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Limping Step

by Elaine Graham-Leigh

part 1 of 2

The sound of Herantive was water, falling. The rain pounded on the scattered islands, on the spaceport and the town, the marsh-forests and the sea. The priests called it the beat of the planet’s blood and cupped the roofs of their temples to amplify it. They danced to it daily on their porticos, stamping and spinning in strict time; whirling themselves into the trance that they believed meant unity with the universe. On every fourth beat, their cries pierced the sky like programmed lightning.

At night in the barracks, Ty’Beris tried to give himself up to it, let the rhythm roll over him until it took him in and made him fit. It was the unanimity of the dance that was important, that was what the priests taught, the regularity endlessly recurring. No scuffed steps, no limping, no odd beat allowed. He tried so hard it kept him from sleeping, but every morning the prickle between his shoulder blades as he walked up the mess hall told him that it hadn’t worked.

The barracks were behind the largest temple, covering the entrance to the resocialisation compound beyond. Beris, the newest arrival, had the worst sleeping place, stuck in an alcove beyond the warm circle of beds in the dorm. His transfer to Herantive coated him in a sticky patina of trouble. No one went from a military ship to guard duty on the edge of nowhere by choice.

The officer, Qaid Sa’Jurn, said when he arrived that he should make a full confession. He knew it would help; showing remorse for his separation from his old group was a first step to being allowed into another. It was possible that they might even sympathise. They were all from the same streets, back home on Chi!me, after all. They would all have been in gangs before they joined up, they might understand that when Piri had said that about his old gang he’d had no choice but to hit him. He knew it would help, but he still couldn’t bring himself to do it, holding onto the memory of that one, perfect punch just as much as to his shame.

It would all have been easier if he had been busy, but the truth was on Herantive there wasn’t very much work to do. The resocialisation centres got a large guard because they were important to the Chi!me Council, but they didn’t really need one. Beris spent as much time in classes at the temples as he did on guard duty, and almost as much time following the others to the bars in the little town beyond the temple precincts.

The work was easy enough at first, the round of feeding, exercising and transporting the inmates falling into a predictable pattern. No one taught new guards how to do anything, but that had been the same on the ship and Beris was a good mimic. He had the routine of No. 2 Centre worked out well enough not to have to think about it within a few days of arrival. Then after forty days, his shift was moved to No. 4 Centre. On his first meal round, he reached the first containment unit and found he had no idea how to open the door.

The containment units in No. 4 Centre were set along the inside of one, circular corridor, narrowing as they went back so that each unit met all the others in a point at the Centre. Their frontages were clear, softened slightly to stop the inmates from dashing themselves against them, and doubled as a sliding door, operated by a panel on the corridor wall beside each cell. If, that was, the guard doing the operating knew which buttons to press.

Beris set the food cart to hover and slung his blaster out of the way onto his back. In No. 2 Centre it had been the two green buttons on the panel screen, then the access code, but here all the buttons were blue and he didn’t know if the code was the same. He could go back to the guard post and ask, but he could see how they’d look at him, telling him too slowly, as if he was too poor to understand, and laughing after he’d gone. Better to stand here all day than that.

The rain drummed on the clear domed roof of the corridor, beating along with his frustration. He slammed his hand against the unit door. There was a movement in the shadow beyond the corridor light, and he saw the inmate coming towards him. He grabbed automatically for his blaster, realised that as the door was closed he didn’t need it, and kept it out to look like he’d known that all along. The inmate stopped at the door and regarded him.

It was a woman, just short of old, with cropped hair and a crumpled uniform jacket too wide across the shoulders. Her skin was an upper-class pale blue, much paler than his, darkened over one cheekbone like an old bruise. There was something wrong with her eye on that side: instead of the usual complete black, around the edge of the socket it was fringed with white, and bloodshot in thin, purple lines. It made her look strange, alien. She cocked her head sideways, favouring the other eye. ‘The first two buttons on the left’ she said. He couldn’t hear her through the door, but the mouthed message was quite clear. ‘The code is 4 4 4 4 . They never change it.’

He was sure he wasn’t supposed to take suggestions from inmates, but he didn’t have much choice. He gestured with the blaster, to make her retreat to her bunk, and addressed himself to the control panel. Two buttons on the left, 4 4 4 4 and the door slid open, obedient as if it was mocking him. He took the first food tray from the cart and flung it onto the unit floor. It landed with a clatter; a cup bounced, spilling, into the dark at the pointed end of the cell. The woman on the bunk regarded him steadily.

‘Yeah, well’ he said, too loudly, ‘at least I know how to close it, and when I do you’ll be in here and I’ll be on the other side.’

It wasn’t, he would admit, his best comeback. The woman didn’t move, but there was a flicker of amusement in her good eye.

‘The second two buttons on the left’ she said. He knew, even as he slammed out, that she’d be right.

At the end of the shift, he looked her up on the terminal in the guardroom. She was called As’Annata. She’d been sentenced to detention in the Centre just over a cycle ago for ‘separating herself from the community; acts conducive to damaging the well-being and/or reputation of the Chi!me people, Council or sentient life in the Chi!me system or others.’ He’d been on Herantive long enough to recognise the usual charges. The record didn’t say what she’d actually done.

Covering the inmates’ exercise the next day, he watched her. The exercise area, shared between all four Centres in the compound, was open to the rain, except for a strip around the perimeter where the guards and the duty qaid, Sa’Jurn, sheltered. The inmates bent their heads under the weight of the water as they walked.

As’Annata was in the middle of the group, the privileged position when it was the ones on the outside who would get it if the guards were bored or the qaid was in a punitive mood. She kept her head down like the others, but Beris saw that every now and again she would glance around, as if checking the rest were all there, and once she tugged the jackets of the two in front of her to stop them leaving the others behind. One of them turned to look back at her, but it was too far away for Beris to make out his expression.

Beside Annata was old Antisocial Edi, so close she could have been holding onto his arm. The guards called him Old Anti Edi because he’d been there for longer than anyone, they said he’d been in detention on Chi!me even before the Centres were built. He must have been actually old by now, but he didn’t look it, possessed of a wiry, angled energy that made him seem more like a malevolent spirit than a Chi!me. They’d had him on a new treatment for the last few days, Beris had heard; it seemed to have made him worse.

The inmates splashed past Beris on their second circuit, heading down towards the gate. He saw Edi’s head go up, his pace slow, a flash of a pale hand on his sleeve as Annata and the others went on round him. Left behind, he started to dance, a little, hopping dance that threw up gouts of mud with every step. He was beginning to chant now, too, holding his arms out wide to the sky, ‘I am nothing, I am everyone, I am nothing, I am everyone...’ Getting louder.

Sa’Jurn strode up, shouting. ‘Get that star-cursed madman in, now!’ Two of the guards grabbed Edi, who was too intent on his dance to evade them. ‘Give him a slap while you’re at it’ Sa’Jurn added. ‘Teach him not to give me trouble.’

They led Edi round the circle of the shelter before they took him back to his unit, so that the other guards could take their turn at the ‘slapping’. Raising his fist, Beris felt Sa’Jurn’s eyes on him, watching to see if he would join in. Over on the other side of the area, Annata started on the opposite curve, turning away.

He couldn’t imagine how she had come to be here, so far from the shining world of her sort. Women like her might pay his mother or his sisters to clean their houses, glide about the city in their flyers, talk charity to neighbourhood committees in hard, pitiless voices. They didn’t end up in resocialisation Centres; they were the ones who defined the socialised. The next time he brought her food he asked her, hearing the words, abrupt on the chill air of the unit, before he realised he meant to.

‘What did you do?’

‘Haven’t you read my records?’ With one of the qaids, or the other guards, it would have been a sneer; with her, uncannily, it was as if she knew he had. He shrugged.

‘Thought you might want to say your side.’

‘My side? Really?’ She was smiling. ‘Well, I don’t mind a conversation, but don’t you have a schedule to keep?’

He kept his head up, his tone airy. ‘I make my own schedule.’

It was an obvious lie, but she let it go, humouring him like his mother used to when he ‘improved’ on his school rankings. He brought the food cart in and leaned back against the fixed side of the cell front. It bowed slightly under his weight, holding him up.

‘All right, then’ she said. ‘What I did. Have you heard of the London massacre?’

The odd, flat syllables were unfamiliar. ‘The what?’

‘The London massacre. London’s a place, a city, on Terra. You have heard of Terra?’

‘Yeah, course. Terrans had that empire, didn’t they? And now they’ve got that war?’

‘The civil war, yes. It’s been going on for ten Terran years now, two and a half cycles. Millions of Terrans have died, millions. The London massacre was, oh, over a cycle ago, now. London was held by the government forces, the main rebel forces took it, sealed it off, and spent the next sixteen days killing every one they could find. Five hundred thousand people died in those sixteen days, five hundred thousand civilians.’

She stopped, as if expecting a response.

‘That’s tough’ he said. ‘But, so what? Things like that happen, don’t they? I heard Terra’s pretty primitive.’

‘These things happen?’ It was an exclamation. ‘These things happen because we make them happen! We’re the bullies of the galaxy, we Chi!me, didn’t you know that? Yes, Terra is primitive, powerless compared to us, and they pay for that by not being able to stop us when we take what we want. We started the civil war. We didn’t create the rebel groups but we armed them, encouraged them. We decided that the Terran government didn’t support our interests enough, that we would do better if they were replaced. Our agents even murdered a provincial governor to make sure the war started when we wanted it to. That massacre, in London? It was carried out with Chi!me weapons.’

Beris had never paid very much attention to the lectures on the Chi!me’s galactic mission. It sounded like the Terrans had a rough deal, though thinking of the streets around his home, they weren’t the only ones.

‘So what did you do?’

She smiled, sourly. ‘I made a representation. I demonstrated, that’s what the Terrans call it.’ She saw his uncomprehending expression. ‘I made some banners, with some pictures and other evidence about the London massacre and I set it all up in the plaza in front of the Council building. And I stayed there.’

Her smile widened. ‘I may have done some shouting, also. I stayed there until they removed me, and then the next day I went back, and the next day, and the next day after that. I did it for forty days, nearly, until they finally arrested me. So now, here I am.’

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Elaine Graham-Leigh

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