Spike ruffled his nose against the stench coming from the chamber pot. No matter how many times he did this job, he’d never get used to carrying his family’s waste. The liquid inside the large ceramic container swirled as he walked, forcing him to tense his upper body to counter the motion of it. Many people in Edin carried the pots by their rope handles. Because he’d seen one snap in the past, he didn’t. As much as he hated the stinking things, the job had to be done and, like so many people in Edin, he did it at least once every two days. If they left it much longer, the smell became unbearable.
His dad walked beside him as they headed towards the large wall along the back of the city. They shimmied and weaved to negotiate the flow of people returning from dumping their waste. The foetid liquid inside the pots echoed their movements, constantly in opposition to the present moment.
They often made the journey in the evening. It gave his dad a chance to get out of the agricultural district after a long day working in the fields. In Edin, there were very few chances to get out of the place you lived and worked in, so the vile job ended up becoming an outing for his old man. Because Spike hadn’t yet done his national service, he still had the freedom to roam the city. Minors, politicians, and protectors could go wherever they liked, whenever they liked.
As much as Spike hated carrying the pots, he loved the chance to chat with his dad. But tonight felt different. Tomorrow he turned eighteen; in two days, he’d be picked up and taken for national service. He’d not return for at least six months—if he returned at all.
The vast wall surrounding Edin got no lower than twenty feet at any point. The back section Spike and his dad currently headed towards stood the tallest at around thirty feet. A set of double gates at the bottom of the wall led outside. No more than about six feet tall and the same wide, they were once the main access to the city. Now they were used for something else entirely. While staring at them, Spike said, “Do you think they’ll have an eviction tonight?”
“Who knows?” his dad said, grimacing while hugging the larger of the two chamber pots to his chest. A strong man with a thick frame, it made sense for him to carry the heavier container. “We normally come at a good time for it.”
“Do you think those who empty their pots at different times of day never see one?”
“Maybe that’s why they do it. For some, they probably don’t want to see it.”
“So why do we?”
The wall had wooden scaffolding attached to it. It had four levels, each one accessed via a ramp from the level below The path to the top involved climbing the first ramp before walking to the end of the first level in order to climb the second ramp, and then walking to the end of the second level to the third ramp, repeating the process until they finished their zigzagged ascent to the fourth level.
Spike and his dad joined the queue to get onto the first ramp, the scaffolding always busy at this time of night. The combined smell of many pots drove two hard fingers down the back of Spike’s throat, locking him in a battle against his gag reflex.
“I think seeing people evicted is a good reminder of what the city does for us,” his dad finally said when they started moving again. “What happens to those who choose not to abide by the rules.”
In all the years they’d been emptying their chamber pots, Spike hadn’t given it much thought. Evictions happened. They were part of being an Edin resident. If you did nothing wrong, then you had nothing to fear. And why would the city waste resources on those who didn’t want to help it grow? Things were tight enough without having to keep criminals and anarchists alive.
By the time they’d walked the length of the first level and climbed the ramp to the second, they were about fifteen feet up and higher than most of the structures in the city. Materials being what they were, most residential buildings reached no taller than one storey. In the past, they’d tried to build taller houses, but many collapsed. Countless families had perished beneath the rubble of an ambitious home. His arms aching from the heavy pot, Spike sweated, the night unseasonably warm for March. With both of his hands in use, he blinked against the sting of it running into his eyes.
The only buildings taller than one storey were communal and government buildings. The mayor had a three-storey house, several warehouses were slightly taller, three or four monuments celebrating Edin’s greatness, and of course, the Arena. Just looking at it gave Spike a boost, his arms hurting less than they had a few seconds ago. “I’ll be there tomorrow. And when I’m the next protector, I’ll be there most nights. I’ll make sure you have front-row seats whenever you want them.”
They usually chatted a lot on their trips to empty the pots, discussing everything from what existed far beyond their walls to how long it would be before the next section of Edin opened up to everyone. But as they moved up to the third wooden platform—the entire walkway shaking with the thud of Edin’s citizens moving along it—Spike’s dad didn’t seem to have a reply in him.
On the fourth and final walkway, Spike now had the clearest view he’d get of the city. Ten thousand citizens divided into districts. Agriculture, ceramics, textiles … all of them standing in stark contrast to their neighbours. The ceramics sector was distinguished by the glorious mosaic of colour throughout. They had wind chimes outside nearly every house. Sheets of every possible shade and colour flapped in the gentle breeze of the textiles district as they dried in the open air. Large swathes of yellow and brown marked the agriculture area filled with its crops and ploughed fields. They all worked to make Edin greater and to support an ever-growing populace and infrastructure.
As wonderful as the patchwork looked, the clear demarcation lines reminded Spike why he had to be the next protector. If he failed, he’d be imprisoned in the agricultural district for life. He loved his mum and dad, but he didn’t want their restricted existence. He wanted to move freely through the city. He wanted a job that made him feel alive. Most importantly, he wanted Matilda. She lived in ceramics, and if he wanted to be with someone from another district, he had to be a protector. There was a saying in Edin about falling in love with someone from another district. They said it was reserved for protectors, politicians, and fools. No way he’d be a fool. Even less of a chance of him becoming a politician.
Spike looked across to the opposite end of the city at the two large gates leading to the national service area. It was where the national service cadets stayed. He would be one of them in two days’ time, spending evenings there and days outside the city’s walls, extending Edin’s boundaries so the city could grow.
“Just focus on national service before you think about becoming a protector,” Spike’s dad finally said, breaking him out of his daze.
Spike looked away from the gates and to his dad’s sombre face. “What’s wrong?”
His dad looked the other way, staring out over the wall, his deep frown set against the strong wind as he gazed at the wastelands and the vast lake beyond the city. A scratching sound from where he rested his ceramic chamber pot on the top of the rough stone. About five feet wide, the huge barrier had so far stood the test of time. “I love that you have the ambition to be the next protector, and I don’t want to take that away from you.”
“But?” Spike said.
“National service is brutal. You need to promise me you’ll take every day a step at a time. Focus on what’s in front of you so you remain alive. Don’t go into it overconfident, because you won’t get to the end of the six months.”
“But you’ve always supported me in becoming a protector.”
“And I still do. It’s just, I don’t want you to underestimate what’s coming to you in two days’ time. There’s a reason why only fifty percent of cadets return from national service.” He snorted an ironic laugh. “If you can call many of the broken shells who come back returned.”
“Why don’t more people talk about it?”
Usually, whenever Spike had a question or wanted to pose a thought, his dad would always listen intently and offer the best heartfelt advice he could. Today, he had a glaze to his eyes that showed he had his attention elsewhere. “It’s brutal,” he said. “In national service, you’re forced to make decisions. Life-and-death decisions. Sometimes you have to choose your own well-being over that of others. You might have to watch someone die to save yourself, and the chances are you know that person well because you’ve shared a dorm with them for however long you’ve been there. No one wants to relive that, and no one wants to be judged for the choices they made. For that reason, it’s easier not to talk about it.”
While letting go of a hard sigh, his cheeks puffing out, Spike too looked at the lake outside the back of the city. He felt the force of the strong wind without a wall to block it. He looked at the pulley system they used to retrieve water from it without having to go outside. The complex wooden framework had many of the characteristics of the scaffolding he currently stood on. It stretched across over two hundred feet of long grass before it reached the water.
Then he looked at them. Even now, on a seemingly quiet night, Spike saw the shambling forms of at least fifteen diseased. It reminded him of the walls keeping them safe from the creatures desperate to take chunks from them. Another reason to become a protector: he wanted to be part of the solution, culling them on a daily basis and showing them they wouldn’t ever win, no matter how many of them there were.
A loud horn sounded. A Pavlovian response to it, Spike smiled at his dad. But his dad’s face remained stoic. Not even an eviction could excite him tonight. “What do you think this one’s done?” Spike said.
They often played the game, and Spike’s dad did his part as best he could. “Maybe he robbed someone.”
“I think he’s a murderer.” When Spike had been little, his dad would make the people being evicted the worst kind of people he could imagine. He’d make them scarier than the diseased so Spike felt safer to have them outside the city. At times, he even came close to feeling grateful to the diseased for dealing with them on Edin’s behalf.
A few moments of silence always followed the horn, those on the wall watching, waiting for the evicted to emerge. The snap of the heavy bolt on the gate cracked through the air. The diseased in the long grass lifted their heads as one. Then the first scream. A hellish and broken wail of torment, it sounded somewhere between a hiss and a shriek. The sound of the long grass rubbed against legs as the creatures took off, sprinting at the gate. Even from where he stood, Spike’s stomach clamped with the adrenaline rush. It didn’t matter how thick the barrier between them, he always felt like this would be the time they got through. The time when one of them went for the gate rather than the evicted.
“There goes the rabbit,” a woman farther down the wall shouted.
Spike saw the man. He couldn’t have been much older than Spike himself. He looked fresh back from national service. After doing his bit for the city, he’d clearly then screwed them over in some way. Although, the younger they were, the better the chase. Maybe he’d make it to the water.
As the young man made his bid for freedom, the diseased closest to him screamed as if to call the others to its position. The pack altered their course, zeroing in on the young man and ignoring the gate completely. The bolt snapped home as someone locked it below.
Many of Edin’s evicted knew if they went the wrong way, not only would they find the ground boggy underfoot, but they’d be coated in the contents of everyone’s chamber pots as the residents emptied them from above. Like so many before him, the young man ran away from the full pots.
“He’s fast,” Spike said, bouncing on his toes while he glanced at his dad.
Although his dad smiled, his eyes didn’t.
Spike looked back at the man in the grass, his path easy to follow because of the trail he left behind him. “He’s seen a gap. I think he might make it!” The closest diseased lost distance to the man as he headed for the lake. Very few made it to the lake. If they did, and if they could swim, the diseased would follow them in, but they couldn’t stay afloat. Every drop of water from the lake had to be boiled until it almost evaporated. God knew how many infected bodies rotted at the bottom of it.
The man had already halved the distance to the lake. “He’s going to make it!” As much as Spike hated the criminals when he was a kid, he now saw them as the underdog. Besides, he knew what the diseased were and he couldn’t bring himself to root for them. Not like he might have done as a younger boy.
Crack!A diseased exploded from nowhere and clattered into the man’s side. Spike winced at what sounded like bones breaking on impact. Despite their withered appearance, the creatures were both fast and strong.
The diseased who’d taken the man down snarled as it bit into him. Another crunch, this time from where its teeth sank into flesh and bone. The bite turned the man limp.
The diseased who were running after the man just seconds before stopped as if he no longer existed. The one who’d taken him down got to its feet. Feral and with blood coating its maw, its eyes glistened a deep crimson and were spread wide on its wrinkled face. It walked away from the downed man, leaving him in the long grass. Now it had bitten him, it had done its job.
No matter how many times he’d watched it, Spike couldn’t ever look away from someone who’d been taken down. They always started with a pulsing twitch. Violent in how it threw their limbs away from them. The man’s right leg went first. Then an arm. Like many before him, the disease ripped through his frame, spasming and snapping his form. Seconds later, he jumped to his feet, blood coursing from his eyes like those of his diseased brethren. No more than fifty feet between him and the water’s edge, as much as Spike knew the man to be a criminal in some way, his heart hurt for him. “He got so close.”
The touch of his dad made Spike jump and turn to him. Where his eyes had been glazed, some of the presence he knew his dad for had returned. “I’m sorry to be negative today.”
Spike shrugged and emptied his chamber pot over the side. Every few weeks, they rotated where they could dump it from so the ground around the wall’s foundations didn’t get too boggy.
“I want you to enjoy your birthday tomorrow and your trip to the arena. Tomorrow is the last day of true freedom; you should celebrate that. Just promise me you’ll stay focused when you go for national service. Worry about becoming a protector when the time comes. Just surviving will put you in a good position to try out for the apprenticeship.” Tears glazed his eyes for a second and his features twisted as if they might buckle out of shape. “If I could go in your place tomorrow, I would.” He tapped his own heart. “Know I’ll be thinking about you every second of you being away.” Once he’d emptied his pot over the side too, he said, “Come on, let’s get home. You need some rest if you’re going to the big event tomorrow.”
His dad’s sombre tone sank through Spike. As he looked at his hero’s slumped shoulders, he drew a deep sigh. Surely national service wouldn’t be that bad. And surely it would be worth it if it gave him a lifetime with the girl he loved.
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