My name is 78H5J1PX-FEM, I am mute, like all orphans, and I am hungry.
I hear the music from the little toy helicopter a second before I see it. My empty belly rumbles as I crouch down, pick up a rock and launch it at the helicopter’s blades. The rock hits its mark bringing the little chopper crashing down on the torn asphalt. I run to collect the ruins. There will be hot soup tonight.
Since my twelfth birthday, when I graduated from the orphan asylum and was cheerfully booted off its doorstep, taking down the Protesters’ toys has been my main source of food. Because I am not yet seventeen and old enough to fight, I do not have credit at the shelters for even a single ounce of gruel. In better times, there had always been some scraps in the dumpsters behind the houses of rich Patriots, but there is a recession and even trash is tight now.
Zah-om-bie! Zah-om-bie! Zah-om-bie-e-e-e! . . . The toys always sing. With both feet I stomp down on the last living speaker. The woman’s low voice wavers a second before dying under my feet. I don’t know why the Protesters bother anymore. Or why they bothered in the first place. But who am I that anyone will answer my questions?
From what little I know, it has to do with the Infidels and the virus. The Protesters started playing the old music when the Infidel scientists infected their own people or something like that. It’s supposed to be some kind of message for the spies still within the Patriots’ barricades.
I gather the pieces of the toy helicopter in my shirt, swaying slightly as I stand. Too many days have passed since my last meal. My mouth is already watering. I clutch the plastic chards to my chest, not caring that my bare feet are bleeding again or that most of my midriff is exposed.
As I flash the barcode on my wrist at the assay kiosk, I am shoved from the side. I go sprawling in the broken street, my hands immediately clutching my shirt. A boy, or maybe a young man, hurls himself on top of me. He is as dirty as I am—another orphan, probably—but with the meat of someone well fed.
“Let go,” he grunts, trying to pry my hands from the scrap of plastic and metal that are my meal ticket.
I am so surprised that he speaks, my hands go dead for just a second. He takes this second to pluck a single speaker from my bundle, rolls off of me and hurls himself into the night. I reach out to try and stop him but my hands only come back with the tickle of soft hair on my wrist, his knitted cap tangled in my frozen fingers.
Life within the barricades had always meant a shaved head. Rich or poor, the parasites never discriminated.
A Protester. Not an orphan at all. That was why he could speak.
Not that it mattered. He had taken what he came for and I was still hungry.
“Hello. Please place your claim in the slot below.” The automated assay machine says.
With tears running down my face, I roll over to my knees and dump everything I have into the input slot. This won’t work, I know it. They never take incomplete toys. But what choice do I have now? I’ve already scanned my barcode. They’ll know. The punishment for tampering, toying or defrauding government machines is caning.
Sure enough, the machine gives an ugly buzz. “Rejected, your claim is incomplete. Standby. An SSS representative will be with you shortly.”
An SSS representative? They were reserved for the worst cases. I am just a hungry girl who made a mistake. What had I done to deserve an interrogation?
“Face down! On the ground! Now!” A loud voice screams behind me. I fall forward in one solid motion as if I have been shot. Rough hands knead my sides. My stomach groans with hunger right as they grasp my belly. The heavy sole of a boot crashes against the base of my spine. “Stay still.”
“She’s clean,” the voice says after a minute. “What do you want to do with her?”
“Throw her back in the street. What do you think I do with wretched urchins like that?” A second voice says. I hear the static of a phone implant and the voice says “False alarm. Are you sure the alert is for tonight?”
The phone cracks something unintelligible back and the first voice speaks again:
“She might know something. Shouldn’t we question her?”
“Let her up.” A rough hand yanks me up by the back of my torn shirt. In the fading light, I am staring at the two SSS representatives. They always look the same to me, with their bulky enhanced bodies, shaved heads and three-letter “SSS” identification tattoos printed on their cheeks. There are guns practically molded to their arms. “Do you know where the bomb is, girl?”
What bomb? I sign, my hands are shaking. New tears run down my face. There are so many stories about what they do to you if they think that you are a spy. But the officers laugh in relief, as if they have been holding their breath.
“A mute. Bet she’s never even heard the song all the way through.” One of them says. He examines my bare scalp as if he is looking for pests, then grabs my wrist and types my name into his implant. “She’s a war orphan. Still has a few months to go before she can serve.”
“Doesn’t look like she’ll make it.” The other officer says. For a second, I think his eyes go a little soft. Maybe he knows what it is to starve. He starts to turn away, muttering “Come on, I hate these high alert days.”
Please, I sign, catching the softer man on the wrist before he leaves. A boy came and stole my claim. I am so hungry.
I hold up the knitted hat I took from the thief as evidence.
The two men laugh. “She says ‘please.’”
“Kid, don’t you know that there’s a recession going on? No work. No food. Try to have some self-respect.”
The world still spins behind my eyelids as I settle down to sleep that night. The ache in my stomach is gone now, replaced with a heavy fatigue and a dizziness that won't let up. I want to look up at the stars once more, just in case. They have looked down on me all my life. Even in the days that came before the orphan asylum. It would be a shame not to see them again, but the weight of my eyelashes is too much to bear. Oh well. At least, I am warm. The thief boy’s knit cap is on my regulation shaved head and the shattered asphalt beneath me has soaked up the day’s sun. The boy’s cap smells of almonds and mint. I remember his soft hair brushing my wrist. A Protester would smell clean.
Not that it mattered much, with the risk he was taking. With the war and everything, there are so many ways to die. And he would be right there, up close to the Infidels and their virus. That virus is the worst death I can imagine.
And what comes after that death. If it can even be called death.
The groaning without pain.
The stench and rot and maggots.
And the hunger. The hunger that has nothing to do with starvation that I suffer within the safety of these barricades.
There is no peace in that death. Only terror.
Just as my mind reaches out for sleep, the old music blares out of the very ground.
Zah-om-bie! Zah-om-bie! Zah-om-bie-e-e-e!
I jump up and scramble for shelter, but a bomb touches the broken asphalt not more than a dozen feet away and I am thrown into a wall. Another bomb hits the assay kiosk. Pieces of it force their way through my skin. I should be bleeding. I should be in pain. I should be afraid. But I don’t know if I am any of these things.
This happened before. Bombs and tanks and guns and bombs. I don’t think about it very much. It was right before I went to the orphanage. Back when I spoke without my hands.
Zah-om-bie! Zah-om-bie! Zah-om-bie-e-e-e!
The song about the Infidels is so loud.
I ask the god we learned about in the orphanage to please make it stop. In my head, I hear the SSS representatives making fun of my pleading earlier and I am reminded that the god of the Patriots only hears the prayers of the successful.
“Get up, the tanks are coming. You’ll die if you stay here.”
It is the Protester boy from earlier. The fires light up his golden hair like a halo. Despite the smoke, he still smells of almonds and mint.
“Get up!” he yells again. When I don’t move, he hauls me to my feet like I’m made of nothing but twigs. With his free shoulder, he rams into a boarded up building and rush me up the stairs. We crouch in a musty closet, his arms locked around me. In the faint light, I can see his mouth moving to the words of the song still blaring on the street.
For a moment, it seems as if we are safe.
And then I hear something under music.
The boy moves to shield my body with his.
Millions and millions of bullets. The closet shakes with their force. But the sounds of human screams never come.
Then the music goes mute.
“No!” shouts the Protester boy. “We have to get out of here.”
He throws me over his shoulder and runs down the stairs out into the street. Around us, there are hundreds of bodies. Skinny. Dirty. Not yet seventeen. All mute. The Protester boy says a word that the god of the orphanage would not approve of. It sets me on edge. That kind of talk usually meant a public flogging.
The gunfire starts up again.
Overhead, the sky is lit with bombs.
The boy darts through alleys, jumping over giant holes in the asphalt with me still thrown over his shoulder. Curse words fly from his mouth. The only thing I understand is that he hates the war and the two gods that caused it. In my head, I see his neck swinging from a rope. I want to cover his dirty mouth with my hand, but he is running too fast.
“Hang on. Hang on. Hang on.” I don’t know if he is saying this to himself or if he is talking to me. “Don’t give up. I promised them.”
We reach the barricade wall. The boy stands there for a moment to catch his breath. I take the opportunity to look up and catch my first glimpse of a tank. It lumbers down the alley behind us.
The boy turns and sees it too. He curses again.
“Can you hang on?” He yanks me off his shoulder and holds me in both arms, examining me with his piercing green eyes. His hair is bright against the bomb filled sky.
I shake my head, not understanding.
“I need both hands to climb. You have to hang on.” He shouts the words at me, as if it’s only volume I need.
When his meaning sinks in, I struggle to get out of his grip. He pushes me against the wall and for a moment, I think he is going to slap me. Over his shoulder, the tank lumbers closer and closer.
We can’t leave. I sign. They’re out there. The Infidels.
The boy shakes his head like he doesn’t understand. When my signs run out, I push and struggle against him.
The lumbering of the tank grows louder and louder. It is no more than thirty feet from us. I can make out the features of the infantry personnel with their machine guns peaking out of the hatch.
Don’t you see, it is better to die like this, I sign to the boy. For the second time today he sends me sprawling into the broken asphalt. Smoke fills the air.
He is carrying me again before it even clears.
“Bastards finally did something right,” he grunts.
I look up in horror.
There is a giant hole in the barricade wall. With the Protesters’ song on his lips, he steps though the wall with a light leap, carrying me into the wasteland and the horrors waiting for us there.
“You must be hungry.”
We have been traveling through the wasteland for hours. There is no sign of any Infidels. Dead or alive. There is no sign of anything. Only trees and grass and sky. Any civilization has long since been erased.
“I’m sorry that I had to rob you earlier. I just couldn’t have you sleeping in one of their shelters when all the shit went down. I would never have found you.” With one hand resting against his knit cap still on my bald head, he scrutinizes me with his eyes and bites his bottom lip as if he doesn’t like what he sees. In the dawning light, his face quickly rearranges itself into a neutral expression. “My name is Callixtus. I don’t suppose you remember me?”
I look at him with nothing in my eyes or in my hands.
“I wish I had some food to give you. But the town isn’t too far away. Look you can see it right over the horizon.”
He picks me up in his arms like something small and delicate and carries me to his home.
The closer we get, the more I remember.
A house near the ocean where there was a big vegetable garden and a kettle of fish stew on the fire.
I had long hair then, raven black. It fell to my waist in soft waves.
And there was a little boy with golden curls and green eyes. We used to dig for clams in the sand.
Then there were tanks and bombs and bombs and guns. Then there was silence. Everyone was silent at the orphan asylum.
We took you to save you, they signed in those first days at the asylum.
But I don’t remember any Hungry Dead, I signed in the beginning.
A hand with large steel rings slapped me across the face.
Until at last I was able to sign:
I remember the Infidels now. They had dark skin and covered their hair with cloth. Their hearts were black as sin. They were everywhere. So hungry. My parents didn’t believe. They ate my parents. I saw them die.
It was what we all said.
What they taught us to say.
But now I am back in the house by the sea. The woman is there with the man. The boy with the golden hair and the green eyes is looking at me.
I stare at the pot simmering away on the fire. The smell is so real.
“What is it, Lily?” says the woman. Her hands can’t seem to stop touching me. They tangle up in my fingers.
I gesture to the pot on the fire with our clump of flesh.
“P-p-please,” I say.