For once, Blagdan was grateful it was winter. The grey sleet bombarded the rail pod’s plexiglass window. The passing metroscape blurred into a glittering smear of light and dark as the sun fled the sky.
He was glad for the thick cap which he pulled further down over his ears. The scarf was wrapped double round his neck covering his chin and mouth, and his hands were buried in oversized gloves. His feet rattled, naked in the large boots that he had tightly laced not twenty minutes ago. The huge, thick jacket nearly compensated for the thin medical gown he still wore under the hurriedly donned medtech uniform.
He wondered who Smith would have been going home to, and what kind of welcome he would have received. The portly grey-haired medtech had been kind, after a fashion. He had always spoken softly to the boy, and took less pleasure in the painful procedures that had become Blagdan’s daily ration.
The boy shuddered. Smith had been made strange in his death. His familiar face had been so indefinably altered that the boy had not recognised him when he found his crumpled form at the medtech station.
Blagdan had hovered. Scant moments of confusion and indecision stretched into infinity. The analog timepiece fixed on the wall behind the station ticked loudly, echoing down the empty corridors.
In an instant he was released into a frenzy of action. Grabbing Smith’s pass card, he fled to the forbidden staff change room. Scrambling into Smith’s outdoor wear had taken only a few frantic heart beats. Before he had even taken stock of the situation, he found himself shivering on the grey sidewalk outside the Facility. He gathered his wits, and set off purposefully towards the busiest end of the walkway.
He slipped unnoticed into the throng of pedestrians and was shepherded, unchallenged, to the rail pod depot. Finding Smith’s boarding ticket in the huge jacket pocket had been sheer luck. As he swiped it over the rail pod reader, it glowed and the number of remaining trips lit up on its face: 17.
And so he had joined the bewildering crush of humanity that was the daily commute to the Outermost Rim. Until now, the boy’s only experience of his fellow Ring dwellers had been filtered through the clinical, flat screen of the viewer in the Facility lounge.
He felt strangely mislocated, as if he had stumbled onto a vast stage of life-like puppets; each driven with some mysterious purpose. Everyone was in on the story, except him. They had their lines, they were drawn on and off the stage by an invisible organising force. He alone was directionless, so he allowed the ebb and flow of everyone else’s script to draw him along.
The railpod was just warm enough, and he was presented with an ever changing mass of people to keep him alert. Some were older than he had ever seen in the flesh. But most were young. All of them were dressed in drab outdoor wear. He was glad for that: he blended right in.
Soon though, his eyes drooped and his chin dropped to his muffled chest. Leaning against the chilled glass of the rail pod’s window, he surrendered to sleep.
His consciousness split into two parts. One, the Watcher, was aware of his sleeping body, the other, the Actor, was engrossed in the story unfolding in his mind.
The Watcher was aware that this was an unusual occurrence: this dreaming. It remembered that, at the Facility, he never dreamed. Not ever. Not even once.
The Actor wore the dream like a cloak. Wrapped in its dark folds it was enthralled and appalled by the events playing out.
A small, dirty boy was crouched in the shell-battered remains of a large communal dwelling. The boy was afraid. He was hiding. Trying to be small like the ever-present scampering rodents, he breathed shallowly through parted lips.
His frail, hungry body stretched taught at the unmistakeable sound of a mechanical maneuvering the rubble strewn street. His body ran blistering hot, then freezing cold while he hovered there, ready for pointless flight.
You never got away from a mechanical.
Once you moved, you were as good as dead.
Against his most visceral of instincts, the boy lay face down across the crumbled doorjamb, and surrendered to the cold. His breath faded to the slightest flutter. His core temperature hovered and dropped to dangerously low.
The boy felt his spirit rise from his near corpse and soar to the sky.
There! There it was!
Swooping in, like the smallest sparrow, he circled the mechanical.
It was a Harvester and not a Exterminator. The broad yellow stripes across its upper armature clearly marked its intent. So did the cage in its tow. There was already a rumpled crop, lying in an unconscious heap in one corner.
Arms and legs tangled obscenely with tousled heads and pale white torsos. Unconscious, semi-naked and now lost to some unimaginable fate. The boy knew each one. They had scavenged and squabbled together through the ruins and bitter winter.
Aching with loss he fled to hide in the eves of a roofless church a few meters from where his abandoned body lay.
The train shuddered, and Blagdan struggled up from the depths of his dream.
The rail pod was an oasis of light adrift in a desert of implacable blackness. Looking out the window was pointless, as there was nothing to see, other than his ghostly reflection and a faint shadow of his breath.
He was now completely alone in the rail pod as it glided on sibilant tracks through the night. He surrendered to the hypnotic flow of movement-sensed rather than movement-known.
The dream had faded rapidly leaving only a faint sense of unease. As his mind floated, cocooned from his surroundings, he wondered how long it would take before his opportunistic flight would have been noticed. Would they care? Would they come looking for him?
He only Knew that he needed to get as much space between himself and his erstwhile keepers as possible.
A faint blush appeared on the horizon, heralding a hesitant dawn. As the sun rose any hint of colour was bleached from the crumbled landscape.
Mile after mile of decaying city stretched as far as he could see. Buildings sagged under the weight of the despair they bore. They wore the unmistakeable mark of war. Here a solid wall, there a gaping hole. Here a complete facade, there a mangle of metal and abused plumbing. And never a sign of life or habitation.
He felt the emptiness against his mind as much as against his skin. Millions of fragments of homes, places of work, markets and factories slowly folding in on themselves, as gravity and the elements wreaked their havoc.
Feeling suddenly hungry, Blagdan searched the pockets of Smith’s overcoat. A small stash of credit chits, but no food. Just a corner of white paper with what looked like a date scribbled in handwriting on it. That caused him to take a second look. Few people actually wrote any more. ThirtyDay SevenMonth FiftyWinter. He paused again. That was two hundred and fifty years ago. To the day.
He rummaged through his memory, with little success. All that he knew had been gleaned from watching life unfold on the Facility viewer. He had no way of knowing if what he saw was fact or entertainment fiction.
He also realised that he had no way of Knowing how long he had been kept at the Facility. In all the time he could remember, Blagdan was never sure if the painful injections, biopsies and surgeries were therapeutic or exploratory.
A wry smile twisted his lips. “I guess I am about to find out.” Blagdan surprised himself by saying the words out aloud. Laughter bubbled in his throat, as the enormity of his escape flooded around him.
Food! He would have to go and look for some.
Turning to the back of the rail pod, he wove his way down the aisle. Reaching the plexiglass door, he paused, the waist-height sensor detected him, and the door slid open into a much smaller connecting cabin. There he found a Convenience, a water dispenser, and a food dispenser.
He raided Smith’s supply of credit chits. Pulling out the right denomination, he inserted it into the payment slot and made his selection: six protein bars and two vitamin drinks. Not knowing when he would find food again, he stashed one small bottle and five of the bars in the inside pockets of the overcoat.
Armed with his breakfast he headed to the next pod.
Dismal rain still smudged the bleak landscape as the sun rose dejectedly into the sky.
He sat , licking sticky crumbs off his fingers, pondering the lack of life in the monotonously grey landscape, when the forward door slid open, and a dishevelled rail pod employee entered. The man nodded at Blagdan as he hurried past, towards the rear door, and with no more ado, was gone.
After a couple of hours, Blagdan was bored, and stiff with sitting. Whilst he was still contemplating his next move, the rail pod track curved in a graceful arc and the battered relic of a station zoomed into view through the water mottled window. Impulsively, he stood and made his way to the nearest Exit sign, and hovered at the plexiglass doors.
The sensor at the door did its magic, and the rail pod slowed at the siding. The doors wooshed open and Blagdan was buffeted by an acrid, blustery wind. Stepping onto the pocked plastcrete platform, he was caught by the wind, and swept along to the ramshackle building.
It, too, had been gnawed by time, decay and the ancient violence that had scarred the passing city. He fumbled for his ticket. He swiped it across the reader. It registered his trip and opened the grubby door into the artificially lit hall.
It was deserted, and only marginally warmer than the platform had been. The lights flickered sullenly, with a loud buzzing. The blighted wooden seating wilted against blistered, peeling walls. His rain doused boots left a muddy trail across the dusty floor.
Blagdan crossed the narrow hall and, pushing through the double swing doors, and found himself on the side of a well worn dirt track. The dereliction of the surrounding area was partially shielded by a row of square, flat roofed shacks. To Blagdan they took on the demeanour of imperilled sentries, standing guard against the leading edge of the wild and tangled rock jungle.
Although the shacks were clearly inhabited, there was no sign of movement, and the early morning light cast dim shadows across the darkened, shielded windows.
He looked both ways down the dreary, cinder encrusted track. The right side curved back along the rail pod track, through the endless ruins. The left side veered away from the track into the decaying urban wilderness. Through the haze of the drizzle he could see the suggestion of mountains.
Without further hesitation, he headed down the left side of the track.
The mountains tugged at his senses, drawing him irresistibly along.
The rhythm of his steps crunching on the road echoed the gentle huff of his breaths. His mind was blank. All that existed was the endless movement of his legs and arms, and the taste of the air.
© Kim Magennis 2016
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