A Day Without Gifts
First I heard the shots: three short whip-cracks of sound from the street outside my shop. I knew better than to run to the windows and look. On my hands and knees I crawled to the door and lowered the bolt, then climbed the ladder behind the counter into the loft with my bed. A couple of hours later the aliens kicked the door down.
I knelt in center of the hard shop floor with a gun to my head as they searched the place, barking short questions I could not understand. They looked just like us, which was a surprise. The pamphlets had intimated they’d be monstrous. Their strange language was the only way I knew they weren’t from the Citadel; when the officials from our own government invaded our homes, they always performed the task eloquently.
The aliens took food, supplies, and left the broken door as payment. That much was familiar.
After the first day people began to leave their houses again. I took the chair out from under the broken door. I wouldn’t leave the store until Bindo came to find me. Instead I sat at the window, watched the soldiers moving around outside, and made lists on the backs of receipts to cure the boredom. Things the soldiers had taken; things that passed by my window in an hour; things I noticed about the aliens. I sat on the floor to stare up through the glass, past the green-tinted atmospheric wards that shifted across the sky, to the familiar darkness of the Citadel floating high above. I had no lists for it.
I was behind the counter when I heard the door scraping open, and saw a woman step in alone. She wore the same uniform as the rest, plain grey, but with a black stripe down the right breast. I didn’t see a gun, but I wasn’t stupid enough to think she didn’t have one. The smile she offered me was false in her eyes.
“Pardon the intrusion,” she said. I was surprised to hear my own tongue from her lips, accented though it was. “My soldiers tell me they requisitioned some supplies from your shop.”
I had not been given permission to speak, so I said nothing. It was safer to treat her as I did the Citadel overseers, the only other authority I knew. They were dead now; I’d heard the shots that ended them.
“I am called Officer Altan Nasera,” the alien said, leaning into a short and formal bow. Her eyes remained on mine as she did. “What may I call you?”
Such a direct question required an answer. “My name is Selime.”
Her eyes took in the shelves, the rafters—the loft above the counter with the bed where I’d been sleeping, the covers rumpled fretfully.
“This is your shop?” she asked.
“It belongs to the honorable Bindo,” I said. “I work here.”
“I see.” After a moment, Nasera clasped her hands behind the straight line of her back. I heard the creak of her stiff gloves. “My soldiers are going to need provisions, and for that I’ll need this shop open. Bindo, you said? I believe I know of her.” A small, more genuine smile crawled onto her lips. “If I send her to you, will you be prepared to do business?”
With no other option, I nodded stiffly.
Her eyes pulled me apart into cuts of meat. “It is only natural that you don’t trust me. In time I believe that will change.”
Without another word she reached into her jacket—I tensed, my hand reaching beneath the counter—and pulled out a small bag of coins. She counted out a few, little grey things with holes in the center. “For the supplies. Good day, Selime.”
And she left. I waited to the count of thirty before I let my hand ease off the wooden club kept under the counter. The door stayed closed. And after even more time had passed, the curtain to the back room swished as Philon came out from the storeroom. He spat on the floor.
“Filthy alien,” he said. “They are unworthy even of the Citadel’s gifts.” He set the box of fuel canisters on the counter, where he’d quickly whisked them away at the sound of someone approaching the door. His eyes settled on me. He had been training to serve the Citadel, to be whisked away on one of their shuttles to the dark station watching us from above, never to return. Now, what ships would come for him?
“You should have told that dog to piss off. Run her right out.” He picked up the coins she had left and inspected them briefly, before tossing them to the side. I heard them ping against the wall. His curly hair made him look younger even than his years, and when he acted like this, I tried to remind myself that in truth he was still just a boy.
“You hid in the back room,” I pointed out.
“And what would have happened if one of them caught me with this?” Philon hoisted the box and let it drop onto the counter with a bang. “Shot! Just like the honorable overseers.”
“They started shooting first.”
“Because they knew they’d been betrayed. Do you think it’s coincidence that the aliens knew exactly where the officials would be?”
I stared at Philon. “What are you saying?”
He snorted. “If you can’t figure it out on your own I’m not going to explain it to you.” He hefted his box under his arm. “Don’t tell anyone that I was here, or what I took.”
“Aren’t you going to pay?”
“Money? Is that all you care about? What about your civic duty?” I almost laughed, but he wasn’t joking. He hesitated at the back door. “I will pay you once we drive them all out.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, but he was already gone.
After he left I found an old rag to clean up his cold spittle from the floor. The coins were hard to find, but I fished them out from behind the shelves, one by one. I didn’t know why; they were useless to me. I added the fuel canisters to the list of things taken.
* * *
Bindo returned the next day, hobbling in with her crowbar cane and scowling at the shelves that the soldiers had made bare. In all the years since she’d taken me in and given me a job, I’d never seen her face so bitter.
“Naturally,” she commented to herself.
The shame I felt was immediate and powerful. “They had guns,” I said. “I couldn’t stop them.”
Bindo reached up to take my face between fingers like withered roots. She stared into my eyes and all her anger was gone. “You were right to let them,” she said. Something in my chest released. Bindo had been born on the Citadel, and knew better than most when to bow before the wind.
From then on, most of the soldiers who came paid with those same dull grey disks that Nasera had given me. Most of them did not speak my language, and almost all wore their guns openly, men and women both. They were disciplined. They did not smile. I did not dare reach for the club when they came into the shop, but I never needed to use it. All they did was frighten me, but I hated them for that alone.
“They think they’re liberators,” Bindo said one night. She stayed with me late in those days, keeping watch. “They think they must free us because we cannot free ourselves. Arrogant. They’re no better than the officials.” When she talked like that it wasn’t hard to imagine why she had been cast out of the Citadel all those years ago. Many people in town knew that a gift was waiting for her, patient in the way that they were.
Bindo only ever spoke seriously of her time in the Citadel after she’d been drinking, and even then only with a sense of shame as she described the parties and feasts. I could tell that part of her missed it, and with our nights of going hungry I didn’t blame her. “You never thought it was evil, at the time,” she’d say, the words seeping out of her like blood from an old wound. “Not until you saw how things were down here. The cost of it all.”
When Nasera returned a second time, I was helping Bindo package bags of rice for delivery. She did not wander about the shop as the soldiers had done, picking things up and turning them over in their hands before putting them back again. She stepped up to the counter and smiled, an expression that hid as much as it suggested. My hands hesitated on the paper, meeting Bindo’s eyes over the finished parcel and reading the danger in them.
“Hello, honored one,” she said to Bindo, the title sounding strange on her tongue. “Might I borrow your assistant?”
Bindo said nothing; it was not a question. I stepped out from behind the protection of the counter and stopped in front of Nasera. She regarded me coolly, perhaps savoring her control.
“I thought we would walk,” she said, and stepped aside to hold open the door. I had no choice but to leave, sweat prickling down the center of my back where Bindo’s eyes drilled into it. As soon as we left sight of the doorway Nasera slid her arm through mine, a light and formal touch. I went as rigid as if she’d pressed the muzzle of her gun to my side. She guided me onwards, and I had no choice but to be led.
The streets were mostly empty, the faint green light of midday painting the bleached mud bricks as we walked. I imagined the edges of the ward cascading down in the distance, our own little island of life in the planet’s toxic atmosphere. Nasera was quiet, her eyes roving over the settlement with an almost fond expression. “Your shop has become quite popular with my soldiers,” she said at last. “They say you treat them fairly.”
I did not know whether she meant to insult me. If Philon had heard he would have burst out of hiding and reached for her neck. “They have given me no reason to act otherwise.”
Perhaps the implication of my words was too obvious; Nasera smiled at me from the side. “And I promise you, they will not.”
We walked in silence for a while longer. I could feel no warmth through the thick fabric of Nasera’s uniform. Every so often we would pass a place that had been blacked and crumbled to nothing, the scorch marks climbing up the walls of the neighboring houses.
“How long have you lived in this settlement?”
I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. “All my life.”
“Did you ever want to leave?”
I thought about it. Was answering such foolish questions considered treason? “Everyone does, when they’re young. But beyond the wards, it is nothing but poison. Travel between settlements is impossible without authorized transport. Only those chosen by the Citadel can leave.”
“But you didn’t apply.”
Nasera guided me down a side street, seemingly in no hurry. I wondered where she was leading me, and who might watch us go. “My mother did,” I said at last. “They say things are better up there, and perhaps they are—she never tried to contact us. I couldn’t do that—couldn’t cut myself out of these people, this place.”
“You’re loyal to them.” I didn’t reply. She stopped, and turned to face me. “But not to the Citadel?”
My heart beat hard in my chest. “I am loyal.” Anyone might be listening.
I realized she had stopped here for a reason. The stones on the walkway had been scrubbed clean, but the ruin it bordered was still charred. The law did not permit a missile site to be cleared and rebuilt; they stood, silent darkened monuments, and we made new houses elsewhere. Nasera gestured to the desolation with a gloved hand. “Loyal to this?” she said calmly. Her eyes watched me closely.
“The gifts restore honor to those who have forsaken it.” There was a time that the official words gave me comfort. In the face of Nasera’s scrutiny, they fell apart like ash.
“Gifts,” Nasera repeated with a smile. “The missiles, you mean. There will be no more of those, after we’ve won the war.”
She put a hand on my arm to guide me to a different vantage, gesturing at something within the ruins. I could see where the missile had shot in through the ceiling, waiting until it was inside to detonate. On the outer wall, visible to the street, were words in white: aliens are next. I recognized the paint, and the handwriting.
“There’ve been more messages like this,” Nasera said. “We clean most of them up before they can be seen. I’m not afraid of words, Selime—I’m afraid of what they’ll force me to do.” I felt her eyes on my face. I stared blankly at the words before me, wondering if she’d left them up for this reason alone. “You were born in this town. You know its people well. If I knew who was responsible—even a couple names—I could stop it before it escalates. Peacefully.”
“If you want it to stop, perhaps you should leave,” I said. Careful, careful. I was so aware of the thin crust of salt on which I walked. Perhaps she’d have me publically executed. Then Philon would finally approve.
“They’ve already lost,” she said. “The other settlements are almost entirely taken. Your Citadel will soon give in, or starve.” I felt the stiffness of her gloves on my chin, turning my face so I had to meet her eyes. “Did you know how much they relied on you? That you could have brought them to their knees just by refusing to send them your crops?”
I turned my face from her touch. “You don’t know what it’s like. What happens to those who disobey. You’d kill us as surely as they would.”
She did not question me, and I did not elaborate. Somehow, she knew. I could see it in her face. She must have dug into the records, found the file, brought me here today because she knew the memories it would stir up. Perhaps the soldiers which had searched my home had told her of the picture frame, my younger self surrounded by familiar-looking strangers.
“I did not come here to hurt people,” Nasera said.
Still I did not look at her. “But you will. And you’ll say that it’s our fault.”
I turned and left without another word, and was relieved to hear no footsteps following my own; no order for me to stop that I would have been forced to obey. Only the silence of a town holding its breath.
I didn’t go back to the shop right away; my feet took me on a path I knew too well to turn away from. I walked away from the center of town, towards the outskirts just before the houses turned to a grid of fields all spread beneath the eddying currents of the ward, food forbidden to all but those in the Citadel. No ships came to claim those crops now. They festered in the dirt, untouched.
The ruin where I stopped was years old, dust settling over the blackened remains, even a few weeds. I knelt in the ruins and looked around, placing the kitchen here, my old bedroom there. And there was where father had stood when the missile crashed in through the roof; I knew because we’d found his bones. Better if he had tried to love the gifts like mother had. It was the choice before us all; Philon had already made his.
I tilted my head back, breathing slowly through my nose. The Citadel hung suspended beyond the shifting miasma the ward held at bay. It looked no different than it always had—no sign of the hunger gnawing inside. If no soldiers had come to our town we might never have known anything was different—the only sign we had was the silence.
* * *
“The Citadel will reward those who remain loyal. And punish the ones who betrayed them.” As the days of the occupation drew on, Philon’s tone became less certain, more desperate. He came by the shop almost every day, but not for my company. He needed things: more paper, a different type of wire, the kinds of farm tools that could be sharpened into wickedness. I wasn’t sure how to stop him; I never could in the past.
He made the mistake of coming when Bindo was working only once.
“What are you doing, you idiot child?” she cried upon seeing the tangle of machinery in his arms.
His hands tightened around a coil of wire. “Would you rather sell this to aliens?”
“And when they catch you?” she demanded. “You and all the rest? Will it be worth it then, when we have to watch you lined up against a wall—” She broke off. Her eyes darted to me, and then away. Philon didn’t look at either of us.
“I don’t listen to traitors,” he said. “That’s why the Citadel cast you out, isn’t it? When this is over I’ll take your place.”
He rushed out with the supplies before Bindo could snag his ear. She let him go, shaking her head at his back. I knew he would not be back, and the knowledge gave me no comfort. I leaned against the counter and closed my eyes.
“Little fool.” There there was pity in Bindo’s voice. “He’s going to get caught.”
And he was.
That night more gunshots tore me from sleep. I ran to my window and threw back the curtain, fear making me careless with who might see my face in the eerie green light. There were struggling figures below, some being held down, others at gunpoint. A door flew open and I saw soldiers dragging people outside, shouting. I recognized Philon, his arms twisted behind his back and the muzzle of a gun pressed to the back of his head. The soldiers led their captives away. It happened so fast. Soon there was no sound but the pounding of my heart.
One of them remained behind in the square, face tilted up to catch the light, staring right at me. I whisked the curtain shut again, but of course it was too late. Officer Nasera knew what I had seen. But of course, I was supposed to see it.
* * *
She came back at dawn. There was no veneer of friendly smiles meant to put me at ease now. She stopped in the middle of the room, her arms held loosely behind her back.
“Stand here,” she said, pointing to the floor in front of her. I recognized the tone of an order. I stood in front of her as her soldiers searched the shop, slowly and methodically, even climbing up into my loft to rifle through my bedding. I waited as they performed these perfunctory violations; my eyes stared into nothing, and hers stared into mine. After the soldiers found nothing, she ordered them out with a word. Then we were alone. She did not give me permission to move.
“They had a bomb,” she said. “If it had gone off, half the town would be dust. Your brother is among the criminals.” For the first time I heard the menace in Nasera’s voice. Her expression had not shifted from its placid indifference. I pressed my lips together, my expression a blank canvas, stretched tight.
“Many of the components of the bomb were purchased from this shop,” she continued. “I have more than enough cause to arrest you.”
I swallowed. My throat felt very dry. “And is that why you’re here, Officer?”
Slowly, she turned and began to walk. I refused to turn to follow her, even as her footsteps paced a circle behind my back. “That’s entirely up to you. But I’d rather not see your potential wasted in a jail cell.”
“Yes.” I felt her eyes raking over me. “You’re intelligent, observant, and have been more willing to cooperate than any other local in our network.”
I forced a laugh. “So I’m the best candidate for your next traitor?”
She came to a stop before me once again. “Yes.”
The word was like a slap, though Nasera delivered it with no malice. I looked away, and did not contradict her. “What will you do with him? And the others?”
Nasera slowly shook her head. “Look at you. Loyal to the very end, just like Bindo said you would be.”
At once the dread slowly pushing its way into my chest fell away, leaving nothing but a cold void in its place. I remembered what Philon had said. The things Nasera knew. Bindo?
Nasera couldn’t quite hide the gloating edge of her smile. She stepped forward slowly, raising her eyebrows. “So you see, we have more cause to work together than you might have realized. I believe you’re smart enough to realize that such an arrangement would not be so terrible. All I ask for is information.”
The air seemed to crawl against my ears, desperate for words. Nasera watched me, content to wait. I kept my eyes down to hide the racing thoughts behind them. “Information isn’t all you need.”
A beat of silence. “And what else do you think I want from you?”
I looked up. “You do not understand the settlements. Those in the Citadel will know even less. You need someone to explain your new planet to you.”
I thought she might finally shoot me for my arrogance. But she did not even smile. “Yes,” she said at last. “I do.”
I leaned forward on the counter. I thought of the club that lay beneath it even now, how quickly I could reach for it. My hands stayed where they were. “These are my terms. I will tell you whatever you wish, and you’ll let my brother and his conspirators live.”
“Reasonable,” Nasera said.
I narrowed my eyes. “I’m not finished. When the war ends, and the time comes for you and your soldiers to move on, you will take me with you. To the Citadel.”
At last, I had caught her off guard. Her single blink told me all I needed to know. “What business do you have there?”
My mother, ascended. My father, bursting with gifts. My brother, ever reaching upward. The Citadel was a pin at the center of it all, but I would not be the one to pull it free. I was owed something else. Something more. “You will need a new government, after you win your war.” I spread my hands. “I want a place in it.”
This time when she smiled there was no falseness to it. She wore her cunning on the curve of her lips. “I see Bindo was right about you. You are more dangerous than I had hoped.”
She held out her hand. Her glove was cold and leathery beneath my palm, but I gripped it as if it could draw me back from a the ledge I teetered on.
* * *
When Bindo returned I was waiting for her. She stepped through the doorway like it belonged to someone else, her eyes lowered, her shoulders bent. I watched her. She stared at me as if trying to glimpse some hint of forgiveness behind my eyes. I thought about her telling Nasera my life story, laying it out like a map on the table, strategic markers on each member of my family.
Bindo stepped forward and took my face in her hands, just like she had done the first time she came back. This time I didn’t search her eyes for forgiveness. I didn’t pull away, either.
“Why?” I said.
She raised her eyes to the ceiling, looking beyond it. I didn’t follow her gaze. “I did what I could to bring them down,” she said. “But nothing will change for us here unless there’s someone up there to build again.”
“I didn’t want this,” I whispered. “It was so much easier to be loyal.”
“I’m sorry, Selime.” Her hands fell by her side. “I’ve made the choice for you.”
* * *
Two months later the Citadel surrendered. It was on that day that I climbed into an exosphere ship for the first time on my life, Nasera at my side. I felt us rise from the earth, watched as my town became a village, a single house, a pebble thrown into a golden puddle of wheat. When we slid through the ward the ship did not so much as shudder, but I felt us leave it behind.
Nasera watched my face as we drifted out of the atmosphere. The Citadel, growing larger and more real by the second, hung right before my eyes.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “I didn’t expect that.” Nasera chuckled, and said nothing. I looked back to the curve of the planet, green storms swirling over its surface, the glowing clear gems of the settlements shining through them. I imagined Philon far beneath me, marooned on one of those shrinking islands, his head tilted back and his eyes turned to the sky.
Amelia Fisher's fiction appeared in the anthology Fitting In: Tales of Supernatural Outsiders, and is forthcoming in Havok and The Eunoia Review. She has a forthcoming novelette to be published by Less Than Three Press, and writes book reviews for The Literary Review. She lives in a van in the woods, where she writes about intergalactic gender politics and cannibalism.