A tall figure with black bramble hair haunted Bil's dreams. A blue cloth cape wrapped its shoulders, and a scarf of the same wrapped its mouth. When Bil closed his eyes this figure rose mute and wind-blown from behind a city in flames.
Actually, it wasn't the whole city that went up in flames - just his house. Bil had found the fire coming home from school. As he walked down the alleys, miniature canyons between the close set sandstone buildings, he noticed smoke drifting overhead just over the roofs. He could only see it in snatches between the netting and scaffolding which bridged many of the building tops together. As he rounded the last corner he saw that it was coming from his own house. At first it looked like a large, thick, black velvet curtain hanging out of the window to his living room on the first floor - fluttering slightly in the breeze. Except that it was hanging up. Then he realized it was a column of smoke - a large soft pipe, disintegrating upwards but continually renewed by the ashes of his life.
He didn't stop enough to think of dropping his schoolbooks. He immediately turned and ran off in the direction of the market. His mother and his elder brother Cal would be there. He usually had an hour or two to himself before they came home for dinner. Sometimes he would be responsible for getting dinner ready. Sometimes his mother would set something up in the morning to cook while they were all away during the day. It crossed his mind that perhaps a cooking fire for this task had gone awry today. But today was a day that Cal and his mother were to bring dinner home from the market.
He had started running without thinking. He was running confusedly and not very fast; his limbs thrashed without purpose. As his mind started to process what was going on, going backwards to search for some possible cause, and forwards to explore the implications, he started to get scared. In order not to think about that, he tried to concentrate just on running. He pulled his arms in, into some kind of order, into a regular pumping - almost a reaching but without over-extending, without stretching. He tried to give his legs some form too, pointing his feet, searching for a gait, a controlled leaping like a gazelle. And his lungs started to hurt. With each breath taken in they felt like they were bumping up against the interior walls of a steel oven. He concentrated then on his breath, tried to make it a smooth circular cycle, and tried to synch it with the swing of his gait. He also collided with other people, and a few walls, before he found his stride.
He had to cross the market diagonally to reach his family's stall. When he got there, his brother Cal was standing at the counter. When Cal noticed Bil running toward him through the crowd, his eyes seemed to retreat slightly back into his head. He scowled in concern as Bil started skidding to a stop in front of him. "What's the matter?" Cal asked.
"Cal. Where is mother." Bil caught the counter before crashing into it and tried to catch his breath.
"She's just in back. What happened?"
Bil leaned forward, hanging from the counter by one arm, gasping. "Get mom. Our house. Is on fire."
Cal's eyes shot wide, and he quickly turned and darted between the small piles of cloth piled behind the counter and disappeared through the opening of a thick brocaded curtain.
Almost immediately Bil's mother burst back through the curtain, moving smoothly as if on wheels under her skirt. Under her headband her face wore a look of serious, controlled concern. "Bil. Tell me. What happened?"
Bil made a small effort, and swallowed some of the mucus moving up from his lungs. He sucked in a new breath. "I don't know. I was coming home, and I saw smoke, coming out of the living room window. I saw the smoke from before I got home. But I didn't know it was from our house until I got there. I saw it coming out of the window. Then - when I saw that, I ran here. I. I didn't look inside. I'm sorry."
His mother put her hand on his shoulder. "You did the right thing. You should not be sorry. I am not." Bil felt a slight relief. His mother turned to look at Cal.
Cal was frowning. He shrugged with his cheeks. "Naarka?" he offered.
"If he's in the city," replied his mother, "we should leave at once. Pack up some merchandise that will be easy to carry, and that we can sell easily. I will go buy us some food for rations." She rested her hand on Bil's shoulder again. "I will be back soon."
Smoothly again she moved back through the curtain, and in only a moment emerged again, having gotten some money from their lock box. She moved from behind the counter, and disappeared into the crowd. Bil looked after her, then up at Cal. Cal was already looking at him. He motioned with his hand. "Come on. Let's pack up some stuff." Bil stepped around to move behind the counter. Cal lifted from the floor a wooden sign that they used when taking breaks, and put it on the counter. Bil followed him through the curtain to the back of the stall.
It was darker there, and cooler. Sunlight filtered in shafts through the cloth ceiling three times their height above them, and from the lattice-ceilinged alley in back. "Go for the silks," Cal said. "They're light, but will get a good price."
"Okay." Bil worked quickly, not through fear or panic, but through absorption in his task. He hoped that concentrating on that would stave off both fear and panic. Cal was packing some of the heavier expensive cloth - embroidery, brocade, and woven tapestry. By the time their mother returned, they had laid out piles of cloth for each of the three of them to carry, and were searching around for any personal effects that may have been lying around the stall and that they might need or want. "What about my schoolbooks?" asked Bil, who suddenly remembered that he hadn't dropped them during his run. He had carried them all the way here and had dropped them on the ground out in the front of the stall.
Cal sighed and pursed his lips. "Can you pick one?"
Bil walked back out to the front of the stall and picked up the pile of books where he had dropped them, and carried them to the back. He laid them on a table and began sorting them, setting aside the ones he definitely didn't want. Stratum. Life. Analysis. Computation. He separated out two candidates. Stories and History. Cal came over and looked at them. He picked up the Stratum and Life books. "Do you think maybe something more practical would be good? Something that may come in handy as a reference? We don't know what kind of situations we might have to deal with." He sighed. "We may be camping out, foraging for food... anything."
Bil took the Life book and flipped through it. "Well. This isn't a field guide, you know. It's pretty general. Do you really think we'll use it?"
Cal took it back and put it back down on the table. He smiled weakly. "You're right. Take something to keep your spirits up." He moved off to continue organizing his own pack.
Bil looked between the Stories and History texts. He wished he had all his books on a computer tablet like some of the other kids. Then he could take all of his books. Oh well. At least he didn't have to worry about finding power for these, he told himself. "Do you think I could take both of these?" he asked Cal.
Cal shrugged. "You're the one that's gonna carry them." Bil looked back down at the two books. he sucked in one cheek and blew out the other, thinking. He almost felt guilty wasting time on fantasy. And something told him that the histories would show him more about how to handle himself. And to know them would make him seem more intelligent to other people. He put down the book of stories and carried the book of histories over to the pack he was putting together for himself. As he was shoving it into his bundle of cloth his mother returned.
She lifted one side of the split curtain to carry in the basket of provisions she had brought back with her. She put the basket down on the table next to the pile of books Bil had just left there. She looked at them, then over at Bil who still had the Histories in his hand. She seemed to understand instantly what he was doing. She looked down at the books on the table again. "You are not taking your book of stories?"
"Nah. We want to travel light, right?"
"I will carry it for you." She picked up the book and put it on top of the basket. She carried both over to the pack that Cal and Bil had started to lay out for her. Bil frowned in a small fit of shame. Cal just frowned. Neither of them offered argument.
She looked at the silk, brocade and embroidery they had packed. "We won't always be selling to people who can afford the best. We should pack some basic linen, and cotton." They spent some time rearranging the packs. She also divided up among them the food that she had brought back. And she gave each of them a portion of the money they had. They understood without speaking about it that this was in case they got separated, or if they were robbed, one of them might not be searched as thoroughly.
Soon they were ready to leave. They went out the back, into the alley. They turned south, a direction that would quickly take them away from the market and the general merchant district surrounding it. "We'll go south out of the city, and try to follow the river," said their mother.
They bore their packs on their backs. The packs were large open bags, shaped roughly like a cone or a funnel with a large flap on top that closed over the opening. In addition to the shoulder straps was a long strap that could go over a large bulky bundle sticking out of the top of the pack and then around the forehead, to provide stability and relieve the tension on the shoulders somewhat.
Although traffic was beginning to thin with the onset of evening, they tried to move on crowded streets. As it grew darker most of the pedestrians were those out for a night's entertainment. They decided that their packs made them too conspicuous, so they started moving down alleys and less traveled streets. They held some debate about exactly what route to take. They could hire a boat and just move on the river itself. But that would leave them too exposed. Naarka would be watching the river. He would be able easily from shore workers to find out what traffic moved on the water. A similar argument applied to the road on the east side of the river, where they were now. They agreed at last to cross the river by ferry then double back north to hit the coast and from there go west. If they could, it would be best to find someplace to stay put for a week or two not too far away, and hope Naarka passed them by in his search. It would have to be very out of the way. But they had done it before.
As they moved into the outskirts of the city, they started moving west toward the river. They had reached an area only sparsely covered by streetlights, and they walked in the dark. Bil walked at the rear. The other two faded from accurate perception, and became simple, stark, looming shadows shifting in front of him.
They were now moving among detached single family homes with large, walled in yards. As the day grew darker and darker, they heard less and less movement from behind these walls. And each time Bil heard movement, he was more surprised - more suspicious of it, almost to the point of alarm.
In this neighborhood the cables carrying communication and power to the houses had moved above ground. The small amount of light on the street came from halfway up poles, or from under the eaves of houses. Shadows were cast up. Light hid behind walls.
Finally the houses ended. The family had turned to walk south down the main road out of the city. Soon they came to a small road branching off to their right, to the west toward the river. They turned and started down the side road, and they could see about 200 hundred meters ahead the isolated brightness of the ferry station. Small puddles of water half hid below clumps of grass on either side of the road. They walked on about twenty meters, then turned off the road to find a dry spot where they could wait for the ferry. The best spot they could find was a thicker patch of grass next to a stand of bushes. If it wasn't dry, it at least gave them some cover from the road. Instead of shadows standing alone, they would be shadows melded with the shrubbery.
They unslung their packs and sat. Bil's mother took out a flask of water, took a drink, and passed it to her sons. Bil rubbed his hand over his forehead, which just moved the sweat around. He took a cloth from one of the pockets of his tunic and mopped his face with it. He leaned backwards and settled against his pack, then looked off toward the ferry station. Even from here he could hear a humming, from its lights, and its temperature control unit, which must have been working overtime since the station was half open to the night. It was the sound of power flowing. As if power when it flowed generated sound, the way that electrons when they move generate magnetism. As if sound was simply power viewed at relativistic speeds. The power flowed into the small building, and branched arterially to flow into all of its machines of convenience. There would be machines there that dispensed sweet juice, Bil thought as he sipped the stale water from his mother's flask. He turned his head slowly to follow the poles that held the wire that carried the power. The poles, of flaking wood, were prettily highlighted by the light from the ferry station hitting them on only one side. A cicada clung to one of the nearer poles and broke the clean line of light and shadow.
Bil drew his legs up, hung his head between them and cantilevered his arms on his knees. He thought about his friends, Dan and Peet, and all the other kids in his class. What would they be doing in school tomorrow? Would they miss him? Would there be a commotion? A frantic search? No. He knew there wouldn't be. He hadn't once heard of such a thing. And he had known other kids who suddenly one morning just weren't there, just didn't show up any more. Everybody kind of knew what it was about, but nobody ever remarked on it. He looked up at the sky. Thin strips of cloud glowed faintly in front of a waning moon, about an eighth full.
"Here it comes," said his mother as she stood up. Bil stood up too, and he could see the blinking light on the roof of the ferry moving toward them across the wide river. It was maybe half way across. Hopefully they would reach the station about the same time the boat did. As they hefted their packs and moved down the road, the cicadas started singing from the reeds on either side: kirigirikiririgurisu, kirigirikiririgurisu.
The station was in fact half open to the night. Couches of purple vinyl, with cream foam showing through at the corners and seams, rested on top concrete and under nothing but the stars, in a patio room defined not by walls but by how far the light reached, and what it touched. Underneath the half ceiling at the far end was a short row of communications terminals, for voice, video and data. Behind them were the vending machines, and opposite them on the side wall was the ticket counter. Behind the ticket counter was the only other person in the place: a man in the first half of his sixties, sitting in a wooden chair, reading a magazine off of a computer tablet. The ads flashing on the tablet lit his face in a frenzy that made him look excited. But after staring at him for several seconds Bil realized that this face was perhaps the most perfect example of boredom he had ever seen.
They arrived at the station much sooner than the boat. The boat had in fact only come another quarter of the way across the river. They had plenty of time to buy tickets. While his mother walked over to the counter to negotiate this, pulling a small bag of coins from under the collar of her dress, Bil walked past out the door onto the dock. He reached up and pulled the stabilizing band off of his forehead, shrugged out of the shoulder straps and set his pack against the outside wall. He took a few steps to lean forward against the rail above the water. In a minute his brother Cal joined him, and the two of them looked out across the river. They lifted their faces to accept the breeze drifting off of the water. They then held a mighty conversation, complicated by many counter arguments. They held it in the space of two or three breaths, without saying a word or even looking at each other.
Soon enough they could see all of the ferry, and all of its lights blinking above and on either side in different colors. The ferry came on slowly, pushing low lumbering waves in front of it and off to either side. On the deck at the front stood another older attendant, dangling a signal lantern from his right hand. As the boat slowed and neared the dock, he held up his left hand to give the the pilot signals which somehow resulted in a smooth, jerk-free touching against the dock. The deck attendant then opened the gate in the boat's railing, and motioned them aboard with his signal lamp. The two brothers and their mother stepped aboard with their packs.
They had to wait five minutes before the ferry set out again for the opposite shore. They stacked their packs on the deck, against the cabin wall. Bil sat on the north side, with his legs dangling through the railing and over the side of the boat. He watched the starlight glinting off of the small far-off waves. His mother reached down and touched him on the shoulder. "Bil, are you hungry? Or thirsty?" Bil shook his head. Prepared for this, his mother held out a few coins. Can you go into the cabin and see if there is a vending machine to get me some juice then?"
"Sure." He got up. Only as he was walking away did it occur to him that maybe she wanted to get rid of him so that she could talk to Cal. He walked down the deck to the cabin door. Aside from the bridge and crew area, the inside of the boat was one big room: a grimy plastic sounding chamber, shaped vaguely like an amphitheater, echoing only emptiness and purposelessness. At the bottom of the amphitheater were two vending machines, one for juice and the other for nuts and dried food. He stepped down and put two coins in the juice machine, which spit out a plastic bulb. He pulled off the stopper and took a sip. He let the tang drip off the roof of his mouth as he turned and walked back up to the deck. "Mother, I took a sip of your juice," he said and held it out to her.
She didn't respond. She and Cal were both looking north-east, at a bright light moving south along the course of the river. A cold feeling crystallized in the middle of Bil's chest. "Is it," he said. Then the three of them were silent as they watched it move closer.
They heard a click and realized they were moving. The sound was the deck attendant closing the railing gate. The station moved away from them slowly, and then suddenly their perspective shifted and they were moving away from the station, which was fairly far away now. They watched as the moving light came up to be on a level with the ferry station, and then moved on south past it. They each let out the breath they hadn't realized they were holding in. Then the light slowed, turned, and came back north. It again came level with the station, where it slowed to a stop. It came west toward the river, and the station, and them. It moved behind the station so that they could no longer see it. The dull churn of the engines, and the slapping of water against the side of the boat, suddenly seemed very very loud.
And a figure stepped from the station door onto the dock. It was tall and wore a blue cape. It raised its arm and turned on a bright light, bright enough to hurt their eyes when the figure pointed it straight at them after sweeping it a few times across the water.
Bil took an involuntary step backwards. His mother finally turned away from the far figure and touched Cal's arm. "Come. Let's go inside."
So they sat inside that room that Bil felt was so fake. They sat inside their fear, for a good forty minutes until they were almost on the other side of the river. During which Bil felt like his soul was draining out through his eyes.
When the deck attendant was once again signaling the pilot for the final approach to the western dock, the three of them were standing on deck waiting for him to open the gate. The boys' mother - her name was Teres - had been eying the attendant with obvious worry for several minutes, but he was as oblivious to it as he had been to everything else for the past hour that they had had the chance to observe him. However, as she stepped through the gate onto the dock after her sons, the attendant looked her in the eye, smiled, and said, "Don't worry."
Cal and Bil held another discussion with one frantic glance at each other. Bil wanted to ask his mother, with tearful relief, "Does he understand? Really?" But he didn't. She didn't look any less worried. She hurried them through the station, past the woman behind the ticket counter, who seemed too wrapped up in the puzzle she was doing to notice them, and out the door. They stepped out into the north-south road, which on this side of the river was adjacent to the ferry station. Their mother looked both ways, and then said "Come." They followed her south.
When they were ten or twenty meters down the road, she said, low, almost under her breath, "I don't trust that man on the boat. Not at all. And don't think the woman in the station here didn't see us, and wouldn't betray us. We'll travel south for a little more, then move off the road to double back north."
continued in Chapter 2