Ark-Zero-Nine – Chapter 1

They were all dead, all except Yanik. 

He hadn’t been the toughest, largest, or strongest of his crew, but Yanik was the smartest. He was small for his age, even in these difficult times where everyone was skinny. Food was sparse, and much of it was too poisonous to eat without processing. Yanik stood just over four feet in height when all the other kids towered head and shoulders above him, always looking down, always teasing, never relenting until an elder intervened.

His mother named him Yanik, but by his third year, everyone saw he was different, a runt, and that’s what they called him. Runt, squat, shorty, short arse – they weren’t very inventive, even the adults used those names for him, except Jaydn.

Jaydn looked after him when his mother died from the Blight. They hadn’t thought the five-year-old could understand what had happened, but Yanik always knew it was his fault. He was the one who brought the water to her, not realising it was from the Black River, that it carried the invisible Blight in each cool refreshing mouthful.

She didn’t die straight away. The slow and painful process took weeks as his mother seemed to fall apart. First, she’d  been sickly and weak, vomiting and unable to eat. Then her hair fell out in clumps, and finally, bloody bruises spread across her frail body. She bruised and bled from the slightest pressure, so much she couldn’t bear being touched. He still struggled to imagine the pain she must have endured, and hidden from him. The last time he saw her she smiled, hugged him and told her beautiful boy to go with Jaydn. He somehow knew he wouldn’t see her again and Jaydn had to carry him out, kicking and screaming.

That was ten years ago. Yanik still felt the anguish of not being there for her, but at fifteen, he was a man grown. The irony wasn’t lost on him, and the villagers reminded him of his hunched, childlike stature as often as they were able.

The village expected all children his age to work and contribute. Though most did it with petulance, Yanik seemed to understand the need instinctively and believed it was his duty to make the world a better place. Safer for the rest of the clan.

A crack of tumbling stones snapped Yanik’s mind back into sharp focus, and the danger he still faced. He and his crew had been scavenging for essential raw materials and scrap. Things that people such as Jaydn could transform into useful items, and sometimes, indispensable tools.

Hushed conversation reached his ears, along with the sounds of scree crunching underfoot as someone  approached. A beam of light cut through the inky darkness, illuminating the entrance of the crevice Yanik had wedged himself into. He wanted to squirm further back into the claustrophobic debris-strewn hiding place but feared the slightest sound would draw the attention of his hunters. Holding his hand across his mouth, he tried to calm his breathing. Slow and shallow, as he’d learned while hiding from the other kids in the village.

The rubble between the collapsed building walls dug into the exposed flesh of his arms and lower legs. Something sharp was agony in his left hip, it was some of that metal that lived inside the stone the ancients used to construct their larger buildings. Yanik couldn’t risk moving and bit his index finger to take his mind from the gouging pressure.

Scree and rubble shifted outside the hiding place with a crunch. The light wavered, trying to crawl its way further up the crevice to paint his face with its dull yellow glow. That would be the end of him. 

A rough, clipped voice cut through the silence from further off. “What’s you up to Ravos?”

“Thought I heard somethings.” The reply was much closer, the one with the light. “Nah, too small, must be rats.”

“Rats is good eating. We should have a poke around and see if we can gets us some suppers.”

“No time. One of those little shitters got away. Needs to catch it before they can finds friends and bring thems back here.”

At the sound of low grumbling and the dimming of the light, Yanik felt hope. It was only then he realised he’d been holding his breath. He pushed it out into his palm desperate to keep the sound from being heard by the raiders outside.

Though he hated the teasing and bullying about his size, today his relief was beyond measure that he’d been small enough to crawl into this tiny gap between the collapsed buildings and rubble.

He waited unmoving for what seemed an eternity in the consuming darkness.

Yanik started with shock and cursed himself. Dammit, can’t afford to fall asleep here.

He looked around, trying to establish how long he’d slept.

Cramp joined the pain in his hip as it settled into his calf muscles. He wanted to scream and stretch, but he waited, silent in his rocky tomb despite the incredible discomfort.

He heard nothing, and when it became unbearable, he made his move. Pushing away from the metallic object digging into his side, Yanik stretched his legs, trying to get feeling back into them. 

Even though he kept his movements slow and careful, there were scrapes of stone as his body dislodged small rocks and scree that had settled beneath him. The sounds were like a siren blaring into the deathly silence around him, announcing his location to the killers in the dark.

He expected running boots and the light of torches outlining him in the blackness, but all remained silent, and darkness enveloped him. He should be more careful. It was the lack of care that had been the end of the other three members of his crew – Tyler, Ruba and Kallid. 

Ruba had been the best of them. He wouldn’t say she liked him, but at least she understood the value of what he knew and contributed. She did her utmost to keep Tyler and Kallid off his back. Well, most of the time.

The two larger boys were Bloodspears, warrior caste. They spent every minute fighting and training, whether it be with weapons or in the frequent brawls their trainers encouraged them to get into. Both hated Yanik and everything he stood for. They couldn’t accept that someone small and weak, like him, was necessary. The Elders revered his skills, above that of warriors, and the Bloodspears didn’t like that one bit.

Yanik was much more than a scavenger though. His uncle had passed on every ounce of skill, technique and lore of the technology of the ancients. Yanik was as good as anyone in the clan at taking those long-lost materials and crafting things of great value. People like him kept the old machines working, the pumps and filters that provided potable water, so they no longer needed to test and decontaminate every drop. They repaired the tools and weapons their Clan relied on to produce enough food to feed them and to protect them from the raiders and slavers who would try to steal it all away.

Ruba was, or had been, a Teller. They kept the knowledge and history of the clan, along with responsibility for the religious rites of birth, marriage and death. They were the ones who recorded, interpreted, and enforced the laws and teachings of Leviathan.

Yanik hadn’t been friends even with Ruba, he wasn’t friends with anyone, except Jaydn, but that was different. Jaydn was like a father to him, or at least a favourite uncle.

His small fingers clawed at the crevice exit. Even he had to squeeze his tiny frame out of the narrow gap. A sobering thought struck him. Oh, these better have just been raiders and not flesh-eaters, by Leviathan let it be so. It was hard enough imagining checking the corpses of his three dead crew members for items that would need returning, without the thought of…

He gagged as his foot caught in the rubble, but steered his imagination away from those sorts of images and reached down for the torch on his belt.

A few rapid spins of its winder screamed out a terrible whirring shriek. He remained crouched in the darkness, straining to hear any signs someone might have noticed. Satisfied he was still alone, he turned it on with a soft click. With the dull beam of blue-white light playing across the rubble-strewn floor, he picked his way back to the ruins of their camp.

By Gareth Clegg

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