Terrarium

 

Terrarium


Chapter One – Sao Paolo


 

It begins behind your eyes as a whisper. A trickle along your optic nerve.

Your eyelids get heavier.

A cough.

Another.

Full lungs start to choke.

The dry-drown has begun.

 

Hiss.

Aluminium cans with sun-bleached labels cantered along cracked asphalt as growing shadows enveloped the city. A shroud of twilit darkness announced afternoon’s descent into evening. Beside me, streetlamps teetered and groaned as a warm wind shook the curbside and mingled in and out of the parade of abandoned cars, occasionally sending a salvo of small stones hurtling through their glassless windshields. Thunder roiled in the distance – Sao Paolo’s bedtime routine in full flow.

Had I arrived thirty minutes earlier I would have beaten the storm. Instead, the gathering swell of dust clouds punished my tardiness by halving my visibility and tripling my anxiety.

Hiss.

A glass carpet crunched under my boots as I fought my way through the twisting gale – every step a conscious effort. Somewhere in the distance metal clattered on metal. I cocked my head towards the disturbance as a writhing mass, the colour of fresh clay, burst eastwards onto Tagua street.

Thar she blows.

I tightened my grip on the wheel arch of the nearest discarded car, an ancient weatherworn Humvee, and watched the gargantuan dust devil waltz along the central reservation. As if sensing my presence, the rogue weather system rushed toward me with the speed of a raging tsunami. Nothing I could do but close my eyes and take the hit. Man, did I regretting leaving my dust-goggles behind. Fortunately, the dust devil’s dance was fleeting, and it soon retreated back into the storm.

Hiss.

The tell-tale hiss of my ventilator provided a metronome to the whistling wind — a tuneless song. My anthem.

The brittle mouthpiece whined as I took a deep breath, its clunky seal unable to stop occasional sand particles slicing my airways on their journey to the bottom of my lungs. Not that I was complaining, you couldn’t put a price on oxygen.

Choosing, somewhat reluctantly, to ride out the storm, I clambered inside the Humvee. God bless exuberant military budgets. Fifty years of decay and the bullet proof windows still held strong, meaning I could take a break from my heavy dust-goggles without fear of my eyes being sandpapered by the elements. I thumbed around the place for loot (glove box, sun visor, usual places), but it didn’t take a scav to realise this vehicle had been cleaned out years ago. Shame really, I could have done with something to keep me busy while I rode out the storm, (which by all accounts seemed to be getting worse by the minute), and old U.S army vehicles had been known to house a toy or two.

My watch beeped five p.m. I tapped at its dust-covered screen until a series of coordinates popped up — I was close. With any luck I’d be there before nightfall.

Carefully, I removed the oxygen tank from my back, ensuring the delivery tubes stayed unkinked and firmly attached to their prospective cannisters. 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. It took nearly forty minutes for the air to return to normal and Sao Paolo’s eerie calm to return. It was a

silence begging to be broken, though rarely was – at least these days.

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. O2tanks were heavy as shit but I knew several people who’d happily skin a kitten to have one — far less messy way to earn it than putting themselves through the Dead-Air Academy like I did. Pushing my body to its absolute limit every day for three years. Most don’t make it and many who do regret the path it leads to. Not me though, a scav’s life is all I ever wanted. At sixteen years old, I was the youngest graduate ever.

I continued making tracks in the dust, listing the items I’d need to reward myself with when I got back to Hypoxia — hot soapy water, rubber duck, cold beer.

I glanced once more at my watch just in time to see the electronic display cut out. I bit the inside of my cheek. Sao Paulo was infuriatingly vulnerable to electromagnetic blackouts, always trailing in the wake of a bad storm, 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 mycity, and I her handsome companion. Together we made a better couple than any of the inhabitants Hypoxia could offer. Not that any of my fellow loothounds 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. Of people waking up to do something other than follow orders.

What a life. Could you be nostalgic for something you never had? Either way the silent parade of cars and trucks were ten times more welcoming and a damn sight more charismatic than most other humans 2089 had to offer.

Stretching all the way to the suburbs, the ghostly cavalcade was Sao Paolo’s life force, 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 indented 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-pocalyptic game of chess. I sighed into my mouthpiece. With the visibility still low and 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 getting lost would be the least of my worries.

 

Ten minutes later 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 were already beginning to swallow me up as the 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 — uber embarrassing but hey, at least no one was around to see it – something clunked from inside the nearby block of buildings. I cocked an ear but just as I did the wind swelled around me.

Surely not.

There wouldn’t be another scav for twenty-five clicks. Trix didn’t dare send anyone this far, she’d throw a fit if she knew how deep I’d come.

Clunk.

My hand darted to the pistol at my side, my trigger finger shaking like an insect in a spiderweb, the back of my mind conjured images of half-naked madmen peeling me like an onion. The Colt

Mustang10mm felt heavy in my hands. The good kind of heavy. Not that the pistol was any guarantee of my safety, (thirty hours at the gun range with my best friend Peri and all I’d achieved was the nickname Triple F… (Friendly Fire Feenix) but I’d challenge anyone to not feel more at ease when wielding the cold gunmetal of a firearm. Was I ready to take on a redtooth? What if there was more than one? 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 jump-3000?

Silence permeated as I held my breath. Just the wind. I took a deep hit from my ventilator. Outliers hadn’t been spotted in Sao Paolo for nearly two years. There was no way they’d come back now.

I listened for any more signs of trouble, but after a nervy few minutes, decided to blame the wind and move on, trying desperately to shake the thought that outliers were watching me.

Off the road, my attention turned to a series of narrow alleyways. 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 I completed my shortcut, a bus station loomed into view, it metal supports long since eaten by rust, the remaining glass panels were 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 EXISTS’ scrawled in large black letters – my ‘nearly there’ checkpoint. This was the fourth Eden mural I’d passed on my commute though 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 – another relic from a more optimistic time. To some it was 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 the giant canister on my back. If I had to choose between a puncture to the tank or my torso, I’d choose my torso, far less valuable. A theory soon tested as sliding debris forced me to improvise a jump from one concrete slab to another. The thud of my 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. I glared at the building in front of me. Only one more obstacle to go.

The crumbling archway leading inside stood in a permanent state of about-to-crush-you and 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‘pocalyptic debris — shattered porcelain pots, rotten advertising hoardings for brightly coloured kitchen utensils, 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 couple of beanbag chairs.

A diesel generator awaited me. I gave the ignition cord a yank and it spluttered into life, the row of windows to my left lit up. The words ‘Welcome to Feenix’s Terrarium’ splattered on the glass with black greasepaint; my most recent upgrade to the decorum.  

A sliding glass door separated me from my now luminous 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 peroxide fumes. Then I counted down from sixty. After my chloro-bath ritual was complete, I slid open the rudimentary airlock door and shuffled inside, head swimming with ideas of where exactly to place the pinball machine I’d spotted nearby, a few weeks previous. A kaleidoscope of green exploded in my vision and an overwhelming but familiar feeling of pride consumed me.

Batman had the Batcave, the Pope had the Vatican, and legendary scavenger Feenix DeSuza had his terrarium.

Wasn’t she a beauty.

Palm fronds as long as my body caressed a glass ceiling as beams of artificial light filtered through fern leaves, bathing the former garden centre in an emerald haze, through which dust particles swam in slow motion; providing my surroundings with 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 urged 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 oc (oxygen concentration), was tolerable, but thanks to the storm’s interference 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 are many contenders for the award of ‘best feeling humanly possible’, but the winner would always be the first gulp of freshair after a day’s exploring (this is fact and not up for negotiation).

With each breath my lungs filled with honey, drowning me in a coolness that soothed my exhausted muscles, trickling down my chest through to my extremities.

Can’t beat homemade oxygen.

I lay immobilised for ten minutes until the nagging voice in the back of my mind awoke and shattered any chance of the nap I was thinking of having. Knowing that I couldn’t leave without at least putting a dent in what was becoming a sizeable to-do list, I climbed to my feet. With my tank now slung it away in the corner, I was able to move with a novelty swiftness. Naturally, I became Neil Armstrong, bounding round the Moon’s chalky surface, relaying critical instructions from NASA via watch.

‘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 but succeeded in muzzling the wearisome voice in my head insisting I get to work, at least for a couple of minutes. After I finished prancing around like a kindergartener sucking an amphetamine-laced lollypop, I headed past the gargantuan mass of ferns, junipers, and other miscellaneous fauna, towards the back wall of my Terrarium 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, preening rogue feathers, showing neither animosity nor affection toward their captor. The same ignorance was given to the minuscule radio transmitter tag wrapped around each of their ankles.

The cage, a former rabbit hutch painstakingly dragged over from the pet shop on the opposite side of the street (the actual birdcages had been cemented to the wall), was my most recent project. I’d ripped off the roof and stapled some chicken wire above it to make something that, at least in terms of function, resembled a small aviary. I’d even added mirrors, ropes, and a few other home comforts.

My birds cooed expectantly as I refilled their grain and water dish (using rainwater from the simple reservoir I’d put together). After that, it was time to clear out a couple dozen 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 another one.

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 whip up an autopsy in no time. I sighed. Even if the old man somehow breached protocol and made it here, there’s no way he would approve. He’d happily bend the rules to breaking point but to shatter them entirely was another thing altogether. 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 show worrying similarities 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, monkeyblightand now

birdblight. A depressing list. I filled the space with a little sketch of me planting a flag on the Moon.

Much better.

The doodle was my last allowance of procrastination as I folded the journal away and plodded over to an old wooden work bench. Tangled red and black wires took up half the space, the other half home to 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 corner was bathed in artificial yellow light. I brushed the heap of wiring to the floor revealing a large radio broadcast console. The T-1800DX was older than the most elderly of my compatriots, but you wouldn’t know it. I flicked the polished steel rod that was its power switch and a dozen red LEDs flickered into life. Moments later a familiar rumbling of static filled my ears. Good – the storm hadn’t knocked out the transmission dish. I grabbed the microphone handset and thumbed the speaker button.

‘This is Feenix DeSuza broadcasting at five-point zero gigahertz, bearing 223 degrees. Does anyone copy. Please respond, over.’

I didn’t wait for a response. The particular blend of static interference already let me know that the transmission was blocked, courtesy of whatever radio jammer had cluttered up the skies for the last seventy-five years. I took a gulp of water from the reservoir, threw on my oxygen tank, and made for the stairs.

Ten sweaty minutes and 1500 steps later I arrived, utterly exhausted, onto the crumbling stone façade of the department store roof. I took a few minutes to de-dust the solar panels, then it was only another hundred-foot climb up the rickety radio tower (built last century) in gale force winds until I was cradling the radio dish in my arms.

Something out there was jamming every long-range radio frequency known to man. Every single electronic device capable of communicating via radio failed to register so much as a syllable of human speech (not including the short-range radios that we used in Hypoxia). It was a known fact and accepted in the same way one accepts rocks to not fit in the same category as food, just another banal problem for Earth’s last humans to tolerate. And that was precisely the issue. A radio jammer meant power, electricity outside of our city limits. That meant we weren’tthe last humans. Sure, ask your typical Hypoxian and they’ll give you the same old schtick – A jammer left powered on by now extinct militia. Fuelled by solar panels or some other renewable. Seemed I was the only one not buying it. So, upon graduating the DAA, I’d decided to take matters into my own hands.

My thinking went like this; sure, all radio frequencies were jammed. They’ve been tried and tried again (by people who knew their shit too). Every possible permutation of radio wave broadcast attempted several times. Nothing gets past the static. Thing is, radio waves aren’t the only frequency range that these radios use. What about microwavefrequencies? If my understanding of decade old undergraduate college textbooks was correct, any frequency above a gigahertz was fair game. No one ever thought to test them because, well, why would they? If the radios are down the all other frequencies would be too.

Unless you had something to share, but not with everyone.

Think about it. Who is more likely to survive the end of the world than the military. Who has access to jamming tech? The military. Who wants to make sure their communications can’t be intercepted easily?

That’s right.

Sometimes I lay in bed at night imagining all the conversations we could be missing between other, more intelligent hotspots who’d figured this out years ago. What other interactions were going on just over our horizons? Was it more war or something sweeter? Either way…

I clapped dust from my hands and made a hasty descent.

 

Back in the terrarium I returned my attention to the T—1800, still fizzling away. I flicked it off and waited sixty seconds. One minute of pure terrarium peace. I couldn’t help but just enjoy it, knowing that soon I’d be thrust right back into the incessant buzz of Hypoxia, but worker bees have to return to the hive at some point.

I made a note not to forget the backpack of supplies I’d prepared days ago – that’s right I did actually scavenge…occasionally. It’s an essential role in our little end of the world encampment. Food and medicine sure, but it’s the less obvious items that make my job so important. Top of the list –prescription lenses. No opticians in Hypoxia and a buttload of myopia. Batteries fetch a good price. Fuel too, if you can get the preserved stuff. Dentistry equipment, decent shoes, anything with a motor. I also had to think of my career. A scav who can’t scavenge risks losing excursion privileges and access to breathing equipment. Plus repeatedly turning up empty handed would surely put me at the top of somebody’s shitlist.

A lack of everything really makes people want stuff and Trix had already voiced her dissatisfaction at my substandard hauls.

‘At least you’re an orphan Feenix, that’s two less people around to be disappointed in you.’

Even in my imagination her voice was gravel rubbed in my ears. Luckily, the department store in which my terrarium was based was a loothound’s wet dream. So, I’d prepared a few emergency backpacks for me to take back. She wouldn’t question what I was up to when I returned with ten kilos of tinned tuna and an entire hardware store’s worth of screw fittings. I’d also thrown some new guitar strings in to sweeten the deal (the one thing that made her human was her love of guitar).

I glanced at my watch. If I didn’t leave soon, I’d miss curfew –unsurprisingly, Trix didn’t respond well to tardiness. I knew a guy with a fractured eye socket who could prove it.

When the sixty seconds were up, I flicked the transceiver back on. Instantly my chest tightened.

The static was… different.

My whole life I’d only ever heard one type of static – that belonging to the jamming signal. But this was entirely new. Not the harsh fizzle I was used to, this was far higher in pitch and crisper, it seemed to almost pulse.

It was beautiful.

I sat back, hands on head, and took the deepest breath. A redundant attempt at calming myself. Months of tedious trial and error finally over! Something, someone, was using the C-band frequency range.

I jumped on the mic.

‘This is Feenix DeSuza broadcasting from Sao Paolo. Who’s there. Can you hear me. Please respond, over.’

Nothing.

‘Whoever is there please, say something, say anything. If you can hear me there are people living in a village 320 degrees north-west of Sao Paolo. Please respond.’

I rambled.

I rambled a lot. But after an hour of nothing but the same, new, static filled my ears. I conceded that I wasn’t getting any reply, at least not today. I glanced at my watch, which, thanks to the dying storm was now back online.

Holy shitnuggets,

eight-fifteen!

I’d gone well over my deadline for leaving. It was a long way back and now I needed to make it without any breaks, I cursed as I remembered the backpack — 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.

Save it for the road.

My stomach spoke a hybrid language of excitement, worry and hunger as I skipped over to my O2tank and threw on the straps. 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.

The indicator arrow on my tank’s readout was buried in the red.

Empty.

I fumbled for the problem, desperate for a quick fix. 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 just killed me.


 

Gidget 1

 

Early Autumn, 2085

Journal,

It’s been a long time. Too long. And for that I can only say sorry. So… sorry. A lot has happened since we last spoke, I don’t quite know how to write it, but I’ll try my best.

Boom found the rations I’d lifted. A few clumps of poorly cured goat meat. Scraps like that should be a prize to no man. Nothing worth missing. I thought even if he found out he’d shrug it off, or maybe just beat me a little. I mean a broken eye socket is practically the going rate for a meal these days. I had no idea he’d cut

Look at that. I can’t even write it down.

Well. It happened. He did… did the thing.

No one else cared, which I guess isn’t surprising. We’re a whole generation with no tears left to cry. So who’d give a hoot about one more thief. Thief. That’s what he called me. Practically all Boom would say, muttering it over and over again as he sharpened his knife as if the word itself was somehow bitter on his tongue. I ain’t never seen a man so rooted, teeth stained more red than white. And the fire in his eyes. I’ve never seen a man so angry.

All rage no human.

The others just sat back and watched, Sidewinder, Truck, Fife, even Foza didn’t even raise their voices, just watched the grass turn red as I lay there howling. Pain like nothing I’ve ever known. Like chewing on red-hot coal. I thought I’d never stop crying, not until my tears had all dried up and the memory fell out my skull.

Still, they did nothing. As long as they’ve got pockets full of red they don’t care. They’re not my friends anymore.

 

Maybe I should steal their red, I could burn it or hide it at the cave. I wonder what body part they’d remove for that?

 

The next day Boom came to speak to me. Apparently, Latch died the morning before. Done a dry-drown a few miles from Thornhaven. That is why he did it. That is why he was so angry. Boom says I shouldn’t blame him, I should blame the ox thieves, they were the ones that caused him to do it. Guided his hands he said. All our problems come from their selfishness, their control over us. It’s because of them that we gotta be so strict on thieves and stealers.

I don’t believe him.

Problem is I haven’t learned my lesson, ‘cause I’ll still steal, we all will, what choice do we have when Boom lets his people starve. Well, I say I’ll still steal, of course that depends on if my hunger ever comes back. Haven’t eaten much since he did it. Too painful. Keep being sick.

Mama cried when she found out. Now we’re two broken people she says. Broken family. I cry because she cries. We cried together for hours. Then she made soup, it was thin but at least I kept down a few mouthfuls. She says my appetite will return. When it does I’ll be back lifting. I’ll just do a better job next time, or eat it all quick so there is no evidence. I will die before I let them catch me again. I’ll run. I’m a fast runner. Faster than Boom anyway. I’ve been thinking of doing that a lot recently. Run and run far into dead air. Like Latch. But I can’t. Mama would get lonely. She tells me to get strong. Says I need patience. Sometimes I think she’s right. Get strong. Then when I’m older, I’ll be bigger, big enough to cut his tongue out, only this time I won’t be teaching any lessons, I’ll be hurting him as bad as I can.

Gidget

 

 

Dirty Trix

 

We call it dry-drowning — when the dead air gets you —though in reality, it’s an entirely different process. Drowning’s easy — panic, lungful of water, sink, expire. Job done. A clean death. On land however, trace amounts of oxygen trick you, lingering in concentrations just large enough to satisfy your nervous system into thinking everything is okay, for a short while at least.

 

It’s the eyes that go first. Starting subtle as a fever in summer. An itch around the iris, an ache along the optic nerve, but ignore it and it soon takes hold with vice-like force. It’s a feeling that any Scav worth his salt catches early, hell, half of dead-air training is symptom awareness and avoidance.

Three years of learning how to read the atmosphere, measure oxygen levels, work ventilators and read clouds for signs of atmospheric change. Over a thousand days of laborious study and I’d forgotten rule number one: Check your tubes.

Focus Feenix. You’re not dead yet.

Those next few seconds were precious, one false move, a trip, a snagged cuff, a wrong turn, and I was Outlier food.

 

The O2tank in my hand was now nothing more than a shackle, I let it slip and walked back to my terrarium — yes,

walked. This was going to be a delicate couple of minutes, every movement costly, every breath calculated. If I ran, I’d be dead in thirty seconds. If I walked I had maybe forty-five. I knew I’d still have relatively large volume of oxygen in my lungs but any extra oxygen I could take from the air was negligible, so inhaling was off the agenda. This was all about CO2management now. Vent slow and steady. I exhaled a fraction of my lung capacity, resisting the urge to breath in–I couldn’t afford to make my muscles any thirstier for oxygen.

How could I have been so foolish? What would Peri say? How would she react when my ventilator was returned to camp without me? Some legacy — dead at sixteen because the moron couldn’t work the valve on his gas tank’.

The wind howled as I periodically belched out dregs of CO2. My leg muscles roared, and each step became more and more cumbersome, like the tarmac beneath was coated in some cruel adhesive.

By the time I scrambled through the Garden Centre door, my insides were burning. But I’d made it back to the atrium and my chances of living another day skyrocketed. The air here did not taste as stale, though I knew it was still toxic, breathable air was precious metres away, through the sliding glass door precious meters before me. I staggered towards it, arms flailing like a ragdoll in a hurricane, searching for the handle that would unlock my salvation and save me from a death both painful and embarrassing. No time to sterilise, the disinfectant no just a speedbump. Where was it? The handle eluded my fingertips, which I couldn’t be sure were still functioning, both hands feeling like they were snuggled inside thick gloves. Only they were bare, just struggling to communicate with the rest of me. My vision faded to a hole in the centre of throbbing blackness. I fumbled numbly. Click.

Somehow, I mustered the energy to slump over the threshold and buried my face into the first green thing I could find. Several greedy gulps of air later the tunnel vision start to recede, and my fingertips felt normal, except for a slight pins and needles sensation that I wasn’t convinced would ever go away. Then came the nausea. I doubled over and painted the terrarium floor with pink vomit, in which I lay for the next thirty minutes, sucking in air and trying to work out who to blame this ridiculous turn of events on, eventually settling on the correct answer. I’d rushed out of here without so much as buckling the straps, ignoring all my scav training, and for what? The fear of being late. Late. This was the end of the world, the excuses for tardiness were infinite! Sure, Trix’s punishments aired on the wrong side of gratuitous, but if our supreme Blackfangfelt being late was worthy of punishment, then she was clearly not fit to lead. Yep, this was absolutely her fault, she may as well have sabotaged the tank herself.

In all my fifteen years, I’d never come close to suffocating, and given that it was the biggest killer of scavengers, and with the way shadowblight was spreading, a likely end for all those who resided in Hypoxia, I had been a fool not to fear it more. That lack of fear had bred complacency; I couldn’t allow myself to be so reckless in the future, next time I would do all the safety checks, twice, no thrice, punishment or no.

Eventually, my heart rate returned to its normal 38 beats per minute and I began to assess the severity my situation. I was trapped. Alone in a secret hideaway with no breather, probable brain damage and now I was covered in vomit (turns out the smell of decade old, canned fish is even worse mid-digestion). The only thing in my favour was that the plants keeping me alive weren’t going anywhere, so I at least had some time to work on an escape plan. But after five and half hours of feeling sorry for myself, sitting on the cold floor with my head between my legs unable to think of a single alternative, I stood up, shuddered and activated my SOS beacon.

 

***

 

It took them three days to find me, three days. Should have taken one. But in that time I made what might just be the greatest discover I, or any scav had ever made. It all started when, out of sheer boredom, I decided to fire up the GPS I’d months earlier used to track my birds. See, my avian army were more than just test subjects for shadowblight. Each one had a low-jacked anklet. Training them to always return to the terrarium had been easy, clearly it was the only half-decent food source within a hundred miles, so nine times out of ten they’d always return, and using a rustic little handheld GPS, I could see exactly where they’d been as if I was flying along beside them. Though since my little radio antenna project kicked into life, I’d forgotten all about the pigeons and their flightpaths.

Upon firing up the GPS, my jaw hit the floor. The coordinates (which I’d triple checked) suggested that every last bird was flying to the same spot, an island about a hundred and fifty K south of Hypoxia and staying there, some for several days at a time. Such a journey I was sure would only be possible if the new location had the ingredients necessary for life, namely no dead-air. Afterall, why would they take such a risky journey, through air stale as Jurgen’s sourdough, if there was not a substantial reward waiting for them?

I’d found a new hotspot.

After the initial excitement naturally gave way to the creeping tendrils of doubt, I came up with an idea. A crazy little kernel of an idea that I just couldn’t shake. The static, the coordinates had to be connected. So, another hundred meter climb up the rickety windswept ladder and a lot of meticulous tinkering left me with the following result; the ‘new’ static signal was strongest when pointed towards my birds’ coordinates. I’d nearly choked on the fresh air when I’d realised the significance of it all. I’d not just discovered a hotspot, I’d discovered an inhabited hotspot. I knew it. I could feel it in my gut.

I’d discovered Eden.

That was the end of day one. For the other two days paced the cool concrete slabs, my mind taken over by a really weird feeling — the ever-consuming embarrassment of my mishap with the oxygen tank balanced with the sheer nirvana of discovering at worst, another civilisation, and at best, Eden. I could have singlehandedly saved Hypoxia from extinction. Me, Feenix DeSuza, scav, nerd, crackpot, discoverer of Eden and liberator of Hypoxia. Of course, in all my excitement, I never once considered that this new hotspot could be home to Outliers…

 

It was Trix herself who led the rescue party, and the second I saw the blurred outline of her stocky figure in the frosted glass of my terrarium door, I knew I was in for it. The ice-cold delight of rescue instantly melted as from the other side of the threshold; the silhouette spat the words ‘Welcome to Feenix’s Terrarium’. Trix had read my welcome banner with a disturbing mix of disgust and fury. Did the glass shake or had I imagined it? I swallowed and clenched my fists as the silhouette grew bigger –this wouldn’t be

fixed by a slap on the wrist and a week of half rations, this would be fixed by black eyes and cracked ribs.

There was at least one positive. My spirits lifted as the boomingly high pitched voice of Mallory Zheng, my close friend and certified nutcase, reverberated through the foyer. At least Trix picked good company for the journey.

‘Go easy Triska.’

The sliding door in front of me screeched open revealing my red-faced leader.

Triska Turowska was average height but stocky with broad shoulders, the greasy hair that sat in a mangled bush around her head was slightly more black than grey, her pencil thin lips were perfectly horizontal and her eyebrows were angry no matter the occasion, though now I half expected them to catch fire. A needle-like object, the pointed tooth of a giant snake was pinned against her chest; Blackfang, the mark of Hypoxia’s leader. With a tentative step forwards she removed her own mouthpiece and took a cautious sip of air. Mallory did the same and neither returned their mouthpieces to their lips.

‘We’ve been a busy boy haven’t we!’ she said immediately throwing open the draws to my work bench and inspecting the circuitry within, fury smeared across her pinched cheeks, not pausing to even consider the fact she was now immersed in breathable air. I opened my mouth to tell her she needed to close the door behind her when she launched an unlucky plant from a table causing myself and Mallory to flinch as its porcelain pot shattered into a thousand pieces.

A man walked in and gave Trix a curt nod. I barely recognised him as Umbra, one of the more secretive members of Trix’s ‘inner circle’. I was pretty sure was nocturnal so was surprised to see his stern face bathed in morning light. A jungle-stained Stetson suited him as much as it would a warthog. He stood, legs apart in attention, as Trix continued her diatribe.

It when on and on and on. When she found the birdhutch, I thought her head might explode.

‘You’ve been keeping animals! Pets! Oh, you clearly have too much time on your hands! While every single other scav works tirelessly to feed, clothe, and bring even a shred of prosperity to our city, poor Prince DeSuza sits on his fingers and plays Dr. Doolittle!’ Her arms flailed wildly, punctuating every word.

I’d given up trying to reason with her, deciding to let her finish before I’d give her the good news. So I stood eyes to the floor and weathered the rant.

‘Of all the children born in Hypoxia only you and a handful of others survived infancy, you’d think there would be a reason but no, you’re just as useless as your dumb mother.’

I lifted my head to meet her gaze and had to bite my lip in order to not call her a very nasty word. She’d baited me well, insulting my mother knowing that retaliation could very well cost me my life. I took a breath. How dare she. If she thinks I’ve just been spending my days here twiddling my thumbs and working on my tan, then she’s a bigger fool than I thought.

‘Why?’ she would ask before raising a sweaty palm whenever I tried to explain. ‘Sixteen years old is clearly too young for someone to take on the responsibility of being a scavenger! To think, I promoted you myself, I handed you a breather, slapped you on the back and sent you out into the wild!’ She shook her head. ‘I expected so much better of you. Sal said I was mad to promote you, said you were.’ She paused, ‘immature to the point of absurdity’I believe were his exact words.’

I could only watch as she paced like a tiger behind bars.

 ‘But Ifought for you. I went against his advice because I thought I saw something in you, a little shit sure but a precocious little shit at least. How could you be so selfish?’ 

That last word hit me like bullet. I gave Mallory a pleading look, but her eyes remained forward as if in a military line-up, no sign of sympathy. I wasn’t angry at her, I’d come to expect nothing less from the DAA’s chief scav. Professional to the bone. Umbra however took no such steps to hide his expression; a cavity filled grin. Quite unsettling when combined with his limp, pale skin, and eyes that bulged from his skull to the point where he almost looked like he’d jumped straight out of a cartoon.

‘I’m not selfish.’ I said through gritted teeth, making the most of a rare pause while Trix took breath. ‘I’ve discovered something incred—’ A burst of pain filled my head. The sound of her knuckle on my jaw echoed around the room. Trix’s facial expression didn’t change as she checked the brass ring on her index finger for signs of damage. I fingered the impression it left and wiped away the blood. I looked again to Mallory, hoping the tears in my eye might persuade her to intervene.  

‘How many Outliers have you killed?’ Trix asked. I could only stutter. ‘Sorry, let me start again, Mallory, how many Outliers have you killed?’

‘seventy-seven ma’am.’ The response was instant and without emotion.

‘Umbra?’ Trix turned to face the cartoon man. ‘What’s your number?’

‘A hundred and ten, give or take.’ Trix nodded, seemingly satisfied with the two numbers.

‘And you DeSuza? How many Redteeth have you put in the ground?’ When I didn’t reply she spun on a heel and began to pace.

‘Let me rephrase my question then, how many Outliers have you seen? How many battles? How many close-calls and how many battle scars? Still silent, eh? Understandable, can’t be too many if you’re spending your hours hiding away here.’ I looked again to my feet, unable to meet her eyes for fear of spontaneously combusting.

 

‘We will be having a long conversation about this when we get back, but for now, you are to return with us in exaggerated silence.’ I felt like I’d swallowed a fistful of sand, if she demoted me, I didn’t know what I’d do. I’d worked so hard for my breather, my freedom. This was my life now, being a scav is everything, and my terrarium... I couldn’t let all my work be for nothing — I snatched the GPS from the desk and thrust it into the air.


‘We are leaving.’ She said with such finality I knew arguing at this point would only earn me more scars. The sinking feeling in my stomach somehow reached a new low. With Trix pulling her oxygen tank back on and heading out into the atrium Mallory plodded over to me, winked, and handed me a breather. She raised a finger to her lips when I tried to tell her of my discovery and patted me on the back sympathetically as we walked out. Just before we left the building however, the cartoon man blocked my path with a pale arm. His breath was a mixture of tooth decay and rum. I lifted my head, up close he no longer looked animated, there was something far more sinister hidden behind those bulbous eyes, something wicked that came alive when, from behind a malicious smile, he thrust a tank of kerosene into my arms.

‘Burn it’. Trix said over her shoulder as she exited into the dead-air.

 

 

 

Silver Linings


A lazy breeze hummed through the trees pushing droplets of mist from their leaves, creating the illusion of rain. Cicadas hummed from the low branches while vibrantly coloured birds recited sonnets across the canopy. Macaques clicked their teeth and picked at insects living in the thatched leaves of the huts below. A python soaked in the morning sunshine from its throne of rotting logs. The hammering of nails into freshly planed wood provided the necessary percussion to accompany the jungle ballad. It was hot, the hottest day of the month, but for Hypoxia it was just another day, and the twelve-hundred humans that made this place home buzzed like worker bees. Carpenters, fishers, hunter gatherers, doctors, undertakers and of course scavengers, everyone had a job, a function. A purpose. Even children were expected to forage or collect firewood when they weren’t busy with survival training.

It was early afternoon, three days after my return, and I was sulking in my treehouse. Most of the homes in Hypoxia were treehouses, some kind of superstition about being as close to the leaves as possible in order to get the most oxygen. I’d made mine myself years ago and aside from the terrarium it was the only other place I’d ever called home. The only place now.

I’d just finished going through my daily routine of escorting all the animals that had crept into my room over the course of the last twenty-four hours — one of the major drawbacks to arboreal life. Tarantulas, cicadas, whip-scorpions, beetles, centipedes, giant moths, grasshoppers and geckos were among my regulars. And ants. Ants were perpetually everywhere, there wasn’t a single surface unaccompanied by an ant or two in Hypoxia. ‘A good source of protein.’ Mallory would say before squishing one under her thumb and licking off the residue.  

There were hundreds of nationalities in this borderless refugee camp, even more if you considered the abnormal number of animals that also called Hypoxia home, but you couldn’t tell, time had distilled national pride into one race —Amazonian. Badasses. While we had different colours, creeds and religions we (more often than not) worked together better than most twenty-first century families. Years ago our mothers and fathers arrived here as refugees seeking shelter and breathable air. As the most common second language, English naturally evolved into the dominant dialect. They used to teach some Portuguese but Trix threw that straight out — a second language wasn’t gonna do squat against an Outlier with a rusty blade and an empty stomach (you might as well slit your own throat if you think those bastards have the mental capacity for conversation). Regardless, the green city gave life to so many and there was nothing worth fighting for more.  

I’d once read something in Alf’s Lab that said, prior to shadowblight, the weight of every human combined was the same as the weight of every ant combined. I was busy removing a particularly stubborn ant from my inner-thigh, wondering if I would weigh as much as all the insects in my treehouse when something heavy hit me in the back of head.

‘Ouch!’

‘Sorry!’ said Peri from the jungle floor. ‘Had to get your attention somehow.’

‘Why didn’t you just shout?’ I growled down at her, tears in my eyes.

‘Because it’s more fun to throw stuff, did I get you?’

‘What do you want?’ I said with more bite than bark.

‘Calm down precious, it’s time.’

‘Well, you hardly look ready, where’s your gun.’

‘Can we please have this conversation at the same altitude Fee?’

‘Roger.’ I threw on a mottled t-shirt, giving it a shake first, and made a quick decent. I practically knew every branch in this tree, I could, and often did, climb it in complete darkness. I’d cleared the ten or so metres in seconds and landed just in front of Peri with a thump, bare feet buried in dusty leaves.

‘Heaven knows why you insist on living in those bug infested shacks. Get yourself a tent with a nice strong zipper.’ I shook my head.

‘And leave Slow-Moe all alone? No chance.’

‘Where is he anyway? Haven’t seen him for days.’ Peri said.

‘Me neither but that’s not unusual, where’s your gun?’

‘At the Turtle, had to sign it over for cleaning and calibration but should be ready now, Pam want’s them under lock and key, something about kids stealing weapons and ammo. Right let’s go.’ Peri turned and followed the clumsy footpath that lead away from the hustle and bustle of Hypoxia’s central housing district. As we walked, large Brazil nut trees, multiple shacks wrapped around their trunks, towered on either side, every now and then you would pass a particularly large one with close to a dozen treehouses stacked one on the other like shoeboxes impaled on a spike.

‘So, you’re saying there’s not even a slither of dead air on this island?’ Peri asked, tying back a tuft of frayed brown hair and inspecting a log for insects before sitting on it. An impromptu break necessary due to the summer heat. ‘A brand new hotspot, clean as they come?’

I hacked at saplings with a branch which whistled through the afternoon air.

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘I want to, it just seems a little, I dunno, lucky? A massive island with breathable air, just sitting there off the coast waiting for someone to stumble upon it? With all the scavs we’ve sent passed the Scything over the years we’d have known about it surely.’

‘I didn’t say massive, just big enough that my birds are able to stay there for a while, that means there must be food, foliage, prey. An active ecosystem, not the barren wasteland I cross every time I go to Sao Paolo’

Peri flinched as with one clean strike I took the head off a particularly gooey mushroom and sent it flying past her ear. The subsequent look in her eye was enough for me to apologise and drop the stick. It’s got to be worth checking out, surely you agree with me on that, I mean what if it’s even better than Hypoxia? What if it’s like here, immune to shadowblight? Shit, what if there are other people there, a community I mean, not outliers?’

Shadowblight. Bane of humanity. The turd-gurgling king of infectious disease. This fungus spread through Earth’s vegetation like fire in high winds, infecting everything it touched. Once a tree was infected, its leaves turned black as coal and its bark peeled away as it withered over the course of a few months, eventually leaving behind a petrified cast. Hypoxia was immune, possibly the only such place in the world, and no one knew why. Alf had described it to me best when I was a boy: ‘A bird flying over Hypoxia views the city as a green dot surrounded by a sea of black, a glistening emerald trapped in obsidian’.

‘I dunno.’ She said frowning. ‘I mean you’re basing this on what? Some numbers from a dodgy GPS system? That’s really not a lot to go on, it’s probably a glitch or something.’ She paused to wipe a bead of sweat from her eyes. ‘I mean you made the radio collars yourself, right?’ she said with a wink. I sighed and kicked at a rotten log, brown matter painted the tarpaulin wall of someone’s home. A wave of disapproving whispers came from behind and I turned to see a group of old women returning from the lagoon, carrying under their arms bundles of clothing and wearing sour faces. I held my hand up in apology as they tutted and continued on their way.

‘You’ve only been back three days and you’re still making enemies.’ Said Peri brushing flakes of wood off my t-shirt.

‘Not my fault, public enemy number one remember.’

It had been three days since I returned to camp, Trix had frog-marched me the whole way back, as bad as the grilling in Sao Paolo had been, it turns out she was saving her venom for a proper audience. I’ve got to hand it to her, she put on quite a show, gathering a crowd then scolding at length. She should have charged a fee, or at least held an intermission — come one, come all, wonder at the boy scav as he loses the last remnants of his dignity.

After that it had taken every last milligram of restraint to stop myself from either stealing a breather and running away (foolish) or climbing straight into Trix’s shack and punching her square in the teeth (idiotic).

‘Bottom line Peri, we’d be idiots to not at least investigate this further, we know that Hypoxia won’t last forever, when was the last time you ventured past the Scything? The rot’s taken hold. We’re running out of time and this is a solid lead!

Peri swallowed. ‘Look, you’ve convinced me Fee, but we both know I’m not the person that needs convincing.’ She yelped and flailed her arm as something with more than six legs crawled along her finger, though to a stranger it would have seemed she’d had her hand bitten off. I laughed at the overreaction. She was right of course. To even consider the idea of mounting an expedition to this mystery island, Trix would have to be completely assured that we would find something. Was an expedition even possible? The coordinates put it over a hundred klicks into the dead zone and the majority of that distance needed to be made by boat, something we didn’t have.

‘She won’t even look at me, let alone hear me out. I’m just a child to her, a mouse under her feet. Besides, they burned all my research.’ I crouched to inspect something shiny I’d spotted nestling at the base of a large rubber tree, only to pull my hand away at the last second as it raised a barbed tail defensively.

‘I’d be better off cuddling this scorpion than I would trying to reason with her.’ Before I’d even finished the word scorpion Peri hopped up onto the log and feverishly scratched the back of her neck.

‘You know, you could have sold the story a bit better. You could have said that you’d stumbled upon an old Outlier den, passed off your work as theirs?’ I shook my head,

‘That place had my name written all over it, literally, I’d written ‘Feenix’s terrarium’ in giant letters on the wall.’ Peri laughed out loud and shook her head as if to say ‘classic Feenix’.

‘Well, at least you didn’t die.’ She paused, ‘Silver linings.’

‘Silver linings.’ I muttered. Peri raised her hand.

‘Erm, what’s a terrarium?’

‘It’s the scientific word for a cage that holds plant and animals.’

‘Oh.’ She paused. ‘Cute. Not sure why you’d need a cage for plants and animals though. Anyway, maybe this whole thing isn’t as bad as you think.’ 

‘Not as bad as I think?’ I snorted back, ‘If it weren’t for Mallory being there, Trix would have strung me up and left me for dead! Nails through the hands and spear through the side! Probably would have enjoyed it too, made a pinata out of my corpse.’

 

My punishment for the terrarium was to complete whichever insane task Trix seemed to think would humiliate me the most, and I was getting fed up. There’s nothing rehabilitating about using only my hands to remove the mountain of sawdust from the woodshed or tend to the apiary without a suit. ‘It’s like she’s actively finding new creative ways to torment me.’ I’d said to anyone who would listen one night while mucking out the pigpen with a pink plastic spade.

‘Oh that’s exactly what she’s doing.’ Came the replies.

Peri sighed and gazed up through the canopy where thin beams of light burst through, yellow spears hanging in the afternoon haze.

‘For someone so smart you can be pretty dense at times. Try a bit of empathy. She doesn’t want you dead, so stop exaggerating and cut the woman some slack, she’s got a bloody difficult job. The most difficult job in the world I’d go as far to say. Sure, it seems bad now, but think about it from her point of view, she has no choice but to make an example of you, can’t have every Scav going off making forts and sleeping on the job—'

‘That’s not what I was—’

‘Listen, you’ve just built this whole thing up in your head, and now it seems worse than it is, give it a few days, do your chores, lay low and it won’t be long before you’re back to annoying everyone with boring animal facts and showing off the mice bones you found in Slow-Moe’s shit.’

‘But sloths are naturally herbivo—’

Peri pushed against my cheek with a sweaty hand.

‘No one cares, Fee.’ She winked and hopped over the remains of an abandoned termite mound I’d only the day before hacked to smithereens. My shoulders sagged. I disagreed with Peri but lacked the energy to fight it.

From the corner of my eye I saw the squat frame of Davus the gamemaster ambling towards us, two dead pheasants slung over his shoulder and a dismal look in his eyes.

‘Shouldn’t you two be doing something other than making a mess?’ He said with an air of borrowed authority.

‘We’re on our way as it happens, shouldn’t yoube at home plucking your pheasants? Peri said. She was taller than Davos and made use of every extra millimetre. The gamemaster’s cheeks reddened.

‘You best hurry up and get on duty, what with all these Outlier raids and fires,’ he paused to look me up and down, regarding me as one regards a turd they just stepped in, ‘and keep himin line, or Salvador will be hearing of this.’ He spun on a heel and stormed off, the broken necks of the pheasants bouncing like ragdolls over his shoulder.

‘Looks like I’m your babysitter now.’ She said with a smile.

I could tell that she was trying to move the conversation along. Part of me was a little disappointed that my friend wasn’t one hundred percent supportive, happy let me sneak off to the city but first to say I told you so when the going got tough, but then again, isn’t that what I loved most about Peri? How she was both my partner in crime and moral barometer.

As we moved away from Hypoxia’s busier districts our voices gradually became the only ones and the conversation shifted towards our mutual dislike of the Blackfang.

‘You should have seen her face, it went so red I half expected her to have an aneurysm, worse than when Mallory ate those wild chillies.’ Peri giggled at the memory.

‘She’s got such a hard-on for authority, I swear she was the kind of kid at school that ran straight to the teacher as soon as you so much as dropped a pencil.’ I swallowed.

 

‘What if she never lets me scav again. It’s all I’ve got Peri, that and Slow-Moe’. Peri tried not to look too insulted that she didn’t make the list.

‘So what if you can’t scav anymore, it’s not like you’ve been doing it that long anyway.’ ‘There’s plenty of other things for you to do around here.’

‘But I—’

‘Feenix!’ Peri said, stopping in her tracks, ‘I thought you’d dropped it, but since you’re so obsessed here it comes — If your scav work was so damn important youwouldn’t have risked losing it by spending all your time playing secret scientist in your terrarium,’ She said mockingly, ‘Your numbers were low, and people are going hungry. That’s an abuse of power, and a selfish one at that, so stop moaning and deal with it, because God knows we’ve all got enough problems around here without adding ‘tolerate Fenix’s whining’ to the list!’ She held my gaze until I looked away. I sighed and kept walking, I knew she was right, well, she was semi-right; yes, I should have been spending my scav time actually scavenging for supplies and yes, I knew what Trix would do if I was caught, but surely my discovery negated all that? She doesn’t understand the magnitude of what I’ve done. Peri cleared her throat and spat a loose hair from the corner of her mouth.

‘I’m going to ask you something now and I need you to be one hundred percent honest. Has this ‘discovery’ got anything to do with Eden?’

I paused.

The question didn’t surprise me, in fact the only thing that surprised me is that she’d waited so long to ask it.

‘It could be out there.’

‘Oh for Blight’s sake Feenix!’ Peri said and punched my straight in the shoulder.

‘Ouch!’ I complained rubbing what would inevitably become a sizeable bruise. ‘What was that for?’

‘You need to drop it, I thought you had but clearly not. It’s not real, it’s a dream, a fantasy, something to give hope to the masses, you know, so they stop eating each other! Her face was glowing. ‘I swear every poor decision you’ve made has had Eden at the centre. We’d all love it to exist but it just doesn’t. Please for my sake if not yours, get that into your head. I don’t know how else to communicate this, open the little box in the back of your mind, the one with Santa and the tooth fairy and Jesus Bloody Christ, toss Eden in there too, close the lid and lock it tight.’

We finished the journey without talking. Just Peri occasionally tutting to herself as her inner monologue ran wild. About ten minutes later, a sudden buzz of insects ate into the white noise of a nearby tributary and the stench of sun-warmed effluent permeated the air making my stomach tighten and my eyes water. We were here.

I coughed into my sleeve as the deep breath I’d taken grated at my throat and flayed my sinuses.

A dozen crudely built shacks hovered before us on muddy stilts. The latrine pits — the only place in Hypoxia where you didn't want to breathe the air.

‘Oh, that’s foul!’ Said Peri who I knew avoided this place at all costs, slipping out in the dead of night to her secret lavatory. Wrinkling her nose and scrunching her eyes, she asked ‘Want me to grab you a breather, we’ve got some in the Sentinel station?

‘Trix said if she caught me using a breather she would ‘quadruple my hours.’ I said through my nose.

‘You know, you’re lucky you haven’t been ragged.’

‘She knows I’d just take it off, ragging only works on kids.’

‘Oh I don’t know, I’m sure we could give it a go.’ Said peri scrunching her nose. Probably be better than this.’ Ragging was Hypoxia’s standard punishment for defiance when growing up. It’s simple enough, you take a rag and rub it all over a male goat in rut, until the rag smelt like Satan’s anus. Then you take said rag and tie it round the troublemaker. If you were lucky you’d only wear it for a day or two, if you were unlucky, well, let’s just say we have a lot of rags and a lot of goats. A gruesome act but Trix would happily defend the rationale — life here was as tough as it got, we needed all hands-on deck from the moment those hands could grab a hammer or a rifle. Disobedience to Triska Turowska was little more than inefficiency, and inefficiency could not be tolerated. I’d got ragged years ago for stealing sugar cane from chef Jurgen’s pantry and it was enough to put me on the straight and narrow, at least for a while.

‘Well looks like there’s no point me staying around!’ Peri shot me a wicked smile and in an instant, our earlier argument was undone, ‘Have a lovely time, such a shame I can’t stay!’ With that she turned and skipped towards the Scything to report for work.




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