Chapter One – Sao Paolo
They say it begins behind your eyes. A tickle along the optic nerve. A flash of pain on the retina. Fleeting, but enough to know the dry-drown has begun.
Hiss. Teetering streetlamps groaned under the weight of a furious wind that rocked abandoned cars and sent small stones hurtling through windowless storefronts. Aluminium cans with sun-bleached labels cantered along cracked asphalt. Shadows bathed an empty city in semi-darkness as the sun retreated behind a wall of rumbling cloud. Thunder roared in the distance. Sao Paolo’s afternoon routine in full flow.
I’d hoped to avoid this one but in the last half hour gathering dust clouds had halved my visibility and tripled my anxiety. Hiss. The glass carpet crunched under my boots as I fought my way through the twisting gale. Hiss. I cocked my head towards it. Thar she blows— T-minus ten seconds. I tightened my grip on the wheel arch of the nearest discarded car, an ancient weatherworn Humvee, and watched the dust devil dance along the central reservation before lifting upwards and striking me hard in the face. My dust-goggles just about did their job.
Hiss. I took a deep breath from the brittle mouthpiece in my lips. The weak seal rattled, unable to stop occasional fragments slicing my airways on their way to the bottom of my lungs. I didn’t complain, you couldn’t put a price on oxygen.
Better take cover. As I thumbed around the Humvee for loot (glove box, sun visor, usual places), the tell-tale hiss of my ventilator provided a metronome to the whistling wind — a tuneless song. My anthem. The gauge on my tank read forty-two percent, that would dampen the palms of the rookies back at the Academy. I removed the ventilator and massaged my mouth. Bruised gums were a bitch but well worth the price of my own gear. With one hand on my chest I took a deep breath, a natural breath, and held the lungful of dead air. Almost immediately my body began its painful protest. A billion red blood cells wilted in unison. I quickly returned the ventilator to my mouth and pacified the burning sensation. My watch read 16:16. I tapped at its dust covered screen until a series of coordinates popped up — not another scav for twenty-five clicks. Unsurprising. Trix wouldn’t dare send anyone else out this far, I was only here on account of my own pig-headedness. I sat back. Nothing to do now except ride out the storm by engaging the old brain box.
It took nearly forty minutes for the dust devil to retreat and the air to return to its normal state — silence begging to be broken. I brushed a cloud of orange from my hair and took again to the abandoned road. The straps on my O2cannister bit into my arms, pinching the skin on my shoulders sending fresh waves of pain down my back. I took small red cylinder from my back pocket, ripped it in two and chewed at the first half. Bloodroot was fiercely bitter, but I forced it down. I then placed the second half under my tongue where it to nestle on top of my salivary glands. Maybe one day I’d take the time to adjust the straps right, find that magic spot where they sat perfectly balanced. Until then I’d trust the black-market medicine to take care of things. O2tanks were heavy as shit but I knew several people who’d happily skin a kitten to have one — far less messy than putting themselves through the Dead-Air Academy like I did.
I winced at the groaning of my sixteen-year-old skeleton and continued making tracks in the dust, listing the items I’d need to reward myself with when I got back to Solitude — hot soapy water, rubber duck, cold beer. Beer optional. I glanced once more at my watch just in time to see the electronic display cut out. I shook my head. Sao Paulo and her infuriating vulnerability to electromagnetic blackouts, they hit hard and they hit fast, and navigating blind was about as fun as drinking curdled bat milk through a silly straw. I’d forgive her in time of course. Paulo had her drawbacks, but she and I had a history, she was my city, and I her handsome companion. Together we made a better couple than any the inhabitants of Solitude could offer. Not that any of my fellow My scavs would dare venture through this dusty ghost-town of course. The DAA had her listed as ‘emergency only’. Rude. I’d always wonder why this place appealed to me so much.
There was just something about this dreary void that enchanted me; the winding concrete roads and the twisted metal of abandoned traffic, to me, was a snapshot in a time. A time of excitement and opportunity. Could you be nostalgic for something you never had? Maybe I just liked the isolation, the quiet. Either way the silent parade of cars and trucks were ten times more welcoming than the human beings clinging to life in 2089.
Stretching all the way to the suburbs, the ghostly cavalcade was Sao Paolo’s lifeforce, flowing through her like hot blood through a cold heart. The roads were so cluttered in fact, that it was easier for me to just walk over car roofs than stumble inefficiently between them. A pathway of dents, just visible under the dust blanket that covered them, indicated previous paths I’d taken. Unsurprisingly these fifty-mile excursions tended to air on the side of monotony, so I’d made up a game to help things go faster. The aim was simple, only step on undented cars, forge a brand-new pathway to win! I even had a scoring system, one point for every new, undented rooftop I jumped on, a point lost for using a dented car.
I scanned for the highest scoring path. I’d been coming here so much now that there was no choice but to play on expert mode, and there was no way I was beating my high score without planning my route three or four cars in advance like some weird, post-apocalyptic game of chess. I sighed into my mouthpiece. With the GPS function on my watch out of action I could easily get lost so I’d need to use the dents to guide me. I just had to hope that these were indeed my dents, otherwise I was about getting lost would be the least of my worries.
Ten minutes later I saw it and relief hit me like a thermonuclear warhead.
Signposted in peeling brown letters a hundred metres down the street; ‘Jardin do Paulo’. A familiar and welcome sight, not a moment too soon. Long shadows had already begun to swallow me up as an already murky sun retreated behind the adjacent cluster of apartment blocks. I landed back on solid asphalt with a final score of two hundred and seventeen points — abysmal. Something clunked from inside the nearby block of buildings. I cocked my ear but just as I did the wind swelled around me. Surely not. My hand darted to the pistol at my side, my trigger finger twitching at the image of half-naked madmen peeling me like an onion. Not that the pistol was any guarantee of my safety, thirty hours at the gun range with Peri and my biggest achievement was earning the nickname Friendly Fire Feenix. Maybe if I taught them my game, they’d let me go? After all, what’s more intimidating than holding the high score in car jumping?
Now that I was off the road, my attention turned to the footpath. I headed south, moving as quietly as my metal soled boots would allow. The smell of sweat on rubber, the inside of my respirator, filled my sinuses as a decrepit bus station loomed into view, it metal supports long since eaten by rust and the remaining glass panels cracked and covered in dust. A plywood sheet replaced one of the panels, upon it was a sprawling pattern of green and gold, an oak tree with a crown, and by its roots the word ‘EDEN’ scrawled in large black letters. My ‘nearly there’ checkpoint. This was the fourth Eden mural on my commute but there were many more all over the city. Occasionally I’d run into a fresh one, on the side of a building or truck, and my stomach would fill with butterflies until I’d get a closer look and see the paintwork peeling away – just a relic from a more optimistic time. Some called it propaganda, I called it hope.
The weathered brick walls of a collapsed building spilt out into the street forcing me to slow as I carefully navigated loose rubble and steel rods, splayed at sinister angles. One false step would be my undoing, and whilst bleeding to death had its disadvantages, my thoughts were pulled more to the safety of giant cannister on my back. I’d much rather puncture my heart than the tank. At one point I was forced to jump from one concrete slab to another. If I fall, land on my chest. The thud of my less-than-Olympic-standard dismount thrummed along the street. Nailed it. As the echo faded all I could hear was my own breathing as it passed mechanically through my ventilator, the wall of rubble that encircled me acted as a wind buffer putting me in my own little bubble. Only one more obstacle to go.
The crumbling archway leading inside sat in a permanent state of about-to-crush-you. I didn’t trust it enough to cross the threshold in anything other than a sprint. Inside I was greeted by a familiar collage of discoloured missing person flyers and broken glass. I gave my eyes a few extra seconds to adjust to the low light. Aside from the standard post-apocalyptic debris — shattered porcelain pots, rotting wooden panels, indiscriminate electrical wiring hanging from broken ceiling tiles — the room was uneventful. I’d been meaning to add a bit of colour, give this place some flair, a fish tank or coffee machine, perhaps a sign that read ‘Welcome to Feenix’s Terrarium, we hope you enjoy your stay!’
A sliding glass door separated me from my destination, and for the first time since I’d set off yesterday morning, I smelled something other than my own sweat-drenched clothes. I stood ankle deep in the bucket of disinfectant and counted down from ten, dunking my hands in the pink liquid for good measure, turning my nose up at the stench. After my chloro-bath, I slid open the rudimentary airlock door and shuffled inside, head swimming with ideas of where exactly to place the pinball machine. A kaleidoscope of green exploded in my vision and an overwhelming feeling of pride consumed me. Batman had the Batcave, the Pope had his palace, I had my terrarium, and wasn’t she a beauty. Giant ferns arched overhead casting the former garden centre in an emerald glow, palm fronds as long as my body extended up to a glass ceiling, providing shade so refreshing I practically swallowed it up. A blood-red ivy hugged the nearby wall. Where beams of light broke through the canopy, I could see dust particles swimming in slow motion, giving the whole room an ethereal sheen as if somehow I’d crossed into a new dimension.
It was good to be back.
I collapsed onto the floor, forgetting to land on my ass instead of the O2tank. It collided with the stone tiling, sending, via my spine, a paralysing thunk throughout the oasis. The lines on my face deepened as I imagined the creative barrage of curse-words Trix would use to describe my lack of grace. Relax, I told myself. I could detonate a truckload of C4 and no one would be around to hear it. Still I listened for signs of activity. Just the satisfying buzzing of insects — my little army of pollinators. They’d found their walking water fountain and were lapping up my sweat in their hundreds.
Drink deep boys, you’ve earned it. As I lay on the cool stone floor, staring up at a cluster of neon blue orchids, my heart rate finally began to slow. Usually, I’d rely on my watch to let me know if the AOL, ambient oxygen level, was tolerable, but its face remained blank. Only one thing for it. Without wasting another second, I spun the valve on the side of my breather, removed the respirator from my mouth and sucked in a lungful.
Photosynthesis is a wonderful thing.
Chapter Two – Ever So Slightly
There were many contenders for the award of ‘best feeling humanly possible’, but the winner would always be the first gulp of fresh air after a day’s exploring. The next few mouthfuls were pretty deserving runners-up too. With each breath my lungs filled with honey, drowning me in clean air. Its coolness soothed my exhausted muscles as it trickled down my chest through to my arms and legs. Nothing like homemade oxygen.
I lay immobilised for nearly ten minutes until the nagging voice in the back of my mind awoke and shattered any notion of having a nap. I stood up faster than I anticipated and nearly fell headfirst into the ferns. I had forgotten I’d taken off my tank and now I felt weightless, as if gravity had suddenly weakened. I moved through the terrarium becoming Neil Armstrong, bounding round the Moon’s chalky surface, relaying critical instructions from NASA via my still useless GPS.
‘Houston, this is Feenix One, requesting permission to abandon mission duties and take a siesta.’
‘Feenix One this is Houston, do your job you lazy sack of sloth-shit.’
‘Houston, this is Eagle One, you’re breaking up…’
It was childish and failed to muzzle the wearisome voice in my head insisting that I get to work. Maybe if I installed a jukebox…After I finished prancing around like a kindergartener sucking an amphetamine laced lollypop, I headed past a green mass of ferns, junipers and potted orchids, towards the back wall of the garden centre where a large wooden cage cooed expectantly.
‘Uhhhh, Houston we have spotted signs of extra-terrestrial life. They’re small, feathered and seem to enjoy bathing in their own faeces.’ I ducked down and inspected the lower cages hoping they were as happy to see me as I was relieved to see them. Half a dozen woodpigeons stood awkwardly within the cage, twisting their heads left and right, pausing only to preen their feathers, showing not even the slightest animosity toward their captor, nor the small red tag wrapped around each of their ankles. As I poked my nose through the wire mesh they began to flutter with expectation.
The cage was actually a rabbit hutch, painstakingly dragged over from the pet shop on the opposite side of the street. For some reason, all the bird cages had been cemented to the wall, so I’d been forced to improvise. It worked well enough, I’d ripped the roof away and stapled some chicken wire above it to make something that, I hoped, resembled or at least functioned as a proper bird cage. I even added mirrors, ropes and a few other home comforts. It was the project I’d assigned myself when I’d first settled on making this place habitable. I topped up their feedbox with grain, collected a dish of rainwater from the simple reservoir I’d put together, then cleared out a pillow’s worth of feathers.
When the birdhutch looked acceptable, I donned my imaginary vet’s apron and began to examine each bird, scrawling every last detail in a tatty leather-bound journal. They didn’t fight me as I pulled at their feathers and prodded their beaks, they knew the drill. The tricky part was trying to work the tape measure with one hand. Height, length and estimated weight were all recorded in a shabby little table. Things looked promising until I got to bird number four, whose breathing was slow and raspy. Not you too. After scratching down a few more notes, I paused, tapping the eraser end of the pencil against my head, wishing an answer to appear inside it. If only Alf was here, he could do an autopsy, but even if the old man could somehow make it here, there’s no way he would approve. Still, I let the idea float around for a few brief moments before discarding it. A shame really, Alf loved a good autopsy. I flicked through the notebook again and paused at my mentor’s elegant handwriting.
“The respiratory infections seen in these birds are consistent with the respiratory infections of arboreal mammals known to live in proximity of P. extermina infected woodland.”
I flicked to the back of the journal, my pencil hovering over my own childlike scrawl: ‘batblight’, ‘boarblight’, ‘monkeyblight’, ‘spiderblight’, the list went on and on until in a tiny gap at the bottom of the page I added ‘birdblight’ with a heavy sigh. There was just enough space underneath for one more animal, and I did not like one bit how ominous that looked, so I filled the space with a little sketch of me planting a flag on The Moon. The doodle was my last allowance of procrastination as I folded the journal away and plodded over to an old wooden work bench.
A tangled mass of red and black wires sat upon it, along with spools of all different colours, a rusted toolbox, and a heap of other miscellaneous electrical scrap. Ducking my head underneath the work surface I reached blindly for the generator switch, it snapped on and after a few flickers, my workshop was bathed in artificial yellow light. Thirty seconds later solder fumes filled my nostrils — a smell I wish I could have bottled up and carried round my neck.
A large black collar sat in the middle of the desk. I began to pry it open with an oversized pair of pliers, being careful not to damage the circuitry inside. Carefully, I extracted the GPS chip and began the arduous process of shaving the silicon wafer down so that it would fit into the casing of the much smaller collar in my lap. It took me nearly twenty minutes until I was satisfied. One bird tracker, hot off the press. I sat back and took a moment to admire my handiwork. Not bad at all, in fact I’d go as far to say it was one of my best.
Next my attention turned to the clunky plastic square staring at me from the desk’s footwell. Made at the turn of the century the GPS tracker would’ve been quite impressive tech at the time, though it had seen better days, the touchscreen was so scratched it looked like it’d spent its formative years poking Jack the Ripper with a big stick. So far, I’d avoided turning it on, but I’d procrastinated enough. I pressed the switch on the side and a cheerful chime accompanied a bland loading screen. The ‘Weir Industries’ logo, pockmarked with dead pixels, flashed briefly before being replaced by a cacophony of Chinese symbols. I sighed so loudly I almost turned to see if the O2tank was leaking. Poor keypad didn’t deserve the barrage of aggression headed its way.
It was late by the time I finished. The terminal sat neglected on my desk, a single progress bar filling at a pace even Slow-Moe would have baulked at. I cleaned the solar panels while I waited, planning my route to the abandoned bookstore for a Mandarin-English dictionary, my much-dreaded plan B. In that moment, my little terrarium was so peaceful, I couldn’t help but just enjoy it, knowing that soon I’d be thrust right back into the incessant buzz of Solus Point. Worker bees have to return to the hive at some point, usually with a gutful of nectar to keep the queen happy. No such joy for me. On the way here, I’d only managed to find a crate of tinned dog food in the trunk of an old saloon which I’d collect on the way back. Hardly a score but if I removed the labels, I could feign ignorance, though I was pretty sure Trix would see through it. I could already hear her expressing her disgust. ‘At least you’re an orphan Feenix, that’s two less people disappointed in you. ’Even in my imagination her voice was gravel rubbed into my ears.
It was getting dark. I moved over to the terminal, the progress bar was just a few pixels away from letting me go home. I stared at it impatiently, chomping down the last of my DAA rations, knowing I was but moments from the familiar Chinese blurb declaring yet another unsuccessful reboot. My finger hovered over the power switch, ready for a speedy getaway when the image on the screen changed. My finger only twitched. Something was different. The WI logo lingered on the screen for a fraction too long, enough time for a cold fist to grip my heart. In my head I was on my hands and knees sending a silent prayer to as many Gods as I could think of. Three dots flashed in the top right corner of the screen where there should have been gibberish. There was a long high-pitched beep, and as the screen changed, my eyes widened and the fist around my heart became a vice.
Welcome to Weir Industries BioTracker GPS
My pseudo-prayer had been answered! For the first time since I’d finished rebuilding the console, the characters were no longer Chinese but beautiful, familiar, delightful Roman! I sat back and took a deep breath. Three months of tedious trial and error finally over! I could now access the data I’d collected at the beginning of the dry season. The wheels of progress were back in motion. I punched the air in silent celebration. Silent because I was too overwhelmed to speak, to even cheer. Lady luck had stolen the words from my mouth and replaced them with sand. So much time wasted. Still, extra rations tonight. My username and password filled the screen, a second wave of relief washed over me as the system approved my log-in details. I should head back now, I can check the data when I come back next week, the sensible voice in my head said. Trix didn’t respond well to tardiness, not since last year’s raids, I knew a guy with a fractured eye socket who could prove it. But what if it turned itself back to Chinese? There was no way I’d survive going through this again. I couldn’t leave the generator running anyway so it would have to reset. I couldn’t take that risk. The data will probably be corrupted anyway. Just ten more minutes. I tapped away at the keyboard. A few seconds later the following appeared in luminous green letters:
Data log > coordinates > 11/10/57
My fingers were so sweaty that I had to touch the screen several times before anything registered, eventually I tapped #2 hard enough for the data to be brought up. A tangle of code appeared that I knew I didn’t have time to decipher, I pressed the menu button and instructed the device to list the most common coordinates.
That couldn’t be.
I scrunched up my face and brought the numbers an inch from my nose. Only listing two coordinates suggested something wrong with the data. The first set of coordinates I recognised as the terrarium, but the second set was somewhere in the Atlantic. Why only two sets? Surely they didn’t all go to the same place? Perhaps it was just an anomaly. I checked the other five sets of data, one for each bird, and they all showed identical numbers. My eyes were dry, rubbing them only seemed to make things worse. After lots of double and triple checking I tossed the console on the desk and sat with my head in my hands. Could it be— a loud beep came from the GPS on my wrist. Holy shitnuggets, eight-fifteen! It was a long way back and now I needed to make it without any breaks, I cursed as I remembered the dog food — no way I was making it back on time with that weighing me down. I could always say I ran in to Outliers. Or maybe Trix would forgive me when I told her my discovery. Thoughts for the road. As quickly as I could I transcribed the data from the computer into the notes application on my omnystat, then, while saying another silent prayer, I cut the generator.
My stomach spoke a hybrid language of excitement and hunger as I skipped over to my O2 tank and threw on the straps, ignoring them as they returned to chewing on my shoulders. A rush of footsteps announced my departure and a final coo from the birdhutch bid me farewell. As I slid open the door that separated my terrarium from the garden centre foyer, I placed the mouthpiece between my teeth and took to the car rooftops. The storm had all but passed, and the night sky was clear as boiled water.
I made it about ten cars before a billiard ball appeared in my throat. The hush of the gentle breeze gave way to the roaring of blood in my ears. Somewhere in the back of mind a chandelier plummeted in slow motion. I took a slow, measured breath. Nothing. I took another. My fingers franticly undid the buckles that held the tank on my back. Then I stopped. Dead-Air Academy lesson one:
“It starts behind your eyes”. I’d been so preoccupied I’d neglected the slight headache, the twinge behind each retina. Though I was miles from the nearest body of water, I was drowning. I fumbled for the problem, the tank was intact, barely a scratch on it, and the tube from my mouthpiece looked fine. I traced my fingers along its plastic covering all the way back to the top of the tan— the chandelier crashed to the floor. I’d left the nozzle ever so slightly loose.
Ever so slightly.
Ever so slightly had killed me.
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