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.
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