Adrian in the Outer Provinces

The road widened and turned to smooth tamped dirt; it was clear that civilization was not far off, and this was confirmed as they rolled over a small rise and saw a settlement in the distance. It had wood walls with spiked posts—like a crude and scaled-down version of the Outer Wall that surrounded Joshua City. At the gate a sentry slid back a hatch to reveal a tough long-mustached face. Heinrich handed over some papers and gestured to the cab. The sentry walked to the back of the truck and opened the rear-flap. Adrian heard voices as official documents and travel permissions were inspected.

After several minutes, the gate opened. Adrian looked around with curiosity: as humble an outpost as it was, it was the first town they had seen in weeks. The streets were silent and haunted-feeling. The faces that Adrian did see, from darkened windows and dirty thresholds, were haggard and stared at him with a combination of suspicion and a kind of muted plea. A boy tumbled an old half-shredded tire down the street in something that might have passed for play. In the square, a woman washed clothes from a tap that spit water at irregular intervals. She hummed to herself, a thready half-broken lament. She checked her laundry basket, as if making sure no would steal it, every few seconds. Adrian wondered how horrible it must be to do laundry in constant fear like that. And then he noticed the bulge of her stomach and guessed her at five months pregnant; his heart leaped out toward her, dreading what treatment she would get from a doktor in an impoverished outpost like this—if there was a doktor at all, that was. He wondered if there was some way to convince her to allow him to examine her, but something about her furtive harassed-animal demeanor let him know there was likely no way she would trust him enough to allow such an examination.

“What is this place?” Adrian asked.

Heinrich said the name of the town and Adrian recognized it as the place where two or three of their passengers were scheduled to get off. He looked back into the cab at Yoram, a silent young man with a boyish face and a wet upper lip. As he clutched his bag and stared out at his new home, he looked even more nervous and pale than usual. Adrian had not talked to Yoram much—nothing beyond the mumbled pleasantries of campfire meals—but from the ragged leather of his bursting suitcase, and what little he had heard, he knew the young man to be quite poor, probably from a background similar to his own. He wore the dazed and blinded look of a creature who had lived all his life underground and had just now come into the sunlight. Adrian could guess the rest: with whatever paltry sum the boy had managed to save, he had bought passage on this karavan in hopes of striking it rich. He had heard there were mining jobs to be had out here, Adrian knew, just as he knew there were hundreds like him every year who came out for similar work. They had romantic dreams of travel and were ore-greedy.

From the looks of things, Yoram had arrived too late. Whatever prosperity this particular settlement once enjoyed had been sucked dry. The place was not long for this world; the smartest and most successful among its inhabitants had already moved on. He would have to find the next outpost—surely not too far away, perhaps fifty or a hundred kilometers—if he was to attain his dream.

For some time, there had been a rattling noise in the distance—a little like wind-chimes. Adrian had paid it no mind, nor had the other members of their party, having enough to take in already. Now the noise swelled, and with it a kind of ghostly wailing. The woman at the well set aside her laundry and cocked her head. A Guardsman rounded a corner followed by a procession of stooped forms. At first it wasn’t clear to Adrian what he was looking at; prisoners clearly, but they had something on their heads—cages? The objects looked like heavier and dingier rusted bird cages. His mind would not settle on what he was seeing. Yes, all the prisoners had something like a giant nightmarish bird cage on their heads, from which frightened faces peered out.

The rattling he had heard was the sound of chains, attaching the prisoners’ necks to the cages, rattling the bars as they walked. Occasionally one would stagger and the rest would howl, as if in sympathy, though their mouths never seemed to move. A soldier behind them kept them in line with the threat of his machine-rifle. As they approached the well, the pregnant woman checked her laundry basket.

“Who are they?” Adrian asked.

“Prisoners,” Heinrich said. “Thieves mostly. When there’s little to be had, folks will do almost anything.”

Among the dozen or so people in the procession, nearly half were women. There was one boy of perhaps sixteen.

“And why are they wearing those…those things?”

Heinrich said, “Out here there’s no punishment like public punishment. It’s—how would you say?—a badge of shame.”

As the prisoners passed, they stared at the karavan with blank expressions. The woman at the well reached into her laundry basket and pulled out something long and gleaming—a sickle. She charged at the closest prisoner, and before the Guardsmen could raise their guns, she was on top of the man, beating the bars of the cage with her weapon.

“You murdered him,” she screamed. Her voice was as much animal as woman, her pain palpable to Adrian even at this distance.

She swung the sickle repeatedly, and the man held his arms up defensively. The sickle ripped into his flesh, tearing chunks of skin and meat from the underside of his forearms. Blood was smeared on his chest and had spattered onto the woman’s dirty blue dress. She swung at his gut, trying to rip him open, and he tripped over one of the dislodged bricks of the well and fell to the ground. The cage on his head banged against the dirt and twisted at an unnatural angle. He lay in the dust, not moving. The woman screamed again as she swung the sickle, sticking it into his exposed back. Over half of the sickle’s metal crescent was pocketed inside the man’s back. Adrian was amazed at her strength. As she was trying to dislodge her weapon from the dead man’s back, presumably to strike him again, a Guardsman yelled at her to stop, but she ignored him. He stepped directly in front of her and ordered her to stop again. She nearly had the sickle from of the man’s back; it seemed stuck on a bony something, perhaps a rib.

“Stop now, citizen!” the Guardsman screamed, unsure and angry and scared.

He lifted his rifle as if to shoot her but did not pull the trigger. She got the sickle free and looked at the Guardsman, then back to the dead man at her feet, as if deciding at whom to swing. The Guardsman flipped his rifle around and brought the butt of it down on the woman’s face so hard her cheek bone collapsed and skin tore away, letting forth a gush of blood. She slumped to the ground and convulsed and cried in confused anguish. The Guardsman stood over her, unable to move, visibly shaken by what he had done. Another Guardsman arrived and kicked the woman hard in the back.

“Someone stop him,” Adrian said, looking at Heinrich and then back toward Messenger. “He’ll kill her baby.”

The Guardsman kicked and kicked her, again and again, until finally the first Guardsman came out of his daze and motioned for his companion to stop, pushing him back lightly. Heinrich looked on gravely, but he did nothing. Messenger removed a weaponless hand from under his robe. Heinrich put the truck into gear. In the rearview mirror, the Guardsmen lifted the body of the woman and carried her somewhere out of view.

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