Four Hours of a Revolution
by Premee Mohamed
Rebels, like vampires, prowl by night, sleep by day; they are short on everything in the besieged city – bullets, socks, soap, bread – but mainly they are short of sleep, for they fight under starlight, hide under sun in secret places. And yet their enemies are most vulnerable at night when, like all good civil servants, they retire to their houses and lock their doors. Until they swap schedules neither side will eliminate the other.
So the revolution is easy enough to find as I whisper up the wall of the apartment complex, slide under the half-inch of space left by the open window. They will not open it further, even though the little boarded-up living room is intolerably hot. As it is, they sweat profusely in their sleep, even the lucky few shaded by the walls.
One has, deliberately I assume, curled up in an armchair under a poster reading ‘PUNK ISN’T DEAD BUT IT WOZ UP AWFUL LATE LAST NITE.’ On the poster, two men sleep in a train seat, cartoonishly rendered in hot primaries on a black ground. The rebel in the armchair echoes their pose, but instead of a tired friend she cradles a stolen police rifle, its distinctive silver finish oversprayed with matte black paint, the camera blocked with a glued-in coin. The police carry them proudly, counting on the reflected glare to carry their message far ahead of them; the rebels carry them only at night, counting on stealth.
It is this girl, Whittaker, in the armchair, in this war, that I am here to claim. In due time, as is her right and my duty. For I am Death.
War, we joke, is very good for business. It is a joke because we must deal with both sides, or all three sides, or at least on one memorable occasion, all six – no alliances were made between the infuriated families, as it so happened, and the souls of all those disparate enemies were still swiping at one another as we bore them off.
There is another joke, which I first heard a thousand years ago.
The lathered courier arrives at the palace all aflutter, and drops to a knee to deliver his desperate message: Highness, highness, the peasants are revolting!
O yes, says the king, lifting a scented handkerchief to his nose, I know; but were you not tasked with bringing me news?
Whittaker is young, and I think a typical rebel, or anyway typical of the revolutions I have seen – when the war descended like a guillotine blade separating the body of the populace from its head, she was already on the blade, all unaware. I have known of her since the moment I arrived in this doomed city. Orphaned young, a child of the streets, swindling, stealing, cajoling, cozening, switching loyalties as easily as she swapped her nail polish, prepared for whatever would find her food and shelter for even so long as a single day. Now, she has found – though she does not know it – the people at whose sides she will die.
I float past the others, asleep in heaps on the floor, ringed in sweat on the rugs like the chalk outlines they used to put around the dead. As is customary in situations like this, one person is snoring so loudly he could be confused for a diesel generator; and as is also customary, they have all been so tired for weeks that no one wakes to roll him over. I take up a position behind the girl’s armchair, not to leave her till I have completed my duty. I suppose, given the amount of artillery in this room, it will be a gunshot wound, perhaps even friendly fire. I know they have already said they would die for each other. Hollow laughter. They would die also because of each other, and many have.
This revolution began with, of all the supposedly innocent things, a curfew. Those in charge insisted that it was meant to be temporary, but when it became permanent, the first grumbles began low and slow, rising as arrests began to be made for breaking curfew, and then the inevitable consequences of jailing too many in too small places, and the dawning realization, by a bewildered populace, that the jolly, maroon-uniformed neighbourhood policeman they’d seen all their lives, stopping to compliment their herb gardens or return their lost cat, was the enemy. And one day a few months ago, a half-brick came whistling from the fourth floor of an apartment building not far from here, and the policeman it struck died at once. In my arms he opened his eyes in shock, uttering, as we flew away, only two words: “That hurt!”
The open window slammed shut, but not fast enough; the policeman’s partner raced into the building, and shots were fired, and the protests the next day became a mob. No more mobs now; most people have fled into the countryside, starving on weeds and stolen sheep. The remainder are unable or unwilling to leave, cruelly abandoned by their families with a note and a few spare oxygen tanks, or – like this little troupe – determined to stay and fight.
The first thing they did when they arrived at this hideout was sweep it for microphones, cameras, watchbugs, boobytraps, anything the enemy might have installed. The second was to loot it to the bones, of course; there are twelve of them, they’re hungry, they’ve been hungry for months, you can’t shoot if you don’t eat. Exclamations of pleasure as they distributed clothing from dressers and closets, a dozen shameless apostles stripping in front of one another, fresh white underpants and socks, trousers and skirts pinned in place around waists that were, by now, mostly pelvic bone. And from the back of the closet Whittaker pulled a tremendous ancient thing, perhaps a costume, a glittery red ballgown. They all marveled at it for a moment; then she pounced, and butchered it with her pocketknife, and spent an hour sewing the crimson silk into a flag that could be folded small and placed in a pocket.
I hope she gets a chance to wave this flag before she dies. Though of course, we are not supposed to hope anything.
But I am a very old Death.
Now, the building trembles as the army’s great, multi-legged tanks patrol the street below. I suppose they think they are tiptoeing. In their sleep, the rebels stir, but some sixth sense will wake them if there is true danger. Anyone without that sixth sense has left the city one way or another. Indeed, that is the revolution’s saving grace – there are so many empty apartments and houses, so many abandoned offices and stripped businesses, that the police cannot find them each night. Only the dark spirits of their nightmares, and, of course, me. They’ve lost seven people in four months. Not, if I may so compliment them, having seen a war or two in my time, a bad mortality rate. But I think they would not appreciate my compliments.
I do think they would appreciate knowing that there is a government man hidden in this group, waiting to connect with their larger organization to spring his lethal trap. But there is no way to warn them.
The tanks creak and whine, fade into silence at the park at the end of the street, the noise eaten by the trees. And Whittaker wakens, beads of sweat trickling down her face, and turns to look at me. I freeze.
This has happened before; there are so many sensitives now. She cannot truly see me, only a whirl of indistinct impressions. I know if she fears the gun, I will appear as the darkness of a barrel; if she fears the sea, I will be the cry of gulls and the black in which the abyssal fish swim; if fire, no more than a strange brightness.
The man in the blue shirt, with the cityscape printed on it, I want to tell her while she stares. Over there, asleep underneath the desk – do you mark him? Kill him. Or your revolution will fail.
After a moment, she closes her eyes again and settles back on the velvet chair, and sleeps while the tanks rumblingly return for a second pass.
Just before nightfall, when the sun’s reflection still protects them, they eat again – cans of ravioli and beef stew, cold pea soup and artichoke hearts – and whisper about the night’s plans. Their lowered voices are meaningless; the spy can wear no recorder their detection gear would have spared, not even the lapel-pins the army uses, but he has a memory, and he has a mind, and he has been waiting for this. “Tonight, we must meet with the greater cell,” their leader says. All nod. “Eleven. I know the place. We must go together.”
Three hours from now. Till then, they will proceed as normal: “We must kill the army bastards, kill the police. And we must slow them if we cannot kill them – disable or destroy their damned tanks and the stilted fortresses and even the spotlights and the ‘thopters.” They nod. A drone the size of a pigeon glides silently past their window, unseen by everyone except Whittaker. She does not speak up. It did not detect them, or it would have turned to stare in the window.
She does not like this new leader, Falkenberg; she thinks he does not know enough of the streets they defend. To the others she only concedes that Falk has a tidy mind, since he was once a professor; the others like that, feel safe in the structure he builds for them with his plans.
The dusk fades as they talk. In the cooling room they mop sweat, clean their guns again, stuff pockets with facecloths or handkerchiefs to dry their fingers before they shoot. Two of them count and recount the ammunition. So many incendiary grenades, so many batteries for the shoulder laser, so many of this type of round, so many of that. They all carry knives too, and are experts at foraging for found weapons – a fencepost, a chunk of concrete, anything flammable.
Will they say a prayer before they leave the sanctuary tonight? No, it seems not. I follow as they leave, silently, in groups of two, down the building’s remaining usable staircase. Their boots are so worn-down they are as silent as woollen socks. Not like the army, not like the police, who herald their arrival with the faraway metallic ringing of reinforced nanoceramic soles, the stuff of bulletproof vests. The rebels are very good at face and leg shots now. It is a dance, the government and the rebels – one moves a foot forward, the other back; they touch hands, bow, turn, follow the steps. One cannot move without the other.
Despite the long hunt, and the privations and anxiety of war, Whittaker is pretty still, and recognisably the girl she was when that brick came sailing from the upper window – vain, fey, impulsive, as confident in her ability to cajole a snack from a cop as to somersault from the top of a church. With her clippers long gone, her precisely maintained lifelong flattop has become a soft, ragged black cloud, somewhat longer at the sides from constantly being crushed beneath a hat. The others nod to her beauty as an acknowledgement only, not a salute; it will not save her, it will not save them, but they must nod to it, sacrosanct and chaste for now, while she is so young as to be off-limits. This does not seem to deter the government man, who trots next to her as they move into the streets.
“I’m Christopher,” he whispers. “I’ve been meaning to ask. What’s your first name?”
She gives him a look. “Miz.”
As they trickle into the street I see what lies in their path first, a knot of perfect night not dissimilar to their own – the soldiers in black stealth gear, the lights of their tanks and cannons covered with electrical tape. Falk pauses at the head of the rebel column, and glances back, his eyeglasses catching the only light in the alleyway. There will be a firefight. I head to the roof and seat myself on a gargoyle to watch; perhaps I will be needed in a minute, perhaps not.
The first hit goes to a rebel, their sniper. She was not aiming at the troops; a moment after the riflecrack, the support strut under the main cannon gives way. Curses and cries of dismay drift down the street like smoke. The rebels show their teeth in the darkness, not quite smiling. It was worth giving away their position to decommission the big gun, which could have brought the entire building down.
Now, at Falk and the sniper’s hissed direction, they emplace themselves, lay guns and lasers along forearms, squint, shoot. Soldiers fall and writhe like shadows printed across the street, their protective armour crushing organs. I scan the skies for their Deaths, see nothing. Oh well.
The brawny old man with them for the last month, has fallen; Whittaker slides his grenade belt from beneath the body and joins the sniper on the rooftop. The other shooters are spread out amongst the buildings, flitting catlike between floors and doorways. I feel Whittaker’s warm breath on my neck, fast, excited. She has never used a grenade before, only watched the others throw them.
Now, she stands, winds up, hurls two into the massed darkness below, her long teenager’s arm unfolding like the killing claw of a praying mantis. The first grenade is shot out of the air; the second bounces off a boot and rolls, detonating underneath a parked car. She curses, but the grenade has not failed; it has transformed the car into a secondary grenade. Shrapnel rises almost to our eye level, seven storeys up, and falls in a twinkling rain. Only now do I see Deaths, nearly invisible against the dark sky, like curlicues of smoke as they pass the few streetlights that remain. We nod to each other professionally as the soldiers’ souls are gathered into arms as soft and nebulous as feather coverlets.
The soldiers gather their wits, return fire, bullets and lasers pocking the building’s facade. Fragments of gargoyles plummet; the soldiers dodge bulging stone eyes, razor-edged horns. One of the rebels drops, the cigar-chewing man who never gave a real name. A contingent of soldiers is dispatched to capture him, but they are mowed down by rebel backup , invisibly perched atop a wrought-iron fence with a semi-automatic pulse rifle. The red light illuminates pools of blood as dark as ink.
Whittaker nods to the sniper and they flow down the stairs to rejoin Falk and the others. “We’re behind schedule,” someone says. “We need to cross half the city.”
“We’ll make it,” Falk says.
No one seems to see Christopher emerge from his foxhole, pale face smeared with someone else’s blood, perhaps even one of their own, his thin lips overpainted with it into a friendly red smile.
They skip across the city like a thrown stone, keeping to the shadows, leaping to rooftops and over fences as needed to avoid patrols. It is not, as their previous leader stressed, that they wish to overthrow and take over the government; it is that a reasonable government must be installed, and until this occurs, the war continues. A long and unfunny joke, a joke of months’ duration, with so few people left in the city to be governed. Should the army and police throw down their guns, and the dictator in her crystal castle relinquish all power, the new government’s subjects will consist almost entirely of revolutionaries.
“I need to talk to you,” Whittaker whispers to Falk as they run.
“At the meeting,” he says.
“There’s no time.”
Ah, ah. So she does know. She must know. How interesting. Christopher is running at her side, a wheezy lope, flakes of dried blood fluttering from his face; she effortlessly speeds up to lose him.
Their meeting is, of all places, in the old city hall, abandoned forty years ago when the new building went up downtown. This one is too close to the river and is no fit seat for government – crusted with moss and ringed with black mould, usually half-submerged, stinking of mildew, disdained even by the city’s big silver rats, who hate to be flooded out. Only cockroaches survive here, and they flee the rebels’ lights as the troupe creeps through the outflow’s brick tunnel, dry in the summer heat. I take the point position, watching for movement behind us – nothing but the things with antennae, who defiantly watch me back. Christopher has fallen behind in the tunnel, is surreptitiously writing on his phone, the light of its screen hidden inside his blue shirt so that he seems to walk in a bubble of ocean.
The leader of the main cell and the others wait in the upstairs hall, former home of visiting dignitaries, weddings, awards ceremonies, former home of the ignorant and rich. Whittaker’s cell is late. They cross the rich, crumbling carpet and find seats on the piled desks that ring the room. In the centre is a heap of debris – cinderblocks, tarps, discarded timber, broken furniture – surmounted with an elaborately carved door, saved from the warping mould on the first floor. The ancient chandelier above this rubbish throne awakens, feebler than the moonlight entering through the perforated glass dome. The hall slowly becomes a place of golden and flickering shadows.
A small man – this must be the one who leads the leaders – climbs the heap and balances on the door, cradling a painted police rifle in his arms. He is brown and freckled, beard still dark, hair the kind of mixed salt-and-pepper that nearly looks blue. “We have sentries at all the cardinal points, at every entrance below and above ground,” he says, his tone casual, as if he is informing meeting attendees where the washrooms are. “Your cell leaders have been briefed on escape routes should we be discovered. The – ”
“Falk,” the girl is whispering again; I drift closer to listen, unable to stop myself. “We’ve got a rat.”
“I…I can’t tell you. He’s here.”
“I said he’s here.” She cannot lower her voice any more; at this volume, no one could hear her except for me. Falk isn’t paying attention anyway; the little man on the door is still speaking.
“Call him out,” she urges, and it seems that she has his attention now; Christopher, a few seats down, is staring fixedly at the heap of rubble, sweat trickling down his face, rehydrating the blood that drips onto his shirt.
“I asked for proof,” Falk whispers. “You said you didn’t have any. You didn’t say ‘I’ll tell you later.’ You said ‘I just know.'”
“I know what I said. And I know I’m right.”
“Well you can’t just say things like that,” he says. “That’s what the government was saying when this all started, you know. ‘I don’t know how they’re bad, I just know.’ And then the raids, the guns. So think about that before you start throwing things around that you can’t back up.”
Their whispers are attracting attention, though Christopher still stares straight ahead. Falk shrugs apologetically to the others, and turns his back on Whittaker to listen to the leader, who is now discussing how best to smuggle recruits from the surrounding countryside into the city.
Outside city hall, soldiers assemble in silence, readying gas nozzles on light metal tubes, loading guns with bullets of lead and rubber, patting their vest for grenades. Helmeted and shielded in glossy black, they resemble unfamiliar insects, perhaps the ants that mass together to kill larger prey. It is eleven forty-five. Whittaker does not have long.
The first gas nozzle pierces the window that lines the east wall, and clogs at once. But a thin spurt of gas gets through, and then it is pandemonium as the rebels realize they are surrounded, a few of the leaders gathering their people for escape, a few for a fight.
Whittaker shoulders her rifle and looks at the few of her own that remain, armed with grenades and pistols and lasers and even, for some reason, a hatchet, looted from the lower level. Their heads swivel as one at the musical tinkle of breaking glass: Christopher smashing windows to give the incoming soldiers access. “Here, over here!” he shouts. “That one, there – with the beard – he’s their leader! Take him alive!”
Before anyone can draw a bead on the spy he’s surrounded in a gleaming shell of shields and upraised batons, nets and muzzles. His smug, shiny face disappears behind this wall as the invasion begins to destroy the actual room, the soft wooden floors giving way under tons of boots and equipment, disintegrating ceiling plaster knocking drones from the air. Rebels tread these tiny spies underfoot, revelling in each expensive crunch. As the walls are shredded by laser fire, roaches skitter for cover, find none, race each other in a panic down the stairs like a shining, gold-brown river.
The soldiers have come en masse, but they cannot fight in this space; it is chaos, and they are untrained for chaos. Their Deaths are legion compared to those who come for the rebels, who have entrenched themselves behind discarded furniture, popping up to shoot or toss grenades that ignite the tear gas nozzles and burn it off in clouds of harmless blue flame. A rebel has gotten at least one incendiary out a broken window; below, screams rise like the flames from the gas canisters. Disorganization frightens these soldiers more than their enemy.
Whittaker is out of rounds. Instead of spending precious seconds reloading she snatches a hatchet from someone’s back, chops at a soldier’s unprotected arm – not quite through – and seizes his silver rifle. She is not a crack shot but she is a good one, and black-clad bodies spill bonelessly to the floor. Falk finds her and they fight back to back for a few minutes, grimly ignoring each other, the ‘You were right’ and ‘I know I was right’ unspoken for now, and if they are to have this conversation they will have to hurry, as she only has three minutes left. There are many soldiers in the room now, a scrambling wasps’ nest of armour and upraised weapons, black and amber. They trip over their fallen, misfire, hit one another, disappear through holes in the floor. Their numbers are shrinking.
Moving as gracefully and casually as if bullets did not envelop her, Whittaker removes the folded flag from her pocket and shakes it once to unfold it, the dead woman’s silk ballooning out with a crack. The pocket she sewed into the edge slides, as she must have designed it, over her pilfered rifle. And she is climbing the hill of rubble one-handed, lifting the gun from the dust and blood, and waving it over her head, a slow billow of crimson that stops everyone in their tracks, and a final tracer screams from the darkness and ignites the silk and still she waves, the blaze will extinguish itself in a moment, still she waves.
If only the dress had been white, I think. This is no flag of surrender. It is the opposite, if such a thing exists. A flag of victory. Her teeth and eyes are lit in gold, gaze meeting mine.
And it is at this specter of victory that Christopher aims, the click of his scope loud in a momentary silence, and I cannot stand it any longer, I will not, and with the tip of my wing I nudge loose another chunk of masonry – yes, that would have fallen anyway, I tell myself, and that is what I will tell the Council when they ask – that lands near him with an explosive dusty thud. He yelps, instinctively drawing his gun arm over his head.
It is his last mistake. Whittaker sees him, camouflaged there in the grime, smoothly lowers the rifle, as if the burning silk did not pass an inch from her face, and fires.
His face vanishes in a puff of blood, and I catch his soul a moment later, my claws clacking against his Death’s. Our eyes meet in a moment of embarrassed suspicion. I must brazen this out.
“This is mine,” she whispers, stroking the soul’s forehead; he looks up, sees her, screams. I ignore him.
“Madame, he is mine,” I say. “The Council must have made a mistake. It has happened before. There are many of us tonight, as you can see.”
“Yes,” she says uncertainly. “All these lives on a razor’s edge, I suppose. Could be some…confusion, sir.”
I do not break my gaze, and finally she shrugs, floats off, her wings wafting a scent of rot and blackcurrant. In my arms the spy’s soul is heavy, the leaden weight of guilt, so that he does not even thrash or seek to escape my embrace as I rise with him into the coolness of the night.
Below, Whittaker’s face is upturned for a moment only. Then she frees her rifle from the smouldering remains of the flag and walks off into the darkness.
About the Author
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and spec fic writer based in Canada. Her work has been published by Mythic Delirium, Pseudopod, Nightmare Magazine, and others. She can be found on Twitter at @premeesaurus.
About the Narrator
Ian Stuart is a writer/performer living in York. He has done work for the BBC and Manx Radio, as well as audiobooks, historical guides and promotional videos. He is also a storyteller/guide for The Ghost Trail of York, taking tourists round the city and telling them some of its darker secrets. You can read more about his poetry and his dog, Digby, on his blog, The Top Banana. If you wish to contact Ian about voiceover work of any kind , you can get in touch with him on Twitter at @yorkwriter99. His greatest boast is that he is the father of a famous son.