She descends the white stairs dressed in rags and barefoot. Her hair unkempt, Her face dirty and bereft. Her eyes they do scream hunger, Her hands they do tremble.
For She is Poverty and perfect in every way.
Today was the day; plans for the final assault on the slums and neighbourhoods of the poor who encroached on the City before the Valley were set in motion.
At the barracks, grim faced soldiers, child soldiers and their overly attendant and threatening drug runner overseers were waiting for transportation. Choosing himself a position near the back, Joh the scarred soldier shuffled on his feet. Looking at his hand made it throb more, so he paid it scant attention and instead, looked around at the men and boys assembled. So many lives waiting for their doom, here and in the slums.
On the front line of the assembly stood the old Private, flanked by two guards at Pero’s insistence. There was to be no repeat performance and his attendance was required. The other men needed to see him behind the commander in all things. He stood there warily, rubbing his gnarled hands together and flexing. Sooner or later they would have to give him a gun; they knew it and so did he.
Hercules was being loaded, albeit unsuccessfully into a horse box. The commander felt that he should speak to the men before the assault; being on horse back would be the most ostentatious display of his raw power. She bucked and refused, snapping at her handlers as they tried once more to coax her into the box.
General Pero had arrived earlier and was awaiting the time for action in the entrance of the main building. Stood impatiently, smoothing his moustache furiously; he barked curt orders and replies to the men around him. He checked his watch. It was time. Two guards held the glass doors open as Pero made his glorious entrance. As he passed through the doors into the open air, a pigeon crapped on his shoulder. His men looked nervously to one another before Pero burst out laughing:
“It is luck my friends! The sign of good fortune! I shall wear this with pride today. Who among us has not been crapped on before?”
Pero laughed at his wit and the men around him relaxed. As he strode out towards the men assembled, the General saw the difficulties they were having loading Hercules into her transportation. Walking over, shooing away the attendant handlers, he whispered soothingly to Hercules. Approaching her left side, he stroked her nose and mane all the while talking softly into her ear. Pero snapped his fingers together and called for a carrot to be placed in his open palm; which was rapidly obliged. Feeding the carrot to Hercules, he smiled and said to the men:
“You see, she only responds to proud people, aristocrats and noble hussars.”
She continued to munch the carrot until reaching Pero’s fingers. Taking them firmly between her teeth she started applying pressure with a wild glint in her eye. Pero broke out in a sweat; his fingers were in agony in the increasing vice grip of the horse’s teeth, but he was in front on the men and strength must be shown. Gritting his teeth he slowly scraped them out from between Hercules’ grinding molars leaving a trail of skin and blood on his fingers. Finally breaking free, he turned to face the men with hand behind his back shaking it furiously.
Field reports from the slums were not as promising as they had assumed. There was organised resistance this time; barricades had been erected all over so the assault would need to be on foot, house by house. Pero’s advisors talked through their strategies for the upcoming battle with him; but he hushed them with a wave of his hand.
“None of you here have the blood of Julius Caesar or Napoleon. None of you have the wit or intelligence. I shall dictate the orders myself from the field.”
And so Pero stood before the men; their ultimate commander, his injured hand tucked into his shirt in the front as though covering his heart. The other arm gesticulated wildly with each assertion of their assured victory.
“This is for the country; we let things go to far. Too far.”
He spoke at length before finally ordering the transportation of the soldiers to the business district of the City; to where it met with the slums, gambling dens and brothels. They were arranged there haphazardly; unloaded from their trucks and given no specific orders about formation, groups or even what they should do. The men crowded across the street as guns were assigned. To the bemused office workers it appeared like a protest, although once the guns appeared and the obvious connotations associated with a large presence of armed military encouraged the managers to dismiss the staff early in the surrounding buildings. Office workers mingled briefly with men in military fatigues, snippets of conversation between the two parties; some jovial when accidentally meeting an acquaintance, others less friendly when the soldiers became unruly and started harassing the female workers with leers and crude offers.
Finally, the street was quiet. The men still in disarray stood across the road while Pero shouted his orders on foot, stood on top of one of the trucks.
“Men.. My countrymen, my brothers. Today we are to begin a new era of prosperity where the bravest are rewarded and take what is owing. Today, we are owed everything. These people in the slums, the whorehouses, the gambling pits and pornographers; the poor and their constant grasp for more. Grabbing at our coats for something they wouldn’t ever bother to earn themselves. Greedily demanding we give them everything and we go without instead. No more.
Go into the slums, these dens of rats and sewer animals. Go in there and sweep it away from our fair City. For the COUNTRY!”
As Pero finished, he slashed his arm through the air leaving only a finger pointing towards their destination. The men charged, in groups of two and three initially. They kicked down doors, throwing grenades into the dark interiors of the buildings nearby. The push of soldiers and boys through the street left two children, two boys crushed under the stampede. Their broken bodies left stranded near the modern art sculptures saluting the office buildings.
The old Private was caught in the first wave. They had not given him a gun and instead laughingly told him when asked what he should fight with, to use his fists. He was pushed along by the surge of humanity towards a huge barricade they lay down the street in the slums. As they approached, it was set ablaze, driving the soldiers back with the fierce heat. A mercenary stumbled and fell, clutching his chest. Blood seeped from his mouth as his sightless eyes gazed toward the barricade. The old Private grabbed his pistol and pushed his way through the throng into a side alley.
The fighting was bloody. Men and boys pushed to the front of the assault were shot down by people from behind the barricade. Their bodies skidding on the slick road and crumpling to a halt before the pyre. The soldiers took cover behind anything they could find, grenades were thrown and a hole was blown in the barricade. Smoke and flames, the smell of gasoline and metal pervaded and invaded the senses of the fighters. The resistance dropped back and took cover within houses and businesses, pushed back until they were dispersed across the slums. Soldiers kicked down doors, dragging the inhabitant out by the hair and shooting them in the street. On another street, a body of a man, machete buried in his side lay collapsed in the doorway of a hovel. Within crouched Joh; the man would not listen to his pleas, his assurances he would help, and attacked him with the knife. Joh disarmed him but he would not stop until he was left with no choice.
Inside the hut was dark and humid, there was no real electricity in the slums and a wrong step was a potential death trap. He grasped around, trying to find a cupboard or side. He found one and within the top draw he found candles and matches. He heard a noise from the other side of the hut. Dropping to a crouch, the scarred soldier quietly raised his weapon in the direction of the sound.
“Who are you?” He growled. A whimper was the response. Lowering his gun, Joh lit a candle with the matches drawing in light to the darkened room.
“P-Please don’t kill me.” A girl, of no more than seventeen with dirty long blonde hair, bedraggled and uncared for sat hunched in the corner, chin resting anxiously on her skinny white knees. Wearing a simple summer dress of blue she looked at Joh imploringly. “Please don’t kill me.” She whispered again crawling towards Joh whilst pushing her dress off her shoulder revealing skinny naked shoulder. She was crying. “Please don’t kill me.”
Joh recoiled. “No girl; keep your clothes on,” he murmured softly. She looked up at him and he tried to smile. “You’re safe, don’t worry. But you need to get out of here.”
The scarred soldier took her by the hand; it was so weak and fragile in his. He cautiously leaned out of the hut, looking both ways. It seemed as though the fighting had moved on, the street was silent. Slowly, keeping his back to the wall he crept outside with his rifle raised. There was nobody there. A few white chickens pecked at the floor some hundred metres up the road. Washed clothes and sheet were tied to lines suspended between the huts, once billowing in the storm of fighting, now hung limply and lifelessly.
“Come on.” He grasped the girl’s hand and they ran. Through the slums, death and the smell of decay and raw sewage everywhere. Joh saw the forest on the border of the slum. Pointing he said, “We’ll make for there; try and get away from the fighting.” The girl nodded eyes wide and trusting. There was no sign of a living soul as they neared the forest. Joh ceased to run cautiously and they ran quickly towards the tree line. The last row of huts remained before-
“What did I say I would do if you rebelled again?”