08. Nor any drop to drink
Cautiously, tiptoeing, Sal and I climb the stairs. The wind howls; rain pounds the windows. The walls seem to shake.
The house my brother and I lived in was speckled with black rot and smelled of damp. The wet, those dark corners, the dust - perhaps those things are all part of what led to whatever took our parents.
Nationalist thugs would patrol nearby the house at all hours, but during the day they were joined by a parade of people who were barely surviving, or who had not survived and didn’t know it yet. One of the other houses down the road attracted an endless stream of furtive, sad-looking men, seeking out any kind of human contact. A petrol station on the corner - which had long since stopped selling petrol, of course - dealt in all kinds of drugs, natural and synthetic. A music shop across the road had traded saxophones and violins for weapons.
It was never a good neighborhood, not really, but in the rise everyone did what they had to in order to survive.
Originally, the rise was somewhere else: out of sight, out of mind. We saw it on the news, and I remember our parents making comments about it, but nothing really bad happened. It seemed to mostly affect far-off countries that I’d never been to. The pictures that came back were terrible, but it was almost like a kind of voyeurism: it was terrible that they were enduring this suffering, but it was their suffering. We weren’t in this together.
Then, food became more expensive, and then more scarce. Shelves were empty and supply chains disintegrated. We found ourselves eating more canned food, and more locally grown produce, which probably wasn’t a bad thing in itself. There were arguments on the lens shows and sometimes between family-members about whether the rise was even real, or if we were being alarmist. Some people thought it was some kind of attempt to gain control of the world. My uncle thought it was because the United Nations wanted to turn the world communist.
By the time our parents died, the waters had claimed our house and all our possessions. We’d worked our way through a series of damp, rotten squats. Some were too dangerous; others too exposed; more than one was cleared out by the nationalists in the dead of night. We got used to keeping our bags packed and staying ready to flee quickly if something went wrong.
By the time the rise had come to the stop scientists predicted, the water level had risen 230 feet, submerging cities and some entire countries. Ice caps and continental ice were gone. There was no ice pack on most mountain ranges. The world had warmed, and the ice was let loose into water that flowed and flowed.
Inside the ice: disease. Long dormant viruses took millions of people. Some thought the diseases couldn’t possibly be natural; that anything this deadly must have been created in a lab. But they were natural enough: our immune systems were entirely unprepared for a disease that had ravaged the planet millions of years before. We were sitting ducks.
I look out at the soldiers through the upstairs window of Sal’s house. The weather hasn’t eased up; my first thought was that maybe we could sneak out and swim away, but that would be suicide. The water is fierce.
Sal has a makeshift garage attached to one side of the house. It’s a boathouse of sorts; there are a surprising number of water craft here. Nothing fancy, but enough options to consider. There’s a Sunfish sailboat; a motor dinghy with a covered top; a curved, chrome capsule that looks like a silver bullet; some kayaks; and various boards.
I eye up the Sunfish. “It’s fast, but it can’t handle this kind of weather,” Sal says. “We’d capsize immediately.”
I point at the silver bullet. “What is that?”
Our parents both died the same night, consumed by the same plague.
The day after was the worst.
In the before times, you would have a team take away the body; maybe cremate it or bury it somewhere. That had long since gone away, but it was still illegal to handle the bodies of your loved ones yourself, and the KS would use that fact as a cudgel if they could. Everyone had to bury their dead, and nobody could.
So we hid our parents. Under the floorboards. To hide them from the nationalists who would use the very fact of our loss as a way to hurt us more.
The thing about losing someone you love is that they’re still there. You speak to them: sometimes out loud, sometimes in the corner of your mind. You feel them with you. The sadness eats you whole, but it also reminds you of them. It’s comforting and terrible, and it’s not going away.
I felt my parents with me when I buried them in the house.
We curled up in a corner of the living room, a heap on the bare floorboards, and let our despair run free.
“It’s a submarine,” Sal says. “Or rather, an escape pod. The thing is, it’s only got room for one person, and the battery will only take you a few miles. There’s no cramming an extra person in there. It’s very tight.”
I walk up to it and run my finger around the top. “How does it open?”
Sal places their hand flatly on the base. The top slides open neatly, revealing what looks like a bed inside. It’s not unlike a coffin: plush and white. “It recognizes me.”
I look back over at the sunfish and the dinghy. “Which of these is least likely to sink in the storm?”
“Neither one will make it. It’s a great way to die,” Sal says. “And the cigar sub is going to attract the attention of those Corporation soldiers. It’s not a good idea.”
It’s beginning to look like we’re trapped here.
Sal looks out at the copters. “I do have one idea,” they say.
“They’ve got food,” Let said to me, his face half-lit in orange by the sodium vapor lights outside. Occasionally, passing patrols would cast a flashlight through the bare window frame and we would duck into the shadows. If the King’s Soldiers found us, we’d be done for.
And now Let was telling me that he wanted to put himself directly in harm’s way by stealing food from them. It wasn’t just foolhardy; I was scared of losing my brother. They would tear him apart.
But we needed to eat. There was no food at all; no way to get any. Half the town - if you could still call it a town, sodden as it was - was starving. And as terrifying as the thought was, the King’s Soldiers had food. A whole pantry of it, in the old bookstore, positioned behind glass windows for all to see.
“I’ll come with you,” I said, impulsively.
Let shook his head briskly. “No. It’s dangerous. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
He looked at me with resignation, clearly weighing up whether it was a waste of time to try arguing with me about it. Silently, he acquiesced. There really wasn’t any point; I was always going to follow. If he was going to be taking a risk to get us fed, we both would. I wasn’t going to take any male protection bullshit, nor any facile commentary about him needing to provide. Not even from my brother. We were in this together; always had been.
There was nothing more to say. He nodded to me.
We went down to the bookstore together to steal food from the heavily-armed nationalist militia that terrorized the post-rise country. And the rest is history.
Just maybe not the history I thought it was.
Sal goes first.
It doesn’t seem like we can possibly make it. As soon as we open the door, the wind and rain invade the house, rearranging the furniture and anything that isn’t too heavy to blow away. The waves rise to sharp points that careen over into watery explosions before making way for the next row of daggers.
The soldiers walked on water like it was solid. I know I can’t do that. I don’t know if the changes Sal ensured mean they can.
I guess I’m about find out.
Sal puts a tentative foot into the water. It submerges, surprising them, and I see them briefly considering what to do next.
They take a step; then another, and another, until they’re waist-deep in the icy cold. Then a wave knocks them off their feet and they’re underwater for a second, then two seconds, three, before I see their head emerge.
Sal is swimming towards one of the copters. None of them seem to be reacting at all; there’s no movement, and each of their doors remains firmly shut. I’m certain that if I tried the same maneuver I’d have a stream of soldiers coming for me. But not Sal. Sal is camouflaged by their changes. We might pull this off.
I think of my parents, and of Let. They would be so proud of us finding each other again. I think they’d be proud of me, too, although there’s a giant leap of bravery between me and anything I might have to be proud of here. The background hum of loss that pervades every moment of my life is there, as always: sadness and a sense of emptiness in the universe.
But today, something else gets to happen. Today, I’m going to find part of what I’ve lost. I’m going to find a way to become more whole.
Sal climbs onto one of the copters and over to its door. It slides open and lets them in.
I couldn’t look at Let’s body for long. If the injuries had been anything else - if he still looked anything like him - I might have lingered. I might have taken care of him; cleaned him; taken him and given him a proper burial.
Instead, they’d slashed him, deeply. His face was no longer his face. He’d been torn apart. And if I lingered on the pile of bodies that he was now a supporting part of, I might be torn apart too.
I darted back to the place we were calling home and pulled what I could into my bag. I found his bag and pulled what I could into that, too. And then I ran, far away, as fast as I could, even when I heard the fire break out behind me.
The copter rises, casting concentric rings into the water. They ripple outwards, fighting the wind.
It lurches from side to side, but then its new pilot finds their stride, or maybe just the autopilot button, and the quadcopter straightens up. The other copters seem to be disregarding it - or, at least, they haven’t reacted yet.
Slowly, it inches its way towards me, before setting itself back down on the edge of Sal’s island.
After a moment, the door slides up, and they poke their head out.
“I stole this,” Sal says with a grin. “Want a ride?”
Hell yes, I want a ride.
I wouldn’t have survived without Let. I couldn’t have. He is the reason I’m alive.
My brother: the only member of my family I have left. The only person from my life before. The only person I love.
I will find him.