Every time Council makes a speech lately, it's like they're trying to drill it into our heads how we are the lucky ones. Just because we live inside City walls we're supposed to be grateful. Telling us that living beyond the protection of the high walls isn't living at all; that the savages living outside are infected by a new and terrible disease. They've become hideous-like zombies, all because of a mutant viral mold that eats away not only their bodies, but their minds as well. Council calls it the New Black Death. We call it the Rot.
Plague, eh? Maybe that goes a long way in explaining some of the disappearances here in the East Grid. Debb disappeared, and she wasn't even sick.
City. Legend had it that a few generations ago there were other such places in our world; that City used to have its own name. Vancouver, or something like that. I'd heard those stories all my life. My crazy old man used to fill my head with them when I was too young to be registered. Myself, I try not to believe in legends or fairy tales. It's all I can do to stay alive in this overcrowded cesspool as it is. The way I see it, even if the legends are true, those days are gone, and I figure gone forever.
As far as being 'lucky' yea, right. I just trying to figure out exactly who Council is talking about. Probably the Status Citizens..the less than ten percent of the population who have made it. Or maybe its the elite of the elite..the one percent who have made it all the way up to Status Level Ten. I guess for sure that they are the lucky ones but I couldn't swear to it as I've never even laid eyes on one of those fuckers. They don't come down to where I live.
Or then again, maybe its the City Work Force that should be thankful. The ninety percent of the population who get to do all the work. After all, the Work's might toil hard, but at least they've got a dorm to sleep in, two meals a day and get six recreational days for every year in service. Yup, that's got to be it-Work's have all the luck!
As for the rest of us, I know Council couldn't possibly be thinking about us when they make their pretty speeches. If the Rot hadn't come along, they'd probably have gotten rid of us. Officially we're know as the Growth Resource Investment Members or 'Grimes' for short. Guess that's got something to do with how we don't get regular water rations, and we do what we gotta do to stay alive. We're only tolerated on this side of the wall because of our replacement value. A Work cracks up, or drops dead, one of us gets the nod to move up the ladder. Strong street-rumor had it that Council was going to round most of us up and dump us on the other side of the wall. Nothing personal, just a matter of funding. But when the plague started, those rumors ended.
Instead Council made a big deal about giving Grimes the exclusive right to work what was left of the Eastside Grid; going so far as to pass an official decree forbidding any Work's access to even enter the abandoned area without a pass. What that means for us, is that we get to scavenge the ruins for anything of value trading what we find for whatever we can get. Sounded good, but what Council didn't blast from their overhead speakers was on the same day, they cut all of our City funding off. In other words, we were on our own.
So that's how it is. We live and die in crowded alley's-running in packs, pairs or as lone wolves. We all have the same thing in common, prey on each other. Or, if we get a shot at them, the odd low-level Worker that comes our way. But nothing above a Sweeper. Stalk anything higher up the food chain than the guy with the broom and you're definitely not around very long.
Me, I'm not pack material. Gangs just aren't my thing. And running lone didn't work for me either. So when Debb vanished it was murder just keeping myself fed. My girl had been the greatest at wheedling a few ration cards from various gang-bangers and she was legend when it came to parting a horny Worker from his clean water credits. I was her backup and her muscle. I miss her a lot, but that doesn't put any food in my bowl. I guess that's why I hooked in with Ratzo. What a fucking mistake that turned out to be.
It never really worked out that well for me from the get-go, but one night it all came apart. Came apart for good. It was the night the Rat and I were digging in the ruins. Looking for metal, or anything else we might be able to trade. We were close to the edge of the old wall, taking turns either digging or keeping watch. A sack full of nails or tin cans can get you clean water and a plate of hot food. Get more, and maybe we could score a sleeping slab and a hot shower. That night we did a lot of digging but had fuck-all to show for it. A few feet of rusty wire, a pitted Pepsi can and a shit-load of blisters. I had stopped digging and was sifting through the rubble when the Rat nudged my elbow.
I looked up just in time to see the femm picking her way down the rock-strewn street. Man, did she set me back on my heels. She hit a clear patch and strutted her stuff like she owned the place. Figured her for Status right away. Cocking my head, I looked at her hard. As unlikely as it might be, there was something about her I couldn't place.
"How's that for a pretty picture?" The Rat hissed in my ear.
I didn't answer, just continued to stare at the high-line femm. She was as pretty as a picture. But speaking about pictures..what was wrong with this one was simple. Just what the hell was she doing down her in the bowels of the Eastern Grid? I wouldn't even have thought about taking her down if the Rat hadn't goaded me into it.
"Let's take the chance," he said looking around. "Gotta be some Stat bitch who got her pampered ass lost. She's gotta be packing something we can use."
"Chill." I said in a whisper. Like I said, I didn't come even close to liking the Rat. But he did have a point, and nose for making ends meet and then some.
"Take her down, bitch." he hissed in my ear.
I felt my hackles rise. I hated it when he talked down to me like that. I was as much of a man as he was. Hell, before losing Debb, I used to do pretty good. I even had four of my own teeth in my head, more than I could say about him. Besides, I wasn't all bent up like a pretzel like he was. But that's what you get when you do too much bootleg skag.
Yea, there was definitely something wrong with this picture. Just looking at her made me nervous. You could tell she wasn't an alley girl was an understatement. No one in the grid had clothes like that-or hair. The only people who didn't shave their heads were Status and high-level Work's. I didn't figure her for someone's Pleasure Pup either-though from here she had the looks. But all those bitches wore tattooed numbers on their temples and had touch-sensitive alarm tattoo's on their wrists. Nope, this one looked like trouble-big time trouble. But man, could she strut! She was acting like Council had just deeded her the entire fucking grid.
Because of the bad lighting down here, I couldn't quite make out her face. It's not like Council to waste resources by lighting up the ruins when they had a hard enough time keeping the rest of City lit up at night. She was getting closer, so I stared harder. Still no good. I grabbed the Rat by the arm and pulled him back into a shadow. Putting my head close to his ear I whispered, "Wait until one of the spotlights makes a pass. I want to get a good look at her first." City might not waste the voltage over here, but there was always the security lights up on the wall. Sweeping back and forth, a lot of their light spilled over into the ruins. I could hear the Rat cursing under his breath, but fuck him.
As expected, a couple of heartbeats later a brilliant pool of white light settled on the street, catching her perfectly. I gave her a quick once over from head to toe; no markings on either her head, or wrists. So she wasn't a lost Pup. In the harsh light I caught the glint of something on her neck. Fuck around! The femm was wearing jewelry! I head the Rat's breath catch, and I knew he spotted it too. Jewelry was big-too big, but if you used your head and got one of the powerful gangs to broker a trade for you--. God! Visions of food, lots and lots of food, hot water and maybe some quality drugs flashed before my eyes.
But there was something else..something about her face. Something really familiar. The light was starting to move away from her. Debb? No, it couldn't be. Her build was about right, and so was the shape of the face. The hair was throwing me off. Like I said, we don't see much of it in the alleys. But no, it couldn't be. This one had nothing soft about her, not like Debb. She had the sharp look of a predator. Her eyes were mean slits, flinty-and her mouth was all wrong. This femm had a jaw set as hard as steel, her lips little else than a thin mean line. I guess it was the light, but to me, the bitch looked like a fucking ghoul.
Walking past, she flicked a quick glance over our way. This was too fucking easy, especially since the way she was heading would bring her flush up to the old wall. The bitch was trapped! I decided right then and there that the Rat was right-she wasn't going anywhere, except down. My eyes wandered down the mound of rubble and whispered to the Rat that we had to make as little noise as possible. But no matter how hard we tried-when two guys, one a cripple, come down off a garbage heap there has got to be some noise. And it didn't help when the Rat fell on his ass half way down and slid the rest of the way. I thought we'd scared her off, but no-she kept on walking. Was it my imagination, or had the bitch slowed down a little?
For sure something wasn't right here-this was too easy, way too fucking easy. Then again, maybe the femm was deaf. Somehow I didn't think so. We followed her another couple of blocks until we could see the broken wall in front of us. Ratzo hobbled over to the other side of the street, in case she figured us out and tried to bolt. She was a few feet from the wall when she stopped dead in her tracks, just looking at the wall. She had to have known we were right behind her. But hey, who knows-maybe she wanted this to happen. Maybe she wanted out-a lot of City people did these days.
I sidled up on one side of her, the Rat on the other. "Whatever you got bitch, we want it." I snarled. She stayed quiet, but slowly turned her head. My mouth fell open. I took a step backward and just stared. Where her eyes should have been were two translucent orbs, the color of dirty milk. A purr escaped from her lips. Her eyes began to glow and an eerie green light caught the Rat, scanning him.
Either the Rat didn't notice, or didn't care. "Give it up," Ratzo barked and lunged for the thin metal chain hanging from her neck. His hand never even got close. She turned on him and faster than my eye could follow, had him by the throat. Effortlessly, she lifted him off his feet and shook him like he was a bundle of rags. His neck made a sick crunching sound as she ripped his head from his torso, tossing both aside like parts of a broken doll.
Spinning around, she looked my way with those demonic eyes. I think I shit my pants. No, I know I did. I glanced over to where the Rat's headless body lay, lifeless and crumpled. Frantically I reached into my coverall for my club. I knew the Rat had a knife on him somewhere. If I could hold the femm off, I might get a shot at finding his blade.
Couldn't do it. She must have followed my eyes and got in between me and what was left of Ratzo. The bitch was fast, too fast. She extended her arms straight in front of her. I stood transfixed as I stared at the glint of metal coming out of her fingernails. Her lips parted and she smiled-an ugly twisted smile. Taking one hand, she lightly punched the ornament that hung from her necklace. "Two Grimes-both males, one defective now terminated. Scanning the second Grime and report."
I was stunned. Recognition flooded my senses. I wanted to run, but had the feeling that she'd be on my back before I could take two steps. I had no choice but to fight, but I had let the club slip from my fingers. I don't know what was up with the eyes, or anything else-but I did recognize the voice. What stood in front of me used to be Debbie, my girl.
"Debb! What's going on? What the fuck has happ--."
I didn't get a chance to finish. The creature in front of me grabbed my neck, its fingernails sinking deep into my throat. As my feet left the ground, she turned her eerie eyes on me. I thought I was done for. Her eyes glowed green, like they had when she scanned the Rat. As I started to lose consciousness, I could hear her speaking, reporting in
"Second male Grime a keeper. Acceptable level of toxins as well as a high count of antibodies. Should be enough here to save a dozen Level Ten's from the plague. Over and out."
Just before the blackness enveloped me I knew I had it right. It's like I said, we *do* prey on each other.
About the writer in his own words:
"I'm fifty years old and have written a few short stories, one play and a sorry, sorry attempt at something larger. I can't in all honesty call it a novel, but... This story is part of a short story collection all about the last city on Earth. For convenience, I've used Vancouver, B.C. There isn't much of an order to the various stories. Something along the lines of 'Martian Chronicles' if I could be so bold as to use that as a guide.
Oh..I guess I could tell you that my very first story ever written found a home on the second submission. "Harsh Mistress" in Illinois bought my 1992 near-future story and also did me the honor of making it their cover story. I've only recently re-read that story and blush at how incredibly klunky it is. I'd like to re-write it (for my own satisfaction) and see what I can do with it."
Larry can be e-mailed at email@example.com
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