Terrarium

 

Terrarium

Chapter One – Sao Paolo



Dead air was all I ever wanted. A chance to escape the confines of the green city and walk the old world. Most wait for the physical peak of their twenties before signing up, but not me. I put my name against that dotted line on my seventeenth lap of the sun, committing proudly to a life of noxwalking. Yes, I was laughed at, ridiculed. But I had survived infancy for a reason, the Breathing City made my lungs big and my heart strong. The laughing soon stopped.

The first day of training would forever linger in my memory, stuck against my frontal lobe like freshly pressed chewing gum. The blood tests, the misplaced sympathy, the stench of singed nose hair; I’d carry it all. The speeches too. Three and half years later they still echoed through my head.

 

Dead air coats your tongue like cheap plastic, its bitterness indicates the approaching dry-drown.’

Yadda yadda yadda.

The initiation ceremony lasted hours, though those in attendance felt it was more like days. Former noxwalkers, each a patchwork of scar tissue and faded tattoos, rattled off statistic after statistic–each bit of data punctuated by slammed fists and flying spittle. A show. Choreographed to weed out doubters and instil a sense of worth to those who remained.

Eighty-eight percent of scavs don’t live past thirty. Sixty-six-point-five percent of all field deaths end in excruciating pain’.

Sure thing.

Who knew scavenging the wastes required so much data collection? I’d liked to have seen the surveys. Excuse me sir, would you mind ranking your pain on this chart before you kick the bucket?

Something clunked from behind.

An aluminium can with a sun-bleached label rolled underfoot. I crunched it into the ground and removed my respirator. With my mouth empty I could pass my tongue across my gums and take a natural breath, which tasted bitter and left me feeling empty. I inhaled once more, allowing the dead air to choke my taste buds and fill my airways. Within seconds a dizziness stirred, stretching from the back of my eyes to the bottom of my stomach.

I welcomed the feeling.

 

See, that’s where me and the Dead Air Academy disagreed. Dead air wasn’t to be feared; it was liberating. Each stolen breath made me stronger, more durable.

I returned the ventilator to my mouth and pacified the burning sensation.

Cracked asphalt darkened as growing shadows enveloped the city: a shroud of twilight heralding the afternoon’s transformation into evening. Beside me, streetlamps teetered and groaned as a warm wind eddied along the parade of abandoned cars, occasionally sending a salvo of stones hurtling through their glassless windshields.

Thunder boiled in the distance – Sao Paolo’s bedtime routine was an hour ahead of schedule–I cursed in frustration, the noise muffled by my mouthpiece.

Had I left Hypoxia on time, I might have beaten the storm. Instead, the gathering swell of dust clouds punished my tardiness by halving my visibility and tripling my anxiety. Of all the ways to die out here, a storm would be the most embarrassing. I pushed on, the straps on my O2cannister biting into my arms, sending fresh waves of pain down my back.

As I moved, the tell-tale whine of my ventilator provided a metronome to the battling winds and heavy footfalls — a tuneless song.

My anthem.

I made for cover, fighting the twisting gale as I searched desperately for somewhere the wind could not follow. Somewhere in the distance metal clattered on metal. I cocked my head towards the disturbance. A writhing vortex, the colour of fresh clay, burst eastwards along Tagua street.

Thar she blows.

I grabbed 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. There was nothing I could do but close my eyes and take the hit. Man, did I regret leaving my dust-goggles behind.

Fortunately, the devil’s dance was fleeting, and it quickly retreated back into the storm like a scout recalled to the mother ship. That could have gone worse. I let my shoulders fall an inch, but the danger wasn’t over. In these conditions it was easy to get lost, and in Sao Paolo, once you got lost, you didn’t get found.

Best to ride it out.  

I clambered inside a long-abandoned ambulance and slammed the door. Immediately everything became much quieter. Fifty years of storms and decay hadn’t managed to break the windows, meaning I could open my eyes without fear of them being sandpapered by the elements.

 

I thumbed around the place for loot (glove box, cabinets, usual places), but it didn’t take a scav to realise this vehicle had been cleaned out years ago. Ambulances were prime targets for loothounds like me, since they almost always carried oxygen cannisters, and if they didn’t, the medical supplies were nearly as valuable.

My watch beeped five p.m. I tapped at its dust-marked 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. I swiped my watch again and an oxygen percentage of forty-two percent glared at me – 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. Every noxwalker knew their life was nowhere near as precious as the tank they carried. Back home there were people who’d skin a puppy to have one—after all it was less messy than putting themselves through the Dead-Air Academy like I did. Though owning a tank and operating it successfully were entirely different things.

Soon I’d have no need for bottled air.  

It took nearly forty minutes for the winds to quietenand Sao Paolo’s signature eerie calmness to return.

I brushed a cloud of orange from my hair and took again to the abandoned road, making tracks in the dust and listing the items I’d reward myself with when I got back home—hot soapy water, rubber duck, cold beer.

My wrist beeped and I glanced down just in time to see my watch-face’s electronic display cut out. I chewed the inside of my cheek. Sao Paulo was infuriatingly vulnerable to the electromagnetic blackouts that followed her storms, and navigating blind was about as much fun as drinking curdled bat milk through a silly straw. I couldn’t stay mad at her though. Sao Paulo had her drawbacks, but she was mycity, and I, her handsome companion. Together we made a better couple than any of the inhabitants Hypoxia offered. Not that any of my fellow loothounds would dare venture through this dusty ghost-town. The DAA had her listed as ‘emergency only’ and forbade noxwalkers to go past the city limits. Trix would throw a fit if she knew where I was

I’d often wondered why this place appealed to me so much. There was something about this dreary void that enchantedme; the winding concrete roads and the twisted metal of abandoned traffic, to me, was a snapshot in time. A time of excitement and opportunity. Of people waking up to do something other than blindly follow orders.

What a life. Was it even possible to 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 lifeforce, flowing through her like hot blood through a cold heart. The roads were so cluttered 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 be a bit boring, so I’d made up a game to help. The aim was simple; only step on undentedcars, 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 mydents, otherwise getting lost would be the least of my worries.

 

Ten minutes later relief hit 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 — a pathetic effort 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.

Clunk.

My hand darted to the pistol at my side, my trigger finger shook like a wasp in a spiderweb. 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 Peri and all I’d achieved was the nickname

Friendly Fire Feenix) but who didn’t feel safer when clutching the cold gunmetal of a firearm.

More noise, a voice or just wind? I couldn’t tell. Crouching as I moved, I headed to a nearby truck and threw myself under the carriage and waited. Was I ready to take on a redtooth? What if there was more than one? A whole bunch even. Maybe if I taught them my game, they’d let me go? After all, what was more intimidating than holding the high score in car jump-3000.

Silence permeated as I held my breath. Just the wind,

I decided and took a long draw 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 continued.

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, its metal supports long since eaten by rust, and the remaining glass panels cracked and covered in dust.

A plywood sheet, decorated with a series of images, replaced one of the panels. Inlaid in a pattern of green and gold was an oak tree topped with a crown, and by its roots the words, ‘EDEN EXISTS’ were 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 one that appeared fresh--on the side of a building or some truck carcass. My stomach would fill with butterflies until I got closer and confirmed the peeling paintwork for myself. Merely another relic from a more optimistic time.

To some, it was propaganda. I called it hope.

The weathered brick walls of a collapsed building spilled 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 cannister 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. The theory was 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-youand 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 pastel 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 bean-bag 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, illuminating the words ‘Welcome to Feenix’s Terrarium’that I’d recently painted on the glass.

A sliding glass door separated me from my brightly lit 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 and turning my nose 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 a few weeks ago.

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 noxwalker Feenix DeSuza had his terrarium.

Wasn’t she a beauty?

Palm fronds as long as my body cascaded along the glass ceiling. Beams of artificial light filtered through the fern leaves, bathing the former garden centre in an emerald haze through which dust particles swam in slow motion. The haze was ethereal, 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

thunkthroughout 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 guys, 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 air was tolerable, but thanks to the storm’s interference its face remained black.

Only one thing for it. I spun the valve on the side of my breather and removed the respirator from my mouth. Without wasting another second, I buried my face into the green leaves 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. I inhaled gleefully, drowning in a coolness that soothed my exhausted muscles.

Nothing like homemade oxygen.

I lay paralysed for ten minutes until the nagging voice in the back of my mind awoke. Knowing I needed to at least put a dent in what was becoming a sizeable to-do list, I reluctantly climbed to my feet. With my tank slung away in the corner, I moved with a newfound swiftness, gliding through my little oasis with a big smile on my face. 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 pleading me to get to work, at least for a couple of minutes. After I finished prancing around like a juvenile sucking an amphetamine-laced lollypop, I changed course. Heading past the gargantuan mass of ferns, junipers, and other miscellaneous fauna, I arrived at the back wall of my Terrarium---where a large wooden cage cooed expectantly.

‘Uhhhh, Houston we have spotted signs of extraterrestrial life. They’re small, feathered and seem to enjoy bathing in their own faeces.’ I ducked down and inspected the lower cages hoping they’d be as happy to see me as I was relieved to see them. Half a dozen woodpigeons stood awkwardly within the cage, their heads twisting left and right, preening rogue feathers and showing neither animosity nor affection toward their captor. The same ignorance was given to the miniscule radio transmitter tag wrapped around each of their ankles.

The cage, a former rabbit hutch, was painstakingly dragged over from the pet shop on the opposite side of the street (the actual bird cages 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 homely 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 into a tatty leather-bound journal. They didn’t fight me as I pulled at their feathers and prodded their beaks – they knew the drill by now. 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 for an answer to appear inside it. If only Alf was here, he’d whip up a diagnosis 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 spent a lifetime of bending the rules to breaking point, but shattering 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 was 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, bathing my workshop corner 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 disturbed the 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.

 

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 clear the sand off the solar panels, then it was only another hundred-foot climb up the century-old radio tower in gale force winds until I was cradling the radio dish in my arms.

Something out there was jamming every long-range frequency known to man. Not a single communications device in the area could register so much as a syllable of human speech--at least over a few miles. Shortwave radiod would carry in Hypoxia, but not too far. In the unrelenting wastes of post’pocalyptia, the death of the radio was accepted much in the same way one accepts that sand isn't food. Just another banal problem for Earth's last humans to tolerate.

Morons.

A radio jammer meant one thing: power. An electricity source outside of 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 one army or another, fuelled by solar panels or similar. I wasn’t buying it.

My thinking went like this; all radio frequencies were jammed. Every possible permutation of radio wave broadcast had and tested again and again (by people who knew their shit too), all with the same result. Nothing got through the static. Thing is though, all these permutations had been tested from the same damn place, the middle of the jungle, and our particular patch of middle of the jungle wasn’t even that much above sea level. If my understanding of decade old undergraduate college textbooks was correct, radio broadcasts were far more successful when broadcast from a height. You know, like a radio tower. Maybe if we got high enough we’d beat the jammer. I’d checked with everyone who might know and unbelievably, no one ever tested to see if the radios worked somewhere other than home.

Okay, that might have something to do with the hordes of bloodthirsty murderers that roamed outside the city walls.

Sometimes I lay in bed at night imagining all the conversations we could be missing between other, more intelligent hotspots who’d set up established radio networks. What other interactions were going on just over our horizons? Was it more war or something easier to swallow? Either way…

A heavy gust threatened to throw me from my perch. I clung to the metal tower as it whistled around and subsided. Then, taking care to be as precise as possible, I tilted the dish a fraction higher, and slightly to the right. The satellites were still up there (on a clear night you could still see them). Just got to get the angle right, and it wasn’t long until I was satisfied. 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 on.

‘This is Feenix DeSuza, does anyone read me?’

The static that replied told me two things: I’d fixed the dish but the transmission was still blocked, courtesy of whatever jammer had cluttered up the skies for the last seventy-five years. I spun the central dial to increase the frequency, then hit the reset button. I’d read somewhere that radios were slightly more efficient after a reset and at this point I’d take what I could get. It would take a minute for the T-1800 to switch back on.

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. I made a note not to forget the backpack of supplies I’d prepared days ago; I did actually scavenge…occasionally. It’s an essential role in our little end of the world encampment. Food and medicine? Sure thing. 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, stale candy, 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 everythingreally 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 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 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 for guitars).

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. Though I could always say I ran into Outliers. Or maybe Trix would forgive me when I told her of 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 frantically 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 neglected the slight headache, the twinge behind my retinas.

Despite being miles from the nearest body of water, I was drowning.

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

Empty. But how?

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.


 

Chapter Three - Gidget 1

 

Early Autumn, 2085

Journal,

It’s been a long time. Too long. And for that I can only apologise. So… sorry. Too much 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. I never expected him to search us. A few clumps of poorly cured goat meat’s hardly worth it right?. Scraps should be a prize to no man. When he found out, I thought he’d let it slidemaybe just beat me a little, the standard response. 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.

So yeah... It happened.

He did… did the thing.

No one else gave two shits, which I guess isn’t surprising. Fuckers. I’d care if it were them, wouldn’t I? If Sidewinder or Truck had it happen, I’d have said something surely.

No… I wouldn’t.

I’d have gawked like the rest of them. Slack jawed. Mind barren. They’ve got root in their pockets so why should they care? Journal, we’re utterly broken, aren’t we? A whole generation left hollow. No tears left to cry and no fucks left to give.

Thief.

That’s what he called me.

 

Practically all Boom would say, muttering it over and over again as he sharpened the knife as if the word itself was somehow bitter on his tongue. The fire in his eyes. I’ve never seen a man so angry. All rage, no human.

When it happened, the others sat back and watched. Sidewinder, Truck, Fife, even Foza didn’t make a squeak, just got all doe-eyed as the grass turned red. It hurt, Journal. Pain like nothing I’ve ever known. Like chewing red-hot coal. I thought I’d never stop crying, not until my tears had all dried up and the memory erased by the fever.

What body part gets removed for revenge…? I’d like to know.

 

He came in the evening. Wrenched the container door open and plopped himself next to me like he was a fucking triage nurse working nights. Said the air needed clearing. I could barely sit up, let alone tell him to eat shit and die. So I got to listen, lucky me. He talked for hours. 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 said 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 rule-breakers.

I don’t believe him.

Eventually he left. Kissed my cheek like he was all done tucking me in for the night. I spent the night wondering if he felt guilt. If he even knows it. Took me too long to realise it doesn’t matter either way. 

Problem is, I haven’t learned my lesson. I’m still gonna steal shit. We all do. We all have to. Rules got less value than pisswater when your leader is happy to let his people eat each other. 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, and I believe her. 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.

Should have 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. Only 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 Boom’s tongue out. Only this time I won’t be teaching any lessons… I’ll be hurting him as badly as I can.

Gidget

 

 

 

Chapter Four - 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. The dry drown is not suffocation. Suffocation would be bliss.

You taste it first, a plastic-like flavour that coats your tongue. The problem is that when you have a respirator stuffed between your teeth, tasting plastic is nothing new. The bitter taste soon moves to a strange sensation behind your eyes, as subtle as a fever in summer, part itch, part ache. It’s a feeling that any Scav worth his salt catches early, hell, half of dead-air training is symptom awareness and avoidance, recruits don’t get close to graduating without learning to taste the air like an bloodhound.

And yet my eyes were burning.

Three years studying how to read air: measuring oxygen levels, working ventilators, reading 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 asphyxiate before I got within fifty metres of the garden centre. If I walked, I had a chance. I knew I’d still have a 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 remaining 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 he 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 through the sliding glass door, precious metres away. 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 was a speedbump I couldn’t afford. Where was it? The handle eluded my fingertips, which felt like they were snuggled inside thick gloves. Only they were bare, just struggling to communicate with the rest of me. Come on, grab it.

 

My vision faded to a hole in the centre of throbbing blackness.

Click.

I slumped 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 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 was to blame for this ridiculous turn of events. 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 dry-drowning, and given that was how most Hypoxians died, I’d 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 not.

Eventually, my heart rate returned to its normal 38 beats per minute and I began to assess the severity of my situation. I was trapped. Alone in a secret hideaway with no breather, probable brain damage, and 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, braced myself 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 discovery any noxwalker 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 wore a low-jacked anklet. Training them to 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 flight paths.

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 spotan island about a hundred and fifty K south of Hypoxiaand 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 as 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 something. A crazy little kernel of an idea that I just couldn’t shake. The static and 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 I 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 absolute nirvana of discovering at worst, another civilisation, and at best, paradise. I could have single-handedly saved Hypoxia from extinction. Me, Feenix DeSuza, scav, nerd, noxbaby, 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 was 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 he was nocturnal, so I 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 went 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 like a 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?’

‘Stopped counting after a hundred.’ 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 at 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.

‘If you would just listen, I’ve got evidence of another hotspot like Hypoxia, there’s an island to the south, a hundred and fifty kilometres away!’


The man in the Stetson flinched, I thought I saw his hand momentarily move towards the revolver on his waist, but before I could be sure another bout of blinding pain ripped through my skull. Trix rubbed her knuckles and grabbed the GPS still clutched in my hand. Before I could shout ‘stop’ she launched it across the room with the force of a thunderbolt, where it vaporised against the birdhutch, much to the dismay of its inhabitants who squawked their indignation.  

‘If you don’t like how things are done you are more than welcome to make your mark. Otherwise keep your mouth shut and do as you are told.’

Accepting defeat, I nodded my understanding.

‘Making a mark’ was how someone challenged Hypoxia’s leadership. Unsurprisingly, our little end of the world ‘civilisation’ was not civil in the slightest, nor did its politics conform to any type of democracy or ordered governance. The title of Blackfang was awarded to the individual best suited to lead. And in Hypoxia’s waning atmosphere that meant the fittest, strongest person (something I thought was ridiculous). It was relatively simple, it you could prove beyond reasonable doubt that you were fitter than Trix, you could take her title and all the power that went with it. It was actually Trix herself who came up with the idea. The stories went that in her youth, she’d become increasingly frustrated with the previous Blackfang and questioned his right to lead by challenging him to a game of ‘bandana snatch’ (all while angrily throwing an axe into his tree trunk and ‘making her mark’, forever coining the term).

Bandana snatch is a training exercise used in the DAA. It involves sending groups out into dead air with no breathing apparatus, whoever reaches the planted bandana first wins. It’s incredibly dangerous and impossible without sufficient training. Many have died trying. I’d won a few rounds against other DAA recruits, but I’d lost some too, retreating back home with my tail between my legs.

So the former Blackfang accepted Trix’s challenge, and lost. Trix took his place but extended the offer to any other would-be leaders. There were six initial challenges. They’d all lost. Two of them died trying, and not one even came close. As a result, no one had made a mark in nine years and Trix’s tenure was secured.

‘We are leaving.’ Trix 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. Trix fiddled with the clasps of her oxygen tank, clearly unwilling to spend a second longer than necessary. Mallory plodded over to me, winked, and handed me a breather. When I opened my mouth, she raised a finger to her lips and patted me on the back sympathetically.

Trix slid open the door and ushered me into the atrium.

‘There is one advantage to this room full of oxygen.’ She said, slapping a box of matches into my hand. ‘Burn it.’

 

 

Chapter Five - Silver Linings

A stiff breeze droned 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. Noxwalkers only made up a tiny percentage of the jobs here, but everyone did something; carpenters, fishers, hunter gatherers, doctors, undertakers, cooks. 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 to get the most oxygen. I’d built mine myself years ago and aside from my terrarium, it was the only other place I’d ever called home.

I’d just finished going through my daily routine of removing all the animals that had crept into my room over 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. Survivors. 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 better worth fighting for.  

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 to go.’ I rubbed the back of my head where the stone had hit me.

‘Well, you hardly look ready, where’s your gun.’ Peri scowled and cupped her hands around her mouth.

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

‘Roger.’ I threw on a mottled t-shirt, giving it a shake first, and made a quick descent. I knew every branch like the back of my hand, I could, and often did, climb it in complete darkness. Within seconds I landed in front of Peri with a thump, my bare feet pale atop the dead leaf carpet.

‘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.

‘He doesn’t always visit, he likes to take his time, what with him being a sloth and all. Where’s your gun?’

‘At the Turtle, we’ll pick it up on the way, 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 was born seven months before me, and in that time, a hundred pregnancies failed and those born had survived no longer than a month. Together we made two eights of the 2088 (sort timeline) cohort. As teenagers we’d both shown an aptitude for all things physical. At just twelve Peri was wrestling full grown men and I was running marathons at record pace. We were part of the new generation. If you survived infancy in Hypoxia, you did so for good reason. Two years ago I’d put myself forward for Dead Air training, and Peri joined the Sentinelsnoxwalker soldiers that kept our city safe against Outliers.

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 with tiered 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 stick.

‘You don’t believe me, do you?’

Peri adjusted the empty gun strap on her shoulder ‘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 past 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? If not for the birds then for the signal. 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 Trix frog-marched me back into Hypoxia’s borders. As bad as the grilling in Sao Paolo had been, it was nothing compared to the hour-long scolding I’d got upon my return. Turns out she’d saved her venom for an audience. I’ve got to hand it to her, she put on quite a show, gathering a crowd, making me kneel in the dirt as they huddled around me, then lambasting away. It was practically a trial, only the judge, jury and executioner were one and the same person. She should have charged a viewing fee — come one, come all, wonder at the boy scav as he loses the last remnants of his dignity.

At least she never hit me. Not with so many watching.

After the show trial I’d skulked back home and used every last milligram of restraint to stop myself from either stealing a breather and running away, or climbing straight into Trix’s shack and punching her square in the teeth.

‘Bottom line Peri, we’d be idiots to not at least investigate this further, we know that Hypoxia’s days are numbered, when was the last time you ventured past the Scything? The rot’s worse than ever. 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 a lot 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.’ 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.

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

Peri hiked up the straps of her backpack and kept walking, seemingly eager to end the conversation.  

 

My punishment for the terrarium was to complete which ever 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 checking the apiary for parasites without a suit. ‘It’s like she’s actively finding creative ways to torment me.’ I’d said to anyone who would listen one night after mucking out the pigpen with a pink plastic spade.

‘That’s exactly what she’s doing.’ Came the replies.

‘And what does she think she’s doing taking away my weapon privileges, how am I supposed to protect us with my pistol locked in a box?’

Peri sighed and gazed up through the canopy where thin beams of light burst through, yellow spears hanging in the afternoon haze. She wanted this conversation done, but I couldn’t let that happen, not yet.

‘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, things seem 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 noxwalker 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.’

‘Hey, that was an important discovery, sloths are 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. She’d won, and I resigned to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the journey. Though when I came across a particularly large toadstool and couldn’t resist the urge to put my foot through it and paint the bark of the adjacent tree trunk in spongy white matter.

There was a swishing of grass and from the corner of my eye I saw the squat frame of Davus the gamemaster ambling towards us, two dead pheasants bouncing over his shoulder, and a spatter of mushroom across his left leg.

Davus was Hypoxia’s Chief Gatherer and there was no one better–the guy could track a deer in a hurricane and knew the name, location and preferred cooking style of every edible plant and animal Hypoxia was home to.

Shame he was such a colossal douchebag.  

‘Shouldn’t you two be doing something other than making a mess, or are your recent shortcomings something we should all get used to? You better add doing my laundry to your chore list, boy.’ He said pointing to his soiled trousers.

So, he’d heard the news and was here to twist the knife.

Peri stood between us.

‘He’s escorting me to duty as it happens, seeing as it’s on the way to his chores. Haven’t you got pheasants to pluck? Peri was a head taller than Davos and made use of every extra millimetre. The gamemaster’s cheeks reddened and he glanced down at a weathered wristwatch.

‘I wonder what Triska would say if she caught you late for duty Peridot? Especially nowadays, with all these raids and fires,’ he stepped to one side and regarded me as one regards a particularly wet turd they just stepped in, ‘would be a shame for you to cock-up twice in one week don’t you think? The Blackfanghardly needs any extra motivation to discipline you, yet here you are, making a mess.’

I took a step towards him.

‘Careful DeSuza.’ Davus said, patting the short-wave radio against his hip. ‘Or are you really that eager to spend the rest of your days on Triska’s naughty step?’

Jesus, this guy could be a real dickhole when he wanted. Five days ago, I might have socked him straight in his upturned nose, but given everything that had happened, maybe he had a point. I couldn’t afford any mishaps, not for a long while at least.

‘Why don’t we all just take a deep breath yeah?’ Peri interjected. ‘We’ll be on our way.’

‘Deep breaths are hard to come by in Hypoxia. Your man here should know that more than most.’ Davus said in a nasally whine.

‘He’s not my man, he’s my friend, if you had any you’d know what that meant.’ Peri snapped.

Davus rolled his eyes. ‘Then it’s your responsibility to keep him in line, or Triska 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.

‘Could that prick have his nose any further up Trix’s arsehole?’ I said as soon as the gamemaster trundled out of earshot. Peri grinned.

‘Looks like I’m your babysitter now.’

‘When was that ever not the case?’

 

We arrived at the Turtle about ten minutes later. Before us a corrugated iron roof, decorated with thick green moss domed over an ugly concrete crater. At the side there was a steep ramp heading inside giving the whole building the appearance of a (slightly mutated) turtle. I’d always liked the idea that our armoury was indeed, armoured – not a shred of canvas, unlike most other structures here.

Many things in post’pocalyptica were scarce, but when it came to instruments of murder, Hypoxia was surprisingly well-stocked. I guess that’s what you get when you combine a wasteland of discarded guns with a small and desperate community. Whenever a loothound returned with another weapon or box of ammo, it ended up behind steel fencing in the belly of The Turtle. Hell, in just six monthsof scavving, I’d brought at least fifty firearms here. There was nowhere safer. Which is why behind the rows of neatly stacked rifles and barrels of buckshot sat the most important piece of tech in all Hypoxia – the reclaimer.

The oxygen reclaimer was the only functional way of plucking O2from the air and squeezing it into tanks, without it, all our breathing apparatus would be about as much use as neon camouflage.

‘Afternoon Peridot, Feenix.’ Came the gruff voice of the Turtle’s sole employee, chief gun supervisor and queen of distillation, No-Teeth Pam. Pam was famous for two things; her inhibition shattering moonshine and the black hole residing in the centre of her face. The poor lass had taken a horseshoe to the gums – with the horse attached – and spent her teenage years removing fragments of teeth from her sinuses (apparently, she was still known to sneeze the occasional bit of molar). With her farriering days over, Trix handed her control of the Turtle.

‘Hey there Pammy, just stopping by to collect my gear.’ Peri said.

‘Been exschpecting you. Two seconds.’ Pam disappeared into the Turtle, a moment later she returned carrying a large rifle in one hand and a bundle of Kevlar in the other.

‘Thanks.’ Peri said as she inspected the rifle diligently. When she was satisfied, she threw on the bullet-proof vest and clipped an ammo belt round her waist. Due to her height the vest only offered protection to the top half of her abdomen, so she wriggled the belt upwards around her belly-button to at least offer some protection. I thumbed aimlessly at the phantom holster at my hip. Trix said she’d reinstate my weapon privileges ‘If and when the time called for it’, whatever that meant.

‘Won’t be long my boy.’ Pam winked as she read my mind.  

Can’t stop to chat Pammy, we’re on the clock.’ Peri said giving the vest a hearty punch as if to check it still worked.

‘Then I’ll see you after. I’m working on a batch of citrus rum I want you to try.’

We’ll be there. Later.’ Peri said over head shoulder as she ascended the ramp and trotted out of the Turtle. 

‘See you later Pam.’ I said and was relieved to see the gunsmith smile and wave me off. At least she hadn’t turned on me.

Though there was always that chance she simply hadn’t heard the news.  

 

As we moved away from Hypoxia’s busier districts our voices gradually became lonelier until they were the only sound present. Somehow, I’d managed to steer the conversation back to Trix. I guess since Peri hated her as much as me, she was equally happy to have a bitch and moan, and if complaining about your boss wasn’t therapy, I didn’t know what was.

‘You should have seen her face, it went so red I half expected her to have an aneurysm, worse than when Cal ate those 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.’ She said.

We giggled, but I soon felt the smile fade from my cheeks.

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 hadn’t made the list.

‘So what if you can’t scav anymore, it’s not like you’ve been doing it 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 me hard in the shoulder.

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

‘Just when I began to think you’d finally got over it. Eden is not real, it’s a dream, a fantasy, something to give hope to the masses, you know, so they don’t eat each other! Her face was glowing. ‘I swear every bad 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, and lock it tight.’

We finished the journey without talking. Peri occasionally tutted to herself as her inner monologue ran wild but she resisted the urge to say anything. Forty minutes later, a 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 my sinuses. A dozen crudely built shacks hovered before us on muddy stilts. The latrine pits — the only place in Hypoxia where you didn’twant to breath the air. There was reason they’d been built so far from camp.

‘Oh, that’s foul!’ Said Peri who I knew avoided this place at all costs, instead choosing to slip 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.

‘Figures. 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 have to 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! Besides I’ve got a feeling tonight’s the night I win the wager.’

Since neither of us had yet killed an Outlier, the wager stated that the first to do so could choose a tattoo that the other must get. It certainly livened things up. 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.

‘Thanks for the company.’ I muttered and pulled out the ‘scrubbing brush’ Trix had supplied me with.

I’d used bigger brushes for my teeth.

The next five hours weren’t pretty. 

 

Chapter Six - Outlier Attack

Only after spending an hour hunched under Hypoxia’s largest waterfall, biting my lip as a hundred tonnes of bone-chilling water pummelled my aching muscles, was I satisfied the stench of human waste had left me.

After my power wash, I spent the remaining sunlit hours stewing naked in in the cool waters of the Blueglass Lagoon, soothing my aching muscles, and scrubbing an unending supply of what I told myself was dirtfrom under my fingernails.

The water was coolest in the evenings, with the day’s heat radiated away. Blueglass was named for unique sheen the water held at this time. Under a full moon it was known to look so convincingly frozen, passers-by would pelt rocks through its surface just to be sure. I liked the lagoon at this time. Guaranteed peace and quiet. A stark contrast to the frenetic mornings of people clustering to wash linen, scrub crockery and bathe children.

A pair of dragonflies with luminous red underbellies flew past my ear, their bodies entwined in an insect waltz. They skated over the water and landed on my hand for the briefest of moments before lurching off into the undergrowth. I should try and capture them and bring them to the terrarium I thought before I cursed and remembered the orange flames sweeping through my home. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. Trix hadn’t just torched a building; she’d committed mass murder. I missed my birds, my plants and pollinators. I made fists with my hands until my fingers ached. Calm down, I told myself, blood roaring. At least she didn’t lock me inside with them.

I kicked out from the side of the lagoon and swam a few lengths alternating between breaststroke and backcrawl, thankful for the stillness of the water and the tickle of seagrass against my toes. With each length of the lagoon my mind drifted into a variety of fantasies, each involving me winning arguments with Trix, explaining in the most patronising way how I’d discovered Eden and saved us all, and watching Trix’s shit-eating grin slowly inverting as tears drew lines down her reddening cheeks. A crowd lifting me on to their shoulders and carrying me off into the sunset chanting my name. The daydream did a pretty sound job of boosting my dopamine levels.

I barely heard the first gunshot.

It wasn’t until the second and third that I was thrown out of my stupor. I cocked an air to the sky.

Two more distinct shots reverberated through the twilight. I stood waist deep in the water, mind racing.

Silence.

Maybe it was just some academy trainees on a routine drill. I began towards the pile of clothes at the lagoon’s edge. No, it couldn’t be a drill. Live fire drills were always conducted in dead-air. Always. I was miles from the gun range too.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

Gunfire but a different pitch, certainly not the kind that belonged to a Sentinel standard issue. We were being raided and from the south-west. Immediately, I clambered out of the lagoon and got dressed. If I was going to confront Outliers, you could bet your last tin of beans I wasn’t going to confront them in my birthday suit. I threw on a clean t-shirt and pants and made for the gunfire. The south-west was Peri’s patch. As I bolted through the jungle a lump grew in my throat and worst-case-scenario thoughts pooled in my mind. What if her last day on Earth was spent being angry at me? What if she was kidnapped and I never saw her again, how would she know I was sorry? Branches lashed at my face, and I felt something warm dribble down the left side of my chin.

 

‘She’ll be okay.’ I said to myself, over and over. This was Peri after all, despite her ridiculous fear of insects she was a force to be reckoned with in either a firefight or close quarters. Volskaat loved to tell the story of how she broke Gerrard Tyler’s arm on her first day of Training. ‘A bottled hurricane’ he’d called her. Peri had been earmarked for a whirlwind career in the Sentinels ever since. There was a blast so loud it I felt it between my teeth. An explosion? I quickened my pace.

I’d been running for about three minutes when I realised the gunfire had stopped. Was it over? What if I was too late? Unable to shake from my mind the image of Peri riddled with bullet holes, I urged myself to run faster, oblivious that at any moment I could be thrown headfirst into a fire fight with only my fists and a fastidious knowledge of the electromagnetic spectrum to protect me. I heard shouting, two, three, four separate voices. None of them Peri’s. A pang in my chest. Much slower now, I crept towards them, hoping the countless layers of ferns would obscure me should the voices not belong to my comrades. Another shout. They were just in front of me now. I sunk my knees into the jungle earth, praying the rustling of dead leaves didn’t give me away.

‘Were you born with shit for brains? Keep them at their stations for blight’s sake, who knows how many more of these bastards there could be.’ A familiar voice. Tyran Volskaat. Commander of the Sentinels, or as Peri referred to him after a few moonshines, ‘Sergeant dickhead’. 

‘Yes Sir, sorry Sir.’ An abnormally loud voice replied.  

‘Omega station, cancel that, keep all Sentinels at their posts, and uhm, stay alert.’

‘And lower your voice or bleeding ears’ll be the least of your problems. Christ we’ll be on double shifts for weeks now.’ The louder of the two voices relayed the relevant instructions over his short-wave radio at the exact same volume.

‘Don’t shoot, I’m a friendly’. I said through the underbrush, two rifles clicked towards my forehead. Hands above my head I took two slow steps through the foliage. ‘Scavenger Feenix DeSuza coming through.’

‘Desuza.’ Volskaat said lowering his rifle. His face was sour, beads of sweat filled the weathered patch of skin between his two bushy brows and the rhythm of his chest was quick, adrenaline yet to subside. His thinning hair was ruffled, and coarse clumps of dirt covered one side of his face. Next to him, and slightly slower to lower his rifle was a man I didn’t recognise, judging by his age he was new to the Sentinel gig, his cheeks were plagued by rosacea and even the patches of red hair around his chin couldn’t hide a badly receding jawline.

‘What in God’s green Earth are you doing here? Volskaat sneered and raised a palm. ‘You know what, I don’t want to know. just turn that scrawny scavenger butt around and march back to camp, let the ‘nels deal with this, last thing we need is another casualty.’ He nodded to the lad and they began to creep away. Anothercasualty? The lump in my throat doubled in size.

‘Volska–Sir, Peridot, do you know if she is okay? Have you seen her? This is her quadrant isn’t it?’ The second his shoulders began to sag I knew it was bad news. Volskaat place a hand on my shoulder.

‘They ambushed her. The bastards.’ He spat on the floor. ‘Harry here saw it.’ He nodded his head to the new recruit, he was ghostly white with a jellied trickle of red coming from his left ear.

‘Last I saw–‘

‘–Harry if you don’t lower you voice right now, I’ll shoot you where you stand.’ Volskaat spat, lifting up his rifle and using every inch of his six- and half-foot frame to let us both know he wasn’t bluffing.

‘Sorry Sir.’ Harry said finally at a reduced volume. ‘They chased her through the forest, three of ‘em. Brutes they were. I emptied a whole clip but, well, they brought grenades.’ He pointed to his ears. ‘And I lost them.’

I felt tears form in the corners of my eyes, this wasn’t really happening. I’d been with her only a few hours ago and now she was– I cleared my throat.

‘Where was the last place you saw her.’ I said to Harry. Volskaat replied, however.

‘Feenix, go home, there’s nothing you can do.’

‘I’m going with or without your permission.’ I said, wishing I was taller. Nothing this man would say or do could make me leave without Peri. Dead or alive I’d bring her home. Volskaat’s eyes narrowed as we held each other’s gaze but I was in no mood for games, I broke off the stare and looked at Harry.

‘Where?’

‘Uhm, that way, East. Maybe half a klick, she ran towards the Scything.’ I nodded my thanks and sprinted in the direction Harry had pointed, ignoring Volskaat’s trailing protests, half-hearted as they were.

I tasted bile as I again found myself racing between trees, hopping over roots and ducking under spools of thorned vines. At one point I ran face first into blanket thick spiderweb but didn’t stop to shudder. Peri needed my help. I wiped silk from my face and kept moving.

 

Eventually I emerged into a small clearing, fresh gunpowder filled my nostrils, the exposed brown earth of a small crater about the size of a large boar tugged heavily at my chest. Scattered around it were bullet casings, at least two dozen, all the same size. I picked one up. .45 calibre, recycled brass – made in Hypoxia. No sign of Peri though. There hadn’t been any more gunshots since before I ran into Volskaat, which meant the casings were at least three minutes old. Hoping my internal compass was still accurate I made for the Scything.

Moments later, dense forest abruptly faded into flatness. The canopy above replaced by a blanket of twilit sky. A vast expanse of blackened tree stumps filled every corner of my vision, stretching all the way to a bleary horizon.

The Scything. Hypoxia’s protective halo, its last bastion against shadowblight.

The clearing completely encircled Hypoxia, every tree, plant, fern and shrub hacked down and burned. A chain-link fence a few metres from the inside rim was the only form of quarantine against what few remaining wild animals were left past the scything (birds didn’t seem to transmit the shadowblight pathogen).

 

I was young when it happened, but I still remember the soot-stained eyes of the beaten workforce returning from a burn. Two years it took, first establishing two corridors of concentric rings with an arsenal of axes and chainsaws, then burning the in-between. All that sweat and blood was not for naught – should shadowblight ever creep its way towards our fair city, it would fall upon the scything like snow in fire. That was the plan anyway.

Fee?’

It was Peri! Slumped against the rusted links of the fence fifty meters to my right. Within seconds I was by her side.

‘I got one Fee.’ Peri said with a smile. Her face bore the kind of paleness one associated only with the very ill. Where I’d placed my knee at her side became cold, I pulled it back to see it covered in blood, courtesy of the small pool leaking from Peri’s side.

‘Don’t talk, you’re going to be okay. I looked around. Help!’ I yelled, not caring that my cries could be picked up by the very Outlier that had shot Peri. ‘We need help!’ Where was Volstaak and his damn radio?

‘Look, I won the wager.’ Peri gingerly raised an arm and pointed over my shoulder. I followed her finger to a slumped figure. A body.

‘They tried to sneak up on me, but I saw them, I knew what they were up to.’ I flicked a cockroach from her hair.

‘Peri, I need you to do me a massive favour and shut the hell up.’ I said looking around for something to stop the bleeding. Not finding anything I pulled my shirt off, folded it into a square and pushed it into the dark red of Peri’s abdomen. She didn’t wince, but when I pulled my hand away it was sodden with blood.

‘Hold on to that, keep pressure on it.’ I checked for an exit wound but couldn’t find one. That meant the bullet was still inside her, I didn’t know if that was good or bad, but it didn’t take a doctor to know she wouldn’t last long without help.

‘Help!’ I shouted again, my words thrummed across the scything and dissipated into the expanse. Help wasn’t coming. I had to think fast, there were doctors and first aid kits scattered around Hypoxias various districts, but that was a twenty-minute hike, forty minutes with a punctured Peri slung over my shoulders. There was no way she’d make it. I tapped the screen of my watch and selected the GPS setting. I was at the Southwest corner of the scything. There was only one option. I pulled Peri to her feet and began to pull her over my shoulders.

‘No, I can walk.’ She said in a frail voice.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Fee… I can walk.’

 

With her arm over me we sluggishly returned to the trees. I was shocked to see that she carried her own weight reasonably well, in fact, after the first minute I thought we’d make it in no time. But very quickly she started to deteriorate, the weight of her arm grew heavier, and her stride faltered. I could only grimace as her breathing became short and raspy.

‘I’ve picked out your tattoo.’ Peri said with a worrisome frailty. ‘How’d you like the sound of Trix’s face on your buttcheek?’ Peri chuckled but it soon turned into a nasty coughing fit.

‘For blight’s sake stop talking, it’s not much farther.’ I lied.

We fell several times. Collapsing into jungle detritus like drunks at New Year. Each time we clambered back to our feet and moved forward. Twice Peri refused to let me carry her. Probably for the best, her two-metre muscular frame didn’t exactly make her a featherweight, though I imagined the amount of blood she’d lost made her considerably lighter. My dead-air training had inadvertently prepared me for this. I knew how to manage hypoxic conditions, how to regulate my breathing and conserve energy, ensure that each step, each blinkwas as efficient and energy conserving as possible. Most people wouldn’t have made it a third of the way, their untrained muscles would’ve given out in minutes. But a DAA graduate was made of strong stuff. I roared forwards, not daring to look at Peri, terrified of what I might see. Her feet buckled, and we again collapsed to into the cool soil.

Screw this.

I stopped and pulled Peri onto my back like a breather, only far heavier. She didn’t protest this time. Each step was now slower, though the weight more manageable. It occurred to me that we’d be the easiest of targets for the Outliers, but something told me they were gone, at least for the time being.

 

After what felt like millennia, we arrived at a small stone shack, the smoking chimney the best thing I’d seen in weeks.

 

Chapter Seven - Gidget 2

July maybe? 2089

Journal,

I saw them again. The strange men. I’m not sure what they’re after but I’ve been around long enough to know there’s only bloodshed at the end of this. Men who carry guns don’t do it cus they like how shiny they are. They do it cus the bang makes their dicks hard. Shooting and fucking’s all they want. That and a full belly.

These men are strange but it don’t take an Einstein to know all they’re after trouble. We don’t get outsiders here often but when we do there’s more bullet casings in the mud. Brass carpet. That’s what Foza calls it.

These men. Can’t work out their tribe. Not breathers that’s for sure. I can count the number of them I seen on one hand and most of the time, they just want a quick death. Stupid breathers, you got air, food, medicine. It us got it tough.

Anyway, these men. Not breathers, and here’s the reasons why. First, they come by boat. Breathers hate water, they only like trees. Second reason is they dress different. Normally breathers wear normal clothes, shirts and coats, whatever they can get their hands on. Whatever they can take from dead bodies. Same clothes as us only theirs is cleaner. But these new men, they wearing something like I’ve never seen. Like no one’s ever seen. White jackets with collared shirts and cloth hanging from their necks like dead snakes. The tanks they carry are different too, smaller and shinier. Almost new. Someone should tell them they don’t need them here, not if they learn to breathe right.

That and a fistful of root.

Guns. That’s the third reason. These guys are packing artillery, bigger and shiner than I’ve ever seen. Make breather weapons look like water pistols. Maybe they will leave one behind. Could try and lift one.

The final reason how I know these men aren’t from here is definitely the best, that’s why I saved it for last. Mama says you always gotta save the best for last, so here it is. The boat that they come on, it’s small, more a raft than a boat, something mama would call a ‘dingy’. Well, there was something written on the side of it. I couldn’t read it at first, so I made a plan to get close, close enough to see without being heard. I snuck along the floor like a caterpillar, for ages and ages until I was just at the edge of the beach. The word was ‘EDEN’.

I know…

Mama doesn’t believe me. She says even if I wasn’t lying, I shouldn’t get hopes up. She says hope is a toy, something for babies to hold on to. She said I was a woman now, and have to focus on what matters. Food, shelter, air. But she also says I will always be her baby, so which is it?

Three times they have come now, always landing on the same beach, always in the middle of night. Last night I brought a compass, because I had an idea. When you go somewhere on a boat, you always drive in a straight line right? Because a straight line costs the least fuel. So, if I know what direction they are going, all I have to do is follow the same line and I’ll get there.

So guess what... I know the way to Eden. I will need a boat but there is plenty if you know where to look. Real problem is ocean air is dead, so I’ll need a tank. Guess where the nearest tank is?

Looks like I’m off to Breather Town.

Gidget

 

 

Chapter Eight - Optimism, naivety or necessity

 

‘They’ll be here soon.’ Alf said, switching off the receiver.

Porous cobblestone walls struggled to block out the evening’s twilight, casting the shack’s interior in a yellow haze; but Alf’s face remained dark as he made the final pass of his needle. Until today he’d never sutured a wound, at least not on something that wasn’t an overripe fruit. Not that you could tell, the neat row of stiches rising and falling with the steady rhythm of Peri’s breathing was an encouraging sight.

Alf wasn’t the sort most would describe as normal. Three decades spent locked away in his lab made sure of that. I watched him potter around his den as the last few drops of adrenaline ebbed from my system. As he moved back and forth, rifling through cupboards and wonky shelving for God knew what, he would talk to himself, or at least startto talk to himself – stringing together a few words and then stop, only to begin muttering about something entirely different seconds later. I’d never known anyone live so much inside their own head, yet there was no one I trusted more.

Only recently in his fifties, Alf looked much older, the leathery skin of his face did a terrific job of mimicking melted wax. Heavy rings under his eyes were barely hidden by the cumbersome steel frame of his glasses, which he habitually pushed back up his nose every thirty seconds. It baffled me how a man capable of such ingenuity was never able to fix his own wonky specs.

After opening the same cupboard draw three times and joyously liberating a scrap of cloth, he doused it in rainwater and began dabbing it against the numerous blood stains that adorned his waistcoat.

‘If this doesn’t come out it’ll be the third waistcoat I’ve had to toss this month, terribly sad to waste so fine a thing.’ He muttered.

I’d never been a man of fashion, I’d be lucky to get more than a few weeks out of most of clothes before they turned yellow with sweat or fell victim to one of my nose bleeds (an unfortunate symptom of dead air exposure), but that waistcoat was far from a ‘fine thing’. Like all his clothes, it was self-made; a nauseating blur of multi-coloured cloth, a size and a half too small for him. The thing looked like it had been sewn by a blind monkey with four fingers. In fact, the only ‘fine thing’ would be if Alf’s wardrobe accidently found itself in the path of a rampaging forest fire.

‘Which means I’ll need your help to–’ Somewhere behind a kettle whistled over a wood fire. He turned produced two mugs, seemingly from inside his waistcoat, and proceeded to fill them with boiling water. The smell of fresh tea was calming.

‘You’ll need my help to what, Alf?’

‘What’s that? Oh yes, I need you to, well, you know the drill.’ He pointed to the generator in the corner of the room.

Contraband.

Not the generator so much as the fuel. Fossil fuels had been widely banned in the years leading up to our planet’s collapse (too little too late of course) and were Hypoxia’s most valuable commodity since there was no infrastructure for renewables or hydrogen power. Official rules stated any fuels should be immediately and entirely handed over to ‘the people’. I often wondered how that included Trix’s personal electricity supply.

I grabbed some old sheets and flung them over the stack of long-life oil cannisters, then I took six oxygen tanks, one at a time, and added them to the many others hiding under the floorboards. Oxygen was Super-contraband, and any cannisters were to be handed over the DAA immediately. People had been exiled for much less. I took another sheet and clipped it into two brackets in the corner of the room, forming a makeshift ‘wall’, keeping Alf’s workbenches and his collection of scientific paraphernalia, out of sight, at least to the uninquisitive eye. Not that his gadgets and lab equipment were forbidden, but the inordinate volume of electricity they consumed was sure to raise questions, and Trix’s merry band of goons would have no problem in confiscating an old man’s toys. The only reason Alf managed to keep all this tech so long was that no one ever came to visit, except me and sometimes Peri. 

‘Thanks lad.’ Smiled Alf. ‘Now do me a favour and get cleaned up. I only got a little, but you’ve practically been swimming in it. He pointed a shaky finger at my chest. I looked down to see my whole torso painted in coagulated blood (my t-shirt I used to help stem the bleeding must have gotten lost on the way here). It was only in that moment I became acutely aware of the fact that it all belonged to my best friend. Pints of it probably. My hands were suddenly very sticky and my arms cold. I looked at my friend, still unconscious. Slumped unmoving on Alf’s bed.

‘She will be okay, won’t she Alf?’ The old man looked up from his tea and gave a weak smile.

‘Provided the antibiotics do their job, yes. The bullet went straight through and doesn’t appear to have hit any major arteries. I’d expect most to recover from such an injury, so someone like Peridot should have absolutely no problem recovering. She’s a Sentinel after all.’

It had been a turbulent arrival at Alf’s. Me kicking in the door and screaming for help. Peri flopping onto the floor and redecorating the boar-skin rugs. But in all the chaos Alf was as calm as they come, gently instructing me to put her on the bed, directing me to containers of gauze and rubbing alcohol, checking the exit wound and plugging the bleeding. The whole process had seemed to take forever, but given that there were still threads of daylight in the air, couldn’t have been longer than thirty minutes. He’d put her on a saline drip and helped her choke down a cocktail of painkillers. It was an impressive show that only strengthened my admiration for the man. In an emergency, he became the total opposite of himself, rock solid in every way. I’d seen it happen only a few times before, during raids. It was as if he was able to temporarily suspend his quirks for short bursts of time. Of course, now he was back to his peculiar self.

‘Spare clothes are over there.’ He said, making no indication towards where he was referring.

‘Where Alf?’

‘What’s that?’

‘Clothes?’

‘Oh yes my boy, the chest in the washroom.’


I headed through the door to the ‘washroom’. Even by Hypoxia’s standards calling a barrel of tepid rainwater and a cracked mirror a washroom was generous. In the corner was an empty chest but above it was a collection of tattered shirts hanging from a twisted gas pipe. It took a full ten minutes to clean myself, by the end the water left in the barrel could have passed for red paint. I rummaged through the assortment of clothes trying to find a shirt that didn’t make me want to vomit– to no avail– when I noticed that every single garment, including belts and shoes, was carefully embroidered with the letters E.E.

Eden Exists.

Hypoxia’s most knowledgeable conspiracy theorist came with a motto. I’m surprised the old man didn’t have it tattooed on his nutsack. Who knew, maybe he did.

 

Finally, I found something made from only one type of fabric and threw it over my still wet shoulders. Glancing in the mirror I saw that it actually said ‘Eden Exists’ across the chest, though in his infinite wisdom Alf had still decided to add ‘E.E’ above it. Then I heard voices.

‘Carefully – no not like that you bildgewad’

‘How else would we do it genius?’

‘Maybe in a way that doesn’t make her ooze like a burst blister. She’s lost a lot of blood you know.’

‘Gee really, couldn’t tell.’

Medical were in the building, and by all accounts were doing their best to screw things up.

It took them far too long to get Peri out of bed and on to the stretcher. The two clueless medics absentmindedly doing their jobs while boasting perfectly vacant expressions – their minds numb to suffering. This was just another day for them. May as well be delivering a fat lump of beef. If it wasn’t for the blood bank and morphine stores over in Medical, then I would have demanded they removed their calloused hands from her body and pissed off. 

I didn’t know the medics, but from their expressions they seemed to know me. Another perk of infamy. I swallowed. News in Hypoxia travels fast. Didn’t these pricks know that all I’d risked was for them? Of course, they didn’t. This was probably the furthest away from Hypoxia’s centre they’d been. The DAA had a name for their type–greenlungs.Wouldn’t last half an hour in dead air. Not a bad thing of course, these people were salt of the fungus tainted earth, and formed the majority of Hypoxia’s population. They earned their oxygen in other ways.

As they were carting Peri out the door, one of them glimpsed my t-shirt and scoffed, the other then glanced over and the two shared an exaggerated eye-roll. Great. So not only was I a rule-breaker, but now I was a rule-breaking conspirator. I felt blood rise in my cheeks. Was it treason to believe? I guess faith was only acceptable as long as a deity was involved.

‘We’ll take her from here.’ The taller of the two said, switching on his head torch and ducking out of the shack. I folded my arms. The temperature had dropped a lot in the last hour. ‘Oh, and before I forget, thought you should know, apparently they caught him, the one that got her.’ He nodded at Peri who still hadn’t stirred.

‘What do you mean?’ I said. The medic smiled.

‘The outlier that shot Peri. He’s with Trix.’

 

* * *

 

I crept through a carpet of jungle detritus, cursing every leaf and branch that cracked underfoot. Alf’s protests still ringing in my ears. It was evening, and nearly every corner of Hypoxia sat in shadow. Only a handful of buildings were granted power beyond sundown; medical, the turtle, and of course, the Hive.

I looked up and clenched my jaw. The tallest tree in Hypoxia loomed before me, over sixty vertigo inducing metres of organic real estate. Half-way up, a barrage of timber planks encased the trunk like a wooden tumour. The fractious mess of wood and nails once looked like a beehive, or at least, that’s what I’d been told, but due to years of ‘improvements’ (from people who’d learned joinery from the backs of woodworking pamphlets), the place now looked more like a diseased pinecone. In its 35-year history, The Hive had always housed the current Blackfang and in its tenure had welcomed a total of seven lodgers. Trix, the longest serving Blackfang, lived here for nearly half that time.

I kept my eyes out for any unsuspecting witnesses, but the place was bare. Every now and then there was a lull as the wind dropped and I could make out a faint beat thrumming in the distance. Friday night in the mess tent. A fiendish combination of live music and fermented fruit. This perfect snapshot of Hypoxian life–unproblematic happiness, glazed in an unyielding veneer of hope– was everything people wanted it to be and exactly what it wasn’t. No doubt No-Teeth Pam would be handing out free samples of her infamous mango-moonshine, and an inebriated crowd would raise their glasses to the brave Sentinels who’d once again kept Hypoxia safe while trying to steal a dance in orange lantern light. It was a distraction, an opportunity to numb the mind of the constant and unrelenting threat of extinction.  

Maybe it was the distraction I needed.

I could stroll over right now. Knock back a few drinks, maybe try my luck with some of those cute Academy first-years. The thought pushed straight to the back of my mind, even before Trix labelled me undesirable numero uno, I was never the kind of person to speak to girls I barely knew, and only ever made an appearance when Peri dragged me along (the girl was a natural dancer, me not so much). No. This was definitelya more productive use of my time.

A captiveoutlier.

 

I repeated the words in my head and continued towards the Hive, my mouth drying up with anticipation.

At the foot of the tree, I craned my head back to take in the entirety of the structure above, and was reminded of one thing. For all Trix’s bullshit about being ‘leader of the people, for the people’, she sure loved to look down on us. Why did power always come with an aerial view?

I stretched my fingers behind my back and took a final glance behind me. A trio of capybara ruffled a mould encrusted tarp making me jump. I hushed them on and then when I was sure nobody was watching, placed my foot on the first rung.

The only way into the Hive was via a series of 2 x 4s, nailed haphazardly into the trunk in two feet increments. Despite years of use and weathering, they still looked ready to cram my hands with splinters. Coating my hands in a fresh layer of saliva, I made the ascent as quickly and quietly as possible.

 

There was light coming from the Hive. If my intel was good the Outlier was in there with Trix and Salvador. How on Earth they’d got them up there I didn’t know. Maybe this thing has an express elevator or something.  

Butterflies gnawed at my insides. A living breathing Outlier. In the flesh. I dried sweaty hands on my trousers, ignored the logical voice in my head listing all the potential punishments Trix had for me should I get caught, and climbed the remaining few metres until I was at the bottom of the Hive’s first floor. Yep, firstfloor. What sort of treehouse needed multiple floors? Why so much space? At best she needed a bed, a desk and a chair. Maybe a fireplace to thaw her frozen heart.

Two metres from the threshold I heard voices. I stopped and shimmied round the side of the trunk, moving to an adjacent branch offered more cover from any wandering folk below.

I smelled tobacco but also something sweet, lotus oil or jasmine. The tobacco, I knew belonged to Salvador, Trix’s 200lb sack of muscle. Deputy Douchebag. An arsehole when sober and a violent arsehole when not, this prick carried the stench of tobacco with him everywhere he went, chewing at it like a gormless bullock. Rumour was he’s a former Outlier gone good and I didn’t doubt it for a second.  

 

"This isn’t working. Toss me that.’ Through the gaps in the floorboards above I could see two figures craned over something. One of them turned and took something from a shelf. ‘A whole bag of bloodroot if you can tell me where your friends are Outlier?" Said Trix. There was no reply.

What the hell is bloodroot? I wondered.

"She's stalling, making the most of the 20 percent OC, that or she’s as braindead as she looks. Anything going on in there little mouse?

Sal prodded what I now knew was the Outlier. I couldn’t tell if she was bound or just collapsed in a chair, either way she didn’t seem to move.

"Come on girl, why don't you–

 

He was interrupted by the distinct sound spitting, followed immediately by a sickening thudof flesh on flesh.

‘Calm it Sal. She’s no good to us unconscious.’

‘Yes ma’am.’

I heard shuffling.

‘Outlier. Let us not pretend you have many options here. You’re a smart girl yes? I mean look at you, here in the middle of Hypoxia. What your scoundrel comrades would say if they could see you now eh? So use that big brain. Saying nothing is only going to prolong your suffering. For every hour you spend not telling us what we want to know, the larger and more numerous your injures will become.’ There was a brief pause as the figure I knew to be Trix moved away from the Outlier.

‘Now I don’t take any pleasure in harming you–’

 

Thud.

‘But hedoes. So, unless you would like your bruises to have bruises, I’ll ask once again, why the attack tonight? One girl against an entire city? It’s unheard of. Was it opportunism, or naivety,’ Trix paused, ‘or necessity? What was the plan, sabotage? How many more of you are there?’

Silence.

There was a suggestion of frustration mixed into Trix’s questions. Surely she wasn’t surprised at the Outlier’s refusal to speak. They’re whole schtick was that they were hard as iron bars. Getting slapped around was part of their morning routine. I mean, these people ateeach other for blight’s sake. And if the stories were true that wasn’t the worst of it.

 

Sal spoke next.

‘Let me explain how the next few hours of your life are going to go. I’m going to drag you out of here by your hair. Chances are, due to your… aggressive disposition, I will struggle to get you down that ladder. You will fall, but it won’t be fatal. We’re not high enough. But there will be broken bones. Do you know what a compound fracture is?

There was a pause as Sal replaced his chewing tobacco. A fresh wave of tobacco wafted down through the slats. 

‘Then we go North, not too far. There’s a swamp up there, water so stagnant it’ll make you sick just looking at it. Once you are up to your waist you’ll be trapped like a fly in shit. It will be cold. Your skin will wrinkle and turn the colour of milk. It won’t be long until all these contusions get infected.’ He let out an exaggerated sigh and continued to speak as if he found the conversation somewhat boring. ‘Then I’ll cover your face in honey. Lots of bugs in Hypoxia, see our soil is still good, moist. Full of the little critters. We got worms, beetles, roaches, centipedes as long as your arm. Anyway. Did you know insects like honey? I thought bees made it and ate it themselves, but wouldn’t you know, if its got more than six legs, its just loveshoney. They like it the same way you lot like bloodroot, can’t get enough of the shit. Go after it like their life depends on it.’

I tasted bile on my tongue. I wanted this person to pay for what they’d done to Peri but… not like that. Even for Sal, that was messed up. I guess the rumours were true and he was a former Outlier after all. Death by bug banquet. The absolute worst humanity had to offer, though I suppose the constant threat of the dry-drown had blunted all remaining shards of morality. I could feel Peri writhing from here. How lucky I was that Trix only made me scrub toilets. 

‘I’ll give you a moment to think about your options.’ Sal sneered, and all went quiet.

I wanted more. I was finally close enough to share air with an Outlier, but I needed to know what she looked like. What she smelt like. What her face looked like as she digested Sal’s offer. I wanted to see her squirm. Taking every possible measure to make sure I wouldn’t be heard, I crept along the branch, my head a few inches from the floorboards, until I reached the back side of the treehouse. Trix must have had a rug or something, because the centimetre-wide gaps between the slats didn’t allow any light through. Wedging myself between the honeycomb framework and a nearby branch, I was able to shimmy upwards and carefully hoist myself up to an open window. I waited a few seconds, praying no one spotted my fingers gripping the window ledge, then allowed myself a peek.

Inside was not at all as I’d imagined it. I’d never seen anything like it. The furs of several indiscriminate mammals covered the floor, a range of elegant mirrors with golden frames adorned the walls. On the desk was a series of crystal decanters containing various volumes of what was almost certainly single malt scotch. Two dozen candles sat in ornately decorated sconces, slightly wilted from the equatorial heat but otherwise brand-new. Fire removed oxygen from the air, so flames of any kind were banned. Instead, the room was illuminated by several incandescent bulbs, the buzzing of Trix’s hidden oil generator thrummed gently through the wooden ceiling panels. Blood exploded in my cheeks. The most elaborate décor in the whole of Brazil, sat thirty meters above a patchwork tent village. If I see a King-size bed, I’m coming back with TNT.

I heard a scream and nearly chinned myself on the window frame. I held my breath as I waited for footsteps. They didn’t come so I slowly brought my head up once more. Thanks to the positioning of the mirrors and my eyes finally adjusting to the lamplight, I was able to make out three bodies, two standing and one seated. No, not seated. Hog tied. I risked poking my head through the window an extra inch. Trix and Sal had their backs to me so the chances of them seeing me were slim. The Outlier’s hands were tied, and she was slouched forwards, a thin line of blood stretching from her mouth to the floor. Hope it hurts, you red-toothed dickhole.

‘While this method of torture has proven, again and again to be a very effective means of persuasion, it does have its drawbacks. Sorry, how rude of me, I keep using big words.’ Sal paused before taking his time to perfectly enunciate his next words. ‘Torture takes too long. Wasting time we could use to rid this jungle of scum like you.’

Trix took over.

‘Time we could spend gathering food to support our young families or scavenging morphine for those in need of surgery, or teaching our students carpentry, or engineering or a hundred thousand other things that might even slightly increase the welfare of the 1244 souls that you came here to mutilate.’

Trix was mad. Though I couldn’t help but notice, nowhere near as angry as when she’d found my terrarium (should I be pissed or proud). Sal continued,

‘So to speed things up, I’m going to play dentist.’

Something glinted in Sal’s hand. Without a moment’s hesitation he grabbed the Outlier by the jaw and raised his arm.

‘Triska, seems we have an explanation.’

Trix leaned forward until both she and the Outlier were obscured by Sal’s massive frame.

‘No tongue.’

‘Barely a stump.’

‘Christ these people are beasts.’

I supressed a laugh. These morons had been spending the best part of God knows how long interrogating a mute. Outlier or not, it was always nice to see Trix stumble. Suddenly she seemed very human.  

‘Want me to get rid of her?’

‘Not right away, she has use yet. Seems we have caught the Outlier responsible for starting the fire in quadrant H4 last week.’

‘Clever. We could even say it was her who brought the blight across, if we can’t contain it I mean.’

Trix pursed her lips, ‘We will contain it Salvador, this is nothing more than a setback, you would do well to remember that.’

‘A setback it is, though you should tell the fellas that, not sure they’ll bite. They’re starting to moan too, about all the sweeps, plus it’s costing us a pretty penny keeping ‘em quiet.’ Trix moved over to where a green circle hung on the wall. It took me a few moments to work out that it was a map of Hypoxia. She tapped at a cluster of red crosses in the north-east corner.

‘Tell them to refine their searches to quadrants F and above, 1 to 7, stay between the fork of the Wyvern here,’ she pointed at the map, ‘and the edge of the scything here. When the blight strikes again that’s where it’ll be.’

‘Yup, this thing is like a hydra, burn one cluster and three more appear.’

‘That’s the good thing about shadowblight, there’s no telling the difference between an infected tree and a burned one.’ Trix’s expression hardened. ‘You better hire more guys. Your men are still happy to be paid in rations I presume?’

‘All they talk about.’

‘And you’re sure they won’t talk?’

‘Not these guys, tough as nails and as honourable as they come. That and they get the same honey-swamp speech I just gave the girl – stops any tattling.’

‘A big secret to keep for extra rations. But if, you’re sure.’ Trix trailed off. ‘Chumps should have asked for weapons.’

The muscles in my arms turned to jelly and I lowered myself back onto the branch. What the hell had I just heard? Shadowblight in Hypoxia? And the fires? Just Trix’s way of covering her tracks. How could she not have told us? What did this mean? A million other questions raced through my head. But they all shared the same theme. We were fucked.

I balled my hands into white-knuckled fists. I wanted to scream. To throw myself over the window ledge and blast insults at my so-called leader. But anger wasn’t the only thing coursing through my veins. I was scared. The scything had for years been our last line of protection, and for years it had held. The seemingly magical quality that allowed Hypoxia to survive had dissipated in an instant. It seemed all too obvious now that shadowblight was and had always been inevitable, something the people of Hypoxia, me included, had allowed themselves to forget. Ignorance had for years been the fuel allowing us to get out of bed each morning, that and a dash of optimism. I’d never felt so exposed, so vunerable, so stupid.

My internal revelations were interrupted by a fresh wave of silence. The generator was no longer whirring. A second later the beams of light that jutted from the gaps between the woodwork faded.

‘Blight’s sake, grab a torch would yo–

Something heavy collided with the floor and there was a scuffle. I heard Trix scream and shout something about her rifle. I had a split second to decide whether to run or help, I turned around and met a pair of bloodshot eyes.

The Outlier was young. Not much older than myself I guessed. In the moonlight her skin was a milky white. Mottled strands of hair hung in front of her face, the colour of blood. Though I couldn’t tell if that was because her hair was naturally that colour or because of the gaping headwound above her left eye. Her clothes consisted of a tatty pair of ripped cargo shorts and a yellowing tank-top which did little to hide a polished set of abdominals. Our eyes locked for a micro-eternity. This was the person responsible for the hole in Peri’s gut. This was an Outlier. My chest filled with ice. All the times I’d imagined this moment, not once did it take place inside Hypoxia, and not once was I unarmed. Her teeth flashed revealing red stains, a side effect of her cannibalistic diet.

I threw a fist at her face and missed by an embarrassingly large distance, nearly losing my footing as the momentum whirled me sideways. The Outlier snapped forwards with far greater precision, grabbing my wrist in wormlike fingers and throwing me from my perch. I fell a few metres until my whole body folded around a branch like a book being snapped shut, knocking the wind from me. In an instant she was on me, the pointed caps of her hiking denting my ribs as she tried to send me falling. I dug my fingernails into the soft bark and prayed for the kicking to stop. A prayer answered instantly when she grasped the hair above my neck and yanked my head back before slamming it back into the branch. I felt my forehead rupture as its skin peeled away. I think I tried to say something, but the words got lost with cries of pain and desperation. Again, she smashed my head into the branch. I was completely helpless. My face felt like it was inside out. I tried to wrestle her off, but she held me in place with unyielding determination, so I did the only thing I could do.

I rolled.

Most people who fall thirty metres don’t live to tell the tale. Lucky for me there were a multitude of branches waiting to break my fall. Each one slowing my fall the way a conga line of people slows a high calibre bullet. Pain consumed me as I fought the urge to slip into unconsciousness. To my side, sprawled face down in the leaves was the Outlier. She wasn’t moving.

‘DeSuza!’ Trix’s voice bellowed from HQ. ‘Salvador, my rifle, now.’

Shit. No time to process what just happened. No time to listen to the howls of my battered nervous system as it protested every movement. All that mattered was that Trix finally had her excuse to shoot me dead, and that was all she needed. I clambered to my feet as fast as my body would let me. Fire roared up my ankle and all the fingers on my left hand felt like they were clamped in a vice. I had to check they were all still there, and they were, only at distorted angles I didn’t have time to process.

I needed a plan. What I would have done for just fifteen seconds of clarity.

Trix landed gracefully at the bottom of the Hive, rifle in hand–a twisted smile played across her lips.

‘I think she’s unconscious, but you should tie her up just in case.’ I said, pointing to the Outlier. But the Blackfang’s attention was all on me. She took a few steps forwards, pointing her rifle at my chest. My heart lurched.

‘How much did you hear?’ She said calmly.

‘Nothing, I didn’t hear anything I promise.’

Trix pulled back the bolt, loading a round into the chamber. A round with my name on it. Trembling, I put my hands up.

‘If you shoot me, you’ll have a hell of a job explaining why.’

Trix face hardened into what I initially thought was anger but when she shook her head from side to side I saw that it was actually disappointment.

‘At what point does your naivety become common stupidity DeSuza? This city is filled with people who’d sooner die than let injustice seep into our walls, but not one of them will shed a tear over an Outlier sympathiser,’ she gritted her teeth, ‘especially one as high on the shit-list as you.’

‘Triska please just listen...’

Her face darkened and I knew that listening was not something she ever intended to do.

‘Know that I amsorry.’

A cloud of splinters erupted at the side of Trix’s face. The outlier threw down what was left of the half-rotted log and bolted into the woods. Before I had time to process what just happened, mud splattered upwards as a small crater emerged inches to my left, courtesy of Salvador’s .44.

For the second time that day I found myself running through the jungle to the sound of gunfire.

 

***

 

They wanted me dead. Cold and in the ground ASAP–at least, that’s what their smoking guns told me. My ankle roared, each step away from my pursuers felt as though the bones had been replaced with broken glass. I hobbled as best I could, all while trying to work out both where I was and where I ought to get to. Was this actually happening? I thought about hiding but where the hell was there to hide in thinning rainforest – I was in no state to start climbing trees and there wasn’t a tent or tarp to be seen. I couldn’t go to Alf’s because that would be the first place they’d look for me, right after my treehouse anyway, which I’d never see again.

I caught my breath in the folds of some large tree roots, which stood either side of me like wooden panels. The trees in Hypoxia were so massive that even above ground their root systems often stood taller than a man; the little alcoves usually home to fungi and spider webs now cradled a scared and lonely human as he fought back tears.

 

I didn’t think they’d find me here, not as long as I was quiet. Trix was determined but fortunately lacked the manpower to search every nook and cranny in Hypoxia. Every few seconds I’d peer over the sides hoping to catch a glimpse of Trix or Sal giving up and returning home. Maybe even another one of her armed goons. But no one came. In no rush to again expose myself I turned my attention instead to what I could hear. Aside from my own beating heart, which thanks to my dead-air training was already returning to its resting rate, this little corner of jungle was eerily quiet. Could I just stay here? Tucked away in the bosom of this Brazil nut tree? No. A strategy was needed if I wanted to see my next birthday (which despite the madness of the last 24 hours, I still did).

Voices.

‘I’m tellin’ ya, she’s into me, you saw how she was, she wants Cal and Cal want her, just not tonight is all. It’s okay, I can pace me-self.’

Drunks heading home.

‘By the way, anyone ever told you you’re a handsome little devil?’ The voice hiccupped as I pressed myself further into the tree’s recess.

‘Yes they have brother, though I do not tire of hearing it.’ Came a far less slurred response. ‘Anyone ever told you not to drink moonshine from a bucket? Let’s get you home.’

‘Aye but only if you join me in a little sing-song. Wotcha in the mood for, 70s, 80s or 90s? Perhaps somethin’ a teeny bit more contemporary?’

Wait a minute, I recognised those voices. Distinct British accents that may or may not have been cockney. They belonged to Cal and Ren Boiga. Cal and Ren were twins, a formidable duo, perfectly settled in post-pocalyptic chaos. They were fellow scavs. Not only that but they were only a year or so older than me– fellow survivors of the infant mortality crisis. I considered them close friends, though they’d probably use the word acquaintances. Like me, nature had selected them a superior respiratory system which they put to good use and were arguably much better at it too.

They passed in front of me, Ren offering a supporting arm to his inebriated clone, and I resisted the urge to call out to them. As helpful as they would be right now, I couldn’t risk bringing any attention to myself, especially with Cal in the state he was in. Both twins were known to have explosive personalities even when sober. All it would take was Cal blurting out my name and I was toast.

So I waited some more and tried to come up with something, anything that even remotely resembled a plan.

If I had a breather (and two working legs), I could make for Sao Paolo, find myself another abandoned garden centre with viable plantlets and start a new terrarium. Only the nearest breathers were the other side of Hypoxia, guarded by Sentinels much better shots than me. Or I could head somewhere public, somewhere with an audience so Trix would be forced to detain me rather than kill me. Except all she’d have to do is cart me back to the Hive and kill me there. I wished Peri was here. She’d have this whole mess sorted with the snap of her fingers. But she wasn’t here. I was cold, alone and judging by the red stains blossoming under my clothes, bleeding.

So I ran.

I ran until I hit the Scything. Emerging not thirty metres from where Peri had been shot, a pool of dry blood ominously marking the spot. Instinct must have brought me here and thank God it had. Next to the pool was Peri’s rifle. I recognised the frayed leather strap and scratched barrel instantly – an old weapon entrusted to a young soldier. I picked it up and checked the barrel. One round left. It would have to do.

There was a jarring thud as I was thrown into white light. The Scything suddenly illuminated by towering floodlights. Trix must have radioed it in. I slunk back to the nearest tree, using its trunk to hide, though no attackers came forward. After I was sure I was still alone I resided to cross the Scything and find shelter. It was unlikely I’d be followed, provided I crossed without detection. All I had to do was stay in the treeline and make my way towards a section of fence that fell in a blind spot between floodlights. I bit my lip with each step as fresh waves of pain crashed against my ankle. Fortunately, there were hundreds of blind spots, and it only took a few minutes until I found a suitably gloomy section of chain-link fence. Even with my busted leg it shouldn’t be too difficult to climb– its flimsy frame barely taller than me.

I steadied myself. Past the Scything meant, dead air, bloodthirsty Outliers and blight knew what else. But inside meant a bullet in my skull. If I could just find somewhere to lay low for a few days, get some rest, allow Trix to cool off, I’m sure I could come back and fix things. Find an olive branch somewhere. Peri would vouch for me, Alf and Mallory too.

Then I saw her. Skulking in the pale moonlight. She was limping too, though not as badly as me. There was something alien about the way she moved; clumsy posture bouncing matted red hair around her shoulders. I half expected to see her knuckles hit the floor and start bouncing forward like an ape. She too was making her way towards my darkened patch of fencing, though not even remotely trying to mask her movements which were cumbersome and loud. The redtooth was stealing my escape plan!

‘Don’t take another step.’

Without realising, I’d aimed the rifle at her head.

 

Chapter Nine - Gidget 3

[Rewrite notes: Change voice to be more Gidgety, include details of the questions Trix was asking and why Gidget had been captured and not killed (which is usually the norm)]

Summer 2089

Temporary Journal,

That… didn’t go as planned, but at least I’m still breathing. I was really stupid to think I could just waltz into breather territory no questions asked. Their patrols picked me up about five minutes after I’d crossed their border. Damn fence was too loud, I think they heard the bolt cutters. As soon as I started shooting I knew I’d made a mistake. Long story short, they got me, and I’ve got the head wound to prove it. I shot one of them too, some lanky girl who threw herself between me and my exit (I should tell Boom, might get a reward or something). She did just enough, so she’ll probably get a hero’s funeral. I don’t feel too guilty.

They dragged me into the centre of the city, but they blindfolded me so I didn’t see much, just heard them talking about what to do to me. Thought breathers were supposed to have consciences. That’s why they won’t let us in. Didn’t take them long to start knocking me around though. I don’t think they realised I can’t speak. Not that it matters, the little tickles they gave me hardly qualified as interrogation.

Not surprising I was able to escape. You’d think children of the apocalypse could tie a half-decent knot. Still, I’m very lucky, I think I must be the only outsiders to enter The Breathing City and leave with their life.

So, here’s the interesting thing. There’s this guy, a breather I think, though I reckon he won’t be much longer. Ran in to him when I was escaping. He tried to get me, well I say tried to, I still can’t work out what he was trying to do. But he has his gun on me, it’s this cute little pistol (the kind given to kids on their weapon day). Anyway, I was this close to escaping and he tells me to stop. I turn round ready to give him the ‘I’ll do anything to survive’ eyes and see his shirt. Big letters on the front that say ‘EDEN’. I’m not sure what it was, maybe he saw it on my face but I think he could tell that I knew something about Eden. Either way enough doubt entered his head for me to take his gun and point it on him. He started making so much noise I should have shot him then and there but that would’ve thrown a bone in the gears. Why do they call it a pistol whip? More like a pistol hammer to me. Boy went down like a sack of shit. Did not enjoy carrying him here, lucky for me he’s small.

He’s here with me now, fast asleep like a little lamb.

I’m not home, couldn’t make it that far, not even close. So, we’re holed up in the cave. Been a while. Good job I never cleared it up. There’s shitloads of cool stuff here, like my first butterfly knife and all my old school books. That’s why I’m writing this in the back of ‘Laws of the Jungle’. I’ll cut this out and stick it in my actual Journal when I get back. 

 

 

 

Anyway, this might be the best thing that could have happened. My ticket to Eden.

Just hope this guy isn’t as dumb as he looks. 




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