Isaak Wissinger sprang suddenly from his cot, motivated by a particularly enthusiastic bedbug. He was immediately sorry, as the pain in his back was exacerbated by the sudden movement. He looked back down at the vermin filled, inch thick mattress, a few pieces of straw sticking out of a hole in the side, sitting on an ancient metal frame. It was a sleeping place not fit for a dog. Then he laughed ruefully. That was exactly how he and every other Zaeri was thought of here—as dogs.
The Kingdom of Freedonia, like the rest of the civilized world was divided in two. There were the Kafirites, who ruled the world. And there were the Zaeri, who had long ago ruled it. Two thousand years ago, Zur had been a great kingdom, one that along with Argrathia, Ballar, and Donnata ruled the classical world. Then a single dynasty of kings, culminating in Magnus the Great, had conquered the rest of the known world, and made Zur civilization the dominant culture. Zaeri, the Zur religion, with its belief in one god, had replaced the pagan religions of the civilizations that Magnus and his forebears had conquered. Even when Magnus’s empire had splintered into many successor kingdoms, the Zaeri religion had remained dominant.
Then a generation later, a Zaeri imam named Kafira had begun teaching a strange variation of the religion in Xygia. Kafira had taught the importance of the afterlife, an adherence to a code of conduct that would lead one to this afterlife, and a general disregard for the affairs of the world. Her enemies had destroyed her, but in so doing they had made her a martyr. From martyr, she rose swiftly to savior and then to godhead of a new religion, one that had spread quickly to engulf all that had been the Zur civilization. In the following millennia, the Kafirites had converted the remaining pagans to the creed of their holy savior, thereby making it the only religion in the world of man—the only religion in the world of man save those who held onto the ancient Zaeri belief.
Now here in Freedonia it was no longer safe to be a Zaeri. First it had become illegal for Zaeri to be doctors or lawyers, and then actors or publishers. Then laws had been passed which made it illegal for Zaeri to own businesses or property. Finally entire neighborhoods became forbidden to Wissinger’s people and they had been pushed into ghettos, segregated from the other Freedonians.
Wissinger spent the day picking up garbage on the street. That was his job here in the ghetto. He had been an award-winning writer when he had lived in Kasselburg, but here in Zurelendsviertel he walked the street, a silver zed pinned to his jacket, picking up refuse. At least people didn’t treat him like a garbage man. The other Zaeri knew him and respected him. They asked his opinion about things. They called him “professor” when they spoke to him. It was not like that at all with the Freedonian soldiers who occasionally made a sweep through the ghetto. They would as soon kick an award-winning writer to the side of the road as they would a street sweeper.
Back once again in his room, he pulled his tablet and pencil from its hiding place behind a loose board and continued writing where he had left off the day before. He could not live without writing. He wrote down what had happened that day, what he had seen, what he had heard. He wrote about the death of Mrs. Finaman, brought on no doubt by lack of nutrition, and he wrote about her husband’s grief at the loss of his wife and his unborn child. He wrote about the sudden disappearance of Mr. and Mrs. Kortoon, and the speculation that they paid their way out of the ghetto. And he wrote about the disappearance of the Macabeus family, and the speculation that something sinister had happened to them.
That night on his uncomfortable cot, Wissinger had a wonderful dream. He dreamed that a beautiful woman was making love to him. She licked his neck as she rubbed her naked body against his. She whispered to him in some foreign language—he thought it was Brech. When he managed to pull himself out of the fog of sleep, and he realized that it wasn’t a dream, that the woman was really here with him, he tried to push her off of him.
“Don’t stop now lover,” she said, a noticeably Brech accent to her Freedonian. “I’m just starting to really enjoy myself.”
Wissinger pushed again, and slid his body out from under her, falling to the floor in the process. She stretched out, lying on her stomach. He stared at her open-mouthed. Her long blond hair didn’t quite cover a fourteen-inch crescent moon tattoo at the top of her back. Another tattoo, an eight-inch flaming sun sat just above her voluptuous bottom.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I would have thought that was obvious,” she replied in a sultry voice. “I’m here to warn you.”
“You… uh, what?”
“I’m here to warn you.”
She rolled over and stood up, revealing six star tattoos all over her front.
“In a short while, maybe a few weeks, the food supply to the ghetto will be reduced. It will be reduced a lot.”
“They barely give us enough to survive on as it is. They can’t cut it back anymore.”
“They can, and they will.” She stepped closer to him. “They are going to try and starve the Zaeri to extinction.”
“They won’t be able to.”
“No, it’s true, in the end they won’t. But they will try and many will die. Even worse things will follow. Do you know how to get out of the ghetto?”
“I can’t leave. People need me here.”
“No they don’t. People like you, but they don’t need you and they won’t help you when things get very bad. You have no family and when it comes to eat or starve, you won’t have any friends either—no one will. I ask you again; do you know how to get out of the ghetto?”
“They say a Kafirite named Kiesinger will get you out if you can pay, but I don’t have any money. I didn’t have any before I came here.”
The woman handed him a small leather pouch, though he had no idea where she could have had it hidden. He looked inside. There was a small roll of banknotes and twenty or so gold coins.
“Gold is gold. I don’t know if the banknotes are worth much, but they’ve got to be better than Freedonian groschen.”
“No doubt,” said Wissinger. “Why? Why are you helping me? I mean, me in particular.”
“You need to survive. You need to leave Freedonia and make your way to Birmisia.”
“Birmisia? That’s on the other side of the world. How could I get there? What would I do there?”
“Live. As for the how, we’ll deal with that later. Now you’ve wasted all my time talking when we could have been doing something far more satisfying.”
“You’ve only been here a few minutes.”
“Yes, but I have much to do. Go see this man and get out of the ghetto. I’ll find you again at a later date, hopefully, in a more hospitable mood.”
“Who are you? What are you? Are you my guardian angel?”
The woman smiled. “That is exactly what I am.”
Then with a wave of her hand, she disappeared with a pop.