took a look at the hilly road leading upriver, in the direction he was headed. It signified, first and foremost, a lot more walking.

He mused that if he was found by almost anyone, he was a dead man anyway. Might as well ride in relative comfort, then. The jeep's keyless ignition sputtered to life, and he pulled out of the outpost.

More miles passed, faster now. Despite everything, he felt better about not having to walk anymore.

The first signs of fighting had started appearing. A burnt-out walker sitting in the road, at the crest of a hill. Over that hill was a small farm by the river, or what was left of it. Empty fields with furrows ruined by tire treads surrounded a cluster of pockmarked buildings. A handful of disabled vehicles and the odd corpse served as macabre decoration. He didn't stop to inspect any of them.

It was much the same at every other sign of civilization he passed. Some part of him hoped that the people who lived here were evacuated before any fighting began. The town he was heading towards was supposed to be some sort of strategic area next to a dam, so it would make sense to evacuate people when war broke out.

The rest of him expected nothing good from any of this. It felt like grim confirmation when he reached the town itself. It was completely devastated. Almost all the buildings were missing entire walls at best, with most having been skeletonized, or collapsed completely. Rubble was everywhere, destroyed tanks and walkers acting as cherries on top of a morbid cake. The river side of the town was flooded, from what he realized was the destroyed dam in the distance.

Apart from the circling birds, there wasn't a living being in sight. So much for his good mood.

His map had a small circled X on it, located deeper in the town. Leaving the jeep behind so he could climb over rubble, he avoided whatever bodily remains he saw. Once or twice he could make out ones in Coalition uniforms, and others in the uniform he himself formerly wore. This place wasn't just destroyed, it was unmade.

He felt unmade himself. He was nobody now, considering what happened to deserters. Abandoning his unit out of disgust, then realizing he needed to do something to avoid being caught…and the best plan he could come up with was to essentially do what they did and pick over the scraps. Even one bar would do. Ignoring nagging thoughts about hypocrisy, let alone getting out of here and finding a buyer, he concentrated on finding the X-marked spot.

A clearing in the rubble awaited him, marked with footsteps and vehicle treads. Next to it was the partial remains of a particularly large building, a bank or secure storage facility or some such thing, one half collapsed and one half still standing. This was supposedly where the gold everyone had fought for was stored, and it looked like it was already picked over. When he started this journey, he was angry at the idea of launching an attack just to take gold. At that moment, staring at the damaged building, he didn't feel much of anything. He needed rest, he supposed, but first he wanted to get this over with.

Stepping into the ruined building, it was hard to miss the destroyed vault door and the room it led into. The smell of explosives was still in the air as he looked at the mess inside. Smaller containers and crates had themselves been blown open, with the contents obviously emptied. His eyes drifted over the room, over the soot on the walls and piled on the floor with plaster dust and other grime. A bit of it looked like it glittered.

Was it just tracked in sand, or…

Bending down and sifting through it revealed a single bar of gold. It must have been flung here and overlooked in the clamor.

He picked it up, the ingot heavy in his dirty hand, the possibilities and dangers flying through his mind while he just stared at it and took it in. Oh, he definitely understood why men were mesmerized by this stuff. Some were willing to kill for it, even. Now that he had it, he suddenly wondered, was he willing to kill to keep it?

He honestly couldn't tell himself what he'd do to keep it. It was a bridge to cross later, or hopefully never, if he was careful enough. The key to making himself a new man, or at least a man not scavenging in a war zone, was in his hands. Was he a new man now? It didn't really seem like it. Maybe he was. Or maybe he needed to get out of there and find somewhere safer first. Placing the gold in one of his pockets, he spent only a couple minutes sifting for more before leaving the building. The bloodstains on the walls were not his doing, but the atmosphere inside was still starting to get oppressive.

Stepping out into the dimming light, he realized he now needed a plan to survive the desert night. The best he could come up with was curling up in the jeep and hoping it and his scavenged clothing would retain enough heat. Maybe he could use the gold as a pillow. He shook his had and chuckled. At least he had a chance to establish himself anew, and that was worth trying for.

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