Leading up from the glowing stagnant water where the river once flowed, the streets are steep and narrow, and silent even in the daytime except for the occasional squeak of a rat.
Those who used to live here have long since left, and almost nobody comes this way anymore.
Sometimes, a scavenger on the lookout for waste might raid the old houses on the hillside, hoping to find something that might be useful or saleable. But the old houses have long since given up all their treasures – they are just crumbling boxes of mortar and brick now. More often, the Guard will patrol, their heavy weapons slung over their shoulders, their faces covered by gas masks to protect them from the stench of the dead river; but they hurry past to more salubrious parts of the city, and leave the streets to the rats again.
Across the dead river, crusting the ridge on the opposite bank, is the prison, and the guards on the walls wear gas masks as well. They and the Guard Patrol do not exchange waves. They do not even look at each other.
The inmates of the prison do not wear gas masks, but even they are not sent on work parties to the bank of the river. And as soon as it is dark, the gates of the prison are locked up tight, and the guards, shivering, withdraw into their watchtowers, there to wait till morning.
At night, the Others come out of the warren of sewers, burrows, and cellars, and then only the insane or the desperate will venture into the streets.
Up from the river came Zed, running quickly through the dark. He ran as quickly as he could, his ears alert for the slightest sound other than his own panting and the thudding of his heart. As he ran, he hunched over, touching the pavement with his fingers every few steps, feeling for vibrations. So far there was nothing.
Zed was not insane, but desperate he most certainly was.
Escaping from the prison had not been that hard. The cell blocks were old and the plaster on the walls peeling. Over several days, he’d managed to pry the grill from the window of his cell without being noticed, and then he’d squeezed through and dropped out into the yard. The guards had been snug in their towers, and the one searchlight that still worked had been pointed over to the right, making no sweeps at all.
He’d had a little trouble getting over the wall at first. He’d already known where he’d do it, from the roof of the administration building, but he’d forgotten to take into account that the door would be locked at night. He had to scale the side of the building, but fortunately there were enough ledges to make it possible. The ropes and planks had been lying where he’d left them earlier in the day when he’d been on a working party cleaning and patching up the building – the prison staff wanted their own working environment in perfect condition – and he’d been able to get across to the top of the wall and then let himself down it without being noticed.
Nobody was watching for anyone to escape. At night, anyone who wanted to retain his life or his sanity stayed firmly behind walls, where it was safe.
For Zed, neither sanity nor life was particularly important at this moment anyway.
There had been a bridge across the river, but it had been blown up long ago, with only some of the concrete pilings sticking out of the water like broken teeth. The stagnant water reeked and glimmered under the light of the sliver moon with the colours of a million poisons, and Z might have turned back if he’d had to swim across. But from the walls of the prison, he’d seen that there had been the upturned hulls of a few boats, left over from the old days; and he walked along the bank until he reached one. Turning it over with an effort, he pushed it down to the water, climbed in without getting his feet into the liquid, and began slowly paddling himself across, using a length of plank he’d thrown down while making his escape. On the river he was easily visible, and perhaps the Others would be waiting on the other side. But he’d finally got across, unchallenged, and taken off running. He’d been running ever since.
The streets up from the river twine and twist around each other like a ball of thread, and Zed would have lost his way early if he’d had a way to lose. But he was just running, and the longer he ran the further he got from the river and closer to the heart of the Others’ night-shadowed realm.
His leg muscles were screaming with pain and there was a metallic taste in his mouth as he arrived at a point where three streets met. Once there had been a tiny park at the junction, little more than a triangle of grass, but a heavy vehicle now lay there in a tangle of wrecked, charred metal. Zed took a moment to rest, leaning on the wreckage as he tried to catch his breath and quiet down his racing heart.
And that was when he felt the vibration in the ground, even before he heard the noise. At first it was only a little tremor, but grew quickly, the metal of the old vehicle thrumming in sympathy to the vibration as the sound grew from a hum to a clatter and from a clatter to a grinding roar. Zed looked around, unable to decide which way to run.
The decision was made for him. A wall bulged slowly and collapsed in a crash of brick and masonry as the Others’ machine came into the left hand street.
It came churning up the slope like a cresting wave, borne on lines of iron wheels wrapped in caterpillar tracks. Its voice was a roar of engine and crushing metal, its breath filled with smoke and soot. Its eyes were glaring yellow beams of light, which swept over the buildings, searching. Perched on top, the small turret revolved, the barrel of the gun like a searching finger. It was too dark for Zed to see the heads of their victims the Others were reputed to impale on their machines as decoration, not that he wanted to. It paused, sniffing the air, looking for the scent of prey.
He ran faster than he had before, faster than he imagined he could run, throwing himself round corners and into tiny alleys between buildings. Now he no longer knew which way he was going – all he wanted was to get as far away from the machine as possible. He could no longer hear anything but the roar and clatter of the machine, and, above it, he could imagine the high breathless voices of the Others, the incomprehensible words filled with excitement. If they’d seen him, they’d have called others, and they’d be coming from all around. All he could do was keep running.
He couldn’t do it forever, of course. Gasping again for breath, he slowed from a sprint to a trot, and from the trot to a walk. And still he could hear the machine, grinding and growling somewhere in the streets behind him.
He could run no further, so he had to hide.
At some point of time long ago, someone had abandoned a stack of bricks and other building materials beside a half-constructed edifice. Between the bricks and the raw plaster of the building, there was just enough space to squeeze in. Zed looked around once, saw no better option, and crawled into the space.
There was already someone there.
The fear clutched at Zed’s gut like a clenching hand, but only for a moment. The other person there turned a bobbling, oversized head on a thin neck and peered at him through eyes so sunken in their sockets they resembled black holes.
“What?” he mumbled, lips flapping. “Don’t hurt me.”
“I won’t hurt you,” Zed said. The man was obviously quite old and very weak, maybe dying. “What are you doing here?”
“Came back...came back to look at old house. Nowhere else to go.” The man’s voice was a quaver. “But no house now, not anymore. It’s all gone.”
“You actually lived in this locality?” Zed asked.
The man didn’t seem to have registered the question. “Nothing left,” he mumbled. “I kept looking, but there’s nothing left. Not even memories. I...”
“Shh!” Zed hissed. “Shut up!” The grinding clatter of the machine’s tracks had suddenly grown again. The yellow beams of its lights swept low overhead, making the cracks and dimples in the bricks turn the colour of blood. For an endless time the night filled with sound as the machine ground past.
Zed waited until the rumble of the engine had faded into the distance before he removed his hand from over the old man’s mouth. “You can talk now.”
At first he thought he’d squeezed too hard, and killed the man, because there was no answer, and the frail figure didn’t seem to be breathing. But then the thin-boned chest rose and fell in a long, gasping shudder.
“Don’t kill me,” the old man begged. “I didn’t do anything to you.”
“I don’t want to harm you in any way,” Zed said. “Just tell me where Red Hill Road is...or used to be.”
“Red Hill Road?” The old man’s neck drew back between his shoulders like a tortoise. “Red Hill Road...three streets from here, to the right. But there’s nothing there. It’s just the same.”
“That’s all right,” Zed assured him. He began to back out from behind the stack of bricks. One of the bricks, dislodged by his elbow, fell on the man’s calf. He squealed with terror.
“Don’t kill me! You said you wouldn’t kill me!”
Zed bit back an exclamation of disgust. “I’m not going to do anything to you. I’m just going away.” He finished pushing his way out of the gap, turned around and trotted away. At the corner he looked back one last time. “I’d keep my mouth shut if I were you,” he called softly. “There are probably more of them around.”
There was no reply.
Red Hill Road was lined with the same empty buildings as everywhere else, the windows and doors gaping holes, stripped of every last metal grille or pane of glass. Zed looked around and then moved down the street, counting off buildings on the left. At the fifth he paused, looking up.
“Jay?” he called softly. “Are you there, Jay?”
For a minute there was no reply, and then piece of cardboard fell out of a ground floor window and floated down to the street. Zed caught a glimpse of a pale face.
“It’s you.” Her voice was flat, expressionless. “You’d better come in, quickly.”
She didn’t speak until he’d followed her into an inner room, one with a sheet of plywood propped up to act as a door. It was lit by a candle stuck on the bottom of an upturned jar, and the only furnishing was a large old mattress on the floor, covered by a rust-coloured blanket. She pulled the plywood back over the doorway and turned to him.
“I thought you wouldn’t come.”
“You sent me the message, didn’t you?” Zed peered at her. She looked emaciated and sick, the skin stretched tight over her cheekbones. Her hands fluttered like trapped birds. “I had to break out to get here.”
She smiled slightly, sat down on the mattress, and patted the place next to her. “My brother, the hero. Has the title ever suited anyone less? No, don’t answer that. I’m only joking.”
“So,” he said. “They’re all dead?”
“I don’t know. The way things have been going, nobody has contacts with anyone anymore. The eastern countryside has no food left, and I heard that the people have risen up in rebellion.”
“Again,” Zed replied bitterly. “Once wasn’t enough?”
“Hungry stomachs are a great motivator.” Jay bent forward to look into his face. “You aren’t looking great yourself. When was the last time you had anything to eat?”
“This morning? I’m not sure.”
“Wait. I’ve got a few biscuits and some parched rice.” He hadn’t seen the inner doorway for the shadows that shrouded most of the room. She clattered around for a while in the other room, her voice coming through the doorway. “I got lucky yesterday. I’d gone out during the day and found a bag someone had dropped. The food was in it.”
“Someone dropped a bag?” Zed frowned. “What happened to whoever it was dropped it?”
“How do I know?” Jay reappeared with a thin aluminium plate in one hand. “Things have changed a lot, Zed. It’s not like it used to be even when you were arrested. Now it’s everyone for himself, and even then it’s hard to go on for long.”
Zed bit at a biscuit. It was almost flavourless, like chewing sawdust. “How did you come here?” he asked.
“It was after the old house burned. The entire old town burned, actually. Almost nobody was left. The only thing left to do was run. Only there wasn’t anywhere to run to.”
“It burned? How did it burn?”
Jay shrugged. “Who knows? Does it even matter now? There wasn’t anything to be done about it. We who were left scattered.” She picked up a biscuit, looked at it, and put it back on the plate. “It burned for three days, and the smoke was still coming up when I left.”
“And so you came here? Why here?”
“Why not? It’s as close as I could get to you, and you’re the last person I had left. I gave everything I’d brought with me to a prison guard to take a message to you, and I was sure he’d steal it all. And even if he didn’t, I was sure you wouldn’t come. But you came anyway.”
“Yes...” Zed swallowed down the remainder of the biscuit. “I came. And now what are we going to do? Go somewhere together? Where?”
“I don’t know.” Jay grinned crookedly. “Maybe we could just stay here indefinitely. Nobody would bother us.”
“The Others would bother us. I’m astonished they haven’t found you yet.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been lucky.” She hesitated. “Maybe we could go down to the sea. I heard rumours that there are still ships on which you can get a passage.”
“And how do we pay for that? I haven’t any money and neither do you.”
“Money doesn’t matter any longer,” she told him. There was deep bitterness in her voice. “I’ve paid with other things than money. One finds one can do anything to survive.”
“That kind of payment isn’t going to get us far,” he said eventually. “Not now.”
“Maybe we could rob someone. You know all about robbery.”
He laughed without humour. “You had to bring that up now, didn’t you? In any case, I haven’t any weapon, and no way to get one. And even if I had, all it would do would be to get us both caught.”
“We wouldn’t be caught. There’s really no law and order any longer, except for the rich. The Guards only protect them.”
“And everyone else, the poor...people like us...are fair prey? I see.”
There was a brief pause before she spoke again. “Aren’t you reminded of when we were kids and we used to plan to run away together?”
“We never planned to run away together,” he said. “Not the way I remember it, anyway. What are we going to do, Jay?”
“You know...now that you’re here, I don’t really care. We’ll do something.”
“Like what – starve to death? You said you had a plan, in the message you sent.”
“Well, yes, I have a plan. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Why not now?”
“You’re tired. You need time to rest, and a clear head. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
“But I’m not that tired...” He cocked his head, listening. There was a noise in the distance, growing slowly louder. “Jay? Can you hear that?”
“Hear what?” She stood up and walked to the plywood door to listen. “Yeah, I hear something,” she said at last. “What do you think it is?”
“I don’t have to think,” he replied. “I know exactly what it is. I’ve been running from it all evening. It’s one of the Others’ machines. You know, one of those that were abandoned and they took over.”
The grinding roar was growing so loud that the candle flame trembled from the vibrations. “What about it?” she asked. “It can’t know we’re in here, can it?”
“How should I know? I don’t know what it can do. Blow out that candle.” In the sudden darkness, he drew aside the plywood door.
“What are you doing?” she hissed.
“We need to see what it’s doing. Come on.”
The pale wash of the headlights was already painting the street outside the window. Zed crawled on hands and knees to it and peeked over the sill. The vehicle was an angular shadow behind the lights, climbing slowly up the street.
“What is it...” Jay said from the other end of the room, behind him.
“Make sure to stay down and out of sight,” he snapped over his shoulder. “Don’t get seen.”
She said something, but her words were drowned by the noise of the engine and the clattering tracks. Zed could smell it now, the hot oil and exhaust smoke. He pressed himself to the wall, waiting for it to pass.
It did not pass. Silence exploded like a thunderclap.
Very cautiously, Zed raised his head. The machine was stopped directly opposite the building. He saw the turret begin to turn.
“Jay?” His mouth was dry. “Jay, it knows we’re here.”
“Yes, it does.” Her voice seemed very far away. “It does, doesn’t it?”
“You...” His mind whirled. “You knew it was coming. You kept me talking until it came.”
“Of course I knew.” Her face was a pale oval in the corner. “I called them – from the inside room. They set up a switch for me to call.”
He couldn’t feel his lips. “Why? Just tell me that. Why?”
“Why not? I told you I’d do anything to survive. They let me live here, and give me enough food to live on. In return...”
“In return you fetch people for them to play with,” Zed said bitterly. “That’s it, right?”
“If it makes you feel better,” she said, “I held off you as long as I could. I got men from elsewhere...enticed them, you might say. Kept them here with my body until night fell.”
“And that’s all I am to you?” he asked, appalled. “Something to exchange for food and a place to sleep?”
“Well, yes. I’m sorry, Zed, but that’s all I care about any longer. It’s all that matters now.”
Unable to bear to look at her any longer, Zed turned back to the window. His eyes had adjusted enough to the darkness to make out the silhouettes of rounded lumps stuck haphazardly on the turret and the top of the hull of the vehicle. He knew well enough what they were.
It all came together so well, he thought bitterly to himself. The collapse of the towns, the death of society from pollution and civil war, and then the people all died or left, taking what they could with them, and abandoning what they couldn’t...what might slow them down, or hurt their own chances of survival. And what they left went down into the burrows and the sewers, and founded their own society, one where nothing like a moral code ever existed, one founded on cheerful savagery. Only they knew how they survived back in the early days, how they managed to find food and water, and get the abandoned weapons running again. But they found out, and now...
Now, he heard their high, excited voices, their breathless incomprehensible words. He saw them spilling out of the back of the machine, and spreading out as they crossed the street. He saw the headlights reflected faintly on their depthless eyes and glimmering teeth.
“The next step of evolution,” he said bitterly, aloud. “This is what we’ve done, created the next step of evolution.”
Hoping they wouldn’t make him suffer too much, knowing they would, he waited, shivering, as the children came in.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017