The flame-thrower spat out another capsule. Following with his eyes the smoke trail that wheezed beyond the forest, the Gunner picked up his weapon and trotted aside. He knew perfectly that the mean enemy would never wait to strike back.
Here it came. The long flame wheezed back and smacked straight to where he had been standing. The retaliation came from the same weapon, to the same point, as usual. Had the Gunner been a bit slower, he would have been screaming in agony by now, unable to wipe off the incendiary plastic, like the actor the day before yesterday... The Gunner shrugged off the scary memories.
He ran up to the front trench. The Colonel looked up at him approvingly. "Well done, Gunner. You gave it to them! The mean enemy will be defeated!"
The Gunner made two more strikes against the adversary before dusk set in. Both times, the vicious enemy retaliated with the same strikes, aimed directly at where he had been standing.
In the evening, the Colonel ordered a bombardment. The Gunner thought the idea wasn't quite bright but never ventured a word of dissent. He put his favourite flame-thrower aside and started tuning up the blaster.
The forest moaned in the night. The volleys of fire were piercing through the trees. Each strike led to immediate retaliation. Dozens of burned or paralysed birds were falling down on the charcoaled soil. Laser beams crossed in the dark sky above the wood like glittering spades.
The firing ceased after half an hour. The men huddled at HQ. There were no casualties this time, except for the slightly injured Sergeant. A stray laser beam had shaved his shoulder, but he never dropped his impulse blaster. It was just a scratch for a tough guy like him.
It was then that they saw a man coming out from the wood, carrying something or somebody in his arms.
"The mean enemy," hissed the Colonel, reaching for his gun.
"A deserter?" suggested the Corporal, already holding the stranger at gunpoint.
"He's no enemy. He's like us," the Gunner asserted stubbornly. Suddenly, a strange thought flashed through his mind: "What does the mean enemy look like?" It had never occurred to him before.
Indifferent to the pointed guns, the stranger slowly climbed down into the trench. It was a boy, not older than ten, that he carried in his arms. The man carefully lowered the boy onto the ground. Then he looked up and said: "Is there a doctor among you? don't know what hit him."
The doctor put down his automatic weapon and examined the boy. Then he straightened and grinned. "Nothing serious. It's just a paralysing beam. It will go away by itself in a couple of hours."
"The mean enemy!" cursed the Colonel looking down at the immobilised body. The (gunner remembered that the Colonel had a wife and four kids back in town.
"The enemy has nothing to do with it," responded the man. "He was hit from your side."
Now, everybody was looking at the Corporal, who reddened and began fumbling with the paralyser.
"It's turned out all right. He'll be OK." The stranger glanced at the men. His grey eyes were calm and serious.
"I am the Wanderer. I have come a long way and I shall leave tomorrow, if you don't stop me."
"Is that your son?" asked the Doctor. The Wanderer nodded.
The morning came but no one had slept that night. They had listened to the stories of the Wanderer. Then they sang. The old guitar was passed from hand to hand. Finally, the Singer started their favourite song. His voice unsteady with emotion, he sang:
Be in peace, beloved ones.
At the riverside...
The rest took it up:
Dark wind blows
But never awes
our valiant sons
They will die without regret
For the sacred goal
Kill the enemy and get
Pride and praise from all.
The Wanderer listened carefully. It looked as if he liked what he heard. Then, he got up and said.
"Thank you for all you have done for us. It's time we went. Let's go, Tim."
They all shook hands and then looked at the two figures walking away, towards the City that the unit had long been defending.
Then, the Gunner jumped to his feet and ran after the Wanderer. Catching up with him, he asked quickly, "You've come from that side of the forest. Tell me, what does the mean enemy look like? I've been here for three years, but the cowards have never walked out into the open!"
The Wanderer silently watched him, but the boy said,
"There's a river there."
"We know it! But where's the enemy?" The boy stared at him and there was something in his look.
"There are old warehouses all along the river. They are all surrounded by a protective field. I once tossed a pebble at a warehouse, and it bounced back, right into my hand..."

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