The twin suns of Selaptine baked the desert planet dry even as they set together. The two discs – the white and the red – sunk down over The Wall as night fell. Barbed wire and broken glass glinted in that light, catching the orbs for a moment before they slipped behind the horizon.
Sitting in the shade of The Wall was a squat man, leaning against a rusted tractor. All around, a herd of grazing beasts like giant fleas milled. Their herder wore heavy furs, even in that heat, and his three eyes roved independent of each other, as though they possessed separate agendas. As I approached, battling through the rippling air, they all rolled forwards to look straight at me, and a frown crossed his face.
“What is this?” he demanded. A short, black beard bristled from his leathery skin. I put up my hands, and called out to him:
“Don’t worry, friend, I’m not armed!” He relaxed a little, and shrugged.
“Good! I hate weapons,” he said through his heavy accent. “I will not touch them.” He beckoned to me, and offered a cigarette. I declined.
“Trouble with your scooter?” he asked, pointing to the heap of metal dragging behind me.
“Fucked,” I replied, and he flinched at the word. “Sorry, I mean broken. I dunno what’s wrong with it.”
“Ah, I’ll take a look.” He shrugged, and as he flipped open the access hatch in the scooter's engine and peered inside, I felt compelled to engage him in conversation.
“You anything to do with this?” I asked, gesturing towards the wall. He laughed, but it was mirthless.
“My parents came from the other side,” he said with a sigh. “They were lucky to get out. Do you know what is happening at the moment, behind this concrete?” he asked, and the glimmer in his eyes showed that he expected me not to know. He was looking forward to educating me. I did know, though. All too well.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Families living in those camps up to fourth and fifth generations now. No food, no electricity.”
“Exactly!” he said, but I could see he was disappointed that I already knew. He jumped back then, one of the jets of my scooter flaring up with blue flame from one fuselage, and the engine sputtering into life. He grunted, and continued tinkering inside. If he had known that I was Izon, he might not have spoken so openly to me.
“What do you think of the People’s Resistance Movement?” I asked. It was my country that kept those camps, and I was suddenly eager to find some hint of radicalism in this farmer, so that I could dismiss his words as extremist ravings.
“Peremo? They...” he began, and then stopped himself, perhaps suspicious that I might turn him in. “What do you think I think of them?”
“Umm...” It took a moment for me to formulate a diplomatic reply. “I think maybe you might sympathise with them, maybe see them as heroic figures?”
He shook his head.
“Let me tell you something,” he said, raising his head from his work and waggling a glowing blue spanner in my direction. “If I were to beat you, every day for the rest of your life; never letting you get up off the floor, beating you and starving you and keeping you in darkness, what would you do?”
“I... would fight back, I guess...” I replied, not sure of the correct answer, but sensing that there was one. He just nodded, turning back to his work.
“I tell you, Peremo is as much a creation of Izon as this kess ihktak wall!” Now it was my turn to flinch at the coarseness of his language (I speak enough to know what that means).
A dust storm swept the wall, scouring the graffiti like a stern border guard. Hot air blew into our faces, and I saw a film of dust settle on his beard. Two of his eyes narrowed at me (the other surveying his animals), and I suddenly became aware of the curls protruding from my hat: the Izon hair that my father had given me, among other things. I made to wipe the sweat from my brow, and brushed the offending locks under my leather flying-cap. He said nothing.
“There you go!” he cried, dusting off his hands, which were stained black with engine oil, and the little scooter roared into life, rupturing the air around its fuselage jets, rising six inches off the floor and hovering there. “It’s not a perfect repair, but it’ll get you Tvelvia.”
“More than enough,” I assured him. I shook his oily hand firmly and thanked him many times. He seemed embarrassed by this.
“Yes, my friend, you journey safely. If you are ever in the area again, remember to stop by, yes? I am always good for talking!” I assured him that I would, and since he refused any payment I offered him, there was nothing left but to mount the scooter and thunder off into the dunes, dust clouds rising like cigarette smoke behind me.
I crossed into Izon half an hour later, a border guard’s glare melting as I took off my cap and he could see that I was one of his own.
“Kol tuv,” he said to me, and I returned the greeting.
A telescreen crackled behind the steel door of a stern watchtower, the newsreader describing the latest attacks in sombre tones: improvised rockets falling on villages; shootings in schools; a plasma transport highjacked and flown into the Chambers of Commerce in Tvelvia. Peremo strike again! I peered through the door, into the celluloid glare, and emaciated kneeling men stared into the cameras and out through the screen. The barrels of rifles slipped in and out of the picture.
Were they really just fighting back? It was hard to believe: if they stopped their attacks, the siege too would stop. That was for sure – wasn’t it? I hurried away from the tower and got back on my scooter. I was eager to leave the border post, as though the guards might read my thoughts and take me in for questioning. I felt their glares burning into my back as I rumbled away, throttling the vehicle faster as the checkpoint shrunk into the distance.
Years later, I thought I saw that farmer again on the telescreen, if only for a moment. He looked different: older, yes, but somehow he had aged more than the intermittent years should allow. He looked thinner, too, and there were dark bags swelling under his eyes. His head and beard had been shaved, and he wore an orange boiler suit. His hands were cuffed behind his back. He was saying something to the camera, and I wouldn’t have noticed him at all except for what he said: “The attacks will never stop until you tear down that kess ihktak wall!” It was live, so they didn’t manage to bleep out those words.
I stopped what I was doing then, and rushed to the telescreen, but by then the picture had changed and a ceramic-smile newsreader was detailing a feel-good story to round off the news. To this day, I don’t know if it was him or not. It could have been anyone.