The dream world faded and brown eyes began to flutter open. The mattress was lumpy or perhaps she had fallen asleep atop the sheets again and they had twisted into knots beneath her back. Her right foot was uncovered and a gentle breeze caressed her toes… or licked them?
She awoke fully with a start and sucked in humid, fetid air. A juggernaut of pain crashed through her skull, forcing her eyes shut once again. Her hand, gritty and sticky, touched the right side of her head. Short, singed hair crumbled under her fingers. A subdued moan escaped her lips as something moist insistently prodded the sole of her foot. Forcing her eyes to reopen, she stared up into a dark and cloud-laden sky. More jolts of agony pulsed through her forehead. She brought her hand over her eyes to shield them and looked down toward her feet.
Three blurry shapes quickly focused into rats skittering near her bare toes. The largest was poking her soft flesh with its snout, optimistically testing the condition of its next meal.
She reflexively kicked at the filthy creatures and pushed herself away in slick mud. The rats fled, unwilling to attempt to dine on an actively resistant carcass. There were easier, though less satisfying, food sources in other alleys.
“GUILTY!” From the main street beyond, a rabid mob screamed the word in unison.
She slowly rolled to her side, smearing filth over her blue gown. The cool mud was a relief in the humid, oppressive heat. In the distance, thunder rumbled gently. The pounding inside her head increased exponentially as she attempted to stand. After several, torturous moments, she staggered to the side of a shoddy brick building and leaned heavily against it. Sharp pain surged along the right side of her abdomen.
A man’s bellowing voice leaked into her alley. “And for the crime of peddling without proper authority or license, what is your verdict?”
She looked down to check her footing and only then noticed her attire. She wore a thin, one-piece gown. The coarse bricks pressing from behind told her that the smock opened at the back. Black mud covered most of her bare legs and feet. Her hands were equally grimy.
“GUILTY!” screamed a bloodthirsty chorus.
The intensity of the vitriol around the corner terrified her. Where the hell am I? she asked herself. The throbbing behind her eyes had begun to ebb and she again brought her right hand to her face. The skin on her right cheek was crusty, leading up to brittle, crunchy hair. As she pressed gently against the side of her face, new waves of pain emanated from her abdomen. She lifted the short length of her gown, confirmed with horror that she wore no undergarment and found a bandage that might once have been white affixed to her lean side. A dull red peeked between splotches of brown on the covering, evidence of some injury concealed by the mud that had sopped her clothing.
The bellowing voice returned. “You have been found guilty of all charges against you. Have you anything to say for yourself?”
“I paid!” screamed a desperate voice. “Help me! Somebody help me!”
“Your punishment will be death, whereafter your possessions will be divided equally among those who dispense your justice. Who will cast the first stone?”
Frantic cries from both the mob and the condemned brought goosebumps to her forearms. She walked, unsteadily, to the entrance of the small alley. The brighter lighting in the larger street unleashed a new, cruel bout of pain behind her eyes.
Half a block down the mud-covered road, a throng of humanity hurled stones at a shrieking figure bound to a streetlight post. Her gaze followed the length of the post upward to the swaying solar panels at the top. The whimpering, doomed man ducked back and forth under his restraints, desperate to avoid the inevitable.
Despite the agonizing throbs through her head and the piercing stabs along her side, she ran. She ignored the growing fire in her lungs and scurried down the muddy streets, taking turns at random. Her only thought was to distance herself from the dying man’s anguished screams and the mob’s enthusiastic responses to his torment.
She ran until the pebbles and debris piercing the soles of her feet forced her to drift to a stop along a more traveled street. Breathing heavily, she reflexively swiped at long, black hair covering her left eye. As she tucked the muddy strands behind her ear, she realized she couldn’t have identified her hair’s color without seeing it.
The shantytown’s denizens passed by her without acknowledging her presence. Her eyes followed one resident after another, searching for a familiar face. No one met her stare for long as they walked hunched over, their gazes downcast and distant. An aircar slowly passed overhead, just meters above the roofs of ramshackle structures, throwing mud and stones with its downblast. She looked up and her eyes caught the vehicle and its markings of corporate security. Instinct pushed her into a short, narrow alley and out of sight. She found herself among buildings even more dilapidated than those near the spot she had first awoken. Many structures had traded in the crumbling bricks of the last neighborhood for a hodgepodge collection of rotting pressed wood and dented sheet metal.
She peered into the larger of the two buildings that created the small alley. Only two stories tall, the roof had collapsed into the upper level long ago. She looked through one of the broken windows and spied a small fire inside a barrel with several figures huddled around it. A reflection in the window’s largest sliver of glass caught her attention.
The woman who stared back was in shambles. The most obvious distress was the signs of searing on the right side of her head. Her muddy, tangled hair fell to her shoulders except for the patch extending from her right temple to somewhere behind the ear. That side of her face burned a fierce red as if she had spent several days unprotected in the sun. She leaned closer to the stranger in the glass. Brown, almost black eyes. An involuntary gasp escaped her when she realized how much blood floated in the white of her right eye. She pulled lightly on the skin underneath it; the scarlet extended around the orb as far as she could see. What happened to me?
She straightened to her full height while still peering at the reflection. Her face was mature but showed no signs of aging and although high cheekbones cut an attractive line, she wasn’t emaciated like so many of the people on the street. Her arms were well-toned; her legs contained the muscle and shape of youthful vigor. She stared again at the face in the glass. Mid-twenties? Her stomach dropped with the realization that she didn’t know. She had no memories, no hints of the person staring, wide-eyed, at her. “Who are you?” she whispered.
“You’re on my house!” cried an angry voice from the corner where the alley met the street. She tore her eyes away from her reflection. A woman covered in rags and muck stalked toward her. The pauper brandished a wooden club, perhaps the leg of a chair. “Get off my house!”
The younger woman backed away from the threatening figure, glancing down to find she had been standing on a sheet of battered cardboard. “I—I’m sorry,” she apologized as she retreated deeper into the dead-end lane.
“Get out of my alley!” the rancid woman screamed as she raised her club menacingly. A hacking cough overtook the older woman, forcing her weapon down as she stooped.
Her target took the opportunity to look at the makeshift wall behind her. A kludge of stacked garbage climbed a broken chain-link fence. She turned away from her choking aggressor and stepped her bare feet lightly onto the heap of trash that divided the alley. She scrambled up the unsteady pile as her tormentor issued more invective but the crazy woman seemed content to let her escape.
Once at the top of the trash wall, she saw a similar alley below, a reflection of the other side behind her. An unmoving shape lay sprawled on a bed of trash, covered with only a dingy, torn blanket. Carefully, she picked her way down from the mound of refuse. Sharp objects jabbed at her feet but she escaped the barrier without deep cuts to her soles. From the dark end of the new alley, she stared timidly at its sleeping owner. The man snored loudly.
She searched the base of the trash heap for a weapon. A rusted length of stiff wire offered the best protection. With her meager poker grasped tightly in both hands and thrusting outward, she crept down the alley. The street ahead was a larger one with a moderate amount of foot traffic.
The hacking woman appeared at the top of the trash pile. “Don’t you go murderin’ Rat, you little whore!” The wretched crone’s sneer revealed a mouthful of stained teeth among several gaps. “Rat! Rat! Wake up, you good-for-nothing drunk!”
The younger woman lowered her defensive wire to her side and took off like a bolt of lightning. Her feet splashed in the puddles as she tore past the unmoving man in the alley and raced into the wider street beyond.
“Run, you whore!” the nasty crone commanded from her perch on the wall. “Run, and if you come back, I’ll kill you!” Maniacal laughter punctuated her promise.
Once safely around the corner, the younger woman stopped. Her hands clutched her rusty wire so tightly that they began to cramp. Cautiously, she took sodden steps back to the corner and risked a glance. The reeking woman had retreated to her side behind the barrier at the alley’s end. The man remained immobile, except for the heavy breaths of his slumber.
“Rat,” she whispered, creeping closer. “Mr. Rat?”
The ear-splitting squawk of a police siren blasted down from the sky. The noise caused her heart to jump and forced her deeper into the dark alley. From the shadows, she looked back to the main street as a focused pillar of light from a corp-sec aircar spotlighted a pair of strangers rolling in a puddle together down the block. One of the muck-covered men froze when the light illuminated the struggle. The second man seized the opportunity to rain fists down into the other’s face and chest. Soon his victim fell limp.
Red and blue lights strobed atop the aircar and the siren changed to a continuous wail. The second man stood and ran with the security vehicle in aerial pursuit.
A new man and woman ran to the fallen combatant. The couple tore the shoes from the body’s feet and pulled desperately at the arms of its coat. Amid the spectacle, a crowd was beginning to grow.
The horrific sight pushed the young woman farther into the shadows of the alley. She turned to the man called Rat, still prone under his blanket. His hair was long and stringy. A thick, grey beard wrapped around a leathery face that held a ruby red nose. The fading police siren was subsumed in the man’s loud snoring. His peaceful slumber was far preferable to the clamor on the main street. She crept forward again to stand against a portion of the alley wall not surrounded with trash. Wire in her trembling right hand, she let herself silently slide down to the grime while tucking her gown under her as she sat. She rested her elbows on bent knees, letting her aching head fall to her hands as she closed her eyes.
Three, rapid-fire gunshots thundered in the distance, originating somewhere above the main street. A final chirp-chirp from the police siren announced the conclusion of its hunt.
Rat’s rough serenade continued unabated through the mayhem. The staccato sound provided almost a measure of comfort. At least I’ll know when he wakes up, she thought as a rush of dizziness washed through her. I have to rest or I’ll pass out on the street. She shivered as the image of the beaten man being stripped clean flickered through her mind. I’ll rest and after I’ve regained my strength, I’ll keep moving. I’ve got to keep moving.