Originally published in the All borders are temporary anthology (2018).
Nadja watches the man across the bright buzzing fence. She doesn’t know his name. She has never heard his voice. What she knows is: he works at a factory; he takes care of a little girl; and although he doesn’t smile often, he has a sweet smile, that crinkles his eyes and softens his face. He’s not smiling now, as he pulls his collar up and exhales in a puff of air. It must be cold in the Enclosure. Her fingers move over the paper on her lap as he walks down the street, unaware he is being watched.
She blinks tears away, head pounding steadily. The closer to the inner fence, the more you feel it—the dizziness, the prickling of the skin. Most people start heaving in minutes, but Nadja’s acquired some resistance in the last few months. It still isn’t pleasant, but she doesn’t care as long as she can stay in the in-between.
Enclosure 601-A is a seven-block perimeter closed a few months ago. Its cobbled streets are clean and the brick buildings about five stories each, with ornamentation around the windows and doors. Even the lampposts curl up at the top. It seems the sort of architecture the New Government would want to copy, but she doesn’t question it. Had they not sealed it, she could never sneak in.
It’s early in there. She can tell from the movements of people, if not by the sky above the Enclosure, a swirling mix of darkness and colors, like a rainbow entangled itself into a gathering storm. The nameless man moves towards the factory where he works, a building that merges with the edge of the fence. Nadja gets up, beating dust from her clothes.
As always, she wonders if the people inside can see the fence running through windows and walls. Probably not. When she was a child and 602-B was sealed, kids dared each other to stand unmoving in front of it while a pre-Invasion train ran directly towards them. It was scary at first, but then they realized it was always the same—the trains twisting into themselves and disappearing in a rush of light. No one inside the Enclosure seemed to notice it. No one inside the Enclosure seemed to notice them. And she never found out what happened to the passengers.
She puts the papers in her bag and accompanies the nameless man in his walk, ignoring the bright wall rising way over her head and the outer fence, dark and heavy, behind her. She pretends, for a moment, there is nothing between them, that she can’t hear the hum or feel the sickening push-and-pull of the fence, that she can cross any time she wants. This lasts as long as it always does, which is not a lot.
A fist pounds on the outer fence. “Time’s up.”
They are divided by twenty feet of broken, twisted ground. The inner one protects the Enclosure from the rest of the world, and the outer one, the rest of the world from the inner one. There were two doors in 601-A, but they’d been sealed when the Enclosure was deemed inadequate. To leave the in-between, she has to cross a suffocating tunnel, originally made for a scavenger, though the man was arrested before making much use of it.
When she hauls herself up, the sky is dark blue tinged with orange and her head is full-on bursting. In-between there was just the hum, but out here she hears the bored guard walking up and down on gravel, the ever-present nuclear plant nearby, and small things scurrying into the ground. She beats dirt down over the hole, disguising it. On the outer fence, peeling posters yell at her. THE NEW GOVERNMENT NEEDS YOU TO REBUILD. She runs a hand through her hair and picks off small twigs. PLANETARY GOVERNMENT, another sign reads. RESTORE AND EXPLORE.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she tells the guard.
“If you can pay,” he replies.
She nods. She’s working on that.
The old man lives in the typical sprawl of an Invasion-era underground apartment house. Nadja goes down a corridor with dozens of doors and ignores the dour-faced people coming in and out of them, shadowy creatures created by a single flickering lamp. She presses a buzzer next to a steel door.
A thin slice opens and a wrinkled face peeks out from behind it. “Who are you?”
“I have something for you,” she says.
“That’s not what I asked.”
“My name is Nadzieja. I brought you something.” The old man squints at her. Behind him, she can barely see the outlines of shelves. Either he lives without light or has turned them off before opening the door. She fumbles with her bag and starts pulling something. “Here, I found…”
“Keep that hidden,” he says sharply. “Come in.”
He opens the door only enough for her to do so, then closes it. For a moment she’s in total darkness, feeling the smallness of the room more by the stale air than any walls she can devise. Then the man clicks something, there’s a buzz, and a light flicks to life above them.
There’s a small desk in the middle of the room, one chair on either end of it. On a corner there’s a pallet. The other three walls are stacked with shelves and, on them, books. There must be hundreds of them, maybe thousands, piled horizontally and vertically atop each other. Many are scorched or missing covers. If any of these shelves toppled, they would drown the old man in their dusty smell.
She turns to him. His coat hangs limply from scrawny limbs and he’s propped by a cane. Yet his gaze is frightening as he blocks the door.
Nadja clears her throat. “Mr. Scavenger…”
He scoffs, his gaze losing some of its intensity. “Once upon a time, we were called historians.”
“I meant no offence.”
“You may call me mr. Warsz. Now, what do you have for me?”
She pulls the book from her bag. It’s almost intact, a relic she crawled through rubble and dust to find among a number of its destroyed peers. The pages are a dark yellow and the cover faded, but you could still read the title in golden embossing. A History of Europe — volume 2. She didn’t find volume 1.
His eyes narrows as he limps closer. He takes it gently from her hands with spindly fingers, then runs a hand over the cover before opening it and turning a couple of pages.
He looks up. “How much?”
“A hundred,” she says.
He raises an eyebrow. She can almost hear him thinking she’s a fool. Scavengers would pay three times that for a book in this state. But, before he can speak, she adds, “And information.”
“Ah.” His lips curl up. “I see.”
He gestures towards the chair and she takes a seat, clasping her hands on her lap. He settles on the other side and places the book between them.
“Where did you find this?”
“Near the 700s.”
“The old library,” he guesses. “It was destroyed during the Invasion, the building collapsed into a hole. That place is dangerous.” He studies her. “All that effort and you took only this?”
“Maybe I have more,” she says.
His lips curl further upwards. “Tell me what you seek, and I’ll pay your price.”
She licks her lips, fingers tightly interlocked. “I want to know about 601-A.”
“Everything. Who are they, why it was closed.”
“601-A is a long way from here. Why would I know anything about it?”
“Because—” She bit her lip. “That’s what you people do. You keep track of the Enclosures. They told me you were the best, that’s why I came here.”
His fingers tap on the desk. “Why are you so interested in 601-A?”
She hesitates, then: “That’s my business.”
He scoffs again, and Nadja fights a blush. “Your business! That’s the government’s business, young lady. If you stick your nose in the in-between, you must have a reason. I’ve heard them all, so let me guess.” His eyes narrow. “You don’t look like a spy. A government agent would be dressed more warmly. Let’s say you snuck in to get a peak and saw someone who reminded you of your poor deceased parents. Siblings? Or maybe a handsome young man.”
Her eyes, unbidden, turn down. He is not handsome, she thinks.
She expects another scoff, but hears a soft sigh.
“You can’t cross,” he says.
She raises her eyes. “I know.”
“Do you? People come here begging to be let in on the secret. Tell me how to cross. Tell me how to get there. Ha!” His laugh is jarring, filling the room. “You think any of us would be here if we could jump into a pre-Invasion pocket of paradise? How many have died trying? Hundreds? Thousands? They were never seen again. Who knows where the fence takes them? If anywhere.”
She feels a chill, though the room has no windows. “I know,” she repeats, her voice a whisper now. She’s not disappointed, she tells herself. She knew it was impossible. “I just want to understand.”
“What are you?” he asks suddenly.
The question throws her off. “What?”
“Restore and explore,” he quotes, with a hint of derision. “What role do you play in our new world?”
“I… restore, I suppose. I work in construction, near the 600s.”
“Ah. The new government headquarters. It’s going to be taller than anything currently standing, isn’t it? A dream of metal and light. And 601-A? Does it look anything like it?”
She shakes her head. The stone buildings, the cobbled streets with their lampposts—they look so delicate in comparison. “No.”
“Have you ever wondered why the Enclosures are so different from one another?”
“Pre-Invasion peoples had many cultures.”
“They did. But that’s not it. What do you know about the fences?”
She resists the urge to snap at him. She came for answers, not an interrogation. If she wanted to be tested, she’s try getting into a school. But this man is her best shot, so she pushes down her frustration and repeats what everyone knows.
“They were made during the Invasion War. When the Vrem were destroying the planet, people built the fences to protect themselves. After we won, we could look in at them and rebuild.”
“But if people could create these safe spaces, why not protect the whole world?”
She opens her mouth, then closes it. “Someone had to fight.”
His voice turns harsh, his gaze piercing. “The Enclosures were not created to protect people from the invasion.”
“Then what are they?”
“A side effect. The only reason the Vrem left Earth—because we broke this planet trying to win it back.” Mr. Warsz rises and turns before she can reply. He grabs a book and opens it on the desk, turning a page with a map towards her. “This was the world as it once existed. This,” he points, “were the old contours of Europe. It was a continent back then, made up of several countries—independent governments. The Invasion made borders irrelevant and exterminated a good part of the population, but we live… here.” He points to a place in the center of the map, with lines around it and an ocean above it. “After the some time of chaos, counterattacks began, led by America and China. With what was left of human technology along with that stolen from the Vrem, people started fighting back. But they were reckless, dealing with things they didn’t quite command.” He sits back down. His voice turns almost inward. “The Vrem’s understanding of spacetime was thousands of years ahead of ours. They worked in six dimensions while we were still discussing the four.”
Nadja stares. She has no idea what the old man is talking about.
“What happened,” he says, when he realizes, “was that humans, as usual, were the cause of their own problems. We repealed the invaders by accidentally making this planet a dimensional minefield. Continents were remade, windows to other times were opened. The fences were created in America. Defenses, they called them.” He says the word in English. “The only way to keep the Enclosures from spreading.”
She blinks, latching onto words she understand. “Other times?”
“The people you see in the Enclosures are not there. They were there. Enclosures are different because the people in them live in different times. Some of them are sealed because the planetary government has no interest in those times.”
“But I see them. Walking, talking to each other.” If the Enclosures are in the past, everyone in them might already be dead. The idea pierces her heart, makes her stomach drop. She feels ill. “What time is 601-A?”
“Hard to determine. But…” He leans forward. “If you go back and write down everything you see for some time, I can try to pinpoint it.”
“I don’t write well,” she says softly. Then: “But I can draw.”
In her bag, she finds a sketch with a complete background, a day when she was bored, waiting for the nameless man to appear. He’s there too, the lines that make him up more delicate and sure. She hands the paper to mr. Warsz after a self-conscious pause.
“Will this work?”
The old scavenger examines the page, then looks at her with a strange expression, bordering on admiration. “Yes. Yes, it will.”
She goes to mr. Warsz every few days. It’s a long walk after work that cuts on her sleeping time, but he gives her money to bribe the guards and she can stay longer in the in-between. It’s strange drawing with purpose. She tries to be as accurate as possible. There’s no time to walk the nameless man to work, though she still pauses when he appears. No one needs to know.
Mr. Warsz tells her things about the past—peoples and countries and forms of government. He has storybooks too, and flat discs and other strange objects. He collects anything. All of it are part of humanity, he says, and useful to understand it. He lets her take down a few books while he works on her drawings. She’s never cared for them before. Now she thinks it would be nice having some of her own.
“He started wearing this on his coat,” she says one day, pointing at a star-shaped sign she’d seen on the nameless man’s coat. “A lot of them did. What is it?”
He doesn’t say. He avoids as many questions as he answers, claiming it’s too soon, always too soon. One time, he has her count her steps between 601-A and 675-B, which take a whole afternoon. When she gives him the count, he pours over his maps for a long time, drawing lines between dots and ignoring her questions.
One day, she arrives shaking.
“What is it?”
“They…” She plops down on the chair, taking the day’s drawing from her bag. It’s a mess of awkward, twitchy lines. “Someone was killed.”
He listens. A man started arguing with one of the uniformed officers she’d often seen around. At one point, the man unslung a long gun from his shoulder and killed him. Right there, on the street.
“I had to bribe the guard to let me stay longer,” she says after a while. “I wanted to see if anyone would get him.” And she wouldn’t leave before seeing the nameless man—who appeared, at last, and helped carry the body. “I need more money.”
“You’re not going anymore.”
She blinks. “What?”
“Your job is done.” He sits back and closes the book he was reading with a loud thump, sticking her drawing between the pages. “You’re not going back.”
Her voice rises. “Why not?”
“I already know what I need to know.”
When nothing else comes, her hands come up out of their own volition, fists pounding on the desk. “Tell me!”
He doesn’t flinch. “Stay away.”
“You said the Enclosures are sealed when the government has no interest in them,” she says, peering into those inscrutable eyes. The words have stuck with her, but she’s been too scared to ask. “Why was this one closed?” Silence. “I won’t leave until you tell me.”
She crosses her arm, unflinching too. When he finally speaks, she realizes he too is tense, his voice carefully controlled. “‘Restore and explore.’ Victorious humanity is finally going to space after winning an interplanetary war. Humans are rebuilding their species from the ground up. A species that values peace and justice—or at least that’s what we’re telling the rest of the Universe. True, we were invaded and defended ourselves. Also true that it brought us together unlike anything before.” He pauses, tracing the letters on the cover of the closed book. An atlas of World Wars. “But that claim can’t stand if certain things are remembered. Some Enclosures would defy it. So they’re closed, at least until the dangers pass. Until all evidence of horror is gone.”
She’s nowhere near the fences, but the word makes her dizzy. Horror. “What happens in 601-A?”
“The place was destroyed,” he says mercilessly. “Burned to the ground, its people killed or taken somewhere else to be exterminated. It was the last resistance of a place that resisted for a long time. A brave, hopeless stand. The best of humanity is perhaps in there. But our leaders do not want us to see ourselves in the ones who murdered them.”
“All of them?” She shakes her head, something lodged in her throat. “Some of them surely survive,” she says. Begs. “Anyone—”
“Wipe your tears, child. This has all happened already. You cry for dust.”
No, she wants to scream. He doesn’t understand. Behind his books and their sterile yellowed pages, he’s never seen them move, he’s never seen them smile. This is happening right now. This is going to happen.
“When?” she asks.
Mr. Warsz sighs. “Soon.”
A few days later, she sits behind the fence.
You don’t have to watch, Nadzieja thinks to herself. Why are you watching? But the answer comes swiftly—because no one else is.
It’s cold. She uncurls aching fingers and starts sketching. She has a feeling it’ll be today. Tensions have been rising, more of the uniformed men have been around. Some of them walk down the street now, looking intent. She commits it to memory and captures it with broad strokes—a hand raised, pointing at the top of a building.
And then it starts—inside Enclosure 601-A, sealed off to the world, in a time long gone, a red-and-white flag is torn from a building. Like a sign, it puts the officers to work. People are dragged from buildings; people resist. A woman is thrown to the ground. A man gets shot, then another. Fire bottles are thrown into windows and sewers. While the flames roar, a young man jumps from a burning building and falls to the ground in a mess of broken limbs. She tries to register all their faces, the expressions of defiance and terror and hopelessness, but there are so many—
She sees him, then. Fingers still moving, faster now, she tries to capture the way he moves, breathing, alive, one last time—the way he pushes an officer back, the punch he gets in return, how he struggles when another grabs his arms and forces him to his knees. Then it happens. It happened. The officer raised a gun and with a quick movement, with practiced ease, aimed and fired a burst that sprayed red across a convulsing chest. The nameless man fell to the side, eyes open to the swirling skies.
This is all ancient history.
Her mind goes back to her last conversation with mr. Warsz. “You didn’t want me to call you scavenger,” she said to him, “but that’s what you are. You don’t write books, you just hoard them.”
“I’m preserving them,” he said, “for the future.”
She shook her head. “We need them now.”
Ahead, the ghetto is still burning. It kept burning, and it would burn for a long time yet.
She leaves when it is over, when the twitching bodies are still and the fires turn to embers. A long line of prisoners disappeared somewhere beyond the fence, in a time inaccessible to her. Her hands hurt, her bag is filled with pages. When she emerges from the outer fence, the guard gives her a side glance.
“Next time, you pay for the hour.”
“There won’t be a next time,” Nadzieja says. “If you know any scavengers, tell them to come to me. Tell them I have books. And more.”
He turns and narrows his eyes. “You one of them now?”
“No,” she says. Behind her, a sign reads: HELP TO REBUILD. She touches her bag. “Something else.” Or so she hopes.