I am very happy to finally post the first chapter of my fourth novel, Serah of the Runners. The book picks up just where Upon Stilted Cities: The Battle for Langeles left off… which means there are huge huge spoilers for this chapter! If you have not read The Battle for Langeles you may want to do so first. You can find my first three entries to the series here
Serah of the Runners is due out October 17th 2019! Preorder coming soon!
A Long Way Down
Frank walked back down the corridor toward his station. It was time to get back to work. With Saud destroyed, the last thing Manhatsten needed right now was a clogged recycling system. Work was good at times like this. There were still rumors of a few of those strange battles on the streets, but any sanitation worker knew the networks of tunnels just below the surface of the city, and so they avoided the conflict. Even when the city was in chaos, sanitation still had to do its job.
Jenny said, “So what do you think will happen now, Frank?”
“Don’t know. Never survived a war between cities before. I ain’t that old.”
Zelda said, “Can you believe how fast we’re moving since Saud blew up? I never knew the city could move like that.”
Then, the motion of the city shifted. Frank grabbed a guard rail and steadied himself. Both of the women did the same. The city was stopping. After several moments of silence, Frank let go of the rail and resumed his trek down the corridor.
“Speak of the devil huh?” Frank scratched his head. “The city isn’t supposed to be able to move that fast, I don’t think. But, maybe someone in the Uppers figured something out.”
Zelda said, “I wonder why the hell they stopped in the middle of a storm warning.”
Jenny said, “Maybe the battle isn’t over?”
Frank said, “What do you mean? Everyone saw that blast from Saud. They’re just mopping up the few that got inside now.”
Zelda stopped in the middle of the hallway. “Frank.”
Frank turned. Jenny was several steps behind Zelda and also paused. “Yeah?”
“Frank… have you ever heard of a city blowing up like that before?”
Frank thought about it. He thought of all the stories and the vid screen films about battles with other cities. He thought about how they used those giant guns and how they took shots at each other’s shields. But now that Zelda had pointed it out, he couldn’t remember a city ever becoming a giant ball of light and disappearing all at once. He was sure he wouldn’t have believed it himself if he hadn’t seen the thing with his own eyes.
“No… No, I don’t think so.”
Zelda frowned. “Something’s wrong Frank. I can feel it in my gut. Why else would we stop in the middle of a storm warning? Ain’t never happened before as far as I know.”
They fell silent and resumed walking and entered central sanitation. The dank air was familiar and comforting to Frank. A lot of people complained about working in sanitation, but he loved it. Did he wish the pay was a little better? Sure, but the job was just fine. He didn’t mind getting dirty. It was a job worth doing, a job to feel useful; a job that if it didn’t get done, it would cost lives. A man couldn’t ask for a job more important than that. He was necessary, and that was satisfying.
They only needed to do a routine check. There was a full crew working already, but with the battle, Frank wanted to be sure there weren’t any other hidden problems. Michael, Andrea, and Scott were working hard. When they saw the trio, Frank asked, “How’s it going down here? Any surprises?”
Michael shook his head, and his long beard waggled back and forth below his chin. “Nah. Everything’s running like clockwork. Andrea had to climb up into one of the pipes and deal with a blockage, but other than that, nada.”
Frank glanced over Michael’s shoulder at Andrea, who looked surprisingly clean for climbing up inside a pipe.
“How’d you get out clean?”
Andrea’s dark eyes regarded Frank. He knew she hated his guts, but he couldn’t understand why. Might have been something to do with the fact that she had the sense of humor like an angry hedgehog. “I already went through decon.”
“Ah. You lose a toss or something?”
“No, I volunteered.” Her words were sharp and curt.
Frank nodded and looked around. “Jenny, will you head back and check on the bio recycler?”
Michael said, “I think Scott’s back there already.”
Frank said, “Yeah, doesn’t hurt to have two eyes on it, though, does it?”
Michael shrugged. “Sure thing, boss.”
For a little while, Michael and Frank caught up while Zelda and Jenny double-checked everything. There was tension between the two teams; there always was. Michael liked Frank okay, but he hated Zelda. Andrea hated Frank, and Jenny, after bawling her eyes out over Jose, had slept with Scott and the aftermath was less than ideal. He was hoping that sending Jenny back with Scott would force them to talk things out a little, but that was probably unrealistic.
When Frank was satisfied that everything was in order, he called Jenny and Zelda and bid farewell to the other team. The three of them would be back on the clock in another nine hours again, and so there was no point in lingering too long.
The trio walked up the corridor for several dozen meters in silence. Frank took the lead. He thought maybe Jenny would have something to say to Zelda about Scott and wanted to give them both a little room.
It was Jenny that broke the silence, “I’ve been thinking…”
In the silence of Jenny’s pause, Zelda said, “You and Scott get things figured out?”
Jenny’s eyes were glassy but cleared for a moment as she looked up and over at Zelda. “What? No, nothing to do with that. Scott is… Never mind.”
Frank turned and, walking backward, said, “What then?”
Jenny said, “I was thinking about what we were talking about before, been thinking about it a lot. A city shouldn’t blow up like that. It’s not right.”
Frank said, “Why’s that?”
“We learned all about city combat in scholar school.”
“You went to scholar school?” asked Frank.
“Yeah… but I dropped out. I was… I studied city mechanics. I wanted to be a shield engineer; you know, one of those people who jumps around on those harnesses checking the shield ribs for energy fluctuations? But well… there was an accident when we were up one day… and I couldn’t go back…”
Jenny leaned against the wall, grabbing for something to hold on to, as if the terrible thing was happening all over again. Frank had seen that look before in Jose’s eyes, how they grew like deep wells of pain overflowing with something dark and sticky, something he couldn’t ever really escape. He supposed maybe that’s why Jenny had liked Jose so much; she saw something familiar in him, a shared experience of horror and trauma.
Zelda changed the subject. “So, why shouldn’t a city blow up like that?”
The light came back into Jenny’s eyes. She blinked. She said, “Because cities are too big to blow up at once… unless…”
Frank said, “Unless what?”
“Unless they destroyed the core.”
“Yeah, you know, the power core that makes all cities function. Our professor told us it’s like a miniature sun. But, she also said that it was near impossible to destroy.”
“Because the architects planned for just about everything. She said that another city could shoot at the core’s location for a year and they would never get to it. The whole core is encased in Solidsonium and a second internal EnViro shield. You’d have to destroy both things at the same time, and that’s supposed to be impossible from the outside.”
Zelda said, “So wait, what you’re telling us is that Manhatsten didn’t win the battle?”
Jenny said, “No… at least not by attacking from the outside.”
There was silence for a moment. Frank felt his gut clench.
He said, “Jenny, what could destroy a core?”
“Our professor said that only two things could destroy one. The first was a critical overload. But, you’d have to be an architect for that, only they know the codes and the exact sequence required to start the process. And we only have one architect left, and I don’t see him going over to Saud in the middle of a battle with no way back, do you?”
Frank and Zelda shook their head in unison.
Zelda said, “And the other one?”
Jenny said, “It’s also not possible.”
Zelda said, “Why not?”
“Because you would need an atomic weapon and you’d have to detonate it inside of the core past both the Solidsonium and the EnViro shield. But that can’t happen.”
Frank said, “No?”
“Well again, you’d need to have access, so you’d have to be a high ranking person inside the city in the first place. Second, no one has even seen an atomic weapon in a thousand years. We think maybe the architects purposely made sure they were gone and buried before the cities started walking. They didn’t want humans lobbing nukes at each other once the inevitable conflict started. They were trying to get the environment to heal, and a weapon like that would make things far worse.
Frank opened his mouth to speak, but it Zelda cut him off. “But what if someone found one?”
No one spoke for a moment. That tightness in Frank’s chest grew. Then he said, “You don’t think there’s one of those on Manhatsten do you? Like, if we did that to Saud, couldn’t they do it to us?”
Jenny said, “I don’t know. I mean, we are the good guys, aren’t we? Didn’t Saud attack us first?”
But no one ever had the chance to answer that question. The whole of the city shifted. It was as if some angry deity had picked the city up and lurched it hard sideways, shaking all the domed contents within like a snow globe. All three slammed against the wall, and Frank felt a blinding pain on the side of his head. Everything went black for a moment.
He scrambled around, his hands clawing for something to grasp. Frank grabbed the rail leading up the stairs. The whole of the city shook. With Saud gone, what the hell was happening? Was it the core? Was the same thing happening to them as it had in Saud? But that didn’t seem right. Saud had vanished almost instantly, and the fragments had scattered to the four winds.
Something was wrong with the city. The floor was tilting, and he felt the weight of gravity tugging at his back. He didn’t know how he knew, but the city was falling. Something had knocked them over or had destroyed the legs.
“Right here.” Frank looked back and saw the familiar outline of Zelda’s thin, birdlike form. She was clinging to the railing now too.
“Is Jenny back there?”
Good, we gotta get out of here. I think the city is falling…”
Neither of the women contested this point. It was the only explanation. A massive jolt and suddenly, the floor shifts? The only thing that could do that was the city falling over.
The tug of gravity grew, an irresistible mistress. It took all of Franks effort to hold on. The stairway had disappeared below him. He was dangling; the pull on his large belly was immense.
Jenny screamed, but Frank couldn’t turn around. His entire focus was on holding the railing. He had no idea how much longer he could hold on. The angle grew deeper with every passing moment, and it was all he could do to keep from falling back into the long corridor that led to the heart of central sanitation. How far was he from the door that led inside? He didn’t want to find out.
“I got you,” said, Zelda. But again, Frank couldn’t look back.
“Zelda, you gotta get you and Jenny around me somehow. I…”
“You’re not gonna fall, Frank. We won’t let you.”
“Yeah well, you always warned me this gut was gonna get me killed, and it looks like you’re right. I can’t hold on much longer, especially since it’s almost a straight drop now.”
Frank knew if the city was falling, it didn’t matter. They could all die now, or they would die later when the shield failed, or a storm came, or in a hundred other terrible ways. But the survival instinct in Frank made him hold, made him grip tight. If nothing else, he wanted to see his wife one last time before he died and he couldn’t do that if he let go.
Frank felt his fingers slipping.
“Dammit, ladies. You gotta get around me or get to the other railing or something. You don’t want to be underneath me if I fall.”
Jenny wept. Frank was glad to hear it, it meant she was still there, still alive, still holding on tight.
Zelda said, “No, Frank. I’ve been at this too long with you. If you go down, we go down together.”
Jenny’s sobs increased, and through mumbles and tears, she said, “I don’t want to die.”
Frank tried to adjust his grip, but he lost one of his hands off the railing. Later, he would wonder how the hell he managed to swing his arm back up and grab hold again, but for now, as his whole body reached back up, he felt a sense of comfort in reestablishing his grip.
“Frank, don’t you dare let go. Your wife would never let me hear the end of it.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m doing my best, but please Zelda, get you and Jenny across or around me. I can’t do this much longer.”
The city dipped forward, and now they were hanging vertically down the stairwell.
Zelda said, “Shit. Well…” she shifted her grip, and now Frank could see both Zelda and Jenny fighting to hold on.
Tears streaked down the side of Jenny’s face. At that moment, he was glad they were both petite women. It made it easier for them to hold on longer. He, however, wasn’t going to be able to do it.
Zelda said, “Well, you don’t have to worry about knocking us down now do you?”
Frank said, “Guess not. Guess we gotta play the game like in school, huh? Who can hold on the longest?”
Zelda said, “Ha, you’re screwed then Frank, I always won that game.”
Even at that moment, Frank couldn’t help but crack a smile. Here they were dangling down what had to be several dozen stories of corridor, and he couldn’t help but grin. He guessed that even if he didn’t die today, he would probably die grinning and laughing.
His arms trembled from the strain. The metal of the square railing dug into his fingers, leaving deep grooves bright with pain.
She looked up at him, a grave expression on her face.
“Zelda, you’re the best friend a man could ask for, you know that?”
“Don’t let go Frank.” Her voice shook. “Please don’t.”
“I don’t wanna, but let me say this. It’s been an honor working with you all these years, Zelda.” The noise of cities tremors echoed up and down the corridor and Frank had to raise his voice.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better friend at work. And you, Jenny, I wish I had the chance to get to know ya a little better.” He readjusted his grip, but he could feel his fingers slipping. His right hand was numb, and his left a blazing fire. “It’s been great working with both of you. I only wish I could see Jose’s dopey face one last time.”
“Hold on Frank; we’ll figure a way out of this. We always do.”
But Frank’s fingers couldn’t do it anymore. His arms had never felt strain quite like that. No matter how hard he wanted to hang on, he couldn’t. There would be no grabbing hold again this time.
“Goodbye Zelda. Hang on as long as you can. Tell my wife I love her, alright?”
He let go.
He started to fall. There was a sense of freedom in it. He thought for a moment that maybe if everyone had just learned to let go like he just did, that maybe, just maybe the world would be a little happier.
He looked down and watched as the corridor stretched out before him. It seemed to take an age to fall. Time stretched like the entire lifetime of the universe was available to him now to think about all the things he loved about his life and all the things he regretted. First, his fondest memories flooded him. He thought of the lifetime of laughter and friends and family. Then he thought of Jose. He thought about how he had felt so helpless when he the SO’s arresting him. He thought about the last uprising and how so many people he knew were sentenced to the Runnercore or were killed, all because of the greed in the city. He wished he had been more outspoken, or that he had done something to change their fates. Frank wished that he had taken a stand and right there, he promised himself that if somehow he survived the fall, he would stand and be true. It was too late now though wasn’t it? The ground was rushing up toward him, and in a few seconds, his life would be over.
But then all motion stopped. For a moment, Frank thought he had hit the other end of the corridor, but looking around, he realized that he was hovering, mid-air. Nervous about his strange circumstances, Frank looked around for something to hold on to, but there was only the concrete wall. His stomach flipped, as it did in childhood when his father tossed him into the air. Then, he dropped to the floor, the actual floor. For Frank, the sweet comfort of stability on the ground married with the pain of his short fall.
He lay on his back, checking himself. His ass and his pride were bruised, but he had barely fallen a meter. What the hell had happened? Shouldn’t they all be crushed under the weight of the collapsed city?
He heard footsteps and saw that both women were running toward him.
“Frank, you asshole.” Zelda’s voice shook, and there were tears down her cheeks. And then Zelda’s arms were around him, and then Jenny’s, and the three of them cried together. They were alive. The city was alive. They didn’t know what happened, but somehow everything was okay, at least for now.
The lesson that Frank learned in those few moments when he expected death would stick
with him through the coming days, and the coming battles. For difficult times were ahead, and Frank would lose many of those he loved and cared about before it was all over.
When great change comes, it tears things asunder, it uproots the old and leaves us gasping and injured and exposed. In those times, we are raw nerves, bare roots, open flesh. But if we are willing, we can get up again. We have the chance to go forward into the world and take what we have learned and lost with us. Then, we may bandage our wounds and look often at our scars so that we do not make the same mistakes again.
See Frank now; see him for what he is. He is an ordinary man in extraordinary times. But in so many ways, it is the ordinary we need. Hope lay in the courage and the strength and the will to move forward in the ordinary so that we can give birth to the new.”
Matron Mariposa Phillips 833.12.13 I.S.
They surfaced. Something was wrong with the light. Frank looked around. One of the buildings was leaning into another. Luckily, it was one of the shorter ones. People were scrambling out the front door before it collapsed, but most looked like they were okay. There were fresh cracks in the street, some as wide as a person. Everyone was outside. Many of those on the concrete and earth stood dazed and confused, statues frozen mid-moment like in the ancient city of Pompei. They were puzzled slices of life.
There were several fires, and a few people were doing their best to put them out. The old automated fire systems were working, but barely. Frank swore. They would have to go back and check the water pressure to ensure that there wasn’t a clog. If too much smoke filled the city…
Then, some of the gazes cast upward. People pointed up toward the EnViro shield. A conspiracy of whispers and hushed voices bathed the city in rapturous awe. They grew to mumbles and mutters in a slow drone. Someone screamed. Frank looked over and saw a woman fall to the ground. She hugged the earth as if it were her child, and she was saying goodbye to for the final time.
“Frank.” Even Zelda whispered. “Frank, what the hell is that?”
Frank traced the end of her finger skyward. His mouth opened to say something but then closed again. He felt vertigo and the sensation of the ground falling out from under him. He grabbed for Zelda and Jenny.
Jenny, clinging to him said, “That’s… that’s…”
Frank grabbed his chest. That terrible tightness was back, but this time, it shot down his arm. He fell to his knees, barely feeling the impact of bone on concrete as the shock rippled upward.
Zelda was on him in a moment. “Frank, what is it?”
“I think… I think I’m having a heart attack.”
Jenny moaned. It was a loud and long wail. “That’s…”
Zelda helped lay Frank down gently. “We gotta get you to an alcove Frank. There’s an emergency one a few blocks away.”
Frank just nodded and laid on his back. The pain was less now, but there was a fog settling in over his mind. He stared up at the sky, drinking in the new and terrible view.
Jenny shouted. “Oh Gods. That’s earth. It’s earth. It’s earth. Why is earth in the sky?”
Jenny, too, fell to her knees and wept.
Frank watched the earth. He watched as it started to grow smaller in the sky. They were moving away from it now. To where, was anyone’s guess.