2055, November 6th
Collapse + 6 years
The sun was still up when Naema left the medical encampment. A bulky cast was wrapped around her wrist. It felt strange having the doctor wrestle with the bones of her numb thumb. If she’d closed her eyes, it felt as though someone were trying and failing miserably to shake her hand. Though the snap of her bone setting place had reverberated up her arm. The doctors were pleasant, but she was glad to be done.
She still might have time to get home before curfew. It probably wasn’t worth it. Getting caught was a gamble. Depending on which prowler ship caught you, they might guide her to a refugee camp for the night, or they might cart her off to wherever all the other malcontents went. Mama and Oni would never know why she never came home.
She decided to chance it. If it got to dark there was a camp up by Old Aba where she could stay. Naema alternated jogging and brisk walking.
About half a kilometer later, a woman called out to her. “Hey. Wait.”
Naema turned. The thief from the medical encampment was running up to her. Gasping and wheezing, she stopped paces from Naema and leaned on her knees.
“What are you doing?” Naema demanded.
“I was trying to follow you.” The woman paused to gulp air. “But I’m more out of shape than I thought.”
Naema became aware of how few witnesses were present. This woman didn’t look violent. She was in her mid forties, and clearly not from around here. Besides being white, she lacked the gaunt, weathered appearance of someone who’d known years of hunger. But she was still a thief—a thief who had tracked Naema down. Naema stepped away from the woman.
“No no.” the woman held out a staying hand. “Please. I just want to talk.”
“Go away. I don’t have anything.”
“And I don’t need anything.” The woman regained her breath.
“Why are you following me?”
“I was curious.” The words put Naema more on guard. The woman noticed this. “Here,” she said. “Let’s try again. My name is Josephine. What’s yours?”
Naema glanced around again. She half expected to find someone sneaking up on her while she faced this woman, but no one was near. Either way, she sure as hell wasn’t telling this woman her name.
“Will you at least let me walk with you?” Josephine said.
“No. Go away.”
“Fine. Here. How about this?” The woman reached into her leather bag, which she had again recovered. She took out a tub, the kind used at the food distributors, but the markings were different. It didn’t contain cassava, but she couldn’t tell what was inside, because unlike all other food tubs she’d seen, this one was spotless. No encrusted food paste was around the lid. From the way the woman hefted it, it was full, and she pulled another from her pack.
“If I give you these if you let me walk with you.”
“You stole those.”
“Yes, I did. But from the Lakiran.”
“Those are for the sick.”
“They are, but what the Lakirans don’t want you to know is that there really aren’t limited supplies. They can literally print more. The empire just pretends that there’s a limit so they only give you enough to keep you dependent.”
That much was true, at least from the rumors Naema had heard.
“I could get in trouble.”
“I’ll keep you out of trouble. Maybe you didn’t notice, but I just got arrested twice and yet I’m still here. You could say I’m wearing a trouble-proof coat, because trouble slides right off me.”
“How’d you get away?”
Josephine chewed her lip. “Before I answer, you have to promise to give me a chance to prove it, because you’re not going to believe me at first. Okay?”
Naema eyed her up and down. That food was enticing, but it also was contraband. It made people disappear, like this woman was supposed to. But she hadn’t. Soldiers had thrown her to the floor and carted her off twice, and all that seemed to come of that was a dusting on the woman’s dress. This still seemed like a trick, but if worst came to worst, Naema could outrun this woman.
“I have to keep moving,” Naema said.
“Right. Curfew. May I walk with you?”
“How’d you do it?”
“Do you promise to give me a chance to prove myself?”
“Fine. How’d you do it?”
“I made the guards forget why they arrested me. Then I asked them to take their cuffs off.”
“I have a trick where I can make people forget things. I made the guards forget so much about me that they wondered why they were escorting me at all. I even made them forget that I asked them to uncuff me.”
“I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve always been able to do. Now you said you’d let me prove it to you.”
“Okay. Do it.”
“I will, but there’s a small problem about that. Back there, when the guards arrested me, that’s farther than they’ve ever gotten. Normally I can make soldiers forget before they even start walking toward me, but I couldn’t back there. I could only do it after they carried me off. And it’s you. I can’t do my thing when you’re around.”
“So you can’t prove it.”
“No, I can. It’s just won’t be easy. I’ve been experimenting while I was following you. I think I’m okay as long as you’re not looking at me. So here’s what I’ll do. You see her over there?” Josephine pointed to a woman under an overhanging tarp. She had a home set up nestled between a plaster building an old, rusted taxi without tires. She lay there as though watching the world pass her by, but Naema knew better. It was watch duty. Other people lived in that alcove with her. They were gone while she watched the home. Everyone knows: you don’t leave your home unattended, no matter how little you think you have. You’re apt to come home to find your blankets missing.
“I see her.” Naema said.
“I’m going to take her cooking pot and bring it back, and she’s not going to stop me.”
“But I need you to go around the corner first.”
Naema was reluctant.
“You promised you’d give me a chance.”
“Fine, fine.” Naema walked in the direction she was already heading. She didn’t turn at the first corner, since it would take her down an alley, and she still expected a nasty trick. The next intersection was a major street. She walked around the corner and waited.
From around the corner, she heard a woman yell, “Hey! Come ere. Put dat down. Gi mi…” And then the voice trailed off.
Josephine turned the corner carrying a dented iron pot. She presented it with a smile.
“Okay,” Naema said. “Can I look?”
The woman was still where she was before. She was standing, though she seemed uncaring about her missing pot.
“You paid her off.” Naema said.
Josephine groaned. “No, I didn’t. Here. Come with me while I return it.”
“I must go home. Curfew is almost here.”
“Don’t worry about that. Look.” Josephine took out a leather booklet. It’s smooth black design did not at all fit her attire. She opened it to reveal an ID card behind a plastic viewing frame. Naema had never seen an ID like that, and her english wasn’t good enough to read it, but it was certainly Lakiran. More interesting, the photo displayed was of Josephine.
“I’m allowed out after curfew,” Josephine said.
“How did you get this?”
“I walked into a Lakiran military compound and printed it out.”
“You make people forget then, too?”
“Yep. Just hopped behind the counter. It was like the DMV for me.”
“What is the DMV?”
“Nevermind, but as long as you’re with me, you won’t be arrested. I promise. Will you come with me to return this now?” She held up the pot.
Naema relented. Together they returned to the woman.
“Excuse me,” Josephine said. She held up the pot. “Is this yours?”
The woman glanced. Her eyes snapped to her empty heating plate. She was on her feet instantly. Eyes wide, she crept toward Josephine while glancing up and down the street.
“Yea. It dey mine. How you done got it?”
“It was laying on the street around the corner. I thought I remembered seeing it in your place here last time I passed through.”
“Oh.” The woman didn’t seem convinced. Not that she was angry, but rather confused that it could be her pot at all. Josephine handed it to her. The woman bowed gratefully, then scurried back. She eyed Naema and Josephine as they left.
“Are you convinced?” Josephine asked.
“No. You paid her.”
“Come on. Did it look like I paid her?”
“She and you worked it out together before.”
“Okay. How about this. We do it again, but this time you pick out the person. We’ll do this experiment as many times as you want.”
It seemed unwise, but Naema had to admit, if this was a trick, that woman back there was a damn good actor. And by now it was too late to get back before curfew. She’d have to stop at Old Aba anyway. Naema time to burn.
“I still get the food?” Naema asked.
“Here,” Josephine handed over her satchel. “I can always get more. Why don’t you have it all.”
“I am keeping this. Even if you are full of it.”
“Fine by me.”
Naema did make it back home that night. Curfew had passed by two hours, but after Josephine stole from under a dozen other noses, which included taking the sidearm from a Lakiran guard, Naema admitted that Josephine might not be a complete fake.
It was during these tests that Josephine realized, or claimed to have realized, that she didn’t need Naema to go around the corner. Turning around was sufficient. That supposedly was why the walk home was as uneventful as it was. After dark, the streets emptied. Then came the Prowlers—floating platforms which drifted above the houses silently. Naema only knew they were there when the stars blotted out, except for the two times when people aboard the platforms spotted them. Blinding light would bathe Josephine and Naema. But Josephine would hold her leather booklet up to the light, which apparently was good enough. The light would cut. The prowler would move on.
“They have scanners,” Josephine explained. She showed Naema a code on the surface of her ID.
When Naema arrived home, she gently lifted the flap into her family’s tent. Everyone was asleep, but as Naema emptied the satchel of food, Mama woke.
“It’s me, Mama,” Naema said.
“Naema?” Mama groped for her lantern. When the light flicked on, Mama squinted and covered the lantern surface with her hand. “Are you crazy? Why are you coming home now? After dark? They’ll cart you away.”
“It’s okay, Mama. I had somebody walk me.”
Naema held the shanty flap open. Josephine ducked through.
“Who is this woman?” Mama asked. Oni stirred.
“Josephine, Mama. She got us food.”
Mama perked up. “What?” She crawled from bed and looked through the bag. “Where did this all come from?”
“Mostly from the CivManagement building,” Josephine said.
“Girl!” Mama examined food items with increasing astonishment. Beside the food paste tubs, there was cereal, bread, chocolate, juice packs, cheese, canned meats, and freshly printed Fruit. “They don’t give this food out. How did you get this?”
“I have access to their buildings,” Josephine said.
Mama eyed her. She put the food down and leaned away as though it were all poison. She spoke to Naema. “What does she want?”
“I don’t want anything, madame,” Josephine said. “The food is a gift.”
“Is that so?” Mama replied. “That is very kind.” Her tone suggested it wasn’t.
Oni, however, had no problem accepting this gift. He tore open a packet of small cakes and gorged.
“Naema, girl, where did you find this woman? There is no such thing as something for nothing.”
“Mama, it’s okay. I met her at—”
“It’s all right,” said Josephine. “There’s no need to explain.”
“You will explain yourself,” Mama said. “Or you will take this food back.”
Josephine ignored her and turned to Naema. “I’d really like to meet you again, just to talk. Would it be okay if I came by at noon tomorrow? I can bring more food.”
“Okay,” said Naema. She would milk this for all it was worth.
“Great. I’ll see you soon.” Waving, Josephine ducked through the tarp.
Naema turned back to Mama, expecting a glare, but her mother had returned to sorting food items. “It’s okay, Mama. The food did not cost her anything. She has got special clearance.”
Her mother looked at her blankly. “Who are you talking about, girl?”
Naema nearly replied before she realized what had happened. A dozen random strangers might have played dumb, but Mama wouldn’t.