In the middle of the open plaza, a bullet spanged away, leaving a puff of thin, red dust trailing skyward. The old woman leaning over the well shrieked, threw her hands up to cover her head, and raced for the alleyway. Too late–the next bullet barked, and she went down.
Sanachi, hiding in the shadowed nook below the crumbling church steps, shook his head. Stupid. She should have hunkered down and waited. The guard would’ve gotten bored and left. Instead, she’d made great target practice.
He squinted against the harsh, late morning light. Atop the city wall, some 30 feet up, the single Peforri guard strolled away whistling a happy tune, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
Sanachi stayed put, despite the heat from the open plaza engulfing his tiny hidey-hole. He was twelve now, not some stupid eight-year old, and he knew a set-up when he saw one. Five years on your own teaches you things. Like how to wait.
And, he hoped, how to plan his escape.
Sure enough, after a few moments another figure rose up from behind the low parapet wall where the shooter had stood. His gun rattled as he jogged after the first guard and passed out of sight.
Sanachi sat frozen, poised for motion. Now was the hard part. If he waited too long, he would lose access to the dead woman’s things when older, stronger inmates arrived. But if another guard waited atop the wall…. Sanachi bit his lip, darting his gaze about the seemingly empty, oven-hot plaza.
Fassa was a prison-city. Since time out of mind, all her citizens–even those born here, like Sanachi–were prisoners. Between the persecutions of Peforri guards on the walls and the merciless sun in the sky, death was never distant from the Fassani. In this predatory city, the goods that the dead Fassani woman carried could make the difference between Sanachi’s life and his death, even without his plans for escape. And now, he was so tantalizingly close to being able to make his escape…. His mouth began to water.
Yet if he ventured out in the open plaza too soon, there’d be two dead bodies for the evening scavengers.
Heat built into a weight that pressed on the world. Sanachi hunkered deeper into the evaporating coolness of his shady hiding place. Better to remain safe. He’d wait until after the next pair of guards passed.
He glanced into the plaza, where heat shimmers rippled across the sand and stone. The downed woman moaned. Low and anguished, it echoed across the sandstone walls and reverberated inside his skull.
It was too much. Scooting low, almost on all fours, the boy grabbed his pack, ducked and ran. He dove beside the well, using its ledge as cover from the wall and anyone on it.
The woman lay in a tangle of bloody skirts, one arm hidden in her clothing, the other clutching her bleeding chest. Her mouth gaped and sucked the air.
The woman’s voice cracked, as dry as those wells out of firing range from the city’s walls. She raised her blood-slicked hand toward him. As she did, he recognized her. She’d been the one who’d been kind when he’d been sick, and feverish. Probably, he owed this woman his life.
He grasped her blood-sticky, withered hand in his own.
“I’m here,” he said.
Her blood continued to flow, its stream slowing but not ceasing, as she squeezed his palm with desperate strength. Sanachi winced, but didn’t release her. Instead, he held her hand firmly, and whispered the same words to her, over and over, that she’d used on him. “I’m here. You’ll be right.”
At last her grip weakened, and the woman gave a sigh like a cool breeze, then slumped.
He grabbed her shoes first. Their thick rope soles would protect his feet against heat and debris after he made his escape. Whatever lay outside, however far the desert stretched around Fassa’s walls, these would be gold. He flung them into his tattered pack. One step closer to escape.
Her clothes, bloodied and ripped, were worthless to him. He rifled through them and found two metal balls, meant for slingshots, deep in her pockets. He held them a moment, assessing their weight. These would do some damage! He slipped them into his own pocket, glad to have better ammunition than the irregular sandstone chips he normally used. Outside, these would drop a charging sandcat–or a fleeing gazelle.
In the hand at her side winked more metal–a stoppered flask! Dents and dings scarred its surface, but it was solid. He yanked it free, shook it, and smiled as deep sploshing sounds reached his ears. Over half full already!
He sat back on his heels and stared at the flask, amazed at his good fortune. Now he could carry water on his escape, something he’d never dreamed of. With this flask full, he’d be able to walk for two full days. Surely he’d reach safety by then.
He pictured it: what would have been a hellish death-march would now be a simple matter of hoarding his water long enough to find civilization. The impossible suddenly shrank into the merely difficult. And he’d managed that his whole life.
A shout echoed across the plaza. He ducked and pressed himself against the stone ledge, clutching the precious flask to his chest, feeling his heartbeat echoed in the metal.
After a moment, he peered around the well.
A single guard, shorter than average and with his rifle slung over his back, waved at Sanachi. Peforri guards were odd like that; some shot at you, others waved. It was better not to offend the overseers or they might short your rations. Or withhold them entirely.
After sliding the flask into his pack, Sanachi lifted a hand in return. The single guard waved once more. Then, apparently satisfied, the guard turned and walked on. No other guards were in sight.
Sanachi’s heart thudded, heavy and fast, growing faster with each moment. His breath caught, held. Single guards were rare, for obvious reasons. Could this be his chance? Right now?
He peered far down the wall, first right, then left. Still no one else in sight.
With a fluid motion, he rose up and into the clear while pulling his slingshot out. He slipped one of the metal balls into it, took careful aim while exhaling–and loosed.
His bullet flew true, hitting the guard’s helmet with a loud “thwank.” The guard crumpled.
Sanachi crouched behind the well, panting. He slipped his slingshot into his pack, and secured the pack tightly to his back. Nothing else moved. No sound stirred the plaza.
Without pausing for second thoughts, he ran at the sloped fortification bulge extending from the wall and sprang toward its crease. Using his momentum, he bounced from left foot to right, effectively scaling halfway up the wall, to where the bulwark merged flush into the wall once more. Before gravity pulled him back, he grabbed the loose stonework, scrabbling for finger and toe holds.
Stones peeled away in showers of rubble as he clawed after disappearing holds. He nearly went down with the cascades of flaking wall as they sheeted away, but a panic-inspired burst of speed gained him the crest at last. He flung himself over the top, and immediately rolled into a wary crouch.
A broad walkway topped the wall. The parapet rose nearly waist-high, focusing his view on the red sandstone baking in the heat, and some twenty paces before him, the guard’s motionless body.
Silence greeted him. A breeze, unfelt below, ruffled Sanachi’s hair.
Arms held wide, he stalked toward the guard. No movement, no sound.
He edged closer.
The guard’s helmet had spilled to one side, and his face was hidden in shadow. Peering closer, Sanachi saw the large dent where his bullet had struck the helmet, knocking the guard–
He jerked back, pinwheeling his arms for balance as he saw the guard’s face.
It was a girl!
And he recognized her.
Her name was Tellami. A fellow prisoner a year older than he, she’d tormented him for years. When she’d disappeared almost a year ago, he’d assumed she was dead. Everyone–meaning anyone who had noticed her missing–had guessed that. And you didn’t speak of the dead, not at all, lest you called their ghosts back to haunt you.
He leaned forward, stretching his neck and arms carefully for balance, trying to determine if she were a ghost.
Her eyes fluttered. Sanachi flinched away, but she’d seen him.
“I knew you’d make it up here. Tough little shit.” She gasped, and struggled to sit up. Her voice was reedy, but not ghostly. She was real.
He realized he stood openly under the wide, sunlit sky, and he suddenly felt exposed. Vulnerable. Sanachi squatted low, hidden from the ground by the parapet now walling him in, but still out of Tellami’s reach. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“Kill a guard, take her place,” Tellami sing-songed, as if quoting something. She struggled to sit upright. She made it, but closed her eyes and swayed a moment before she steadied.
Sanachi stared at her, frowning at her clothes. They looked like a Peforri uniform, just a bit too big. A belt wrapped her waist twice. It made no sense. What did she mean? Why anyone would stay here?
She began raising her right hand to her head, winced, and gasped, dropping her arm. “You haven’t killed me, though it sure hurts like it.”
He moved to help her stand, but she waved him away with her left hand as she scooted back to the band of shade against the outer wall’s parapet. She used her left arm to pull herself upright and leaned back, onto the wall. Then she clutched her right arm in her left and panted. Turning to one side, she heaved thin, yellowish bile onto the dusty stone beside her.
To give her privacy for her pain, Sanachi padded to the opposite wall and peered over the edge, down into the city he’d known his whole life.
Squat buildings of sun-baked red clay, one and two stories high, clumped their irregular forms around dim alleyways and twisting roads. From above he saw that most structures had smashed-open roofs, some blackened, others appearing like rough, gaping wounds into their hearts. All the buildings displayed damage of some sort: pale pockmarks where bullets chipped the surface, walls or corners collapsed into rubble, while gaping windows and doors bled bricks from their edges. Many structures teetered on the verge of collapse. Heaps of debris marked where the buildings were all heading: utter destruction.
Fassa’s red-paved wide plazas, empty in the heat of day, rippled with heat. A few scraggly palms near the biggest wells broke the redness of rock and clay, but they cast no shade to speak of. Only in the church plaza he’d come from did anything move: two young children rifled through the dead woman’s pockets, while a third kept lookout.
Sanachi sneered. There was no relief from either the sun or the sheer ugliness of life below. It looked more squalid than he’d ever imagined. Fassa reminded him of a festering wound. He turned his back on it, and instead gazed outward, toward his future–his escape outside.
His stomach plummeted. Sunlight beat on his face as he took in a baked red plain that rolled into a hazed horizon. No hills, no palms, no plumes of dust broke its flat, parched surface. It looked like the fabled Plains of Death, where ghosts dwelt before they returned to haunt people.
Sanachi pressed his lips tight and spun to Tellami. She now leaned against the wall in its thin band of shade. Her eyes were closed, and her color pale. The rifle lay where she’d dropped it in the walkway, far out of her reach. He stepped over it to gently shake her shoulder.
“Which way should I go?” he asked. There was a way. There had to be an escape. He refused to give up. Not now. Perhaps the other side of the city?
Not moving her head, she squinted up at him. “For two days walk in any direction there’s nothing–no water, no food, no shelter. It’s as far as we’ve been able to get survivors back. Returnees speak of hundreds–thousands–of human carcasses drying into dust.” Her eyes fluttered closed. “If you leave Fassa, you’ll die.”
“But if I stay in Fassa, I’ll die!” He nearly shouted as his frustration boiled out of him. He kicked at the wall. Red dust puffed into the hard blue sky and sifted away with the breeze. He clenched and unclenched his fists, gasping as if for air, his thoughts redder than the plaza he’d escaped from.
Tellami’s steady, silent presence calmed him. When his rage subsided, he hunkered down in the walkway, facing her, his head lowered.
In a slow, low voice she spoke, her gaze snagging and holding his own.
“Sanachi, listen. No Peforri overseers come anymore. Prison food’s delivered in auto-containers, along with ammo and supplies. Prisoners get some, but us guards keep the best.” She shut her eyes a moment, as if dizzy, before continuing with more enthusiasm. “The Peforri guards have been gone for longer than we’ve been alive. Some of us, we’ve stayed on in their places. When the Peforri return–and they will return, everyone says so–they’ll see we did a good job. They’ll have to admit that we guards have done the right thing. That we, at least, deserve our freedom. They’ll get us out of here–alive.” Her beseeching tone explained as much as her words, and it grated at his ears.
Sanachi closed his eyes and gripped his hands into hard fists, then let them uncurl and drop to his sides. This wasn’t what he’d planned. This wasn’t the escape he’d planned–not at all. His glorious future seemed a desiccated husk, a dead oasis where his corpse would rot.
Tellami sucked in a breath with a hiss. He watched her press her eyes tight as her face spasmed with pain.
“Hand me my rifle,” she said, her voice weak. “The next guards will be here soon. If they find me unarmed, they’ll kill me. And you, too.” She reached a trembling hand toward her weapon, but didn’t move her head. Sweat droplets covered her face and trailed down her neck. She paled, and looked ready to throw up again.
Reaching out, Sanachi grabbed Tellami’s rifle and cradled it to his chest, then turned half-away from her. The strong killing the weak? It sounded familiar. Like his world before, down below. But more comfortable, of course. It would have to be. Here at least he’d be a predator, instead of the very bottom prey.
“You don’t have a partner?” His lip bent into a sneer. Of course she didn’t.
“No.” She held her left hand to her temple, where a bruise was already darkening on a lump the size of a child’s fist. “Saadi disappeared last night. I don’t know where, or why. Old Gavral smirked all morning, and I didn’t dare stay inside with him, so I took our watch alone.”
He spun to face Tellami. She moaned, then leaned aside and vomited again, mewling with pain and fear.
Below him, the city leered. Mocking. Taunting. Behind him, in the outside world, death waited more surely than it did at the Old Church Plaza’s well at noon. Within him, the last remnant of his dream crisped into ash and floated away on the breeze. Maybe it would haunt a ghost.
Tellami needed him, perhaps even more than he needed her. And with better food, he’d grow strong. It was time to form a new plan. Make a different kind of escape. He’d take on a partner, one indebted to him from the beginning.
He lifted the rifle to his shoulder and sighted down its length.
In the plaza below, the lookout shouted and the three kids ducked for cover. Sanachi smiled.
M. E. Garber grew up reading about hobbits and space-travel, and staring at wide-open skies over marshes along an “eerie” lake, so it’s no wonder that she now enjoys writing strange things. Now she lives near a very different type of swamp, along with her husband and their dog. When not writing, she can be found fretting over the state of her garden plants, cooking (pindo palm fruit jelly, anyone?), or hoping to see snakes, alligators, and other wildlife. You can find her blog at: http://megarber.wordpress.com