Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit.
Chip. Chip. Chip. Crack.
She put her tools down, wiped sweat from her face with one sleeve, picked the tools up again.
The other women had moved on to the far end of the limestone block. She stayed back, stalling. “Do not let them see you falling behind,” the one called Marab said.
The guards were supervising the transport of two finished blocks, from the camp to the construction site. Only a few had been left to oversee the workers. Some women had also stopped, to watch the men tugging the ropes, the large wooden sledge squelching through a road made of mud. Men — human men — only entered the women’s camp to bring stone from the quarry, or to drag it away.
The guards were not human, the women agreed, but none could be sure what they were. Some whispered the word “Jaffa.”
The sun was high. Her eyes felt dusty, her lips dry, and her face red. She put her tools down again.
“Water,” she whispered to the others in her workgroup.
The barrels of lukewarm river water sat at the edge of the camp. She drank from one, never taking her eyes off the distracted guards. And then she ran.
She made it to the second sand dune. It was the farthest she’d ever gone.
Her name was Sam, and she knew little else. She thought it was short for another name, but she did not know what.
In the night, locked behind the wooden bars of her cell, she drew circles in the dirt. She could not remember how long she’d spent in the camp, or where she lived before.
Every time she tried to escape, they gave her extra food and the thick, sweet drink that didn’t taste right.
Chip. Chip. Crack.
The guards seemed bored. There were no blocks to move today. A dozen guards were gathered by the muddy road, playing a game with large dice.
She put her tools down and raised her face to the light, sandy wind. The sweat dried quickly in sun.
The guards were bored. She followed three women from another group as they walked to the dunes to relieve themselves. When they turned back, she was still squatting on the ground, and they did not notice.
From the top of the next dune she could see the canyon wall. It was dark, sharp slate.
Her name was Sam. She did not belong here. The strange drink they gave her was so thick she could draw circles in it.
“Drink,” the guard said. He seemed bored.
The other women averted their eyes as she was escorted back to their cell.
“Marab,” she said through the bars.
Marab lay on the pile of rough linen that made up her bed. She did not turn to Sam. “They will kill you,” she said. “You will make it worse for all of us.”
But nobody had killed her yet.
Chip. Crack. Chip.
Marab still would not look at her.
The guards were less bored today. Eighty-one men were lugging an unfinished stone from the quarry.
She put down her tools, rubbed her sore hands together, and raised her eyes to the growing pyramid. The bottom two steps were complete. Dirt ramps tilted, up and around, to the third.
The thud of an eighteen-by-eleven block of limestone on the sand reverberated through the canyon, followed closely by screams. Heavy footsteps ran toward the road.
Sam ran in the other direction, hiding behind the cell block to survey the camp. Nobody was working, but nobody was looking for her.
The slate at the edge of the canyon was cool in the shadows.
Her name was Sam. The guards paid little attention as they gave her food and drink.
It was just past midday and she was sent back to work, far from the women she knew. The road had been cleared except for one crushed body and some blood. She watched as the guards ordered two men to take the corpse away. She did not know where they took it.
“Did anyone else die?” she asked.
The woman nearest her jolted at Sam’s voice. “One had his legs crushed,” she whispered, her eyes on the guards. “He won’t use them again.”
She turned her back to Sam and went to work.
Chip. Chip. Chip.
Sam put her tools down, watching the pyramid rise to the sky. Dozens of blocks went up the ramp each day.
Chip. Chip. Chip.
Marab looked sideways at Sam.
It was dusk, and they were never ordered back to the cells until dark. Sam stood with her face to the sky, watching the stars come out one by one.
Her name was Sam and she should have known more than that. A longer name perched on her tongue, but she could not grasp it.
That night, she dug a small hole in the dirt floor of her cell and poured the sweet drink into it. She piled sand back on top, smoothed it with her palm, and drew a circle.
Marab watched from her bed. Sam could see her eyes, reflected in the dim torchlight from the corridor.
Chip. Crack. Crack. Chip.
Sweat burned her eyes. She wiped it away, still holding her tools in one hand. More blocks were on the move today.
Sam watched the men work out of the corner of her eye. It was difficult to tell them apart in their drab, gray clothes, the same as Sam wore. The only differentiators were height and hair color.
The Jaffa seemed bored. They watched the men work, too. Eventually, most of the camp stood to watch.
Sam reached the canyon wall and tried to slip inside.
Sam was short for Samantha. They gave her extra to drink and she buried it in her cell. What she had buried the day before was starting to smell.
She drew three lines within the circle and heard a small splash. Marab had poured out her drink, too. Sam looked up to meet her eyes.
“It’s drugged, isn’t it?” Marab asked.
Sam said yes and asked Marab what she remembered.
Marab said, “I think I had children once.”
Chip. Chip. Chip.
Marab put her tools down. Sam watched her untie her hair and tie it again, pulling it sharply off her face. Her eyes found Sam’s.
Sam shook her head. The guards were too bored and the sky too bright.
The pyramid rose in the distance, four levels now. Sam walked to the barrels and drank as much as she could swallow.
Chip. Chip. Chip.
Sam memorized the stars after dusk. When the guards ordered the women inside, she plotted star charts in her head as she walked.
“Don’t drink it,” she told the others in her group, before the guards arrived to lock them in. “It’s what’s making you forget.”
Two looked away. One shook her head. The other two listened.
Sam was short for Samantha and she hadn’t come here alone. She drew three stick figures in front of the circle, but she could draw no more. She didn’t remember their faces or their names.
Marab, Cless, and Sangeeta watched her carefully in the torchlight.
Chip. Crack. Chip. Chip.
The pyramid rose in the distance. Sam counted the men. There were hundreds, and that was only what she could see.
She put her tools down and led the other three to the barrels of water. The guards — Jaffa, all with different symbols on their foreheads — watched them for only a moment, then turned away. Perhaps they were drugged, too.
“Don’t follow,” she said. “They’ll bring me back and we’ll go tonight.”
“Why now? What if you can’t come back?” asked Cless, the youngest. She had told them her father and mother were brought to the camps, too, but she no longer knew how to recognize them.
“They’ll never expect her to try twice in one day,” Marab said.
“Go one at a time,” Sam said. “Don’t look behind. I’ll be all right.”
The Jaffa caught her half a mile south of the women’s camp, by a crack in the slate that was just wide enough for a slim woman to hide.
The cells were lit only by torchlight, and the next Jaffa patrol was two hours away. Sam heard the breaths of sleeping women all along the corridor. In their own cells, Marab, Cless, and Sangeeta curled tightly against the walls, watching Sam.
Sam stretched her arm through the bars, up to her shoulder. She held a splinter of wood she’d wrenched from a bar with her fingernails. The torch on the wall was almost out of reach.
As Sam pulled the small flame back into her cell, Marab approached with her bed linens. The bars between the two cells smoldered easily, hissing. Sam and Marab doused the flames with the cloth, and then doused the cloth on the floor.
She broke a piece from one of the charred bars and made a bigger torch. Three burned and broken bars later, they started on Sam’s cell door.
Across the corridor, Sangeeta reached for the nearest torch, her bedding close at her feet.
The woman on Marab’s other side woke up to watch. Sam could see her eyes.
“Don’t drink it,” Marab told her. “It’s drugged.”
Her face still looked blank, but she nodded.
Her name was Sam and she led the three women below the cliffs, far from where the Jaffa had found her in the daylight. They swept away their footprints with bars from the cells.
The canyon turned east by the growing pyramid, and from there a smaller canyon forked to the north. When that canyon started thinning, Sam showed the women how to climb. Their leather-soled sandals made a hushing sound on the slate. Marab learned quickly, so Sam sent her first.
Cless hesitated, peering back down the canyon. “My mother,” she said.
“We’ll come back for them,” Sam said as she helped her up.
She had three more friends to rescue first.
Katie M. remixed this story brilliantly: The Sangata, Book 1 (The Ramayana Remix). I adore it beyond words. Go read!