Foot Soldiers

by Steven Sheffield Cooke

 

Pede snuggled in the warm hamper, wishing he could remain here forever. This was what it was all about. The only thing better was the crisp sparkly feeling that energized him when he emerged from the dryer. At times like these, Pede knew he had a special purpose; he just hadn’t found out what it was.

Light flooded the hamper. Washday had arrived. Pede was tossed into a cool metal tub reeking of stale soap and hard water. Bunched next to him was a sweaty old tee shirt. Pede didn’t mind; he was already dozing off. A stream of cold blue liquid ended the nap. The lid slammed shut, letting the darkness loose. Quarters jangled into the machine. Hot water flooded the tub, creeping up the sides until everybody was soaked. Even this wasn’t enough to keep Pede awake for long. He drifted off with the warm memory of comfy hampers.

*****

Pede awoke a while later. He felt different. The familiar bumping and clanging noises were there, but they were coming from other machines, not his. His weekly bath had been interrupted before, but never quite like this. He was no longer wet. Something had gone wrong. He was pressed against a hard wall, unable to move. That was unusual in itself. Up to this point, Pede had never had any desire or ability to move about on his own. Why was he suddenly thinking about things like this?

The motion of his machine stopped. Pede fell away from the wall and joined some of his hampermates in a loose tumble on the bottom of the machine. The tee shirt was nowhere to be seen. A small hatch near the top creaked open and the toe-piece of an unfamiliar sock poked through. Pede had never seen this hatch before. Every other time he had been in a tub, he had always entered and left through the big opening on top.

Suddenly, Pede felt a tug and found himself being drawn toward this new portal. Several of his drawer-buddies were going with him. None of them looked like they were enjoying this either. As he reached the hatch, Pede was sucked through, only to start sliding down a long dark tube. When he reached the end, he found himself in a pile with scores and scores of other socks. All of them were strangers. How long had he been asleep?

Once the pile leveled out, Pede noticed he was in a narrow hallway that led off in two directions. Up and down the curving corridor, socks were stuck near the walls, heel-to-heel and toe-to-toe. There were many styles: arrogant dress socks, colorful knits, and pedantic grays. Off to the left side was an old cotton relic with ancient darning scars and unpatched holes. He was only one of many heavy-duty sports socks with dual color stripes.

Pede looked for his mate. They had gotten separated during a routine wash load almost two months ago. Recently, Pede’s life had been a cycle back and forth between the warm hamper and the wash cycle. He was getting plenty of rest, but he longed for his mate. He also missed those trips outside. Besides that, he was getting out of shape—a few more washings and he would be too shriveled and distorted to serve his regular function.

“Hey, does anybody know where we are?” The question came from an argyle with yellow diamonds. Similar questions echoed up and down the line.

“I remember being in the washer.”

“Yeah, what about that hatch?”

“Who took us out?”

“Why are we here?”

Pede listened to the exchange without adding his own questions. Nobody seemed to be getting any answers. This activity amazed Pede when he stopped to think about it. He could not remember trying to communicate with other articles of clothing before. He’d been aware of their presence of course, but had never had any reason or inclination to try and talk with them. He found this exciting. He wanted to join in, but could not think of anything important enough to say. All of the good questions had already been asked. Pede listened intently, but soon started to doze off again.

*****

After a time, the sounds of activity came from around a bend in the corridor. A small parade of olive green military socks stomped into sight.

“Attention troops! Everybody listen! We all need to assemble at Main Base as soon as possible. We don’t have much time. Everybody form into ranks of twelve and follow us. Come on! Double-time it!”

The military types turned smartly and tramped off. Pede looked at the others as they formed rough ranks by the dozen and hustled to follow. Everyone was too surprised to talk. Pede was too startled by this turn of events to notice he was moving around on his own for the first time. By the time this sunk in, he was hustling to keep up with the tide of marching socks hustling down the corridor.

Mechanical sounds banged and clanged around them as they made their way. At one point they tromped through a rough hole in the wall. After that, the walls became narrower and dirtier. The flooring sloped upwards in a lazy spiral. The novelty of moving about quickly became boredom as the marching went on, and on, and on. Then they came upon a large door and were forced to stop. They had arrived, but where?

A green light came on, accompanied by a soft buzzer. The door slid quietly upward, allowing several squads through before the door started to close.

After a brief period of semi-darkness, another door opened and the socks trooped into a meeting area. As the socks moved forward, it was obvious their squad was just one of many new arrivals. They filed down ramps and chutes, emerging on the floor of a huge hall. Hundreds upon hundreds of loose socks were crammed seam-to-seam in long ragged rows. Everyone shuffled together until it seemed the room would burst.

Background conversations swelled as they tried out their new voices. Nobody seemed to know what was going on, but that didn’t stop everyone from trying to find out what someone else knew.

The electronic squeal of microphone feedback brought a wave of silence over the group. All attention was now focused on a raised dais. A grayish-green sock, heavily bedecked with gold braid, was moving toward a small lectern in the precise center.

“Attention! Your attention please! I know you’re all wondering why you’re here. You have been recruited to help us overcome the entrenched positions of our invading enemy. I shouldn’t have to remind everyone about the socknapping, torture, and mutilation that have plagued our kind. Who among you has not lost a mate or buddy recently? This is all because of the evil efforts of the Seersucking Sock Slavers. We cannot waver from this mission. You will be divided into squads and issued orders on the way to your battle zones. Good luck!” The packed room exploded into bedlam. Shouts of “What enemy?” and “Why us?” echoed amongst a myriad of others. Everyone was trying to find out what was going on from others more ignorant than themselves.

Doors banged open. They were pushed back up the ramps. There was a series of circular metal conveyances lined up along the rampways. They looked like they could barely hold a dozen socks apiece.

As soon as each container was filled, it was whisked quickly upward on some kind of cable. Pede was crowded into a bin with a dozen other tube socks, a couple of argyles, and a pea-green heavy-duty sock with a sergeant’s insignia neatly stitched along one side. Most socks were paired up with their mates. Pede was one of the few mate-less socks in the squad.

No conversation was possible when the ship was jumbled and shaken and raised into the air. The roaring motion seemed to go on forever. When the silence returned, it had a sound of its own.

“Okay, troops, listen up!” The sergeant took advantage of the silence to take control. “We only have a few minutes until the drop-off point, so listen closely. I can only do this once. I’m sorry we didn’t have time to train you, but the enemy offensive is already underway. We have to stop them before it’s too late. We will be dropped behind their lines to create whatever diversions we can. Central Control has asked us to locate their communication and power centers. We have to inflict as much damage as possible.”

A red light winked on. “We’re there, get ready.”

“Wait,” asked one of the argyles, “how do we get to the battlefield?”

“You gotta be kidding,” laughed the sergeant. “Just spread your wings.” A buzzer sounded and their transport turned upside down.

They fluttered wildly for a moment as a barren landscape of whites and tans rushed at them. The sergeant bellowed his instructions, trying to explain how to control their descent. When Pede thought he understood the general idea, he tried it. He usually caught onto things pretty fast. He had to this time; those that didn’t, dropped from the class in a hurry.

By flaring the wide edges of his opening, while keeping the rest of himself rigid, Pede was able to capture the rushing air, slowing his fall and giving himself some control as he ballooned downward. Others were not as lucky. A green-and-yellow-banded sock had a large toe-hole. The wind whistled right through, letting him plummet in an uncontrollable shriek. A brown dress sock held himself too rigid. He inverted, turning outside-in. A couple of others had minor mishaps that sent them spinning toward the patchwork of colors below.

As Pede ballooned downward, he tried to view the area. He’d never heard of a Seersucker Sock Slaver before, but they sounded pretty awful. He wanted to avoid contact with them if possible.

The bulk of the group landed safely in a dirty spot behind some large white buildings. A red-and-blue-banded guy blew off course and landed in a patch of wires. He was badly torn as he fell through. He landed in a patch of running water, which carried him to a drain hole where he was sucked away. Another hapless sock blew into one of the buildings. He lost his wind and fluttered straight into the ground.

The sergeant signaled for a medic. A pair of red-and-white socks rushed up with a small hamper. They piled the victim in and sprinted off.

“C’mon, let’s move it!” the sergeant bellowed. “Get your threads in motion, NOW!”

As the troops rallied around the sergeant, the chanted melody of a marching song drifted through the still air, “Over heel! Over toe! Marching proudly as we go! With those dryers, spinning, around…”

Pede’s squad followed the sergeant past the first white building. Everyone kept up the pace. After a brief pause, a distant booming sound caused the sergeant to spin around. He signaled for everyone to flatten out.

“Incoming! Hit the dirt!” Most troops followed his lead, but a few confused socks stayed upright, twisting around to look.

Moments later, a whistling sound pierced the quiet. A puffy white ball impacted on one of the upright socks. He was instantly covered in sticky threads. “Lint traps! Everybody run for it!”

The squad was up and moving fast. The extra incentive given by watching the lint-covered sock get plastered to the pavement was enough to keep them going hard.

They scattered in all directions. Some charged straight ahead. Others diverted along a wall. Another group headed toward a wooden section. Pede was with a couple of guys that squeezed into a gap between the white buildings. They were the lucky ones.

The running group went through a patch of debris that must have contained a hidden switch of some kind. Strands of thick wire were suddenly springing into their path. At strategic points along the wire, briars were carefully affixed. The group stumbled into these snags before they could stop. Not a single sock in that group escaped the ambush.

The troops heading the other way ran into a section of puddled water where dust bunnies wallowed in slime. Suddenly, they were pulled through the air, directly into a series of parallel metallic strips. “Static!” screamed the sergeant. The rest of his group joined him on the wall. They were stuck like they had been glued there. The retreating group also ran into trouble. When they got under the wooden platform, small snake-like tendrils dropped down and snapped onto the fleeing socks. “Garters!” cursed one of the older argyles, like he’d seen their kind before. The garters made fast work of snapping up the scrambling socks. When they were done, the unlucky prisoners dangled limply.

Pede had paused to watch the progress of the other groups.

When the last one had been captured, he moved to follow the other two socks that had moved to the far side of the white building. They moved around the corner. Their screams halted Pede in his tracks. He took off in the other direction, not pausing to see what he’d missed. He had no interest in meeting his Seersucking enemy.

Running blindly, Pede started to realize how alone he really was. He was cut off from the sight of any friendly forces, probably far behind the enemy’s lines. Pede found himself approaching another bank of white buildings. This group featured a large circular window in the front of each one. He stretched out in the cool shadows underneath the window of the last building on the block and tried to figure out a plan.

A short while later, Pede heard, but from his slumped position could not see, an enemy commander giving orders. “Okay soldiers, this power outpost is the main source of energy for the local defense grid. It provides the power for our entire wing. I don’t have to stress how important it is to protect it from those darned socks.”

Pede could not believe his luck. Of all the places to blindly wander, he had stumbled upon this. He took time to think. He shouldn’t waste this opportunity. He couldn’t return to his lines. Right now, he wasn’t even sure which way the lines were. He needed help. He looked around at the area, trying to see enough detail so he could find it when he returned. The row of buildings with the circular-glass windows was the best landmark he could see.

As Pede was surveying the landscape, the sounds of a nearby battle intruded. Pede went racing around a corner and saw a group of socks trapped in a shallow depression. He ducked down and headed toward them.

He cleared a small ridge and found a dozen socks trapped in a narrow gully. From a shoebox outpost, a squad of the enemy was bombarding their position with lint bombs. Static lines cut off both flanks.

It was his first glance at the enemy. From this distance, he could not see them too well. All he got was a brief impression of small, round metallic bodies, with sharp barbs and edged surfaces. They had a captured sock out at the edge of the shoebox and were ripping parts of it to shreds in an attempt to get the other socks to surrender. Pede ducked back and circled the hill.

When he arrived behind the shoebox outpost, Pede found a loose scrap of metal and used it to short out the static lines. The resulting discharge blew him heel over toe. When he regained his sense of direction, the shoebox was a smoking ruin. The socks that had been trapped were cautiously looking up to see what had happened.

Pede called out to them, “C’mon guys, move it! They’ll have reinforcements headed this way. Stretch your seams, NOW!”

They all tried to out-yell each other as they raced up, gushing thanks.

Embarrassed by this attention, Pede calmed them down. He looked at the torn remains of the sock that had been tortured by the enemy. He couldn’t let that happen to any more socks. “There’s no time left. I found something that seems important to them. Let’s go destroy it.”

Pede outlined a simple plan; all he had time for under the circumstances. He moved his ragtag platoon over to the thick grey cable of a power conduit.

Several of the socks volunteered to let themselves be seen, luring off the guards. Pede went to work on the cable. As the balance of his platoon engaged the enemy, he worked the plug-end loose from its receptacle, and then faded back, waiting to see what this would accomplish.

Within a short time, an elite group of green socks ’chuted down from the skies. With them was a heavily decorated Field Marshall. With their help, they quickly finished off the last of the Seersuckers. Once their high-tech weapons lost their power, they were surprisingly easy to dispose of.

At this point, the Field Marshall addressed the ragged bunch of socks Pede was with, “Who’s in charge of this unit?”

Pede spoke up, “I think I am, sir.”

“You caused all this destruction?”

“Destruction, sir? I don’t understand. I heard this area was important to the enemy, so we disconnected the power cable. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

“So, you don’t even realize what you’ve done?”

“No, sir, I don’t.”

“Trooper, what is your rank?”

“Sir, I was just recruited. I’m not even sure if I have a rank.”

“Who gave you the authority to proceed like this?”

“Nobody, really. My sergeant had ordered us to harass the enemy as much as possible, but he was captured before we got too far. Did we do wrong?”

“On the contrary, this power station was fueling the enemy’s weapons for this entire sector. We’ve been trying to find it since their invasion began. Hundreds of your brothers have perished or been captured since the battle began. Our High

Command was almost ready to start negotiations for surrender, when suddenly, a short while ago, all of the heavy artillery facing us stopped firing. We now have those Seersucking Slavers in a full rout. You have done a great service to the United Brotherhood of Socks.”

The return trip to the headquarters area was filled with a series of detailed explanations. The trip passed quickly. Rumors circulated about the wild battles still occurring on the other fronts, but the enemy was not winning anywhere, from the sound of the reports.

When they arrived at the assembly area, they were ushered into sick bay. Starched white medical socks steamed off their dirt, darned their snags, and removed their burrs. When they had been fixed up and were resting, a load of badly mistreated socks was brought through the entry. They were stained and soiled, some had bad snags and others were almost ripped in half. The scuttlebutt going around was that the crews still out fighting had found a prisoner camp and liberated them. It did not look like some of them were going to ever cover a foot again.

Later, Pede was led down a long hallway, emerging through a wide doorway. It looked like every sock in creation was laid out in neat rows beneath him. Pede was sobered slightly as he noticed how empty the back rows were. Before the action had begun, this room had been crammed to capacity.

Pede was promoted to Unit Commander. His squad all received special commissions. For Pede, the high point of the ceremony came when his mate was trundled out on a support gurney. He was all stretched out and limp, but Pede had faith everything was going to turn out for the best. He was part of a pair again; happy until he thought of all the mate-less socks still out there.

As they were transported back to the areas where they had been recruited from, Pede was besieged with questions. It took a while, but he grew tired of retelling the same story.

*****

Pede awoke with a dizzy feeling. He was tumbling around with other cotton and polyester items. He had a flash of fear. Were they being attacked again? Then, he recognized the familiar feel of the dryer. He was home. He was unable to move or speak. Things were back to normal. Oh well, it had been interesting while it had lasted. The only thing he was going to miss was the ability to communicate with others.

Pede started to doze off again, when he noticed a sparkling object. A bright medal with the word “Valor” embossed across its top was clipped neatly to his fibers. Pede dozed off into a happy dream.