EXTRACT FROM … LAST EMBERS
‘You little dog, get back!’
Crap. I flee with water I filched from the shop. Big surprise, I’m getting followed. Dunno why it always happens, but others from the crowd join in the chase, big brutes hunting me down – like wolves. Guess everyone enjoys the hunt, especially when they’re the hunters.
Damn, they’re hot on my heels. I turn sharp, I barge, slip, dodge, break my way through the crowds. Get a few curses as a result. A few more join the chase.
I see a chance, a hole through one of the shop walls. I’ve used it before, comes in quite handy – leads straight through the shops to a parallel street. I go for it, squeeze my way through the gap. I’m taking too long. The walls digging into me. Oh no. I’m stuck.
‘Get the damn thief!’ They’re getting close, their ravenous glares on my back. I’m panicking now, there isn’t any room! I reach out to the wall at the side – try and push my body through.
‘There he is!’ It’s the shop keeper’s cutting voice. Directed straight at me, piercing the crowds between us. The crowds he’s hungrily smashing through. I have to move. Now. Damn, I’ve fit through here before. I sure as hell won’t be using this again. If I make it out of here alive. If I’m not beat to a corpse by the howling men behind me. Hurry you idiot, move!
They’re almost here now
I slip an inch – move!
An inch isn’t enough
They’re getting closer-
Shut up and move!
Here they come-
Another second less time I have
‘We got the bastard!’
Those reaching hands-
For Elisyum’s sake MOVE!
And I slip-
I burst my way through the hole.
Raging claws fumble and scratch the space where I just was. I roll out of the way, I’m too fast for them. ‘Dammit!’ I hear the shopkeeper’s voice burn through the opening. I barely fit, him and his accomplices aren’t ever gonna get through that hole. But I’m not safe. I can’t stay here, I have to keep running. I’m just as trapped here as in a jail cell. Soon enough they’ll smash through, or loop around to get to the other side. He won’t give up so easily, not when I’ve stolen what I have.
I take a breath. And I stand. And I run. I burst my way through the door, into the piercing light of the outside. Well, as outside as you get on this ship. Keep your head straight. You have to move. Where?
‘Let’s go round, he can’t be far!’ The faint voices of my pursuers. But others can hear over the roar of the city. I’m starting to attract a few stares. I need to move.
The Old City you idiot, where else? Okay, I’ve got a direction, now to run. Easiest way to find your way to the Port District is to head towards the Spire, the big one to the port of the city. Isn’t used any more, just broods there, staring down over the rest of the ship. Of course, nothing in the Old City is used any more, not since-
‘-I think I saw him run this way!’ Damn. They’re closer. Keep your head straight. Don’t slow down. Don’t stop running.
A SHARED CITY
As soon as I’m safely within the rusty barriers of the Old City I’m fishing out today’s prizes: two apples; a severely stale chunk of bread; a transistor coil torn off a dome-car. Oh – make that three apples; and the most important, and most recently stolen items, two cans of water.
I pop open the first can, swallow it down in deep gulps. The water is warm and tastes of copper. I can’t afford to be picky, with the new restrictions at the communal taps, it’s just making it even harder on us scavengers. The High Admiral made water a luxury.
You can buy water of course, funny tasting bottles sold from the High Admiral’s vendors. Slides down your throat like grit, isn’t worth anyone’s money. Not that I’d ever have enough money to buy the damn stuff, prices increase by the second. Not many are desperate enough to buy the water anyway. People are saying its mixed with other fluids, that the water really is getting scarce, that soon the vendors will be only spewing out whatever chemicals that are mixed in there. Wouldn’t surprise me.
Once I’ve downed the first can I pour the dregs into the second, then toss away the husk of the empty one. I watch it bounce away down the tiles of the roof, then slowly topple off the brink. After a few seconds I hear the clank! as it hits the abandoned road below. Guards would beat me if they caught me tossing it onto the street instead of taking it to a recycling station. No chance of that in the Old City – what used to be called the Port District.
Still listening lazily, I swear I hear another noise, a soft rustling. No – its gotta be an echo, no one lives in the Port District. The area’s been a ghost town for months, ever since the Admiral declared it unsafe. Toxic gases. They were the excuse, everyone was told gas had leaked from the ground here. Seeped out of the huge pipes beneath the streets, where the fuel was channelled into the deep bowels of the boat. For public safety the whole of the Old City was ‘evacuated’. In other words anyone unlucky enough to live there was shoved out. Most of them were squashed into the already crowded Stern District, as far away as possible from the Admiral and his captains’ luxurious miniature city – the Prow District. Thousands of people live bunched up together in shacks, but he and his Captains sit content in their palaces, looking down on us all. Literally looking down on us, the Prow District is raised up on a huge platform above the city. People say it was built like that by the Harbingers, raised so the engine fumes wouldn’t reach the city. That was before the population grew so large. Then metal floors were flattened over the machinery below, resulting in the erratic dips and climbs that you come across every other few streets. The majority of the city, excluding the Prow District of course, now lies above the vast machinery that keeps the ship alive – the Engines.
Never smelled any gas myself. Most people just assumed that the High Admiral spoke the truth. I did too. But one day, when I was running from a group of doped-up thugs that apparently formed a street gang (had a misunderstanding over when you’re allowed to sleep in their territory – turns out for me: never) I ran into a dead end. In front of me was a fence, to the sides just the metal walls of the alley – and behind? Behind was a bunch of fists and shoes waiting to pound into my flesh. Seemed like I was done for, but then I saw an opening. Just a small one, a hole in the forbidding barrier that blocks off the Old City. Small enough to crawl through, like the one I got stuck in today. There didn’t seem to be a choice. I did it, crawled through the hole into the silent streets of the Port District. The gang gave up, they said I’d be dead soon enough. But I didn’t die. There isn’t a trace of gas still here. Not that I’m complaining, I’m not gonna go around telling people. It’s my secret, my haven from the blaring sounds and lights and danger of the rest of the boat. My private city.
Or is it private? I hear the rustling. That can’t be right, I must be imagining it. But there it is again. Could be construction work, the place is officially ‘under repair’, the gas leak’s meant to be fixed ‘soon’. Doubt it though, this place hasn’t changed since I started coming here – who knows the real reason behind emptying it?
There are rumours of noises at night, drifting over the walls of the Old City, some say ghosts live in the Spire to the port. Stupid idea really, the ghosts of who? But then again, there were those disappearances-
Clank! Okay, what the hell is that noise? I lie flat, peer over the edge of the roof, wouldn’t want to fall. Nothing down there on the street, just the can I chucked away. I could check it out from the ground. It’s not like there’s an actual ghost down there. Who am I kidding? I can take a look. I shuffle round the edge of the roof, take a last peek down. Still nothing.
I lower my legs-
Then my stomach-
Till all that’s left is my arms, the metal of the roof digging into my palms. Careful. Slowly I lower one arm to the vertical piping, wrap my hand firmly round it. Next I let go of my spare hand and clutch onto the piping before I topple backwards. Careful! I almost fall, but regain my balance in time to make a quick – though rough – slide down to ground level. Landing with a thud I stumble a few steps. Righting my bag on my back I take a look around. Nothing out of the ordinary, the dark metal roads are clear but for a few disused cars, probably left by the evicted residents of the Old City.
My guess is the noise came from one of the narrow alleys that cut through the streets. I really am curious about its source though. For some reason, a rat is in my mind, like the ones they’d taught about at the orphanage. Couldn’t be a rodent, I heard they used to annoy people with their scavenging back on Earth. Wouldn’t know myself though, rats weren’t carried aboard the arks when they left. I wasn’t even born in time to see the ark leave the system, all those centuries ago. Turning to the nearest alley, I round the sharp corner of the building, taking a look down its dark reaches.
A look long enough to see what stands there-
A look long enough to see the thing’s eyes lock onto mine-
But there can’t be another-
A look long enough to learn that I’m-
I’m not the only one in the Old City.
‘Whoa – you gave me a fright there!’ I laugh to the surprised girl in front of me. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t take her eyes off me. Wide eyes.
‘Didn’t think anyone went here but me – guess you didn’t believe the whole gas leak thing either huh?’ She still stays quiet, after a pause I continue, a little put off. ‘I’m Neko, you are…?’ I thrust out my hand, but am surprised when she leaps a back, her eyes growing even wider. I look down at my outstretched fingers, what little skin I can see jutting out of the gloves’ holes is dirty. Only a little dirty though, not like I was gonna wipe it in her face.
I take a closer look at her. She’s tall, almost as tall as me. Probably about the same age too, I’m fourteen if I’ve been counting weeks right. She’s got hair that’s an odd washed out yellow, never seen anything like it. Her clothes are kinda strange, they don’t look that different to mine, a bit less tattered. They have these weird holes in, diamond shaped that dot across her limbs. They look like they were put in there deliberately, I recognise them as the same kind you see on hospital gowns, holes where you can give injections without having to pull up a sleeve. On her knees there’s a dark stain of red that spreads across the fabric – blood. I’ve seen it enough to recognise it. I shiver a little. There’s a story behind that stain. Her cheeks look a little sunken and I notice that she’s leaner than me – not that I’m big. In fact, I’m kinda skinny, even for a homeless scavenger. She must be starving.
As I reach for my bag she takes another pace back, looks like she’s about to bolt, eyes trained on my hands as they go in. I wonder how I must look to her, dirty face and hole-riddled clothes.
‘Relax, I’m just getting an apple – you hungry?’ She looks up as soon as I say ‘apple’, she understands me then. I toss one her way and bite a chunk of my own. I notice how fast she snatches the fruit from the air, how hungrily she feasts on it. She’s done before I’m even halfway through mine.
The apples were a good steal. The things are rare, you don’t get them made in the food factories, they must have been grown in a noble’s private garden. I managed to swipe them from a merchant’s stall while his back was turned.
‘Juicy, huh?’ I say to her blank face. Nothing. She just looks at the bag, waiting for whatever food I might magically pull out next. I look again at her sunken cheeks, her hungry eyes. ‘Wanna go somewhere where there’s more?’
I watch her out of the corner of my eye as she tears up the food I got out. That stuff’s stale enough to stick in your throat. She must really be starving, I fish some more food for myself out of the AC cooling tower. I hollowed out the inside after I saw it was still running. Comes in handy as a makeshift fridge for when I need to store food or water, not like anyone else will need it in the abandoned district. Well, not quite abandoned. She still hasn’t told me how she ended up here. For that matter, she hasn’t said anything. Maybe she’s mute. That or she doesn’t trust me, or just doesn’t want to.
I take another look at her, she’s focused entirely on the food, living for the eating. It’s possible we’ve both been using the Old City for a while, it wouldn’t be impossible for us to have not ran into each other before. The Old City is a labyrinth, the archaic metal streets and platforms are vast, I haven’t even explored half of it yet – it was abandoned when I was younger. I turn to the rooftops, my eyes skimming over the Port District’s empty expanse; the hollow skyscrapers; the floodlights that have gone dark; the layers of platforms and balconies that once bustled with life, shedding off airships, anchoring them in, busy with commerce and communication, what used to be the busiest place in the ship. My eyes wander over to the Spire at the port of us, I picture climbing up its grey surface to its peak. Its jagged tip almost scrapes the top of the dome, the roof that closes us in. Closes the entire city in. A wall of metal a kilometre thick, separating the world from the void beyond, the dark expanse of absolute nothing.
If you look closely you can see the dome-cars, flitting upside-down along the dome’s rails, to and fro. Weaving along the thick tracks, the dome-cars shoot across the city, coming down great arcs to their stations on the streets below. Carrying busy citizens along their busy lives. Life is simpler for me, just surviving. Between society and space, alone on the brink of the world. Until she came along. Shame she can’t talk, I would do a lot to find out how she ended up the Old City. Drifting by the towering peaks of skyscrapers and generators, gliding through the treacherous platforms that jut out from the docks, are the airships. Just insects from this distance, they carry around their goods and passengers, soaring high above the roar of the city. It’s funny when you think about it, ships within a ship.