W. G. White
Nail Stork sighed as he scuffed his stool across Egress's metal floor, pulling himself into his booth. His cell. He busied himself by shuffling papers and straightening his shirt, anything he could to stave off the inevitable waterfall of coming hopefuls. The poor, the broke and the wanton. The unfortunate. For the next nine hours they were to be the immigration officer's enemy. His mission.
“Ready Nail?” said Denra, perched close behind him. She stood in her separate portion of the booth, complete with an easel and sketch pad, plus a nook for various pencils and other drawing utensils. No one entered Egress without a sketch ID, and Denra was apt at her job, if not typically a bit rushed.
“If I wasn't, could I go home?”
She laughed and rubbed his shoulder. “It'll be fine,” she said. “Don’t worry. We won't have another yesterday.”
Nail paused, then shook his head. “We'll say that again tomorrow.” He cleared his throat, straightened his back and signalled to the Captain of the Police – a man on horseback – that he was ready.
The first Walker sent his way was a hunched-up old man with one shoe and a tattered white shirt. A threadbare satchel hung over his shoulder and he clung to a knobbly walking stick that had seen better days. When he stopped at Nail's desk he noisily smacked his lips thrice and let out a long, deep sigh, leaning heavily on his stick.
“And what is your reason for visiting Egress?” Nail asked loudly, shuffling through his papers. His pencil hovered above the first set of boxes.
“Eh?” The old man cupped an ear, leaning forward.
“I–” Nail sighed, then forced a smile. “Why are you visiting Egress?” He spoke slower, louder. Beside him, Denra's furious sketching punctuated the silence.
“It’s dem ol’ dreggins, ain't it? Been up to the head with 'em, myself. Can't dump at the west one, so gotta be up 'ere, don't I.”
“I don't...I'm…not a Walker, sir. Could you please speak a more refined language, perhaps?”
“I gotta dump the dreggins!”
“I have no idea what that is.”
Agitated, the old man smacked his lips again and tapped his hand on Nail's desk. “'Ere. Look 'ere.” He unslung his satchel and scattered its contents across the deck. Nail skittered back as a litter of sopping wet rat tails spread out before him. He gagged but held back the bile in his throat.
“For the Rider's sake...” Denra breathed, but Nail knew what they were. He had passed half a dozen or so market stools selling them. What for, he couldn't say, but the craze was an issue in Egress. An illegal one. The old bastard doesn't even know what he's doing.
“Okay, sir...Do you usually deliver these to Egress yourself?”
“Me? Nah! Like I said, can't dump at the west one. Tummy is usual for youse in 'ere.”
“These are illegal in Egress. I'm afraid I’m going to have to–”
“These. The tails. You can't–”
“No they ain't!”
“Yes sir, I'm afraid they are.”
“That's not important. Tummy has been smuggling these into our city.” Subtly, Nail signalled to the Captain and a heartbeat later two Police Officers appeared on either side of the old man.
“What's it?” said the old man, mouth wide.
Nail sat back and cleared his throat. “We need to hold you for questioning, sir. If you would, please follow my colleagues.” He tried his best not to look the man in the face, but he couldn't stop himself from glancing. There was confusion behind the frail eyes, confusion laced with hurt. His mouth was curved downwards and held slightly ajar, his head whipping back and forth as the Police guided him up by his arms.
“'Ere now! But...the dreggins is all. It's only dreggins!”
When the old man was out of sight, Nail placed his forehead on his knuckles and pressed down until he felt them crack. He sighed and rubbed an ache from his eyes.
“That's one,” said Denra, ripping the sketch ID from her pad, ready to start anew.
By the end of his shift, Nail had turned away ten families looking for refuge, their homes stolen from Cultists or bandits or sheer freak accidents. He'd issued three arrests, been verbally battered on countless occasions, physically assaulted once and threatened with pistols no less than eight times. He'd turned down young men looking for work, old women looking for medicine, children looking for parents, parents looking for children, and everything in-between. He'd only issued one visa, and even that had been a sketchy affair.
None of them understood the keywords. Not one knew that they would never be granted asylum behind Egress's walls. Nail and his colleagues could grant temporary visas, nothing more. And that was only if the Walker specifically requested one, or said that they were only visiting.
Every new face that came his way, Nail held his ears ready, waiting to hear the words that would empower him to actually save a life, rather than deny one. But they seldom came. So seldom were they uttered that Nail was surprised when they did arrive.
He lay in bed, eyes to the ceiling, thinking of those words. Of a way he could somehow communicate with the Walkers what they had to say. The key phrases they had to utter. Short of spelling it out for them, he was at a loss on how to do it. At least, not without the Captain spotting him. With a sigh, Nail closed his eyes and waited for sleep to carry him away.
“Yous fucking Corgis are all the bloody same!”
The woman was being dragged away by two armed Officers, thrown back down the ramp she'd come. Nail winced when the sound of her knees swatting against the metal ground echoed up to his ears.
“I wanna see me Pa!” she screamed. “You Riding twats can't keep him from us! I wanna see me Pa!”
Tenderly, Nail wiped the woman's spit from his cheek, straightened his jacket and sighed. He blinked back his tears and swallowed to settle the lump in his throat, resisting the urge to let his grief out. The compulsion to slink under his desk, pull his knees into his chest and cry.
He felt Denra's hand on his shoulder and resisted the temptation to reach for it, to nestle into it, savoring her skin on his own. Not here. They can't see me vulnerable.
The next Walker already stood in front of him. Nail sniffed, folding a page over to get at a new sheet before smiling weakly at the man. He struck Nail as tired. Even for a Walker. His eyes were surrounded by black puffs, his brow creased and his back stooped. He held a rag in his arms with a small child wrapped inside, although it didn't move. Nail quickly noticed the shallowness of its breathing.
“I need a Redfinger,” the man said, himself as breathless as the child.
“O–Our...” Nail blinked. “Our healers are…um...they're reserved for residents of Egress.”
“No. I need to see a Redfinger!”
Nail swallowed. “The Walking has Redfingers.”
The man slammed his fist on the desk and leaned forward. “They said they don't know how to fix him! They said to take him to the Academy!” The bundle in the man's arms stirred, tiny arms stretching out and disappearing again. The man turned and spoke quietly to the bundle, rocking it gently. When he returned his gaze to Nail, his eyes were full of tears. “He's gonna die.”
“I'm sorry...I...” Nail wet his lips, eyes darting to the Captain riding past. He dabbed at the sweat sprinkling his brow. “You have to say it's temporary.”
“Your visit. You–” He stopped when the Captain looked his way.
Denra leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “What're you doing, Nail?”
“I know what I'm doing.”
“If they catch you–”
“They'll banish me. I don't care.”
“More like hang you!”
He ignored her. He wasn't about to let a child die, not because Egress was too selfish to share its resources.
When the Captain had made his pass, Nail edged forward. “You have to say it's temporary, that you'll leave once you're done.”
The Walker frowned. “But ya know it is already!”
“Just fucking say it!” He cleared his throat, calming himself. “I have to hear it. Request a temporary visa. Say you'll visit the Academy to acquire urgent aid, and that you'll stay there during your visit. Say that you'll willingly submit to a Military Police escort whilst you're here–”
“Nail!” Denra practically hissed.
“–and you'll leave within a fortnight.”
The man hesitated for a moment, eyes darting between Nail and Denra. He opened his mouth and frowned. When the child coughed he glanced quickly at it, and then back at Nail. In one quick rush he repeated everything Nail had said, stumbling over a few words as they rushed past his lips.
Nail hastily filled out the visa, ticking boxes and signing lines. “What's your name?”
“It's Erry Garnin. And me boy's Click.”
“I need to see him,” Denra said, low and hoarse as she ripped a sketch from her pad and handed it to Nail.
Erry stepped closer and tipped the bundle, giving Denra a good view of Click. For whatever reason, Nail couldn't bring himself to look at the child. Was it guilt that burned behind his eyes or something else? He blinked, staring at the Captain as he rode past. The Captain returned his stare, a stern scowl plastered across his brow.
When Denra was done she handed the sketch to Nail who stapled the pictures to the visas and printed copies of all four documents into copying paper. He handed the copies to Erry and filed the originals for his own reference.
“Two weeks, Erry,” Nail said. “Make him better.”
“I'll do that. Thank ya. Thank ya both.”
Nail nodded and signalled for an Officer to usher the man away. As he watched the Walker go, a chill spread from the pit of his stomach, tracing the length of his spine and finally coursing down his arms. Something was awakening inside of him, something he knew he couldn't stop. Something he didn’t want to stop.
Three days since Erry had passed him by and Nail began to lose count of how many Walkers he'd let slip him by. Time and time over he breathed the phrases they needed, the words he needed them to utter. Not all understood his often subtle approach, however, and many were still turned away through sheer frustration if little else.
He didn't let everyone through. He wasn't foolish enough for that. Instead, he let them go past in drips and drabs, choosing his targets wisely. After all, he was giving them a gift. He was saving their lives!
I can't be lax with this, he thought. I can't let just anyone inside! Only those with good enough reason.
He went so far as to take a stroll down the queue one morning before the start of his shift. Getting a feel for the folk there, asking questions and anticipating those most worthy of access. He was doing what he could, but every other officer was still turning the Walkers away. He spoke the golden words to a select few and kept his eye on his colleagues for the remainder of the day, as much for their reactions as for the Walkers.
“They'll catch you, Nail.” Denra over Nail's shoulder.
“Oh, come. Surely it's nicer when the sketches aren't wasted.”
“Know what's nicest? Actually having a job. Which I won't if you don't stop this...crusade? Is it a crusade, Nail? Because I don't know what else to call it!”
Nail turned to look her in the eye. Blue. Plain in all other regards, Denra did have pretty eyes. “It's a service,” he said to her.
“Is it now?”
He sighed. “I can't...I don't want to think about how many children that have died, the families that have been torn apart because of a form I didn't sign. Because of a word they didn't say. Denra, by what right do I sit here and tell them they're not allowed in this city?”
“By birthright, Nail. Because–”
“Because I was born here and they were born there? A mile away, if that! Where is that line crossed, Denra? It doesn't happen in that queue. I've seen Walkers give birth in that queue! Being born here gives those children no more rights than their parents, so don't tell me that it matters if you're born on metal or on sand. Because it doesn't...it just doesn't.” He breathed, his eyes alight as he stared Denra in the face. “A Walker doesn't become a Rider. We don't want their sort. No, they're ‘dirty’...they're – they're ‘uneducated and brutish’! They’re not us.
Nail wet his lips to continue but was cut short by a horse's whicker. “Mr. Stork,” said the Captain.
The hairs on the back of Nail's neck stood on end, his spine went rigid and the blood in his veins curdled as he turned to face his superior. “Yes, sir?”
The Captain cocked his head and led his horse about, not waiting for Nail's reaction or response. After a moment of forced concentration, Nail stood and ventured after the Captain.
“Please take a seat, Nail,” the Captain said, smoothing down his grey-green suit and straightening the epaulette's on his shoulders. He sat behind a long desk and motioned to the chair opposite him.
Nail remained standing for a few seconds longer before he sank into the chair. It was a hard seat, despite its plush appearance. When he shuffled a leather squelch filled the air. Nail cringed. He glanced up to see the Captain staring at him. He was a surprisingly short man, the Captain, usually made tall by the horse he rode. Now though his true size was apparent. His elbows resting on the desk were almost level with his head.
“Have we met before, Nail?” the Captain said. “Officially, I mean. Of course you see me and I, you, day in and day out, but I don't imagine we've ever spoken.”
“We, uh–” Nail began, but a bubble in his throat stunted his words. He coughed, clearing it away. “We've spoken briefly, sir.”
The Captain smiled. “You'll forgive me if I don't recall.”
“Oh, no, it's not–”
“I'm concerned, Mr. Stork,” the Captain interrupted. His voice dominated over Nail's. It was a big voice, ill-matched for such a small man. “I watch every day as the leeches – and don't give me that look, Nail, they are leeches! I watch them, every day, in that queue with their shacks and their horses and their woe-is-me eyes...And do you know what I see, Nail?”
“Opportunists. Scavengers. Wolves.” The Captain stood, revealing himself to be not much taller than when he had sat. He rested his hands behind his back as he paced the room, passing a long silken banner boasting the half sun, half moon crest of House Pelgrove. Next to that flapped a second banner; white as pure snow with a golden bear in its centre, proud chest displayed and arms outstretched – House Timberly's crest.
The Captain stopped at a cabinet and began fussing with bottles and a glass. “They want our food. Our homes. Our streets. And they don't care what they do to get them. Have you been to the Walking Caravan, Nail?” He didn't wait for an answer. “It's a nightmare. They're a people without dignity; alien to us in all but name.”
“That's not true, sir. I–”
“You see, the problem with these animals, Nail, is that they fail to comprehend when their masters are displeased with them. Our borders have been closed for near two decades now, yet they continue to throw themselves at us. The hint is well and truly lost.” He strolled back to the desk, a single whisky in hand. He sipped it and sat again, regarding Nail for a long while in silence, unblinking in his judgement. Eventually he wet his lips and leant forward. “I know what you've been doing, Mr. Stork.”
A nervous laugh escaped Nail's lips. He clamped them shut and stifled himself.
“It ends today. The ramifications are too dire. I know that you think you're doing good, but believe me when I tell you, you are not. You're harming our fair Egress; these...these vultures, to turn a bygone phrase, would bleed us dry without ever realising it. They mean well, I'm sure they do, but the fact still remains: it would be best if they stayed on the reverse of our city gates. For your countrymen's safety – for your own safety, Nail – stop this madness. Let this be the end of it. Or dire repercussions lay ahead. The law is utterly transparent on the treatment of traitors. Am I clear?”
Nail exhaled, releasing the stagnant air from his lungs as he realised he'd been holding his breath. He blinked rapidly to bite back the tears, but he dared not speak lest the quiver in his voice betray him. He only nodded, averting his gaze.
“A smart man. You won't return to your booth today, Nail. But I'll see you again on the morrow. And… I do hope to not be disappointed with you again.”
The next day came much too quickly, and Nail faced it with an ultimatum. He'd spent the night in the company of books. Religious texts, old histories and many new ones, too. At the turn of midnight he found himself engrossed in the teachings of Garrion the Grand, the Arbiter. Like all of man before me, I turn to religion in my final hours? Am I a cliché? Nail had never been a man of the Gods. He found them arbitrary and droll. Apparently no one else saw the oddity in Riders worshiping the Rider and Walkers worshiping the Walker. Odder still was the way the Gods were one and the same! Yet he'd turned to them nonetheless, sought their Arbiter for guidance. And was pleasantly surprised to have found it.
He was early that morning. Hair combed, suit immaculate. Name tag straight and sharp. Nail Stork, Immigrations Officer. He placed his hands on the desk and stared ahead at the queue, at the endless throng of Walkers still wading their way forward, filling into gates and herded toward the booths.
Denra joined him twenty minutes later. “Morning, Nail.”
“Good morning, Denra.”
“Feeling better today?”
Nail chuckled. “He instilled a fear of the Gods in me.”
“Glad to hear it.”
She busied herself with her bags and papers as Nail stared forward at the queues, at the Walkers ahead of him. He smiled.
“Did you know that Garrion the Great declared segregation illegal two centuries ago?”
She turned to him and frowned. “Oh fuck, Nail–”
“Will you report me to the Captain now, or allow to save a dozen before they take me? Because — I’ll be honest with you — I can't stop. I won’t stop. I won’t bring myself to turn them away. Never again. Denra, I'll die before I do it again.”
A drawn out silence followed before Denra sighed behind him. “I’m sorry. It's just too much, Nail. I can't simply sit here and let you–”
“Yes you can! You can, Denra! Say that I threatened you, that I had a gun!”
“And when they search you?”
“They'll find a gun.”
He pulled his bag onto his lap and flipped it open to flash Denra a silver pistol. “It's a prop. I'm not planning to actually use it, of course. But–”
“What's wrong with you!” she hissed, pushing his bag away and glancing around the courtyard. “If the Police see–”
“It won’t matter. Say I threatened you. You'll be fine! Please. I need this. I know what they'll do – I do – and I'm prepared for that. At least I'd have done a measure of good...”
“There are other ways–”
“No. It's a unique position we hold. We have the power of fates and we're forever cheating the scale. I'm lifting my thumb today. I'm clearing my conscious. Just let me do it until they stop me. Please. I'm already dead, Denra. Breathing or not, I died a long time ago.”
Nail Stork let them flow past him in crashes and waves. He was limited only by the speed he could fill out visas. He stopped telling them what to say, and instead told them what to do.
“Assimilate. Find new clothes, change your voice, hide in plain sight. Become a Rider and no one will ask for your visas. Integrate...Good luck.”
He knew he hadn't much time until the Captain found him. He knew he was being watched, and that already orders would be traveling along the line and he'd be picked up and removed from his post. But in the meantime, he let the Walkers pass. He took fake names and encouraged misinformation. Focusing on families and the sick or starved, Nail hoped to maximise his impact, to help those most hopeless with the limited time left to him.
It was shortly past midday when they came for him. Nail had expected it to be sooner, but perhaps the Captain was giving him a chance. They came, and Nail offered no resistance. He lifted his hands and complied to their commands.
He knew the Officers. He'd played cards with them more than once. Today they looked at him with eyes full of resentment and confusion. He had no words to offer them, nothing to tell them that they'd truly understand.
It was almost surprising the speed in which they saw him to Egress's stern. The place most Walkers eloquently dubbed 'Bad Man's Justice.' He tried not to look at the rows of metallic arms stretched out over the sands. Each arm housed twenty vicious clamps, all ready to be secured around a man's head and hold him there, above the abyss with gravity pulling down on his neck and those clamps tightening, compressing, squeezing.
The Captain was waiting for him. He was engaged in a rousing conversation with an Officer, and they laughed heartily once again before the Captain finally excused himself and sauntered toward Nail.
“Mr. Stork,” he said casually as he pulled on a pair of leather gloves. “I warned you, did I not? I warned you because I am a fair man. You are a dishonest one.”
With a nod from the Captain, the Officers holding Nail marched him to the centre loading platform and began ripping the clothes from his back. In the background, another Officer pulled leavers and pressed a series of buttons, before long one of those giant metal arms started to retract,its dead and rotting prizes swaying with the motion. Nail watched, a pit in his stomach forming as his death drew ever nearer.
“W–Where's my due process? My trail!” he demanded. Of course he was guilty, but he hadn't expected this. Not such a swift end.
“Today was your trail,” said the Captain, shrugging. “And you proved yourself guilty of treason. I have already sent a notice of death to your family.”
The arm shuddered to a stop above him and the clamp descended. Nail winced as the grips secured themselves on either side of his head. A mix of smells washed over him, burnt rubber and decaying flesh. He gagged, almost losing his stomach.
Think of the Walkers, he told himself. His eyes scrunched shut as the clamp tightened around his skull. Think of their happiness! Of the lives of the childr– He gasped and squirmed as the arm lifted and an intense pain shot through his neck. His legs thrashed as Nail took to the air. He watched, arms grappling at the clamp but finding no purchase, as Egress disappeared from under him, replaced by a drop near five hundred meters steep, ending with the barren sands of a long dead world.
Nail Stork swallowed deeply and fought to quell the rampant beat of his heart. He closed his eyes and focused his attention inward, working to a calm. Before long he was still. A breeze washed over him, tickling the hairs on his body. He found it warm, comforting, almost like a blanket. He opened his eyes again and stared out as the great city of Egress, humanity’s last ark, continued its endless hike across a barren world.
Forever in Egress's wake, marched the Walkers. Following so relentlessly through the sands. The Walking Caravan stretched before Nail like an open book. A map that he could pour and plot over for weeks had he the chance to. He watched as carriages interacted with each other, as drivers swerved around dunes and flotsam.
It was a sight to behold, and from up so high Nail drank it all with ease. He wondered, quite intently, what it would have been like to live amongst the Walkers. It was a question he wouldn't manage to ponder for long. Every bump and dip of the rigid metal arm sent pulses of sharp, punctured pain to Nail's neck. He wailed as Egress travelled over a dune, his muscles cramping and twisting as his body was shaken like a rag doll.
And then he felt something pop. It wasn't much of a thing at all, just like a paper bag bursting next to his ears. But he could no longer move. No matter how vividly he pictured his arms or legs flailing, they wouldn’t stir. He was a slave to the whims of nature's movement. He could do nothing but stare forward. Eyes forever cast on the Walking caravan below, and the Walkers he'd gladly given his life to protect.