“My friends, you know me to be neither rash nor a victim to my wiles, although there are many. I am not given to wild, unsupported accusations. Rather, you know me as a merciful and strong ruler. Fair when needed, firm when required, and kindness rules every choice I have made.”
Zagan sat in the middle of the camp with the youngest and the oldest in the community circled around him. One of the old women crawled from her place and reached out to him. Her fingers trailed down his arms and back where the river water had chewed on his flesh. He considered her for a moment, then lifted her hand and kissed it.
“There are many of you who remember when the Now Times were new, when the satellites fell from the sky and made the rivers burn.” Zagan kissed the woman’s hand again before helping her back to her place in the circle. “I won’t bore you with my story—you have heard it—you have also heard the countless words of those we have the honor of caring for, these, and those too young to fend for themselves.”
Zagan stood and walked past the inner circles and focused on the older ones, the teens and adults. Some were still covered in the oils used to fight the acid that made the river burn their skin. “They have given us so much—they have provided for us when we ourselves were mere children like these. And even now, they clean our camp and keep things in order. Why wouldn’t we—and I say ‘we’ as I go as well as you do, do I not?”
Yells and yelps filled the air.
Messa was silent. She kept her chin lifted and her eyes hard.
“He goes out, so he says, but to do what? What? He doesn’t look for food, does he? Messa will tell you,” she whispered, but hisses came down from rows away.
Zagan raised his hand for silence, pulling his attention to the ivory-skinned woman with scars of her own.
“You were once a force in the field, Messa.” Zagan turned to the crowd. “She has led many of you and fed nearly all.” Those words reduced the hisses and harsh words to murmurs. “Because of this, I choose not to deal with you in anger or in secret, but to make my appeal known to the camp, lest there be one of their number who will defend you.”
Messa blurted, “I don’t need your defense or your words, and I will not go back out there to serve your delusions!”
Boos and hisses rose from the crowd. Slurs and spittle followed.
Zagan kneeled before Messa. “The Now Times makes pessimists of us all, Messa. The elders tell of times where food was plentiful to the point of waste, but we scrounge for every bit we put in our mouths. Tales of childhoods playing in the rain. Can you imagine?” Zagan leaped up, twirling on one foot with joy then planting his other foot on the board of the longhouse. Messa shuddered in spite of herself.
“Can you find in your memories a time when the rain didn’t mean pain from above? It is easy to look upon those days with bitterness, but I will tell you that there are places where the water is cool and sweet, where you can drink it from its very source.”
Messa scoffed, but Zagan simply laid his hand on her knee. Messa dared not move. “Those who have the pictures in their skin know the way and will lead us there. But you will not have it—no, you will not even go out to ensure that we will not perish here—one who once hunted meat so skillfully. So joyously.”
“One who deprives us of other Hunters as well!” yelled a man from the far end of the table. “We have to go and take the teens out there, fingers and skin burning, just to make our weekly quota. Yours were allowed to hunt or not as they pleased and now, you won’t go either? Then you don’t need to stay!”
Zagan allowed the commotion to rise to the rafters. Messa pulled Jani toward her. Moni wouldn’t be cuddled, so Messa let her stand.
“I hunt and bring in their share, and extra besides!” Moni glared at Zagan, but her words were meant for the crowd. “Far more than many of you!”
“You are part of the camp, Moni, as is your mother.” He stood and faced the crowd. “And Moni has indeed done her fair share, as does her husband. And how many of you came to their aid when Jani was fallen upon by the Fishwives?” Zagan reached out and lifted Jani’s chin. “She is still not what she once was, thanks to the bile and poison she was fed during her time with them—our healers know that to be sure and have said as much. No, it is Messa and Messa alone who has stopped going out to hunt and it is Messa’s shortage that we must make up.”
Zagan paced in silence then, looking through the crowds. Murmurs and hisses faded and after a few moments, every eye focused on his movements, their breath in time with his cadence. He stopped in front of one of the women. He opened his mouth to say something, but an emerging thought gave him pause.
He focused his attention back on the women. Her eyes widened as he singled out one and lowered a hand to her shoulder.
“How long has it been since your dear husband and daughter were burned alive in the waters, Edelharte?”
Edelharte didn’t respond at first, instead, tears rolled down her cheeks, tears that Zagan wiped away.
“It has been two years.” Edelharte’s chest puffed out. “My children were out learning from their father—learning to care for the camp. And they died doing that.” The whoops and cheers cut through the silence as she rose and faced Messa. “Even in my grief, I hunt, I gather, and fight for us!”
Her voice rose and echoed through the hall and the chant, “Fight for us,” filled the longhouse.
Zagan again raised his hand to silence them and beamed at Edelharte.
“So many fine women have lost and crave the touch of a man or the thrill of having children.” Some of the cheers lowered to growls. Zagan laughed.
“No, not all of you do. But have I ever made that a mandate among you?” Heads shook. “And I never will. But caring for the camp is more than the physical hunger that you have.” His lips touched Edelharte’s forehead. She nodded and sat back down as Zagan made his way back to the elders.
“And more than the spiritual or emotional hunger you have. How many of these elders crave to return to Then Times and see an Indians game? That sounds so odd to say, but the concept of baseball—that is what it’s called, right?”
An elder said, “The Cleveland Indians. My dad got me out of school for a game at the stadium when the satellite crashed—couldn’t hear it over the crowd. Didn’t want to hear it, either.”
“I was here, at the Metroparks Zoo, with my parents,” another elder said. “We were in the old aquarium, but when the first burning rains fell, we were in the monkey house and they were going insane, screeching and crying, fighting…” The woman said nothing else.
Zagan added, “It is the little delights that we miss. And the space that we will fill, the void that Messa will fill in our camp, instead of thinking of meat and water.”
Messa jumped up, pushing past her daughters. In the few steps, she cleared the distance to Zagan and held her hunting knife to his neck.
Moni ran after her mother, leaped into the air and dropped into a defensive stance, back to back with her mother. Every armed person stood and brandished their weapons. Jani ran out of the longhouse screaming for her father.
Messa vowed, “I will slit your throat before me or my daughters will become your whores.”
“And none of you will be. Why would I force you when I have willing and enthusiastic men and women willing to give comfort to the camp? Now lower your knife so we can all sit back down.”
Messa lowered her knife but didn’t move otherwise.
Zagan, for his part, took a step back, swiped his neck and checked his hand for blood. He didn’t call for the crowd to lower their weapons. Messa and Moni stayed in defensive stance, eyes flitting around, ready to face anyone who wanted a fight.
“Where is your sister?” Messa took a step backward toward the door. Moni sensed the movement and took a step forward in time with her mother.
“I gave Jani a head start,” Moni hissed. “She had a bag packed like you said to. If she’s smart, she’s headed to the Market ruins.”
“You should have gone with her. Go find her and your father and return,” Messa said.
Just as the words were coming out of her mouth, Josiah walked into the longhouse, his skin covered in the powder that soothed and stopped the burning from the rains.
Some of the crowd lowered or hid their weapons at the sight of Josiah. Others, more women than not, smiled and waved at him. He acknowledged the smiles and waves and responded in kind. Edelharte rose from her seat and stood next to Zagan, her gaze fixed on Josiah and a smile curling the edges of her mouth.
“Stand down, you two,” Josiah said to his wife and daughter before turning his attention to Zagan. “We said that this issue was between us, Zagan. But instead, you have brought almost the entire camp together. You always did love your theatrics and an audience to perform in front of.”
“Josiah, this is a matter that has already ignited gossip and resentment. A camp that allows such gossip and a lack of clarity to flourish is one that will eat itself from the inside.”
Zagan clapped Josiah on the back and turned to the camp. “Your mighty Josiah returns to us, with powder on his skin after a day of braving the burning rains to hunt for us. As Messa’s husband, he knows all too well how Messa has left us lacking. He has strived to no avail to compel his wife to rejoin the ranks of the Hunters after caring for Jani. He and I have declared it a lost cause.”
Zagan walked over to Edelharte and brought her to her feet. “So, in the name of bringing balance to our camp, we have come upon a way that Messa can and will make up the deficit. Not through additional work, but through sacrifice.” He led Edelharte by the hand and walked over to Josiah.
“Josiah has agreed to give you what you have lost. Children—two, to be precise,” Zagan said. Edelharte’s skin went pale and Messa’s turned red.
“You will not force my husband to impregnate another woman!”
Zagan grimaced then shook his head. “Once again, why would I force someone when they offer themselves willingly and enthusiastically?”
All the fire and rage that fueled Messa up until this point seemed to drain from her. She dropped her knife, her glassy eyes rotating between Zagan’s question, Edelharte’s beaming face, and her husband’s slightly defiant gaze.
“Dad… you didn’t… agree to this, did you?” Moni’s voice cracked as she moved to look her father in the eye. Though she moved and positioned herself, he never looked at her. “You betrayed Mother, even though you knew what those wretched fishwives put those pictures on her skin?”
“Moni, quiet!” Josiah ordered.
The gasps from the crowd gave Moni pause.
Zagan looked between the members of the family and laughed until tears rolled down his face. His legs gave way and he fell in a silent pile. Everyone in the entire longhouse held their breath until Zagan sat up and spoke again.
“This is why I strive for the camp to know all things and what?!”
“Transparency above all!” the longhouse responded in a long exhale.
“Yes! What one sees, we all see. I thought I saw through their charade and they have proven that I have failed you miserably. And for this, I plead for your pardon.” He rolled up to his feet in a single swift movement. He closed the distance and walked up to Moni, placing his hands on her cheeks.
“And I thank you for your rage and honesty.” He turned back to the longhouse.
“Can you imagine what would have become of us if Josiah and I were allowed to keep a boon like this from us? I suspected that the thought of sacrificing her husband to another woman’s bed would loosen her resolve, but not even I thought that it would reveal such riches.”
Zagan’s hands gripped the sides of her face and in her mind, the tears running down his face were no longer from the laughing. There was a sadness, a longing that went past the drama of the longhouse meetings. She could feel his hands tremble against her skin.
“Are you with us, Moni? You know what this could mean for us… fresh water that doesn’t burn against the skin. Fruit that we can eat off the tree. Her skin can show us the way. Are you with me?”
Moni’s eyes never left his. She had never held his attention for this long and in the far reaches of her mind, she knew that this attention would last until he had the skin in his hand.
But still. This attention made her feel strong, seen, and powerful. She was tired of hiding from the harsh looks, as if Jani’s skin was her own.
“Yes, Zagan. I’m with you,” Moni said and Zagan’s tears flowed again. The entire crowd rose to their feet and cheered. Zagan pulled her into an embrace and wept into her hair before pulling back.
“We will find the new life in the Now Times and you will be its cornerstone.” He lifted Moni’s hand above them and the longhouse burst into a chant.
Messa and Josiah didn’t cheer. They stood cold and still in place. Edelharte’s chant slowed when she noticed this and reached out to Josiah. Josiah pulled away with a glare then turned his gaze back to his daughter. Edelharte backed away into the crowd.
“Are they with us?” she yelled, pushing the folks around her, popping them out of their fervor one by one.
Zagan calmed the crowd and considered Messa and Josiah, now arm in arm, and set apart from the crowd.
“As I am admittedly ignorant of Messa and Josiah’s coming and goings, I cannot answer this. Only those who are intimate with the things they want to hide.”
“Tell me, Moni, are they with us?” Zagan softened his stance and voice and looked at the girl. “There is no need to fear, hunter. Transparency is the reason why we have thrived as others struggle. That is the reason we are still human and are not pitied like the fishwives, or the hair folks, or other creatures that have allowed the Now Times to warp them.”
Moni would never be certain why she answered the way that she did. Perhaps it was the adrenaline of the moment, or finally getting the praise from the camp, or the power that would come from leading them to fresh water. Or perhaps that all that her parents had would become hers. That would give her a power all its own.
Whatever the reason, she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. She simply shook her head and turned away.
Zagan shifted his body to face the young girl. “This decision will dismay you and perhaps haunt you, but these are matters of life or death for all of us, child.”
“But they were not transparent—they lied,” someone yelled from the crowd.
“They wanted the fresh water for themselves,” someone suggested.
“I bet that’s where Josiah was,” another said as the speculation grew.
“Be that as it may, our way is clear. Call the vehicles back and we will find that skin and move on the fresh water,” Zagan said and ushered Moni out of the longhouse.
He ordered, “Tie them to the post, find out what they know, and then leave them out in the rain to burn.”
It was easy to be invisible when people saw you as a pariah. Sure, there were people who saw Jani leave the longhouse during the meeting. In their minds, she didn’t belong to their camp since the fishwives had gotten hold of her.
Jani felt the knots tighten in the longhouse. Violence was forbidden in there during meetings, but Zagan was not above allowing a touch of blood in the name of theatrics.
And the camp loved a good show.
Each camper had their small role in the Great Drama that Zagan had created for them. The scene in the longhouse had campers holding their breath and looking at Jani with fear, disgust, and pity. In turn, her exit allowed them to let out a collective sigh of relief once she and her blue scaly blotches weren’t polluting their space anymore.
She was out of sight and out of mind and that was exactly how Jani wanted it. All she needed was one last time.
This last time.
There was only one dot left. Many of the fishwives pointed to it, saying that was the spot to read the black marks that Jani kept hidden. Others pointed to dots where they gave bigger game, or a taste of sweet, fresh water.
But time had run out for Jani and it was urgent that she leave the camp behind and head to the last dot. Wherever it was, it was better than here.
The few who saw her head toward the vehicles, when asked, would state, ‘She’s weak and limp—I’m surprised that she was even able to open the door, let alone turn the wheel,’ right before Zagan had their heads busted open.
Jani was already three miles down the road when the horns filled the air, the recall signal for all vehicles to return to the camp. There was no rain at the moment, so the more ambitious hunters and gathers ventured as far as the overhead roads or they even braved the scabs and mutants in old Tremont’s mill ruins for whatever bits of good metal were left.
Jani swerved off the Fulton road and slowed the vehicle until she reached the school. Messa had assured her that she would have enough time to make it all the way to the river by the time Zagan even knew she was gone. But that was never going to be a certainty—Zagan knew too much about too many things for that to happen.
So Jani had packed light like the fishwives had taught her, had left her guns at the camp, and had made sure that she had several ways to reach the point on her skin.
Her skin. Zagan had made such a big deal about the skin—that was what the tales were all about. How when the machines fell from the sky and the water started to burn, people would mark their skin with their names so that when they were found, people would know who they were. Then they marked the location of loot or refuges on the arms of their children before sending them off, so the children would not have to see them die.
But that was when Jani was much younger, before the bridges fell into the water, and before the rain started to burn, and before the people started to morph and change.
Long ago, Jani had told one of the fishwives that the days of the pictures on the skin had ended.
“No… no, no, no, they are not gone, the rain changes the skin and the ink sinks below where no one can see. The drink will bring them up.”
The drink was hot to her lips, but after a few sips, Jani’s blood ran cold and that’s when the lines of blue had appeared on her back and legs. Blotches of green and pink rose underneath the blue lines until most of her almond-colored skin was visible. Black markings rose to the surface and faded away.
The fishwives inspected her arms and legs, lifted up her shirt—only to be put off by Jani swatting back—and checked her legs. They grunted and murmured to one another.
“What?” Jani had asked, pulling her clothing back into place and fending off scaled and blueish-tinted hands.
“We cannot read the symbols, they are not of our creed,” said an especially scaly fishwife. “Another school may read these.” She had grabbed Jani’s wrist and flipped it palm up. Jani wrestled it back, but the old woman immediately caught it and held it firm. She rapped on the wrist then looked at the area, grimaced, and struck Jani’s wrist again.
A black dot the size of her pinkie nail rose on her wrist and the pulling of clothing started again until one of the fishwives poked the small of her back.
“We are here, child. I will remove it so you will not seek out where you have already gone.” The other fishwife nodded her satisfaction, gave her a fresh kill, and sent her on her way.
Moni found out when she followed Jani to one of the dots—it wasn’t of their creed either but she knew of a few that certainly didn’t and removed those dots that they knew could not as well. They, too, gave her a fresh kill—“so your man, Zagan, stays satisfied.”
Moni crept up while Jani loaded the kill into her vehicle. She pulled out her weapon more out of reflex than of any actual risk or even an intention to use it. Jani had finished her last knot and started on her last checks before getting inside. Moni rose up just enough to see where she was facing. As it happened, Jani was looking down the sight of a shotgun pointed at Moni’s face.
“You are talking to those witches—you know how many camps they have killed with their poisoned food!” Moni stood and the shotgun followed her movements.
Jani assured her, “You’ve been eating it for the last two months. You can burn to death from the rain faster than that poison you’re talking about. Get in the car and I’ll say that you helped. We’ll both have meat on the books.”
Moni went along, but she was the one to tell their parents. Messa rolled her eyes but ate the meat anyway. Josiah wanted to see the lines and blotches. They were getting harder to hide with each visit to a school—the old women insisted that she drink with them to test if her aim was true. Just taking off her jacket told them the truth.
“Where do they lead?” Josiah asked.
“I don’t know, none of the fishwives there could read it.” Jani looked down at her feet, pulling her jacket back on.
“That’s because of that poison they gave you,” Messa hissed, but still cut the meat they provided, setting aside enough for her quota as well as Jani’s. “They gave you a sickness and you are fool enough to think it’s prophecy.”
But she still cut the meat for her quota.
“We know that the fishwives always have fresh meat and know how to clean the water,” Josiah finally said, taking a pound or two for his own quota and putting aside a little bit for themselves.
“For a price, Josiah, she will change and Zagan will find out and pull her skin off her body, trying to find the Promised Land.”
“Then we have to put them off as long as we can.” Josiah deflated a little.
Messa growled and chopped the meat harder. Moni scowled at Jani. Jani pulled her sleeves farther down to cover her arms, but she met Moni’s eye until her older sister looked away.
The fishwives had once told Jani that a school meant two things—a group of fish and a place where people learned the symbols used during the Then Times. Jani couldn’t imagine being inside for hours on end, not having to hunt for their food. The fish women also said that the people would be fed there as well, but Jani dismissed their little white lies and kept taking notes.
Now that she looked at the building ruins towering over her, she could see the truth in their lies. There was more than enough space for shelter and the grounds were big enough to grow fields and there were enough rooms to keep twice as many people as the camp held.
Jani made her way past the school and down the twenty-fifth street, the main road to the boiling waters where the air was thick with rot. No one she knew ever went this far—the meat and plants could clear a room from the stench. The vehicles roared through after her, pushing her into the shadows of the ruins as she hid from their pursuit.
“Jani, my dear girl,” Zagan’s voice filled the air, “there is comfort in running. It gives people the illusion of control. But that is a luxury that none of us have, my dear girl. I cannot control what deeds I must do to keep the camp thriving, any more than you can control the gift of life you have.”
Jani ran through the streets until the voice on the loudspeaker finally started to fade. That was the cycle they followed into the entire journey. Zagan’s voice would be blasted through the air and Jani would run until she couldn’t see the vehicles blasting his lies over the loudspeakers anymore.
But even the vehicles stopped when the stench became a visible green haze.
“Dear girl,” Jani barely heard Zagan’s final amplified message, “you can still turn around before there’s harm done. I implore you, girl, think before there has to be bloodshed.”
Jani pulled her mask over her head and climbed down into the steel fields along the burning river. The growls of wild things grew louder with each step. Jani pushed on further until she caught the glint of eye shine.
She made sure she could see it as she finished making her way down the wooded slope and on to the banks of the burning river. The dot on her neck started to rise and she resisted the urge to scratch it.
She needed the throbbing—it got more intense as she got close to the location. She tried to think of anything to keep her mind off it. Like if the eyes belonged to this school’s protectors or if she would have to kill her way through. Like how she didn’t want to run. Running invited a chase and she couldn’t waste the oxygen.
About how, in a few more steps, she was on the sand and gravel. The dot rose to a head and every brush of her fabric made her hand reach for it out of reflex. She reached in to her pack and pulled out the last of the Fish Wives’ tea. She brought the flask to her lips and the dogs with shiny eyes emerged from all angles.
Then the engines roared at the edge of the road above.
Jani downed the last of the tea, put away the flask, and pulled out her knife. A pair of white arrows were fixed in her vision, pointed behind her. She aligned herself with the arrows and walked toward the pack of dogs in front of her. That got a growl out of the dogs and then, two of them moved on her. In a flash, Jani was pinned to the ground, their teeth sunk into her mask. Noxious rot flowed down her throat. She coughed it out the best she could, and slammed the knife into the dog’s neck.
She ripped it out and swung for the other dog. It ducked and bit upward, right into her wrist. She slashed the dog’s face with her left-hand knife, rolled to her feet, and ran in the direction of the arrows.
A dog jumped on her back. She twisted to the right, crossed over her left hand, and plunged that knife into the first spot of flesh that would make them loosen their jaws.
“Did you really believe that the Fish Wives were the only powered ones in this world?” Zagan’s voice filled her head as if he was whispering in her ears, no, as if he was whispering inside her head. “You can run, but all it will do is lead you to the burning waters.”
Jani followed the arrows in front of her, pushing her body, fighting the constant throb in her neck, arms, and shoulders, the dogs on her heels, and Zagan in her head.
But she was coming closer to the river and the arrows were pointing to it. She could feel the acid haze blur her vision and there wasn’t any respite of a little hut or a set of tents, only the expanse of stank water.
For the briefest moment, she thought about going back to the camp, but there was nothing to go back to. She would be praised as a martyr, but all that meant was that she would be remembered when she died. She would surely die now, but at least, and at last, she would die free.
And she would see the clean water.
She took off her mask, pumped her legs until she could think of nothing else and when she ran out of land, she dove headfirst into the water.
Only the first few seconds burned her skin. As she dove deeper, she wasn’t feeling anything except for that damned dot. Once she hit the water, it burned and popped. Then as she descended into the depths, there it was colder and then, after a bit, a hard rush of current sent her tumbling.
She straightened her body and swam in the direction of the arrows, then went in the opposite direction of the arrows. She didn’t know how she was going to get there. Or how she was going to breathe. Then she realized that she was able to breathe underwater. She felt her neck for evidence of any gills or holes. No gills. No holes, but no drowning either. There was no smell, either, only the taste of sweet, cool water. The stories were true and that realization only made her push harder through the water. It was not until the fish surrounded her that the arrows