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A Whiff of Grapeshot

I sat on the steps of the ramshackle Precinct House, sipping the precious Smaltzer; the aches of my bruises fading slowly. A half litre's worth had been issued to the dozen survivors of the morning action. The nauseating medicinal taste of the drink usually had a calming, slightly nostalgic effect on me. It's a taste not easily forgotten. I remember the first time I broke into The Matron's cupboard for her Smaltzer tablets; she was usually too drunk to ever miss a couple.

He didn't have a name and a - perhaps jealousy induced - contempt for names given at birth, names that didn't signify the character or function of a person, gave him an almost adult-like inflexibility of opinions. But he had a devious mind that could sketch the most outrageous pranks. Somehow, we always came out on the other end looking innocent, even when we broke the handle of the Smaltzer cupboard.

When The Orphan left the Home, he joined the army like so many of other Urchins of War. It was one of the few institutions that had food, some shelter, one decontaminating shower a week. Just like the Police Force. They say war brings out the worst of us. I say it brings out the best of us, too, he wrote in one of his letters from the Front, remembering the band of those now oh-so-hated soldiers who had fought and died to evacuate us from the borders.

The Sergeant limped down the stairs carrying his five-stringed guitar. His slanted eyes, high cheekbones and pallid features - grimaced as they were as he sat down and straightened his injured leg - indicated an Eastern descent. “What a day, huh?” he said, not expecting an answer, and began his tuning. The Sergeant was usually an inexhaustible source of word-of-mouth history, especially about the near-mythical elixir of alcohol that we supposedly drank before the Catastrophic War. We left this morning laughing at one of his jokes. I realised I didn't remember it anymore. Like most of the morning, it was covered in a haze of tear gas.

When the Riot Alarm had gone off, we had left the precinct in a professional bustle. This wasn't our first riot duty. Thirty cops had crammed into the one tiny 12-seater Hovercraft, some even on the roof. The rest of us followed on four wheel pedalers pulling ammo crates, riot gear and, of course, Big Bertha.

The purpose of human life is to face challenges. To face them with and without fear. To be dauntless when assailed with incomprehensible violence, to look in the eyes of mindless savagery and be equal to it, for better or for worse. Only then do we see ourselves truly. Only then do our characters come out. Only then can we have a name.

One idiot decided to burn himself and the city went nuts.

I don't remember much of the first stun baton charge. It was a swirl of crackling electric charges, yells and screams; the thud of sticks and stones hitting soft flesh. We should've read the signs better. The crowd hadn't broken ranks when we came at them, they had charged back. I don't know how I managed to push in the right direction and come out. Riot shields bashed in, gas masks torn off; stun batons lost in the melee, only a few of us managed to run back to the line, where the rest of the company drove the oncoming horde back with rubber bullets and the gigantic water cannon.

Where would I see such camaraderie, such brotherhood? It reminds me of what we shared as a child. What we share now. How can we frown upon something that brings the vestiges of youth to adults?

The Sergeant had stood beside me in the line, gun trained at the mob. Only two of us were left of the ten man squad. Rubber ammo was all gone; Big Bertha was out of sewer water. We'd evac-ed the few cops we could rescue in the hovercraft, the one quick getaway vehicle. There was no hope of more help. As authorities were quick to remind us, the army had better things to do. Tired and aching, we Policemen were on our own.

Our warning volley, letting the crowd know that it would be real ammo this time, received only an eerie silence and an intense stare from the multitude. It's them or us, the stare said. Then a shot from some gun-wielding madman took off half of a cop's head. Maniacally the crowd charged brandishing stun batons and riot gear filched from injured or dead cops. The Commander stood speechless for a second until another gunshot grazed The Sergeant's leg. Earphones crackling with the inevitable shouted order, we opened fire on the civilians, catching them in a hail of metal. It was in the middle of the blazing gunfire that I caught a glimpse of The Orphan.

Or what I thought was The Orphan. It was a child really, ten years old if he was a day. What he was doing in a throng of murderous religious fanatics, who can tell? The grey radiation affected hair, the burnt skin, it was all so familiar. Though his eyes, unusually, was full of panic. My reflexes made my hands follow his eyes. My fingers… the trigger…

Where else will we dream of a better tomorrow, but in the middle of our nightmare? Where will we discuss our Utopias if not in the middle of desolation?

I knew the rest of the company was standing near the doorway or sitting on the steps behind me, swigging their drinks. With blurred eyes I looked down at the worn medal in my hand: Captain Smith, John 'The Orphan'. Courage under fire at the risk of his own life. The army always, always needs names.

As the sun went down beyond the grey smog, the world seemed to freeze and The Sergeant strummed his guitar and began to sing.

Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young
In a world of magnets and miracles
Our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary
The ringing of the division bell had begun

The shrill noise of the riot alarm screeched through the evening air.

By Kazim Ibn Sadique
Title taken from a quote by Napoleon Bonaparte
Illustration: Sarwat Yunus

Push to shove

The waves, oh how the waves rolled in. Flailing arms, broken legs, shattered spines. The tide pulled and pulled and the waves never stopped.

Onon had never seen so many people in his life. Even at his school, when there were schools. Nor had he ever seen so many people shouting and screaming. At ten years old, it was hard to gather your thoughts into coherent experiences.

He remembered the arch spiritual leader, and the dais he was standing on. He remembered some of his words. He vaguely recalled them to be things he himself had been told when he was younger, when he had a mom and dad who wanted their son to be a religious law-abiding man. Laws mattered little now they would not stop the waves from coming in. He ran as fast as his little feet could carry him. Patches of hair were gone from his scalp, with burnt layers of skin all over this body some side effects of radiation, and others the signs of the hard years he had spent on the streets as an urchin. If needed, he could outrun some of the less speedy vehicles. But a mob was a whole different matter. A mob had no direction, no sense and hardly any purpose.

He remembered the sudden fire that blasted forth from behind the dais. He had shielded his eyes for a second before the fire calmed down. The masses were in a frenzy now, and the priest egged them on. They needed to atone, or else their fate would end in eternal flames. That was when he fell back, calm as a cool summer's day, right into the fire. Like before, the fire brightened again and roared into the sky. The smell of burning flesh came quick, and then came the push. The push became shoves and then the running began.

Running becomes harder the less you can move your feet, no matter how nimble you are. Onon was right in the middle of the mob, barely walking, carried forward by the rolling waves of people, angry and insane. The streets that once had names were now awash with violence, the vacuum left behind by peace and prosperity, filled up with hatred and blood.

The mob jerked to a halt, bashed and pushed back by shield-carrying policemen. But the mob is not so easily quelled or satisfied. The waves began again, and then the guns exploded. Onon looked left and right, but there was nowhere the go. The streets were chaos, and there was nowhere to run. His little ten year old body was lost in his own home among a sea of people, more lost than he had ever been in his few years in the streets. He did not notice the tears rolling down his cheeks or the snot in his nose. Somebody stepped on his feet, and his big toe was bleeding. He pushed and shoved and slid between the masses to escape the horrors.

A space cleared in front of him, and glad of the opportunity he quickly stepped out of the circle. A sigh of relief mixed with a sob of despair escaped his mouth as he made to run outwards. The steps fell, one, two and three. Sudden silence held the mob like a thunder strike as the shell left the chamber. The grey smoke rose up to the sky, while a ten year old body stumbled and fell onto the cold hard concrete. He was thinking of his long dead father, and imagined he would have but the thought never finished. The burns on his skin no longer burned, and his sight dimmed. He tried to understand what that hot liquid feeling was.

He knew his hand was there, clutching at the gaping hole, felt the fluids leak out. Or was it his eyes, his tears? No more screaming, no more shouting, no more talk of death and eternal flames and perhaps the best of all, no pain from the radiation burns. The warmth spread, and he realised the silence that fell, for him, would last forever.

By Emil
Illustration: Sarwat Yunus


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