Fortitude

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by Eliza Victoria

Eliza Victoria is the author of several books, including the Philippine National Book Award-winning Dwellers (2014), Wounded Little Gods (2016), and the graphic novel After Lambana (a 2016 collaboration with artist Mervin Malonzo). Visit her at http://elizavictoria.com.

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The grimy announcement board at the corner of Lakandula and Marilag said 10th Anniversary of the P-40i Settlement. Festivities in the Fortitude Plaza. Glory to Bathala! followed by Tuesday, 10th of June, 36 deg C followed by Thirty past the hour of Five. Sara glanced at her phone and nodded. Seconds later she saw a woman in a black shirt appearing from the bend and approaching the intersection in slow steps. Sara placed the box on her lap and watched her, and waited. The woman, tall and lean like bamboo, seemed to be favoring her right side. The woman stopped for a moment to look around her, marveling at the state the properties were in.

Sara couldn’t blame her. Nature came as a permanent settler in her neighborhood when residents started leaving a decade ago for the nearby planet. Apartment buildings were abandoned and opened their doors to wild dogs. Houses collapsed inward like tin cans in a hot oven. The house where Sara was waiting looked like it had given birth to a tree. Its leaves burst through the roof and branches broke through the windows and the front door. The house’s walls had been spray-painted with graffiti – various messages in various languages, all nothing but faint shapes now on the weathered wood. A friend of hers used to live there. Jemima. Now Jemima and her extended family (grandparents, uncles and aunts, her father who petitioned for her and her mother) lived in a gated subdivision on P-40i, or Forty, or Fortitude. They had to call it something pleasant, something more than a bunch of letters and numbers, so Fortitude it was.

Sara looked up. The planet was more visible now that the sunlight was starting to fade. Fortitude glowed green against the pink sky.

“Are you Sara?” the woman said, standing in the middle of the road. She could actually lie there on the asphalt if she wanted; no vehicle passed this way anymore. Sara shifted her legs, and Jemima’s front porch steps creaked beneath her.

“You’re Del?”

“I guess I am.” Del approached her and sat one step down. The wood groaned. “This is not going to break, is it?”

Del had a tattoo on her neck. Two black swords. Sara wondered what it meant. Del leaned her back against the railing and took a deep breath.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” Del said, and took out her card. “It’s just incredibly hot tonight. Here.”

Sara took her card and swiped it on her phone. Credit collected, the screen announced. Sara handed back her card along with the box.

“Here’s your phone,” Sara said with a smile.

Del thanked her and opened the box. She took out the gadget and placed it on her lap next to her old phone, a battered, thicker model.

She seemed pleased as she swapped the info chips. “This is an improvement,” she said. “Thanks. Why did you describe it as ‘lady-owned’?”

Sara laughed. “My brother said that’s the term they use on online sellers’ sites. Especially for laptops and gaming gadgets. Makes buyers think the merchandise was cared for.”

“Because it was owned by a ‘lady’.” Del smiled and shook her head. “Don’t you think that’s sexist?”

Sara shrugged. “Is it sexist even if it’s a good thing? Girls are more careful with their stuff?”

“But you make assumptions based on gender,” Del said. “That’s sexist.”

Sara shrugged again. Del’s new phone came alive with a triumphant ding.

“Ow.”

Del bent forward, tugging at the back of her shirt. “Sorry about this,” she said, “but my shoulder – I can’t reach back. Can you –”

Del was handing her a compress. “Hot or cold?” Sara asked.

“Cold, for the love of.”

Sara pressed the blue button and lifted the back of Del’s shirt.

Del was wearing a Transplant, the device covering her left side, from the base of her neck to below her ribs. Her left lung shone a bright yellow-green, its glow pulsating with her every breath.

The skin on the small of Del’s back was black with bruises. Sara pressed the compress on it, and Del moaned.

“Thanks,” Del said. “You don’t seem fazed by my android lung.” She chuckled weakly.

“Jemima has an arm Transplant. She’s a friend of mine. The skin around it was tender for months.”

“Tell me about it.” Del moved back and secured the compress in place between her body and the porch step. “Would you mind if we sat here for a bit?”

“I don’t mind.”

“How old are you, Sara?”

“Thirteen.”

“You live here?”

“Yes. You?”

“No.”

“Good for you,” Sara said.

Up and down the streets in her neighborhood were appliances and furniture left behind on the front lawns, like the merchandise of a perpetual garage sale. For Sale, the sign said on every other house, the sign painted or handwritten or rendered in electronic text like the announcement board. On her own street they had only three neighbors left, all old and childless, all too poor to afford to sell their house for one-tenth of its original price, which was the only amount anyone was going to fetch, because who would want to live here anymore?

“So,” Del said, closing her eyes and feeling the night breeze on her face, “I’m guessing you also want to migrate to Fortitude.”

The planet winked in the distance, as green as Del’s lung.

“My brother’s there now,” Sara said. “He got there just two weeks ago. He has a Work Visa,” she added, stressing this.

“Relax. I’m not from Immigration.”

“It took him a year to find a company to sponsor him. And to think he already has a Master’s degree.”

“Advance degrees usually don’t mean anything on Fortitude. Unless he’s an engineer. Or a doctor.”

“Yes. I’m thinking I could apply for a Student Visa after high school. Get a scholarship. I could study to become an engineer – or a doctor – then I could join him. Or he could apply to be a resident, and he could petition us.”

“So you don’t really want to stay here anymore.”

“There aren’t any good jobs. It’s hard to earn money.”

“You sound older than you are,” Del said. “Is that every child’s motivation now when they go to school? To get to Fortitude as quickly as possible and earn money?”

Sara shrugged. “This place sucks.”

Del said nothing.

After a moment the woman asked, “How about the Fortitude Bombing of ’69? Doesn’t that bother you?”

“My mother said it wasn’t really a bombing.”

“Is that what everyone here believes?”

“I guess.”

Del looked saddened by this.

“What I know is two years ago a senator on Fortitude was arrested for bribery,” Del said, “and he ordered his supporters to set off a bomb in the plaza during the Anniversary Celebration to divert the public’s attention. It worked. A lot of people got injured, even Fortitude’s own soldiers, and more than a hundred died. The media covered the bombing every night for several months. The people forgot about the bribery charge, and eventually the senator got released. He’s President of the Fourth Quadrant now. Everyone loves him.”

“That’s what happened?” Sara said. “My mother said it wasn’t a bombing, just an explosion from the underground gas line.”

Del paused. She took a deep breath and said, slowly, “Well, I wouldn’t know for sure. It’s all rumors. Maybe your mother was right.”

“You’ve lived on Fortitude, haven’t you?”

“How can you possibly know that?”

“You said, is that what everyone here believes.”

“Ah.” Del smiled. “Guilty as charged. I got home just this month.”

“Why did you leave?” It was unthinkable for Sara to imagine someone leaving Fortitude for – for this.

“I got homesick.” Del removed the compress.

Moments later they were standing on the sidewalk. Tuesday, 10th of June, 30 deg C, the board said. Twenty past the hour of Six. A single lamppost, next to the board, glowed on the block. Everything else was in shadows. Sara took out her cell phone to use as a flashlight.

“Will you be all right going home?” Del asked.

“Yes, I live nearby,” Sara said. “Bye now.”

“Take care.”

Sara walked down the street and turned a sharp left to take her usual shortcut home. The path took her across fields thick with weeds and wildflowers, cats lounging on rocks. Fields that used to be tended gardens. Sometimes she’d smell smoke and see people cooking inside homes with no electricity, homes that didn’t belong to them. She tried to imagine the place as it was a decade ago. Her parents, newly married and with a new baby boy, living in a prosperous neighborhood with good neighbors, a nice school nearby, hardly able to believe their good luck.

The school was torched three months ago and it burned for days.

A man was suddenly in her way. He was wearing camouflage pants and scuffed leather boots. He was drinking from a bottle. An ex-soldier. Sara had seen him around. Always drinking. Always dirty. There were a lot of drunk ex-whatever on this street. Ex-cop. Ex-lawyer. Ex-VP of XYZ Company, who couldn’t afford to make his car payments anymore.

“Hello,” he said. Sara veered to the right but the man blocked her.

“I said hello. Don’t be rude.”

Sara wondered if she should run.

A knife appeared in the man’s hand. He pointed the blade at her eyes.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. Sara’s hands shook, making the light from her phone dance. But she was more angry than afraid.

Sara kicked him in the groin. The man fell, dropping his knife and bottle, and Sara heard someone laugh.

“You’re a tough girl, aren’t you?” Del said, stepping up from behind her. “And here I was, so worried.”

The man, writhing and cursing on the ground, glanced up and grimaced. Sara noticed him staring at Del’s neck tattoo.

“Well, damn it, girl,” he said to Sara, “why didn’t you tell me you were with someone from Special Forces? I would have kept my distance if you just said.”

Del kicked him in the ribs. The man howled.

“Stay on the ground, soldier,” she said, and led Sara away.

Sara realized she was hungry, and so Del led her to a strip mall outside the neighborhood. Sara called home to leave a message for her mother, and they sat down at a fast food restaurant.

“You’re a soldier?” Sara asked, and munched on a burger.

“I used to be,” Del said. She took out a plastic bottle and shook out two white pills. She chased them down with iced tea. She didn’t order any food for herself, just the iced tea.

“I wouldn’t have guessed that,” Sara said.

Del looked amused. “Why?”

“Aren’t you too old to be a soldier?”

Del threw a fry at her, laughing.

“What does Special Forces mean?”

“Oh,” Del said, “it’s just a fancy name for soldiers stationed on Fortitude. But we just march on parades, salute the Quadrant Presidents. That sort of thing.”

“Did you,” Sara said, “get that injury at work?”

Del touched her lung, its glow muted by her black shirt, and looked at Sara long and hard before saying, “No.”

Sara thought she was lying but didn’t ask again.

“Have you always wanted to become a soldier?”

Del sighed and shook her head. “It just happened.”

“I don’t even know what I want to become,” Sara said. “I feel like I won’t amount to anything.”

Del smiled at this, but her eyes looked like they were mourning for somebody. “Don’t worry about it, kid,” she said. “It’ll get better.”

“I just need to get out of here,” Sara said. She leaned forward, eager. “Tell me about Fortitude.”

Fortitude shone in the sky like a bright star, and Sara imagined living there with her family, enjoying the cold weather, the gleaming buildings, the clean streets. Del glanced outside the window, hand on her steel lung, staring at the green planet with all its lucky people. “It’s a beautiful place,” she said.

“Fortitude” by Eliza Victoria originally appeared in Science Fiction: Filipino Fiction for Young Adults, May 2016.

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