I’ll die today.
Jan’s hopes had faded like the old graffiti scrawled on the mud wall of the Dein compound. The throbbing of a rotor overhead sparked no thought of rescue. He had long forgotten his plans for escape. Dreams of home—the noisy cafés, the crowded streets, the sound of Majsi’s laughter—were nightmares from which he awoke, shivering, in the cold desert air.
Hearing a distant howl, Jan stood up from the cot. He pulled his stained gray blanket over his shoulders and walked barefoot to the barred window. It was mid-morning. Sun shone on the distant hills of sand and rocks and scrub. The side of the building with his cell remained in chilly shadow.
Jan’s gaze lingered on the yellow mud wall outside the window of his cell. Two red-brown stains marked the spots where Bas and then Nami had been shot. Six months ago. One bullet each, through the head.
The Dein had made him watch, but gave no reasons. Had it been hostage negotiations gone bad, or just some Dein lieutenant’s sadistic whim?
“Your Shar friends are gone,” was all he’d been told.
Jan gave a low whistle and scanned the courtyard. Moments later he spotted the daka’s snout poking out from behind a utility shed.
“Hey,” Jan called softly. His stiff, unshaven face twitched into a weak smile. “Hey there.”
The yellow hound slipped across the courtyard, flashing chipped fangs and golden-brown eyes.
As Jan had trained it to do, the daka rose up on hind legs and stretched its massive frame until it could paw the window ledge. Jan threaded his forearm awkwardly between the cold bars and patted the daka’s rough muzzle. As a child, he had been taught that the daka—part desert hound, part wolf, and, some said, part spirit—was sacred to the Shar.
Of course, the Dein shot them for sport. Jan was astonished that this one risked sneaking into the Dein compound every day just for a few scraps from his rations.
“Good boy. Yeah. Good boy.”
The beast gave a whine and a wolfish grin, shuffling its sharp-clawed hind paws in the dirt to keep its balance.
Jan walked stiffly to the metal tray by the cell door and came back with a treat. He pushed it through the bars. It was not just the daka’s usual scraps, but all of the meal that had been slid under his door at noon: a rib of gristly lamb.
He’d heard the Dein trucks roll into the compound just after sunset, and then the harsh voices of command—all the signs that preceded an execution. And Jan was the only Shar prisoner left.
The desert hound drew back its lips, took the lamb in its teeth, and dropped back down to the dirt to eat.
Jan watched. Giving the dog his food might be the last time he gave anything to another being. He remember Nami being pulled from the cell, tearing his pendant from his neck and tossing it to Jan as guards dragged him away.
Jan fumbled beneath his t-shirt for the pendant, a crude charm stamped with two full moons. The symbol of the Shar resistance. Jan would drop it through the drain grate when they came for him rather than let a Dein take it from his corpse.
His thoughts of death were interrupted by a keen buzzing.
Two months ago, he’d held a shirt out his window and waved it madly, hoping the drone’s camera would spot it. Instead, a Dein guard had seen it. Jan was beaten and left naked in the cell for a week before they returned his clothes.
But today he had nothing to lose.
He was struggling out of his shirt when the explosion came. He staggered back from the window, the mud walls of the cell cracking and crumbling around him. Metal groaned. He turned to see the cell door sagging from one hinge.
Jan stared dully as the door swung open. He recognized the chance, dimly, from his long-abandoned dream of freedom.
Another explosion. The unhinged door hit the floor with a clang, breaking his trance. Out in the corridor, smoke and dust swirled. Shouts rang out from other parts of the building. At the far end of the dark corridor, a break in the wall revealed daylight. Jan saw a jeep careen by and vanish into the swirling dust. He stepped into the hallway and staggered as a hand shot out and clawed at his ankle.
A man lay writhing beneath the rubble, moaning as dark liquid spread across his shirt. The man raised his head, briefly, and fell back. But Jan recognized the face: one of the Dein torturers.
Jan shook his head, searching for fragments of his escape plans.
Disguise. Boots. Weapons.
Jan bent down and snatched the man’s grimy wool cap, clapping it onto his own head. He shoved aside rubble to get at the man’s boots.
Laced. No time.
Another drone sang overhead, promising another bomb.
Ignoring the Dein’s moans, Jan lunged for the open wall and the courtyard beyond. He tumbled through just as another explosion rocked the building behind him and the ceiling collapsed.
Jan scrambled to his feet, blinking in the hot sun.
Men shouting. Dust billowing.
Which way to run?
Through the dust Jan made out the daka, prancing and backing away. When the hound whirled and darted between two utility sheds, Jan ran after him. The hound led him through a narrow utility gate to the open plain outside the wall. Jan paused, confused, and squinted.
Escape. Which way?
The daka, pale yellow against the darker yellow sand, was trotting toward the hills. Jan stumbled after the animal, trying to stay low. He imagined a Dein guard’s eyes on his back and cursed the dark pants that made him a target in the desert landscape. Rocks tore his bare feet, dust filled his nose, and tears burned his face.
He ran faster, marking his ragged pace with a chant: Gone, gone. Gone, gone.
The sharp rocks hurt, but not as much as scars on his feet where the torturers had burned them. The self-inflicted pain of escape bordered on pleasure.
After months of despair, Jan was remembering his escape plan.
He would run into the hills.
Gone, gone. Gone, gone.
Wait until night, then set out to find a village.
Gone, gone. Gone, gone.
In the village, he’d find Shar sympathizers.
Gone, gone. Gone, gone.
Who’d help him get back to the city. The city with the café and Majsi. As he ran, he tried to remember what the café, what Majsi, looked like, but couldn’t. They were just the words from his long-ago plan:
Gone, gone. Gone, gone.
Ahead of him, the yellow daka loped on. Jan limped and staggered, trying to keep up. They neared the scrubby hills and the terrain turned rougher. His throat seared and his vision blurred, exhaustion trumping adrenaline. He tripped and fell.
I’ll rest a few.
He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. The heat became his blanket and sleep took him.
Jan woke from a dream about fire. His back burned hot but his chest ached with cold.
Hot sun. Cold sand.
He lifted his face from the cooling sand and surveyed the silent desert around him. A massive red sun teetered on the point of a black hill, ready to tumble into sunset. On the opposite horizon, the two moons floated, staring like wide-open eyes.
Silence. No pursuers.
But no daka, either.
Jan licked his cracked lips and finally managed to whistle a few times. Still no sign of the hound.
Rising up on his elbows, he spotted the Dein compound in the valley below. Black smoke drifted up from the rubble. He’d run for what seemed like hours, but hadn’t gotten far enough. As he watched, a truck sped out of the compound gates. The sweat on his back turned cold. The truck seemed headed straight for him.
The daka must have led him on a path parallel to a road. Now the truck’s headlights were bobbing along that road and coming closer in the dusk. Jan dropped down behind a thorny shrub and prayed for night. As the truck growled closer, a gunner in the truck bed opened fire, raking the brush where Jan hid. A bullet whined overhead and chipped a boulder.
Jan lay flat, his heart pounding so loudly that he almost missed the soft yelp.
Slowly turning his head, Jan peered into the dusk. Scrub. Boulders. Caves. He spotted the yellow muzzle poking out from the mouth of a low cave just a few yards away. Another yelp. When the truck dropped out of sight in a dip in the road, Jan scrambled on hands and knees to the cave’s entrance. He dragged himself inside on his elbows and collapsed in the dark, panting.
Hot, gamey breath fell on his face. He heard wet snarls from the back of the cave. As his eyes accepted the dark, he made out several pairs of burning, yellow eyes. He was surrounded by desert hounds.
One animal pressed close against his flank, as if protecting him from the others. With no options, Jan lay still, listening as the Dein truck roared past on the road.
He woke minutes—or was it hours?—later to the sounds of a truck. Was it the same one? Night had fallen. He heard the truck leaving the road and wheeling through the bush toward the cave. At the squeal of brakes and the slam of doors, the beasts around him shifted and growled. Footsteps approached. Jan flinched as a flashlight beam raked the mouth of the cave.
“Look in there,” someone barked. The dialect was Dein. “Go on.”
“Not at night. The dakas—” a second voice replied, quavering. “In the morning. We’ll come back in the morning—”
The dakas surged from the cave, clawing their way over Jan in their frenzy to get to the Dein. Snarls, shouts, shots, and screams. And then low growls, gnashing, and crunching.
While the hounds tore at his pursuers, Jan slipped from the cave and crept to their truck. It was empty. He doused the telltale headlights, found a canteen on the front seat, and gulped until the canteen was empty. Then he set to work. Blessing the light of the two moons, he rifled through the truck, finding a backpack and stuffing it with more canteens and a flashlight. He found a jacket—torn and greasy to the touch, but it would protect him against the night’s cold and tomorrow’s sun.
If I live to tomorrow.
Jan paused, listening for other trucks on the roadway.
No sound except for his own ragged panting and the growls of the dakas outside the cave.
Jan went back to work. He grabbed the keys from the ignition and looked at them, undecided. They were tempting, but it was too dangerous for him to drive the truck on a road that would surely have Dein checkpoints. He pocketed the keys and then dumped fistfuls of dirt into the truck’s gas tank.
When the satiated hounds moved off into the night, Jan set about plundering the ravaged bodies. He took pistols, ammunition, water, a lighter, and another flashlight. From a dead man roughly his size, he pulled boots, a pair of filthy socks, and a wallet with a few bills. The blood-spattered scarf around the man’s neck had been no defense against the dakas’ razor-sharp fangs, but what remained of it would protect him from the sun and the sand if he failed to find a Shar village by morning.
Moving away from the carnage, Jan tilted back his head and studied the canopy of stars and two moons until he was reasonably sure of the way south.
Are the southern villages still Shar—or will I have to pass as Dein?
He’d been in the compound for more than two years. All he knew was that the war was still going on. Jan pushed those thoughts from his mind and focused on the task at hand. He put on the dead man’s socks and boots, shouldered his pack, and started his trek. He looked back once, half expecting to see the daka, but the moonlit dirt track behind him stood empty.
“Thank you,” he whispered to the night and to the sacred hound.
Thank you for taking me this far.
Jan followed the road, ready to drop into the brush at any hint of an approaching vehicle. Cresting a hill, he saw a checkpoint in the road below, its guard box lit but seemingly empty. He slipped from the road and walked slowly, carefully far out into the desert, returning to the road only after it had meandered safely beyond the guard’s view.
Twice the light of the moons played over skeletons by the road—the remains of trucks blown up by mines. Peering, Jan thought he saw a Dein insignia on one of the charred, dangling doors. That would mean success for the Shar resistance. But Jan couldn’t risk walking too close to the blast areas for fear that buried ordnance remained.
One moon set. The second moon lingered near the horizon. The road forked, and Jan stood for a few minutes, resting but also unable to make a decision. Then he looked behind him. The road was empty beneath a pink dawn. But he could too easily imagine a Dein truck appearing at any minute.
Jan took two steps to the left, but it felt wrong. The pack lay heavy on his sunburned back.
He turned to the right and noticed the setting moon ahead, as if leading him on. Adjusting his pack, he trudged forward.
Just after dawn, he reached the outskirts of a village. Its name, painted on a worn signboard, provided no clue.
Shar? Or Dein?
A shed stood back from the road. Jan watched as an elderly man emerged, driving a flock of horned bmidi. The man wore the soft straw hat of a farmer.
Jan stopped. Most men his age would be aligned with the Shar or the Dein, but he couldn’t afford to give himself away. He took a deep breath and slipped off the felted wool hat he’d taken from the Dein guard. After a moment’s hesitation, he cast it far into the bush. He stopped by the roadside and pretended to re-arrange his pack, taking off his stolen jacket and checking it for Dein insignia. He found none.
His hand closed over the pendant. He could never cast it away. Jan slid the two-moon charm around to the back of the chain, remembering Nami.
They’d talked for hours about how they would escape, and how they could pass themselves off as Dein if they had to. Nami had engaged their guards in conversation to master the slang, insisting he’d be their spokesperson. But Nami was dead, the nuances of the plan long forgotten. Jan was exhausted from his long night on the road. He muttered a few phrases in Dein, then spat to clear his mouth.
He’d never manage it.
He walked quickly past the shad, giving a cautious nod in greeting. He felt the old man’s eyes on his back as he headed for the village.
Dein or Shar?
He spotted a shabby grocery and café. The exterior was plastered with posters for local markets, village death notices, and a schedule of dances. Nothing, he noticed, about the war.
Through the open doorway, Jan saw two middle-aged men in the bright-colored caps and vests of shopkeepers deep conversation at a crude table. He strained to hear their words.
Dein or Shar?
They chatted in a rural dialect he did not recognize but hoped he could approximate. He set his heavy pack down by the door and limped towards the pair, his hands at his side to show he was unarmed. They broke off their conversation and frowned.
“Good day, cousins. Peace to you,” Jan murmured, praying he’d concealed his city accent.
To his relief, their faces brightened. They returned his greeting. One of the men indicated that he should sit down and share their pot of taratai.
The intoxicating scent of the hot, fresh brew rose from the pot. Jan trembled with hunger and fear, praying that something in the conversation would tell him quickly if he was safe with fellow Shar or doomed to be discovered and returned to the enemy.
He sat, and the boy working the coffee bar ran over with a cup for him. The boy, smiling, asked him something and pointed towards the open doorway. One of the shopkeepers whistled in amazement.
Jan turned to look. An immense yellow hound lay panting beside his pack.
“A daka!” the boy marveled. He tugged Jan’s sleeve. “Uncle, how did you tame a sacred hound?”
Sacred hound. These are Shar.
Jan dropped his head into his hands and wept.
“I escaped from the Dein last night,” he blurted, raising his head. The two shopkeepers froze, and their eyes widened.
One leapt to his feet and told the boy to fetch breads and fruit. The other leaned forward and asked, “Cousin, how can we help?”
Jan thought of the city, the café, and Majsi. But what he asked them for first was water and food for the daka. He and the boy carried the dishes to the doorway.
The hound regarded them with its golden-brown eyes. It ate and drank. One of the shopkeepers offered Jan his phone. The men watched as Jan, his hands trembling, sat at the table and tapped out his first call to the city.
Only the boy saw the daka leave, loping back to the hills.
K.G. Anderson is a Seattle-based journalist and technology writer. Her short fiction appears in the new speculative fiction political anthology Alternative Truths and in the recent Triangulation science fiction anthologies, as well as online at Metaphorosis and Every Day Fiction. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writers Workshop. Find out more about her work at http://writerway.com/