"Come here, Zaku!" the Red Giant boomed, and a fleck of spittle flew from his beaked mouth onto Zaku's face. I winced a little in sympathy. Zaku was known for being meticulous about cleanliness, but he knew better than to reach up to flick it off.
The Red Giant was always volatile. You never knew what would set him off, so everyone was more careful than a spacer would be while fixing his nuclear drive without a lead suit around him. The Red Giant was about to pick up his hand of cards, and he wanted to get Lady Luck on his side before he did, so he slapped a big, meaty tentacle on poor little Zaku's hump as hard as he could, then roughly rubbed it with his rubbery skin.
"Rub a hunchback's hump for luck," he gurgled. I watched little Zaku bite his lip, and blood beaded on his chin as he held in his cry of pain. He never said anything, little Zaku. I mean, I didn't think he was mute, but no matter what happened, he never made a sound. Most people let all sorts of garbage pour out of their mouths, out of their souls. He just held it all in.
When the Red Giant was done everyone ignored Zaku again, peering through the ambient smoke at the card game, but he was allowed to snatch morsels of food from the gaming table. I never saw anything move as close to light speed as he grabbed for anything edible within quick reach. Then he scampered away eager to leave before anyone got bored with the game and decided to make sport of him. I watched him slip along the cold concrete wall with narrowed eyes. Before he scampered out the door I grabbed him by the arm and spun him around to face me. He looked at me with wide eyes and I took an involuntary step back, pulling him with me. That look he gave me etched itself so deep into my mind, I knew I'd never forget it.
His eyes burned with something you never see in the Sealed Quarter. They blazed with hope. There were other things in his eyes, things you saw everywhere, like desperation, hate, fear, and hunger. But I saw hope there, flaming so high and bright I couldn't stand to look at him any longer. I let go of his bony arm as if it were a fuel rod, and couldn't even watch him run the rest of the way out the room. Instead I shut my eyes and wondered. What could have given that pitiful, helpless creature such a gift? Just the thought of that little worm having something I didn't have made me tremble with anger.
After about an hour I got bored with watching the card game and left the Giant's hangout, still dwelling on little Zaku. I strolled down the dusty alleys of the Quarter, between the never changing concrete buildings. I looked up with a sigh from the brown and gray sameness, and caught sight of Zaku a few meters away, uncharacteristically covered with dirt and grime. I watched him carefully out of the corner of my eyes and casually strolled toward him, hoping I could follow him. I must have failed to be discreet enough because he suddenly got nervous and jumpy. He tried very hard to be inconspicuous as he wove between the other pedestrians, away from me. I followed him as far as I could, but his size and nimbleness gave him an advantage in the narrow, labyrinthine passageways and he slipped out of my sight. After an hour of fruitless searching, I shrugged and made my way back to the Giant's hang out to watch the games for the rest of the night.
The Red Giant was in a bad mood the next day. He'd had a bad run of cards the night before and woke up with a bad hangover to boot. He decided he'd lost because Zaku's hump hadn't been lucky enough. "Bring that little space slime here!" he snarled and began to pace, wincing at each of his own heavy steps. We stood rooted to the cement for a moment, at a loss as to how we were going to find the little cockroach in the crowded Quarter. It wasn't as if he had a permanent address. The Giant wasn't having any of that though. He spun on his heels and roared, "Get going!" We scattered as barbarians would under a landing starship, each in our own direction. After running a few meters, I stopped and thought. I slowly made my way to the last place I'd caught a glimpse of Zaku the day before, and began to walk through that area in a widening spiral, like a one-armed galaxy. As I passed one pock marked building, built right up to the wall of the Sealed Quarter, I heard a faint scraping that grated on my sensitive ears. I ducked silently into the abandoned building, under the low door jamb, and peered around in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I carefully stepped around or over garbage and broken furniture, to avoid making any noise. Finally I came to the source of the faint sounds. There was a small crack in the wall on the edge of the Quarter, and someone was scraping the decrepit concrete out of it, into a pile of powdered cement on the floor at my feet. I knelt down, craned my head, and tried to widen the opening, but the vein of weakened concrete was only half a meter wide. I quested as far back as I could with my arm, and met nothing but air, so I hunkered down in a crouch to wait for whoever was in there to come out. It almost had to be Zaku-no one else could fit in a space so small. Even if it wasn't Zaku, I'd rather wait things out here since the Red Giant was in such a foul mood.
So I silently waited, crouched alone on the floor, listening to that constant scraping. After the sunlight that struggled through the grimy window crawled a few inches along the ground I heard noises coming close to my end of the tunnel. I moved up to the wall, just to the side of the hole, and readied myself to grab whoever came out. A grubby hand reached out through the hole for a hold, and I obliged, grabbing tight to it and yanking with all my might. As little Zaku stumbled out a weak breath of wind met me, and I smelled something unfamiliar, something...green! My mouth watered at the pure deliciousness of it, and I pulled Zaku, still silent, but with more fear in his eyes than hope now, up to my face.
"What is that?" I asked angrily as I shook him. He seemed heavier somehow, and I realized that the hump on his back was bigger. Without waiting for an answer I turned him around, and saw that his skin was cracked and bleeding as if his hump was growing faster than his skin could handle. "What is that smell? Where's that breeze coming from? Why is your hump like that?" I asked, growing angrier as each new question forced its way out. He just shook his head mutely. I stuck my head in the hole again and reeled as the scent hit me. I looked into the darkness and glimpsed, through a small aperture, the world outside the Quarter. He'd found a way out. I turned to him. "Why did you come back?" I couldn't keep awed wonder from tingeing my voice.
I heard little Zaku speak. He had a soft, breathy, pure voice, like a wooden pipe I'd heard once. "It's too small yet. But look." He held up a fist and I reached shaking fingers out to touch the green bits of paper he held in his hand. I had just noticed that it felt different from the normal type of paper we had in the Quarter when he opened his hand to reveal the roots. I took a deep breath in wonder as I recognized what it was he held.
"Plants? Those are plants?" Zaku just nodded, and the fear faded a little. I leaned in to ask the most important question of my life. "Is there any way we can widen the hole so we can both get to the world outside the Quarter?" Zaku shook his head.
"I almost made it-but my hump has grown too large, and the stone is too strong to widen the hole any more."
"You would have left, without telling any of us how to get out?" I snarled, then lifted him off the ground as anger swarmed around my body. It snaked up to choke me, rose to my mouth and began to smother me under its heavy viciousness. Then it reached my eyes and the red haze swept away all but one thought. He almost got out. He almost escaped to the world outside and left me behind! I turned without another word and began to drag him through the streets toward the Red Giant. Zaku again broke his self-imposed silence to beg me not to take him to the Giant. I smiled, happy that the thought of it caused him pain, and kept grimly on. I pulled him through the staring mobs of beings, over the garbage strewn alleys, all the way to the Giant's hang out, and I threw him at the Red Giant's feet. The Giant looked at me with surprise, then started when he saw the raw ire emanating from me in violent waves, shaking me with their intensity. I pointed a trembling finger at the cowering little figure on the ground at my feet.
"He'd found the beginnings of a tunnel out. But it was only big enough for him. If his hump were a little smaller he would have escaped and left us here to rot." My voice cracked at the injustice of it all. He would have left us behind!
"What!" the Giant yelled, and everyone within earshot began to mumble angrily. Over and over my stopped up ears heard one phrase echo.
Left us. Left us behind. Left us here. Left us. LEFT US!
The Giant shook little Zaku, who had once again fallen silent, and hung like a limp rag from the Giant's huge appendage. "He tried to leave the Sealed Quarter without telling any of us! I say we stone him for this betrayal!"
At his words everyone eagerly picked up whatever rock they could find, and the Giant carried little Zaku to the central plaza in the Quarter. Everyone stepped back from the center, leaving a huddled mass of shaking, oozing flesh in the middle. I watched others heft their rocks and I weighed mine in my hand, waiting for the right moment. The Red Giant picked up a stone, not that big, and most of us grinned in quick understanding. This would not be a quick kill. This one would be slow. Many cast about for something smaller, less immediately fatal, to throw. The Giant threw first, and it hit Zaku in the back, on his hump. I heard his skin rip, and little Zaku cried out, the first time anyone but me had heard an utterance escape his lips. A few more loosed their stones at that, but many of us held back, not wanting it to be over too soon. Most people aimed for his already battered and bleeding hump, laughing whenever they got a cry or groan from the small creature that crouched alone in the middle of the plaza. Finally I couldn't wait any longer. I had to throw my stone--I had to cause him pain. I threw my weapon with every ounce of force I could muster, and watched as the last tatters of skin on Zaku's hump tore off.
A strange sight met our wondering eyes once the protective sheathe of skin was ripped off Zaku's back. Something long and bloody, but white underneath the running crimson, emerged. Zaku's eyes shone with something greater than hope, something that transcended any of the mean pleasures or happinesses we found in the Quarter. His face took on a new and curious expression, as if he was deep in thought, and the blood and gore slowed its flow enough for me to see what lay under it-snowy white feathers. Zaku lifted his torn face to the sun, and his fledgling wings unfurled with a snap like that of a weary, tattered flag, finally waving triumphant over the hard won battlefield. He would escape! I couldn't let him! Instead of standing frozen with wonder, like all the others, I let loose with an angry "NO!" and ran at him, grabbing him, and trying to hold him down with me. Others took up my cause, and we piled on Zaku, punching and biting and kicking-hurting each other more often than him, I am sure, but still beating him down. I felt his struggles grow weaker, but the blinding rage hadn't left me; I couldn't seem to see anything but him through the haze.
Suddenly a light filled my vision, and struggled, like a small fluttering bird, to chase the anger away. I saw him, shining silver, a being of pure starlight. With a growl I reached for him, but couldn't seem to grab hold. I saw others throw themselves at him, or try to rip the feathers off his wings, but no one seemed to hurt him at all. He rose just out of reach, and watched sadly as, in our despair, we resorted to stones again. I threw whatever I could find, until I finally realized that we couldn't harm him. He'd gotten out, while we remained behind, forgotten in the Sealed Quarter. We stared into the sky as little Zaku smiled sadly at us, shook his head gently, and ascended into the sky, so high our eyes couldn't follow him any longer. One by one the others turned to leave the plaza, noticing once more with crushing hopelessness how gray, how bleak, existence really was in the Quarter, but I stayed, and stood, and stared up into the answerless sky. I stood there when the Red Giant turned to leave. I stood there while the sun set and watched the blue moon come out. I shivered and rubbed my arms in attempt to keep warm, yet I still couldn't seem to take my eyes off the sky.
When the last rainbow shades of the sunset faded from heaven I finally blinked my eyes and looked down. There was still something huddled on the ground, in the center of the plaza. In the monochrome light of the moon the blood-stained feathers looked like a mad scribe had splattered black ink over them. I absently smoothed the broken, bent quills and gently touched the face of little Zaku as he lay, cold and still, on the plaza floor. I bent over and gritted my teeth as I jerked one feather, only a little bent, only a little soiled, from his broken wings.
I ran my hand over the smooth spine and felt the cool satin of the down as I rubbed my fingers along the blood spattered quill.
"For luck," I whispered, and walked home.