“I have fire!” said Laúm into the darkness. He held the fire device high over his head. The attacking shapes froze and Laúm switched on the flame. “Stay away!” But they started toward him again. The third waited while the other two circled around and came in for the kill. Laúm switched the flame to high and whirled around, but they kept coming. Which attacker would he throw it at?
“I’ll throw this!” He raised it high over his head. The shapes stopped again. The one on the right crouched low and waited. What was their game? Laúm tapped off the infrared detectors, the moonlight was bright enough to make out the shapes. He could hear a low guttural noise from the one on the right—gurgling? Growling?
“Put down the fire, Laúm,” hissed Sophus.
His face still flushed, Laúm switched off the fire and charged, shoving Sophus to the ground. “You could have gotten us killed!”
“Oh, come on Laúm,” said Alluria, “Sophus was just having some fun. Follow me!”
He could see now that what he thought was a third attacker was actually Alluria and Sophus’s backpacks stacked one atop the other. Laúm, his face still red, fell behind Alluria and the three walked straight down the road into the darkened forms of the looming city. Sahu territory, Laúm thought. Laúm shook his head, disappointed that neither Alluria or Sophus seemed concerned for their safety. The adrenaline from their encounter still coursed through his system. He was anxious and on high alert. He tapped his glasses to search for heat signatures as they passed through the tall stone arch. The city seemed empty of life.
“Our stuff’s over here,” said Alluria. The girl ducked through a low opening and disappeared into the dark. Laúm was taller. He crouched to avoid hitting his head, but he hit it anyway. He could feel Sophus close behind.
They had entered what looked to be a courtyard. It was square. There was no ceiling. Formed, stone slab objects were scattered about. The moon had risen high in the eastern sky and its silvery light bathed the rubble strewn floor of the quadrangle. Alluria nestled next to the two backpacks and motioned for them to join her. She patted the floor for Laúm to sit.
Laúm liked the way Alluria smelled and looked. He felt grateful when any girl paid him notice, but Alluria was special. Her wide chestnut brown eyes were framed by short-cropped black hair that covered her left ear. Her hair was pulled behind her right ear to expose a small, sparkly blue earring that she had worn even when she was very young. Laúm was always grateful for any attention she paid him—though at the moment she seemed more interested in Sophus.
“Have a drink,” Sophus said.
Laúm reached for the bottle of clear liquid, raised it to his lips, drank, and immediately spit it out. His mouth and his throat were burning.
Sophus roared with laughter.
“First time?” Alluria grinned.
Laúm was furious with Sophus—not because he had made him the fool, but because he had done so in front of Alluria. “What is it?” Laúm coughed.
“A man’s drink.” Sophus growled like a wild dog and took a long swig, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “A man’s drink, and you’re not a man until tomorrow.”
“Stop it,” said Alluria, who took Laúm’s hand. Her touch was warm and her slender fingers smooth next to his weathered skin. Laúm wanted to look at her but knew better. He needed to keep his distance from Alluria while they were this close to Sophus. To do otherwise would give Sophus the material to tease and taunt him endlessly. Alluria was Laum’s secret.
She offered her hand to Laúm. “Come on, let’s take a look around. I want to see the old city.”
More cautious now, they stayed to the edges of the roadway, out of direct moonlight, with all three of their heat sensors active. Alluria again led the way, stopping at the corner of each structure, holding her hand up for the others to wait until she saw the way was clear.
Laúm had never seen anything like the Forbidden City. Unlike their compound with its long orderly rows of well lit buildings, this city was a jumble of streets, structures, abandoned vehicles, and gnarled metal pieces littering the avenues. A thick gray carpet of fine dust covered everything. Strange twisted pipes sprang out of the street and the sides of collapsed buildings. Where windows and doors had once kept out the weather, there were now only crumbling openings. Mangled metal bars protected nothing. Across rooftops were jumbled bundles of wires and cables. As they rounded one of the many corners in the maze of dilapidated shapes they could see an entire row of houses that stood like empty boxes, their roofs collapsed inside the four walls. There were doorways, windows and stairs that led to nowhere.
Laúm knew the story. His family, Alluria’s and Sophus’s, too, had lived in this city until it had been overrun by Sahu. It had started outside the cities. Rural areas were cut off from civilization after the rains stopped coming in the north, and floods continued to drown the south. His parents had told him of the history, the fights over land that were common as refugees from the countryside crowded into cities never meant to hold so many people.
The Quondans were once one multiracial people working together until the incessant sun baked the earth, storms ravaged the soil, plants refused to grow, the domestic animals died, and the land no longer supported life. There was little choice but to gather in the cities—cities too small to support so many. Then the split took place. Millions of working class people—divided already by race—frustrated with a government they considered elitist and deaf, rejected Quondan rule and became known as Sahu, followers of iLu. Ruling power brokers tried calming tensions with words, but hunger, thirst, fear, and religion were louder. Then Sahu took matters into their own hands at the great battle of Arnum. Millions died on both sides. The outnumbered Quondans fled to the coasts and built thriving compounds, leaving the cities to decay under the Sahu’s autocratic rule.
Laúm questioned why the prospering Quondans hadn’t defended themselves more vigorously against marauders. His father had said their science could always defeat the less capable Sahu. Many in power on the Quondan high council, including his father, would not hear of war, though he knew there were many other voices—strong and loud—crying for revenge and annihilation of an entire race that they considered inferior.
“Time?” Laúm asked quietly. His glasses told him that the night was nearly over. It would soon be time for him to leave.