The Debt Collectors’ War

Ellie was somewhere in Central Asia when she heard her daughter had been murdered. Died was what the email said, but it was murdered as far as she could see.

It was a cold dusty day and the wind was coming down icy and hard from mountains that may have been the Hindu Kush. She was on the roof of the old stone fort, watching the local hajjis resent her, and resisting the temptation to shoot a few just to stop them staring. She was dirty and cold and tired, and she hadn’t slept properly in a week, and if she never saw a beard or a hajib again in her life it wouldn’t be too soon.

The hajjis watched, like they always watched, standing and squatting and dusty. Ellie glanced at them now and then, so they knew she was watching, because they’d kill you if you turned your back. She ignored them otherwise, as best as she could. She looked at the mountains, at the snow and stones and the barren cluttered rockeries that passed for fields in this part of the world. She looked at goats and dogs. She’d always thought hajjis hated dogs but there seemed to be a lot around.

She was trying to connect a tablet through a satellite phone to the world. A signal was only possible on the roof, so she was checking her email while she was up here watching the hajjis. It was something to do while she waited for trouble to begin.

The fort was small, a few rooms inside, really a house with no windows and very thick walls. It was cold in winter and stuffy in summer and dark all day through. A dingy little outpost of the world on the borders of anything that mattered. It sat away from the village, up a slight hill, overlooking the only road in or out. There had probably been a fortress up here for three or four thousand years, Ellie thought, and people like her had probably sat up there all that time, staring down at the locals.

Ellie’s company had been running this base for twenty years, and it had been government military special ops before that, back when the military had special ops, before governments went bankrupt, before wars were all outsourced to people like Ellie.

They were supposed to be hunting high-value targets. Targets fleeing major conventional ops further north. High-value targets didn’t come this way, though, up dead-end valleys into lawless tribal areas. So Ellie’s team sat, and waited for rumors, and went and dragged men out of family homes who always turned out to be the cousin of the person everyone wanted. It was pointless activity, in a pointless war, but this had been going on so long hardly anyone noticed any more.

The phone finally beeped and warbled and said it was connected. Ellie looked down, tapped the tablet’s screen, and told it to check for new messages.

Usually there was nothing. More pointless orders that no-one was going to follow or pointless intelligence updates about people who didn’t exist doing outrageous things in villages that had been bombed into the stone age twenty years before.

Today it was a message from their corporate head office in the Shanghai Trade Zone. The server was in Shanghai, and the registered address probably was too, but the staff were, like Ellie, lost somewhere in the vastness of an unforgiving world.

The message was from William, the manager who thought he was Ellie’s supervisor. He said he was sorry.

She looked at the message, not understanding.

Word had come in from Australia, William said. The company had been asked to pass this on to Ellie.

She kept reading. The message from Australia said her daughter was dead of a drug overdose and the funeral was in three days.

Ellie looked at the screen and didn’t know what to think.

The kid was dead. The kid she hadn’t seen in five or six years, in long enough she had to stop and think exactly how long it had been. The kid she’d left with her parents pretty much as soon as it was born, and ignored for the rest of its life. The kid she’d cut out of her life, because a few years in her world had taught her to think that way.

The kid was dead. Her daughter was dead.

She sat there and tried to decide if she was upset or not. She wasn’t really sure what she felt.

After a while, Miguel, one of her team, came up onto the roof. He aimed his weapon at the hajjis and shouted, “Stop eyeballing me you hand-shit-wiping goat-fuckers.”

The hajjis moved away, avoided looking up at the roof. Miguel always shouted, and one or twice had shot towards passing hajjis, and as far as Ellie could tell the locals had decided it was better to be safe than sorry when they were dealing with a large, hairy kafir. They moved when he shouted at them too.

Miguel leaned against the roof’s parapet, able to see over, but low enough a sniper wouldn’t have a clear view of him. He looked over at the tablet.

“Anything?” he said.

Ellie turned the tablet around, pushed it over so he could see. He took it and read, read again. “Who’s Naomi?” he said.

“My kid.”

“You’ve got a kid?”

Ellie nodded.

“And she’s dead?”

“Apparently.”

“Fuck,” he said. “Ellie, that’s fucking awful.”

Ellie sat there for a moment. “Yeah.”

Miguel leaned towards the trapdoor that was their access to the roof, and shouted down into the fort, “Sam, get the fuck up here.”

Then he sat and looked at Ellie.

“That’s really shit,” he said.

“I know.”

He glanced at the trapdoor, like he was hoping Sameh was climbing up. She wasn’t, so he read some more. “Drugs?”

“Yeah, apparently.” Ellie said. “That’s what they think.”

Miguel nodded. “What’re you going to do?”

Ellie thought about that for a while. How much she should care, and if she should care at all.

“Kill the guy who sold it to her, I guess. Then come back here.”

Miguel was peering at her, worried. “Are you okay, dude?” he said. “You seem, kind of off.”

They all got used to combat fatigue here, to spotting it in others. You couldn’t necessarily do much, but you could notice and stop that person before they offed a family of hajjis for even less reason than usual. Not that anyone really cared, but it got expensive paying out all the blood-price bills.

“I don’t know,” Ellie said.

She felt odd, slightly empty. She knew it was shock, the first step to something worse, but she didn’t know how to stop herself. She knew it was happening, though which was a start. She was just too tired to think.

“I’m all right,” Ellie said. “I didn’t really know her.”

“But you’re going to kill the guy who sold her the drugs.”

“Yeah.”

Miguel nodded. “You’ve been here too long, dude.”

He stood up and shot at one of the hajjis who was lurking too close. The bullet pinged off the ground next to the man, and the man ran away. The rest of the hajjis ducked for a moment, and then went back to what they were doing. Miguel generally only shot once if he was going to, and most of the time, Ellie thought, the hajjis knew he aimed to miss.

“Probably,” Ellie said quietly. “Probably I have.”

You got a little strange, out here on your own, the only one not wearing sacks or wailing to god five times a day. Who you used to be emptied out, in a way, just wasn’t there any more, and you picked up bits and pieces from everyone around you instead. Your team, but the hajjis too. All the search teams this far out got a bit aggro about pride and honor. They squabbled with each other and killed passers-by for slights they didn’t care about ten minutes later, and all head office could do to stop it was rotate them all around so they didn’t spent too long in the worst of the places.

Some people, like Ellie, refused to rotate, because they got bored anywhere else. So they got a little strange instead.

Ellie didn’t mind being strange. You lost what you had been, but you found something else to put in its place. You started to see the hajjis weren’t all bad, that some of their ideas made sense. They treated women like shit, but they were nice to their kids, and Ellie treated them like shit back so she supposed that evened out. Although she was nice to their kids. They didn’t like dogs, but they didn’t like liars or cowards either. They were kind of stupid, but these were redneck hajjis, backwoods hajjis, so it wasn’t like she was seeing them at their best, really. And they had their pride, and she could see how pride helped when all you had otherwise was stones and goats and thousand-year old houses with floors made of dirt.

She’d probably been out here too long, and was picking up too much from the local hajjis, but that didn’t mean their ideas weren’t right, and that she wasn’t going to end the guy who’d caused all this. She was a bad mother, and had taken off and abandoned Naomi and never bothered much about her, but this was different. This was pride and family, and you didn’t need to be a hajji to know that mattered.

 

*

 

Sameh, Ellie’s girlfriend and the team’s translator, climbed up through the trapdoor and pointed her rifle at the hajjis. The hajjis scattered, got into cover without waiting, because they were all terrified of her. She an Iraqi whose family had got out of Iraq when she was young, at the same time the West had, the first time, back a generation ago. She’d gone to school in Europe then gone back to the MidEast because she didn’t know anything else. She wasn’t happy anywhere else. Not really. She’d come onto the team as a translator, and fallen in love with Ellie, and followed along with Ellie ever since. She was European enough to speak proper English, but Iraqi enough she thought all the hajjis were trying to harm her because she was a traitor and apostate. So she got in first, and scared the shit out of them. She shot at people without warning, just for being too close to her, and spread rumors about herself among the local hajji farmers. That she was a witch, a devil, a djinn. That she ate children and cut men’s penises off and used them to pleasure herself. The hajjis believed it. Ellie thought most of it was bluster, that deep down inside Sameh was a little bit broken and quite often scared and dealt with it this way. Sameh killed people because she was jumpy and paranoid as much as because she was a psychopath, but she was a psychopath too. They all were, out here at the end of the world.

“What’s up,” Sameh said, looking down into the street.

Miguel pointed to the tablet, and Ellie pushed it over. Sameh left her hand on Ellie’s shoulder while she read.

“Who’s Naomi?” Sameh said.

“My kid.”

“You’ve got a kid?”

“Don’t start.”

Sameh looked at her, then just said, “Shit.” She knelt down beside Ellie, and hugged her, and kept holding on like one of them might slip away if she didn’t. Maybe it was the right thing to do. Ellie felt herself coming back in, felt more real again, more there.

Sameh was still holding her rifle. Past Sameh’s shoulder, Ellie noticed it was pointed towards Miguel. Ellie moved it slightly, and didn’t think Sameh noticed. She moved it because Sameh’s safety would be off, because Sameh’s safety was always off, and she probably had her finger near the trigger, too, because she always let her finger slip sideways and start to curl when she was worried and not thinking clearly. When she was actually trying to kill someone, she was fine. She knew exactly where her finger was. The rest of the time, she was careless. She’d shot a lot of walls and doors over the years, had sent a lot of bullets a mile off into nowhere because she tripped or slipped or got startled and jumped. Making sure Sameh’s rifle wasn’t pointing at anyone who mattered, or anything a round would ricochet off, was a full time job for Ellie.

Ellie decided she must be feeling better if she was noticing things like that.

“Are you okay?” Sameh whispered, then, “Why didn’t you tell me you had a kid?”

“Why didn’t you ask.”

Sameh smiled, and sniffed, and Ellie realized she was crying. Sameh never cried. She killed people instead. So she said.

“Hey,” Ellie said, worried. “It’s okay. I hardly knew her.”

“How the fuck do you have a kid?”

“Man,” Ellie said. “Penis. Sperm. The usual.”

Miguel and Sameh both looked at her like they were really worried, then looked at each other.

“Hey,” Sameh said. “It’s okay.”

“I’m fine. I didn’t know her. I gave her up when she was a baby and I haven’t seen her in years.”

“But still,” Sameh said. “Shit.”

“I know.”

“Are you angry?” Sameh said.

Ellie thought about that. Maybe she’d been around Sameh and the hajjis too much lately, but she was. “Yeah.”

“Sad?”

Ellie shrugged.

“What are you going to do?” Sameh said.

“Kill the guy,” Miguel said.

“What guy?”

“They guy that sold the kid the drugs,” Miguel said. “She’s going to kill him, she says.”

Sameh thought about that. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Fuck,” Miguel said. “Not you too.”

“What,” Sameh said. “It does.”

Miguel looked at her. “Don’t be an asshole.”

“Don’t be a fuckhead,” Sameh said. “You fuckhead.”

Miguel glared at her.

They were about to start squabbling again, Ellie decided. They squabbled a lot, and right now she couldn’t be bothered. She stood up and aimed her rifle at the first hajji she saw. An old woman, as harmless as old women ever were here, so not at all because she probably stirred up half the trouble that went on at night, but Ellie still wasn’t ready to end her just for the sake of it, so she looked for someone else. A young man, probably an insurgent by night, walking a bit fast towards the mosque. She put a bullet through his leg.

She sat back down.

Sameh and Miguel were both quiet, watching her. There was screaming and sobbing from down in the road.

“Habibi,” Sameh said. “You’ve never done that before.”

“I know.”

“You generally complain when we do,” Sameh said.

“Yeah.”

“Are you feeling okay?”

“I need to go,” Ellie said.

“Okay.”

“I need to go home. To the funeral.”

“Yeah,” Sameh said. “Of course. Want me to come with?”

Ellie looked at her, surprised. “You would?”

“Of course. We’re sisters. And I love you and shit, that too.”

“I’m going to kill a guy in a proper country.”

Sameh shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Cops and shit. It’s against the law.”

“Yeah,” Sameh said. “But it’s a drug dealer. It’s not like it’s a real person, is it?”

“The cops might not think so,” Ellie said.

“Cops won’t try as hard, I’ll bet.”

Ellie looked at her, thinking.

Sameh stood up and glanced over the side of the roof. Ellie did too. The village was quiet. The hajjis knew Sameh was up there and something was going on with the kafirs. They had all gone to ground, were well out of sight. Sameh looked around for a moment, then sat back down.

“Thanks,” Ellie said, after a while. “For that. For coming too.”

“You’d do it for me,” Sameh said.

“Yeah,” Ellie said. “You know what? I would.”

Sameh grinned for a while, and Miguel watched them both.

Then Sameh said, “I love you,” and kissed Ellie, and for once didn’t punch Miguel first and tell him she’d shoot him in the balls if she saw a twitch in his pants while she did.

 

*

 

Sameh wanted Ellie to go back downstairs, to their room, to calm down. To calm down, and so Sameh could make sure Ellie was okay in private. Ellie said no, that she had to organize getting home. She knew what Sameh was trying to do, had been with her three years and knew her better than most people in the world, but it didn’t need doing. She tried to say so, but Sameh wouldn’t listen.

Sameh was convinced she was the hard one, that Ellie needed looking after, and Ellie was always hiding how she felt. Right now she probably didn’t want to think that Ellie was a monster who didn’t care enough about her own daughter to actually cry.

Ellie wasn’t sure if she ought to cry or not. She was upset, though.

Ellie wrote an email back to William and said she needed time off, a week or more, depending on the transport. She wrote up the action reports she’d been putting off for days, the houses they’d checked and intel they’d been fed and which of it Ellie thought was lies. She attached those to the email, and added that Miguel knew where they’d been and where was still hot. She checked the schedules of aircraft movement and tried to work out a way back to the world, but before she could finish that, William phoned her, and broke her data connection, and then wasted twelve dollars a minute asking if she was all right. He said he’d organize the travel home, and not to worry about anything, and it could all wait until she was back.

She was glad, in a way, not having to worry about details. “Thanks, mate,” she said.

He said she was one of their best team leaders, the only one willing to go this far out and stay in-country this long, and they needed her. They needed her with her head in the game.

Ellie though that was nice of him. Even though what he really meant was Miguel and Sameh were violent thugs, and Ellie could keep them under control. Under control enough to scare people well. That was what made them an effective search team, for actually making finds, Ellie knew, not how long they stayed deployed.

William was probably right about having her head in the game, though.

“Sameh needs to come too,” Ellie said, thinking.

Sameh looked up, and grinned. Relieved she didn’t have to ask herself, Ellie supposed.

William pretended to be surprised. He pretended, because the company were kind of rednecks, even though they were Chinese, and didn’t really approve of Ellie and Sameh being together. He wasn’t really surprised, though. It wasn’t like he hadn’t heard from other people, and it wasn’t like they hadn’t been sharing a room for years so that eventually he’d have to have realized that the demands for their own room and a closing door weren’t just modesty and privacy. And it wasn’t like Ellie and Sameh couldn’t have just got married and settled the matter for him, either.

William acted all reluctant, and Ellie realized it was probably because he wanted Sameh to take unpaid leave, so she snapped at him not to be a prick and then, looking guilty, he said yes, that was fine. He told her to hold on, that he’d make some calls and email her a schedule to get her home, give him ten minutes.

“Three days,” Ellie said. “I need to be back in three days.”

“I saw,” William said, because obviously he’d read the notification message, even though they were both pretending he hadn’t.

Ellie said thanks and hung up. Then reconnected the data link and sat and waited. Sameh sat on the edge of the roof and emptied her spare mags and polished the rounds inside them, overtly, on the edge of the roof, where the hajjis could see. It always gave them the shits because they thought the polishing made her shoot straighter. Even out here they’d seen movies. Sameh was an awful shot and cleaning her bullets wouldn’t help at all, but she scared them so much that whenever she shot at a hajji and missed they all assumed she’d done it on purpose, and was tormenting them for fun, and got even more scared.

“I love you,” Ellie said.

“I know,” Sameh said, and smiled at her.

There were advantages to hooking up with another girl in the middle of a war. You could share toilet paper and tampons and moisturizer, when you had to. And there was someone around to appreciate that you tried to keep your fingernails neat, even if they were full of blood and dirt and gun-oil all the time. And sex was easier, and a lot less messy. You could fuck with both your trousers still on, humping each other’s legs. You could finger each other after a week shitting in a hole and not be that grossed out. Cleanliness was such a bonus that some women went gay in-country just so they didn’t have to suck week-old cock, but Ellie and Sameh had never been just that. There was a connection there that was actually real.

Ellie didn’t quite know why, when they were so different. She told Sameh she was used to crazy Lebs because she was from Western Sydney, and Sameh told her she was a racist and to shut the fuck up, and then they usually had sex. But it was true. Ellie understood Sameh better than most people, and Sameh definitely understood her. She thought she’d found something important, and acted like it was, even though she couldn’t be sure because they’d never tested what they had in the outside world.

Now she was about to. On the way to her daughter’s funeral, the daughter she’d never told Sameh she had.

Ellie sat where she was and watched Sameh and waited. It was cold and dusty and Ellie looked at the goats and the mountains and thought in all her life she’d never seen anything like this.

The tablet pinged. Ellie opened the email. William said a ride would be there in three hours, and he had flights set up to get them home in two days, with fifteen hours to wait in Dubai. Miguel was to stay, and brief the substitute team they were sending in, and Ellie was to be back in a week at the most. Ellie sent back yes and thanks and told Sameh, “We’re going.”

They went downstairs and packed, and that only took ten minutes. After that they sat and waited.

Ellie started to feel a little odd again. A little dizzy, and too warm, now they were inside and out the wind.

They were in full armor, sleeved vests and thigh pads and helmets, survival gear in packs and sidearms as well as rifles. You didn’t fly the hajji wilds without being ready to walk yourself out if some prick took a shot with one of the old Soviet anti-air missiles that still, fifty years later, no-one had tracked down yet.

Ellie needed a drink. She was thirsty, but didn’t drink before helicopter flights because trying to pee in a chopper in combat gear just wasn’t worth it, and peeing down your own leg was worse, only for emergencies.

Sameh was fidgeting too. She was scared of flying. She always got into an odd mood before they flew anywhere, which was once or twice a month on redeployments.

Sameh had quite specific worries about flying that went way past being SAMed and fireball crashes. She’d told Ellie a little of it, late at night, ashamed of her fear. Being shot down and injured, the only survivor and having a broken leg and being helpless while whole villages took their turn with her. Ellie calmed Sameh down, usually, as they waited for helicopters, said that wasn’t going to happen because Ellie was going to survive too, and unlike Sameh she could shoot straight and so would fight her way out.

Ellie thought she should say it again, but she felt hot and odd and tired and couldn’t be bothered. Sameh wouldn’t just be thinking about helicopters, either. She didn’t like civilian airliners, because of hijackers and not being allowed a weapon, and Ellie understood that one and almost felt the same.

Sameh was going to be worried about flying to Sydney, and Ellie thought she should say something, and reassure her.

For some reason she didn’t, and just sat there instead.

After a while, Sameh said, “Are you really okay?”

“I’m okay,” Ellie said.

“You don’t seem it.”

“I’m okay.”

“Stop saying that. You’re not.”

Ellie looked at her. “I really am.”

Sameh looked at her, unconvinced.

“Thank you,” Ellie said. “For coming too.”

“What have I got here? If you’re gone?”

Ellie nodded. “After the funeral,” Ellie said. “I need to do some things.”

“I heard.”

“It might get complicated. It’s Australia.”

“I understand.”

“We might get caught.”

Sameh looked at her for a while. “I know.”

Ellie though about that. “Thank you,” she said.

Sameh shrugged.

A lot of Sameh was an act for the hajjis and the boys. Inside, she was a fairly calm, sweet person. In the field, on deployment, she didn’t have a conscience and killed people without a thought, but that was only because they were in a war. As if she had the hajji idea about Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb back to front, and saw Dar al-Harb as everywhere with other Muslims where guns were pointed her way. In the world of peace, the outside world, she went all calm and normal.

Ellie had noticed that before, and wondered how Sameh would cope with this.

But maybe Australia was about to become Dar al-Harb, like everywhere else they went for work, and Sameh would just do what was needed without worrying too much.

“You’ll really come?” Ellie said.

“Of course I will. I love you.”

Ellie nodded, and hugged Sameh, but she still didn’t cry.

 

*

 

Miguel drove them down to the hajji field they used as a landing pad and hugged them both goodbye, and the hajjis were scared enough with all the unusual kafir activity they stayed indoors and quiet and they didn’t see one all the way down, and that was a relief, easier for everyone.

They flew in the helicopter to a military airfield, and landed while flares arced out behind them and door-gunners watched the ground beneath for the spiraling smoke of missile traces. They handed over their weapons and gear to the local company rep, to hold until they got back. They changed into civilian clothes, backpacker clothes, in a corner of his office, and rode a rattling turbo-prop airliner to another dusty hajji town, and then a bigger, quieter plane down to Dubai.

They got a hotel room, for the fifteen hours they had to wait. They washed and showered and scrubbed their skin, and Ellie shaved her legs for the first time in a month because shaving with the gritty dust in the mountains always gave her a rash. Sameh didn’t shave, because she was a uncivilized heathen who rejected Western cultural imperialism, she said, even though her religion told her she ought to. They ate, and got drunk, and didn’t have sex because they hardly ever did when they were first out in the world like this. Not yet. No so soon.

“This is a mental health stop,” Sameh said. “You know that, right?”

“I know.”

They were supposed to transition in stages from the war to the world so they didn’t crack up and kill people back home.

“I mean, it’s Dubai. It’s one of the biggest airports in the world. He couldn’t have got a flight out to somewhere, and got you halfway home any time of the night.”

“I know. It doesn’t matter.”

Sameh nodded, but kept watching Ellie closely, warily, like she thought Ellie would go off.

Ellie wasn’t sure that was fair. It was never Ellie who was the problem, and they both knew it. Ellie was the sensible one, the steady one. Sameh caused the problems. She always seemed to have to do something wild to adjust. That night, it took a couple of hours in the hotel bar before it happened, but Ellie had been waiting. An American oil-worker hit on Ellie, mostly ignoring Sameh, and didn’t back off fast enough when Sameh said Ellie was her girlfriend. Not fast enough, like not at the speed of light. Ellie sat there, a little surprised there was still oil, and still foreign oil workers, when the local industry was automated and ran mostly on robots, and Sameh got up and stood in the man’s face and told him to fuck off or she’d break a bottle over his face and then crush his balls with the ashtray on the table. He looked at her and went pale, and Ellie quietly told him to go. He did, quickly, nervously, because even now, even in the safety of an airport hotel bar, this was still the Middle East and even nice Americans had instincts they’d learned from being hated for a century. That, and because instincts or not, Sameh had a way about her that anyone could see. She was dangerous, especially now, unsettled and bored and waiting for a flight when she hated to fly. Anyone could tell that death was rarely as near as it was around Sameh.

The man went away, and Sameh had got that out her system, so Ellie took her upstairs and took her to bed, and they fucked for half the night, enjoying sex rather than grubby hands and scratchy clothed legs, then dozed and hugged until it was time to fly out to Sydney.

Occasionally Ellie wondered what kind of terrible mother she was, and if she’d really gone native enough to kill the man who killed her child, and not shed a tear for her dead baby.

 

*

 

They flew. To take her mind off flying, Sameh had been asking about Naomi since they left the base, and she kept asking for the next seven thousand miles.

She asked in the creaking old Blackhawk, older than both of them, as they watched the world tilt and sway beneath them and clenched their tummies against a bullet coming up through the floor. She asked in the rattling hajji air turboprop, shouting over the engine noise, and in the supersonic mega-airliner leaving Dubai, holding each other, whispering in the dim cabin, as other passengers slept. Sameh was obsessed with not knowing about Naomi, how Ellie hadn’t told her, and had kept asking, over and over, so Ellie had explained in little bits, in disjointed pieces, as questions occurred to Sameh to ask.

“How did I never know?” Sameh said over and over.

“I just didn’t tell you,” Ellie said. “I was fifteen. It was a long time ago.”

“Tell me now,” Sameh said, in the helicopters and airliners, and in the screen and scanning queue at arrivals at Sydney airport, and in the automated taxi heading into the city.

Ellie answered sometimes, and ignored her others, and eventually Sameh stopped asking.

“You’re okay with what I’m going to do?” Ellie said to Sameh.

“I’m okay.”

“You’re sure? If you’re not, you can go back before I start. I’ll be fine on my own.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” Sameh said. “Really.”

Ellie looked at her.

“You need me,” Sameh said. “I can turn it on and off when I want to. You can’t.”

Ellie nodded, because it was true, and kissed her, and said, “Thank you.”

 

*

 

Sydney had grown in the years Ellie had been away. It had grown in the last century, too, and was now a bowl of light between the mountains and the sea and home to thirty million people.

The old world was dying, and the new was growing, and Sydney had always been at the heart of that. Sydney and Lagos and Tashkent and Shanghai, and a dozen other places Ellie had flown over and passed through.

Ellie didn’t see her parents, or any other family. They hadn’t talked in ten or twelve years, so there was no reason to start now. They didn’t like Ellie, and they wouldn’t like Sameh, and if Ellie visited, there would just be screaming and blame and in the end Ellie would walk out. Like she did every other time. She and Sameh went to a hotel, and checked in, and when it was time they went to the church where the funeral was being held.

Ellie’s parents’ church, Ellie remembered, which was everything she’d forgotten she was running away from. They walked into the foyer, and looked around. Sameh was looking around at the walls, and it took Ellie a moment to realize why.

“Fuck,” Sameh said quietly. “Look at this place.”

There were bible quotes everywhere. There was cross-stitching in wooden frames, and wood-burned words, and even a poster with cats on one wall. Churches had suffered over the years, in this part of the world. They’d had to sell their cathedrals and buildings and gold and silver. Now all they had was small houses and plain walls.

“It’s like a hajji house,” Sameh said. “A really bad hajji house. Except in English. And cheap. And fucking tasteless.”

“Yeah,” Ellie said. “Fuck, sorry. I’d forgotten how bad they are.”

Sameh let go of her hand.

“Hey,” Ellie said, and grabbed it back.

“I don’t think they’re going to like us doing that,” Sameh said. “Like the mullah’s don’t.”

“Fuck that. And fuck them.”

 

*

 

Ellie had been wondering about the funeral. She wondered what it would be like. She had no idea who the kid had been, so didn’t know what she’d have liked. She expected something pretty awful, a lot of religion, and a lot of prayer, and Ellie and Sameh sitting down the back while people who had actually known the kid lied and said she was a good and happy person.

Lied, because she obviously wasn’t, since she’d ended up the way she did.

Ellie wondered if that was anything to do with her. She’d left Naomi because she’d been fifteen when she had her, and hadn’t been able to cope. She’d run away from her family, and into the army, but maybe she should have come back and got the kid too.

Ellie didn’t plan to say who she was, but people would work it out. They were going to stand out, Ellie and Sameh, especially since Sameh would be hugging Ellie. Ellie was expecting trouble. She was expecting snide comments, and glares, and being ready to grab Sameh’s arm, just in case.

Instead, there was no-one here.

They were standing in an empty, quiet church.

 

part 2 >>