A corpse lay across the grimy cobbles on the edge of the market square, its shrivelled flesh turned grey, and its lips had rolled up revealing rotten blackened teeth. Who was responsible no-one seemed wise to, but there’d been a struggle. It wore a torn black cloak, had scratch marks along its cheek and stared up at the sky with a rictus grin.
Initially Zan had thought nothing of it but as the mass of people congregated, he had to know. He'd forced his way between the legs of the gathered crowd to see what the fuss was about, and was somewhat disappointed to discover the reason. It held little interest with him; death was something to which he had become accustomed. The city folk reminded him of when he once found a Snarker Rat in the woods and used a stick to prod its belly, to check it was dead.
Besides, it gave him the opportunity he'd craved for hours as another hunger pain stabbed at him like a hot poker. He left the crowd to its morbid fascination, and crouched down low around the corner from a market stall. Even that was unattended despite the 'spate' of thievery that had befallen the area.
So there was no time to lose. Loaves of crusty white bread sat proudly on the table, and Old Baker Poladri would soon return to dupe another stupid customer out of twice the credits they were worth. If he didn't strike now, the pangs of pain in his stomach would last all through the night.
He edged forward, slowly and delicately placing his bare soles onto the cold slippery cobbles. The shadows crept across the square and tickled the edge of the stand, and further he crept, with his back pressed tightly against the wall. His breathing remained slow and steady, and he reached out to grab a loaf. At that moment Poladri returned and began taking a few freshly baked barmcakes out from his cart, occasionally looking back towards the dispersing crowd. Zan didn’t blink, his eyes stinging to keep focus. Mind over matter, he thought. Mind over matter.
Poladri took another look over his shoulder, and in an instant Zan acted upon it. The bread felt soft and warm around his fingers as they dug in beneath the crust, and he lifted it up silently before moving away and stepping slowly backwards. The alleyway was near and as soon as he was out of sight he ran, swifter than the wind. It whistled past his face and he could only just decipher the shouting and cursing in the distance behind him.
He stole a glance over his shoulder, but he was not being pursued. No chance, he thought. That old man wouldn’t catch a snail. The truth is, he could’ve taken it right in front of him were it not for the risk of being identified.
It never ceased to amaze Zan how easy it had become. He could remain unseen if he wanted - he wouldn't be alive if he couldn't. It was second nature, and though he'd had some near misses at first, he could now get anything he wanted. Well, almost anything.
Some stalls sold crafts and clothing in the square, which lay at the heart of the Port City of Vlindra. He'd grown up there, but not in the area he now found himself. Vlindra stretched almost the entire coastline, for a hundred miles or more Zan reckoned.
Baked goods were also sold, with the courtyard layout helping to protect stock from the cold sea wind. But mostly the tables had fresh fish laid out on top of them. This was first and foremost a fishing harbour after all - at least this part of the city. There were now so many fish stalls that they'd spilled out onto the dock edge, and that made them exposed and far more difficult to lurk around undetected. Shame really, Zan often thought, as those Sharpsnouters were his favourite.
He wandered down the streets as darkness descended, following a well-trodden path. It was one which he could have navigated blindfolded if he had to. The walk was brisk down the dirty backstreets behind the ramshackle housing that lay around, cobbled together like a patchwork quilt. Clear ground lay ahead, and the only sounds were of the squeaky cart wheels belonging to the last of the merchants heading home in the distance.
Zan upped his pace into a jog. Soon, the light would completely disappear behind the hills that overlooked the bay, and that was not a time for a sixteen year old boy to be roaming the streets. There were terrifying things lingering beneath the surface in this godforsaken city.
The silhouette of the gargantuan suspension bridge across the estuary of the River Vli was still visible against the remnants of daylight. Zan neared the base of one of the holding pillars, and clambered down onto the secondary level.
Built into the stone river front wall was an old control house for the operator of the former ferry terminal. It had long since been abandoned when the ugly grey steel girders began rising from the mud.
He pushed open the door and pulled it shut from the inside, pushing into place a large and solid timber plank that had been scavenged from a nearby shipwreck.
The room was tiny and Zan didn't like spending any more time there than was necessary. But at night he had no choice - it was dangerous and cold. It would take only minutes to freeze to death in the harsh winters, and even in spring only the tallest flowers could be seen peering atop the white blanket.
There was only one room and a single window that faced outwards towards the river, and a small stove sat in one corner which provided warmth as much as a cooking utensil. Two beds of straw and wool were laid across the floor, with thick brown blankets 'acquired' from the market on either side, and one was occupied.
"Zami," Zan whispered as his sister dozed. "I've fetched some food. Sit up so you can have some, you know you struggle to sleep on a craving stomach."
There was no response, so he gave her a nudge with his clenched fist on her shoulder. She jumped and her body shot around, twisting in an instant. "Who are you?" She said, grabbing a knife.
"It's me," he said calmly.
"I know you," she said, lowering her weapon and cocking her head to one side. "You're ...you're my..."
"Brother," Zan said, allowing a wisp of a smile to escape the wake of his mouth. He was always glad of even the merest hint of an acknowledgement. It was comforting that her spirit and essence hadn't completely deserted her - yet.
Zami didn't return the smile, and while her breathing had softened, her stare remained vacant. "Food" She said.
Zan nodded and tore a piece of bread off for her. She snatched it from his outreaching hand and began stuffing it into her face with all the finesse of a pig in a trough.
He tore some off for himself and wrapped the rest in cloth, placing it down in the corner opposite the stove. Zami ripped the bread with her teeth as an animal would. Her appearance was similar to Zan's - the fact they looked so alike was the one thing Zan remembered from his childhood when his parents were still alive. "Two peas in a pod," his mother would tell him. The pale green complexion, straight white hair and black eyes were striking. They were half casts as well as outcasts - their mother was Rilaris and their father Zal. Both from Sykana, his home planet, but from different continents - and it was a rare mix.
"More," Zami cried, reaching her arms out towards the cloth.
"We need to save some sis, we have to try and make it last," Zan said.
She turned her head and lay down once more facing the wall. Zan leaned back onto the blanket and placed his hands behind his head, and he allowed his thoughts to drift.
It hadn't always been like this. He once had lived a normal happy family life. Well, as normal as you can live in the Wasteland slums of Vlindra.
But it all changed two years ago. The government came and destroyed everything. In a matter of minutes it had all gone. Zan remembered very little about it - his mind blocked the pain as much as possible and covered his memories in a heavy mist that wouldn't disperse. Not that he wanted it to, mind, but anything before that night was a blur. The only thing he knew for certain was that when the fire had blown out, all that was left among the dying embers were the ashes of his parents and brother.
He felt a hand on his back as he lay facing the wall. Zami had reached out to him and as he rolled over, he saw her eyes staring back. They were dead, as if the twinkle had been scooped out from behind them, and all that was left was a thin veneer of black. Yet they also seemed pained somehow, as if there was still some expression around the edges.He took her hand in his. "Sleep, Zami. We'll be alright. I will find a way to make you better, I promise." His eyes began to sting, as if his mind was tearful but his face didn't have anything left to give.