I’ve been in this fetid city of tents and makeshift shelters for three days now. It took me a week to walk here, my wife by my side and my child in my arms.
It’s never peaceful. Children cry, mothers cry, fathers cry. The plain is flat and wide, the tents lightweight. They flap and flutter in the cold wind between the creaking scrapwood hovels, a mournful sound. Many will die this winter. Open sewers run through the camp. People cook on open fires; at least, those lucky enough to have anything to cook. There is nowhere to bury the dead. Each morning and evening cleanup teams patrol the camp. They remove our corpses, dump them in open graves not two miles away. The wind brings the smell of the dead, a sweet, sickening rotting smell, back to us in waves of sorrow and nausea. If bitterness, sorrow and despair had flavours or scents, it’s here they could be tasted, here they could be smelled. Here, they can already be seen and heard.
Three days of furtive enquiries, of walking to and fro across the camp, waiting at rendezvous points, following directions. I’d heard there were useful men here, but all of them are scared. They need to know everything about you before they risk sending anyone to talk. Even then you have to work your way along the chain, step by step, until you get to meet the people you need to speak to.
It’s a sharp contrast with my past life as a teacher, dedicated to enriching the lives of others. I haven’t eaten properly for a week. I stink of stale sweat, donated clothes, and the garbage-dump aroma filling this place. The conversation with this latest, brief acquaintance lasts seconds. The person I need to speak to has agreed to meet tomorrow. Just be here at the same time, and I’ll be taken to meet him.
Tomorrow. And then what? How quickly things can change.
A few days ago it had been life as it ever was, in the shadow of our oppressors. Blue skinned and eight feet tall, they regard us -sandy, scaly and squat- as little more than vermin. A hundred and twenty seasons have passed since the World Security Council granted the Zanaan, nomads by ancient tradition, the safe haven of the lands across the river. The lands of our ancestors. We started off as neighbours, almost. They needed a home. They were a people lost, displaced across the globe, maligned and mistreated, unable to settle and establish a nation of their own. People tied by belief and custom rather than land. But land they were given nonetheless. A swathe cut from our heritage, land across the far banks of our river. Fields our forbears tilled and lakes our ancestors fished. All gone at the stroke of a pen.
It wasn't enough. Nothing's ever enough for the Blueskins. Within a dozen seasons, they'd annexed the land between theirs and the river itself. Then they spread along its banks. We pleaded for help but found ourselves abandoned by the World Security Council, who wanted no part in clearing the mess they'd made. As our people protested in every way against their displacement the Zanaan reacted with an aggression unknown in these parts. Bombings. Assassinating elders and organisers. Clearing entire villages and towns. Such things became commonplace. For our protests we were labelled 'troublemakers' and 'terrorists', labels that lost us our place at the World Security Council table. Where we had once lived as and where we pleased on the far side of the river, now we existed only in huddled enclaves, bordered and monitored and controlled. Atomised and isolated from one another wherever possible. The Zanaan were free to move as they wanted. Our people were checked and scanned every time we crossed a border to work, shop or visit friends and family. People with no interest in conflict would be denied access arbitrarily, for any length of time. No courts, no right of appeal. Some days the borders stayed shut to us all for no reason, and no employer pays for a day's work not done.
Eventually, we left our fertile plains for the harsher lands this side of the river.
Still they could not leave us alone. When we fished the river we were accused of trespass. First they warned us. Then they rounded us up, deported us to our bank. When we repaired our smashed boats and took to the great river again to feed our families, they called us poachers and fired on us. If we stood up to them they called us aggressors and fired on our fishing villages too.
Soon the marshlands were labelled a buffer zone, in a move approved by the WSC. We were moved further away from the river to the scrublands and the foothills. They left us here. Not in peace. Far from it. Always we have contended with them shelling our homes, businesses, schools, hospitals. Always they prevented us from crossing the buffer zone, travelling hours to get to a place of work, gambling a day’s wage on whether or not we would be allowed to reach our destination. Trade embargoes, aid embargoes, raids, encroachments, unsafe water supplies... all made living here a hell. But what can we do? If we don’t retaliate they walk all over us. If we defend ourselves they paint us as the villains and kill our families.
Ten days ago there’d been a clash at a border checkpoint. They’d stopped our people crossing for three days in a row. People needed to get to work, to visit markets and loved ones. Tempers flared. Shots were fired. Three unarmed civilians were wounded. The crowd surged. The Zanaan guards shot four more to ‘cool the crowd’. One died before he hit the floor. Two others lay screaming until all breath left them. The young boy will never walk again. A Zanaan patrol tank was on the scene in minutes.
The crowd refused to disperse. More were crushed under the tank’s huge wheels, a bloody pulp of limbs and clothing. All died. Murdered by the Zanaan. One was a young female, queuing to cross the border to get to school. She hadn’t been allowed to attend all week.
Nine days ago our freedom fighters launched a single rocket into Zanaan territory. It exploded, as planned, in a Zanaan barracks. Several soldiers were killed, several injured.
Eight days ago the Chitterers arrived.
A flock of drones flew low over the city. We used to shoot the drones down. Now the Zanaan fill them with explosives and shrapnel, and crash them into residential areas when shot at. Each had several loudhailers repeating over and over the message that we had a minute to evacuate. One minute to evacuate the whole quarter.
They know it’s not enough. Nowhere near enough, and that’s part of the sick joke. They love to watch us scurry and run. They knew they were flying over a residential and commercial area. There are no weapons here. The rocket was launched from the hills behind the city, at least five grand measures away. We knew it and they knew it too. But they also knew that those firing the shells had families in the town. Defenceless families. I see now they have never had any intention of taking down the fighters until they are the only ones of us left. They need the fighters to fight; for their own citizens to be angry and afraid, to justify the continued removal of our people from our land and continue expanding their territory.
The drones returned to the far bank. The square in which I stood with my family, the square that was host to the largest food market in the city, became silent. Almost everyone watched the skies. A few had already chosen to run, darting between the stalls and the sky-watchers.
The soft boom in the distance announced the launch of the first missile; then a second; then a third. Each drew a stark, black line in the powder-blue sky, a straight line from their land to ours. The first of those missiles flew overhead, its faint hum getting louder as it drew closer. Then the muffled bampf of the casing blowing apart. Like a blot of ink dropped into a glass of water, the blackness crept across the sky with slow arrogance, as if the Zanaan could defy the law of gravity as well as the laws of conflict. More people ran. Others stood, still transfixed. The second missile hummed overhead, exploding further north. Bampf. Then the third, to the south. Bampf. Three dark clouds descended on the city, forming like bruises on a newborn’s skin. As they dropped lower and thinned out, drifting in the wind, the noise they made became louder and louder. ChitititITITIT; the sound of insects calling to one another. Panic erupted as the plague fell. All around me people screamed and ran, directionless but still trampling over one another in their efforts to get away from here.
Chitterers. Nanobots, dropped on us in their millions, an iridescent swarm of destruction. Each one no bigger than half the length of your smallest finger, and designed for one purpose. To chew. Each six-legged creation possessed an outsized set of mandibles strong enough to turn granite to dust, and two equally strong pincers to help break its food into bite-sized pieces. They were created to chew only non-living matter. Immediately they landed on the tops of our housing blocks and our temples we could see the devastation they caused. The tops of the buildings disintegrated, carried away like pollen in the breeze.
More people screamed. In anger, for mercy, to their gods, for their loved ones. There was a stampede for the gates. People were crushed in the tumult. Stalls were knocked over. Fights broke out. Families became separated – including my own. My young daughter was knocked from my shoulders, and the crowd ran over her. I fought, kicked and punched like a madman to pick up her mangled body. She was still breathing but did not do so for long. She died in my arms less than an hour from the city.
The dust that had been our buildings fell on us. Amongst the screams there were coughs, choking wracking coughs, as the sandstorm billowed over and through the crowd, harsh and abrasive, burying in our throats and grinding at our eyes. We forced our way through one of the gates, my wife and I, with our precious daughter in my arms. Her final breath was a laboured wheeze.
Behind the dust, the Chitterers floated down. As they landed on the crowd they continued eating any material they could find. A wooden ox-cart collapsed as they gnawed its wheel and bridle to dust within seconds. I heard a leg snap as it fell on a screaming passer-by. Soon his cries were pounded into the ground. The beast ran free, trampling more of the crowd as it went. The pavement itself was chewed away, tripping many as we all tried to escape. Others fell into the holes. Gods help me, I found myself leaping over writhing bodies and running across the prone as we made our way to the city gates. Behind us there was a soft explosion as the Chitterers ate their way through the pavement and broke through a water main. At least the water dampened some of the dust. It stuck to people like a thin clay. The noise of the crowd was deafening, though no individual words were clear. The Chitterers chewed through an electricity cable; the loose end swung toward the spouting water. Sparks flew and soon a fire raged through three or four buildings, spreading through the city. The fleeing crowds on the streets were joined by those running from the buildings dissolving around them, swarms of Chitterers eating away at the concrete. Some were not quick enough, and the wet crack of bodies hitting the pavements as the upper floors gave way beneath them is something that will stay with me forever.
Then the buildings collapsed. As they were programmed to do, the Chitterers ate away the sides of buildings where the wind had blown them. They gnawed holes in the walls and along the edges of two buildings: the main temple and a ten-storey residential block. With a groan and a crash bigger than words the buildings fell, one after another. Most of the temple landed in the open space behind, decimating a graveyard. The residential block twisted as it fell onto the smaller dwellings opposite. The dust, masonry and glass it threw up rained upon the closest crowds. The dust turned pink. Those too elderly or frail to join the exodus were crushed in their homes. Those who came later to the camp described to me in haunting detail how the Chitterers, those indestructible little devils, kept on chewing the debris; how the mangled corpses within were revealed bit by bit as the went swept away the dust of their work. Entire stretches of road were soaked red. Dark specks within the clouds continued making their noise. Chittitititititit.
The Chitterers finally landed on the panicked crowd, still running for the city gates. We tried to stamp on them like you would a bug. They were too strong. People tried to swat them from their backs, and those of their friends. Their legs and pincers were too tenacious. They crawled like lice, all the while making that interminable sound, all the while scratching at the skin as they searched for inorganic material. Like fabric. Soon many of the crowd were not only panicked and bruised, but naked too. Our city, our possessions, our clothing. All dissolved around us as we fled. My last memory of that place is a trail of misery, leaving behind a waste dump of rubble and broken limbs, dust billowing over the river towards the Zanaan’s land. Chitterers last a day before their energy cells expire. It is more than enough.
It took us a week to reach the camp, taking it in turns to carry our daughter’s body. Had we known what awaited us we would have buried her at the roadside. We expected a place where we could follow the final rites of our kind. She received no such blessing to take her into the next world. Neither did my wife, taken by the cholera that is rife here, a night and a day after we arrived.
The circle of retribution is endless. But what choice do they give us? To one side we have the impotence of the WSC; to the other, the malice of the Zanaan. If we kowtow they will hit us with just as much violence. If we can bloody a nose as they break our bones, then so be it. Better that than to leave this world cowering like a cur under its master’s whip. A week ago I feared for the safety of my family. This week I have nothing worth losing. Is there a way out of this? I don’t know. But I do know there’s a way out of this camp. In two days’ time I, along with perhaps a dozen others, will be taking it. Under the dark and cloudy skies I will slink away to the hills behind our ruined city, to fight for others’ families until I meet my own again.
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