The last time I ever saw the man who had stolen the name of Harry McArthur, I was running. Barely dressed, with my bag over my shoulder and my weapons stowed. His face contorted in the shape of the word ‘run’, his left hand outstretched towards the window. This was no drill. We’d been found – not by the military, thank the gods, but by a certain group of militant racists.
I felt the glass slice through my clothes as I barrelled through the window, the warm sensation of blood across my skin, the wind in my hair. I hit the ground with a roll and kept running. People were around now, and I was obviously an outsider. Chinese and Koreans were rare in Arlandria, so it was unlikely I’d be passed off as one of them. If I could get to cover, I could hide, could arm myself.
But as I reached the far side of the street, a few steps into a damp alleyway, I was frozen in place. The apartment went up like an incendiary bomb, a wave of heat and glass and bricks flew from where I had been sitting merely minutes before. The shockwave knocked me onto my backside, the emotion didn’t let me get back up. McArthur had decided to play the hero – I thought I’d been able to smell gas after he’d finished cooking. He knew we’d been followed… he set the whole thing up as a trap and a distraction in one.
The whole sensation made me sick to my stomach, dizzy with shock. For what felt like the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to do except run. Everything moved past in a blur, everything was so dull I wouldn’t have realized if the ghost of my father had shown up to give me a lecture on taking care of myself. By the time my calves started burning enough to shake me out of my stupor, I was out at the point where the suburbs began splintering off into farming villages, the traffic now practically non-existent. I collapsed to my knees and rolled down an embankment to an overgrown strip of land next to what once had been called the Kumano River.
Everything hurt, more so than any injury I’d ever experienced. I felt like a child, lost and alone in a world that was definitely out to get me. I just lay there, hoping to whatever gods would listen that no-one would find me. No doubt there were reports of some Japanese woman on the run from the site of an explosion. But at least that didn’t match my usual description among the soldiers.
The clouds filtered by as always, white, grey and – sometimes, when the light caught them right – light blue. My breathing slowed, my muscles ached less. I tried channeling what energy I had left into healing, even though it was an art I was unfamiliar with. It wasn’t like the faint anesthetized hum of McArthur’s touch, it was painful, sharp spasms as flesh and muscle regenerated and stitched themselves back together courtesy of cellular memory.
That was when the tears came. I tried stifling the sobs by biting down on the polyester sleeve of the torn and bloodstained hoodie, but the sound was still evident. Hollowed by the experience, the only thing that seemed to fill the space left by him was sadness. Eventually, I managed to control myself enough to search my bag for the map of the safehouses in the area, somewhere I could at least attempt to get some rest until the danger died down.
There was an abandoned farmhouse not too far away, or some kind of building in what seemed to be fields. That was good enough. As I stashed the map and pulled myself up, I noticed a teenage boy was stood on the road’s edge, leaning on the handlebars of a mountain bike. He looked pensively at me, his dark eyes surrounded by skin so thin it looked bruised. He had messy brown hair, some of which was pulled back into a choppy ponytail.
“Hey,” he said, flat and nasal, “You alright? You’ve been down there a while. Wasn’t sure if you were getting up.”
Something about his tone irritated me. “I’m fine. I just wanted to be alone.” I ascended the steps so I was stood just behind him. “Shouldn’t you be in school? You look barely fifteen.”
“I should ask you the same thing,” he said, climbing off the frame and turning to face me. “But then again, outsiders can’t really attend school, can they? Least not in Arlandria.” He smirked and turned to set down the bicycle frame on the ground. I used the opportunity to draw one of my daggers and move behind him, the blade to his throat.
My hands were shaking as I held his head back. “You tell anyone about this, and I’ll end you, you understand?”
He turned his head towards me and shrugged. “Attractive or not, you have terrible people skills. But I won’t tell anyone – provided we can have a conversation.”
I almost burst out laughing. “I threaten to kill you and your response is to try and talk to me? What’s your game, kid?”
He stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets, turning towards the mountains. “I know this land was never really ours. I know there’s a history that was buried, a fake story put into place. I figure you’d probably be the one to ask.”
The look he gave me when he turned back made my heart skip for some reason. His brown eyes seemed to glint in the light, and his young face was tinted red at the cheeks with sunburn. Something made me trust him, something in that wistful expression. I took his hand and dragged him down into the grass, where we’d be hidden.
“Okay, you want to know the real story?” I pulled him down to the ground until our faces were almost touching, his nose against mine. His face went even redder, his eyes trying to look anywhere else. “Then listen carefully, boy. This knowledge could get you killed…”