By Stewart C Baker | April, 2018
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Jeron stops her donkey on one of the hills to the north of the city, dismounts, and rests for a while.
The city is tired; that much hasn't changed. Its once-proud skyscrapers still skulk in brackish water. Only a few jut skyward, the rest leaning crazily against one another like a group of old drunkards trying to hold themselves up by pulling the rest down.
It is a lesson the city council would benefit from if they ever travelled far enough away to see it. A lesson she had hoped Ameren would have taught them. But she can see workers swarming over one of the drunkards, threading ropes through broken window-panes and tossing them down to the boats which wait below. Ameren has taught them nothing, and that speaks nothing but ill.
She looks away from the city, back to her mule. She has delayed long enough. It is time. She tugs on the straps around the package Ameren once gave her, then leads the mule down towards the causeway at a slow pace, avoiding the occasional section of loose scree.
The causeway is the only way into the city on foot, and is generally used only by the desperate and the foolhardy. Jeron is neither, but she is a free woman. Her kind would not be welcome on the ferries into and out of the city. Besides, she has roamed the shattered world longer than most of the causeway-bandits have been alive. She has her gun and her wits to keep herself safe.
Halfway down the slope, she joins the ancient road that will become the causeway. Its surface is mostly solid here, with none of the dangerous cracks and holes that plague it closer to the city centre. This far out, there is even the occasional sign. Once a brilliant, emerald green, centuries of sun and rain--and harsher things besides--have turned them a mottled yellow-brown. The lettering has faded until the barest outlines are all that remains.
Nobody Jeron has ever talked to knows what the signs used to say. It doesn't matter, though; everybody just calls the place 'the city.' It is the only one left.
At the place where the causeway first lifts from the brackish water surrounding the city, Jeron hears screams, high and clear in the stagnant air. Bandits, she thinks, and draws her pistol. But the causeway is empty, the screams echoing up from below it. She walks as close to the edge of the raised road as she dares--dangerous things live in the water.
But what she sees is no creature mutated by the ravages of time and radiation. In the water below is a young woman flailing on the surface. The ruined houses of long ago are just visible through her silver-blonde hair, which spreads out behind her.
"You have to help me!" the girl cries out when she spots Jeron.
Jeron eyes her, but doesn't respond. She could be a trap set by bandits to distract the naive.
The girl goes under, then splutters as she comes back up. "Please."
Jeron grunts and retreats to the center of the causeway. The screams grow louder, but she ignores them, tutting to her donkey and preparing to lead him further into the city. She can't take the risk. Then the girl cries out in one of the old tongues, supposed to be lost.
Jeron acts quickly, removing a rope from her saddle-bag and stuffing her gun back into its holster. She ties the rope to one of the rusting hulks of metal which dot the causeway and tosses the loose end off into the water. Then she steps back, draws her gun again, and waits.
The screams stop. The rope jerks once, then sashays side to side. The girl's pale white hand reaches over the edge of the causeway, and she pulls herself onto it. Jeron watches as she shivers on the ground, coughing and gagging, spitting up water and worse.
The girl sits up looks at her after, her breathing still ragged. Neither woman says anything, and for a while they make a silent tableau. Jeron is dark and compact, a form well suited for living. The girl is pale, all-over pale--the colour sapped from her skin even more by her sodden clothing, all white. If she were not half-drowned, Jeron might describe her as lithe.
"How do you know the old tongues?" Jeron asks, voice gravelly from disuse and the hot desert winds.
The girl shakes her head. "I don't know what you mean. I--no."
"Where are you from? Why are you here?"
Jeron thinks. The hillside communes are to the North, but no one living there would be stupid enough to fall into the water. Beyond that, there are only the wasted lands, glowing with the terrors of the past, and poisonous to any who approach.
It is a lie, then, the girl's answer. But she has already pulled her from the waters, so Jeron merely notes the lie and moves on. "What business do you have in the city?" she asks. "The council does not smile upon lone women walking their streets."
"The council?" The girl looks towards the city. "I--Yes. My business is with them."
Jeron grunts. The girl is strange, but what is not strange in the world? She puts the gun away and retrieves her rope. If the girl was part of a plot, something would have happened by now.
"What's your name?" she asks as she coils the rope.
"Nyneve." The girl gets to her feet, shaky and slow. "Yours?"
Jeron hesitates. Names can have a dangerous power, and she still does not trust the girl. At last, she settles for a convenient half-truth. "In the desert villages, they call me Med. Come. Our paths are the same; I will help you to the city."
It is warm and moist as they make their way along the causeway, but Nyneve shivers with cold. The sight brings to Jeron's mind her own tremors long ago when she was young--caused by fear as she fled the city for the dark of the unknown.
She reaches out and tugs the straps around the package again. She thinks of Ameren's words as he gave it to her, how he'd sworn to infiltrate the council if she would keep it safe, if she would bring it back to him if he should ever lose his way. She has never opened the box, but its battered surface has survived the trauma of her life in the wastes, of her flight from the city.
She wonders if Ameren, too, remembers his promise.
Just the name brings back memories of a childhood spent exploring the secret corners of the city. They would pretend to be brave warriors, unknown champions of long ago. Other times, they would play at outlaw, imagining themselves in the shoes of Wasteland Will, Tin Can Dan, or the others in the old folk songs.
The council did not like the old songs, the way they glorified disobedience and taught that authority lead to corruption. But they did not try to stop the people singing them. Every evening without fail, the lyrics flowed out of the city's bars and smoke-houses. Jeron and Ameren knew just which streets to go to--the spots where the contours of the city amplified the sound of voices raised in song until they seemed louder than life, the couriers of a beautiful truth.
At first, they were not alone in these pursuits. Whole ragtag bands of children ran riot in the city, jostling and shouting with the exuberance of youth. But as time passed, girls and boys alike slowly acquired the dullness of a life spent in constant drudgery. Jeron and Ameren found themselves more and more often alone.
They were different. Ameren, the only son of a councilman, thrilled to disobey his father's commands to return home immediately after his lessons. And Jeron ... Well, Jeron had no father. Nor a mother. The closest thing she had to a parent was old Kale, who ran a small dispensary where the causeway entered the city, and who let her sleep in the attic above his shop.
Jeron spent her mornings watching Kale at work, learning the properties of herbs and animals. She learned, too, from the strange men and women who brought the dried plants and bones from the wastes--odd stories in rhyme, knowledge of the world that seemed more like a fantasy than reality. Some even spoke a few words of the old tongues, and Jeron loved to repeat them, thrilling at the ancient sounds which stumbled from her lips. She liked to think that if she could only master these odd words, some truth about the nature of things would reveal itself to her. Some third way separate from the barrenness of the wastes and the brutal stupor of the city.
The words, coupled with the ivy woven through the women's hair and the men's toughened-hide shirts, were fuel for her own fantasies. Each evening she would share the day's events with Ameren in tones of hushed reverence. Ameren listened with awe, and told her what he had learned from his father's men.
So it was that they grew closer as they aged, and by the time both were fifteen, their imaginative play had become something else altogether. They stopped listening to the songs, meeting instead to discuss plans for the future. Ameren stole books away from his tutors, and showed her the precious objects, teaching her each letter with painstaking care. Jeron, in turn, made him recite the properties of things she had long since learned, until he knew almost as well as she which plants cured sunburn, and how to purify water with the ground-up bones of a city rat.
Jeron was sure that they could change the city together once Ameren came of age. Sure that he would join her and that, together, they could lead all the city's soul-weary citizens to a better future. But on the day before his sixteenth birthday, Ameren did not appear. Jeron spent the day half-heartedly tossing debris into one of the fissures that pockmarked the city's streets. When, by dusk, he still had not appeared, Jeron did not go back to Kale's shop. Instead, she walked towards the city centre. Towards Ameren's father's house.
The streets in this part of the city were slightly better kept, although they still bore the signs of long ages of neglect. The houses, too, were different. Their walls, intact, stretched up above her head, and the roofs she could see were of clean red clay.
But the biggest difference were the guards who stood just inside each gate, pikes fashioned from old pipes and topped with sharpened tin. They eyed Jeron with distrust as she walked past, but did not question her. Yet.
Finding Ameren's house at last, she scrambled up and over its wall, dropping to the ground inside before any could spot her atop it.
Within, she could almost forget she was in the city, and that the world outside had passed into desolate exhaustion. There was a garden, its plants small and stunted, but still green. Although she had never dared trespass on his father's property before, Jeron knew which room was Ameren's. He had talked often enough of the way the hills, distant beyond the stale water that surrounded the city, seemed to beckon him. The way the light from the poisoned lands danced and quivered in the darkness of the night.
Jeron picked up a few pieces of gravel and threw them at his window. Each struck with a quiet tak, but she did not worry. Ameren's father often stayed out late on council business, and the sun had barely set.
The curtain inside the window rustled once, then stilled. When the window did not open, and Ameren's face did not appear in it, she turned to leave. Perhaps he was sick, she thought. She would try again tomorrow.
But as she was about to scale the fence, she heard a quiet hssst from a side window on the first floor. Careful not to be seen, she scuttled across the open garden and into the shadow at the side of the house.
Ameren stood waiting just inside the window. His face was pale, but he did not seem ill. Instead, there was a look in his eyes she had previously seen only in the adults of the city.
"What's wrong?" she asked him. "I waited until dusk for you to come, but--"
"You have to leave," he cut in. "I can't see you anymore. You can't see me anymore."
Jeron looked down, stunned.
"Tomorrow I will take my place on the council as a junior councillor. My father will kill you if he sees us talking."
"You ... you are joining the council?" Although she had known he was supposed to, she had believed in their shared dreams of the future.
"Yes, but don't worry." His eyes regained their fire as he spoke. "I will not let them get to me. I will work against them from the inside. Take this." He held out a package, tied in neat brown paper with clean white string.
"To remind me. You must take it and head into the world. Learn what you can, come back when I am in control. Keep it safe, and . . . " He trailed off, suddenly nervous.
"And yourself safe with it," he mumbled.
A grin broke out on Jeron's face. "I will!" she said, forgetting for a moment the danger. "You, too, keep yourself safe, and I will come and rescue you."
She took the box from his hands and ran for the wall, hopping up to set it on top before pulling herself up after it. Already in her mind she was back at Kale's apothecary, asking one of the men or women from the wastes to guide her, teach her--to take her with them when they left.
She hopped lightly to the street outside, and was reaching up to retrieve the package when someone grabbed her from behind, his voice a snarl.
"Little girl, you should not have come here."
She tried to wrestle out of his grip, but he was too strong for her. A ring of cold metal pressed against her temple, and she froze, suddenly aware of who held her.
Only councilmen owned guns.
"If I had known my son still met with you, I would have had you killed already," Ameren's father continued. "Well, better late than never. He will never see you again."
Jeron's terror was replaced with anger and she jerked her head back hard, putting all her being into a yell which rocketed off the walls and up into the night air.
Her captor grunted, and she heard a clatter as his weapon fell to the ground. She dropped down after it, clumsily picking it up and rolling to face him.
"You will pay for that," he said.
Before he could continue, Jeron's finger jogged against a piece of the gun and it went off, letting out an ear-splitting bang and throwing her backwards off her feet.
She scrambled up again, sure that Ameren's father would be on top of her, but he was not. Instead, he lay on the ground. Half-dazed, she looked around her. Ameren stood in the entranceway to the house, his mouth a silent O. In the dimness of the evening, she could not see the expression in his eyes.
"Ameren," she said, but then stopped and looked down at what she had done. The shuddering body of the man before her seeped crimson from its midriff, and the fear she had been holding off pressed in on her. She turned and snatched the package from the top of the wall, and then she fled.
The city passed like a blur. She did not dare stop at Kale's apothecary, and before she knew it the causeway was beneath her feet, the glow from the hills beckoning her ever onward, onward.
Nyneve moans slightly, bringing Jeron back to the present. She looks to the girl, who is lying in the saddle, arms cast loosely over the donkey's neck in sleep.
It is incredible to think the girl survived her long journey from the North, but Jeron can think of no other explanation. Further back in the saddle, the package still sits, secured by its worn twine cord.
By the time Jeron clucks her donkey to a stop outside a crumbling building set in the shadow of one of the upright towers, the sun is setting in the West. Nyneve's clothes have dried, and the younger girl no longer shivers as she breathes.
Jeron helps her from the donkey's back and up to the apothecary's door. So long has passed, she thinks, since last she saw this place. In some part of her mind, she had thought to find old Kale still here, practising his medicine, but the building is abandoned. Judging from the dust which lies over everything, thicker than the scum on the water at the city's edge, it has been for some time.
Old Kale, of course, must be long dead, but Jeron is surprised that nobody has taken his place. She wonders what the people of the city do now when they fall sick. Whether there is some other old man doling out obscure remedies and trading with the people of the wastes for their components.
If she had stayed closer to the city, she would have known these things, Jeron thinks. But instead, she travelled as far as she could, only turning around when she met the great water beyond the desolate corpse of the land. Perhaps she took Ameren's request too literally, fled too far and too long in keeping herself safe.
Nyneve moans again, and Jeron banishes the thought from her mind. There are more pressing matters at hand than self-recrimination.
She helps the girl into a bed that her foster once used, beating out the dust and grime of long abandonment first. Then she lights a fire, careful to use only dried plants from her saddlebags that would burn clean. She does not want to alert the council to her presence any sooner than is necessary.
Once the fire is started and the girl is in bed, Jeron boils her an infusion of berries and roots. Nyneve watches her as she works, her eyes bright and expression oddly serious.
Jeron pours the liquid into a clay cup while it is still hot. "Drink this," she says as she hands it to the girl. "It will counter the effects of the water, and will help you sleep."
Only then does she realise that they have not exchanged words all day. Nyneve nods, and holds the cup in both hands, breathing in the steam. She makes no move to drink it.
"Med," she says, "what are the people of this city like?"
Jeron is taken aback by the question, and cannot immediately answer. When she does, it is as though a dam has burst inside her. She speaks of her childhood, of her hopes and her life in the wastes. She speaks, too, in darker tones, of the council's work--of what Ameren's father and those like him have done over the years in their misguided arrogance.
She intends to ask Nyneve of her own past, of her own travels. She intends to ask again what she knows of the old tongues, to hear again their strangeness and wonder.
She intends to, but the girl's eyes, luminous in the firelight, draw her in. Her life's events spill out of her like so much fresh water from one of the brilliant falls in the mountains to the West. At times, she can swear she sees the girls hair billow up and behind her, silvery-white and thin as spider-silk. But whenever she blinks, or looks away for a moment, the illusion vanishes, and she begins to speak anew.
By the time she has finished, it is far into the night, and Nyneve has fallen asleep. Jeron takes the cup from the floor beside the bed and, noting that it is still full, drains it in one gulp. Its contents are bitter and cold, but soon a familiar warmth overcomes her and she, too, sleeps the dreamless sleep of the sick.
In the morning, Jeron remembers little. She and Nyneve spoke at some length, she is sure of it. But of the details, she can not be sure. Everything is hazy, and she decides instead to focus on the present. On her task.
Nyneve seems to sense that Jeron is not herself. She silently offers her arm, and Jeron leans on it, grateful for the support. They leave her mule in the safety of the apothecary and, taking only the package, head towards the city centre.
Jeron does not think to question why the girl knows the way.
The building where the council meets is the same as Jeron remembers it--although of course as a child she only ever saw it from a distance. It is in the city center, one of the few tall buildings which still stands straight.
There are few guards, and Jeron wonders if the city's population has become even more hopeless than she remembers. More likely, the work on the skyscrapers keeps them exhausted. In her time, such work was only talk, and her throat squeezes uneasily when she thinks what it means for Ameren's promise.
But she has the box. Yes, the box will remind him. He told her.
She and Nyneve enter the building unquestioned, and take the stairs up several flights to the floor where the council holds office.
"They will never let us in," Jeron says, unsure of what she will do if they do not.
Nyneve only smiles, and pushes her towards the doors, which are unguarded. Jeron wants to turn and question her, but finds herself propelled forwards.
At least, she thinks, she still has her gun.
There are voices inside, businesslike and deep. They stop as she pushes the door open and steps inside, the package held out before her.
One of the men is about her age--the others are all younger by a handful of years--and she realizes he is Ameren, all filled with the importance of the council and his clothes finer than even his father's. His eyes carry a shock of recognition, but it quickly fades and he strides towards her.
"Why have you returned?"
She blinks. "I have come as you asked me, Ameren. I have come to help you do what you promised."
He comes closer, his words no louder than a hissing whisper.
"What do you know of my promises, stranger?"
Jeron cannot speak. This is not how it was meant to go.
"No," Ameren continues, "what have you ever known of them? Even when we were children, you always lived free. You did not have to struggle with the shackles of family, with the bonds of duty. You did not have to step early into the council, to deal with the scorn of those older than you--of those who suspected you of colluding in your father's death."
As he speaks, he pulls her gun from its holster at her hip. She does not fight it.
"But our hopes--"
"When you fled into the wastes, my hopes went with you. Small wonder, that they died when you did not return."
Jeron takes a step back, the fight coming back to her as he says she did not. He has called her stranger, and she sees that he is right. But it is him that has changed--not her.
"I am sorry to hear of your father's death." she says. "But you have become him." She cannot keep the disappointment from her voice, which sounds out flat and bitter. "You have become your father, and you would drive the world further into ruin."
Ameren's face shows no emotion. "And what would you know of it, woman from the wastes? Have you not seen the skyscrapers? Soon, they will stand as tall as in ages past. Soon, we will once again be rulers of our destiny. You dare come here with your box and your primitive ways and talk of the future? It is not we who keep the world from that future--it is you. You, and all those like you, who scrabble without dignity in the wastes."
He strikes the box from her weathered hands with his own, plump and smooth from the luxuries of council service. Jeron can only watch as the battered box tumbles to the floor. Ameren is right, she thinks. She is out of place here.
She does not move, either, when he steps on the box, crumpling it beneath his weight. No shattering accompanies the package's collapse, no crunch of metal, ceramic, or creak of ancient, weathered wood. When he steps way, there is nothing but a flattened cardboard shell.
"Get out." He speaks quietly. "Get out and never return."
Jeron barely hears his words. Empty. The box is empty. She has always known that, she realizes. She must have known from the start. The package itself was never important--its message was all that mattered. It was a reminder of the vow she swore with Ameren, to overthrow the council and bring humanity into a new age--one of collaboration with each other and the world.
Together, she wants to say. We were meant to salvage all of this, together.
But she does not speak. She knows Ameren is beyond hearing. Beyond logic and beyond hope. He no longer cares about the future, but has become embroiled in the past.
He is no longer Ameren; now, he is just another member of the council, doomed to endlessly struggle against the changed world and repeat the follies of human history. Jeron does not meet his eye as she scoops up the ruins of the package and leaves the council room. She does not even look up when Nyneve asks her what is the matter, but keeps her gaze fastened on her own folly.
She had trusted him.
She had loved him.
Empty, empty, all of it was empty. Empty hopes, empty love, empty words, empty life.
As Jeron reaches the stairway at the end of the hall, Nyneve's voice grows more insistent, and then somehow ... strange. From the high, clear notes Jeron has become used to, it shifts down, dipping to a low growl before peaking again--high, shrieking, and sinister.
Jeron looks back to see the girl at the open doors of the council room. But, like her voice, she has changed. She is no longer merely pale, but practically glowing with a blue-white light. Her neck stretches grotesquely, snaking out behind her and up to the ceiling; her eyes bulge in the death stare of a drowned woman. The girl's hair drifts up, and Jeron is reminded of how it looked in the water beneath the causeway. There is a smell in the air like rot, and age, and damp.
Jeron's heart catches in her mouth as she recalls the tales she heard as a child, the second-hand accounts from those who scratched out a home in the wastes.
Dangerous things live in the water.
Shouts rise from within the room, and the doors close behind the thing that was Nyneve. Jeron hears gunshots, then an utterly inhuman scream, which rises and rises until Nyneve has to clap her hands over her ears. Bluish light pours out from the cracks beneath the doors, and for a moment all is deathly silent.
Jeron takes a step towards the council room, but before she can go farther there is a concussive blast. The doors slam open, then fall to the ground in a small cloud of dust. The stench of city water is almost overpowering, and the Nyneve-thing's scream begins again. This time, it does not stop, but rises, rises, rises.
Ameren, Jeron thinks, staggering forward. The last thing she sees before blacking out is four wispy figures, dancing and wavering as they break apart in the light.
When she wakes, she is alone. The council room is a husk of its former glory--its imposing columns little more than tatters, the beauty of its ceiling reduced to char and ash. One wall is gone, and through it she can see crowds of people milling around in the street below. On the council room floor, there are three spent bullets, their casings warped and crushed. Of the gun, all that remains are a few charred fragments.
As the haziness of her blackout begins to ebb, Jeron realizes something. All this time in the desert with the package, she has really been afraid. She always told herself she was avoiding the city in order to work for a better future, but now she knows it is not true. She was fleeing.
Fleeing, but not towards anything. Just like Ameren and the members of the council, she was caught up in the past. She, too, had hoped for it to repeat itself.
But Ameren is dead now. Was dead in spirit long before. Jeron lets the remnants of the box he gave her fall to the floor and walks down the stairway to the street below. There will be work that needs doing, now that the council is gone.