It’s been a while friends. I’ve been busy with work, and even more gratifying, I have been getting some consistent writing done. I’m not making the great big leaps that I’d like but consistency is more important in my estimation. I haven’t forgotten about my blog here, or my reading, but with a full time job, well, something has got to give, yeah? And some of my indie writer friends have had recent successes (Lindsay Buroker being one such person) that have inspired me to work even harder to complete this project. I believe in this story and it has been with me for several years. I’m still quite a way off but I am so very hopeful. So hopeful in fact, that I thought I would share a little snippet from Bilqis. Read and enjoy.
Some time had passed since Bilqis left Sector Five, but not enough to forget how being there used to make her feel, like both prey and predator, both afraid and empowered. What came over Bilqis as she stepped from the ground floor platform was an instinct born of the emotions that came rushing back to her. The abrupt and easy squaring of her already broad shoulders, the cool set of her jaw, bright eyes hooded yet keenly alert was so deeply intrinsic it was as if she had shed a costume to reveal her true self. She had after all spent her entire life behind the invisible sector boundaries and it was only natural that she would, as much as she hated to admit it, find a certain comfort in the familiar yet treacherous surroundings.
The weak didn’t survive Sector Five and many of the strong didn’t either. Bilqis moved east toward Middleton, compelled by some deep need to revisit her old home, cutting through the humanity and the detritus like a scythe.
Authority investigators were still no closer the finding the person responsible for instigating the riot and the destruction of Ajutine Aeronautics, although a sketch of the nameless suspect, in his mid twenties, with a broad deep brow, dark deep set eyes, and a sensually curved mouth that seemed somehow too petite to belong to a man, had been plastered across the city. Bilqis stopped to study one such flier printed on thin bright yellow plastic paper. The digital image of the suspect rotated ninety degrees to the left and then to the right. When the image stopped center, it closed its eyes. She didn’t recognize him.
Beside the sketch of the suspect hung a faded flyer encouraging residents to visit their local clinic for free vaccinations and health exams. People complained about Goodwill’s tough policies but Bilqis thought that the efforts he made to take care of Ajutine’s residents were commendable, and more than previous mayors had done.
A left at the next intersection and three blocks east took Bilqis to Middleton and Bright. She was stupidly mollified to find that her old apartment building, all of Middleton and the two scant blocks north of it, had been spared the blaze that ate up nearly an eighth of Sector Five, though she was unsure why. She’d never liked living there. The plumbing always backed up foul green muck and every intimacy and indignity could be heard through the paper thin walls. And it wasn’t as if Taha would ever return. Too much time had passed.
A set of crumbling stairs led from the brief courtyard to a grungy little foyer lined with broken mailboxes, according to memory. She didn’t go inside. It was enough to see ithat the building had survived unashamedly ugly amongst even uglier buildings and circumstances. The residents here, like in much of Sector Five, were steeped on the kind of poverty that was worn beneath the skin. Even now, three years out, when she had plenty, there was always a lingering hunger, like an itch that no scratch would ever relieve.
But her success wasn’t so singular. Not everyone who could wished to leave Sector Five. Some were determined to call the place forever home, thinking themselves noble and devout. According to them the price of leaving was too high. According to Bilqis they were fools. They refused to take the pledge to forego faith, unwilling to sign away their gods. Bilqis had been willing.
Mayor Goodwill sought only to enforce the laws that already existed, under which Sector Five would cease to be a safe haven for the faithful. Starting at the beginning of the coming year everyone would be forced to sign the pledge of faithlessness or take their life to the hinterlands, eke out a life there on the vast barren plains. Bilqis figured that when that time came, plenty of people would let go of their notions of pride and submit. No number of riots or fires was likely to stop Goodwill’s plans to cleanse Ajutine, to prevent another disaster like that of 2035, to allow another Bilqis Harban, sword of the people, to be created.
Weaving through vehicles jammed at the intersection Bilqis crossed to the opposite side of the street. Half a block up she stopped at the cart of a street vendor and bought a sandwich of dried meat and onions and cheese wrapped in soft yeastless bread. She took a bite of the sandwich, unaware until that moment just how hungry she had been..
“Not protein meal,” she stated and enquired at once. She hadn’t eaten real animal flesh since leaving Sector Five. Everywhere else such fare was considered parochial.
The vendor unabashedly took her in from head to foot as he spoke. “Course not. I only sell real meat.” He pointed to the faded writing on the umbrella over his cart.
“What kind of meat is it?” She took another great mouthful.
He held up a finger as if struck by sudden inspiration. “Now that’s the question, isn’t it?” He didn’t elaborate further but he did extend his hand. “You owe two bills for that sandwich. Four if you’d like another.”
Bilqis paid the old vendor and left. Three blocks east, Bilqis turned into an alley. It was dark and buffered the cloister of noises from the street. She found the door at the very end of the alley where it butted up against a brick wall.
Bilqis knocked three times, waited five seconds and then knocked twice. Seconds later the door inched open, but Bilqis could see little more than a single glassy eye as it looked out at her.
“Who?” demanded the disembodied voice.
“Bushrah.” Bilqis crossed her arms. “She here?”
The door eased open a bit more and a face, mid-teens and male, emerged from the darkness. “Show me,” he said nodding.
Bilqis unzipped her jacket and pulled down the collar of her shirt to expose the tiny black fist tattooed just beneath her collarbone. He flashed the beam of a hand torch onto her face and then lowered it to the mark on her chest. His hard angular face softened beneath the weight of naked respect. “Banded in red,” he said, awe choking the timber of his voice, further betraying his youth.
Her memory of that tattoo was strong. Her brother Taha had drawn it himself, the needle loaded with ink laced with the oil of the atarahu. “So that you’ll never forget the pain of our people,” he’d told her. The tattoo had burned beneath her skin for months after it had healed. The very memory revived the old tat with stabs of prickly heat.
The black fist was the symbol of The Walls the largest and most fierce of the Sector Five cabals. The black fist rimmed with red indicated a member of high rank. In the case of Bilqis, it was not she who had possessed a high rank, but her brother Taha. He had ensured more than her safety with that red line. He’d guaranteed her protection. She was practically royalty among The Walls, untouchable.
“Who wants Bushrah?” he asked, back to business.
“Billie,” she said reclaiming the nickname she hadn’t used since leaving Sector Five.
He pushed open the door and signaled for her to enter ahead of him. “Okay Billie,” he said eyes flicking back to the area below her left collarbone, “I’ll take you to her.”