11. The stench of the dead
Bodies, excrement, brewery hops, and the unmist scent of polluted water combine into an offensive brew that makes me wince with every breath. The storm may be behind us, but the air still carries a chill.
Makeshift gondolas traverse the waters between buildings. Some seem to have been forged from old cars: retrofitted Renaults and Toyotas putter around. Some of the craft seem to have been hammered together from scratch with wood and scrap metal. There are a few actual boats here, too, but not many. This is a city where people have been making do.
We’re standing in front of one of the black and chrome domed buildings; the copter had it saved in its navigation history, but its purpose and importance are unclear. There aren’t any markings, or even a door that we can clearly see. It might be a Corporation building - or even a KS outpost - or it might be nothing at all.
“Var,” Sal says, and I turn to look at them. They’re pointing to the far left edge of the building. At first, I don’t see anything, but as I look harder, I begin to make it out: a tinted window, set into the wall. Behind it, I begin to just about make out the shapes of people.
They’re patrolling: marching backwards and forwards to a regular cadence.
“KS?” I ask.
Sal shrugs. “Hard to say. But some kind of military. Or militia. Or something that wants to be either. Are you sure you want to go inside?”
“If we can find our way in. I don’t think I have a choice. If it brings me closer to finding Let, I’ve got to do it. But I should do it by myself - I don’t want to put you in danger.”
Sal shakes their head. “I’m going with you. Let’s work this out together.”
There’s an elevated concrete platform around the base of the building, which is what we’re standing on, and what the copter used as a landing pad. Water surrounds the platform on all sides. There are more people in this city than I’ve seen together in a long time, but none of them are as interested in us as I am in them.
Someone must be watching. It’s just a matter of time before they show themselves.
Sal and I walk counter-clockwise around the perimeter. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of a door. Or window. Or anything that breaks the smooth lines of the dome wall. It’s a closed unit, and if I hadn’t seen the people marching through the window above, I might have thought it wasn’t designed to be inhabited at all.
Instinctively, I place my hand on the smooth, dark surface, palm down. Immediately, the outline of my hand flashes red on the wall, and I snatch my hand away.
“It’s print activated,” I tell Sal. “But it’s not looking for my print.”
Sal sighs. “Let’s see if this works,” they say. They place their palm on the wall, just as I had done. Instantly, the outline of their hand flashes green.
“I guess it likes you,” I say.
“The feeling isn’t mutual,” Sal says. “Now what?”
As if in answer, a door opens in the wall, exactly where Sal had placed their hand. A dark, featureless corridor slopes up from the doorway.
“Shall we?” Sal says.
“Lead the way,” I say.
We venture in.
There was an eclipse one summer, long after I’d lost everyone.
Somewhere along the line, I’d found a stray black and white cat licking its wounds in an alleyway. I named it Vince Vaughn after the movie actor from the before times, and I nursed it back to health. It didn’t thank me for my efforts, but it gave me something to live for and take care of beyond myself.
Vince and I lucked out: an older woman I’d been bartering with had fallen sick, and needed someone to take care of them. Esra had been a novelist back before, said she had won awards and been the talk of the literary journals, but now she grew root vegetables and brewed small vials of natural alcohol. She had beautiful, golden skin. Her hair flowed in otherworldly braids and her eyes, though weathered and wrinkled, sparkled with knowledge. I thought she was amazing.
She was dying, she thought; maybe from the pollution, or from things she’d done when she was younger. Sometimes it’s just bad luck, she said. She needed someone to look after her as she began to slip away. So I gathered my things up, bartered a crate for Vince, and stole a boat. I named it the Wayward, because that seemed fitting. Everything was bloody wayward. Not least, myself.
But for a minute, I felt like I’d found a place and a purpose. I looked after Esra as best I could, making her food and acting as a nurse when she got sicker. In a way, I loved her.
The day she died, the sun went away.
It was just for a few minutes in the middle of the day, but I couldn’t remember ever having seen an eclipse before. It might have seemed like the end of the world, if I wasn’t already living in it. It wasn’t dark, exactly but the whole world seemed darker; cold and full of the kind of magic that could turn around and slay you.
I kept Esra’s island. It became mine. It wasn’t why I came to help her, but these days you take what you can get.
It’s pitch dark.
Perhaps the lenses we saw in place of each soldier’s face allow them to see in the dark, because there’s no artificial light at all, and no windows. We’re surrounded by darkness, and beyond it, who knows what. I find myself holding Sal’s shoulder and following behind them, but they’re not doing much better; there’s no way to get our bearings, or to know if we’re walking into danger up ahead.
I want to confer, to tell them that we should probably just turn around and leave, but I don’t want to make a sound. Sal is being quiet too, and I wonder if they’re feeling the same way.
I can hear my own breathing, and Sal’s. Sal’s shoulder seems to hum with electricity when I’m touching it, too; not from any internal power, but from something inside me that I’m going to choose to ignore for now.
I’m grateful they stayed with me, but I’m scared for what will happen to them. I’m scared for what already has.
I remind myself that we’re here because I want to get closer to the Corporation, and in turn, Let. It’s impossible to know if that’s what we’re actually doing: the building we’re in might have nothing to do with them, and might not lead me to him. But it was there in the copter’s navigation, and the glimpse of the marching people above us leads me to think we might be on the right track.
But I’m not sure we’ve thought this through. We’re blindly walking up a corridor in a building with no light. Where are we going, and what will we do when we get there?
Suddenly, the lights turn on, and the corridor is lit in a brilliant white. It continues to slope upwards for a few more steps, before stopping in a dead end: a plain white wall ahead of us.
The wall has a message on it, painted in large, black letters, as if it’s always been there.
Who are you?