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. (Click here for the Table of Contents.)
At the end of Part 56, Matthias was ridiculing Allin’s attempts to communicate with the merskers. Matthias claimed to have a better plan.
The Only City Left: Part 57
“The merskers are traders, pure and simple. In exchange for their scavenged items, they get goods from up-city. To them, we’re just more trash to be traded for something better.”
“Traded to who?”
“Whoever needs cheap labor.”
“You mean we’d be slaves?”
“Yes. That is only one possibility, however. It might be that we’re, how shall I say this, unspoiled meat.” He nodded over at the food bin that my mersker friend had dipped into. “You’ll note that Guppy is in there, so we know they don’t exactly discriminate about what, or who, they eat. And that’s where they dropped us off, too.”
The possibility had a disgusting logic to it. “I thought you said they were harmless.”
“I said they won’t kill what they can trade. But maybe they’re not interested in trading us. The point is, we can’t wait around to see what they do. We need to act.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“We don’t stand a chance unless I have my coil, first of all. With it, we have options. So we need to steal it back. Well, since I’m injured, you need to steal it.”
I looked around at the huts made of junk, which were interspersed with bins full of junk, the whole thing built on a layer of compressed junk and surrounded by hills of the stuff. I had no idea where I would start looking for one tiny lantern coil on a necklace in all of that mess. I told Matthias as much.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Now if you’ll excuse me, I tire.” With that, Matthias lay down and closed his eyes.
Nice, give me an impossible task and then take a nap. What was I even doing, looking to Matthias for a plan? I walked away from him toward the center of the village. The ghost-light was less vivid here but I still saw the merskers slitting their great, round eyes against the glow and heard them muttering angrily in passing. I felt their pain; there’s not much you can do about ghosts except put up with them or emp them, and the merskers didn’t look to have that level of tech available.
Merskers. Bottom feeders, Matthias called them. It looked like whatever trash got flushed out of the upper city ended up here. If there was a roof of the world, I was in its basement now. I was so close! So high up! But as usual, something knocked me back down, sent me to this underworld full of indifferent jailers and accusing ghosts, where the only person who would talk to me would also stab me in the back given half a chance. I missed Tumble. I missed feeling warm and dry and full. I missed the times when it was just me alone, barely scraping by but free to explore the damn maze of a city at my leisure.
While I pondered these dismal thoughts, the merskers bustled around setting up stalls and laying out goods. Some monsters, I thought. Merchants, more like it. And if they’re getting ready to sell, traders must be coming soon. I guess time’s running out.
I returned to Matthias and nudged him awake. “I’ll find your coil, but you need to give me the passphrase so I can wolf out.”
“Oh no,” he said, sitting up. “I don’t think so. If you could ‘wolf out’ as you say, what would you need me for?”
“It just makes sense. You’re injured. Look what happened the last time you went up against the merskers.”
Matthias gently patted his leg where the bone had pierced the skin. “I’m feeling better, thanks to you. I’ll be the one to use the coil.”
“It’s hard to work together when we can’t trust each other!”
“Trust no one, boy, and your life will be better, and longer, for it. Now go find that coil before it’s too late!”
I thought to argue about it some more, but couldn’t see the point. We needed each other but couldn’t trust each other. Nothing would change that, so I would just have to do the best I could and watch out for myself.
I wandered away from Matthias again, still struck by the difficulty of the task he had assigned me. I had no idea where the coil had been taken or where to start my search for it. I looked back at Matthias and shrugged my shoulders: where to start? He responded with a shooing gesture. Thanks a lot, I thought, but the gesture called to mind my earlier mimed conversation with the mersker. The bin he was working in had my bag and other electronics in it. There was nothing to say the coil would be there, too—it might be in a bin full of jewelry for all I knew—but it was as good a place to start the search as anywhere else.
The direct approach had already failed, so I would need to try something else. As casually as I could, I walked toward the edge of the village, thinking to skirt around it and come at the bin from behind. My mersker jailers weren’t that indifferent to my comings and goings, though. One of them shouted when he noticed me nearing the edge of the village. Immediately, four of them were herding me back at spear-point.
“Okay guys, I get it,” I said, hands up. “I just needed to evacuate the bladder. I’ll hold it.”
Not that they understood me or my made-up excuse, but they lowered their weapons and walked away anyway, apparently satisfied that I had gotten the gist of their warning. I had understood all right. If I was going to put my plan into action, I couldn’t make it so easy for them to chase after me. I looked around the village for something I could use to create a diversion, when suddenly I saw the light.
The ghost light.
* * *
I’m still unpacking from our move, and feeling exhausted, so there was no new writing in Book 2 this week. Hopefully I can get back to my routine soon.
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