Aliyah slips through the crack in the wall. Or at least she tries. Once upon a time she was an awkward, skinny kid, towering over all the boys in her class, more interested in football, cricket, and beating up anybody who picked on her friends than in her school lessons. She fit through this crack easily then. Now she is even taller, powerfully built, and having a particularly hard time squeezing her bust and posterior through the narrow opening. Her tough Guardia uniform is caught on a jagged stone edge.
The building is one of those condemned after the two neighborhoods from cities on opposite sides of a world somehow broke off and drifted through Chaos to end up as part of the City. Syron tried to explain it to her once, but that just made her head hurt; later, Doc Nate patiently explained that a chunk of a city from a place named Brazil and another from a place named India merged somehow, and that’s why more than a century later people here speak a crazy, mixed-up dialect that people from other parts of the City can’t understand. And it’s why their streets meet at weird angles, and why a lot of buildings have fallen down, and a few still stand but, fused together, can’t really be lived in.
Like this one, with its walls of different materials, brick and stone, meeting at acute and obtuse angles, its half-basement room cut off from the door, the only entryway this crack hidden behind a thorny bush.
Aliyah grunts, then hears her jacket tear, and suddenly she’s on the floor, her shoulder hurting. “Oh, man!” She rolls to sit up and inspects the damage in the gloom of the afternoon sun slithering in through the one filthy, narrow window at the top of the wall. Her Guardia badge hangs from a now-loose flap of cloth on her jacket. She sighs, knowing she’ll be sewing that back on tonight.
She looks around and calls out, “Anybody here?” She pauses...then says in a quiet voice half-filled with hope, “Saira?”
There is no answer, but as her eyes adjust to the thin light, she sees that someone has indeed been living here, recently. A thin bedpad, a blanket with the traces of a human shape impressed into it. Aliyah approaches to inspect it, takes note of the lack of dust. She lifts the blanket to her face and breathes in, her breath hitching as the slight smell of sweat triggers memories of rough play, of fighting others back to back, of fighting each other.
She remembers Saira: clever, tough, fascinating in her independence and her fierce loyalty. It was nearly impossible to become her friend, but once you were, nobody, nobody messed with Saira’s friends. Not more than once, anyway. Saira, with her sardonic wit, her aura of aggression, her absolute belief that anyone who wasn’t with her was against her.
Aliyah had been with her. So had Cala. But as Saira had discovered her talents for breaking and entering, for stealing and for selling her prizes, Cala had turned more and more against her, begging Saira to turn away from the path of crime. But Saira could only shake her head at Cala’s naïvité, unable to comprehend Cala’s belief that she owed any loyalty to a society rigged to keep poor kids like them crushed under its heel. Orphan Saira, beautiful Saira, unmovable Saira.
Saira’s family was Aliyah and Cala, but as Cala turned against her, Saira found new friends, ones who thought more like her. And Aliyah...she was caught in the middle. She couldn’t abandon Saira, but deep down she agreed with Cala. So Aliyah became a reluctant member of Saira’s gang, and when they were ambushed by the cops, it was Aliyah who ended up on the ground, being handcuffed by Constable Machado. And it was Cala who appeared at the station and convinced Machado to let Aliyah go, even to remove her name from the report.
“Oh, Saira,” she whispers. She runs her fingers over the detritus of a meal: a waxed-paper container and a pair of chopsticks, a crumpled paper napkin. There was also a small bowl, a half-full bottle of water, a damp cloth for cleaning.
Saira will probably be back. Aliyah considers waiting, but she knows Cala is right, that confronting her directly is a mistake. Besides, Saira would know if someone were in her lair, and would never enter. Aliyah pulls out her little notebook and writes a message, asking Saira to meet her, to hand over the Pearl. Aliyah wants to pour out her heart, to express the nearly overwhelming emotions brought on by learning that Saira is still alive, but she is no writer. She has no gift for that. So she keeps it short and simple, but she cannot help but sign the note, “With love, A.”
She tears it off and places it carefully on the blanket. Then she squeezes back out of the building.