together

Together

In Fiction, Winter 2024: Climate Crisis by Jaime Gill

together
Photo by Adobe Stock

We slept at gunpoint but woke up alive, so it was a good night.

For the first time since Bai disappeared, I didn’t dream of monsters. I dreamt I was in my tiny childhood bedroom and my mother was alive and calling me for a pungent dinner I could smell wafting from the kitchen, sweetness and spice.

Maybe it was the walls. We hadn’t slept indoors for months. It was suffocatingly hot inside, even in that high-ceilinged church, even during the night, but it was comforting to have something solid around and above us for once, even with the guns lurking in the shadows. I didn’t wake once in my sleep, not til the townsfolk noisily unbolted the rusty church doors at dawn.

They fed us mashed vegetables and sun-baked rabbit. Small portions, but fresh and spiced – the best meal we’d had in weeks. The water was even better. They’d kept it cool, and it felt like a beautiful medicine. I drank three full cups and nobody told me to stop.

After breakfast, we were escorted out of town. Townsfolk stepped outside creaky wooden shacks to watch, eyes wary as birds. On the town's border, a sun-bleached sign was still legible, though neither we nor the townsfolk read its strange blunt characters. They must be Cyrillic, from before the Russians abandoned their southern lands and left towns like this empty for people like us to take.

“The town with no name,” Old Man Zhang muttered. One of his obscure jokes, told only for his own amusement, and expecting no response.

I glanced back at the church and its onion-shaped roof. With distance, I could see the onion was rotting – weed-eaten, half-collapsed. The safety I’d felt beneath had been a lie.

When we reached the achingly familiar train tracks, half-hidden in dried out undergrowth, the townsfolk handed over the promised two canisters of water, spoils of whatever deal Shao had struck with the town. Our people organised themselves into a caravan, distributing backpacks and carts according to size and strength. It was a noisy operation, full of bickerings and mutterings.

Shao called me over to translate for him and the town’s chief – tall, hard-faced Qara. My father had been Mongol, so I spoke her language almost as well as Chinese.

Shao bowed, a little stiffly. "Thank Madam Qara for her hospitality and repeat my offer,” he said to me, but with his eyes on her. “She should gather her supplies and join us. We'll have better fortune together."

Qara did not bow, though she held his gaze. “Thank him for his invitation to my people. And, of course, our supplies. But I must again decline.”

I translated, skipping her sarcasm.

Shao sighed. “The heat rises with every day, every month. How long can they survive in their stolen town? How much water do they even have left?”

Qara’s mouth twitched when I relayed the message. “He asks two questions. I’ll ask only one. How many of your party has died in the last month?”

I grimaced as I translated, making sure my disgust was obvious. She had no right to talk to Shao like that. She had no idea of all he had done for us.

Shao replied quietly, so gently that you would have to know him well to know he was angry. “Tell her death is coming for us all and that we, at least, won’t wait for it. Tell her those words exactly. Tell her that the crumbling walls of her town will become tombs.”

Qara’s composure held. “None of us has been snatched as we slept. Perhaps even crumbling walls have uses.”

Who had betrayed our secrets to this woman? Before I could translate, a soft voice spoke behind me.

“Can we stay with you?” I turned to see Chen, tugging little Hai with her. I didn’t know she spoke Mongolian, no matter how crude it was, but it was the next words that punched me in the chest. “Only me and boy. Don’t need much.”

Qara looked at Chen more softly than she had Shao but was no more yielding. “You need more than we have. My duty is to my people. I’m sorry.”

Chen stared stricken after Qara as she turned and began walking away, as if it was hope that was leaving. Qara’s gunmen followed, walking backwards, rifles still pointed our way.

“Say nothing of that to anyone,” Shao told me. He didn’t even look at Chen. He hadn’t needed to know the words to understand what had happened. I didn’t look at Chen either, and nor did she look at me. She must have known how much she had just hurt me.

Once the Mongols were gone, Shao and his deputies retrieved their guns, hidden in undergrowth under the tracks. They stepped away from the caravan, talking in low voices. Twice, Shao looked towards the town, face clouded, as if he meant its people harm. I was relieved when he took his place at the head of the caravan and called "westwards." Shao could be hard – it was what this world had made him and what we needed from him – but he was not a monster. He hid dark things in his past, but which of us didn't? Survival wasn't free in this world. It demanded payment, and blood was the currency.

***

A black mood walked alongside us that day, with few talking. Maybe some of us knew about Chen’s betrayal. Maybe some of us yearned for that broken town we’d left after a single paltry night. Maybe some of us already feared the night ahead.

I had walked with Chen and Hai for most of our long journey on the never-ending tracks, but not today. I didn't want Shao to think I had known of or forgave Chen's treachery. It wasn't just him Chen had betrayed, it was all of us. "Together", we had promised. We would stay together. Yet she would have abandoned us. She’d have abandoned me.

I walked with Zhang instead, and within an hour it was as though the town had never existed. All around us cracked earth stretched out, pockmarked with burnt tree stumps. There must have been a forest here once, eaten long ago by wildfires.

“Will it all be like this?” I asked Zhang. “I miss China, sometimes. I miss the mountains. Everything here’s so flat, plain after plain.”

“Tundra. Russians call plains tundra. I think.” He frowned, suddenly uncertain. There were times when I could see that the past Zhang spent so much time thinking about felt less real, like something he’d dreamed. “Or maybe that word was just for when there was snow.”

I didn’t need to ask what snow was. So many old people were obsessed with that strange, cold ash that used to fall from the skies before the climate collapse.

As we walked, my ankle itched. Had a mosquito found its way through the layers we all wore all the time? I feared mosquito sicknesses almost as much as monsters. We’d lost nine people to sickness since we left Harbin. The first was an old woman who collapsed while walking, suddenly aflame with fever. We stopped the caravan to tend to her, but that night two others fell sick, even as the old woman died whimpering, alone, in her tent. The three sick people hadn’t been walking or eating together, so it was Zhang who said it must be mosquitoes spreading the sickness. Shao said we had no choice but to leave the infected behind. For everyone’s good, he said, though we could only decide together. Not that anyone would ever have voted against Shao’s wishes, even if they wanted to. We owed our lives to him. We trusted him. We had to trust him.

Two families had been left behind since then. They’d been given a few day’s rations in the hope they’d recover and follow, but nobody expected to see their faces again. I didn’t, anyway.

“Do you really think we’ll make it to the lake?” I asked Shao, distracting myself from the itching.

“Oh, certainly. Well, those of us who survive, anyway. Maybe you’ll be one of them.”

When I laughed, Chen looked back over her shoulder at me, face pinched and sad. Maybe she thought I was laughing at her. Good.

“You’re a shitty old man.”

"And you're a shitty little girl. Why else would we be walking together?"

"Shitty, maybe, but I’m not a little girl."

Unexpectedly, Zhang’s expression turned serious. "Probably not, really. You look like one, but there's not much little girl left in you. It’s a shame."

I didn’t know what to say to that.

Though the landscape didn’t change as we walked, the heat did. By the time we’d trudged three hours, it was like a vast, outstretched hand above, pushing us down. Even Shao and his deputies, the strongest men who led the caravan, bent under it. Clothes grew wet and heavy, chafing our skin. You couldn’t get used to that, any more than the ceaseless hunger or thirst. You could only surrender to it.

***

We set up camp as the sun dropped from sight over the west. My mood sank with it. I tried to push the fear away, but it pushed right back.

In our first weeks, we'd tried marching at night, guided by firetorches, until a man from Daqing stumbled away from the tracks into a swamp pocket. We'd heard him screaming in the dark, but by the time we found him he was dead, a single hand visible above thick, sucking mud. That seemed a particularly cruel way to die - drowning in a baked, parched world. At last, all the water he could have wanted, so much it killed him. Now we only marched in daylight.

We always built a fire at night, for light and comfort rather than warmth. Some people heated their rations, the usual thin strips of dried deer meat caught by Shao's hunters. I preferred to suck the cold strips slowly, softening them in my mouth. I always told myself to be grateful, no matter how hungry I felt after, no matter how sick I was of the same meat and only meat. The hunters deserved our gratitude. Without them, we'd have starved weeks ago; we owed our lives to them as much as to Shao.

Zhang unfolded his old map, yellowed paper beneath peeling plastic.

“Are we near yet?” I asked, leaning towards it.

“I can’t be sure. I’d hoped those Mongols might help me work out exactly where we are, but they couldn’t read the local signs either. They’re as lost as we are in this land, even if they have tried to root themselves in it. But I think their town was this one.” He pointed with a gnarled nail to a tiny black dot, nestled beside a ragged fingernail of pure blue that was our destination. Lake Baikal.

Baikal. I loved its name. It even sounded cold and deep. Ancient. It sounded like something you could believe in, something you could trust.

“No more towns to get past?”

“I hope not,” Zhang said. “We mightn’t be so lucky next time.”

“Lucky?”

“We’re alive. We’re fed. That’s as lucky as it gets. Others might not be so gracious.”

I remembered Qara insulting Shao. I remembered the guns. “They didn’t seem so gracious to me.”

“You of all people should remember our history. Mongols have been killing Chinese for thousands of years, just as we have killed them. Our history is a river of blood, flowing in both directions. Just because we’ve left our lands behind doesn’t mean we’ve left our hate there.”

“Well, it’s not Mongols I’m afraid of.”

“The Russians then? You needn’t fear them,” Zhang said. He dragged his thumb to the top of the map. “They migrated to the Siberian north years ago, when the permafrost began melting. They were lucky they had such lands. It’s cooler up there. More animals survive, more crops grow. It might be one of the few places where civilisation is still possible.”

“I’m not afraid of Russians either.”

Zhang’s look was sharp. “Oh, monsters again, is it? There are enough real things to fear without inventing new ones. Who knows what happened to Bai. He probably left the camp of his own accord and fell into misfortune. At the worst, a bear or a wolf snatched him. That’s why we have more night guards now.”

“A wolf? When was the last time we saw any big animal out here?”

“When was the last time you saw a monster?”

I do smile at that, but I don’t give in. “Chen saw them. They dragged Bai away, monsters the colour of shadows.”

“Oh, the colour of shadows. Poetic, but how exactly do you see shadows at night? And if she saw such things, why go back to sleep? Wouldn’t Bai have screamed? He was bigger and stronger than any of us, he’d not have gone quietly. Wouldn’t we all have woken?”

Perhaps he heard the anger in his voice, because he calmed it. "No, Chen confused nightmares with reality, that's all. We’re all tired and hungry and some of us aren't seeing things clearly any more. But do you know what is clear? The map. Look how far we've come."

He traced our journey on the thin black line marked Trans-Siberian. His thumb began where we had started, in shattered and starving Harbin, then up the black tracks through northeastern China, across the border into Russia, and west towards the great lake. On the map it looked no distance, a child’s skip. Unimaginable how long it had taken, how hard it had been. Still, even the worst day on the tracks was better than the last days in Harbin.

Zhang pointed again to the blue streak of Baikal.  “So close. Think of it. A quarter of the world’s fresh water, days away. So much water that all billion of the people in old China could have drunk from it for a thousand years and not emptied it. We can grow things. Build. We can win the wild west.”

“Wild west?”

Zhang laughed. “When I was your age – don’t look at me like that, I wasn’t born old – I used to love American movies, especially westerns. Brave cowboys fighting savages and outlaws, forging a new world. That’s who we are. Pioneers.”

I’d heard of America but not cowboys or movies. I didn’t ask. It was like this with Zhang. Half of him lived in a world that no longer existed.

It took a long time to sleep that night, despite the extra guards. Of Shao’s ten deputies, four kept guard while four slept. The others hunted, always at night. It was the only time beasts dared or could bear to leave their cover, when the sun had stopped beating down. I’d volunteered to help with the hunt, but Shao had laughed, said it wasn’t work for a girl.

That night the monsters returned to my dreams, formless black shapes that I felt more than saw. I ran from them, but the ground became swamp beneath my feet and as it sucked at my waist I looked back into the night and Qara stepped out of it. She said, “I’m sorry”, then placed a bony hand on the top of my head and pushed down and my mouth and my eyes filled black black black.

***

The next day was the most brutal since we left Harbin. The skies had been cloudless for weeks, and the heat had climbed so high that by midday it was shoving its fingers down our throats, trying to choke us as we walked. I felt weak. I ached. I tried not to think of my itching ankle or the way the itch was spreading. I was just very tired. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t.

I walked with Chen and Hai again. They were the only soft people amongst all this hardness, and softness was what I needed. I hadn’t forgiven Chen, not fully, but I remembered how frightened she had been since she saw the monsters and it didn’t matter whether they had been real or not, fear is fear. It can make people do things they wouldn’t normally do. I still wished she’d spoken to me or asked me to stay in the town with them, but I knew I shouldn’t forget the kindness she had shown me when we first met.

It had been Chen who had comforted me when I had my own night terrors. I had never placed a foot outside out of Harbin before, and though the emptiness all around me in those early days of walking had thrilled me, it had also horrified me. My world had always been fenced in by splintered skyscrapers and crumbling apartment blocks, I lived my whole life in shadows. You can get used to almost anything, even hell, and the new vastness of the open spaces made me feel tiny and exposed. There was nowhere to hide. Chen had reassured me in those days by making me laugh, making jokes about the many strange things we saw as we walked: the peculiar shapes of the abandoned homes we passed, the unlikely looking insects that sometimes alighted on dried-out trees.

Now, though, it felt like that Chen was gone, or entombed inside her misery. Perhaps it was the fear or exhaustion, but she barely spoke, as if she was hoarding every last spark of energy. Even Hai was quiet. Fighting my own fatigue, I tried to cheer him up by talking about the lake, borrowing Zhang’s words. I told him it was so big you couldn’t see the other shore. I told him it was so big it felt like a sea.

“Could you sail a boat on it?” he asked. “I want to sail a boat.”

“I suppose so. But…. I’ve never seen a boat. How do you know what one is?”

Chen gave a sad ghost of a smile. “He had a toy boat once, a little red one. If we could get water, we would sometimes float it before we drank.”

Hai smiled like he used to, but then I watched it fade away over the next few steps. He looked older than he was, like a weary old man forced into a little boy’s body.

That night Shao spoke as we sat around the campfire. He knew the mood over the camp was growing gloomier and grimmer each day. It was his understanding of us and our needs that made him our leader, after all.

“I know things are hard,” he said, in that soft and quiet voice that drew us in, made us listen. “I know we are thirsty and hungry. I know we are tired and frightened. But I also know we are here and we are together.”

Normally, people would have cheered but tonight someone in the shadows muttered: “For how long?”

Shao’s head bowed, as if hiding sorrow. When he raised it again, reflected flames made his eyes look like they glowed with belief.

“For as long as we are strong. Think how far we’ve come, what we’ve endured and survived. Remember the new world we’ll build at Baikal. No more hunger. No more fear. No more thirst. Together.”

His men shouted back that last word, the usual rallying cry, and others joined in. My own cry was a croak.

“When we lived a nightmare, we dared to dream. We are days away from making that dream real. We cannot lose heart now. We will give each other strength. We will keep each other going. All we need is ourselves.” And then, raising his voice for the first time, he cried again “Together!”

This time, most of the camp joined in. "Together!"

I remembered again why we had chosen to follow him, why we knew he was the only person who could get us out of the broiling, starving hell Harbin had become. It was his strength we'd believed in. He was the only man who could help us escape the death gangs. He'd been one of them once, understood how they thought. By the time we escaped, the city was a wire trap closing around all throats. The bodies lined every street in unruly piles. Some said the stench alone was so thick with germs that it could kill. Shao had saved us. Shao. Only Shao.

After Shao fell silent, rations were distributed. A deputy carried a water canister and carefully poured our allocation into our cups. Nobody gulped. We'd learnt long ago to defy our thirst, to sip and savour. Another deputy distributed deer strips. Just two tonight. It had been three the night before. I saw people’s eyes flickering as they saw their rations and felt some of the spirit Shao had instilled in them leak away.

As I washed down the first bite, sudden nausea surged from my stomach, grabbing at my throat.

I managed to stumble into the dark before I doubled over, vomiting as quietly as I could into thick weeds. My forehead oozed warm, sticky sweat. I wiped my face with my sleeve before returning to the fire. Only Chen noticed, regarding me with wide, worried eyes as I sat back down.

“Please don’t do that again,” she whispered. “Don’t go into the dark. I don’t know how I’d go on if you were taken. I’m barely able to go on even now.”

“You were going to leave me back at the town,” I said, staring into the flames, trying not to sound like a child.

“I knew you’d be looked after,” she said, then reached out and tugged my chin so I looked into her eyes. They were soft and unfathomably sad. “And I know you are strong. He isn’t.” She inclined her head towards Hai, whose head was falling forward, as if about to sleep. “I spend almost every second of every day thinking how to keep him alive. I keep wondering if we should have stayed in Harbin after all. I wonder if I killed him by deciding to leave.”

“Don’t say that,” I said. “We were all going to die there. You are saving him.”

“Maybe,” she said, her eyes drifting to the fire. “But maybe if we must die it is better to do it in our own land, with our ancestors, not in this land of another people’s ghosts.”

Hai slumped forward dozily, dangerously close to the fire, and Chen pulled him back, then lifted him into her arms and stood.

“He’s getting lighter. A boy his age should be getting heavier.” Then she yawned so deeply she shuddered. “We’ll sleep now. You should sleep too. Don’t go into the dark.”

After they were gone, I stared at my still uneaten meat but the sight of it made me feel queasy. I couldn’t risk throwing up again, so I slipped it into my pocket. I sipped water but even that made my stomach spasm, and I furtively tipped the rest away, sickened by the waste. I fussed over my sleeves, making sure my skin was covered. If I was sick, I wouldn’t let a mosquito bite me and pass it on.

The day's march must have exhausted everyone. Almost as soon as they’d eaten, people drifted to their net-tents, some nearly staggering. I shared a tent with Zhang, who snored within a minute of his head hitting his backpack.

I lay still as nausea and sweats crashed over me in waves. Dark thoughts paraded through my mind, horrors I had seen and horrors I had not seen yet but could easily imagine. I tried to bat these thoughts away, but they returned, like persistent, crawling insects. I’d begun to accept sleep wouldn’t come when the ground beneath me softened and my brain blurred and then I was in Harbin, and I was small and my father held my hand and opened a door and inside it was cool and bright lights twinkled…

I woke, heart racing, sweat-soaked. All around, people snored and murmured, a soft, grumbling chorus. I opened my eyes but they were so heavy and my body was so feeble. Sleep was a swamp sucking me down. I wanted it to take me. I closed my eyes and…

A loud, sharp sound. I opened my eyes again, an incredible effort. Probably just an old stick crackling in the dying fire. Or a guard throwing rocks to keep himself awake. Zhang was right, I was a stupid little girl. There were no monsters.

No monsters.

But I had to be sure.

I dragged myself, aching, to the edge of the net-tent, and peered through the mesh. I kicked Zhang accidentally, but he somehow didn’t wake.

There was nothing out there. Just the camp. Nothing moved. Nobody else had heard anything or woken. The sleep swamp sucked harder. I felt myself going under. So tired. So tired.

Another noise. I forced my eyes open.

I saw the monster and the monster was made of night.

It moved through the deformed trees at the edge of the camp, blacker even than the shadows behind it. It rippled as it moved, like no animal I'd ever seen. I was almost lulled by its slow, strange progress until it reached a familiar net-tent and its form split into two dark halves. They moved with sudden, savage speed.

I tried to shout a warning, but my mouth was a parched desert and only a faint rasp emerged. I tried pushing myself to my feet, but the effort drained my last strength and I fell back. The sleep swamp surged, a hundred hands on every part of my body, dragging me down, stronger than the adrenaline and fear, stronger than me.

The last thing I saw was something glittering in the moonlight. A monster’s shining claw as it fell on Chen and Hai.

***

My head hurt and the sun pried roughly at my eyelids. I rolled away, whimpering, squelching in my own sweat. Why hadn’t anyone woken me? We always rose before dawn.

Then I remembered the nightmares. Just bad dreams, fed by fever. Zhang was right, things were getting less clear.

But still, I needed to be sure. I needed to see Chen and Hai. I crawled out of the net-tent, pushed myself to my feet, and stumbled through the camp. Others were waking, but everyone moved sluggishly, nobody was talking. How tired we all were.

When I reached the orange net-tent, I saw Hai’s sleeping face pressed against the netting. He was smiling in his dreams. Relief washed through me, until I saw he was alone.

I panic-fumbled my way inside and shook him. “Where’s Chen? Where’s your ma?”

Hai’s brown eyes cracked open, his face smudged with sleep and surprise. He rolled over and let out a single high wail.

***

We walked in silence. Shao had allowed two hours for searching, but there was no trace of Chen. The guards hadn't seen or heard anything during the night and Shao publicly rebuked them, their heads lowered in performative shame. When I told him about the night monsters, he silenced me with a raised hand. For just a moment, he looked scared.

“No more,” he said. “This crazy talking doesn’t help us. Only walking helps us. We have to get to Baikal.”

I walked with Hai that day, sometimes dragging him. He didn’t speak or cry once. I gave him a little of the meat I’d hidden the night before and he chewed slowly and listlessly. I managed to eat too and didn’t throw up. The sickness’ grip on me was easing.

Shao’s men were struggling. The two dragging the supplies cart seemed slower than usual, and the rest of us followed their pace. Nobody complained. Nobody talked at all.

We rested at midday in a cobweb of shadows cast by dead pines. I gulped my water ration. My headache eased and my thoughts became clearer. I watched Shao and his men, huddled and talking, sprawled over black blankets. One pulled out a heavy knife and hacked away branches that had drooped low enough to get in their way. They ate larger rations than us, though nobody begrudged them that; they were the ones who worked hardest, they were the ones who hunted. When Shao looked in my direction, I looked away.

The terrain began to shift around us as the sun dwindled over the tundra, the baked mud under our feet giving way to rock. Our legs ached in new places and we realised we were on a small slope. We were climbing. Shao called Zhang to him and they talked urgently, heads nodding, weighing things up.

Whispers buzzed around the caravan like flies. “We’re almost there.”

We camped by a hillside wood that night. Shao gave another speech. People shouted “together” loudly, as if they’d already forgotten about Chen. About Bai. About all of the dead. I felt something I hadn’t felt since Harbin. Hate.

When the rations came, I ate but poured my water away, desperately thirsty though I was.

I lay in Hai’s net-tent after everyone had eaten and returned to their own and held him as he fell asleep. He didn’t hug back. He felt like a tiny corpse in my arms.

Sleep tugged at me but I bit my lip and pinched my wrists, using pain to fend it off. I even let in memories, anything to busy my mind.

I remembered my best friend in that terrible last year in Harbin, how we’d helped each other steal from markets, until she’d been caught. I remembered how the blood from her skull mingled with the blood of fish and pigs in the market’s guttering. I remembered earlier nights, and dances on full moon nights, stealing homemade rice wine left unattended by drunks. I remembered the family I’d lived with after my mother died, until the last measly food supplies from the south stopped coming and I returned one night to changed locks.

I pushed my face close to the net-tent’s mesh so I could watch the outside.

It seemed like hours before Shao’s hunters rose and strode into the woods, sacks over their shoulders.

I slipped out of the tent and wriggled on hands and knees after them. For once, I was glad to be small. The guards turned my way once and I froze, pale face to the ground. When I looked again, they’d turned. I didn’t get to my feet until I was deep in the woods and it was as dark behind me as in front.

I looked up. Above the skeletal canopy, the sky swarmed with stars. Zhang once told me that every one of those stars was a sun like ours, each with their own planets. I hoped they were luckier worlds than this one.

As I continued, the canopy thickened and the darkness deepened. Fear squeezed in on my lungs. I waved my hands in front of my face and saw only inky ghost fingers. I’d thought of many things to fear. Mongols. Wolves. Russians. Monsters. Them. But I hadn’t thought to be afraid of simply getting lost.

Just as the anxiety simmering in me was boiling over into panic, I smelt smoke. Blinking, I saw smudgy orange firelight glowing through the tree trunks ahead. I dropped back to hands and knees, crawled again. A jagged rock tore my trousers and cut my leg. Feeling the air on my skin, I realised I wasn't scared of mosquitoes any more.

I crawled until I found myself at the peak of a small hillock, perched above a clearing where the hunters had made a fire. They’d emptied the sacks and were working with their silver blades, all grunts and no talk.

I’d seen butchering before. Squeamishness had no place in Harbin. I’d seen fur, feathers and skin plucked, peeled and sliced away from flesh. I’d seen rabbits, pigs and geese disassembled from beings into parts, into meat. But I’d never seen a carcass like this. Hairless, like a pig, but the skin so much softer. One hunter held a limb aloft, inspecting it in the firelight. It glowed. I saw a thumb, four fingers, a dull coppery ring.

I’d held that hand when it was alive, when it was Chen. I’d felt it squeeze mine.

My mind reeled and my stomach lurched, but I couldn’t vomit. Some disgusting instinct wouldn’t let me. I pushed my face into the earth, blinding and muting myself with soil, but I could still hear them below. One of them joked and laughed. Their words floated through my skull without meaning.

I knew I should get away, fast and far, but to where? Everything felt empty: my body, my brain, the world, the future. For one crazed moment I thought of going to Shao to tell him what they were doing, but then I understood that of course he knew. He must have been the one who had chosen Chen, after she betrayed him.

I’d guessed the deceit when I saw the blankets they ate on, the exact shade of the night monsters, and glimpsed the glitter of that knife, just like the monster’s claws. Then I thought of the water, and an old Harbin trick. Everyone knew: don’t accept water from people you don't trust. What I hadn’t known was why they were lying, what they were really doing. Had I been a fool? It now seemed so obvious, but my mind hadn’t been able to make the leap. It felt like the leap from sanity into madness. But, no, this wasn’t madness. Already I could see the hard, brutal sense of it all.

How unlucky that I threw up the night Chen disappeared. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here now, I’d have drunk the drugged water and slept through it all. I wouldn’t know what was happening. It would be so much better not knowing. Not knowing seemed like a beautiful place in my past I could never return to.

When the smell of flesh cooking drifted up to my vantage point, that sick feeling in my stomach surged through me and I finally began crawling away, face wet and filthy.

I found my way back to the camp like a sleepwalker. My legs moved, my eyes saw, my lungs breathed, but I wasn't really there. Maybe I was on one of those planets high above. Maybe this was all just the nightmare of another girl in a happier world.

When I saw the campfire’s faint glow, I realised I had no idea what to do next. Was I going to run in, shouting, waking everyone and telling them the truth? Shao's men would kill me before I got the second sentence out of my mouth.

No. I should walk away and disappear into the night. Let them say a wolf had taken me, just like Bai and Chen.

Chen. Hai.

I couldn’t leave him to them.

I’d take him to Baikal. That’s where the future was. That’s where safety was.

I crept through the camp again but realised the guards weren’t really paying attention. Why would they? The only things to fear were themselves.

I slipped into the net-tent and shook Hai. He lolled onto his back and made a tiny sound, like a ghost whispering. I saw how thin he was, how much skull was visible behind his skin.

The impossibility of it all fell on me like the whole of the sky.

Even if I could get us past the guards, how would we find Baikal in the dark? I didn’t even know how to make a firetorch. We could stay on the tracks but how could we keep ahead of everyone else, with Hai’s tiny legs and no food to keep us going? Shao’s men would catch us and then…

My thoughts wouldn’t take me past there.

I’d wait for tomorrow. Things would be clearer. In daylight, you could see paths that the dark concealed.

Tomorrow, I would tell people who Shao was, what he’d done to us.

Tomorrow.

I curled around Hai's little body. Even through our clothes, I could feel our bones on each other. I wasn't so much bigger than him. Not so much stronger than him, really. And these things mattered in this world. They really, really mattered.

I still don’t know how, but I finally fell asleep.

***

It was light when Zhang shook me awake. The caravan was already half assembled. I looked up into the old man’s cracked desert of a face. Everything from the night before crashed across my mind, a great terrible oily black wave. I almost told him right then, but I didn’t have the words. In daylight, it all seemed impossible. He’d laugh. He’d tell me I was muddling dreams with reality, like Chen. He’d call me mad. Maybe I was.

“Time to go, kids,” Zhang said. “Baikal waits.”

Hai grasped my hand.

We walked. There was nothing else to do. I tried to think.

The slope grew steeper. Zhang said that was good. Baikal was ringed by mountains, so the harder the climb, the closer we were. Above us, the train tracks curved over the peak, flanked by crags.

Maybe I really had gone mad. The more I remembered the night before, the less possible it seemed, the more it floated away as if it had no weight, no roots in the real world. I was hungry and thirsty and very tired and I had been for weeks. Brains can crack. I’d seen broken starving men walking Harbin’s streets, talking intimately with roadside corpses as if they were old friends catching up. Maybe I’d become one of them. Maybe I’d wandered off the tracks of sanity and not even noticed.

Then I found the tear in my trousers. Through the rip, I could see my torn skin. I could see the meat of me.

It was all real.

As we walked, I rummaged through my brain, trying to find the words to tell the others. How could I explain what I’d seen? Who could I even talk to? But even if I could get them to believe that Shao had been drugging us, killing us, feeding us to each other – what then? His men had the guns. At the start of this journey, there’d been enough of us that we could have overwhelmed them anyway. We were fewer now, and weak. We’d be dead in minutes, food in hours.

Baikal was the answer. Baikal was hope. We just had to get there. There would be others there. People who ate and drank well, who could afford the luxury of kindness. People who'd take us in.

(A memory: Qara’s sad, stern face as she refused Chen’s pleas.)

Shao's men reached the peak first. There was no joyful shouting. I pushed my way forward and saw why.

There was no great lake in the valley below. Instead, a dusty town sprawled, much larger than the last. Shao peered through his ancient binoculars. “Mongols, I think. Hundreds. Some look armed.”

He ordered us back behind the crags in the shade and out of sight. As always, we obeyed.

“We’ll rest, eat, and decide what next,” he said, so calmly that the town might always have been part of his plan.

I found Zhang and asked to see the map. He unfolded it and stared for a long time.

“We aren’t where we thought we were,” he said at last. His thumb hovered over that black dot by Baikdal, then moved slowly east until he found another black dot. “We must be here.”

“That looks like a hundred miles,” I said.

“Perhaps three times that.”

My brain started floating away from my body, just like the night before.

Shao called for Zhang. I watched them talk, mapping out our new fates.

One of Shao’s deputies handed them a bowl. I watched Zhang’s face as he took a strip. It seemed to me that for a sliver of a second he stared at it with bleak distaste before putting it in his mouth.

My mind stuttered.

Did he know?

Who else knew?

I looked around the camp, at the hungry, hopeless faces. I counted how many of us were left. How many would it take?

About the Author

Jaime Gill

Jaime Gill is an award-winning writer and creative whose journalism, features and fiction have been published by The Guardian, BBC, Wanderlust, Yahoo, Huffington Post, Bangkok Post, and Phnom Penh Post. He was born in Britain but left in 2014 and is not responsible for any of the country’s decisions after that date. He works for development organisations across South East Asia and lives in Cambodia while working haphazardly on a climate crisis novel, film script, and far too many stories, two of which were recently longlisted by The Masters Review and The Bridport Prize. His stories have appeared in acclaimed titles including voidspace and Beyond Words.

Read more work by Jaime Gill .