Sunday, April 9, 2017
1st 5 Pages April Workshop - Mbalia Rev 1
Name: Kwame Mbalia
Genre: Young Adult
Title: The Floating Library of Timbuktu
Maysar prayed the sandstorm arrived soon. He was tired, and the chaffed skin on his wrists burned. A salty paste of sweat and sand clung to his arms. A bead of sweat rolled near his eye, but he bit his lip and returned to studying the worn faded map propped beneath his chin.
He lay in a small burrow beneath the wreckage of a lightship; the vessel’s limp inflatable covered him and his supplies - a thick leather document case, a set of oxygen tanks, and an angular metal container filled to the brim with coal. The heavy leather balloon had gone flat less than an hour back, but that seemed an eternity ago. Now, its weight - combined with the dwindling air supply and the heat of the sand - threatened to drive him mad.
Something tickled his neck and Maysar flinched. That’s it. He needed to breathe. He lifted the corner of the inflatable, only enough to allow a trickle of fresh air in, and - more importantly - a gleam of light.
The sun had dipped to the horizon, so the orange rays were faint over the sands of the Vasahn desert. He risked being spotted, but he needed to be sure of the coordinates. He also needed to sneak another peek at the pair of slavers investigating the wreck. Maysar put his eye to the crack, then froze.
A pair of worn leather boots stood a few feet away.
“No way that runaway survived this crash,” a muffled voice shouted. It sounded distorted, and Maysar’s face fell. Beetlebacks. Great.
“Then where’s the body?” the one next to his hiding spot asked. “He’s hiding somewhere, I can feel it.” Maysar strained to listen while holding his breath. He could barely hear them over the lumbering footsteps of their Scorpions. The six-legged mounts belched thick clouds of smoke in loud blasts.
“His body’s somewhere in these coals! Can’t you smell it?” the first slaver said. “You wanna go down and poke around?”
“Go ahead. I can look around just fine from up here.”
Maysar imagined him staring at the fiery chaos strewn across the sands. At least, he hoped it looked like fiery chaos. He’d worked very hard to make it appear that way.
And, he thought, hopefully the sandstorm will force them to hurry. To be careless. No one wanted to be stranded when the nightstorms darkened the sky and cleansed the sands. Especially Beetlebacks.
Still, he flinched every time the Scorpions drew near. The vibrations from their shuddering steps pushed grains of sand into every exposed crack and crevice, and he grit his teeth as open wounds burned along his back and arms.
“We need a body.”
“We need to go.” A Scorpion let out a blast of steam, and Maysar gasped into the sand as the inflatable pressed down against his spine. He grit his teeth and tried not to panic, but his chest heaved and his breath sounded like thunder in his ears. The ground shuddered, and he lifted his head as a slaver’s mechanical mount thumped by.
Too close! Sand trickled over and around the balloon and the sloping section of dune beneath his arms shifted. He watched in horror as a long sliver of light appeared where the inflatable pulled away from the ground, and a twinkling gleam bounced off of the metal oxygen tanks.
They’ll see it, he wanted to scream.
“Watch it!” He heard the ringing of metal on metal again. “Stupid beast nearly threw me!”
A harsh laugh sounded. “Oil the gears more often, idiot. Now stop fooling around and let’s go.”
Maysar closed his eyes behind his sweltering half-mask and tried to slow his breathing. Please, he prayed, let the storms start soon.
"You can’t run forever, duga!" One of the slavers shouted.
He twitched in surprise, nearly squeezing the release valve for the oxygen tanks - that would have been a catastrophe.
"Don’t make it any worse!"
The voice came from just above him, near his head. He risked another peek. A pair of boots stomped by, and he ducked back down.
He could feel the rumbles of the Scorpion’s steam engine idling below his position at the bottom of the dune. Not good. If the sand shifted even a little bit more he was done for. The scars from his last attempted escape were still healing. They wouldn’t be so forgiving next time. If they let him live at all.
Boots clanked on metal, and the soft thuds of footsteps on sand sent vibrations through the ground. The second slave catcher had dismounted now. Maysar’s breathing quickened. Did he see his hiding spot? Did the lightship look enough like a wreck? Was it too obvious? The fires. Should’ve made more fires. He bit down on his lip until he tasted blood as his mind ran over his chances of running. If they noticed anything out of the ordinary it was all over.
"He’s dead. Stop your yelling,” said the second Beetleback. “We need to start heading back. I don’t like the look of the winds.”
Maysar took another peek. The boots disappeared and he heard muffled metal on metal. The slaver was back on his Scorpion. The engines revved as it steamed up and the mechanical beast’s footsteps thudded past not even a dozen paces below him.
“Make another pass and then let’s go. Scolani can come search himself if he’s that furious." The voice faded away, but Maysar's muscles wouldn't relax.
Scolani. He shuddered. The name conjured images from a nightmare. The eyepatch. The knife. The raspy laugh as he dragged children from parents and husbands from wives, from the coastal auctions to the holds of the Fortunata. Maysar squeezed his eyes tight against the memories.
Was it just the one raider leaving? Both? Where did the second one go? He couldn’t hear the Scorpions anymore. It had to be a trap.
Maysar grit his teeth. They’d tried this on him before, the last time. Or was it the time before? It was all running together - no matter. It was best just to wait. He slipped the hose from the oxygen tank out and - with slow, gentle movements - attached it to his mask. He wanted to save some for the flight, but if he didn’t get some air soon he’d pass out.
Cool air hissed through the mask and he closed his eyes. His mouth was dry. Maysar tried to work up a bit of moisture but all he got for his efforts was grains of sand lodged beneath his tongue.
Somewhere in the back of his mind Maysar knew he shouldn’t panic. Keep calm and follow the plan. Since he committed to using the tanks, he could just hide for a while longer until the sun set completely. The winds were starting to pick up - not enough to expose him on their own, but he could imagine the dropping temperatures, the threat of the night storms, and the nervous looks on his pursuers faces. They would have to return to camp soon or risk being stranded.
What was a couple more hours in hiding?
Two hours. Just two more hours. Then he could reassemble the lightship and pray that the modified coal chute worked. Maysar opened the stolen oxygen tanks a bit more and took deep breaths.
Two hours. Rest.
The young man in the mask thought of warm stories and glowing wonder from years past as his mind faded into darkness.