The Castles of Colibrisa

Elsa's promise to Maria Taberina, against all her professional and personal judgment, was to get her out of this hellhole and back to free Catalan territory, no matter what. Now, near the end of a grueling day of roadblocks, belligerent soldiers and trash-strewn streets, the last thing standing between Elsa and the realization of that promise was a tall fence and at least a thousand people thronging the tarmac.

Buffeted by the crowd, she pulled her secret weapon from her backpack and clipped it to the chest pocket of her denim shirt: her press credentials. She thumbed her phone, removed the card-sized scrib, and tossed it upwards where it whirred to life and hovered, hummingbird like, at arm's-length from her face. Its pinpoint light flared, setting her face aglow as its lens fixed on her and streamed the image into the ether, "National Front forces aligned with France are on the move." She stated in a clinical voice that transmitted all the confidence and calm she didn't remotely feel, "pushing into the northern outskirts of Perpignan, the regional capitol of the Republic of Catalunya. Catalunyan defenses appear to have melted away, and refugees are gathering at the airport upon word that United Nations transports are readying to evacuate citizens for safe harbor. Unidentified armored vehicles have also—"

Crackling sounds from beyond the aircraft hangars registered to her ears as gunfire even as it took the rest of the crowd a few moments to catch on. In that lull, she killed the transmission, recalled the scrib to stow it in her phone, then shifted her backpack to fasten it tight across her chest. Palms pressed and arms arrowed out like she was diving into the sea, she plunged through the bodies towards the fence even as panic rippled across the mass of humanity.

Screams went up from the back. Vehicles roared out from between the hangars. Flashes from gun muzzles pierced the twilight—shooting into the sky. The crowd surged away like a wave, pressing against the fence separating them from the enormous plane parked on the runway with the black-and-white UN logo on its tail fin. Elsa felt herself about to be pulled under the crush, caught among those who were bigger than she was, and so she climbed.

Hand over hand, clawing upwards, hoisting herself up someone's back. Screams right in her ear. Her own screams? Her network had been reporting that the residents of Perpignan were bloodthirsty terrorists and mercenaries, and yet they seemed as desperate to escape as she was. And then she was pressed against the fence, wire mesh imprinting her cheeks. The sting of cordite. A great weight pushing from behind. On the other side of the fence, white-helmeted soldiers running back and forth, shouting for calm.

She would have died there, she was sure—breaking more than one promise—but the fence split open along one of its vertical seams. Elsa's segment listed inward as people to her left spilled onto the tarmac. This relieved some of the pressure. She crawled along the tilting fence toward the gap where soldiers were now pulling some people through while pushing others back to close the fence again. One solider—ruddy blond, sunburned and freckled—was only an arm's length away on the other side of the mesh, and Elsa hollered the one word that could save her, "Press!"

The soldier's eyes lit on hers, flicked to her credentials. He pressed through the flow of people, hand held out. She struggled that way. Someone gave her a shove from behind and she got an arm around the fence's strut. The soldier grasped her and yanked hard enough to drag her over and through. The press credentials ripped off her pocket and she came down hard on the pavement, past the fence. Footsteps stampeded away from the fence even as the soldiers attempted to push the segments back together. She shot a last look at the crowd—So many ordinary people, shopkeepers and teachers and grandparents, all clawing like animals for survival—and then turned to sprint across the tarmac toward the looming plane with its flashing lights and cordon of soldiers.

More gunfire from behind. A crescendo of screams. Elsa booked it, backpack jostling. The jet engines howling now, blasting streaks of dust and grit away from vast wings. Men standing near the tail ramp made slashing motions with their flashlights and the soldiers raised their weapons, crouching into defensive positions.

Faster runners passed her, breathing ragged. Someone threw a handful of gravel across the pavement a few paces ahead and then she realized that it was strafing gunfire from behind. A man who had just run by went down hard like a sack of wet laundry. She kept running.

The jet began to pivot on its wheels, ramp ratcheting up. Elsa and a dozen others made it to the ramp when it was already a meter off the ground. Soldiers heaved her up and she lay gasping on the pressed metal. The rupture in the fence had burst fully open, and the whole crowd was cramming itself through. Trucks father back flashed with gunfire. The soldiers on the tarmac laid down suppressive fire over the heads of the crowd.

Beyond the chaos, the aircraft hangars sank into the dusk. The red tile roofs and spires of the city beyond were layered in darkness, without electricity. Above bloomed an azure sunset painted with horsetail clouds behind the silhouettes of palms and cypress. Gunshots pinged off the jet's fuselage as hands dragged her upwards and then the closing ramp eclipsed the scene.


Julian would just be waking up, she knew, rising before the alarm, if the baby's cries hadn't already roused him. Boston sunlight would be seeping in around the black-out curtains she'd sewn to give him a bit of respite in his topsy-turvy schedule, a stolen nap during the few hours when the nanny was there to care of Matthew. Matthew chewing on his own fist, fat baby legs pistoning, veering from giggles to grimaces and back for reasons that only Elsa could seem to read. Hungry. Cold. Pooh Bear! She always sensed what he wanted, and now all of that want lay atop her like the crush of bodies from the fence as if Matthew were beaming it her way, a full-spectrum transmission like an emergency signal broadcasting on all frequencies.

Elsa, alone on the opposite curve of the Earth, settled into a kneeling position among hundreds of other desperate souls—soldiers, medics, diplomats, interpreters, other journalists, and assorted family—in the belly of a cavernous C-17 Globemaster. Shoulder to shoulder, knees and elbows jutting. The passengers waited in taut silence broken only by murmured prayers and quiet crying. An elderly woman pressed kisses to a rosary. A man in a filthy tweed blazer peeled a hardboiled egg with shaking hands, popping the whole thing in his mouth and chewing with eyes closed like some kind of ritual. Elsa curled over with her pack like a pillow between her chest and knees and muttered Matthew's name like an incantation.

Through a small port hole in the fuselage's curved wall, she saw a smear of black smoke rising. A glimpse of many people surging forward, the whole line of fence buckling and falling. The plane pulled away, gathering speed, thumping over obstacles without slowing. Clatters and pings ring against the hull, under the floor. She sealed her eyes shut; arms wrapped tight around her pack. She made a prayer of Matthew's name, and Julian's, and the promise she'd made to Mrs. Taberina—out of this hellhole, back to Free Catalunya, out of this hellhole, back to Free—

With a surge, the floor tilted as the plane lifted off. The engines roared, the floor lurched, her stomach dropped and then all the weight of physics pressed her to the spot as the plane's wheels left the earth. The sandpaper vibrations of the runway gave way to the shuddering washboard of the air, and they were free.

Sobs and cheers erupted within the plane's belly. A keening sound reached her ears before she realized it was herself. The cosmic tumblers moved as each of her promises—well, most of them, the most important ones—clicked over from FAILED to ACHIEVED. Relief flooded through her with such intensity that she nearly threw up. The egg man cried out with visceral emotion, yellow mush still on his tongue.

Engines striving, the floor tilted sharply upward as the jet powered itself to higher altitude. She grasped a length of yellow nylon strapping connected to a recessed anchor in the floor via a carabiner, feeding it through the straps of her pack that was fastened across her chest. All around bodies shifted, bumped, and jostled as the plane shuddered.

Lights streaked and flashed beyond the port hole window. Like a storm-tossed ship, the vessel lurched to the side. Bodies collided and tumbled up one wall as everything rolled. A great crack sounded like a lightning strike. The forward end of the crowded cargo bay burst into a shower of debris and flame. Bodies flew. The floor dropped away. Elsa's strap snapped her to the spot as everyone lifted high in the air and then crashed back down, smacked by the heaving floor. Black smoke erupted into the bay like the snort of a dragon, laced with fire, burning hair, barbecuing flesh. Blood painted her tongue, stung her face.

The engines shrieked, rose in intensity, then coughed and faltered. A glimpse out the port hole showed the runway they'd just left, then a blurring horizon of red tile, chimneys and antennas flashing by at eye level. Clattering and buffeting as the plane smashed over and across the rooftops of the city adjacent to the airport.

For Elsa, the prayers and promises were still yammering in a loop that had become the only touchstone on life that remained to her. And these boiled down to just one—Matthew, Matthew—as the final seconds fractured and twisted and crumpled like the body of the doomed plane.

A fissure split the fuselage overhead and then ripped it wide like a bursting balloon. Wind exploded everywhere. The night sky, the first stars, a storm of debris like confetti. The horizon spun—rooftops, windows, the tips of cypress trees. Cacophony like the inside of a blender. The front of the cargo bay consumed in a gout of smoke and fire. Bodies tumbling away, ejected from the ragged maw, and then the whole world slammed to a stop, a hammer squashing a bug. Smoke and dust gushing.

Matthew, Matthew, Matthew.

She was awake, she was alive. She lay on her back gasping for breath, still strapped to the tilted floor of the plane that had deposited this chunk of itself into some residential block of the city. A tall stone wall stood in view just outside the jagged opening, smeared black and flaming in patches, rubble cascading. A downed palm twitched its broad leaves in the heat-stirred air, halfway inserted into the cargo bay. At the end of the ruined street, a small boy stood astride a bicycle, staring at the apocalypse that had just descended on his neighborhood.

Incredulous that she was still alive, still conscious, Elsa shivered with adrenaline. Die of shock, her mind announced, or get the fuck moving. Fingers jittering, she disentangled herself from the strap that had saved her life. Among the bodies around her, people squirmed and moaned. The egg man lay in an inhuman tangle, bits of shell still caught on his tweed.

A soldier, face a mask of blood, crawled over to her. Shivering, he helped her unclip the strap from the carabiner, which jostled her pack and sparked a searing pain in her shoulder. She howled. He spoke in a Scandinavian language she didn't understand, then pulled her arm over her head, bent the elbow and pressed hard below her collar bone. She screamed as the ball of her shoulder popped back into joint. With that, he placed a calming hand on her forehead and moved on to tend to others.

She scooted down the buckled floor, picked her way across a heap of stones and bodies and climbed down to stand with quaking legs on an oil-slick street. The city had been ripped wide in both directions. A thoroughfare of fire and destruction had blasted itself through this neighborhood of three- and four-story residential buildings, exposing shattered living rooms, bedsheets and curtains rippling from halved houses, people peering out, corpses dangling from jutting rebar. Black smoke belched into the bruised sky over the rooftops where explosions pounded, and fires roared.

Elsa staggered to the street corner. Passersby gathered to stare, dumbfounded. Debris lay smoldering everywhere. A sidewalk cafe was mostly destroyed, chunks of masonry and metal scattered about. Upon one round table stood a steaming espresso next to an unattended phone whose screen strobed with a video game. A waiter stood there holding a tray with two full wine glasses. Ash layered his face like zombie makeup and floated like dust on the surface of the wine. "You walked out of that," he said in a hollow voice as Elsa approached.

"I don't know why," she said, amazed that she sounded so normal, so reasonable.

People emerged from the cafe with bleeding ears, lacerated faces. The boy on the bike stood in his spot, eyes haunted. Elsa fished her phone out of her pack and passed a hand over her face to wipe away the worst of the dirt and blood. She double-checked that her device was set to uplink to the network satellite on a tight beam, so nearby drones couldn't pinpoint her location or—more disastrously—pirate her broadcast. She tossed the scrib upwards where it buzzed into position. Took a great, centering breath. Done this a thousand times. Pull it together—this is who you are. She spoke as soon as the scrib's light came on. Its lens shone into her narrowed gaze. "Unspeakable tragedy today in Perpignan. Fascist militias have taken the airport by force and are attacking the U.N. humanitarian mission—"

"They're airlifting people out," announced a dazed woman in an apron.

Elsa jutted a finger at the wreckage behind her, flicking her gaze from the woman to the lens on the scrib, "That's the airlift." She angled her phone to aim the scrib at the flaming horror on the streetscape behind, "A C-17 cargo plane loaded with refugees was shot down as it was taking off and crashed into the city just east of the airport. The death toll is unknown, although I can confirm at least two survivors, a Scandinavian soldier, and myself."

Gunfire crackled beyond the rooftops.

"The National Front aren't fascists," boomed a fat man leaning in the doorway of the ruined cafe with the stub of a cigarette in his mouth and a hash of broken glass peppering his features. "They're liberators!"

Within seconds an alert from her editor popped up in her chat app. Who's the loud guy? Find out his story.

Elsa shut her eyes, re-centering again. Deep breath. She doused the scrib and clicked it back into the phone. More messages from her editor cascaded across the screen—Nix the fascist label, refer to French as 'liberators' or 'Republican forces'—but she thumbed it dark and stowed the device in her pocket. She turned to face the fat man and spoke in perfect English, "Fuck you."

He snorted and blew smoke at her. She walked through the small crowd, aware of a blooming pain in her back. As she moved away the man shouted, "Vive la France!" and was met with jeers and fuck yous from the others.

Around the corner, she found an ordinary street. Shoe stores, dental clinics, another cafe, people standing in the street looking up at the churning, blackened sky. Taking out her phone again, she thumbed Julian's number but got no answer. It was early afternoon in Boston—he was probably asleep while the nanny watched Matthew. I'm ok, she texted. I love you. Call me.

She walked on, half-lurching on aching legs, moving in the same direction the plane had been going. Away from the distant static of gunfire, the crackle and hiss of burning neighborhoods. On another side street, amidst a mosaic of scattered glass and limestone, lay a moped that looked intact. A body lay broken on the pavement nearby, helmet cracked like a cantaloupe and smeared with blood. She averted her eyes, steadied her shaking hands enough to heave the scooter upright, then squeezed the brake and thumbed the start-up button. It sputtered to life, and she rolled away, slaloming the rubble that lay strewn across the pavement.


Speed was a salve. Within minutes she was away from the devastation, moving through waves of traffic and pedestrians all heading in the same direction—out of the city center, towards the train tracks and highways that lead to the coast, some thirty kilometers distant. The Pyrenees stood against the darkening sky to the southwest, bisecting the country. On the other side of those mountains, as far away as the moon, lay Free Catalunya.

Her mind shifted into narration mode—a coping mechanism but also a professional practice. While a small number of individuals are known to have survived the crash of the UN's humanitarian flight, the majority of the passengers are feared dead after a horrific scene of destruction when the jet plunged into a residential neighborhood near the airport. An unknown number of people were killed on the ground as well. No, scratch that. Cut the passive voice, cut the adjectives. And there's no evidence it was the National Front that brought the plane down. What if it had been friendly fire from UN jets? Or Catalunyan terrorists on the ground with RPGs? That was the angle her editor wanted, but her inner narrator tsked. A grotesque bigot in the wreckage mustered the nerve to shout the appropriated slogan of the National Front to one survivor even as they stood amid the burning ruins. He was ripped limb from limb by enraged survivors who pissed on his corpse. Unverified. Check sources to confirm.

She weaved through traffic, popping onto sidewalks, and cutting across grassy medians. Funneled down a clogged ex-urban avenue, she instead peeled off and explored side roads that headed in the same direction. Here the streetlights glowed, silent houses and apartments whose windows pulsed with blue television light. Did they know what was coming? Were they watching her own snippet of a broadcast from the crash site, staring into her blood-streaked and stricken face, and believing whatever fevered caption her editor had tacked on? Were they celebrating the death of 'terrorists' and cheering the 'liberation' of Perpignan?


Maria Taberina had been missing both of her front teeth after she'd been attacked by a mob of LePénistes on the way home from her job as the director of a bilingual preschool. The last time Elsa had seen her, fresh scabs had patterned the older woman's face, still yellow and purple with lurid bruises. Both wrists in braces, she sat propped in a recliner in the shabby living room she shared with her extended family. Elsa, recording as her scrib floated above the chairs where they sat, wondered, What will happen to this woman, who's neither a terrorist nor a mercenary? Who with power will protect her?

This was St. Jacques, the impoverished Roma neighborhood in the center of Perpignan, a community that had been settled for half a millennium, and yet which continued to attract the prejudice and aggression of the bigoted, fearful, and the reactionary. Elsa had been interviewing Maria Taberina and her family for weeks now, part of an ongoing series about the experiences of the marginalized in Catalunya as the political winds shifted after the rise of the far-right National Front in Paris. She'd been assigned to depict the squalor of the 'foreign vermin,' but what she was finding looked very different from that. This portion of the Republic of Catalunya had been French soil only a generation ago, and many angry Frenchmen were hellbent on taking it back.

"And no one," Maria Taberina had said, eyes shining, "gives a shit about what happens to us."

Elsa had declined to contradict that, instead letting the scrib record the moment. A ticker at the top of her phone screen showed that more than 11,000 viewers were dialed into the live stream.

"You're a nice lady," Maria Taberina said, "but you'll move on, and so will the rest of the world, and then the fascists will rape us and murder us in our beds, and then they'll bulldoze the neighborhood. And no one. Will give. A shit." Thumping an index finger on the arm of her chair with each phrase.

"I won't let that happen," Elsa heard herself say. Not the sort of thing a good reporter says, it just popped out. A storm of sad faces and broken heart emojis cascaded across her phone screen but she held her gaze.

FFS, keep yourself out of it!! messaged her editor in the chat app. Elsa glanced at the phone screen and saw that the caption below the live footage read CATALAN GYPSIES REFUSE TO ADAPT TO FRENCH CULTURE. Elsa tapped the screen to kill the transmission, then recalled the scrib to its housing.

Maria Taberina ignored all this, leaning forward with fierce eyes, "Then promise me you'll get me out of this hellhole," she said, "and back to Free Catalunya."

Elsa held her eyes. "I promise."

"No matter what."

"No matter what."


Elsa's reporting had made Maria Taberina a target. Two days after their last meeting, the woman was beaten to death by a truckload of jacked-up barbarians with plumber's wrenches in the street just outside her house. Cremated the next day, her ashes were placed on a shelf in a plastic juice pitcher during a wailing, furious wake, where her family vowed revenge, fists clenched, eyes slitted, and chests bursting with fury.

Elsa, sick with grief and guilt, covered the wake. She knew she shouldn't have put the poor woman's face on camera-- but it was such a compelling face, the weariness of war etched into the lines that webbed from her eyes. A cliché, of course, but a powerful one. Elsa retreated into professionalism.

At the wake she filmed snippets, spoke with enraged men who promised to kill the fascists with their bare hands, "You killed her!" hollered her youngest son with an accusing finger, bleary-eyed and red-faced. Elsa ducked into another room as the women corralled him, shooting her stares that were just as pointed as that finger. She found herself contemplating the pitcher of ashes on the shelf. She placed a palm against it and found that it was still warm. That was when everyone's devices started flashing and pinging. A UN C-17 had arrived at the airport, but a flank of National Front vehicles was cutting off highway access and making progress towards the center of Perpignan where the Catalan flag still flew all but impossible. The time to leave was now.

No matter what.


Jostling along on her commandeered scooter, she made it about twenty kilometers on side roads and bike paths until arriving at the outskirts of Argelès-sur-Mer. She saw a pregnant woman holding hands with a man, both North Africans, trudging along the highway with duffels strapped to their bent backs. She passed, circled back, pulled in front of them and kicked down the stand, leaving the motor running. "Here," she said, waving a hand in offer. The couple stared, not making a move. Elsa turned and started walking. A moment later the couple whizzed past on the scooter without a wave or a word.

Another hour of navigating the night streets of the coastal town, heading downhill towards the tingle of sea salt. No fires here, no convoys of armored trucks, no opposing flags—but the feeling of approaching doom permeated like a stink. Unseen drones zipped overhead, drowned out by the slashing sorties of fighter jets. A heavy plane thundered overhead and she stopped near the steps of a medieval church to watch it slide across the inky sky. Its running lights were dark so it was only a moving shadow against the wisps of clouds. It banked over the water and rumbled into the night.

Returning her gaze to the near distance, she glimpsed the shine of dark water in a gap between buildings and finally knew where she was.


The last time she'd seen him, her husband had been insistent, "Why Catalunya? That place is a tinderbox." He held tiny Matthew, hefting him gently and patting him on the back with a cupped palm to release the burps after a bottle of formula. Elsa leaned against the kitchen counter, a pinpoint of track lighting in her eyes like an interrogation lamp. This was her last visit home, the waning moments with her family.

Julian scowling, his default expression these days, "Things are worse than ever with those cretins seizing power in France. They're freaking Nazis."

She'd resisted rolling her eyes. "The media make it sound worse than it really is."

"You're the media."

She glowered but his anger was greater than hers, "Don't you think I know the full story? I've spent six months on the ground there. I've interviewed the commanders on both sides—no one wants an escalation."

"'Both sides'," he mocked, with venom, "You don't know what's going to happen, Elsa. Look at every 'breaking news' story of all time. Everyone goes, 'What the hell? Where did that come from?'" Matthew spit up goo on Julian's shoulder, but he'd already laid a rag there. Practiced and unperturbed, he plucked the rag away and replaced it with a folded tee shirt.

This was a capsule version of every fight they'd had for as long as she'd been a foreign correspondent and freelance stringer, pre-dating even their marriage. She knew there were certain things she couldn't say—You know what you signed up for. Why are my career opportunities put to scrutiny while yours never are?—and she no longer had the energy for conflict. Her bag was already packed, the car already on its way, her Doc Martens already laced up. In twelve hours she'd be on the ground in Perpignan again, no matter what else was said. She shifted to emotional triage. "Julian—I promise everything's going to be okay."

"That's a bullshit promise. Try again."

Deep breath, "I promise I'll get out if it gets dangerous."

"If the UN pulls diplomats, you go too. First flight out."

She closed her eyes. Diplomatic withdrawals were phased events, taking place over many days, all golden opportunities for candid interviews with officials and personnel who no longer needed to moderate their opinions. But Julian's face was dark, with an edge she'd never sensed in him before. An unspoken threat in the tensing of his jaw: Or else.

Her device chimed with the arrival of the car downstairs. "I promise. First flight out."

He held out Matthew and she scooped him into her arms. She gazed at the boy's perfect face. With the pad of her thumb she rubbed the downy spot over the bridge of his nose, a magical button for soothing, "I promise Mommy won't get hurt." Matthew ogled her, milk breath misting her face, "Mommy will come back to you, I promise."


The familiar aquamarine house stood on the southern curve of the bay at the far end of a shabby stretch of beachfront cafes, souvenir shops, and bait shacks. She'd been here a few times during her first stint in country, when she and her producer had hired Boukhriss as their Catalan interpreter and driver. Now with body aching and back aflame with pain radiating like sub-dermal lightning, she approached the front door but froze at a staticky command from a speaker somewhere, "What do you want?" demanded a voice in Catalan, then again in French.

She held up her hands, wincing as the pack shifted on her shoulders. "It's me—Elsa Martin-Bashline. I need help."

Pause. The voice on the speaker sighed and said in English, "Goddammit."

The lock clacked, the door swung open and Boukhriss's familiar glare confronted her from the shadows.

"I'm sorry," she said, preemptively, "I have nowhere else to go."

He studied her, whiskey on his breath, near enough to kiss. Might that smooth this over? Her mouth nearly reached for him—how nice it would feel to tip back into that pleasure, forget all this—but he pulled her inside and shut the door. He was greyer now, with an unruly beard, but still the rakish bastard that had enchanted her the last time she'd been in this part of the world. In his cluttered living room, he studied her in dismay, "Your talent for being in exactly the wrong place remains unmatched."

"I know, I know." She sat down in the first open spot she saw, at one end of a couch that was heaped with blankets and tossed clothes. A coffee table held an overflowing ashtray, empty beer bottles and a half-full bottle of Bushmills. The shifting glow of monitors flickered in the room, along with a shaft of light that poured in from the kitchen where a window looked over a slice of surf, silvered in moonlight.

"Surely you know the National Front is coming," he said, "You have to get out."

The couch was enveloping her, and she let herself sink into it, "I'm working on that, but Boukhriss—we need to move now. There's still time for us to get out."

"There is no us," he said in a flat voice, "Isn't that the way you put it? I think the exact quote was—you might want to fact-check this—you said, 'There is no us.' Right, Elsa?"

She pinched the bridge of her nose and squinted her eyes shut for a moment to wrangle the bolts of pain that were shooting up her spine, "Please. I'm sorry."

"I was sorry too."

"One of your boats. Can we take one of your boats?"

"My boats? I'm not going anywhere."

She made the effort to glare at him, "Look at you. They'll probably kill you. At the very least, they'll take away everything you have."

"Listen to me for a fucking change, Elsa. My father built this house and left me the Haroun. No one is going to make me leave. Not you, and not the National Front."

Several screens on the wall showed images of a convoy of heavy trucks. Cars jammed in freeway traffic. People with bags, kids, and dogs streaming through the spaces between the stopped vehicles; the burning crater in the center of Perpignan, emergency lights strobing amidst the smoke and fires.

She waved at this last screen, "I already tried to leave, but that didn't go so well."

His face slackened as he understood what she meant. He bent to examine her where she sat, running his hands down her limbs, down her back, ignoring her winces and protests. He raised a palm, shining crimson in the televisions light, "You're bleeding."

She was melting into the sofa, energy draining like wine gurgling out of an overturned bottle, "Fuck. I'm sorry."

"There’s a deep puncture wound in your back. You need a doctor." He pushed her onto her side, grabbed the whiskey bottle, unscrewed the cap with his teeth and poured. It was like fire on the wound. She screamed and bucked but he held her down as the gash sizzled. Then he handed her the bottle and went to rummage in the kitchen.

She downed three swigs while he dressed the wound with a dishcloth and duct tape. "Sorry about your couch," she managed. They exchanged a look. They'd fucked on this very couch six months ago and stained it. He'd flipped over the cushions, but now those cushions were slick with blood.

Something crackled outside. He jutted a thick finger towards the back as he wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, "Sorry or not, you're leaving. Right now, in my boat."

"I can't take your fishing boat."

"Not the Haroun, you won't be able to captain it. You'll take the Sea of Stories, it's just an outboard. You can operate an outboard, can't you?"

"I don't know. But you need to come with me. Us or no us."

He made a tsk-tsk sound and pulled her to her feet, leading her through the kitchen where he grabbed figs, apples, a half wheel of camembert and two bottles of water, shoving it all in a pillowcase, "They'll need me for interpreting, just like you did. I always land on my feet, don't I? But if they find you here, with your press pass-- well, when they see you work for that right wing bullshit, they'll probably make you Minister of Propaganda." He winked at her. It was the kind of comment that used to spark their arguments—I'm influencing the coverage! Inserting broader perspectives! Changing a broken system from the inside!—but now all she could do was wince. She never won those arguments anyway. He slapped another bottle of water into her hand.

She gulped it down even as they went out the back door and into the night that rumbled with the surf breaking on the shore. Lights moved out on the Mediterranean, boats heading away. Distant crackling could be gunfire, electrical lines, or heavy equipment rolling over houses. They went down a rickety staircase that traversed the rocky shore and onto a dock that jutted over the water. Two boats bobbed at their moorings. The Haroun was a fishing vessel with a tall cabin, racks of lights, a net crane. The Sea of Stories was a low craft with three benches, oar housings, and an outboard motor. Boukhriss helped her into it as the boat rose and fell on the incoming tide. She grasped his hand as she settled onto the rear bench. The night sky tore straight down the middle as unseen jets streaked overhead.

"Please come with me. We can make it to Free Catalunya if we go together."

He peeled away from her grip, then pressed a warm hand to the side of her face. "We won't be doing anything together, but if you go now, you might make it back to your husband."

Her eyes shone. "My little boy. I told you I have a little boy."

He nodded, grim in the night. Surf heaved beneath the dock.

"Boukhriss, I promised them I wouldn't get hurt. I promised I'd make it home." She hugged her pack which was still slung over her chest. Truck engines roared on the streets nearby amidst raised voices and breaking glass.

"Well, Elsa, it's never too late to start keeping your promises." He stepped back onto the dock, untied the mooring, then knelt to yank the cord that brought the motor coughing to life. He put the tiller handle in her hand, showed her how to twist the throttle for acceleration. "Listen. You head straight out to avoid the shoals. When you see the coastline beyond the cape—"gesturing into the dark, "—you tack due south. Keep the cliffs dead ahead. Three coves down and you'll see the castle of Colibrisa. Go beyond that, then hug the near shore past the shoals. That's Free Catalunya."

"Boukhriss, please."

But he stepped away, "There's no room for me in your promises," he shouted over the surf. A wave heaved the boat, the prop lifted out of the water, sputtering, and the bow clunked against the dock, "Go!" he yelled, sweeping his arms at her. She gripped the handle, opened up the throttle and sliced into the surging waves.


Ten missed calls from Julian, and a cascade of frantic texts: WTF is happening in Perpignan?? Her battery was at three percent, enough for either a last call home or one more broadcast, but not both. Her shame made the choice for her. All it took was a flick of the thumb to switch her device from a tight beam to a wide transmission that could be picked up and relayed by any comms drones in range. It would get her fired, if not blacklisted. But it would also diffuse her broadcast more widely, in the public domain. The scrib's light flooded over her. Waves heaving in the background and with her eyes mere pinpoints, squinting through the pain, she spoke.

"National Front forces have taken portions of the capitol, Perpignan, and appear to be pushing the Catalan defenses to the sea in what would amount to a complete sweep of the Catalan territory that once fell under French rule. Tonight, it appears, the Fascists are well on the way to retaking that territory by brutal force, including a number of documented war crimes." The scrib hovered at eye level, light shining, even as she bobbed on the waves. The shoreline visible behind her winked with the lights of houses, cafes, discos, nothing in the view betraying the terror and devastation that was coming this way except for the pale and stricken look on her face. "And Julian and Matthew—if you see this, I'm so sorry, and I love—"

The scrib's light winked out as the battery died.

Jets streaked by unseen overhead. Distant explosions crumped. When the shore was just a dark line behind, she spied the headlands of the cape, the farther cliffs, and she pulled the tiller to curve southward, motor rumbling, bow thumping over washboard waves. As the dull roar of more jet engines emanated overhead she looked up to see the unlighted silhouette of a large aircraft moving like a smudge against the sky. Another UN C-17. Sluggishly climbing to safety. She watched it go, sending it a prayer while cursing its dumb luck.

The lights of other boats crisscrossed the horizon, but she avoided them, not knowing who friend or foe might be. Her energy flagged as she stared ahead at the far cliffs, a receding vista of coves in the inky night. The dark humps of the Pyrenees, inland from the cliffs, marked what had once been the border between France and Spain, and now separated the French-occupied portion of Catalunya from the free territory to the south.

The adrenaline in her system had drained away, replaced by shooting pains in her back. Exhaustion lay upon her like a soaking wet blanket. She drifted in and out of sleep, snapping awake to reorient the prow. The vibrations from her grip on the tiller rattled her teeth and numbed her arm. The world was two dark slabs, sea and sky, everything rumbling, buzzing, and shuddering.

Another huge plane roared overhead without lights, but this one streamed a blinding trail of fire and smoke. She watched, agape, as it heaved across the sky, blotting out stars. One entire wing was an inferno. Light and shadow spilled across her boat as it passed over and she watched it stream away through the night, lowering gradually in altitude, engines fritzing. The stench of fuel and exhaust. It made it miles out to sea, a blazing point converging with the horizon, before it dropped into darkness and bloomed into an explosion that took the space of a long breath to reach her as a growling, booming gust. She let up on the throttle and drifted as she looked out at the horizon. A black cloud boiled from a glowing slash of fire. She heard herself moaning, unable to stop and not even trying to. There would be no way to reach the wreck before dawn--the fuel gauge showed only a third of a tank remaining. And who could have survived such a crash?

You did, said someone in the boat with her. Mrs. Taberina in her shawl, perched like a shadow on the facing bench. Eyes webbed with wrinkles. You survived a crash like that. Because you have a promise to keep.

Elsa nodded to herself. She touched the small of her back where the dishrag bandage was soaked with blood, aflame with agony. It would be easy, even pleasurable, to lie down and drift away, cut the motor to listen to the mixing of the sea, let that be the end. She took her hand off the tiller, thinking that might let the motor die, but it chugged on. She cursed that. Back in the direction of Argelès-sur-Mer, plumes of smoke rose like weeds from the coastline. The pinpoint lights of drone’s zig-zagged above. She turned away.

There would be little useful that would result from her reporting during this whole misadventure. Others on the ground in Perpignan would be broadcasting scenes of the chaos and destruction. Her streams would be just another sliver of terror on a right-wing network, instrumental to the very fascists who were chewing up the world, her efforts to bring balance and individual dignity laughably inadequate. She'd succeeded only in putting targets on innocents, while her own most harrowing moments went unrecorded. No actual purpose to any of it, and at such a price. Her sacrifice unnecessary, unremarked, a personal vanity unworthy of consideration. She didn't deserve to return to her family just as they didn't deserve to lose her.

In the far distance, the line of rocky coast glowed with a lick of sunlight. The sky to the east was brightening. Three coves southward, one of the distant cliffs held a geometric shape—a rounded tower atop the rocks, and a crenellated wall that made a straight line against the craggy landscape. A last gust of energy came with the strengthening of the dawn and she fixed her eyes on the castle, gripped the throttle, pushed on.

In a daze, numb to every extremity, she passed the cliffs of Colibrisa under the ruins of its castle whose limestone walls glowed buttery in the sunrise. Other vessels bobbed in the cove, among them the sleek hydrofoils of the Catalan navy and the smaller, swifter Coast Guard cutters. She tried to steer close to the northern shoreline, avoiding the whitecaps of shoals. The hull thumped and screeched as she scraped over volcanic outcroppings. Vision swimming, blood leaving her head, she lost the thread of consciousness.

A splintering sound. Boat heaving, the shock of cold water. Sinking. Splashing to stay afloat, clawing at the laces of her boots to kick them off. Arms pulling her up, wrapping her in warmth.


Another boat, faces hovering. Coming ashore with a shushing sound, prow slicing gravel. Arms delivering her to a stretch of rough sand, voices ringing, footfalls thumping. Motionless now, flat on her back on solid ground, she marveled at the dawning sky, the hills and cliffs curving beyond clusters of houses, palm trees, cypress. On the dock of a small marina, the red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag rippling in a landward breeze.

She clawed herself to a sitting position. People busied themselves on the beach all around, soldiers and sailors pulling more small boats ashore, wrapping survivors in blankets, shouting for water and medics. A woman in a Catalan naval uniform stood over her calling for a doctor but Elsa concentrated on unclipping her pack, extracting the cargo she'd carried all this way: Maria Taberina's tall plastic pitcher, heavy with its solid-packed contents.

Elsa unscrewed the lid, regarded the grey ashes that had gone cold and clumpy, and then she thumped the whole container upside-down on the beach. Pounded the bottom a few times, then with both hands lifted it upwards, leaving a crumbling tower of ash upon the wet sand. "Thank you, Maria," she said, and laid back down with a ragged sigh. The incoming tide wet her stocking feet, licking away at the base of the sandcastle of ashes.

Sources have confirmed that a small number of refugees from the war zone have reached safe harbor in Free Catalunya, although it is unknown at this time whether the survivors truly deserve to live, given the randomness of their fortune and their documented disregard for promises made to loved ones. Not to mention unfaithfulness, and service to the forces of evil. Certainly they can never again be trusted to make choices that involve professional or personal integrity.

She saw herself, a broken woman splayed on the sands of Free Catalunya, and she wondered, with the residual curiosity of the journalist she'd once been—What will happen to this woman? What of her remaining promises? And does she even deserve the satisfaction of keeping them?

A.C. KOCH is a teacher, writer, and musician whose work has been published in Analog, Split/Lip, Puerto del Sol, Hobart, and is forthcoming in Fantasy & Science Fiction and december. After some years living and working overseas (France, South Korea, Mexico), Koch resides in Denver, Colorado, teaching linguistics and making music with Firstimers, a power-pop ensemble.