A trickle of water winds through the nuclear dust of the 38th Parallel. It is cloudy, thick with silt. From the bleached stone of the hills it flows, down into the valley below. There it meets a channel, roughly shaped as if dragged out of the dirt. It joins them, thin trails of moisture, until what was a rivulet becomes a stream. It passes a withered copse- the boughs are old and dead. It passes a derelict, wheels and gears spilling from the rust. On it goes. The soil grows salty, sick with radiation. Yellow-grey, like jaundiced skin. And in time, it reaches a village. There it sighs to its rest.
I watch a boy wade into the waters of the pool. Black algae clings to his skin. He can’t be older than six, or seven. An iron bucket in one hand. As the pool grows deeper, he tilts his head. Back, back, back- until his hair trails in the water like an urchin, until his face is coloured white in the noonday sun. He reaches the centre- there the algae is thinnest. He fills his bucket, perches it on his forehead, totters like an infant to the shore. I blink. The muzzy heat of September. Humid, making me sweat. Absent-mindedly I wipe some away from my cheek.
The boy is sitting on the sand, cross-legged, sifting algae from his charge. Thin fingers- prominent bones. His chest is a patchwork of ribs and pallid flesh, stretched too thin, sort of scraped. He catches my eye, and smiles. I smile back. Try to keep my eyes from wandering. But I’ve already noticed the blisters. The bruises on his legs and cheeks. I stay till he’s finished. Handfuls of algae simmer in the heat. He staggers past up the beaten track. A little water, slopping over the sides, peppering the desert scrub. I sigh and follow him up the road.
‘You’re Tchai’s boy, right? From the Root Farm near the ruins. Gotta be the third time today he’s out of water.’ I offer my hand. Gratefully he presses the handle between my fingers. It’s sharp with rust, and prickles my skin.
‘Yeah. Daddy says the soil dries out too quick. He’s got Kwan and Ryung looking south. They went across the hills a day ago- Ryung says there might be plants.’ He looks up at me, his eyes wide. I shrug.
‘Who knows? Who knows…’ I trail off. He doesn’t seem to notice, keeps chattering to himself. I stare straight ahead, swallow, focus on the bucket’s weight in my hands. I forget sometimes. Like all kids in the village, the boy’s never seen the Crater. Though he’s smelt the acid winds that blow sometimes, late at night, and spied the distant glow, like a low, lurid fire, that crouches on the horizon at the edge of sight.
‘Do you think there might be plants, Kei?’ I shake my head. He looks crestfallen, for a second, then with a shout he runs off ahead. The track starts to slope. The packed-in mud gives way to shale and scree, a few tumbledown rocks littered here and there. The brush grows thicker. Stands of thorny, gorse-like weed sprout amongst a wash of desert grass. Pale greens and greys. Licking at my heels as I approach the village in the basin below.
The elders say it was once called Gojansang, in the decades before my birth. The remains of the old town are still there, a tangled mass of broken concrete and ruin, heavy with dust and shattered glass. I used to play there when I was young. Scrambling over the rubble, poking about in the sunken rooms. Over the years the ruins have thinned. Scavengers have stripped them for their iron, jury-rigging repairs to their shacks, to the Root Farms and silos on the edge of town. Gojansang is all but worn away. Even the name has died out. The village is the only name I knew.
I quicken my pace, wary that the boy is out of sight. The main drag is a lopsided sprawl of market stalls and shopfronts, fashioned from a haphazard splay of girders and groaning beams. Corrugated iron glistens in the heat. The street itself is all white sand. I take a glance at the stalls. Crates of tubers and roots, flasks of water, bean salt and a little sugar ground from sweetgrass and slips of bark. A handful of people look up as I pass. They eye me with suspicion. I smile back, and turn into the barrio, picking my way through the tightly clustered houses and towards the Root Farms beyond.
I get about halfway. Then I hear a clash. Metal on metal. I turn around to see three men. No more than boys. Dishevelled and sunburnt- brass knuckles, scraping on the wall. I stiffen. Clutch at the bucket. The alley suddenly feels very empty. Hollow. One of them cracks a grin, and takes a step towards me.
‘Nice water,’ he croaks- I notice his chapped lips, a tongue like black leather. ‘Almost no algae. You takin’ it to the Root Farm? Seems a waste, y’know? All that nice water, jus’ for a few plants.’ His eyes narrow. ‘Give it ‘ere.’ I jerk back, defiant. He leers, his eyes growing wide. They’re red, strained and raw. He scratches his neck. Paper-like crackle, dry- nail-marks, worked in deep. He takes another step. ‘I need it, y’see?’ he grates- his voice takes an edge, but it’s shrill. Starting to crack. ‘We all need it. Me and them. What- you jus’ gonna let us die, jus’ to feed a bunch of plants?’
He swings. A howl of metal. The knuckles in the wall. His other hand on me. He looks at me. Imploring. Horror in his face. ‘Please,’ he says. ‘Please. Jus’ leave the bucket. I ain’t askin’ for much. Not really.’ I shake, tight and taut, like muscle. He grimaces. ‘I don’t wanna hurt you. I jus’ need some water!’ He draws back his arm. Then there’s a snap. He screams. I watch in shock as he drops, his leg broken at the knee.
There’s a girl in the alley. A fist raised, a pipe wrench clenched in the other. Short hair- seaweed green, stained by chemicals, like her skin which is alabaster pale. The men lunge at her. A fist whirls past her head. She ducks. Swings the wrench. Another crunch. The man wretches. Clutches at his chest. The other looks back- a fraction of a second. Too much. The wrench catches him by the jaw. He hacks, spits out a tooth. When he coughs, black phlegm mixes with blood.
‘Sayuri!’ I take a breath and stagger towards her. She puts an arm around me, which I shrug off with a rueful smile. She wrinkles her nose, and nods to the road. Together we walk, until the alleyway is out of sight.
‘Kei, please. You know better.’ Sayuri speaks with a strained poise as she stows the wrench in her rags. I nod, embarrassed. She frowns, then lets out a sigh. ‘The water shortage is a big deal, Kei. Most people don’t have the strength to walk the way to the pool, and the pump’s been thicker with algae ever since the soil turned sour. It’s alright for you, in the Mane, but here in the barrio? People are desperate, Kei. Heat doesn’t help, either. Please, Kei. You gotta be more careful.’ I nod again, not looking up.
‘How’d you know where I was?’ I ask, abruptly. She blushes, tugs at her earlobe. I grin at her nervous tic.
‘I was at the market- saw you come in,’ she mutters, ‘so I’d thought I’d follow you a way, see where you were going. It’s not like you- the whole children thing, I mean. Especially the Tchai boy. Far as I know, he never stops talking.’ I laugh. We turn a corner- the sand beneath us turns to tarmac, a cracked strip edged with neat yellow lines. The smell of sweat turns to an antique musk, plaster split with damp. There is a faint chemical taint as well. The gases of the Root Beds. Ammonia and sulphate.
‘Seems about right,’ I say, smiling up at her, ‘he had quite enough to say on the way back. Still, old Tchai’s asking a bit much of a six-year-old to walk the barrio with clean water. Seemed only right to help.’ Sayuri grunts reluctantly. I grin at her. ‘Sorry if I worried you.’
‘It’s fine,’ she replies, ‘it’s fine. Most of them are just desperate- they’re not out to hurt you, they’re just… scared.’ She swallows. ‘I’ve seen a few die from dehydration, a few more from drinking the algae. Everyone has a breaking point. I’m just glad theirs didn’t start with you.’ She offers a wan smile. I squeeze her hand gratefully, and we continue to walk.
‘What’ll happen to them?’ I ask, softly, as we approach the Root Farm’s doors.
‘I don’t know,’ Sayuri says, ‘I honestly don’t know.’ I pause for a moment, uncertain of myself. Above, a wisp of cloud traipses across the sun, patterning the rooftops with scattering shadow.
‘Kei, it’s OK- just a few broken bones,’ Sayuri reassures me, patting my shoulder and steering me on. I nod. ‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘it’s just how it is. Just how it is.’
The Tchai Root Farm is a converted sewage plant, resting on the edge of town. Outside, three circular steel vats stand under an articulated boom. They are full of soil, loose and flaking, topped up with manure and chemical fertiliser left from the last government supply. A cluster of men in white rubber suits trudge through the muck; hands tear away fungus and weeds, drip water onto the tubers that cling to the moisture beneath. They use pipettes, small, no bigger than a sewing needle. Each drop glistens in the whiteness of the sun. The doors of the Root Farm are open. Leaning against the wall, I spot the wireframe figure of Korain Tchai, a young boy playing about his feet. His eyes are misty. As if he’s looking far away, yet with more than the desert to see.
Korain straightens up as we approach. He is a gangling man in his late fifties, long-limbed and with skin stained the colour of spilt coffee- the side-effect of a lifetime wading the Root Farms and handling their chemical stew. His hair fans out like a mane across his cheeks and neck; his eyes are grey, like slate, heavy-lidded and watery. Today he is wearing a white rubber suit, rolled down to his waist, over which he’s pulled a loose-fitting vest with a patina of residues and murk. He eyes us with interest, his lip curling. The boy loses interest when he sees me, and charges back inside.
‘Had a leak on one of the coolers,’ he explains. I hand him the bucket. He peers inside, trails a finger over the surface. Specks of algae cling to his nail. He nods. ‘The boy’s learning,’ he muses, and turns to take the water inside. Sayuri bows and tugs my sleeve. Korain pauses. ‘He did say a young lady helped him back, though. Guess it’d be inhospitable of me if I didn’t offer you a drink.’ He beckons. I bow gratefully, tut at Sayuri and follow him through the doors.
The interior of the Root Farm smells like damp earth. Korain leads us through the atrium and down a tight corridor studded with halogen lights. Sayuri grunts. I flash her a warning glance. She mutters something unintelligible and follows me into the glow. It must be the first time she’s seen electrical light since the generators failed, some thirteen years ago. Korain takes a left, brushes past a cheap plastic curtain. We find ourselves on a gantry, overlooking a small chamber.
‘Just got to replace the fluids,’ Korain explains, gesturing to the bucket. He starts to climb down a ladder. Faintly, I become aware of a faint whining- the smell of chlorine disinfectant. At the edges of the room, a row of modified water coolers stand. Each houses a plastic sphere, roughly a quarter full. Two thick cables connect to them, one pumping a green mist, the other siphoning off condensation, small droplets, each no larger than a pea. Korain approaches a cooler near empty. He twists a valve, and, with a screech, the lid of the sphere twists open. He reaches up and pours the bucket inside.
The filthy water sloshes against the plastic, hissing as it mixes with the water below. The lid clacks into place. Korain twists a handle, and a jet of green vapour shoots inside. There’s a sharp tang of rust and acid- then the liquid starts to change from ochre into blue. Korain shakes his head, climbs back up. He gives us a wan smile, then starts to lead us away.
A few minutes pass. Korain takes us to the refectory, a small, ill-furnished room at the back of the Farm. He motions for us to sit, sweeping his fingers over the tangle of uncomfortable pokerwork chairs.
‘It’s a good thing, you did,’ he says abruptly, filling a kettle which soon pipes and steams. ‘I’ve seen what it’s like, down in the barrio. No place for a child. Least of all one carrying water.’ He sighs, and takes two mugs from a cupboard. ‘I’m grateful for what you did. It’s the third time today we’ve had to replace fluids- something wrong with the chlorine, or the condensate valves, I should think. Just begs the question…’ He trails off. Sayuri and I share an uncomfortable silence. Broken only by the clink of the teaspoon as he stirs root extract, boiling water and half a purification tablet into our mugs. Outside, the whiteness of the sun is growing dim. No more glare seeps in through the window.
‘Korain Tchai-ssi.’ Sayuri speaks abruptly. Korain starts, turns about. He looks uncertain.
‘Yes, Sayuri?’ I watch her twinge at the lack of honorific. Swallow her pride. Continue.
‘When’s the date of the next government supply? The Root Farm’s got connections to the Refugee Relief Pool, right? You must have heard something. It’s been too long. Four months, right?’ Sayuri’s words spill out in a rushed tangle, tripping over themselves to be heard. I stiffen, shuffle in my seat. Korain gives Sayuri a searching look; she stares back, her eyes hard. Seconds pass. Then he sighs, passes us each a mug, and sits. A pause. Then he speaks.
‘It’s been five months since the last RRP Caravan passed through this way,’ he says, not meeting our gaze. ‘Communications have been scatty- the broadcast tower’s picking up only fragments. I think something’s wrong with the wiring, but it’s not in my skillset to look.’ He looks up. ‘I’m not so hopeful they’ll be coming back- at least, not yet. That’s why Kwan and Ryung went south. To… find a few things.’ He takes a sip from his mug, grimaces at the bitter taste. Sayuri nods. She seems pale; her face has grown taut, like an over-coaxed whip.
‘To find what?’ she asks.
‘Fluids. Soil. Chemicals, perhaps, mixed up in the ruins. Maybe a settlement, somewhere we can trade. I’m not going to lie to you, Sayuri. We’re close to running out of water.’
I feel a knot grow tight within my chest. Questions form on my lips, but my mouth is too dry to speak. I settle for taking a sip of my tea. It floods my tongue, sour, acerbic- I taste the false sugars, but only briefly. It’s lukewarm, like a puddle left out too long in the sun.
‘You’ve seen the situation in the barrio,’ Korain continues. ‘People with algae-rot, dehydration. The latest crop is also failing. We’ve had tubers looking like rope coming out of the vats- like eating rubber, but alkaline, so strong it burns your insides out. The pool’s lasted us this long, but if the RRP don’t turn up soon, it…’ He pauses. ‘It might be time to move on.’
Sayuri snorts. ‘No man’s land? This village is sick. We strike out near the Parallel, we get picked off. Scavengers, Northern Border Patrols, defectors… You’d have us all go to die?’
Korain shakes his head, raises his hands in apology. ‘No, no. No!’ he says, suddenly firm. ‘They’ll be here. We just gotta wait. Another week, maybe two. No. They’ll be here. Kwan and Ryung’ll find something. You’ll see. And anyway, what other choice do we have?’ He tips back his head and drains his mug. Outside, the muggy evening mist has coiled over the hills. In the half-light, the Root Farm pools glow a fluorescent yellow, and points of white glitter on the roofs of the village below. He straightens up.
‘I’ll see you out. It’s a bad business, this whole affair.’ He shakes his head. ‘A very bad business indeed.’
Sayuri and I walk in silence. I peer up at her as much as I dare. She appears contemplative, but something heavy has furrowed her brow. I say nothing. Settle for squeezing her hand, offering a little reassuring smile when she once meets my eyes. She says nothing back. In time we reach the edge of the barrio, the rising fumes of the Root Farm at our backs. It’s then she turns to me, and I see her eyes. Full of unwept tears.
‘Come home with me.’ Her voice is soft. Biting my lip, I take her arm. She smiles thinly, and leads me through the alleys, twisting this way and that with a practiced aim. I can’t bring myself to look at her. I just feel the tension in her muscles, the coldness of her skin. The faint brushing of her hair, light against mine. I hear her sniff, once or twice. It then occurs to me that I’ve never really seen her cry.
Sayuri lives at the western edge of the barrio. Her house is clumsily built, low-ceilinged, home but to a desk and a bed of cloth and straw. There she sits, lights a wooden taper with a box of matches. The light flares, smoky and amber. The room grows warm. In the glow, her green hair dances, patterns like liquid fire; her eyes grow unusually bright. I sit behind her, wrap my arms around her chest. I feel her warmth, the steady kiss of her heartbeat, the rise and fall of her breasts.
‘It’ll be OK, Sayuri,’ I whisper, as firmly as I dare. She touches my hand, and sighs.
‘The things we see, Kei. It’s just hard to stomach.’ Her voice is low, husky. ‘It’s like rain, before it went sour. Waiting for the fall, the anticipation- remember? When you could still drink it, back when we were girls?’ She smiles, leans her head against my arm. ‘You’d wait and wait, always hoping, and when it came…’ She chuckles under her breath. I nod, hold her close. ‘Then the days started getting longer, and the sun grew white and dry. Longer we’d wait- stretched, like a cloth about to tear. That’s how I feel, Kei. The water, the roots, caravans, all of it- it’s like rain, and we keep waiting, and waiting, and the heat gets worse…’ She turns to me; I feel her tremble. ‘Then one day it just stops coming.’
I sigh. ‘It’s hard, Sayuri. I know. We just have to…’ I stop. She nods. I lie down on the bed, stretching myself between the sheets. She lies beside me. As we embrace, I hear her swallow, a choked sound that wrenches at my heart. Then she’s fine. Composure regained. I look into her eyes, and I see the familiar sparkle, the playful smile on her lips. I reach out to her. She reaches out to me. Our bodies entwine, and I feel her lips press against mine. Outside the sun has set. Inside, the world still feels warm, and bright.
I wake early, blinking with distaste at the white rays that filter through cracks in the walls. Sayuri is asleep beside me, curled up girlishly in the straw, hands clasped to her chest. I smile, start to pull on my clothes. I don’t get far, however. Sayuri erupts from the bed, head turning, eyes wild. I freeze, stare at her in horror. We both heard it. The explosive roar of a gunshot. Rising on the wind from the square.
Sayuri tears open the desk. Her hair is like a seaweed mane, shocked through with static electricity. She rifles through the draw, pulls out the wrench- the metalwork still speckled with blood. She turns to me, face grim. Throws an ill-fitting tunic over her chest and strides out to the door. I dress, fingers shaking. There’s a silence- a few panicked shouts. Distant. Probably the other side of town. I join Sayuri. Press my cheek to the door. Listen. Still quiet. We wait. Our breathing slows. A trickle of light licks at my skin. I recoil, as if I’d been stung. Sayuri hisses in frustration. Presses a finger to her lips. She takes hold of the handle. Then the second shot explodes through my senses, along with the howl of a loud hailer, a machine voice slicing like rust through the morning air.
‘Attention, all refugees!’ The voice is harsh- a woman’s voice, acerbic, heavy with disdain. ‘Attention! Exit your homes! Do not attempt to contact anyone! Get on your knees and place your hands behind your head! Attention! Non-compliance will not be tolerated! All refugees…’ Sayuri’s lips are bloodless. The gunshot was closer. And, in the alleyway outside, I think I can hear boots crashing into mud. I hear screaming. Some distant, some not far from here. Shouts in the language I do not understand.
`‘Kei, listen to me.’ Sayuri grips my shoulder. I focus. ‘You need to follow me, and you need to move quick,’ she says, her voice shaking, ‘I know these alleys- it’ll take us a few minutes. We get to the ruins, head south-east, skirt round the crater. We’ll find something- I know we will. Just stick behind me. And don’t listen to them, Kei. Don’t look at them. It’s more important you get out alive.’ I open my mouth, start to protest. Sayuri shakes her head.
‘Kei, there’s no time. I’m sorry.’ Another shot- the ricochets echo off the walls. I clutch at my ears, gasp in shock. The loud hailer seems closer. The woman’s voice, imposing, rough as broken glass in its mechanical roar. Sayuri throws open the door. A squall of dust and smoke pours in. I smell blood, gunpowder discharge. The air is thick with panic and sweat. Sayuri steps into the street. Brandishes the wrench, looks left, looks right. I peer out behind her. The alleyway’s deserted. She nods, grasps my wrist, and hurries down a thin-mouthed street.
We rush between the shacks of the barrio, twisting down streets choked with sewage, tangled with black bags and debris. Once or twice Sayuri presses me to the wall, reacting to a sound, an indistinct shape. Nothing. We spot a handful of hurried refugees pounding from their homes. Their faces raw, skin as gaunt as oilcloth. We ignore them. Watch as they disappear, into the swirling air of bullets and screams. Once we pass a body. Some destitute, his frame garbed in tarpaulin scraps. A wound like a drill, punched into his chest. I retch at the stench of rot. Sayuri grimaces. Leads me on.
In time, we come to an opening. The alleyway disgorges onto a thick tongue of tarmac- I see the Mane, a mile up road, hazy, indistinct. Black figures moving in the smog. Sayuri stiffens. Motions me to duck. I freeze, drop to a crawl. It’s then I see them. Seven men, knelt, hands strapped behind their heads, cable ties eating into their wrists like fat black worms. Two others, walking amongst them, barking orders. Each of them cradling a gun.
They’re wearing loose-fitting cargo trousers, tucked into boots tied below the knee. Each wears an unkempt vest- I see the spots of blood, the few smoky tears, like licks of fire. A strange brand is burnt into their forearm skin. More disturbingly, their faces are expressionless- masked in white plastic, burnished, flat like a mirror, hair swept up behind. I watch them closely. As they pace the kneeling line. Nudge heads to hang with their rifle butts.
Then it happens. Third man from the edge- I see the strain in him, his muscles tense. His captor passes, looks down at his boots. Just for a second. The man flies up. Whips back his head, crashes his brow into his captor’s throat. A crunch. He drops his gun, clutches at his neck, gasping, his breath ragged, spitting blood. The man ducks behind him, wrenches his arms over his head. He scrabbles at the ties, frantic. The second captor shouts. Runs forward, gun swinging up. The first shot crashes wide- I hear the spak of smashing rubble, smell the cordite, bitter salt. The second hits his friend. A chunk of meat erupts from his arm, and he howls like a wounded dog. The man hurries, scratching at his wrists, his expression scrunched up, fear plain in his eyes. It’s then I notice Sayuri is no longer by my side.
The third shot hits the man in the chest. Blood flowers from the wound- I feel sick, watch his life come streaming out. He staggers, takes a step. The captor fires again, catches his shoulder. A wrenching sound, like splitting bone. The man chokes. Drops. Then Sayuri’s on the captor. I see the pipe wrench rising, the swing, smashing the man across the cheek. There’s an explosive pop- the mask shatters. Shards of plastic cascade to the floor. She swings again, harder. Tearing noises, like wet sponge. His jaw flies off, scattering gore across the street. Sayuri spits, rushes to the first man in line. I follow. Skirt round the bodies, start untying those still alive.
‘Head for the ruins!’ Sayuri’s screaming. The noise has grown cacophonic. The men rub their wrists, stare at her in horror, blind with shock. I nod, offer them a reassuring smile.
‘She’s right,’ I say, levelly, masking the quaver in my voice, ‘it’s the best way out of the village. Keep off the main roads, and stay in small groups. You see any more of them, you…’ I trail off, retch. ‘You run, okay?’ I say, ‘you just run.’ Unable to resist, I look over at the jawless corpse, feel bile churn in my throat. I look at Sayuri. She’s wild, pumped on adrenaline. The man’s blood on her face and neck.
‘Kei, let’s go!’ Sayuri grabs my arm. Reflexively I pull away. She goggles at me, eyes wide. ‘Kei, we have to go! Now! These men… they’ll be fine, Kei. You told them what to do, where to go.’ She reaches out again, imploring. ‘Kei, please. We have to go.’ I shake my head.
‘What the fuck did you do to him, Sayuri?’ I whisper. She catches the horror in my voice, looks down at him, as if she’s seeing him for the first time. ‘What did you do?’ I repeat, my voice rising. I realise I feel sick, unsteady. The world swims before me, like a desert mirage, and I feel my knees give way.
‘God, Kei… Please, not now. I had to, Kei. Those men would be dead, if I didn’t… If I hadn’t…’ She stops, seeing the expression on my face. Looks at the wrench, paralysed, glancing at its tip, the blood there, starting to dry. The line of men has scattered. I saw how they looked at her, running into the alleys. Afraid. I think that’s how I feel. Afraid- yes. A little guilty. I stifle a hysteric laugh.
‘You had to what?’ I gasp, forcing out the words. I stumble towards her, buoyed on invective, bilious and weak. She throws the wrench aside. I see her grapple, a conflict behind the eyes. I take another step, and she makes a decision. She thrusts an arm around my shoulder, starts to run. Angry words form on my lips. She shakes her head. Her face is determined.
‘Kei, we can talk later. It’s not alright, I know- it’s not. But the only thing that matters to me right now is keeping you safe.’ We’re at the ruin’s edge. The loud hailer roars behind us. ‘It’s not alright, Kei,’ she says again. Panic clouds her; purpose keeps her sane. ‘But we have to-’
Bang. A jet of dust blasts from the earth near my feet. We freeze. Sayuri whispers in my ear. ‘It’ll be OK, it’ll be OK, trust me, I’ll think of something…’ Bang. The dull thud of metal on stone. Inches from her thigh. The woman’s voice, like a rushing tide. Addressing us directly, all but three feet behind.
‘Turn around slowly. Release one another and place your hands behind your head.’ I feel Sayuri’s arm slip from my shoulders. As we turn, a masked man rushes between us, grips Sayuri’s shoulder and forces her to her knees. She spits on his boot. He kicks her in the stomach, grabs her wrists as she doubles over, coughing. I tense up, think about running, eyes flashing to the ruins as he fastens the cable ties in place. I make my choice. With an animal howl I start to run. Tripping on loose rocks and scree.
I get maybe five paces. Then a boot smashes into the small of my back and I sprawl into the rubble. My eyes water. I feel the bruise, chipped bone, a feeling of rawness, a sandpaper heat, creeping up my spine. I look up. A woman with a loud hailer is standing over me. My sight is cloudy; I make out an unmasked face, acid-green hair, like Sayuri’s, bleached by chemical waste. She is scowling. A second kick turns me over. She stands over me, grinds her heel into my chest. I whimper, feel my breasts twist under the hobnailed leather. She turns, and I feel her weight press down upon me.
‘Bind her friend’s feet and gag her. Make sure she’s properly restrained.’ She speaks curtly, each word clipped. I struggle beneath her, but her strength holds me tight like a vice. She looks down at me: contempt, like ice. She kneels. I splutter as the air is forced out.
‘I’ll deal with this one,’ she murmurs. Draws back her fist. There’s a whoosh, a head-splitting bang. And then everything turns black.