Bijaz Complex, The United Republic of Provinces,
Nasai, White Moon 3303 – December
“Five shekels, not three!” the fishmonger shouted at Tajji Alam from behind the makeshift counter of his pushcart. “This is fine fish! Fresh from the sea!”
Tajji dismissed the greasy man with a forceful wave of his hand and stalked away as he shouted back.
“Fresh my foot!” Tajji called out from over his shoulder. What did this man take him for? He knew the smell of fresh fish from the stink of four day old fish!
He stomped away down the road. It was nearly sundown and he still had not been able to find a decent meal for his family. Things were getting worse within the compounds when it came to finding food that wasn’t contaminated by whatever the aliens were putting into the water supply. Tajji looked up at the sky and saw that the sun had moved further west; he could only see the very top of its crest upon the horizon and would have to hurry if he wanted to make it to the off-settler village and back before nightfall. He reached into the pocket of his worn trousers and fingered the coins there to count them once more with removing them. Crossing the border would require two shekels coming and going which would leave him with only five shekels to buy food with.
He didn’t want to buy from the Republican market but although the food from the settler village would be bitter and dry, it would at least be fresh and would not give his children the runs. Hopefully he could continue to keep the mind illness away from his family with the stash of Sufa nuts he kept in the attic storehouse. Picking up his pace and darting between immobile food carts and street peddlers, he carefully avoided the day patrollers as he strode down the busy street.
Many of the laborers he passed looked exhausted and were on their way home to their families after spending the entire day on the assembly line in the factories. Tajji did not miss the work but couldn’t help wishing that he had the stability of a weekly paycheck. Working for men like Mr. Hijaz provided him with large sums of money but the payouts were sometimes few and far between and dependent upon the value of the information that he was able to gather so the payments were hardly reliable. If only he could have bought back his taxi, but there just had not been enough money from Meera’s paycheck and the clerks had sold it to someone else last week.
The streets became cleaner and more deserted as he reached the limits of Bijaz Complex and crossed over into settler territory. The settlers were not that much better off than the laborers in terms of how the clerks and council members thought of them, but they were aliens or at least mixed breeds and had the luxury of steady work, comfortable homes and safe, clean streets in addition to full citizenship within the URP.
Tajji arrived at the Sunshine Village checkpoint and paid the coins to cross in. None of the alien markets remained open overnight anymore since the murders in the area and he just made it to the doors before it was due to close. The ceiling lamps were bright as he entered the squat concrete building through the security shield on either side of the doorway. Five shekels would be able to buy him three large portions of genetically harvested chicken, a large bag of brown rice, a bushel of wild greens and a small bag of dried fruit to sweeten their well-water. Tajji rushed through the aisles to grab what he needed as the loudspeaker announced that the store would be closing in five minutes. He carried his items to the checkout line where the alien girl behind the register, a half-breed by the look of the light brown freckles upon her face, wore gloves covering her hands and was careful not to touch him when accepting his coins. He ignored her and chose to instead watch the diminishing sunlight beyond the cloudy plastic windows and snatched his bags from the rotating belt angrily as soon as they had been processed.
He glared at the girl before leaving the market. You are not that very different from me and it was your people who gave the Pox to my people! he thought furiously to himself as he strode down the concrete sidewalk in front of the market. He walked briskly down the roads leading out of the village and back towards Bijaz Complex but night was falling when he reached the cross-road and handed his final two shekels to the pale-faced day patroller behind the reinforced plastic windows at the checkpoint. Plastic! Tajji thought to himself. A waste of trees to make such foolishness! Pretend glass is what he called it. He waited impatiently for the patroller to lift the levers that lifted the heavy iron gates and quickly passed through them. The patroller smirked at him as he passed.
“Try not to get yourself killed, little fellow,” the man sneered before Tajji was out of earshot.
Tajji respectfully averted his gaze as he passed through and did not look the younger man in the eyes. When Tajji had been that age, he would have thrown back a debasing retort and tossed his packages of raw meat at the patroller to insult him further, but he was no longer a young man and he knew the value of controlling his temper. The years that he had spent in the Republican prison had changed him; and he had a family that depended upon him now.
He reached his village and found them completely deserted, also because of the murders. The sixth murder had been discovered yesterday and the clan assembly had unanimously voted for a night-fall curfew. It hadn’t really been necessary with everyone retreating to their homes well before sunset but the statute had gone into effect today. There were whispers that it was not only the boona peddlers that were to be feared any longer and that there were gribben moving among the compounds. Tajji’s heart began to race at the thought of the gribben and he increased his pace as he turned down the narrow alleyway that was a shortcut to his house.
He hurried through the alley, his mind returning to his waiting children and sick wife. His family needed him; especially with Meera ill again and unable to return to the factory for three more days. He had not been able to afford anything for breaking fast this morning or for the afternoon meal, so this would be his family’s first real food of the day. Once he was able to print the photographs of Qasim ibn Samir that he had managed to capture he could get another meeting with Mr. Hijaz and get enough money to last out the month.
He turned onto Bisahl Street and spared a glance over his shoulder to make sure that no one was following him. Too many people had been killed recently and in strange, unfathomable ways. Poor Kuda had had his insides torn out and had been left on the side of the road to rot and no one had any idea how it could have happened. Tajji wiped sweat from his forehead, keeping his pace and determined to get the food he carried to his family. I would return in Spirit if I had to and make sure that Meera and the children receive this dry and bitter meal, if the Creator would allow it, he thought to himself.
At that moment he began to hear dragging footsteps behind him and his heart leapt into his throat. He wasted no time looking back and he increased his pace to a brisk trot. A low, guttural groan joined the slow, dragging footsteps against the concrete behind him and the smell of sulfur wafted past his face on a breeze. A Gribben.
Tajji new the stories well. The Gribben were dark spirits: cold and cruel from all of the years that they had spent wandering upon Sahyun and they took every opportunity they found to drain the life force from beings. Tajji spotted the shelter of his small hut a short distance ahead and broke into a full sprint, grasping onto his bag of foodstuff and holding it closely to his chest with both hands as he ran. He knew that Luna would be waiting for him and watching from the window and hoped that she would have the sense to open the door for him when she saw him running. He panted and gasped as he reached their dirt yard and prayed that he could make it to the door before the gribben reached him. He did not shout – could not shout – his lungs were near bursting from running, but he mentally bellowed for someone to come to the door.
The groaning grew louder and more aggressive behind him, the dragging steps swifter and Tajji began to panic when he did not see anyone in the small square living room window. He was considering trying to kick down the front door when Luna’s tiny face suddenly appeared just above the ledge of the window frame. She smiled wildly and disappeared from sight. Tajji’s stomach dropped as he imagined her running to the back bedroom to tell Meera and Anii that he was home. She must not have spotted the gribben in the darkness behind him and he cursed the shattered street light above the hut. Not that she would know what it was. If the stories were true, the most that she would be able to make out would be a swirl of black smoke or flashing red pupils.
Tajji could tell that the gribben was close. The smell of sulfur filled his nostrils and his lungs began to burn with it but he would not give up and pushed himself as fast as he could to reach the porch light. If I can make it to the light, it will flee – I just need to make it to the light, he chanted to himself. He had reached the bottom of the porch steps when Luna pulled open the front door, sending a bright beam of light across the stoop as Tajji reached it and the Gribben let out an ear-shattering screech as it recoiled from the light, startling the smile from Luna’s round cheeks. She jumped out of the way as Tajji burst through the doorway and forcefully slammed the door closed behind him as he crashed to the floor. She leaned her small, five year old body against the door as if she could keep the gribben out with her weight.
Tajji lay sprawled across the threadbare carpet, panting and still clutching the groceries in his arms as Meera shuffled out of the back bedroom with Esay and Anii in tow. He managed a wavering, proud smile for his youngest child standing against the door.
“That’s my girl,” he gasped and gave her a wink.
She was wide eyed and visibly shaken, but she had his reflexes – that much was certain.