The blood pooled in the foreigner’s beige shirt, just over his belt. Some of it spilled over the side, filling up a red lake beneath him. Littlebig listened for the foreigner’s shallow breathing, and waited for the dark. Dark brought cover and a chance of rescue for the boy and the foreigner.
“We know there are two rebels there behind the wall,” came the sniper’s voice. “And we are going to come for you. Do you think we are afraid somehow to come down there? I assure you we are not. We are waiting for you to come out.”
Littlebig raised the rifle above the wall and squeezed off a round. The recoil from the rifle shook the dust off the top of the brick wall.
“You stupid rat! Don’t you understand? We’re not going anywhere. We know you have a wounded man down there. You’re not going anywhere. You come out now and we’ll just take your hand. Don’t be stupid. We are hard men, you know what we will do to you if we have to come down there. You’ll beg us to take both of your hands to make the pain stop.”
The boy squeezed tight on the rifle’s grip, wishing he could go deaf. They would kill him. Once they had the foreigner he would be worthless except for a few hours of amusement back at their camp. The only reason he was still alive was the foreigner slowly bleeding to death next to him.
“You should run while you still have the chance,” the foreigner said.
The boy looked at him. “Where could I run? Do you not understand this is a trap?”
The man laughed, an awful noise strangled by a gasp of pain. “I think I know that better than you.”
The boy gritted his teeth. “At least one of us got away before they blocked the alley. He’s on his way to tell the Commander.”
“So you’re still holding out for rescue.”
“Dead Dog will come back.”
“Dead Dog?” the foreigner spoke the word in his own language, the necklace he wore quickly translating it into the nasally and quaint tongue of the capital, the language of the Exploiters. “That’s an encouraging name for a potential rescuer.”
“We just have to wait for dark,” the boy said.
“Oh, and is it going to be easy for your friends to find us then?” the foreigner wheezed. “In the dark, hiding behind a random wall?”
The boy pounded the butt of his rifle in the dust, his arms shaking. “They will know where to look.”
Perhaps a meter away, the boy spied a length of rebar, half-covered in newsprint and palm leaf. An idea sprang to life, of tying the foreigner’s shirt to the end of it, and making a flag he could wave to their rescuers.
Before the idea lost its urgency, he got up on his haunches and crawled to the edge of the brick wall. At the far end, the top of the bricks were perhaps four feet above the ground, forcing him to stoop low to avoid breaking cover. Littlebig twisted his rifle around so that the iron sight at the end of the barrel might serve as a hook. If he leaned out a bit more he might snag it.
A serpent of yellow smoke leapt up from the ground in front of him. Another sniper round cracked over his right shoulder and he slammed back against the wall.
“Almost had you that time, rat!” came the taunt from above. “What you want that bar for anyway? You out of bullets? I think you’re out of bullets!”
“That was foolish,” the Correspondent said.
The boy screamed, stuck his rifle up over the wall and squeezed off a half dozen rounds as an answer. The sound rebounded through the square, harsh flat echoes. The foreigner groaned.
The sniper laughed. “Very good, very good. You’re still in the game! I was worried we were waiting up here for nothing. Come, take another shot at us. Try your best!”
The boy cinched his eyes tight, holding the rifle against him. When they goaded him to fire, he wasted bullets. If he didn’t fire they might think he couldn’t fight back.
“I’m telling you to take a shot, boy!” the sniper yelled, and the character of the voice had changed. The sniper had broken cover, and was shouting down at him from the edge of the building across the square. He saw himself spinning around and putting a bullet through the sniper, felt the thrill of ending one of his enemies. The classic turn-around. All he had to do was show a little courage.
“Easy Littlebig,” the foreigner said softly, his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t do it.”
“Get away from me!” the boy shouted and swatted the hand away from him. “Don’t you ever touch me!”
“You stick your head up past the wall and they’ll put a bullet right between your eyes.” The foreigner pushed his finger against his own forehead, his tired brown eyes pleading with the boy.
The sniper wasn’t alone. Others waited up there with him, ready for the opportunity. They had set this trap well. Rockets took out the rear vehicles in the convoy, trapping the rest of the boy’s unit in the square. Every inch of the place was pre-sighted, nothing but this one courtyard remaining for cover.
“You make us come down there, it’ll be bad for you,” the voice said. “We’re not going to kill you right away! Do you hear me? First we’re going to take turns with you. Then we’re going to take things from you.”
“Don’t listen to them,” the foreigner said. “Listen to me.”
The boy looked at him. “I don’t want to listen to either of you.”
“Then don’t listen to me,” he said. “Tell me something.”
The boy ground the butt of his rifle into the grit. “More questions?”
The foreigner had already asked so many. How long have you been fighting? Where do you come from? When do you think the fighting will be over? The Commander said he was a correspondent, a reporter for some country far away. War was interesting to his people because it was so rare where they came from.
“Why don’t you tell me how you got your name?”
His name. The boy had been lined up with the other recruits, only a few days after being captured, perhaps a week after watching his village burn. The Commander had come up to them, examining each knock-need, terrified boy. “You are wondering if you will die today,” the Commander had said. “But that is not for me to say. You will decide which day you will die. Out there somewhere is the bullet you belong to. When you stop running, when you stop fighting, that is the day the bullet will catch up with you. Are you ready to die today?”
Through clenched teeth, the boy answered the foreigner’s question. “The Commander named me, the first day I saw him.”
“Why did he call you Littlebig?”
“He came up to me and looked me in my eyes. I’ve always been tall for my age and I could look at him right back. I was young then, so I didn’t understand the insult.”
“He took his rifle and hit me in the gut. While I was laying there, his men laughed. He said to them, ‘I like this one. He’s a little big but we’ll make him a warrior.’ They pulled me up and I had my name.”
“The Commander sounds like a difficult man to work for.”
“He saved my life that day.”
“Hey, rebel!” came the voice from up above. “Are you resting, rat? If you’re getting sleepy why not let me tuck you in!”
More gunfire echoed from above. The boy leaned his head against the brick, the rough surface of the wall cool against his skin. This wall belonged to the outside of a school, the courtyard now serving as their refuge was once the interior of a classroom. The government used to build things instead of blowing them up.
The foreigner shifted his weight and groaned. “You have to leave here, get far away.”
“I can’t go back to my camp without you,” the boy said. “The Commander will kill me as sure as the snipers will.”
“I know that, Littlebig,” the foreigner said. “I know that to you this is the only life you’ve ever known. So what I’m going to tell you is going to be scary. But you have to listen to me.”
The boy laughed. “I am a killer, Mr. Gatehouse. You cannot scare me.”
“None of this is real.”
The boy looked at him for a moment, unsure if the foreigner’s necklace was working correctly. “What do you mean?”
“This war. The snipers. The bodies. It’s all an illusion. A game.”
The boy spat in the dust. “A game to you, maybe.”
“No, no. I don’t mean this war is meaningless. I mean that it isn’t happening. This war, these buildings. The Exploiters on the roof. This is a game. A simulation. You have become trapped inside of an old war scenario. I heard about this old server that had been left to run for a decade, the drones inside dying and respawning again and again. I came here to see it for myself.”
The boy understood finally. The man was reaching his last few moments, his brain beginning to spin out fantasies for him to soften his exit. “I am not a drone,” the boy struggling not to start screaming at the man. “And when I die I won’t be coming back.”
“You’re right,” the foreigner said, a trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth. “You won’t come back. You’re not a drone, Littlebig, you’re special. You’re a real person who woke up in here somehow. That’s why I had your Commander assign you to protect me. I thought I could convince you to come with me. But it looks like we’ve run out of time.”
“You’re sounding awfully quiet down there. Is your gun jammed?”
“Maybe he’d like us to come down there and help him with that too,” said another voice. More jeers and laughter.
The boy took the foreigner’s head in his hands and locked eyes with him. “I am sorry that you are dying, Mr. Gatehouse, but I am not leaving here. The Commander ordered me to stay with you. I cannot disappoint him. You have no idea what he is capable of.”
The foreigner ignored him. “Outside of the capital is an airport. A plane is there waiting for me with my friends. They’ll take you out of this world but you need to show them who you are, that I spoke to you.”
“Your friends are not going to believe that I knew you.”
“Not without proof, no,” the foreigner said. “Here, put down your rifle for a moment.”
The boy shoved the barrel of the rifle right against the correspondent’s cheek. “I’ll kill you before I go anywhere you tell me.”
“Look, I understand,” the Correspondent said. “It’s going to be hard for you to trust me. Every adult you’ve known in this world has attempted to use you. Or kill you. But there’s a way out.”
The boy pulled the rifle back from the foreigner’s cheek. The man reached for the bag sitting in the dust on his left side and withdrew a small silver case. Pressing a button, the catches and rings of the device sprang open, a slender lens casing sliding out, a control panel revealed in the back.
“Your camera?” the boy asked.
“Yes. We’re going to take a picture together,” the foreigner said. “You show that picture to my friends at the airport and they’ll know what it means. They’ll ask questions but you’ll have the right answers. They’ll want to know what happened to me, do you understand? But they are like the Exploiters, drones who still think they’re covering an actual war. But once they take you with them, you’ll be free. You’ll be somewhere else. You can decide what to do with your life.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Lean in and help me with the camera,” the man said, holding it above them. He attempted to put his arm around the boy to pull him into the shot but Littlebig resisted. He didn’t like arms around his shoulders and neck. He adjusted a screen on the side of the device so Littlebig could see his face peering upwards from the pits of his two wounded eyes. Neither of them could smile and the foreigner’s hand was shaking with the exertion of holding the camera in the air. The boy put the rifle down and steadied it with his right hand. The foreigner managed to fit both of their faces in the frame and then captured the picture. The boy didn’t like the expression he saw frozen on his own face. There was a sudden weakness there, the eyes losing some hard sheen you needed to fight and survive in the capital. The foreigner’s arm fell away and he breathed out his agony. That left the boy in possession of the camera.
It was similar in someways to a gun. It had a grip to hold it steady, a sight to use for aiming. The camera even had a trigger. But looking through the screen he saw the many differences. The world looked smaller through the camera than it did through the iron sights of his gun. A picture was something stolen, looted from the carnage of the world. The gun, on the other hand, was a tool that made things, made death.
He pressed the trigger of the camera and captured another image, a slash of light falling across the yellow dirt in front of them. The brass casings of past firefights glinted in the sun, the brick pock-marked with bullet holes. Off in one corner of the wall grew a clutch of grey mushrooms. Before he had joined the rebels, he had lived on mushrooms like those, searching for the dead bodies that nourished them.
Taking a picture had consequences. Here he was in the middle of a firefight, trapped like a rat by his enemies and a single picture was enough to throw him back into a past when he was nothing but a victim, an observer to the ruin around him.
The Commander’s words returned to him – escape is exploitation. The Exploiters want you to flee.
Littlebig pulled the camera from his eyes and looked across to the journalist. A fly had settled on his face, marching down the thin, pinched nostrils, and down to put its bristly legs upon his blood-caked lips.
The bullet had finally caught up with the foreigner. A few hours before the man had been standing up, taking pictures of the fight, immune to the bullets flying left and right, capturing images of his friends’ deaths. He would survive this; even the Exploiters knew they couldn’t kill this man. They would let him live when so many of Littlebig’s friends had died. He raised his camera to his eye, aimed it at him, but it did not feel like his gun.
When had the death happened? Perhaps as he had taken a few shots of the opposite wall. A few innocent clicks of the camera and he had missed the death as it happened.
He snapped a picture of the fly on the journalist’s face. Then he unslung the leather strap, rolled forward so he was balanced on the balls of his feet. Looking around to make sure he was still protected behind the wall, he grasped the camera tightly by its strap, swung it high up above his shoulder and brought it down in a nice clean stroke against the bricks.
The lens exploded with a pop, the plastic housing coming apart in jags and splinters. He struck it against the wall again before taking the mechanism away from the lens and tossing it into the shadows.
Then he sat with his back to the wall and waited for night to come.
by Morgan Crooks