Ask me where I’d be twenty-five years ago and I guarantee you I’d never have predicted this: Pressing through a brutalist sunset, the only moving figure in a tableau of cold rain and wind that whistles like a freight train as it rips down the canyons between decrepit buildings. The wet has soaked my legs, flushing away the blood of my latest victims to join the river of effluent in the street. Even my coat, so practical that I could not bear to leave it on a corpse out in the mire, is soaked through.
No. Back then I’d have just enlisted in the Federal Army, a scrappy youth just graduated from the private college where I learned the importance of God and Country in equal measure.
The Fed was stronger back then, and the mire was officially “not to be spoken of”. Not that agency policy kept the news channels from blathering on about the costal inundation regions, endlessly counting off the events of the slow motion apocalypse as talking suits with corporate sponsorships looked for someone else to blame. On one side we had the energy companies, Redemptors, and conspiracy theorists who continued to deny that the seas were rising up until the moment that the water was lapping at their doors. When it became too obvious to ignore, around the time I was born, most of them still found somebody other than themselves to blame. It didn’t help that the prophets of environmental doom repeatedly collapsed into self inflected dogfights, shredding the reputation of anyone who made their cause look bad until there were few strident voices remaining.
A rivulet of water starts down the back of my neck. I try to shrug it away, bemused that I can even feel the icy slithering, wet as I am. The crawling relentlessness of the cold as it creeps down my spine reminds me of the shakes I had during detox.
I laugh bitterly, then spit out the rain that blows into my mouth, trying to clear my mouth of the bitter taste of it.
Who knew I would ever be grateful for detox lockdown.
I was a couple years into my service contract when it happened: Red Easter.
The trainers in basic had spotted my deft handling of weaponry, the psychologists had noted the peculiar lack of empathy that I seemed to bear for the enemy during combat and protocol sims. It wasn’t enough to flag me for psych discharge, rather it was just the right mix of talent and sociopathy that the system tagged me as a prime candidate for specialized training.
Lucky for me, the profilers missed the latent anxiety disorder bubbling just beneath the surface. My guess is they mistook it for a healthy dose of righteous conviction. Back then the Feds actually preferred a religious man, so long as he prayed to the right gods.
Turns out that the little bit of something wrong was more than a patriotic urge, more than the spirit moving me to seek atonement for my sins. I made it through basic with that little something causing no more bother than a splinter, but somehow it was during those intense study sessions that the splinter became infected. The paper cut in my soul swelled, reddened, and before long turned into a suppurating wound.
Wind buffets me as I turn a corner. I stumble and land in the gutter. The torrent in the street is so deep that it churns up to the tops of my boots and threatens to pull my feet out from under me, to carry me away. I stand there in the rushing water for a minute, watching the spray rise up over the storm drain, wondering whether I would survive being swept down into the bowels of the city or if I would drown down there in the intestinal tangle beneath the streets. All of the drains lead eventually to the far side of the river wall, but there must be grates, bars, defenses of some sort against refugees using the storm drains to creep into the city when the pipes are dry.
I need to keep moving. Not that I can get any wetter, but I need to find cover before the storm really hits. If Ethie turns me away I’ll have to find someplace that’s still open and not too picky about logging identities. If I’m lucky I’ll find some diner that’s still keeping its lights on in defiance of the dark rain, but more likely I’ll have to resort to a dive hotel where the clerk will charge me a stack of chits just to get in the door, then he’ll spike the price of the room.
Ethie’s home isn’t the most obscure place to stay, but if the Vakha clones, or whatever they are, haven’t already found Ethie from the city adoption records, they aren’t going to. More likely, they already checked her out and realized that the girl left Ethie in the dust as soon as she didn’t need a place to stay anymore. Why she got caught in the first place, and didn’t deploy her nifty hand gun on the first Youth Services officer to lay hand on her, I may never know. With a hurricane slamming the city, I doubt that there will be any unexpected visits for the next day or two. Worst case scenario, a couple of the lookalike bastards show up on the front step and I slip out the back door.
Well, that’s probably not the worst scenario, but I’m trying not to picture Ethie and her menagerie of foster children strung across the walls of their rundown little townhouse like so much bloody crepe paper.
That’s the sort of thinking that got me here in the first place.
A few too many intelligence photos of the things that insurgents had done to people who, to the casual viewer, were their neighbors. A little too much time inside the minds of the sort of person who would kill their father for praying to the same god while wearing the wrong kind of clothing. Anxiety piled upon sleep deprivation atop caffeine overdose until I finally gave up my pride and requested counseling. A couple days later I was on four milligrams of lorazepam to help me cope with the stress.
And it worked.
It worked too well.
Three months later I woke up in a holding cell at the base hospital.
I do not have a clean linear timeline of the events which lead up to my overdose. In the years since I’ve managed to patch together something of a coherent story, but there will probably always be gaps, pieces of memory which exist as nothing more than blood-edged fragments, shot through with a tangled commingling of darkness and terror.
You see, I was assigned to that intelligence unit only months before Red Easter, and we specialized in tracking insurgent operations.
I force myself to turn away from the maw of the storm drain and continue trudging towards Ethie’s house. The wind is growing colder and I wonder whether we might see any snow. It seems odd to think about snow, especially in the midst of a hurricane, but storms are nothing if not massive convection engines custom built to drag pockets of radically different weather across the landscape. A cozy autumn weekend has turned into this maelstrom, so it’s not unimaginable that the storm could pass and leave behind a wintery blanket before the city returns to its habitual November melancholy.
There was more snow that fall, twenty-three years ago, when I watched it through the barred windows of my hospital room. Watched as ambulances carried the first local victims of the plague past the mental health wing and on towards the flashing red lights of the emergency room. Watched, and wished that I still had my pills, as a man who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me struggled up the icy sidewalk, carrying a child in his arms. Blood dripped from the child’s face, leaving crimson footprints in the father’s wake. The man refused to stop, even as the guards pantomimed screams behind their masks, raised their rifles in warning, then shot him dead. It was nearly an hour before the cleanup crew arrived to cover the sidewalk in a glistening gel and set the infected strip ablaze.
As best I can work out, my division was assigned to analyze drone video coming out of the middle-east in the aftermath of Red Easter. The plague was so virulent that within a few days of the initial outbreak most of the analysts on the ground in Israel and Saudi Arabia were too busy bleeding from their eyes to be bothered analyzing drone data from the hot zones. Of course, we didn’t know at the time that most of the world would be a hot zone within the month. Before long I started popping lorazepam like breath mints, downing a pill every couple hours to cope with the stress of analyzing drone imagery of bloody bodies stacked in city squares, traffic circles repurposed as pyres, children stumbling down the street covered in blood.
Ultimately, the overdose probably saved my life.
I was put on a ninety day medical lockdown, to be followed by a court martial for substance abuse. During those weeks the plague burned across the world, killing an estimated half of the global population, including many of the analysts in my class. The hospital staff faired better, thanks to implementing level four biosecurity procedures as soon as the first case of the plague was detected in the city, but they still lost more than a dozen staff. My ward nurse was one of those who died. I still don’t know how, but he must have been infected off duty because nobody else in the mental health wing of the hospital was affected. His replacement would sit by my door for hours on end, reading me news reports.
He said I was a good listener.
I said nothing.
Eventually they turned me out with a ticket, a few Federal credits, and a few blister packs of lorazepam, my favorite drug. The doctors warned me to keep a face mask on and stay away from public spaces until the public health crisis was over.
Well, that was a long time ago, and there aren’t many who would say that the crisis is over.
Ethie’s house is a rundown duplex crammed between a larger apartment building and a strip mall. She’s lived here longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t know who owns the place, but it somehow survived the real estate buyout and now serves a sort of demilitarized zone between two larger property owners. The lights are on in the windows and the wind is driving rain directly into my left ear, but I stand across the street for a moment, watching the house.
She’d be right in not opening the door. Even here in the city it isn’t always safe to open the doors at night. Nighttime is the domain of predators like me, the scum I hunt, and the innumerable fleets of city Security drones. On a night like this the drones are certainly grounded, tucked away in their charging cradles like so many roosting pigeons. That leaves the streets to the monsters, and I do not doubt that there are others out there tonight, stalking through the storm on errands than even Darby and his ilk wouldn’t dare order if the drones weren’t grounded.
A pair of headlights turns the corner several blocks away. No way to tell who it is, but the car glides along the drowned street at a casual crawl that can only belong to a confident predator, stalking his natural environs, or a stray Security patrol in its armor plated justice wagon.
It’s time to get off the street.