The Limping Step

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 stopped him 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 re-socialisation 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 from choice.

Their 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 re-socialisation 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 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, and on his first meal round, he reached the first containment unit and found he had no idea of 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 too 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 4444. 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, 4444 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 round, 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 re-socialisation 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 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 round 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.’

She looked up at him and her gaze sharpened with amused malice.

‘So what about you? What are you being re-socialised for?’

Every time he left her unit, he swore he wouldn’t speak to her again, but every time he came back, he did. The truth was, there wasn’t anyone else. He couldn’t talk to the other guards, and she was the only one of the inmates who didn’t cower away from him, with whom his blaster and his uniform didn’t loom so large between them that there was room for nothing else. It meant he gave her chances to mock him, but he suspected she would have made those whether he spoke or not. The only other way of dealing with it would have been to shoot her, and he didn’t have the privileges for that.

He asked her one day if she had ever thought her protest would have worked. It was late in the afternoon, when the unchanging light in the units seemed dimmer, the shadows deeper. Above the hum of the air conditioning, the rain pattered steadily on the roof. Annata had just been brought back from a treatment session. She lay curled on the bunk, her head propped on her folded jacket, the lone blanket pulled over her shoulders. Beris sat on the bunk end. He suspected this was too close for regulations, which said he had to keep far enough away from the inmates to have time to get his blaster out if they went for him, but after a day on his feet it was good to sit down.

Annata echoed his question. ‘Did I think it would work? What, did I think the Council would see me and say, ‘Oh, sorry, we didn’t realise we’re helping the Terrans kill each other, we’ll make sure we stop it?’ Her voice, muffled by the blanket, was quieter than usual. ‘What do you think?’

‘All right, so if that’s such a blind question, what did you do it for? You want to end up here?’

‘Oh, of course. That was my aim all along, didn’t you know? No, Beris, I didn’t think the Council would listen to me. I knew they wouldn’t.’

‘So why do it then?’ It was annoying, she was so stupid, getting herself sent to Herantive for nothing.

She sighed. ‘I suppose I thought that some of the passers by might listen. Lots of people go by there, outside the Council. I suppose I thought that if just one of them saw what I was saying, if I could get the message out to them, then it would be worthwhile. I don’t know if I did. That’s the trouble with trying to reach one person among hundreds, you never know if you have.’

She sounded sadder than he had ever heard her. Provoking, he said,

‘Don’t sound like it was worth it, then.’

‘It’s not about whether it was worth it!’ She pulled herself up on one arm, cradling the other against her chest. ‘Don’t you understand that? Even if no one listened, even if it made no difference, I still had to do it.’ Her strange, damaged eye met his. ‘I just couldn’t be part of the guilt. The civil war, the massacre, it’s the Council that did it, but if we all go along with them, keep unanimity like we’re taught to, then that makes us just as guilty as them. The only thing we can do is stand up and say ‘no’, even if no one does hear us. Even if all they say we’re doing is damaging society, sticking out. Even if it does bring us here.’ She held her hand out, palm down. ‘Don’t you understand? All those Terrans that died, their blood is on our hands, on all our hands.’ The back was scored across with welts from the treatment session; a bead of blood hung, purple, from her thumb. ‘I didn’t want their blood on mine.’

He remembered the final fight with Piri, how once he had no choice, all the days of planning how to deal with him, how not to be punished, how to get the others to support him had fallen away, leaving only a clean clarity like the day after the rains. He rummaged in his pocket for the rag he used to wipe spills from the food cart. ‘Here’ he said, awkwardly. ‘Bind up your hand.’

Qaid Sa’Jurn was in the guard room when he got back from his round, leaning against one of the desks and leafing with ostentatious boredom through a pile of printed reports.

‘You’re late’ he said. ‘Food round shouldn’t take more than an hour and you’ve been nearer two.’

Beris decided brevity was the best option. ‘Yes, Qaid. Sorry, Qaid.’

‘Hmm.’ Sa’Jurn put the reports down. ‘You’ve been here, what, nearly seventy days now, haven’t you, Beris?’

‘Yes, Qaid.’

‘And do you feel you’re fitting in?’

Beris kept his expression neutral. ‘I think so, Qaid.’

‘Do you? Do you? Well, that’s very interesting, Beris, because I’ve been watching you, and I don’t think you’re fitting in at all. I think you’re as much of a misfit as when they sent you here. You spend more time with the inmates than you do with the men, do you think you should be one of them? Well, do you?’

‘No, Qaid.’

‘No, Qaid. Well, at least there’s some hope for you.’ He walked up to Beris, brought his face close to his. ‘I will not have misfits in my guard, Ty’Beris. Join in, or you’re out. Do you understand me? Out of the guard, out of the service, back home in disgrace so fast you’ll think you left your arse behind. Join in. I’ll be watching you.’

He could have said how hard he had been trying, but his pride wouldn’t let him plead. He pulled himself up into a formal salute, ‘Yes, Qaid’, and held it until Sa’Jurn turned on his heel and left.

He didn’t go to the bar with the others that evening. He didn’t enjoy standing around for hours with no one talking to him. He’d thought it was important anyway, but if it wasn’t going to make any difference with that bastard Sa’Jurn… Instead, he slouched round the compound. Past the dark, circular bulks of the re-socialisation centres, lights shone from the temple columns, green and blue, the colours of land and sea. At the nearest temple, four priests were just beginning the evening dance. They bowed to each other once then started stepping the circle, slowly at first, thumping down with each foot to mark the beat, then faster. Their mud-coloured cloaks flew out behind them as they spun, accelerating, making an earthy ring around them. The beat went on. Beris pulled the hood of his uniform waterproof further down over his face. He was sick of Herantive.

The priests gave a shrieking cry and started circling the other way. Beris shifted position and winced as a trickle of rain ran into his boot. It was time he headed back in any case; he didn’t have a late pass and more trouble was all he needed. He walked away down the path, keeping the beat in march time. It was what you did on Herantive, what you always did, but without thinking he found himself fighting it, scuffing one foot then the other in counterpoint, a half-step off the beat, all the way back to his bed.

The odd beat stayed with him the next day, tapping inside his head like the beginning of pain. He had the morning shift in the guardroom, then he was down for the inmates’ afternoon exercise. Sa’Jurn put him on the gate. Beris could feel him scowling at him as he took up position. The escort guards got the inmates from all four centres lined up inside the gate, ready to file through. Annata was second in the line from no.4 centre. She glanced up at Beris as she passed him, meeting for a second before they both dragged their gaze away.

Anti Edi was last out, dawdling so far behind the others that the guard behind him had to push him in the back with his blaster butt to make him move. He stared round wildly, his eyes black pools in his thin face.

Sa’Jurn barked. ‘Beris! Get him walking, now! You, Edi! I will not have this today, do you understand?’

It was unlikely that Edi did understand, but a cuff from Beris was enough to start him shambling round after the others. Beris went back to his station at the gate. He noticed that the rear escort guard was looking at him and grimaced in exasperated comment at Edi and Sa’Jurn both. He wasn’t expecting a reaction, but to his surprise, the other guard grimaced back, and smiled.

Most of the inmates had completed one circuit now. To Beris their pace seemed faster than usual, their shoulders hunched against trouble. In contrast, Edi was hardly moving, a stooped, ragged figure alone at the far end of the area. As Beris watched he seemed to realise that there was no one around him. He stopped, the gleeful expression on his face visible even from the gate. Then he threw back his head and began to scream.

The sound was so loud it was difficult to believe that one old man could make it.

‘Oh, stars above!’ Sa’Jurn shouted. ‘Beris, get over there and shut him up! Now!’

Beris started off across the exercise area. Edi, seeing him coming, began to run, elbows flapping, his feet on the sodden ground dancing through a fountain of raindrops. He was still screaming.

‘Beris, get him!’

Beris was fast but Edi, with the guile of the demented, kept dodging, shrieking with glee amongst the screams.

‘Beris, if you don’t get him, I swear…’

Shouts from the other guards drowned Sa’Jurn out. The other inmates huddled together in front of the gate. Beris, turning, caught a flash of Annata’s face before someone moved and hid her from view.


Edi pulled off his uniform jacket and waved it round his head like a trophy. Beris ducked as it swung past his face. Edi screamed again, laughing. He brought the jacket round again. Beris shut his eyes, put out his hand and grabbed it.

The force of it pulled Edi over. He landed on his knees, still clutching the jacket, then as Beris tugged it again, fell forward into the mud. The guards cheered, derisive. Sa’Jurn ran up.

‘That is it! I’ve had enough of this, more than enough.’ He raised his voice. ‘He was trying to escape. You all saw him. He was trying to escape, and we had to stop him. We had no choice. It was a regrettable incident, but unavoidable, and no one can say any different. Beris, shoot him.’

Edi sat up. The rain tracked muddy channels down his face, hung in drops from the edge of his chin. The guards stopped cheering. Annata pushed her way to the front of the silent inmates. The rain fell, and from outside came the drum of the dance in one of the temples. Beris reached for his blaster. The grip was cool in his hand, spotted with water. If he shot him, it would be his way in. The other guards would like him, Sa’Jurn would give him a good report; he could even get out of here, get back to a military ship and some real action. He only had to obey, do what he was told… He let his hand fall.

‘No’ said Beris.

‘What did you say?’ Sa’Jurn’s tone was dangerous. ‘I gave you an order, Beris. Shoot him. Shoot him now, or you’re out!’

Beris looked at him. He was sick of the service, sick of all of it. He’d joined because it was that or prison, after they’d rounded up the gang. It was the choice it always came down to, back home in his neighbourhood. Choosing, it had never occurred to any of them to question just why that should be their only choice. Always the same: don’t raise your voice, don’t stand out. He was sick of that too.

‘I said, no.’

As he turned away, Sa’Jurn threw his blaster at him. It caught him at the top of his thigh, painful, but not bad enough to stop him going. He limped through the rain and the silence to the gate.

Later, whenever he told the story of how he became a rebel, he usually ended it there. The image of Sa’Jurn defeated was always popular with his younger comrades. He didn’t say, perhaps because it would have lost its power in saying, anything else about As’Annata. When he’d reached the gate she’d still been standing there, in front of the other inmates. He had never been able to find out what had happened to her, though he had tried. Just another of the re-socialised; an old, shunned woman with a broken face and a uniform that didn’t fit her. She hadn’t said anything as he passed her, it would hardly have been safe. But through his discharge and all the cycles after the memory of her expression stayed with him, her half-smile and the look of approval in her parti-coloured eye.

Published online at Bewildering Stories.

%d bloggers like this: