Brambles and branches try to hit me in the face and water soaks into the hem of my dress from the filthy puddles I trudge through. I am returning from overseas. This narrow, overgrown ditch is the last entrance into the City that I know of. It is not welcoming, but then I would not wish for one anyway. I do not wish to be here and, if the people here knew I was returning, would not want me here either. The silence is absolute. No animals dwell in this abandoned corner. Even the brambles are dead and brittle; their thorns fall in a shower behind me.
I have been summoned. It has been a long time since I was here last. I had hoped that I would not be needed. I drag my satchel free of the thorns in a soft explosion of brick dust. Despite my reluctance I am curious about how the City might have changed without me. The last turn necessitates hopping over a thick root which has some slight sense of life left in it. I can feel it pulse, deep in its heart as I clear it. My dress slaps wetly against my boots.
When I land on the other side of the barrier everything feels different. No longer dead, but dying. This place is afflicted with a terrible blight, one we were unable to heal when last I was here. It can be tasted in the air, cold and damp. If I couldn’t feel the sparks and shards of life scattered through the City like slivers of glass I would think it a graveyard. As it is, those slivers are all too few. Once the City had a population of hundreds of thousands. Now it is in the tens of thousands. All that change in a generation. It still looks the same.
The tall fantastically arched buildings rising from the grey flagstones on either side of the road. The alleys loom dark and threatening between them. I stick to the middle of the road. I’m impressed that the streets are clean, if empty. This side of town is quiet but not too bad. Despite that I walk quickly, hooded and with my satchel drawn in close. Shadows move behind windows. I know that I’m being watched but I don’t feel threatened.
The people here are right to be wary – there are no strangers here. The City has been locked down – sealed on one side and consumed on the other. Ways in and out such as those I used are known to very, very few. Of course most of the survivors don’t realise this; they know it, deep down but how can you live in fear all of the time? They continue to live, for as long as they can and forget those who disappear and the streets where they used to play and work. The empty houses pass me by and I see a few souls making their way home from work, most likely in the power stations to judge by their clothing.
It’s a long way to the flat I keep here. I assume it is still there though my summons made no mention of it. My boss – I still call him that, though our relationship has not been one of employer and employee since we first met. But I don’t have any other useful way to refer to him. His name has all the wrong connotations for how I feel about him. Cedric is not a name to inspire respect, or fear. Both are deserved for my boss. His summons was short, terse even in its single word “Come”.
That I should be needed here again can only be bad news. Since my self-imposed exile I have dreamed of the City, feared it, made it into a monster. At first glance it doesn’t appear to merit that – it’s just another fading city, depopulated as so many are now. We came to fear the intimacy of society and spread out, back into the countryside and the compact communities which our species can cope with. Put us together for too long and we turn… bad. I know I did. This place is where it all started where it began to go wrong twenty years ago.
I am thinking too much about our history and am not paying attention to my route. My feet know where to go. I pause briefly to look up at the moon which has risen while I crossed the City. It hangs, a ghostly impression on the slowly darkening sky. I’m sure that’s a sneer across its face. The sight makes me nervous, I should be inside before full dark.
Gazing at the moon I am startled by a sudden racket in the hedge that thrusts between the railings behind me. A volley of thrushes launches out of the greenery and wheels up into the sky – scant millimetres separate them and they fly impossibly fast, twisting and turning in tight loops before rocketing back into the hedge. I watch their aerial curlicues and count the runes they inscribe in the sky. A man nearby is staring at them too, alternating his attention between the birds me. I keep going.
Part 2 coming soon…