Terrarium

 

Terrarium

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.

Damn storms.

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.