Another half-chapter to tickle your tastebuds.
I’m working on removing some of the distance I’ve created between the reader and the character – being a little more direct in places, shortening sentences. A work in progress, most certainly!
Flecks of snow fell unhurriedly toward the ground, hoping to join up with their predecessors. Remember those who have gone before to prepare the land for your arrival. The Book of Mars, chapter eight. Our only hope, so we were told. Our only hope to escape the Winter that would never end. This one was supposed to last a whole year, or thereabouts.
I found myself standing in front of a section of railway track. Before the winter started they warned us about the disruption. The right countries were well cared for. Not us. We sold our friends and bought cheaper ones. Last year was frightening like that. The speed it happened, the clever misdirection, just the right scapegoating. I wondered when the trains last ran along here, somewhere just outside of Prophet’s Outpost. Which line was this? All I could think, past the pain in my feet, was how it would have made a great photograph of the desolation of winter.
Perhaps it went to the City. There weren’t really cities anymore, not in the plural sense. There were Outposts, and the City. They all used to have names, before the Collapse. For a time after, too. London. The City since… 2068? Somewhere around there. Buildings that to the layperson defied gravity and logic, with clever advances in architecture allowing for free-form structures, impossible angles and balance points. They were still there, most of them. Nothing new since then. Plenty of space now, if you can be bothered to hustle for it.
Beyond the piece of railway track was little more than a vanishing view of the snow. My eyes still couldn’t adjust to the darkness outside of the circle of light. A second lamp flickered about thirty metres away, faintly buzzing with the sound of faltering electricity, and intermittently illuminating more of the railway, a wooden shed, and some sort of generator. Our power came to us from overseas, where it wasn’t winter. Electricity, I mean. We don’t have the means to produce much here anymore. Solar panels seemed like a stupid investment in the persistent cloud and snow. I’ve not seen the Sun for a few months. This winter was going to be a long one. We might only get a couple of days’ light this year. China, however, now they were having a very mild winter. Not much Sun either, apparently. Nowhere does anymore. Not really worth being Terratan. That’s the point, I guess. That’s how we’re supposed to feel. I wished I was there, though. They’d got the post-Collapse world all figured out. So I’d heard.
Meanwhile our lights flickered, or went out. We were fine last summer, but for the previous winter the lights would go out after just a few hours after the sun set, leaving long, dangerous nights that imposed a natural curfew, if you weren’t either brave or insane.
After the decline, people stopped getting married. My business went downhill. Actors and geishas didn’t want headshots. Couldn’t afford it. The best career that year was in security. The rich paid high to keep what they had and maintain the hegemony. Mùguāng sìchù. Everyone was watched by everyone else.
So my choices were limited to hypothermia, or severe pain for a few minutes as I walked. Though, perhaps at least the fresh snow would cushion my blue feet a little.
That strange idea of cushions and comfort might have been what made me choose to march. I bent down to pick up my one weapon – two weapons, I suppose; the knuckledusters – and walked carefully to the edge of the lit area. I looked at my feet again and felt the cold stabbing through them like millions of knives now. Pain, I told myself, was good. It was a sign the cells were alive. And food, I needed food. It must have been less than fifty paces to the shed. See, I told myself, you can do it, it’s not far, not much to suffer through.
I fixed my gaze on the shed and put one foot in front of the other. One, two, three, four… I counted my way to the shed with the same determination and technique I once used to get through a fifty kilometre run I did recently. One foot in front of the other, count every pace. Counting means it’s finite. Counting means there’s a number that means it’s over. I picked it up from reading a blog by a famous marathon runner… I could’ve named them in my training. The big names that appeared on advertising for energy drinks and gels, tubs of protein powder and adverts for running shoes. I learned how easy it was to trick the brain – you could get through boredom, pain, and other unpleasant sensations by counting. Seven, eight, nine, ten, one, two… It was more than fifty paces, but that didn’t matter. Amongst the freezing pain in my feet, legs, hands, and head, I had managed to quite deliberately forget how many times I counted to ten. That was the beauty.
I was closer now, and just outside the shed and to the side came into view a small extension of the roof which provided a kind of shelter. Something heard me, just as it had been quiet apart from my footsteps on the snow, a sound, obvious and unmistakable. I gripped my knuckledusters and edged around the shed. The ground underneath here was warmer; warm enough not to be covered in snow. I reached the edge of the shed and peered round. Upon a rectangle of damp ground stood a single horse making a fuss.
It had heard someone approaching and was struggling to orientate itself to see who it was. A small, half-eaten bale of hay and a partially-eroded salt lick sat close by. The horse looked like a palomino in the dim light, wearing a dark blue – almost black – coat. It had what could be a beautiful soft cream mane if it had been brushed recently. It reminded me of my cousins’ horses. They were a pair of dappled greys which were often employed to pull their carriage between the Colonies.
I turned back and edged around to the front of the shed again. Light was coming from underneath the door. I weighed up the risks – surely someone living here would be likely to know something about what happened to me. Downside – perhaps they were the one holding the shovel.
The horse must belong to whomever was inside. I hoped it had not been forgotten, but frankly I was beyond too cold now. Beyond heartless. I tiptoed to the threshold and lightly pushed the door, which swung open with an annoyingly loud creak. Once more I gripped the knuckledusters. A white knuckle ride. Sidestepping inside, I closed the door again behind me. Inside, there was nothing more than a stepladder leading down. Already, it felt ten degrees warmer in here. That might’ve made it four, perhaps five degrees above zero. Not exactly tropical, but to me, it was momentarily life-giving.
A single electric lantern gave out a dim, soft white light, but again no warmth. I peered down the hole with the ladder to find another lantern hung from a nail hammered into the side of the ladder, about ten rungs down. One more could be seen perhaps another ten after that.
I had to pocket my weapons in order to climb down, but this was a risk worth taking. I’d come this far. The ladder creaked and buckled with damp and disuse. The walls were close, slick with water from the ice above melting and running down their grey stone. Another ten rungs to go. A lantern lit the bottom of the ladder. I landed softly, turning to discover a dimly lit second hole about two metres behind the first. “Shit,” I tutted to myself. The consonants echoed around the walls, solid compared with the crumbly soil outside.
“Hello?” a man’s voice called up. He had a City accent. What was a City guy doing here? “You can’t just… wow, it’s been snowing. What time is it? Oh my god…”
A dark-haired man in his early thirties stood at the base of the ladder, staring up at me. He was looking at me with wide, concerned eyes that were almost as black as his hair. I brought my arms close against myself, partly from cold, and partly in fear. I stood as though I were naked, covering my shame. We watched each other for a moment. He, staring at this woman, shaking violently from cold in clothes that had been muddied, ripped and destroyed beyond all reasonable use. I, figuring out that young hermit, who was wearing a soft blue fitted t-shirt and chequered pyjama bottoms, like an idler. His upper body, at least, was ripped – especially for someone who lived in solitude. Maybe he worked in security. It would explain the horse, and maybe the hazardous entryway.
“Will you climb down already? I’ll get some bandages.”