by Katie McIvor
Mano was going to lose. He knew that already; he had that sick, stone-hard feeling in his stomach which tells you it’s all over.
His hands were sweating. He stood between two of the regular entrants, both famous athletes, both much taller than him. He had seen one of them on television before but couldn’t remember what he did. The other was a major-league hurling player.
The starting whistle, when it came, seared through Mano’s ears and echoed madly out across the desert beyond.
The hurling player took off at once in an explosion of sand, the other athlete close behind him. Cheers and whoops from the stands propelled them forwards. When the dust from their lightweight desert boots had settled, Mano was still standing there. He wasn’t the only one: up and down the line, uncertain faces peered back at him from under protective headgear, other wild card entrants who never thought they’d actually end up here.
A few boos wafted up from the audience. Mano could hear the crinkle of food packaging, the shifting of bodies on seats as the spectators settled back to watch the live feed on the series of giant screens which surrounded the amphitheatre.
He took another look to his left along the starting line. A few of the other wild cards had started walking, slowly and hesitantly. Most hadn’t moved. One woman had fallen to the ground and appeared to be crying. The spectators were lobbing crumpled-up donut wrappers and empty drinks cans over the barriers at her.
“We better go,” said a voice from Mano’s right. “They start throwing rocks soon.”
Mano looked round, sorting the words into sequence in his head as his brain slowly translated them into Ephrayyin. He was getting better all the time but he still struggled when people spoke too fast, or, as in this case, with an unusual accent.
“I’ve seen it before,” the man said. “They buy special punnets of rocks from the food stalls, and they start chucking them once the ten-minute whistle’s gone.”
Mano didn’t know the word for ‘punnets’, but he got the meaning. He tried to smile. “After you,” he said, with a mock-polite bow.
The man grinned and returned the bow. “Name’s Kinsey.”
They started walking. One of the vid-drones had swooped over to them, capturing the exchange and feeding it back in real time to the screens behind them. Mano was disconcerted to hear his own amplified voice booming his name across the stands. The audience responded with whoops, jeers and scattered applause.
“How’d they rope you into this, then?” asked Kinsey.
“I got a wild card,” said Mano. (“I GOT A WILD CARD,” boomed the giant Mano on the screen.)
Kinsey made a face. “Hard luck.” The drone was hovering over his shoulder, its bright black camera-eyes mirroring Kinsey’s own.
“Is the same for you?” Mano asked.
“Nah,” said Kinsey. “I lost a bet. It’s not so bad, though. The guy who won has to cover my medical costs, if, well… And the prize money goes to my family either way, so it could be worse.”
“Yes, prize money,” said Mano, nodding. He was clinging to this thought.
“Where are you from, anyway? You don’t sound Gwerthian.”
“Ephralla,” said Mano, embracing the slight twist of loss which mention of his homeland always turned in his chest.
“Oh, sick! So you’re, like, a local in these parts?”
Mano laughed. “Almost. A couple thousand of miles that way.” He waved his hand towards the east. (Some supportive laughter from the audience.)
“Still,” said Kinsey, “bet you can cope with the heat, at least. Me, I’m from Kella. Snow every winter, not a desert in sight.”
The sounds of the audience, and their own amplified voices on the screens, receded gradually as they headed into the desert. The route was marked on each side with little green flags, which leaped out at the eye among the parched expanse of sand and reddish grit. A cloud of dust ahead of them, speckled with drones, indicated where the front-runners were slogging it out for pole position.
“What are we do now?” Mano asked nervously. “I only see this once before. Last year.”
Kinsey whistled through his teeth. “Last year was rough. Lot of wild cards. There was that dust storm, further south, so none of the big names wanted to compete… Ugly stuff.” He glanced at Mano, then went on, “I reckon we just keep walking. Neither of us are fit enough to run, so we’ll just walk and hope for the best, yeah? We might get lucky.”
“Already we are not lucky,” said Mano sagely, but Kinsey just laughed.
A giant granite outcrop shouldered out of the sand a few miles ahead of them. Mano was hoping for shade, but by the time they reached the outcrop the sun was high and white in the sky, casting only the odd shadow in the upper folds of the rock.
They paused by the outcrop. From here, the amphitheatre was a silvery reflective sparkle, hazed by the heat, the rumble of the audience deadened by endless sand; once they rounded the corner, it would be out of sight completely.
Mano put a finger to the touchscreen on his lapel, unlocking the pack from his shoulders. He opened the water capsule which was built into the pack and took a couple of slow, careful swallows. His skinsuit was prickling with sweat all down his back.
“Don’t go too crazy with that,” Kinsey warned. “There’s no chance of a refill until the spring at Umm Ashfiyya, and that’s day three at the earliest.”
“You know lots about this all,” said Mano, trying to smile. “We stick together, help each other out, no?”
“Yeah, pal. Course. Easy on the water, though.” Kinsey watched attentively as Mano closed his water capsule and reclipped his pack to the shoulder harness, which locked with a soft bleep.
The land beyond the outcrop sloped gently downwards into a sea of pale, silklike sand, which Kinsey said was called an erq. They waded in silence, breathing hard. Mano wished he could stop for more water. He couldn’t see any end to the erq: the horizon was lost in haze, the land turning milky-white as it met the sky, the sky white and then chalk-blue above, as if he was walking up the side of a snow globe. He wanted to share this observation with Kinsey but he didn’t know the word for ‘snow globe’ in Gwerthian. Kinsey didn’t seem keen to talk anyway. The drone had drifted up above them to film some wide-angle shots.
They stopped somewhere in the sand sea to eat. “One ration bar each,” said Kinsey, “no more. We got to be careful. Got to last this out.”
Towards the end of the day Mano started to hallucinate. He thought he saw Marya’s face, then Marya skimming alongside him on a pair of skates which left perfect patterns in the sand, then a hot air balloon (which, he supposed, might have been real; spectators could probably pay extra to fly up for a better view of the race), and finally a sort of giant slug made out of water, which slurped and rolled across the surface of the sand, taunting him with its voluminous liquid sides.
“Oh god,” Kinsey gasped. “The hamm’da. We made it.”
This was another new word to Mano, but when his eyes next cleared he could see a sort of low rocky plateau rising up from the edge of the sand sea. He staggered after Kinsey. The sun was finally starting to drop, turning the rocks of the hamm’da into long, lancing knives of shade.
Kinsey dropped into one of these shadows and sat for a moment, hauling in breath like an engine. Mano sat next to him. The instant he stopped moving, a thousand different small pains and discomforts assaulted him: the sweat itching across his skin, the ache of his swollen feet, which were rubbing in places against the insides of the desert boots, and the weight of the pack cutting into his shoulders. Worst of all was the blossoming headache which threatened to burst from behind his eyes. Without waiting for Kinsey’s permission, he stabbed a finger to his lapel screen, detached his pack and took a long drink of water.
“We should try and get a bit further,” Kinsey said when he’d regained his breath. “Away from the erq. If a sandstorm blows up, it can kill you in minutes. ’Specially in the dark.”
They trudged through the hamm’da for perhaps another hour or so – Mano had lost track of time – until it was truly dark and they had to stop. There were torches in their packs but Kinsey said that the batteries would run down quickly and should be saved for the stretches ahead, where it might not be safe to stop overnight.
“I’m glad you here,” Mano said to Kinsey as they lay down in the shelter of a big boulder. “You keep me right.”
Kinsey smiled. “As we say where I’m from, bare is the back of a brotherless man.”
The drone hovered above them, matt-black and silent in the darkness, only its lenses glinting with the reflection of desert stars.
The hamm’da stretched on for miles. It was easier than walking on sand, but the stony ground was more painful on Mano’s feet, which were already knobbled with blisters. Kinsey seemed in good spirits, though. He hummed a song in Kallic as he walked, wiping sweat constantly from under his protective headgear, the tip of his nose sunburnt.
Towards midday they veered off the path towards a bank of large sandstone formations, where they hoped they might find some shade. “It’s only a small detour,” Kinsey explained, mostly trying to reassure himself. “Won’t take us long.”
“Maybe there will be a spring,” Mano said hopefully, but Kinsey scoffed at this.
As they drew closer to the rocks, the dead air of the desert seemed to grow heavier around them. They were in the very eye of the sun. With his darkglass visor down Mano could barely even see the drone, which floated somewhere above them, transmitting its view to the amphitheatre screens back in Jiblen, a world away.
“Hold up,” Kinsey said, putting out an arm.
Mano had to cast around and push his visor up to see what Kinsey was looking at. On the sloping sandstone wall ahead of them, a splattered patch of liquid had dried darkly in the sun.
“It is blood?” said Mano, his brain catching up. He felt sick.
Kinsey motioned for silence. They edged around the sandstone wall. The rock swooped and curved above them like a sculpture. In a shaded depression at the base of the wall, they found a body.
“Oh, oh, no no no,” said Mano instinctively. For some reason he dropped his visor back down, as though it might be disrespectful to look too closely at the corpse.
“It’s that guy,” said Kinsey, who was bending down to examine the blood-soaked face. “Digberth, Dagberth? Something like that? Wouldn’t have pegged him for a loser.”
Mano braced himself and looked through his visor. It was the hurling player. The tall powerful body was crumpled into the patch of shade, his head smashed in at the back, his skinsuit stiff with dried blood.
“They’ve taken his pack,” said Kinsey. “Won’t do them much good, though.”
“Why not good?”
“Once they’re detached, you have to keep activating the lapel screen every hour, or the pack self-destructs. Catches a lot of people out.”
Mano stared at the dead man’s lapel screen. “Maybe they drink it all?”
Kinsey snorted. “What, the whole five litres? Unlikely.” He paused. “Unless it was a whole bunch of guys who jumped him, of course.”
Mano thought Kinsey seemed very calm about this possibility. He looked again at the body and said uncertainly, “We should do something?”
“What? For him? Nothing we can do for him. Probably best if we just keep going. Every dumb punk’ll be wandering over here looking for shade. Don’t want to run into any nasties, do we?”
It took them the rest of the day to get through the hamm’da. The landscape was brutally unchanging: stone-strewn ground, every step a potentially twisted ankle, and a series of sandstone formations which became so indistinguishable they might have been wandering in circles. They passed the time by teaching each other to count in their respective languages: ek, dik, trek in Kallic; waahd, thniin, tlaath in Ephrayyin. Kinsey’s tongue fumbled hopelessly around the unfamiliar consonants. At last the ground began to slope again, sending them down towards the next erq. They camped behind a boulder well back from the sandline.
In the night Mano woke to find the vid-drone inches from his face. He jerked away from it and curled over on his other side, shielding his face with an elbow. He couldn’t sleep after that. He thought of the amphitheatre, far behind them now, where the spectators with their two-day or week-long or full-entry tickets would be eating, watching the Race or sleeping in comfortable beds, in air-conditioned hotel rooms, ready to catch the round-up in the morning. Mano tried to picture himself among them and couldn’t. In all his time in Gwerthia he had never felt more of an alien. He was glad then of Kinsey’s snores, rasping and regular behind him.
“I don’t think we’ll make Umm Ashfiyya today,” Kinsey said as they set off, “but not to worry. Plenty of water, ration bars, and we’re both still in one piece, eh? Hope you got some sleep, cause we might have to walk through the night.”
Mano nodded. His head felt fuzzy today. He wanted to drink some water, but Kinsey had said they should try and last till midday. How they would tell it was midday in this endlessly bright flatness of sand, Mano had no idea, but he had to trust his companion.
They walked for hours. Occasionally they found small plants, sage-green and fronded, which Kinsey said were halophytes. “They’ve adapted to cope with the salt,” he said. “This used to be an ocean, you know? All under water.”
“I wish was still ocean,” said Mano through cracked lips.
“Can’t drink salt, buddy. You’re not a halophyte.”
Midday had surely come and gone and still they had not stopped for a drink. The erq hummed with heat around them. Mano spotted a lizard off to their left, giant and sand-coloured with a flat, snake-like face and a striped tail, and he didn’t know if he was seeing things or not.
At last he stopped where he was. “Kinsey,” he croaked. “Water.”
Kinsey turned round. His sunburned nose was peeling. He examined Mano for a moment, then said, “Yeah, okay. Let’s have some water.”
Mano sank to the sand and unclipped his pack, gasping. The water was warm but it tasted of life. He took three huge gulps and then stopped, embarrassed at his lack of control, knowing Kinsey was watching him. He ran his tongue again and again around his mouth, which already felt dry again. His lips were burning.
They resumed walking. Every now and then Kinsey would say encouraging things like, “Not far to Umm Ashfiyya now,” or, “Sun’ll go down soon.” Mano pushed his feet forwards in a mist of exhaustion. He began to think he must be dying. Surely the human body could not go this long without water. The heat was inside him, inside his brain. He could hear his own blood. He thought again of the hurling player and had to stop and retch dryly into the sand. Kinsey watched him, observing patiently, and the drone floated in closer for a better view.
At last it grew dark. The cool air felt like a blessing. Mano trudged on, feet sludging through the sand, blistered and aching, swamped in his own sweat. He licked his lips again and again with a tongue as dry as paper.
“We’ll stop for a drink soon,” said Kinsey from behind him. “You’re doing well, don’t worry.”
Mano began to stumble. He thought he could hear Marya’s voice, though he knew it must be Kinsey. He felt something against his knees. The world was sideways. He had fallen into the sand. His brain screamed at him for water. He was trying to raise a finger to his lapel screen – this suddenly seemed a very fidgety and impossible business – when a hard weight slammed into him from behind, knocking him into the sand.
He gasped for air. His face was being crushed. Something, someone, was pressing down on his head. They were being attacked. He flailed his arms in the growing dark. By luck his elbow connected with some part of his assailant, who grunted and momentarily released the pressure on his head. Mano scrambled to roll over. In his confusion he saw Kinsey kneeling above him and didn’t know what was happening. Then Kinsey, mouth twisted, reached for Mano’s head again and tried to force his face back into the soft sand.
Mano roared. He yanked his knee up, catching Kinsey in the soft part of the thigh and causing him to groan with pain. Mano slammed again with the knee and at the same time crunched himself upwards and hammered an elbow into Kinsey’s face. Kinsey sprawled sideways. Mano wanted to pause, to sit back and rest and assess the situation, but some animal part of him had taken over and instead he launched himself after Kinsey, pushing his forearm into the other man’s neck and pressing, pressing, with all his weight. Kinsey choked. His hands went for Mano’s eyes and Mano bit at them. He threw his weight harder into his forearm, once, twice, and felt something crunch inside Kinsey’s neck. Then he sat back, heaving for breath, his tongue swollen to the size of an egg, exhausted in every muscle.
It took Kinsey several minutes to die. The drone settled to hover over his face, recording every wheeze, and swivelled up occasionally to look at Mano, who was taking a long drink of water.
When his head had stopped swimming he crawled over to Kinsey’s body. The lapel screen on the dead man’s chest was bleeping quietly. Mano unclipped it and examined it inexpertly for signs of damage. Gingerly, he took hold of Kinsey’s hand – which seemed dreadfully heavy, meat-like in the half-dark – and pressed a finger to the screen. It flashed green, and the locks on Kinsey’s pack clicked open.
Mano sat back. He examined the water capsule and found, as he should have suspected, it was much emptier his own. Kinsey must have been drinking on the sly. No matter, though. With both packs together, he had around four litres left. It would be enough.
He searched around in the sand until he found a fist-sized stone, and used this to break Kinsey’s index finger at the knuckle. He then worked with one edge of the stone and his own fingernails to tear through the skin and flesh until the finger came away from the hand. Then he tucked it into his pocket, hefted Kinsey’s pack over one arm and set off again into the night, leaving Kinsey’s body for the lizards.
The drone floated behind him. It was slightly out of reach, and every time he tried to grab or swat at the little machine it drifted up above his head, cameras whirring implacably. He hated looking at it. He hated knowing that it had filmed him killing a man, that it had broadcast his act to millions and millions of spectators.
He walked through the dark towards Umm Ashfiyya. A few times he stopped, his face contorting at the thought of what he had done, at what he still had to do. His tears were dense and heavy with salt. Occasionally he talked to himself in Ephrayyin, letting the language drip over his lips like water. Occasionally he sang.
He drank Kinsey’s water first. He tried to keep going, never resting for more than an hour, waking himself up at intervals to press Kinsey’s fast-decaying finger into the touchscreen and keep the pack from self-destructing. When the water capsule was empty he put the remaining ration bars and the torch into his own pack and threw the empty one as far away from him as he could, then walked on quickly. The explosion, when it came, was a couple of miles behind him and blazed into the early-morning sky like a second sun.
An oasis pieced itself together out of the shimmering horizon. He ignored it, then, when it became real, he picked his way through spiky vegetation to the pond. The water bristled with flies. He stuck a finger in and tasted it, but the salt made him gag. Can’t drink salt, buddy. He scooped some of the flies into his hand, though, and chewed them, swallowing the water they held inside their bodies.
He thought of Marya. He pictured the tears of relief she would shed when he crossed the finish line to claim his prize money. All he had to do was survive. If he kept walking, if he was smart, he would survive. He would see her again. He had to see her again.
A few miles from Umm Ashfiyya, on a rock outcrop overlooking the trail, a thin, dark-haired youth crouched and rocked his pack to his chest. He was dazed from the sun. His lips were cracked and blistered, his skinsuit torn in places from a fight which he had narrowly escaped. He blinked exhausted eyes and tried to piece his thoughts together.
If he went down to the trail and headed for the caves at Umm Ashfiyya, he ran the risk of being attacked by other entrants. He still had half a capsule of water left, and he was alone, which made him an easy target. If he left the trail and tried to go around Umm Ashfiyya, he might get lost, might wander off into the desert and die. He had seen enough death over the past three days to turn his eyes blank and his stomach raw.
Already he had wasted half a day sitting on the outcrop trying to make his decision. It would be dark soon.
He was running a dry tongue over his lips for the hundredth time that hour when a noise made him whip round. A man was crouched at the edge of the outcrop, his hands raised. He was small and fine-boned, with a gentle, harmless smile on his face. A vid-drone floated above him in the fading light.
“Name is Mano,” said the man. He had a peculiar accent.
“Timo,” said the youth.
The man smiled more widely. He edged a little closer, lowering his arms. He asked, “How they roped you into this, then?”
Timo said, “I got a wild card.”
Mano laughed. In the red wash of the sunset he looked briefly mad, the whites of his eyes filled up as though with blood, but the next moment that harmless smile was back. “Me also,” he said. “Hard luck for both of us.”
“I’m heading to Umm Ashfiyya,” said Timo, hoping he could trust this man, wanting to trust him. “Maybe we could go together?”
Mano didn’t answer. For a moment he tipped his head back and stared up at the dying sun, his lips moving as though in silent prayer. Then he pointed at Timo’s pack: “You should put back on, no? They explode, after while.”
“Yeah,” said Timo. “I guess.”
He clipped his pack back into place.
As they headed down into the sand he said to Mano, “You seem like you know what you’re doing. We’ll get through this, right? Together?”
“Of course,” said Mano, and he gave a laugh which seemed to stick slightly in his throat. “Bare is the back of a brotherless man.”
They resumed the trail and in the last of the red light headed south, towards the distant finish line.
About the Author:
Katie McIvor grew up in Scotland and studied at the University of Cambridge. She now lives in England and works at a language library, where she is surrounded by books and films in over 200 languages.
When not struggling to alphabetise Japanese textbooks, she likes to go on long walks with her husband and two dogs.
Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Terrain.org, Mythaxis Magazine and Potato Soup Journal.
Katie can be found on Twitter at @_McKatie_