‘k.a. (birthright)’, Lam Ning

Illustrations © 2021 Eric Asaris

 [ We flew kites © 2021 Eric Asaris ] “In my dreams,” he says, “everything I love still lives.”

We set down our tools. Early seasonal rains have softened the earth. We’ve buried her ashes deep.

The hillside overlooks the road that her father’s army took to capture the port city years ago. As children, we flew kites here.

Now, I’ve returned to this place to put her in the ground, alongside the fighters we lost.

M. drops to his knees. With head bowed, palms upturned to the sky, he prays.

I watch the clouds. They’re rolling in, heavy and dark. The almanac predicts rain.

A light mist falls after a time. M. stays on his knees. He finishes the prayer, even as the droplets wet his hair and soak through his shirt.

When the ritual is complete, we take our tools and leave.

The rig is waiting by the roadside, its engine running. We stow the tools in a utility cabinet in the back. I climb into the driver’s seat. M. gets into the passenger side.

I turn up the heat as M. dries himself off with a towel.

A few years ago, he was just a field medic we had abducted from a guard station in a small town to the west. We had taken him because the Commander’s daughter was sick. Though he had wanted no part of our operation, he would take care of her until she recovered.

By mid-winter of that year, she had fallen in love with him. Her father arranged for a spring wedding.

The groom-to-be tried multiple times to escape. Eventually, the Commander ordered us to break one of his legs.

The trees grew pale white flowers every spring in the city where we had set up base. The couple exchanged vows under one of those branches, in front of a crowd made up of family members of the Commander’s private army. The bride smiled brightly through a veil, while the groom looked away, unable to hide his tears.

I never thought that, years later, he would mourn her.

The rain beats down on the windshield, hard and heavy. I steer the rig onto the road. As we emerge from a tight corridor near the base of the hill, the shower stops as abruptly as it had started.

M. is curled up in his seat, turned away from me. His chest rises and falls in an even rhythm. Around his neck, tucked under his uniform, he wears a chain. He has two items attached to it. Dog tags and his wedding band.

Between us, there is an unspoken agreement. Don’t speak her name. Don’t enliven the past.

Those who hate us have every right to. We can either make peace with it or kill ourselves.

We find them within sight of the road: the remains of a small caravan. They must have attempted to cross during the night.

Another vehicle is also approaching from the opposite direction.

I know the unit by the markings on the doors. M. knows them too. He doesn’t say anything, only grabs the trauma kit and moves quickly.

I intercept the other crew. These guys are young, eager, suited up, gear in hand. Per protocol, harvest teams can’t move in until we clear them. However, this crew travels with a doctor, who has the authority to override us. The doctor glides past me and approaches the scene, where he hovers impatiently while M. does his work.

This scene is different from what we usually find.

There are three, perhaps four, bodies intact. The rest are in pieces, scattered and frozen in the desert cold. Ice has settled in the creases of their clothes. They had dressed in layers in an attempt to live. Of the ones that still have faces, their eyes are open.

Snowfall was mild last night. We are at high enough elevation for small patches to form on the ground.

M. finds a pulse in one, a small one, buried under some limbs and a torso. But he finds no signs of life in any of the others. He works on the child while the rest of us watch.

The other team is agitated. The longer the delay, the less likely they’ll be able to find usable tissue. Finding anything intact is a decent payout at the border.

We’re all vultures out here. I am not in a position to judge.

“This guy…” one of them mutters. “What’s he fucking doing?”

Another one, the only female crew member, looks me up and down. I’ve positioned myself between them and the scene playing out behind me. She has scars on the side of her face, ritualistic patterns curling around the corner of her mouth. Thorns like teeth.

I don’t know if the rest of her team understands what that means. I do.

Eventually M. lifts the child into his arms. He walks past us to the rig.

I grab the bag he left behind and signal to the other crew that they can go ahead. Their doctor is waiting.


If M. hears the comment, he ignores it. He climbs into the back of the rig with the child.

I follow him and reach up to close the doors. He has the kid laid out on the gurney, a small bundle of limbs in a brightly colored jacket. He’s attached the oxygen tank and started an IV.

I slam the doors shut and get into the driver’s seat. I radio the nearest checkpoint from the road.

In the rear view mirror, I can see him moving in the back. Over the engine, I hear a song, its edges rough, a language I don’t understand.

There is a sigh. A condemnation, a stone thrown at a giant. Once again, a prayer.

“It was heavy artillery,” he tells me later.

The last of the day’s light falls across the table, filtered through the dusty cafeteria blinds. The accommodations at this rest station, like all the others, are fairly basic. Most of the other tables are empty. A group of delivery drivers takes up one near the front. We take up another in the back.

I sign:

—Did you put it in the report?


—It happens.

“We should have had more help.”

—Not even kidneys.


—Or corneas or skin grafts. Those guys were hoping for a decent payout. Instead they got nothing.

M. shakes his head. “It looked like a drone strike.”

—Not the cartels then. That’s a nice change.

“Stop saying that. They don’t operate out here.”

—It was a joke.

He doesn’t reply. He’s been quiet since we had to surrender the kid’s body to the hospital.

We’re close to the demilitarized zone. Any drone presence would be a treaty violation. The consequences for that are heavy.

I tell him:

—Either way, it’s none of our business. We did what we were supposed to do. Let the hell patrol deal with it.

“We’re technically the same department.”

—Auxiliary medical services. We’re rovers. They don’t even let us carry.

He’s looking out the window, out to the main highway and the desert beyond. The road was originally named The Great Promise. But no one calls it that. Here, they call it La Promesa Rota.

Turning back to me, he says, “People deserve to raise their children in peace. Families belong with each other.”

—They’ll be buried together. Whatever parts of them are left.

“Is that the best this world can offer?”

—If it bothers you, keep praying.

He has more to say, but the bell attached to the cafeteria’s front door jingles. We both glance that way, out of habit. In walks one of crew members from this morning. She’s still in uniform.

Instead of approaching the service counter, she heads towards our table, nodding at the delivery drivers as she passes them.

“Do you mind if I sit with you?”

Bold. I can respect that. But I am in no mood to deal with strangers. My yes collides with M.’s “no.”

She takes a seat next to me. I am wearing a dust mask. Most people stay away from me because they think I’m infected with a respiratory disease. But this one clearly has no fear.

“I remember you guys from this morning,” she says. “Was hoping I’d run into you again.”

M. nods. “Good to see you.” His tone is controlled and polite. He is suspicious.

“Have you been working the border long?” She’s not talking to me.

“This is our first year,” M. says.

“Hm, yes. Same for me. My name’s Oe.”

M. glances at me, then back at her. I look her over. Nothing about her face seems familiar.

“Call me Ming-xin,” he says. “The ugly one sitting next to you is called Yang.”

“You don’t look much like someone who would be named Ming.”

“It’s just a name.”

He speaks with his head turned slightly to the side. He has this habit. He does it in an attempt to hide the scars on his face. Like hers, they form a pattern, lines curving over his left cheekbone. Unlike hers, his take the form of a flower without thorns. It is a bit unusual to see a man with this type of a marking, outside of prison. It is impossible to claim it as an accident or a battle scar. The shape is too deliberate.

Oe slides a business card across the table. “I don’t know how much longer you guys have to serve, but my company doesn’t discriminate. If you’re interested, please contact us.”

“Thank you.” He makes no move to take the card.

Most crews, whether private or under government contract, avoid us. They know we’re probationers, that we picked this assignment to get out of prison. They know we’re tagged subdermally and our actions are remotely monitored by the warden’s office. You can just barely hear our chips beeping whenever we pass through a checkpoint.

But Oe looks like she understands it all a little too well. She says to M., “I was also wondering if you were available later.”

“What for?”

“For a little get-together. We’re kind of having a party later tonight.”

Their speech is coded but just barely. Dealers, mercenaries, whores, it’s all the same. We all know each other when we meet on these roads. She has read his scars. I watch M.’s face closely. He seems conflicted.

It is a legal grey area. For us, it is too close.

“I can’t give you an answer right now.”

Oe flips over the business card. She draws a pen from a pocket, writes down a number, an address. She pushes it toward him.

“This is how you can find me. My unit leaves tomorrow afternoon.”

“All right.”

“I’ll see you around.”

Then she was up and gone out the door, the little bell tied to the handle jingling at her exit, the same way it had at her entrance.

Bold and more bold. The young ones are all like that.

I tell him:

—We start early tomorrow.

M. doesn’t answer. He looks down at the card.

He’ll call her, I know he will. It’s pointless to argue or try to talk him out of it.

I was not called Yang in my homeland. I only took that name after my mentor’s death.

Commander Mah Yang followed the doctrine to the bitter end. Our war finished with him. We never recovered after his loss, and defeat came hard. We all went to prison for a bit, those of us who survived, anyway.

I stayed a few years longer than the others. I killed someone while inside. Self-defense. But the courts still needed to punish me.

I only heard of her death after I got out. No one had claimed her ashes.

It took some time to track down her remains. I didn’t realize then that M. was also looking for her.

I found him in the worn-down lobby of a neglected government building. We had both been assigned to the same probation office.

His dark hair was cropped short, and he had grown out just the barest signs of facial hair along his jaw line. He had always been a product of a land foreign to me, a collision of features both soft and hard. He was dressed for the road, with jacket and heavy boots. The mark on his face was impossible to hide.

I was on a bench in the hallway, trying to fill out a stack of paperwork, legal documents, none of which made any sense to me.

He took a seat next to me. We ignored each other at first. We had both been warned against associating with each other.

But eventually he reached for the papers in my hand. He explained to me what they meant. He showed me how to fill them out.

Through the open front of his jacket, I saw a navy blue uniform underneath.

When we were finished, he handed me a business card.

“They’ll give you a choice,” he said, “for how you want to complete your service. I think, this option might be the best for you. But it’s up to you. We might work together, or we might not.”

He stood up to leave.

“Goodbye, Yang.”

I watched as he turned and walked out of the lobby.

I realized then that the future I had planned for myself was dead. The dreams I’d held on to all throughout my years in detention were shattered, swept away by a tide I couldn’t control. All our losses, all our sacrifices, meant nothing.

She was named Rei-ha, after a long gone pop singer. She had once dreamed of becoming a ballerina. She had been small when we first met, small and dying of gangrene at a border camp. On a dirty cot in a hospital tent, she had waited for the surgical saw like a princess waiting for a royal carriage. Through a mess of tubing and wires, she had seen me on the cot next to hers and had reached for me with fingers blackened by necrosis. She had called to me with the name of a dead brother she had once loved.

And I had reached back. Since then, she vowed that we would never be apart.

Maybe the ghosts of our teachers had brought us to this. Somewhere out there, human hands had signed papers in countries more powerful than ours, had redrawn borders and lines and poured the gravel for what would become the roads we now wander, the roads we carry. Maybe, for us, there is no choice and never was.

With a handshake between some important strangers, our country disappeared. With the stroke of a pen, we became stateless.

And like a lost dog, a stray without a master, I turned away from freedom. I killed my instinct to be free. I followed M. out the door, into the street. To serve the same system that had condemned her to die.

I wake up alone. Breakfast is a pre-made box offered by the boarding house kitchen: hard boiled eggs, biscuits, dried apricots. They have hot tea and water in the dispensers. I fill up a thermos and take two of everything.

In the dark of the parking lot, I climb into the rig and start the engine. Last generation bio-diesel systems take a while to warm up. I turn on the heat.

Within fifteen minutes, I’m pulling up to the place written on Oe’s business card. It’s a larger hotel in a brick building. Her company can obviously afford nicer lodgings than ours can.

The door to one of the second story units opens. Someone walks down the steps, stands under the street lamp, and lights a cigarette. I don’t recognize the face.

I climb out of the rig, leaving the engine running.

She is: short, dark, and doe-eyed with long lashes, perched on a tall chair on the sidewalk. She has her hair in long tiny braids, under a pink baseball cap. She watches me approach.

“Mornin’. You here for the other one?”

I nod. I assume she knows the uniform or the rig and which company I represent. Her voice sounds familiar. The shirt she’s wearing is the same as Oe’s, unbuttoned.

“I think I know you.” She looks me up and down. “Are you the one talking in Morse code over the radio?”

Again, I nod. Dispatchers hate that about me.

She shakes her head. “I’m guessin’ you ain’t got a choice, huh?”

I shrug.

“Well, sorry to bring it up. It’s none of my business, really.” She motions toward the door. “You can head on up. Or wait right here. He’ll be out in a minute.”

I realize then that the uniform she’s wearing must actually belong to Oe. The name, L. Oe, is on the front name plate.

I start up the steps.

I’m halfway up when the front door opens.

M. emerges in uniform, jacket, boots. He glances at me but doesn’t say anything. He walks past me down the steps. The scent of soap and clove lingers.

Someone is standing in the doorway. I raise my head and meet his eyes without meaning to. He’s tall and pale, dressed only in sweat pants, chest bare. His left arm is grey and blue with tattoo ink.

Because he won’t break eye contact, neither will I.

M. tugs at my sleeve. “Let’s go.”

So I turn back. M. follows me to the rig.

We’re inside before he says anything.

“I need you to make a stop.”

Outside, Oe’s friend is heading up the stairs. Her other crew member is still in the doorway, watching us.

“Just drive.”

I take the steering wheel and pull us out onto the road.

“Stop by the gurdwara.”

We have to pass it en route to the main highway, so there is no inconvenience to it.

I turn and pull into the dirt parking lot. The building is made of worn down wood. There is a vegetable garden in the back, grown from desert-resilient strains. At one point, it had been a restaurant until the owners sold it and opened a convenience store on the next street over. The front gate is always open, and the lamp in the window stays on throughout the night.

M. climbs out. I watch him remove several folded bills from his pocket. He slides it through the mail chute on a locked wall panel. The family that runs the gurdwara handles the last rites of unclaimed bodies found along the border.

When he returns to the rig, he pulls himself into the passenger seat and slams shut the door. Then he folds his arms across his chest, sinks into the seat, and closes his eyes.

I steer us onto the main road.

A flock of crows leads the way.

Around midday, we find a body lying alone in the field. A teenage boy, on his back, head propped up on his backpack, as if he’s taking a nap.

His face, masked with dust and dirt, is frozen in a small smile, eyes closed.

M. finds a pulse. I bring the stretcher. Together, we carry him back to the rig.

I take us to rendezvous with a hospital transport.

The boy wakes up along the way. I know because I hear M. talking to him in the back.

“¿Como te sientes?”

“Vi un ángel.”



At the crossroad, the other crew is waiting. We transfer the boy to the back of their rig. M. reconnects the line from our oxygen tank to theirs. I hand over the backpack. His papers are in the front pocket. A birth certificate, a list of names and addresses, a high school diploma, a faded family picture.

Before we leave, the boy reaches out and takes M. by the wrist. His eyes are open. He’s taking in oxygen through the mask. The strange smile is still on his face.

He presses something into M.’s hand.

It’s a rosary.

His voice is muffled by the mask, but still clear. “Para mi amor.”

M. wraps the beads around the boy’s wrist and folds those skinny dirt-covered fingers securely around the cross. “Esto te pertenece.”

Then he lets go.

We watch them take him away. They turn down the road heading into town.

Some of the ones we find may make it to whatever sanctuary they seek. But it is a rare thing.

The engine stalls and gives out before we reach the next checkpoint.

I pull over to the side. Dispatch asks if we can walk to the rest station. They’ll arrange for a tow, but the truck won’t arrive until next morning.

We take the jump bags and go. I leave a placard in the window with contact information and notes on the direction we’ll be walking.

The sun hangs low. We have just enough time before dark if we hurry.

The road is longer beneath your feet than it is under four wheels. There is no denying this. We lapse into a silence.

Here, you’ll find the presence of humanity in the things left behind by travelers. You’ll find broken glass, shoes, clothing, old photographs, even furniture. It’s as if they learn to give up more and more of themselves as they go on. When they arrive to their promised land, wherever that may be, it will be with hands empty, histories blank.

Here, you’ll also find clay containers, shaped like large bowls, placed near the road, meant to catch snow and rainwater. Those who have made the crossing sometimes come back and leave these things. They also leave care packages with food and water under protective tarp coverings, brightly marked. They leave maps and emergency blankets and instructions. They leave religious artifacts, prayer books.

We don’t touch these things. Except for M., we’re not all saints. But on most days we’d rather carry the living than the dead. The dead are never found in good condition.

We were sent here to hold the line, to honor a broken treaty. Without us, another road would come to exist, one which intersects this boundary, one which transgresses it. We are here to destroy that pathway.

But in actuality, that other road, the secret one, lives on in spite of us. It runs in the blood of the daring and the desperate. It is untouchable by us.

So we are here, if for no other reason than to fill the hours of the days. The game plays out like a ritual. I collect a check for every pay period, and I subtract hours from my mandatory service sentence. I will become a free agent once the counter hits zero.

We are close to the next rest station when M. slumps to the ground. The sun is red, halfway below the horizon. He is tired. He exhausted himself the night before.

He tells me to keep going.

Instead, I reach down and pull him up by the arm. I draw his full body over my back, across my shoulders lengthwise. Hunched over beneath his weight, I move on.

“Put me down.”

I ignore him.

I saw him do this for others, years ago, when he carried our wounded.

“Yang, you asshole.”

I know he hates it because it reminds him of the time we broke his leg. I carried him then too.

I keep walking.

Night comes on quicker than I expect. Ahead of us, I see bonfires against the hillside.

An encampment. Tents, trailers, trucks. Makeshift shanties. People are gathered around the fires. A few approach as we get nearer.

They are kind once they see the medical emblem on our uniforms. They offer water and cups of the soup they are cooking. M. hands out some of our rations and items from his first aid kit. A few of the older camp residents start to gather around him with questions about various ailments they seem to be suffering from. He’s grown accustomed to performing physical exams by firelight. He has a supply of herbal treatments and low grade pharmaceuticals he’ll offer up in exchange for little to no payment.

Their faces are diverse but mostly brown or black. They are young and old. Entire families live here. Their children run in circles around the fires, clutching toys made from trash. M., who has a weakness for them, starts patching up holes in soccer balls and teddy bears with medical tape.

One girl is dragging along an object on a string. I see that it is a kite, fashioned out of sticks and plastic bags. A reflector is fixed to the underside of it.

By the campfire light, I watch the kite start to take off, only to crash into the ground, again and again. I stand up and offer some help.

After a few tries, I’m able to get it high enough to catch the wind. Its light is small against the sky. The stars are bright out here.

I hand her the string and watch her eyes flicker as she cuts patterns in the dark.

I radio in our coordinates to both our central dispatch and to the warden’s office, notify them that we’re spending the night in the field, that we’re deploying our shelter, that we don’t need extrication. I don’t mention the encampment. They don’t need to know about it. They always give me shit for having to decode my messages anyway.

Desert nights are extremely cold. The forecast does not rule out snow.

“I forgot your name,” M. says, head pressed to my shoulder. We are alone in the same tent, under the same blanket. “You had another name, before you called yourself Yang.”

I shrug. It doesn’t matter.

“I was named after my father’s brother,” he says, “who died before I was born. My younger brother is Amir. Our elder sister is called Fahtia.

“If I die here, tell them that I…”

He doesn’t finish.

I touch my chin to his head, just so he knows I heard him.

In the morning, we hitch a ride with a passing delivery driver. The children wave to us from the roadside.

In the rest station laundry room, stripped down to his underwear, he’s pulling his clothes out of the dryer as I watch.

When he straightens up, his shoulders and back muscles tense. His backside is marred with scars, a different kind than what is carved into his face. The imprints on his back are chaotic, a blueprint of trauma.

He pulls a shirt on and then slides into his pants. He turns to sit on top of the dryer to tug on socks and his boots. He ties the laces and hops down to grab the rest of his things.

I follow him out into the hallway. We exchange a few nods with the other occupants. Most are truckers or utility workers. I’m wearing my dust mask, and no one is staring.

The room is the size of a closet with a single bed. We split the cost between us.

He likes keeping a small lamp by the bed, for some reason. Its light is very faint. But sometimes it keeps me up at night.

We lie in silence for a while. Then he reaches over and pulls the mask off my face.

I have a deformity. The man I killed in prison had attacked me because he didn’t like my face. It came down on my record. In order to secure a reduced sentence, I had to give up an eye and a kidney to the prison donor program. I was then offered probation through community service. And so I ended up here, at the border, with a glass eye and one kidney.

I suppose it’s not wrong to say that I am exceptionally ugly. When I was thirteen, I bit down on a lit firecracker and held it in my mouth until it went off. The right side of my jaw is now mostly gone.

I did it because we were in love and she told me to.

M. is the only one I let see it up close.

Now he rests the back of his fingers against the side of my face.

The day’s been long, the tension’s been building, and suddenly I am in the mood for a bad decision. My hands give form to thoughts better left unsaid.

—Did you sell us out?

He narrows his eyes. I see his jaw clench.

He turns from me.

I grab him by the shoulder and move to pin him under my weight.

His arms come up against my chest. But otherwise he doesn’t move.

The chain around his neck lays out in the open. My mentor’s dog tags and a wedding band. The ring is neither gold nor silver. It is solid black and embedded with a microchip. It was once synced to her neuro-activity. The ring has a locator that activated in response to his pulse, so she could track him when he was wearing it. They could feel each other’s heartbeats through it.

Since her death, it’s gone cold.

Without thinking, I wrap my fingers around the chain. Both of these things should belong to me.

He throws me off and hits me in the face.

I grab his fists to make him stop.

In a cracking voice, he curses me. Blood drips onto his cheek. It’s mine.

He looks up and turns to the side so I can see the mark, the shape of a flower, cut into his face.

“You see this, you piece of shit? I can’t go home because of it. They know what it means. I went down with the rest of you dumbfucks.”

I somehow hold him still again. It’s always hard to control him. And it’s worse this time. But this is us. To what extent there is an us and not just two animals caught in the same trap, fated to die together in hate.

The look in his eyes is dangerous now. He won’t be subdued.

We’re at a stalemate.

But slowly he starts to let me in. He always does. I have callouses on my hands molded to the shape of his bite. It happens every time.

If she was the ocean in a typhoon, then he is the break of waves against the rocks. Call her my long dive off a cliff, and call him my impact with the water below. This is a nameless feeling pulled from the darkness rooted in the heart of the universe. The same turmoil of the seas and all the world’s hurricanes steers me into the space between his thighs.

We crash. We break.

A silence follows.

And then Mahmud says, to this ghost of Yang:

“What was the reason? Your reasons? For any of you? When we took up arms, it was because they came for us. They took our elders. They took our leaders. And then, our children started disappearing. One by one. No one would help us. No one listened. Anyone who spoke out was arrested. We were silenced. They strangled us slowly with curfews, taxes, blockades, travel restrictions. They imprisoned our teachers. They tore down our places of worship. And they took our names.

“When some of our lost children finally returned, they couldn’t speak our language anymore. They were like strangers among their own families. They had new names, new identities. They didn’t know their own culture, and they didn’t believe in it. Our communities started to break down.

“We knew what was happening. We had to face that reality. We were being erased.

“So we had to fight. For us, it was a matter of survival.

“My younger brother was one of those taken. He’s still missing, and I want to believe that he’s still alive, that he’ll find his way back to us somehow. But I just don’t know anymore. My sister slept with a machete beside her bed, thinking they would come one day to take me too.

“But it wasn’t them that did it. It was you. You came and stole me. Stole me because it served your own purpose. What were you? You were child soldiers following a homicidal cult leader. You took his orders like he was a prophet of heaven. And he treated all of you like weapons. He disposed of you as he saw fit. But you all called him father. He was the only family you had.

“I had a family once too. And I always knew that they would cast me out one day. But I just wanted a little more time with them.

“The day after you took me, my sister picked up a rifle and went into the mountains. She’s still there. Now she leads the guerillas in our name.

“I originally became a medic for their sake. All I wanted was to give them a chance to live. Even though I knew that they wouldn’t want me in the end.

“What was your reason? Yours or his? Or hers? You, all of you, moved like a calamity. Like a plague. You bled out and destroyed everything you touched. But for all the homes you torched, for all the mothers you buried, for every grandfather you beheaded in front of his grandchildren, for all the girls you nailed to your crosses and left to die… for every nightmare I’ve carried in my heart since then, no one has ever told me why any of you did it.”

When he turns from me and sleeps, curled on his side like a child, he pulls my arm around him and leaves me to think the answers to his questions and everything I’ll never tell him.

I used to have brothers too. Some of them may still be living.

It’s true that we were young back then. We all were, M. as well. And that may have been the reason why he didn’t fire at us when we came for him. That may have been why he let us take him. He was only a few years older than us, but we must have reminded him of his lost brother.

And he stayed with us until the end. Went to prison with us. Was disowned by his family for us.

Or was it for this? Me. At his back. My hand over his. Our fingers interlocked.

If he ever decides to kill me, he could add a thorn to the flower on his face. He could cleanse the shame of what we did to him. But it would be the end of him as a medic.

Mah Yang used to say that Heaven accepts only blood as tribute.

Of crimes committed against humanity, we were all guilty.

 [ A kill angel © 2021 Eric Asaris ] I ride with the tow truck to retrieve the rig.

The driver is a man named Bereket. I’ve ridden with him before.

Lean and brown-skinned, he drives his flatbed truck like a sports car. His cream colored shirts are always collared and pressed clean. Behind his eyeglasses, he is inconspicuous but alert. He is good for information.

As we’re hauling the rig back to the station, I let him know about the recent deaths at the border.

“They were brought down by the angel,” he says.

I remember that I am still new to the border. Things changed in the world while I was in prison. There is a lot that I don’t know.


He keeps one eye on the road and the other on me. “How many were killed?”

—Around twenty.

“I would say that must be our Lady Helga. She must have woken up.”


“She used to patrol the skies here. She was hunting for insurgents back then. Now, maybe, she is hunting for trespassers.”

—A drone.

“A kill angel.”

—Same thing.

“No, my friend. They are different. Trust me. I am a migrant in this country. Where I come from, we had many Helgas. They were smaller, but very destructive. At night, we saw them in our dreams. We wrote poems about them in school. When we were kids, the teachers would make us practice drills. Find shelter and hide. Hold your head down and cover it like so. Later, when I grew up, I realized that the drills had no effect. Nothing can protect you when they strike. Our teachers only wanted to give us some hope.”

We lurch back and forth, trying to navigate a broken road. I have never seen Bereket slow down for potholes, turns, vehicles, or pedestrians.

—Who does she take orders from?

“Foreign powers. You already know which ones. Some angels turn on their masters and go rogue. But Helga is a loyal soldier.”

—When was she last sighted?

“Last year, I think.”

—How does she refuel?

“The same place where she reloads. You wanna see? I can show you.”

—Not re—

He takes a sharp turn onto a dirt road. Now we’re climbing up the side of a hill. The road winds. Eventually, he pulls over.

We both get out.

He points toward the horizon.

I look across the span of the desert, over trees and low-growing shrubs. There are mountains in the distance. But the longer I look, the more I become convinced that one of them isn’t a mountain. Its edges are too smooth.

“It’s an armory.”

Helga’s base.

She visits me in dreams, on nights when I forget the shape of his face.

In the dream, we won the war. The country is ours. Aki, our birthright.

On the hillside overlooking the capitol, I hold her above my head, my hands at her waist, while she extends herself lengthwise, legs and body horizontal, arms outstretched like the wings of a bird. We’re posed like dancers in the pictures she used to study, convinced she could one day dance on some world renowned stage in front of an audience.

But the squalor of the camp where she spent her early years had given her one disease after another, until the only way to save her had been to amputate all four limbs.

Even so, she used to write with a stick in her mouth, drawing symbols in the dirt. Female soldiers, recruited by her father to be her companions, combed her long black hair while she worked. They brought her writing brushes and ink and paper. Topographical maps and satellite images. Pen in mouth, she drew out battle plans for her father’s army.

She’d been born a prodigy. Mah Yang had seen this, adopted her, pampered her, educated her, cultivated her skills. And when she fell ill, he brought her a medic who would later become her husband.

All of our victories belonged to her.

All of our crimes. Our losses. Our lives. Our deaths.

There was nothing that we were, nothing that we had, that didn’t belong to her.

The ground rumbles, shakes me out of the dream.

He throws an arm over me, an instinctive reaction. But I roll over, pull him under me, and reach for the blinds over the window.

Outside, there are lights. I hear sirens in the distance. Gunfire.

Without a word between us, we slide out of bed and dress quickly in the half-dark of the nightlight. I wrap a scarf over my face. He shoulders the trauma bag. I take the lead.

The hallways are busy. Our radio comes alive with noise. I try to listen as we move. Emergency lights on the ground point the way to underground bunkers.

But we move in the direction away from shelter. We step out into the truck port where the rig is parked. There, we run into Bereket.

“Don’t go that way,” he says. “Lady Helga is fighting for her throne.”


“She’s being challenged. There is a new demon in the sky.”

The horizon is on fire. M. recognizes the location.

“The camp,” he says. “We were just there. It’s burning.”

“How many people?” Bereket asks.

“A lot. Women, children, elderly.”

“Don’t go. You can’t help them. Not now.”

Red flashes in the dark. The desert is illuminated. For a few seconds, we see their forms. Like mountains. Like monsters. One is white-winged, large; the other darker, smaller.

“They are about to fight,” Bereket says. “And no one can stop them.

“Here, we have the Lady Helga.

“And the other is a rogue weapon. They call her the Broken-Boned Sparrow.”

The two giants clash, wing to wing. The air fills with dust and the groan of twisting metal.

Helga, hunched like a shrouded woman, unloads her guns. The Sparrow, agile and deft, flips and turns and dodges. She climbs high, and then her wings open to full span.

M. seizes my hand. “Yang!”

I turn as another volley hammers the desert floor, making us all stumble. Bereket ducks behind a wall, and I pull M. with me as I do the same.

Huddled beside me, M. yanks open the front of his shirt. One hand makes a fist over the chain around his neck.

“It’s hot,” he gasps into my ear.

I don’t know what he means until he tugs the chain off his neck and lets the black wedding band fall into his palm. He grabs my hand and places it over his.

The band burns us both.

Firelight forms crescents in his eyes.

“It’s her.”

I watch as he reattaches the chain around his neck. My mentor’s dog tags fall against his chest. But he keeps the ring in his palm, folding his fingers around it.

“She’s alive, Yang.”

I shake my head.

—She’s dead.

Like my brothers. Like our enemies. Like our country.

She’s gone. In the earth. I buried my soul with her. I wasn’t meant to go on like this. I didn’t mean to outlive her. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know why. Why I live. The ghost of Yang can’t cry.

Mahmud’s kiss falls on my right cheek, the damaged side of my face. I watch him rise, turn, and run from the safety of the wall into the wide exposure of the battleground.

Like a dog, I take off after him, Bereket shouting for both of us.

Crossing an open field during combat feels like the prolonged last moment before a fall.

The promise of pain reminds you that you’re just another beast under heaven, no different than the bag of bones you carried through the snow last winter.

Animals run just like this when pursued by predators.

My heart pounds, and I am alive.

I know when he puts on the ring. I know because he comes to a stop and so does she. Her armored body pivots in mid-air, arcs across the pre-dawn sky, and then she’s coming at us.

Not us. Him.

We’ve made no vows to each other. Him and I.

But I run.

Not only is he in her sights, but he’s in Helga’s as well.

I reach him a second before the Lady’s guns unload.

We tumble together. Live rounds punch the ground, and I feel it in the air, hot against my skin. He is breathing underneath me, under the dust and smoke.

The mechanical squeal of an engine announces the Sparrow’s descent. What comes next is an earthquake accompanied by thunder. Screaming metal and rapid fire.

His hand is against my chest. When I look up, our baby has her wings wrapped around the Lady. The tearing of new age alloy and steel is the sound of machine death. She is caught under the Sparrow’s claws, razor edged propellers spinning like buzzsaws. She fires until her guns are empty. But the Sparrow is latched to her main body, past the muzzle of her cannons, unreachable by her long range weapons. So she shudders and trembles, and the air smokes, as she comes apart.

Her gun arms break off first.

The rest is inevitable.

And the Sparrow doesn’t stop cutting until the Lady’s indicator lights fade out.

When the loyal soldier goes dark, the rebel rises.

I watch as she climbs. Higher, higher. I scramble to my feet as she turns, makes for the distant horizon, leaving us behind. My impulse is to give chase, but it’s hopeless.

He comes next to me. The ring is off his finger, clutched in his fist. We watch the sky.

When she is small in the distance, we hear the sound of helicopters. The patrolers. Late to the party. They seem to be in pursuit, but they’ll never reach her.

The smoke is rising from the Lady’s remains. The world is quiet, soft, like morning dew.

I swallow down words I can’t say.

—You used to want me.

—Do you still?

The soul of an angel is messy, Bereket claims. Drones are machines under the command of human controllers. A drone has no use for vengeance. It knows neither hate nor mercy.

But an angel can be petty. She can be cruel. She feels as humans do.

They are self-driven, instinctual. It is not an AI that lives under the armor. It is an intelligence born from flesh and bone. But once removed from the body of living tissue, it becomes an entity without natural boundaries. It shapes itself like water filling an empty vessel. It expands, the way cancer cells grow, uninhibited. What it feels—its rages, its restlessness, its hunger—it all simply explodes. Without biological feedback loops, without neurogenic pathways or hormonal regulation, it has no way of maintaining emotional homeostasis. It lives in a constant state of catharsis, a mind trapped at the moment of a psychological breakdown.

Bereket told me a story that day as we gazed out at Helga’s armory. “My school was a recruitment center,” he said. “And a testing ground. Some of my classmates were taken to become test subjects.

“It’s believed that an angel’s last strongest emotion before she takes her throne will be the feeling that defines her in her next life.”

Joy. Rage. Purpose. Fear. Sorrow. Pain.

I don’t know how or why. But she’s found a way to outlast her enemies.

Maybe, like us, she was also serving out a sentence.

But, unlike us, she’s broken free. She’s reclaimed herself from them.

Any one of us who knew her could have foreseen this outcome. She was known best for her relentless hunger. There never was any cage that could hold her.

In the early morning hours, we arrive at the encampment. Somehow, there are survivors.

Oe’s unit is among the responders, combing through the black tags for useable tissue.

Bereket brings his truck to move debris and to transport the walking wounded.

The work takes us all day. Mahmud carries the most badly injured among the living. I load them and drive.

It’s night again. And we’re parked by the road, outside the rest station.

They’re out of beds. We’ve just cleaned out the inside of the rig. Right now, there’s nowhere else to sleep.

In the back, I lie down next to him. He’s turned toward the wall, exhausted, eyes closed, breathing slow and steady.

I keep the radio close. I scan the channels. Listening.

Somewhere, in the dark, she is sleeping too. Either nestled in the depths of Helga’s base, sheltered and secured in a stolen fortress, or else, out in the stratosphere, so high up they can’t find her, orbiting with the satellites, watching the planet spin, dreaming her dreams of… what? Fire and failed states? Or kites flying under a blue sky.

He turns toward me, one hand wrapped around the chain, clutching the wedding ring and the dog tags in his palm. He is warm and bruised from last night’s violence.

Tomorrow, there will be more work. The road will find us again. On and on, until we finish this sentence and repay our debts to a society that never cared for us, never fed us, never sheltered us, never fought for us.

Will she wait for our release?

If we called her now, would she break us free from this prison?

Would she honor the vows we made to each other when we were young?

Or will we spend the rest of our lives looking to an empty sky.

In the dark, I am holding him. And he allows it. And for once, I want him more than her.

But when I close my eyes, I can hear her laughing.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll fly higher. I’ll grow stronger. They’ll never catch us, my love. We own these spaces in between the barriers, the unnamed places where only the beaten and the lost can thrive.

We are the children of dissidents, orphan birds in windy nests, crying for worms and dirt. We run faster than their laws. We cross borders at will. And we’ll burn brighter than they’ll ever know.

—Then wait for me, Rei-ha, and we’ll burn together.

Yes, yes. We will.

© 2021 Lam Ning

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