The Only City Left: Part Three

Welcome back to The Only City Left. You can find Part Two hereAnd here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Three

After I left the mall I chose a new route at random and set off. My one rule is that I try never to backtrack; if I can’t find a way up and out, at least I don’t have to look at the same old sights every day. The route I took led me to an area that must have been some densely packed residential quarters back in the day, some sort of co-op maybe, because there weren’t even hallways between apartments. Each apartment connected to the next by a door, but most of those had been destroyed at some point, so I just walked from one family’s pad to another.

Each one was deserted, decaying, and I tried to imagine it full of people, full of life. The smells of so many people smushed together, their foods, their body odor. Music playing, children shrieking as they played a game of hide and seek through the neighbors’ apartments. No privacy ever. You would never be alone.

It sounded kind of wonderful.

I wandered aimlessly for a while, lost in these thoughts, picturing the ghosts of the people who once filled this tiny part of the city with their light and life. I didn’t notice that some of the ghosts were still around until I hit a dead end in someone’s bedroom, turned around, and came face to face with three of them.

They were transparent and glowed a dim blue, as ghosts in the city are wont to do. They didn’t look frightening, just forlorn, and they kept their distance from me and the circle of light given off by the lantern coil hanging from my neck.

“What do you want?” I asked, leaning back against a wall.

One of them stepped forward, or maybe his compatriots stepped back. Ghosts can be tricky, even amongst themselves. The elected speaker looked back at each of his friends and then turned to me and said, “You do not belong here.”

Very original, I thought, and told him as much.

In reply, he took another step closer. My lantern coil, instead of thinning the ghost like it should have, dimmed in response to his presence. Not good.

“We bear you no ill will, but others will not be so lenient,” he said.

“Stop right there, all right?” I stammered, stepping to one side. “I haven’t done anything to you, and I’m only looking to pass through. Can you point me to a way Up or at least out of this sector?”

The ghost lunged forward and put one thin hand around my throat, pinning me to the wall. The light from my coil died out completely, to be replaced by the ghost’s pale blue glow, and though I struggled and kicked, he was entirely intangible except for where he gripped me.

Up close, I could see great gashes upon his neck and face where skin flapped loose, and a long jagged cut from his belly to his neck spilled ghostly viscera. My teeth chattered, from fear or his icy grip or both. I had never dealt with this kind of ghost before. Ghosts were around in many parts of the city, usually bemoaning their fates or begging you to help them find some closure to their lives, but one had never touched me before, much less pinned me to a wall.

“Please let me go,” I whispered, my throat tight.

The ghost leaned in to whisper in my ear and I could see through his shoulder into his disemboweled insides.

“Your kind should take care,” he hissed. “There are more of us than there are of you. Some of us have grown strong on hate.”

He stopped and looked behind him at something I could not see, then turned back to me.

“Run,” he snapped, and let me go.

I fell to the floor but scrambled to my feet, and as the ghost stepped back away from me, the light of my coil returned.

“RUN!” the ghost screamed at me, and then he and his friends rose up into the air, turned to the wall to my right, and rammed into it. Where they passed through it, the wall cracked and peeled.

I stood still, caught between the urge to obey the ghost’s command and my body’s seeming inability to move. My paralyzation was cured by the repeated slamming sounds that started coming toward me from the direction I had come from. Something was coming my way, something big and fast by the sound of it. Slam slam slamSLAM SLAMSLAMSLAM! came the sound, and with it, a glow in the dark distance, getting brighter as it moved my way.

Time to take the ghost’s advice and get the hell out of there, but where to go? The bedroom was a dead end, the attached bathroom nothing more than a tiled cubicle with a drain and a faucet.

The slams were louder now, and worse, I could hear vicious growls amidst them. It sounded big and wild and like it had terrible claws, maybe the kind of claws that could tear the skin off a ghost. It sounded like the kind of creature that makes even ghosts run away.

That was it! I ran to the wall that the ghosts had phased through and I pushed against it. The wall was weakened, whether by their passage or by time, and I was able to punch and kick out chunks of drywall to reveal a cavity behind it. I leaned in and saw that it was a utility shaft with a ladder going down. Not the way I wanted to go!

I looked back down the way I had come and saw a hulking humanoid creature, covered with fur and with a mouthful of gnashing teeth, hurtling toward me. It glowed pale blue like a ghost but each step it took buckled the floor like it weighed a ton, and it punched out at furniture and walls as it passed, obliterating them.

Down suddenly looked real enticing.

Onward to Part Four.

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The Only City Left: Part Two

Welcome back to The Only City Left. You can find Part One here. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Two

I had been expecting to fall, but the sudden loss of light disoriented me for precious seconds. On top of that, a storm of fried tacmites was falling around me, some of them hitting against me like tiny punches before bouncing away. They didn’t really hurt, but they were a distraction I could ill afford as I struggled to get my bearings.

As I fell through the inky void, I felt the grip of my grapnel gun in my right hand; it was the other item I had retrieved from my cocoon before I stepped off the beam. I had planned to lasso the beam above me and swing gracefully onto one of the balcony levels, but now I couldn’t see what I was shooting at. It didn’t matter though. I could shoot and risk missing or just wait for the floor to pancake me if I did nothing.

So, turning my back toward the rapidly-approaching floor, and with the wind from my descent screaming in my ears, I gripped the gun with both hands, aimed where I hoped the beams above me were, and pulled the trigger. I heard the poppopop of the chemical projectiles propelling the hook upward, and the whizz of the cable following it.

Then for what seemed like forever, I heard nothing at all, and I waited to feel the impact that would end my admittedly precarious existence here in the city. Instead, I heard a distant buzzing sound as the cable coiled around a beam above me, followed by a clang that echoed through the cavernous cylinder of the pitch-black mall.

My grip almost slipped from that first jerk as the hook caught the beam, but the gun took over and slowed down the cable. I fell a couple of more stories at a slower pace and then stopped, hanging in mid-air at some indeterminate point above the floor. I hung from the grapnel gun, arms stretched above my head, and kicked around with my outstretched boots to feel below me, but there was nothing to feel. I can’t be that far from the floor, can I? I wondered, weighing the risk of a few stories’ fall versus the risk of hanging there in the dark, alone for the moment but not for long.

As I mentioned earlier, there are things, creatures, that live in the darkness. And right now I was like bait on a hook for them. Hang there too long and something would take a bite.

I began to thrash around, bile rising in my throat from encroaching panic, trying to get a swing going so I could reach one of the levels of the mall which I knew surrounded me, but to no avail. Breathing quickly through my nose, I tried to force myself to calm down, to clamp down the thoughts of something brushing against me, of jaws full of porcelain daggers. Breathe, get it together, you fool. Don’t do their job for them. Stay alive. Always, stay alive.

I nodded once and pulled hard on the grapnel gun’s trigger three times in quick succession. Somewhere above me, the hook separated from the cable in a tiny explosion that briefly lit up the ceiling. It seemed very far away and I had enough time to think, Well that’s a good sign, right? before I was falling again. Almost instantly I hit something that cracked underneath me, and then I was being assaulted by tiny scraping hands and then bigger limbs which punched against me and knocked me sideways. But this was no monster attacking me. I was falling through the branches of a tree! My trusty grapnel gun had stopped my descent right above the garden on the bottom floor of the mall.

I suffered another second or two of being abused by branches and bristles, and then I hit the ground in a roll and ended up head-first in some foul, brackish water.

I came up with a splutter, hands planted in water before me. Trying to spit as quietly as possible—who knew what bacteria was growing in this ancient pond?—I scooted backward, sat down on what squelched like a patch of mud, and whipped my backpack into my lap. By touch alone, I undid the seal, reached in, and felt around for my lantern coil. My fingers found the thumb-sized cylinder and I powered it on, holding my breath. I hadn’t fallen very far at the last, and the backpack was built to survive impacts, but what if the lantern was broken? I pulled the coil out and let out a gasp.

I had light again. I half-laughed, half-groaned, and dropped backward into the mud, relieved but battered. The coil was secured to a necklace, so I pulled it over my head and let the tiny cylinder of light rest on my heaving chest, my backpack snuggled up beside me.

I breathed in the smell of damp and decay and looked around at the garden which the coil illuminated. It was all twisted trees and thorny bushes, either some demented mall planner’s idea of an engaging garden environment, or more likely just a product of the lack of good light and nutrients over time. Only the bastard plants were still alive here, tenacious but ugly as sin, like everything else in the city. So what did that make me?

“A light in the dark,” I whispered the familiar refrain and sat up.

I was bruised, and scraped up, half-drenched from sitting in the mud, but I was alive, so that would have to be good enough. Anyway, what better place to find more clothes than the mall?

After an hour or two of scavenging, taking the more conventional ramps up and down the levels of the mall this time, I was dressed in clean, dry clothes and had cleaned the grime off my skin as best I could. Now it was time to set out to find a lighted area of the city again, and a way Up.

Onward to Part Three.

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The Only City Left: Part One

The Only City Left

Welcome to The Only City Left. In the far future, the Earth is one giant planet-sized city, and it is falling apart. The majority of the human inhabitants are gone and in their place other, darker creatures are moving in. Allin Arcady is a young man on his own deep in the depths of the city, his one goal to reach the Roof of the World and see the Sun once in his life. But his past, and that of his deceased parents, is coming back to haunt him, and the Sun has never seemed farther away.

TOCL is a first-draft work-in-progress. If you want to jump farther into the story, check out the Table of Contents, which also includes a link to the most current synopsis of the story so far.

The Only City Left: Part One

I was born into darkness, but one day I will find the light. Sunlight. Pure and yellow and hot against your skin like standing near to a furnace, but softer somehow. At least so I’ve heard, first in stories my parents told me, then in whispered rumors as I make my way through the endless levels of the City. The only city left. Earth.

My name is Allin. If I had a last name, I’ve forgotten it. Not much use for formality in the dim, dank, dying city of Earth. In fact, I can barely remember the last time I exchanged names with someone. Mostly us stragglers steer clear of each other unless we’re trading, and then it’s a quick deal and retreat. In a dangerous world, trust is a precious commodity and few of us are willing to share it.

Mostly I find everything I need, scavenging from rotting apartments, factories, shopping districts, gleaning what I can from the detritus of a once-great civilization. Lights, and the juice to power them, are the greatest finds for any straggler. While power plants still run somewhere in the city, connections are corroded and there are not enough plants to keep the entire city running at any given time. When you consider that the city is as big as a planet, it only makes sense that powering it would be a colossal feat. Least, that’s what my dad said. I was never clear on the whole “planet” concept, but I would always nod like I understood, and he would smile and tousle my hair. Bottom line: the city is a big place and there isn’t enough power to keep it all running anymore, so you never know as you make your way around whether or not the lighting will suddenly die out, leaving you stranded in an impenetrable black void, leaving you prey to the things that live in the darkness.

Happy thoughts like that plague my dreams, so I didn’t realize at first that my sense of wrongness was more than just my latest nightmare. I woke up with a start from my half-sleep, perched high in a web of girders twenty or so stories above the floor of what used to be a mega-mall. Something had jerked me out of my guarded slumber, so I lay still and took stock. I was still secure in my cocoon, which hugged the top of one great iron beam, and when I slowly unzipped it and peeked my head out, I saw that the dim off-hours lighting in the mall was still working. It probably helped that this mall didn’t have any on-hours anymore, so there was never a strain on the system.

Around me I could hear the usual creaks and groans of the city, which never seems at rest but is instead always settling into itself. The sounds used to scare me as a kid; they sounded like the moans of the dead, coming to get me. I got over that as my parents taught me what to really fear and how to avoid it. Anyway, the dead don’t usually announce themselves like that.

I listened beyond the usual sounds of the city, listened so hard I could almost picture in my mind’s eye what I was hearing. And what I heard/saw was: a cacophony of precise, metallic clacking. Tiny feet skittering on iron beams, close, too close. Tacmites, I decided. Damn. I had to act fast.

Tacmites are a sort of cleaning system gone wrong. Originally they were supposed to find and process waste, keeping the corridors and boulevards of the city clean and debris-free. But they had been hacked or just gone rogue a long time ago, and now anything was fair game. Like me. They “processed” waste by tearing it shreds, ingesting the pieces, and atomizing those smaller pieces inside themselves. Where they took the resultant dust I had no idea, but I had seen more than one poor jerk fall victim to tacmites; it was not a quick or painless process.

Zzzziiippp. I opened the cocoon the rest of the way and crouched down beside it, scanning to the left, right, and above me. The beams around me were swarming with the lethal janitors. Below me was empty space surrounded by the balconied levels of the mall, and almost invisible all the way down, an overrun garden on the unlit bottom floor. I didn’t worry about falling; my boots were made of the same cling-tight material as the cocoon, so it wasn’t a concern. Anyway, down was the only way to go at this point. Acting fast, I pulled out two items from the foot of my cocoon and then pressed three buttons along the seam. With a soft whirr the cocoon retracted into its backpack form and loosened its grip on the beam. As quietly as possible, I slipped it on, and then stood up.

The tacmites were nearly on me now, little mechanical creepy-crawlies about the size of my hand, bristling with tiny metal legs which propelled them along at speed. Beneath the clacking of their movement, I could also hear the sound of their tiny, blade-like teeth scissoring up and down against each other.

Determined not to end up as tacmite dust, I affixed an empod onto the girder before me. The empod was just one of the many devices I had cobbled together over the years from all the spare parts lying around the city. I have to say with a bit of pride that it was devices like these that kept me alive where others perished.

I pressed the empod, stood up, and stepped off the beam into empty air, just as the empod triggered above me. There was a loud crack and sizzle as the electro-magnetic pulse from the empod fried the circuits of all the tacmites that had been ready to devour me.

I hadn’t really thought how it would also fry all the lights in the area, too.

I plunged into darkness.

Click here for Part Two.

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