THE CIRCUIT

The train was uninhabitable, but people lived on it anyway. Its interiors were boiling. It was always short of food and potable water. Everywhere reeked of piss and sweat.

The train and its tracks were built to never break down. For all the damage time and use inflicted upon its living areas, the motive machinery functioned flawlessly. The ride was so smooth, the train's inhabitants could often forget the vehicle on which they lived.

The train was four meters wide and eight meters tall. Most cars had three storeys. It was designed to house millions. Maybe it used to have so many passengers. Now it had a few thousand. Fights broke out; it still felt cramped and oppressive. Nobody remembered how long the train was. It was too long for anyone to measure anymore.

Small, desperate towns grew around the thirty places where the train stopped. It stopped at each one for only a short time. Those who inhabited the stations dug deep wells and farmed the irradiated earth. They traded the foods they could produce for the foods other stations produced. Malnutrition was still the most common reason for death at the stations. The train came only once per two years. It was a long time to wait for citrus, or eggs, or fish.

Shara was born on the train and she was orphaned there. Her tongue was branded there. She escaped that brutal existence to a station in the west. The residents called it Lisbon. They said the ruined city on the coast used to be the capital of someplace.

Shara scavenged in the ruins sometimes. She found a book, once. Nobody could tell her what the book said. At night, she pretended she could read it. She thought of all the stories the book might be able to tell her, if only she could speak its language. She imagined that it described a world with more rain. A world with more, better trains, that could take her to more places. A world with less violent and desperate people.

Shara helped in Lisbon's fields most days. She often went to the beaches to fish, but the men in the market almost always rejected what she caught. They said she was a stupid mute and she needed to learn the difference between a healthy fish and a mutant.

A sandstorm struck Lisbon. It lasted for two days. Shara was stuck in her dormitory the entire time. The air was suffocating. It smelled of terrified women. She and the others did not dare to open the door as long as the pounding noise continued. One girl squeaked every time the walls shook from a change in the wind. When the storm passed, Shara and the others were faint from thirst.

The crops were all destroyed. One of the storehouses had been torn apart and its contents were buried in sand and dirt. The fish were gone from the beaches and might not return for a month. Pathetically little fresh food remained in Lisbon.

The only mercy was that the train would come in another week. They could hold out until then.

Shara helped to dig the sand out of Lisbon's well. When she collapsed, she was pushed out of the way so that someone else could take her place. When the water was finally restored, nobody had the voice to cheer. They passed around buckets of dirty water and drank like it was wine.

One week later, Lisbon's elders gathered at the station. They watched the train shimmer on the horizon. They waited at the spot marked with huge, immobile stones. This was where the train's negotiators would come out.

Shara observed from a short distance away. She carried a pack with what food and water she could scrounge in the week following the sandstorm. She felt the hard part where her book was.

Shara was scared for the station's future. Lisbon had too little to offer before the sandstorm, and less after. They would be reliant on the negotiators' sympathy and generosity for survival. Lisbon grew up on the train. She knew that nobody on it was capable of either sympathy or generosity.

She hoped it wouldn't be necessary, but she was prepared. If the station could not trade for the things it would need for the following years, Shara would board the train and find another station to live at.

The train came to a stop. Its brakes made no noise. The total silence of such massive wheels and brakes bothered Shara. The doors opened wide all along its length. Some curious heads popped out, but not very many. Three men wearing gaudy cloaks and nothing else jumped down and raised a cloud of dust. The elders went forward to greet them. Shara overheard them talking.

Lisbon's most senior elder stepped forward from the others and bowed to the negotiators. He showed them what Lisbon had to trade with. He explained what goods they needed most. The negotiators shook their heads. They said, we can't give you all of that for all of this. This is even less than you usually offer us. They said, are you trying to cheat us?

Shara did not stay long enough to see the elder drop to his rheumatic knees and beg. She ran to the train and leaped through one of its open doors. She searched for someplace she could lay low until the next station.

A boy grabbed Shara as she went by. He was naked and unhealthy-thin. He looked mean. His chest heaved with every breath. Like everyone on the furnace of a train, he was covered in a thick sheen of sweat.

The boy drawled, "Who you? I don't know you."

Shara didn't respond. The boy said, "This be my car." He gesticulated at Shara's pack. "You here 'cause you give me something?"

Shara shook her head.

He said, "Speak up, girl." When she didn't, "You better have good reason to be in my car. You know, maybe I take the pack anyways."

The boy watched Shara and frowned. He didn't like to be ignored. He thrust out a hand to seize Shara's pack. Shara reacted quickly; she swung the pack by its strap against the boy's head. It struck him book-first. The boy spilled onto the floor like a fistful of sand.

Bells sounded and the train doors began to close. The boy was slowly coming to. Shara dragged him to the doors she came in through and she dumped him onto the ground. He squawked and landed face-first in the dirt. The doors shut him out. Shara figured it was her car now.

With the doors closed, the air stopped moving, and Shara was harshly reminded of the heat. She undressed and stuffed her clothes in her pack. She kept her shoes; she had lost the insensitivity needed to walk the train's scalding floors without them. After some searching, Shara found the boy's food cache and the faucet he got water from on the uppermost floor of the car. With rationing, Shara decided it would see her through to the next station. That would have to be good enough.

Shara hid in that car for sixteen days. Nobody found her, though some came looking for the boy she ejected. She had nightmares every night. The smells and the noises brought back horrid memories. Her branded mouth ached like it hadn't in years. The book helped her get away from it.

Then the train stopped and the doors opened. Shara leaped out and saw that there was no one there to meet them. There were buildings nearby, but they looked abandoned. She couldn't survive here. She climbed back onto the train and sat numbly.

Shara was starving. Her pack and the food cache already ran out. She would have to find more. She had nothing to trade for it. She was disgusted by the idea of working like her mother did. The only thing left to her was to steal. On the train, the penalty for theft was severe. She knew it intimately. She held her father while he died from an infection of his severed hand.

So Shara ventured into the neighboring cars and stole from their inhabitants while they were away. At first she stole only small amounts, hoping that her theft might go unnoticed. She became weak and undernourished because she ate so little. She knew that if she were to work and be of use to anyone at the next station, she would need to eat more. If she wasn't useful, the people at the station might reject her. So she stole more.

The train was three days away from its next stop when Shara was found stealing food. The guardian who caught her demanded that she identify herself. He hit Shara when she didn't speak. Shara opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue to show the guardian her brand. It marked her as the silenced daughter of an unfaithful wife.

The guardian spat at her. He said, "Come with me."

The guardian led her through some uncounted number of cars, away from the one Shara had claimed. They came to the car belonging to a governor. Shara knew him. He was there when she was punished for her mother's infidelity. He was there when her father was punished for theft. Shara knew what drove him. He liked to watch.

The guardian brought Shara into a room with walls decorated with old, damaged paintings. The guardian said, "Your Supremacy. This one was stealing food."

The governor sat in a wooden chair and sipped golden drink from a clear glass. He sat facing away from Shara and watched the largest painting in the room. It was a fading depiction of some man with strangely pale skin. He was dressed in black and carrying a sword.

The governor turned around in his chair.

He wore shorts made from silk. He looked Shara over. He took her in hungrily. He said, "What say you for yourself then, girl? You know the punishment for stealing on this train?"

"She's mute," the guardian said. "Branded."

The governor said, "Let me see."

The guardian pried open Shara's mouth. The governor put down his glass on the floor and leaned in to see. He smiled. "Oh, yes. Daughter of, who was it. Inanna. I remember your mother fondly."

Shara grabbed the guardian's hand and moved it away from her face. The guardian hit her and shoved her into a corner.

The governor said, "Leave her. I will deal with the girl."

He left Shara alone with the governor. She shrank into the corner. Maybe if she made herself small enough, the governor would lose interest and leave her alone.

It wasn't to be. The governor stood up from his chair. He watched Shara squirm in the corner. He smelled her fear. He never stopped smiling.

The governor reached out a hand. "Take it." He said, "I help you up."

Shara didn't take it. The governor said it again louder. Spit flew from his mouth and stung Shara's eyes. Shara stood up shakily against the corner. She held her pack in front of herself. She didn't touch the governor's hand.

The governor was furious, but he was still grinning. He seized Shara's bag and threw it away. He kept his eyes on her while he grabbed a metal rod from its sheath in the floor. Its end was shaped like a crucifix. Its end glowed red-hot. The hole where it came from was lined with exposed wires.

The governor liked to watch. He told Shara what to do with her hands if she wanted to keep them. She told her what to do with her groin if she didn't want to be branded there, too.

Shara did. The governor smiled. The governor watched.

Shara exhausted herself. She was starved and her mouth ached with memory and thirst. She couldn't do it anymore. Her legs gave out and she leaned against the wall. It was hot against her back.

The governor put the brand away. He was pleased. He offered Shara the rest of his golden drink. She took it and it burned her throat and stomach. She tried not to cough it up.

The governor took the glass back and returned to his wood chair. His silk shorts were soiled. He said, "That's all. Leave now. Don't do it again."

Shara stumbled toward her pack to recover from where it had fallen. The governor said, "No. Leave it. Mine now."

Shara looked at him in frustration and resignation. He smiled back at her. He liked to watch. Shara left the room and tried to remember which way her car was. She left the governor's car and hoped she was going in the right direction.

She found someplace quiet to collapse. It might have been the car she took from that boy. She wasn't sure. She didn't care. She vomited and then she slept dreamlessly.

Shara didn't know how long she slept. Her shoes were gone. A woman shook her awake. "This my car." She said, "Get out, reeking child. You go somewhere else."

Shara poured all of herself into the effort of standing and stumbled away. The hot floors were like walking on needles.

Shara found a faucet. She drank from it and washed herself. She doused the soles of her burning feet. She felt a little better. The pangs of hunger were beginning to fade away. She wondered where her book was, and then she remembered. She scowled and slapped at the water running in the faucet. She broke down and cried into it. The hot water ran over her head. She stayed that way for a while.

When she was finished, Shara turned off the faucet and tried to orient herself. She remembered passing through this car when the guardian brought her to the governor. Her uncooperating mind finally determined which way her car was and which way the governor's was.

She set out to find the governor.

Shara entered the governor's car and heard jovial voices and barking laughter. She crept to the doorway of the room she was raped in. The governor who liked to watch was discussing the station they would soon arrive at with a negotiator. They sat facing away from Shara and toward the military painting. The governor insisted that the negotiator appreciate the painting in between lengths of conversation. He said it was called the Lansdowne portrait. It was painted long ago in another land. It used to be famous, and so did the man in black.

More laughter. The conversation broke away from the painting and they continued to talk about the next station. The governor found the negotiator's scheme to trade the station colored water in place of wine brilliant and hilarious. The governor did right, promoting the man to negotiator. The governor got up to find emptied wine bottles to give the negotiator for the purpose.

Shara went into the room quietly, while the governor and the negotiator were distracted. They didn't see her or hear her. They might have smelled her. The seated negotiator heard the sound of metal. He turned around in time to see the unsheathed brand launching at his face. Shara seared a crucifix between the shrieking negotiator's eyes.

The governor dropped the wine bottles. They shattered into a thousand glittering pieces. He gawked at the branded negotiator. He couldn't look away. He liked to watch.

Shara pulled the brand off the negotiator's face. It took more strength than she expected and she fell over backward and dropped it. She scrambled back to her feet and grabbed the brand. The governor hadn't moved to stop her. He looked Shara over. A smile crept onto his face.

He liked to watch. "Kill him," the governor said. "Do it."

The negotiator kept trying to touch the place between his eyes and he kept pulling his hand away and shouting in pain. He was sobbing helplessly. Shara watched him, then looked at the governor in disbelief.

"Do it." The governor looked around and found Shara's pack shoved on a shelf somewhere. He went and grabbed it. The book's corner bulged out of a tear in the cloth. He told Shara, "Kill him and I give you this."

Shara threw the brand at the governor and then launched herself upon him. She jumped up onto his back. The governor hit his back against the wall to try to get her off. Shara found the governor's eyes with her free fingers and dug into them. The governor wailed and fell backward onto the floor. Shara rolled out from under him and got on top of him. She turned her fingers around in his skull until the wailing stopped.

The negotiator stared at her, terrified. His burned face was horrific.

Shara beat him to death with the brand.

Written by Sophie Kirschner