Authors: E. J. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
Or he could be hiding. Axel was—she had to be honest with herself—not in a clear state mind.
If only she could get into the penthouse. There were no friends or confidantes to whom Axel might have entrusted a spare set of keys. Even in the old days, his relationships were superficial. He had never seemed to need people, except for Adelaide. Before.
She slid further under the bathwater, until her hair swilled around her shoulders and only her face remained above. It felt cold and exposed. She remembered Axel, hiding in a similar fashion under the bedclothes, because he was afraid of the storms. Adelaide was afraid of birds. She’d mocked her twin, they’d mocked one another, until their grandfather came to Axel’s rescue. Tell us a story, she’d begged. Tell us about the storms. And through the wind and the rain outside they listened to the slow resonant timbre of his voice as he told them about the year of the Great Storm, and how the refugees came to Osiris to escape the doomed, poisoned lands, from Patagonia, from Afrika, from India and Zeeland, even from the far flung Boreal States in the north, and how disease flew through the city like a dragon so they had to stay in the west, in quarantine. What then, she asked, what then? And he said, after the Great Storm came the Great Silence. We lost contact with the world. The people who left the City never came back. They were lost.
All of them? Asked Axel.
All of them.
When Adelaide got out of the bath it was dark. The water swilled away in languid spirals. She thought of the tank being drained the day Eirik 9968 was executed and she closed the door on the bathroom so as not to hear the noise.
She walked barefoot around the window-walls of her apartment, switching on lights, remembering something funny Second Grandmother said once about her old land-house having square rooms.
, said Adelaide.
, said Second Grandmother.
Adelaide was seized with a sudden longing to hear Second Grandmother speaking. She called on her o’musaique and selected an excerpt at random from the transcripts. The machine glowed pale violet and Second Grandmother’s light, softly accented voice filled the room.
We knew, that day, that the end of the world had come. We read it in the sands and in one another’s eyes. The Neon Age (as they used to call it on the beam, when I was girl) was truly over.
Adelaide sat on the edge of her futon. Her skin was still damp under her kimono and between her toes. On the glass-topped table before her was a ceramic bowl with her keys in it, and a silver pot. Adelaide drew the pot towards her, frowning as she noticed signs of tarnish on the lid. She used a corner of her kimono to polish the metal.
And that’s when we got on the boats. I had nothing with me. No belongings and no people. My family were dead. I was leaving behind fire and ash. As we crowded onto the boat, the beach was ablaze. I remember the sky—yellow, like malarial eyes. There were deaths. There were so many deaths. Some bodies had been desecrated, others were still fresh and ripe with blood. Not just through sickness, there were killings too, of course. I had spent much of the last two years in hiding. Even now I will not speak of those things.
I was terrified of the ocean. I knew that the sea sunk many more boats than the precious few it allowed to pass. I might be hurled from the boat and drown. I would be alone, in the vastest plain on Earth—the saltwater. But my terror of land and all it contained was even greater—so I fled, as we all did, with death in the surf beside us.
I did not imagine what I would find.
There was a slight cough, and Second Grandmother said,
Autumn seventy-two, end of transcript fourteen.
A shadow made Adelaide glance up; a night bird sweeping past the window-wall. She tensed, hunched over, until it had passed. Even then she could feel its presence, as though those sharp avian eyes were fixed upon her, watching.
She thought of Second Grandmother, speaking carefully into a microphone. She thought of Axel standing at the glass, his back to her, watching space. He always had questions, her twin, so many questions, could never accept that some things just were. His later visitations might have spooked anyone else, but Adelaide had grown used to the intrusion. She came to expect it. The person that came into her apartment and stared out of windows was not really her brother. They shared the same constellation of freckles, and they had the same calibre voice, but there the resemblance ended.
It was only since he disappeared that she had felt the tug again. Before, there was the gap. What had been and what now was. As though while he was physically present, she could ignore the strange thing that had happened to him. But now he was gone, the old connection had ignited once more. Its flame was tiny. She had to shield it in both hands. Blowing gently upon it, watching the baby fires curl and evolve into dragon shapes, that suspicion, as fragile and nebulous as a bubble, hardened into certainty. Axel was alive. He might have been taken, hidden, locked away—but she was certain her twin was alive.
She just had to find him.
A distant whirr of machinery caused her to glance up at the ceiling. The three floors above her apartment were home to a private scientific facility that housed an array of sensors and telescopes trained on the stars. Sometimes she heard noises in the night. Occasionally, she caught a glimpse of someone passing in the lift, coming down from, or travelling up to the final floors.
The noise stopped. The apartment was silent once more. Adelaide gave the silver pot a final wipe. From it she took a pinch of salt, and threw it at the window to ward off the dead. Each night, out by the ring-net, the ghosts gathered in their millions, keeping silent vigil over the city.
But not you Axel
, she thought.
8 ¦ VIKRAM
he recruiting officer gave Vikram’s and Nils’s papers a fleeting glance.
His eyes never left Vikram’s hands as he wrote his latest pseudonym, then passed the list to Nils to do the same. When they had both signed the man pulled the piece of paper back, smearing the ink.
Their new employer typed a few words, presumably their names, into the ancient Neptune chained to the desk. “What’s that, an h? You dogs illiterate or what?”
Both men looked steadfastly at the mouldering wall behind the desk. Strips of plaster were peeling away. The wall might have been a colour once, although what hue it was impossible to tell. Now it looked like a jigsaw of damp clouds. Vikram continued to stare at it, finding shapes, patterns, anything to distract him from the dismal tap-tap-tap into the Neptune. He wondered how many other westerners had passed through here before them, standing on the same worn floor, staring at the same square foot of wall.
The officer stamped two fifteen-day passes to the City and grudgingly handed them over.
“Eight o’clock start. Be early.” He waved them out of the door. “Next!”
“Parasite,” muttered Nils.
At eight o’clock, when Vikram began work, the mist swaddled the world in milky white. From the moment he abseiled from the magnetized scaffolding to the morning’s site, he could see only his own limbs and the indistinct figure of Nils, a few feet away. When the fog lingered longer than it should, Vikram was jolted by fear that he was lost or had been left behind. The city had vanished; there was only this smooth glassy surface, on which he must crawl forever, with nothing but the tap and scrape of his tools for company. Then his nerves tingled. He looked to left or right and felt, rather than saw, another man passing up or down the scraper.
There were twelve of them on the project, all westerners apart from the foreman. They were repairing storm damage in the southern quarter. The cold gnawed through Vikram’s two scarves and his muffler; the scaffolding felt flimsy and unsafe, but it was paid work and the pay was in instant credit. At the end of each day their chips were topped up, no questions asked. He could use the credit to buy City goods, or exchange them for the western
notes which continued to prove lucrative for the ex-skad profiteers who had invented them. He thought what a joy it was to choose something and buy it without haggling. Maybe he’d get a bag of oranges.
Once, through the window-wall, he caught the curious eyes of a child on the other side. Her fingers were gripped firmly in an adult hand, a father, perhaps, bringing his daughter into the office for a day. When she turned the other way, Vikram saw a red bow in her hair and he thought of the invitation to the Rose Night, discarded in a corner of his room. Westerners with workpasses were allowed to spend their evenings in the City, but few of them did. The one time Vikram had gone to a City bar he’d been stared at all night.
On the third afternoon, six of them were on a break for lunch, wedged in a row on the scaffolding. The men drank hot soup and rubbed their hands to revive the circulation. Vikram and Nils checked each other’s reactions. Vikram held up his hand. Beneath the glove the webbed skin was already cracking; by the end of the week it would be raw.
“How many fingers?”
“Four. No, I’m joking. Three.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” said Nils.
The rest of the group exchanged few words to start with. Vikram had been on similar projects before, and he knew the location was dangerous not only physically but mentally. Everywhere he looked he was confronted with evidence of the divide. This side of town, skyscrapers were softened with sweeps of vertical garden. Window-walls gleamed. As the shuttle pods streaked through glowing tubes, it was impossible not to imagine where they were going, all those sated stomachs in the surrounding towers, glutting on electricity.
It was only a few days, but already his visit to the marble Chambers seemed like months ago.
The lunch break was almost over. The soup had gone, and someone passed around a flask of steaming coral tea laced with raqua. Vikram took a grateful sip. The drink flooded his throat and warmed the pit of his belly. He handed the flask along to Nils.
“Looks like it’s going to rain,” said the man who had brought the tea. There was no direct response to this. It had been threatening to rain for the past three hours. Then another man said he had heard if you could find full-time work in the southern quarter, they would find you a room, or at least put you on the waiting list for one.
Nils snorted. “Sorry, but that’s bullshit. They’ll never give you a room, Stefan.”
“It’s worth a try,” Stefan answered defiantly.
“Anyway, what would it be, work like this? You wouldn’t last a year.”
“One year over here might be better than one year in the west. What with people getting restless and all.”
There were a few surreptitious glances inside, though the foreman could not hear them through the bufferglass. The man with the flask said, “Keep your noise down.”
“Maybe they’re right to worry,” Nils muttered.
“Why, have you heard anything?”
“Tell you what I heard.” Someone else chipped in before Nils could respond. “I heard Juraj is dead.”
“Murdered. Ripped apart, I heard.”
“You’d hear anything,” Nils retorted. “If Juraj was dead, everyone would know. The rest of his people would be out nailing feet to boats. You heard anything about this Vik?”
“News to me.”
The other man shrugged. “Might want to keep it quiet. Might not want the Rochs to know, not with the manta trade.”
“The Rochs aren’t interested in manta, they’re buying up guns,” said someone else. “Friend of mine had a pistol. Kept it secret for years—well you don’t advertise you’ve got something like that, do you. So a few weeks ago he’s out, has a few too many drinks, and next thing he knows he’s handed it over for a few
and a thermal jacket. The buyer was a Roch.”
“Well I don’t know about the Rochs or Juraj,” said Nils. “Been a cold spell though. Getting colder.”
Vikram glanced at his friend, but nobody replied, because they all knew what Nils meant. The last riots had been foreshadowed by an unprecedented period of cold weather.
Of course, he thought, whispers like this were always abound. Talk was not a precursor to violence; talk was everywhere. Silence was the sign. Three years ago, it was the silence that had warned Vikram to leave his room carrying a knife. He remembered the sound of quiet. It had rung louder in his ears than thunder.
In the afternoon, Vikram and Nils were stationed on the scaffolding with Stefan and his partner Ilan. Vikram began to talk to Nils about the hearing. He wanted Nils’s opinion. They could only just hear one another over the shree of the wind and the conversation was laborious.
“Probably just asked you there to make them feel good about themselves,” shouted Nils.
“That’s what I figured,” Vikram yelled back. “They’ll report it and it’ll make them look like they’re actually doing something. I told you they took my photo?”
“You’re probably on their newsreel.”
“Stars only knows.”
“So what are you going to do now?”
“Don’t know. They’ll never let me inside that place again. Honestly, Nils, I’ve never seen anything like it. This huge, stone circle, like an acrobat’s ring, you know? And all of them sitting around—”
“Like circus clowns.”
“There’s a fire-eating troop this weekend down at Market Circle. Drake reckons she knows one of the guys.”
In spite of the wind noise and the delay in hearing, Vikram felt as though the change in subject had been deliberate. But maybe it was just the wind.
“Drake reckons she knows everyone,” he shouted. His throat was growing hoarse.
“Probably does. You in?”
“Long as I don’t get sling-shot.”
“Yeah, those kids are little shits.”
A scream cut them off abruptly.
“What the hell—”
The cry came again. Vikram leaned over the edge of the scaffolding and saw Stefan dangling, twenty metres below, his mouth gaping in his face. He wasn’t wearing an abseiling harness, only a short line, and he couldn’t winch himself up.
Stefan’s feet scrabbled on the skyscraper wall. Impulse told Vikram to move, but it was impossible to move quickly along the icy structures without risking the same accident and Ilan was closer. Vikram and Nils started to climb anyway, gingerly moving down the scaffolding ladders.
Vikram saw Ilan reaching down to the other man. Their hands were over a metre apart. Ilan began to haul, hand over hand, grunting with the effort. Other men, realizing what had happened, were abseiling back up the tower towards Stefan. Ilan and Stefan’s fingers were almost within grasping distance. Their hands strained toward one another.
Something snapped. Stefan’s scream sounded for a second, horribly clear above the wind. Then he was gone.
Vikram and Nils, still two levels of scaffolding up, stared at each other in horror. All the colour was leached from Nils’s face.
“I cursed him,” whispered Nils.
Vikram felt a cold deeper than anything the wind could contrive take root inside of him. “Nils, don’t—”
“I said he wouldn’t last the year. I did it.”
After that, one of the men kicked up a fuss and said they weren’t being paid enough to risk their necks. The foreman said Stefan hadn’t secured his harness properly and the man who had complained was sacked. Nobody else said a word. They couldn’t afford to. The next day at break, there was a distance between Nils and Vikram and the rest of the workers. No more coral tea was passed around, only darting looks of fear. Vikram told himself Nils’s words were simply that: words, but guilt had recomposed his friend’s features and Vikram was contaminated by it. They never mentioned Stefan again.
The following evening, keen to drink and to forget, they shared a bottle of raqua and talked deep into the night. They discussed Drake’s new job on the ice-boat, the girl Nils had decided to stop seeing, possible work gigs, the unpredictable mood of the west. They mused over the things they wanted. Nils’s ambition was to own a bathroom. It was going to be lime green with bronze taps and a walk-in shower. And a spa, Nils said, relishing this prospect as he held in a lungful of cigarette smoke. And a mosaic ceiling, he added, exhaling. With a tiger in it.
“I just want somewhere with heating that works,” said Vikram. He was leaning against one wall of Nils’s room, which like his was little more than a nest of things to keep warm with. Boots kicked off, blankets at his back, his three pairs of socks were steadily thawing. “Think of walking out of the cold into a blaze of warmth. Imagine if you could have a fire.”
“You’d never leave,” said Nils. “How many rooms would you have?”
“Three would be good.”
Nils nodded. “Room for a bed, room for a bath, somewhere to eat. Nice.”
Already, Vikram could see Nils creating such an apartment, furnishing it with objects and colours. Vikram wished he had his friend’s certainty, the power to envisage the exact thing that he desired. But when he tried to imagine his own version, all he saw was the shadowy forms of unused furniture: a bed never slept in, cupboards with empty shelves. He changed the subject.
“Do you remember the time Keli went over the border with a fake pass?”
Nils roared with laughter, his blue eyes almost disappearing into their crinkles.
“Said she’d been in a shuttle line.”
A deck of playing cards littered the space between them. Vikram gathered them together. “I don’t believe her, do you?”
“Not a chance.”
“Bet she tried to talk her way through, though.”
“Well, that’s Keli for you. Never gives up beating a dead fish.”
They always talked about her like this, as if she was still alive. It was respectful. Vikram passed the pack of cards from hand to hand. Something occurred to him.
“What do they do with their dead in the City?”
“I think they have special bags. Pump them full of air so they float, and send them out to sea and then they burn.”
“I heard there’s a tower where they burn them. It’s called a crematorium.”
Nils looked dubious. “How can they join the ghosts if they burn under a roof?”
“Maybe they don’t become ghosts. Maybe it’s just people from our side.”
They both fell silent. Vikram thought of Stefan, and wondered if he had been given the burial rites, or if he had been sent to a crematorium, or if they’d found his body at all. He glanced at his friend and saw the shadow of guilt there, and felt guilty himself for leading Nils into this macabre contemplation. He tried to think of a way to change the subject. But it was too late. The larger shadow was already in the room. Eirik. Eirik’s body. What the skadi had done with it. What they hadn’t done with it.
When Nils spoke, his voice was quiet. “I saw you and Drake. We agreed we wouldn’t act.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“But when I saw you, I thought maybe you were right. We had to do something.”
“No, we didn’t. It was stupid.”
“It was too late for me then. I was too far back.”
“Good, or you’d be dead like me and Drake nearly were.”
“Then the gas got me.”
Vikram thought once more of the invitation. Perhaps if he went to the party, Adelaide Mystik would agree to help, and neither he nor Nils would have to rely on weak harnesses, and the skadi would stop using gas, and Nils could get his lime green bathroom.
The raqua must really be taking effect.
Hammering on the partition next door jerked them both awake. No one replied. More hammering. There was a brief quiet, then the sound of repeated blows as a door was kicked in. A woman screamed.
Vikram and Nils were on their feet, both tensed, each of them with a hand to their knives. Nils put his finger to his lips. Through the thin walls they heard a man shouting and the woman pleading.
“Who lives there?” Vikram’s question was soundless.
“Still Ari,” Nils mouthed back. “She’s got that kid. Her man walked out weeks ago. He was bad news.”