The train emerged from the tunnel with a series of jolts that shook everyone awake. Rain lashed the window behind Wyn’s head, but she closed her eyes and pressed the phone tighter to her ear. A knee twitched nervously as she listened to the beeping, imagining the blue telephone ringing in the hallway.
“Hello?” a woman answered with a course whisper that was barely audible over the background din of the pub.
“Mo, is Misha there, I need to speak to her?” Wyn said turning her head as people got up from their seats and shuffled to the door.
“Oh hello, love. When are you getting back? I haven’t seen it this busy in here for a long time.”
“Soon. Can you get Misha for me please?”
“She’s busy serving a customer right now, but I can give her a message.”
“This is important. Just tell her it’s me.”
The handset clunked as it was set on the little shelf, and Wyn listened to the sounds of the pub. She wanted to be back there, for them all to be there, for it to be twenty years ago and for her aunt to be standing behind the bar, her voice booming around the pub, welcoming regulars, and scolding the misbehaving all in the same breath. Wyn needed some of her strength right then. If it wasn’t for Misha, Wyn didn’t think she would have opened the front door let alone stepped outside the pub.
A man’s voice broke through the hubbub on the other end of the line, it was the common refrain, laid off and trying to recruit others in a pointless march on Government House. Someone shouted back that he should go to the square and leave them all in peace. People were angry and hungry for change, but Lancaster had broken their will to fight. Jobs had gone as rolling blackouts and cancelled export contracts shut down businesses. In response to the emergency facing the sector, the government had withdrawn into the ‘loyal’ districts and abandoned everyone else. The trains still ran and the shelves in the supermarkets were restocked every night, but no one knew for how much longer.
Wyn zoned the noise out and stared out the window as they drew parallel with a busy high street, providing her with a glimpse of what passed for a normal life. It was raining and deep puddles reflected the glare from pubs and restaurants lit up against the autumnal night.
“Hello, who is it?” Misha said into the phone and Wyn felt a surge of relief.
“Misha, it’s me.”
“Wyn, thank God, are you okay? Why are you calling, has something happened?”
“Yes, kind of,” Wyn said quickly. “I got to speak to someone. I can’t say too much on the phone, but they offered a deal.”
“Oh, Wyn, that’s great news. I’ve been thinking about you. Everything just kept going around inside my head. Mo had to put up with me crying when she turned up for her shift, I think it’s the happiest I’ve ever been to see another soul.” When Wyn had received the call that morning inviting her for an interview at Government House they had both assumed the worst. Months of being turned away and denied an interview had left them with a sense of dread that would have smothered the individual. “Are they okay? Is Tom...”
“I think they will be. I can’t go into it now but when I get back, I’ll tell you everything.”
“Are you on your way?”
“Not yet, I need to go and see someone. It’s part of the agreement but I promise you it will be alright.” Wyn let the silence play out, hoping that Misha would fill it. She just wanted to hear her voice. She could hear her breathing and Wyn imagined her thinking about her husband. “Will you be okay, just you and Mo?”
“Don’t worry about us. Just focus on doing what you need to do.”
“The trains pulling in. I’ve got to go.”
“I’ll wait up. Be careful,” Misha said ending the call. Wyn stared at the phone before slipping it into her pocket.
Three months had passed since her guests had arrived, it had been difficult at first, both bearing their burdens quietly, but they had learnt to rely on and confide in each other. Life now, for Wyn at least, was better in some ways than before, but every time she found herself thinking of a future, she reminded herself that it came at a steep price. It wasn’t just a promise that drove her on but guilt.
The doors opened and a wall of rain hit those at the front stalling the exodus. Wyn pulled her hood up as they filed onto the platform joining the queue of people slowly making their way towards the exit gate. A squad of Militia soldiers stood on either side, just out of the reach of the rain, checking identity cards as everyone shuffled past. They did the job with little enthusiasm, ignoring the proffered cards and barely registering the faces in front of them.
Wyn pulled her old warrant card out and held it up. For over two decades it had been the only proof of identity she’d needed to carry, one that opened most doors and gave her freedom few enjoyed but now it was a reminder of her past. If there had been anyone to hand it into, she would have bundled it in along with all her other police gear and said goodbye to her old life, but it had all happened so quickly. One minute there was an organisation with offices and a human resources department and the next they were all unemployed. Nobody even asked for their service weapons. Wyn did her zip up to make sure her shoulder holster was hidden before remembering she had left it locked up in the safe, tucked in alongside Jena's weapon. Government House did not welcome armed visitors.
The soldier sneered at the card and Wyn braced, expecting to be pulled out of the line and subjected to the old enmity that lingered between the militia and the police force. As the victors they were free to do whatever they wanted, facing little to no objection from the ruling party, but the soldier waved her through. Wyn tried not to look relieved as she slipped the card back into her pocket and turned left onto the high street, following the pavement towards the Longsal.
Deep puddles turned the road into a river, but the cars kept going, creating bow waves that swept across the pavements pushing the pedestrians up against the shop windows. Wyn stopped at the traffic lights and took the opportunity to search those around her for snake tattoos but most of them were braced against the weather, faces hidden by hoods or huddled under umbrellas.
The green man flashed, and they moved as a group, splashing through the puddles, stumbling in the ruts created by the Lancaster tanks as they patrolled the roads. Heavy treads gouged the crumbling tarmac leaving parts of the street not only flooded but impassable except for drivers reckless enough to test their suspension on the deep potholes. They passed the waiting cars, windscreen wipers whipping back and forth in a futile attempt to shift the rain, gifting the occupants a brief glimpse of the road. Short bursts of the reality outside their bubbles, barely enough time to dodge the burnt husks of cars that Wyn spotted scattered along the high street. She counted at least five before reaching the pavement.
The buildings on either side were pockmarked with bullet holes, most small calibre but a few looked like they had been made by bowling balls. Only a handful of shops had been spared in the orgy of violence, boarded-up windows, scorch marks where fires had caught only to fizzle out in the deluge. A pair of workers fitted a sheet of plywood over a greengrocer’s window while the shopkeeper watched from inside, giving directions as they screwed it in place. Looting, Wyn guessed, glimpsing the empty shelves inside and the floor littered with dried pasta and dented cans.
She collected the evidence as she walked, noting the larger bullet holes surrounding upper windows, imagining the white tanks as they opened up with their cannons, spitting fire at close range, obliterating anyone unlucky enough to get in their way. She could feel the weight bearing down on everyone as they carried on with their lives, not knowing when the next eruption would happen but having to go to work or to buy food. The pubs were still busy, the cafes full of people keeping one eye on the street while they talked. It all looked so normal until you had to step around the charred husk of a tuk-tuk or spotted the dark stain on a chemist’s floor that the locals took care not to step on.
Wyn’s chest grew tight, her hands tingled, and she clenched them into fists, working the blood and taking deep breaths. This wasn’t her fight, her neighbourhood was quiet, far enough to the side that the militia didn’t need to cross it. As far as she knew Lancaster had never sent a peacekeeping patrol down her streets, in what everyone know knew was an attempt to draw fire. Peace achieved by crushing the opposition, beating them into submission one bullet at a time.
The road to the Longsal sloped up from the high street, leaving the flooding behind. The gutters were fast-flowing streams, carrying every bit of rubbish they could find, sending it all down the hill to gather in a rising lake where a car bobbed along, the driver still at the wheel unable to understand that they were no longer in control.
The towers of the Longsal loomed out the rain, tall enough to be lost in the cloud bank but a red light blinked underneath one of the sky bridges like a lighthouse guiding Wyn in. She ran the last of the way, skipping down the steps and heaving open a door to the garages, letting the heavy metal slam shut behind her.
It took her a moment to adjust to the gloom and the thick smoke that drifted from the units. It seemed to Wyn that half the sector had packed into the garages, all of them seeking shelter from the rain, pressing in together so that she had to turn sideways to get through. People stared at her openly, that instinct born from experience picking the newcomer as a potential threat. Wyn did her best to blend in, but the oppressive air was getting to her and sweat ran down the side of her face. Children shouted as they chased each other in the enclosed space, their voices echoing off the walls, each cry striking at Wyn’s nerves and taking her back to the metro and the sound of the gunshots. A man sat on a stool beating a metal panel repeatedly with a hammer, smoothing out a dent, working to a rhythm at odds with Wyn’s racing heart.
White letters pointed to the stairwell and Wyn angled towards them, taking them two at a time until she burst out into a lobby for one of the towers. Several families had made their homes in the space, sectioning off parts with sheets. Wyn weaved a path through the middle, careful not to step on the children’s toys spread across the ground. A woman cradling a child looked up as she passed but Wyn pushed the door open and entered a sea of flapping tarps struggling under the weight of the relentless rain. The centre of the Longsal had become an encampment, filling every space between the towers. Rain sluiced from plastic sheets strung up to cover the ventilation shafts, adding to the streams flowing around sandbag walls and rushing down the steps.
Wyn reversed course looking for the way out back onto the street but everywhere she looked she just saw more signs of decay. It was all coming apart before her eyes and the more she looked the greater the weight in her chest grew.
She imagined that this was how the Colony had begun, with people filling in the gaps and building upwards until there was no space left between either the towers or the people that called them home. An enormous mass of humanity collapsing under its own weight. Wyn had to get out of there, she had to escape.
“What are you doing here?” an old man asked in a gruff voice.
Wyn spun around, her hand going instinctively towards her absent gun.
“Don’t shoot,” Clive said, holding his hands up. “It’s me, the hotdog man, remember?”
Wyn took a few steps back searching the nearby tents to see if anyone else was creeping up on her.
“Is everything okay? You seem on edge.”
“Great,” Wyn answered tersely. She flexed her hands and then jammed them into her coat pockets.
“I just saw you and wanted to say hi. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.” Clive tilted his head disturbing a puddle that had formed on his hood. “I’ll leave you alone if you want?”
“No, sorry. Stay, I just got a little turned around.” Wyn flapped her coat trying to get some cooler air to her body. She couldn’t decide if she was burning up or freezing. “It’s Clive, isn’t it?”
“Did you come up through the garages? The air’s too thick for me down there. A few minutes breathing in all the cooking smoke and my lungs are fit to bursting.” Clive grimaced at the rain and then winked at Wyn. “Fancy a cuppa? Mrs Cran normally makes a brew about now. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind another guest.”
“Tay’s old neighbour?”
“Less of the old.” Clive gave her another wink and Wyn eased up a little. “Kindest lady you’ll ever meet. Always got plenty of biscuits.”
Wyn laughed despite her nerves and some of the tension seeped out of her shoulders. “I can’t, another time though?”
“If we get another time. The way things are going I don’t know if there will be.”
“Tell me about it. I seem to wake up every morning in a cold sweat.” Wyn pushed her hood back letting the rain soak her hair. Clive gave her another of his easy smiles. “What?”
“Nothing, you just remind me of an old friend. I wanted to say last time, but it didn’t seem to matter.”
“A good friend I hope?”
“They were.” Clive gave her a thoughtful look and then nodded sadly. “You get to my age and people start coming back around again. Different names and faces but if you look hard enough you can see them. The way you handled yourself reminded me that’s all. Silly really but some things just take you back.”
“What happened to them?” Wyn stepped out of the way as two men walked past carrying heavy bags.
“Accident at the factory.”
“It was quick,” Clive said with a shrug. “I got him the job and at the end of his first week, he was dead. Eighteen years old, full of life one minute and gone the next.” Clive cleared his throat and tried on a smile, his wrinkled face lifting as it became more natural. “That’s why I like seeing you around here, but I doubt you came to see me.”
“I wish I had now.”
“Maybe tomorrow you can come back. I’m sure I can find a bottle of whisky around here somewhere.”
“Tomorrow,” Wyn said unsure if there would be one. “Have you seen Tay?”
“You lost her again? Hardly surprising. I think that kid loses herself most of the time. I haven’t seen her but with all of this she could be within shouting distance and how would we know?”
“Where have they all come from?”
“Mostly from here.” Clive waved a hand at the circle of towers, out of the seven, four were in darkness. “The electricity blew out a month ago. Nori got three towers up and running again but he’s given up on the others. Tough shit to those of us that lived in them. Without power, we’ve got nothing, no lights, no heat, no lifts. Forty floors is a hell of a climb for even someone as young as you.”
“Was one of them yours?”
“It was, still is but I can’t be climbing those steps every time I need something. I’d kill for a fresh pair of socks, but I’ll have to make do. We’ve got the sky bridges, but it’s still fifteen floors down and then back up. I can’t be doing that at my age.”
“What are you doing then, you can’t be living out here in the rain, it must be miserable?”
“It’s not too bad. Started as a protest but we’ve got a nice little community going. Nori will have to get his arse in gear and fix the problem before he has a riot on his hands.”
“Which one was Tay’s tower?” Wyn asked, her memory failing her.
“That one and she was way up above me, but I’ll save you the hassle, she’s not there. Nori kicked her out before all that trouble in the square. Mrs Cran keeps an eye out for her, hoping she’ll come back.” Clive gave a heavy shrug. “That kid comes and goes. They’re all like that now, too busy to settle in the same place.”
“Damn it.” Wyn spun around searching the tents and the towers. “This was my best bet to finding her.”
“Why’s it so urgent?” Clive guided Wyn out of the path of a man struggling to push a shopping trolley through a deep puddle. The wheels squeaked under the strain before one of them got stuck in a crack.
“I need to ask her something. Lives depend on me finding her,” Wyn said watching as Clive gave the front of the trolley a lift.
“Not yours, I hope?” Clive asked Wyn as he slapped the man on his back and sent him on his way.
“No, not yet, but the way things are going it won’t be long until it gets that way.”
“God, you’re not joking are you.” Clive paused to give it some thought. “I can do the rounds here and ask but you might want to go and talk to Tony. He runs the Takoma over in the Triangle, it’s a dive bar but he’s alright. I think that’s one of her haunts. Go and see him and if old Tony can help you, he will.”
“She mentioned it, but it slipped my mind.”
“You look like you’ve got a lot on it.”
Someone whistled near one of the entrances and heads poked out from the tents.
“Damn it. The militia are back,” Clive said taking Wyn by the shoulder and turning her away from the commotion. “Idiots take shots at them from the towers and then the rest of us have to suffer. They’ll throw a net around the Longsal and lock this place down. You need to leave before you get caught in it.”
“Shouldn’t you get out as well?” Wyn asked as he led the way through the camp.
“Nah, we’ll be fine. They’ll just sit out there and stop us from leaving for a while. I’d best get back to Mrs Cran though, she doesn’t do too well with all this.” Clive pointed at one of the openings. “You’ll see the bridge from the steps. The Triangle is on the other side.”
“I feel like I should do something to help,” Wyn said as people ran back and forth.
“You can’t solve everyone’s problems, detective. Good luck.”
“Thanks, Clive.” Wyn jogged away, weaving her way to the steps and then skipping down them. She could hear the sirens as the militia approached and wasn’t the only one running to escape them. She reached the railway bridge just as more soldiers arrived to set up a perimeter, blocking anyone else from leaving.
A train rattled past, ploughing its way through the flooded cutting, and spraying the footpath with a sheet of water. The overhead lines sparked in the dark, blue flashes on the metal railings. A tuk-tuk screamed over the narrow bridge, the driver leaning over the bars and bumping up onto the pavement narrowly avoiding getting run off the road by a militia car coming up behind him. The bigger vehicle brushed the tuk-tuk’s rear bumper giving the driver a fright and eliciting a scream, but they were gone, sirens blaring as they sped towards the Longsal’s steps.