Welcome to my serial science-fiction/fantasy adventure, The Only City Left. This is the story of Allin Arcady and his adventures through a dying, planet-sized city called Earth.
If you are new to The Only City Left and want a quick catch-up, you can read a synopsis of Parts 1-34 and then start at Part 35. You can reach an individual part of the story by browsing the Table of Contents.
At the end of Part 35, Tumble had shared food with the bandits who moments before had tried to kill him and Allin. The bandit leader, Ballister, invited them both back to his village for a proper thanks, and Allin reluctantly agreed to go.
The Only City Left: Part 36
In order to get the jump on us, Ballister and his men had taken the high road through the ducts. I had crawled through enough ducts in the past week, so despite his protestations that it would be safer that way, I convinced him to return to his village by way of the ancient, decaying corridors. Actually, village was too kind a term for where he lived. It was more like a room. A humid, noisy, machinery-filled equipment room that about fifty people had converted into their home.
“It may not look like much, and it smells worse than that,” Ballister admitted with a rough smile as he produced a key and unlocked the great steel door to the room. “But it’s got the basics and it’s defendable.”
The basics in this case consisted of overhead lighting, a steadily dripping pipe that provided brown water, a tank used to grow edible algae, and rows of shelving that served as bunks for the people who lived there. Mostly these were adults, although two children scurried about playing a silent game of tag and one baby was asleep in a woman’s arms. All of them were filthy. It was obvious that whatever water they managed to collect, there was none to spare for something as frivolous as keeping clean. Tumble remained inscrutable underneath his hat, but I could well imagine he was thinking the same thing as me, that this room was a hellish mirror of Pudlington.
Something of my thoughts must have been clear on my face, because I caught Ballister scowling at me, but either out of pride or resignation, he chose to ignore it. I felt bad and tried to keep my face neutral from then on, but I stuck to breathing through my mouth to lessen the stench a bit.
I had grown up always on the move. Back then I thought it was simply my parents’ choice to never settle down, before I found out that they were simply on the run from my uncle. But this room was in itself a good argument for staying in motion. Sure, it’s safer to hole up in a cramped room and bar the door, but what kind of life was that?
Ballister introduced us to his people, who were nonplussed about our arrival but mutedly excited once they realized he had brought some supplies with him. No one fought or yelled at one another; they hadn’t the energy for it. They meekly accepted their small portion of the rolls and jerky that Tumble had shared and immediately set to eating. It was not much, but I could see them savoring it as if it were the sweetest candy.
“Here,” I told Ballister, emptying all but one of my remaining nutri-bulbs onto a table. What could have fed me for a month would only be a few days worth for these folks if they stretched it, but the way their eyes lit up when they saw the bounty, it was as if I had just shown them the gates to heaven and promised them their own cloud.
“Are you sure about this?” Ballister asked me before he would let anyone else touch the bulbs.
I gnawed on my lip and briefly looked over to where Tumble sat on a nearby shelf, his legs tucked up under his poncho. “Yeah, I’m sure,” I replied. “Anyway, I can always find more.”
Actually, I wasn’t so sure of that; finding food is always an iffy proposition in the city. But how could I leave here with a full backpack when these people were obviously on the edge of starvation?
After the additional food was distributed, the mood in the room grew more relaxed. Most of the people went off to do their own thing, but a few stayed and spoke with Ballister, Tumble, and me, including the two kids and the mother with her baby. I ended up sharing stories of some of my adventures and mishaps in the city, and though Ballister warned the children to not be enticed by such nonsense, I imagined that I saw their eyes light up with the possibilities of life outside of their room.
Later on, after the lights were dimmed in preparation for sleep, I was sitting on the top shelf of a tall storage rack against one wall. Tumble was nestled into the corner next to me, asleep sitting up. His hat was tilted down so that his face remained hidden. Ballister sat on the top shelf across from me, his head nearly hitting the ceiling, while below and around us, his people busied themselves with their bedtime routines.
“Where did you all come from?” I asked Ballister across the narrow gap between shelving units.
“From all over,” he replied, giving the familiar look-up-and-around movement that meant “somewhere in the city.” “We pick up strays here and there. Lose people to disease, hunger, and worse. It about balances out. Though we may need to find bigger digs soon. We’re busting out the door here already, and thanks to you I can’t count on any of them starving to death anytime soon.”
My mouth must have been hanging open, because Ballister guffawed quietly into his hand and said, “Shut your trap boy. It’s not as bad as all that. It may not be pretty, but we’re mostly staying alive, ain’t we? ’N what about you? How is it that you came to be running around with one of the catfolk?”
My first instinct was to deny his guess, but a quick glance at Tumble showed me that his tail had escaped from his poncho and was twitching sleepily back and forth. When I looked back at Ballister, he grinned and said, “I had a feeling even before I saw that.”
“He’d like to keep it quiet,” I said, pulling a blanket over my friend. “You don’t seem surprised.”
“Well, there’s lots of talk about them, there’s sightings here and there,” Ballister explained. “Put that together with a great big chunk of the city nearby what’s blocked off tighter ’an a seedweevil’s whatsus, and it’s not too big a guess that they live there.”
“They like their privacy,” I cautioned, thinking of the plentiful murder holes lining the one path into Pudlington. “I wouldn’t try to get in there if I were you.”
“Gods, but you’re an untrusting sort,” Ballister chuckled. “Don’t worry, if one cat can take apart me and my men, I don’t need to be dealing with a whole city’s worth. But back to you. What are you doing traveling with yon feline friend?”
“You’ll think it’s stupid.”
“Maybe, but what does what I think matter?”
“I want to reach the surface,” I admitted.
Ballister gave a low whistle and said, “No small goal. I’m sure you have your reasons, but I don’t envy your prospects. And your friend there?”
“He’s kind of along for the ride. Plus, he knows his way around here better than I do,” I said, adding that Tumble knew of an elevator that would hopefully take us Up a ways.
“The only working elevator ’round here belongs to the clinkers, so I’d stay well shut of it if I were you.”
“Clinkers? They’re just boogeymen. My mom used to tell me stories about them.”
“Boogeymen, eh? Legends? Old wives’ tales? That’s what we’re to believe about the cats as well, but one’s snoring away across from me this very moment, ain’t he? No, clinkers are real, and if you’d seen what I seen, you wouldn’t risk meeting one,” Ballister said. “Find the Roof of the World. I wish you the best of luck. But if you value your life, do not take that elevator.”
* * *
10/21/12 News: As of this page, Part 36, I have written to the end of Part 43, about 48,000 words total of an estimated 90-100,000. Since I am smack dab in the middle of the story, I recently reread the story so far, to make sure I am not leaving out anything from the early days of this project as I move forward toward the endgame. Needless to say, I noticed a lot of elements that need to be fixed, but overall I am happy that I have come so far with this first draft. Every time I see someone reading through the story from the beginning, or returning each week, it encourages me to keep writing. Thank you.
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Logo Credit:The TOCL logo is courtesy of Jande Rowe of the webcomic Aedre’s Firefly. If you haven’t already read AF, I encourage you to go check it out. Not only does Jande produce the comic, she reviews other long-form webcomics, gives tips and instructions on creating a comic, and is endlessly supportive of other creators. For a great review that will bring you up to speed on Aedre’s Firefly, check out this page at Webcomic Alliance.