Authors: Robin Wasserman
“‘Where the sky meets the sky.’ He said you’d understand.”
Another riddle. Just as useless. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” Ani said. “Sorry.” She didn’t sound it. “If you ask me, you should forget the whole thing. Let him come to you. After what I saw …” She was talking about the kiss. I willed her not to make it real by saying it out loud. “… he will. Probably at the worst possible time.”
It’s exactly what I was afraid of.
Where the sky meets the sky.
A mile past human sorrow.
Where nature rises again.
They meant something; they meant something to
. Jude wouldn’t have left a clue I didn’t know how to follow. I repeated the words, over and over, an unending litany, waiting for something to click. There was an echo of memory, enough to convince me that I had the answer, buried somewhere in my mind. But not enough to dig it up.
, I willed myself, knowing that if I didn’t track him down soon, he would come for me again, at the worst possible time—or he would come for Riley, and I needed to get to him first.
When I finally did, it wasn’t Jude’s clue—it was that word.
The place itself was a memory. The Windows of Memory, memorial to the fallen, windows that peered out on a sanitized corner of a flood zone, a shadowy city buried beneath the sea. I hadn’t been inside the museum since I was a kid—Riley and I always skirted its edge, walking the shore until we found ourselves alone with the water, its algae-slickened surface reflecting the clouds.
Where the sky meets the sky.
And always, on our way back to the car, dripping and content, we passed the sculpted glass antelope, memorial to the city’s forgotten victims. I’d paused to read the inscription only once, that first time, but the words must have etched themselves somewhere in my memory, and a network search confirmed my suspicions: “In the midst of our human sorrow, let us never lose sight of the greater tragedy:
the death of millions, innocent victims of civilization. As cities fall, may nature rise again.”
A mile past human sorrow, where nature rises again
; I knew where to find him.
I wanted to be wrong. Because that was
place, Riley’s and mine. Riley had told me that he’d never brought anyone else there, not even Jude. He wasn’t supposed to know how much it meant to Riley, that it was the place he went to be alone—and now, the place he went to be with me.
But that was the thing about Jude, as he so loved reminding us: He had a way of knowing things. Especially things he wasn’t supposed to know. Those were his favorites.
I dropped a text at the anonymous zone.
I figured it out.
The return message came a few seconds later, in the mouth of a cartoonish avatar, its sad puppy eyes and floppy puppy ears a mismatch with the lizardlike torso and dragon tail. It looked like the kind of av you build yourself when you’re getting started on the network, designing a zone with all the features of the fantasy world in your head, making up for the increasing drabness of real life. Like this was a game.
Tonight, seven p.m.
The puppy-lizard chirped, in a songbird voice,
“I’ll be the strikingly handsome fellow with the charming smile.”
But I knew I would go.
I had never been there at night, and I’d never been there without Riley. Without him, without the sun glinting off the glass spires
and shimmering on the water, without the crowds of orgs pretending to mourn, it felt like somewhere else. Somewhere new.
I scaled the fence that separated the tourist area from the wilderness, and padded softly down to the water. There was no reason to think that Jude would meet me at the same spot I always met Riley, but it was about a mile out from the Windows of Memory, a mile from “human suffering.” So that’s where I would begin. I’d had visions of Jude laying an ambush for me, emerging from the water like some kind of mutant swamp monster, just to hear me scream. If he was hiding, he’d hidden himself well; the coastline was deserted.
It was too dark to see the horizon. The ocean stretched into sky, and standing on the edge of it was like looking over a cliff into nothingness. I imagined what it would be like, wading into the dark water and floating above the silent city of death, with its frozen cars and grinning corpses. Floating away into the vast nothing.
I’d never been one to fear monsters crawling out of the dark—but I couldn’t turn my back on the lapping waves. I edged backward up the shore.
And bumped right into him.
So he got to hear me scream after all.
I whirled around. “What the hell are you trying to—
“Hey.” He didn’t look surprised to see me. “Did I scare you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Uh, you told me to meet you here?”
“Tell me exactly what ‘I’ said.”
“You told me to pick you up here, and then gave me some coordinates to program into the car for wherever we’re going next. You said it was a surprise.”
“That didn’t seem kind of … weird?”
Riley shrugged. “I don’t know. I figured it was some kind of romantic … something. A girl thing.”
“Girl thing?” I gave him a light smack on the shoulder. “Remind me to explain to you why you’re never saying that again.” I was stalling. Thinking. Waiting for him to see the obvious.
“Wait, if you didn’t send that message, then what are you doing here?” he finally asked. “And who were you waiting for?”
“Jude,” I admitted. The best lies start with a kernel of truth. “I got an anonymous message to meet here. I figured, who else would want to mess with me like that?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Why didn’t I? “I didn’t want to get your hopes up.”
“Too late.” He grinned, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to spot a wagging tail poking out of his jeans.
“I can see that.”
“I knew he’d show up eventually,” Riley said.
“Yeah. Can’t keep the Three Musketeers apart for long.” He was too excited to notice my tone. “Let’s go,” I added, eager to get out of our place before the specter of Jude spoiled it for good.
• • •
The car drove us away from the memorial, away from my house and BioMax and anything even remotely resembling civilization. It navigated over increasingly bumpy roads and unpaved gravel until, finally, we had to override the automatic controls and drive manually. Riley took the wheel while I called out the turns, using my ViM to map the coordinates because the car refused to help. It felt like the Dark Ages. Which was appropriate because, it soon became apparent, that’s exactly where we were headed.
In the end, three hours out, there were no more roads. Not official ones, at least. Nothing but weed-ridden stretches of concrete and the occasional barren field, its earth flat and dead enough that we could drive over it with ease. It wasn’t until the jagged skyline appeared on the horizon that I understood where we were going, and even then it was hard to believe. But we drew closer and closer, finally coming to the mouth of the tunnel that would lead us inside.
Nothing looked like I expected.
I’d seen images of it on the network, of course, but after a while one dead zone looked pretty much like another. They all featured the frozen parade of abandoned cars choking their escape routes, some doors flung open by long-ago passengers who’d desperately decided to get out by foot, others locking in bloated bodies of the unfortunates who stayed in their cars, trusting the traffic laws, trusting the highway flow, trusting the radio reports of a quiet, orderly evacuation, trusting right up until the moment the toxic cloud or tidal wave or flesh-eating supergerm gave them a final escape.
Not this city.
It was just empty. The bombs had flattened half its buildings and much of its population. The lingering radiation had taken care of the rest. I’d only been in one city before—unless you counted the underwater ruins—and that had been teeming with life. Even the emptiest streets had festered with rats, roaches, gutter rivers of piss. But here nothing moved. There were no bodies in sight, and I wondered if some unfortunate corp crew had moved them out, one by one—how such a thing could be possible when the deaths numbered in millions—or if they had lain fallow all these years, gradually returning to the earth. I wondered how the city would smell, if I could smell.
I couldn’t have handled bodies. I’d seen them in the ocean, of course, but that was different. The pale, preserved corpses that floated through the underwater city were dreamlike wraiths—nightmarish, but unreal. Bodies lining the streets, decomposing, swarming with maggots or flies or whatever hardy scavengers could survive nuclear war … that was a reality even I wouldn’t have been able to deny.
Jude was waiting for us, just beyond the mouth of the tunnel. He lounged on a bench at the center of a small concrete plaza, proud ruler of a broken skyline and a city of ghosts.
We stopped the car.
Opened the doors.
Greeted our long-lost friend.
Jude stood. “Riley.” He gave his best friend a once-over, taking in the new body, the new skin, the face that was molded as
closely as possible to a face from old photographs. I realized this was a Riley he hadn’t seen in almost two years, and wondered if, finally, something had managed to throw Jude off balance. But he stepped forward with a cool half smile. “Didn’t think I’d ever see that face again.”
“Knew I’d see yours,” Riley said, and grabbed Jude, pulling him into a tight embrace. Not one of those guy half hugs, with a loose grip and a slap on the back. This was the real thing, the two of them clinging to each other. Jude’s hands were balled into fists. His eyes stayed on me.
He let go first.
“Welcome.” Jude spread his arms as if inviting us into his home.
I waited for Riley to ask all the questions I was sure he’d been saving up, about where Jude had been, what he wanted, what he needed, what had happened, what would come next … but that wasn’t Riley’s style.
“You keeping it together?” he asked.
And, apparently, with that he was satisfied. My turn.
“What are we doing here, Jude?” I asked.
He laughed. “Still asking the wrong questions, I see. Good to know some things haven’t changed.”
“So this is it? The top-secret home base? Where are you hiding the groupies?”
“No groupies,” Jude said. “Not this time. This time we play it safe. This city has been uninhabitable for decades. They didn’t
just bomb the place; they infested it with radiation. Viral rad, the gift that keeps on giving. No org’s coming within fifty miles, not without protective gear and a significant risk of fatal exposure. It’s all ours.”
“Ours, as in you’re asking us to move in?” I said. “
Generous as always, Jude. But there’s no way in hell.”
“And you’re the boss, right?”
If he’d been hoping to bruise Riley’s masculinity, he was disappointed. Riley just looped an arm around me and grinned. “What else is new?”
So Jude took a different tack. “We don’t have to talk about the future now. There’s still plenty of ground to cover in the past.”
This was it, then. Jude was going to blast us for betraying him. He’d lured us to this heap of ruins so he could toss us into some abandoned bomb shelter, lock us up, throw away the key, move on with what passed for his life. And Riley and I, never aging, never dying, would spend the rest of eternity locked up together—how many days and years of apologizing would it take for him to forgive me, out of sheer boredom if nothing else?
But it was Jude who apologized, to Riley. “I didn’t expect you to get caught in the explosion.”
Riley shook his head. “Not your fault. I’m the one who wired most of the explosives. My fault I did it wrong.”
I watched Jude’s face carefully, but of course he was no helpless org, hostage to unconscious emotional responses. No eyebrow lifting, no eyes widening, no dropped jaw. Whatever
emotion he did reveal would be intentional, theatrics. For now he stayed blank. “Wrong?” he echoed.
“I’m just glad no one got hurt,” Riley said.
“You got hurt,” Jude said.
“I mean orgs.”
Now Jude did lift an eyebrow. “Wasn’t that the point?”
Riley looked uncomfortable. “You wouldn’t have done it.”
Jude nodded, slowly. “Because you would have stopped me. That was the plan, right?”
“There was no plan,” I said quickly.
“I would have stopped you,” Riley admitted.
“Lucky that it didn’t come to that,” Jude said, watching me. “That would be awkward, wouldn’t it. If
set the secops on me. You’d probably be standing here wondering exactly how much I hated you. Whether I’d spent the last six months plotting my revenge, or some such melodramatic scenario.”
Riley gripped Jude’s arm. “You know I always have your back. Like you’ve got mine.”
“Always,” Jude said, and disengaged himself, gently but firmly. “Must be strange, not remembering.”
It was something else I’d never asked him. I’d waited for him to bring it up in his own time; he hadn’t.
“Feels like another person, you know?” Riley lifted a hand in front of his face, turned it slowly like he was searching for cracks in the synthetic flesh. “Guess it kind of was.”
“Nice model.” Jude gave Riley another slow once-over. “Expensive.”
“Worth it,” I said, curling an arm around Riley’s waist. He didn’t shrug me off, but he looked like he wanted to.
“Too expensive,” Riley said.
We never talked about the fact that his new body had been bought with my father’s money. Not since he’d first found out, and freaked.
It doesn’t mean he owns you,
I’d told him.
But now he owns
Riley had said.
Was that worth it?
After that, we put it on the ever-expanding list of Subjects Not to Be Discussed.
“So the last thing you remember … ,” Jude prompted.