They were looking for me.

    They don't hate. They're methodical, scientific, They get things done by examining the evidence and arriving at an informed conclusion. That should tell you all you need to know about Them. I hate Them, with all the hate They don't feel, an acid that churns in my stomach and floods my mouth until I can hardly breathe for loathing, choking on it. Hate that fills my head with impotent red heat and hopeless raging. I could feel Their search like an itch on the back of my neck.

    I kept moving, the only way to evade Them is to keep going. It confuses Them, especially if you don't go the way They would go. They assume you will take the logical route; the shortest distance being the straight line. That's what They know, and what They expect.

    I was in a desert, lost in a maze of crumbling walls. Weathered stones of some ancient city lay heaped, banked by sliding, silver sand blown in by a wind that never ceased. Gusts brought particles of sand to fill my hair and mouth, gritty in my teeth, my eyes narrowed and squinting against the light that bounced back at me in bright, blinding white from the ground. I wanted to stop, to find a sheltering wall away from the wind and sleep. They would cheer if They know how, if They guessed how close I was to giving up. It was only the thought of Them that kept my feet moving, wading and sliding through the yielding sand.

    I stumbled around the next corner and a taut line scraped and burnt my shins, tangled my legs and I was down, eating sand and coughing it out again, spluttering and livid. I heard singing, but it didn't seem a miracle right then as I was too furious to care. I rubbed my injured skin and cursed, glaring at the rope that had tripped me.

    There was a tent, striped red and green, held up by ropes strung between two leaning walls. Parts of an old mosaic floor were visible where the sand had been brushed or blown away, cool blues, turquoise and deep ocean green, and an old man sat in the shade not ten feet away. He sat with his legs crossed on an ancient rag of a rolled-up carpet, cooking something over a small fire.

    If my nose hadn't been so full of sand, and I hadn't been so caught up in bitter thoughts about Them I might have smelt it before. I could smell it now though, and my stomach growled for it. He'd seen me, the old man, and was watching me curiously from his patch of shade.

    "Alright there?" he said after a while. "Hurt your leg did you?" He spoke Fiazolan, which I could just about understand, but with a thick accent that led me to believe he must have come from somewhere else originally.

    "Yes," I answered savagely.

    "Should look where your going," he said and tutted. He looked away and stirred his stew. Watching him stir it, releasing those delicious aromas was a torture to me, and he knew it too by the way he smirked.

    "Who are you?"

    "Almarah," he said. "And you? Where did you come from? I suppose you're hiding from Them?"

    "How do you know Them?" I asked. I was so amazed I almost forgot how hungry and thirsty and tired I felt - almost. The old man, Almarah, stirred his stew again with the long wooden spoon and I followed his movements, hypnotized by them.

    "I've known Them a long time," he said eventually. "A long, long time. So long that I have no recollection of a time when I didn't know Them. I think it might have been in the First Age, but for all I know I have been sitting here, as you see me now, since the beginning of all things."

    "It isn't fair," I raged, spitting hatred. "They don't have rights to everything. I only took what I needed. It wasn't Theirs anyhow. They stole it - all I did was take it back."

    "So you stole from Them," he said. His eyes, black and bright as an animal's, stared into mine. "That's the way They'll see it, whatever you say. I advise you to give it back to Them, this thing you stole, and perhaps They may not punish you."

    "What happened to you?" I asked. He kept stirring the stew, stirring, stirring. His hands were thin, in the far extremity of famine. Wrinkled skin, papery and fragile, draped his bones. Details came to me from out of the shadows where he sat that I hadn't noticed at first; his too sunken eyes and cheekbones standing out sharply in his emaciated face. I felt a new horror, a new sickness, a new loathing for Them.   

    "I sit here," Almarah said. "I can see food, and can smell it, can see water, but if I try to eat or drink it becomes dust in my hands; sand that blows away, melting on the wind before it can reach my mouth. The water trickles through my fingers until not even a speck of moisture remains. I've sat here Ages upon Ages for my wrongs to Them. I can't die, as you see, but I can suffer."

    "They can't do that!" I said, appalled, though I knew They could. Almarah just nodded.

    "Have some stew," he said, nodding toward the pot. "You may as well you know. A few hundred years ago I might have grudged you even that, but even hate fades..."

    "Thank you," I said. I couldn't look at him as I got nearer, and he knew it I think. He was nothing so much as an animated skeleton, skin hanging emptily from his bones like an old flour sack. I ate as much of the stew as I could and drank water until my stomach sloshed. When I was done both the stew pot and water bottle were as full as before.

    "Well," Almarah said, "if you don't plan on giving this thing you stole back to Them, you'd best be on your way. What was it anyway? You needn't worry about my telling Them if They come. They've done as much as They can to me already. Any new torture They could come up with would make a welcome change, and I would quite enjoy dying I think."

    "Yes," I said, because he was right. My hatred for Them burnt harder than ever. Sometimes I think it's all I have left - this rage. As if without it I would be empty and purposeless. They are not gods, but They behave as if They are. What They do is unforgivable. I opened my pack and took out the small box, opening it in front of him.

    "Oh," he said. There were tears in his eyes. "Yes, I see."

    Tiny stars whirled in the haze and seemed to wink at us.

    "It's no use," he said. "They'll catch you, you know They will. If I know Them They're enjoying this as much as They can enjoy anything. Risk is all statistics to them. Our hopes, our hard work and sweat and tears mean nothing. Those things don't come up on a chart. You have to go. Now."

    "They won't catch me," I said. "Not if I can help it." But his despondency was catching. I felt a bleak, gray hopelessness. I was so tired, so sick of running.

    "Goodbye," Almarah said. "I would wish you luck but..." his voice trailed away and he shrugged.

    I left him, and that ancient ruinous city behind the dunes, running when I could and walking when I couldn't, slipping when the sand gave way beneath me and sent me tumbling down. My pack was a reassuring weight, bouncing up and down against my hot back. The small box inside jabbed me now and then with its corners and in my mind's eye the Universe inside swirled and spun like a jewel in a storm.














The End

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