Chapter 2 of Upon Stilted Cities centers back on Mimi’s point of view. Wondering what Mimi’s been up to since the events at the end of her tale? Well here is a chance to find some of that.
A Return to Nowhere
“I think you should let her go.”
It was the third one this week, and Mimi was exhausted. She couldn’t remember a time she had been so tired, at least not since Shannon’s conversion into a reserve Runner. Four decades had passed since the terrible day, yet the intensity of those moments had never lost their edge.
She transmitted directly into the pimp’s mind, trying to frame it in a way that he would think. It had taken so much practice to learn to anticipate others’ thoughts. Doing so had turned out to be one of the keys to persuading people to act in a way you wanted them to.
“This girl isn’t worth the trouble, look at her man, why would you waste time on someone who isn’t gonna last selling herself?”
The pimp appeared to consider. He had a young girl by the arm and was tugging her. It reminded Mimi of when the recycled Runners had tugged on her and Shannon. It was a moment that she had dreamt of so many times, had woken to in her empty bed, had sent her running down to the underground to where Shannon lay in stasis. There was always relief seeing Shannon in her alcove, even if she couldn’t speak with her but a few days a month.
Mimi skimmed. The girl, a small, frail thing with dark brown eyes and auburn hair, had come to him for a steady supply of drugs. Eventually unable to pay, as they so often were, the woman had turned to sex work. The pig reminded Mimi of that low-life Andrew, the one that had caused all the trouble and was the reason that Shannon had become a Runner in the first place. Old anger sparked. He was the reason that two of her sisters had fallen to the army of the Recycled.
A pallid, light-haired greasy thing with bone-thin limbs and a track marks up his arms like freckles, the pimp’s grip loosened on the girl’s arm for a moment as he stared at Mimi.
“I think you should mind your own damn business,” he said. Though, there was less conviction in his voice now.
Mimi frowned. She skimmed the pimp’s mind again and found that he was attracted to the girl, that he wanted possession of her. That would make the convincing harder. Though she had occasionally practiced with the red veil, the ability to mind control another human being, she wasn’t confident in her ability, and she didn’t much care for it. Besides, the Order frowned on its use, except in times of emergency. There were other routes.
She closed her eyes and pressed into the pimp’s mind once more. She made herself look crazed and unpredictable. Considering her tattered garments, it wasn’t a stretch. Sure, her sisters had offered her new clothes, but she always ripped them, always made them look worn and dirty. She was on the streets for a reason, and clean clothes made you stand out.
She spoke again, saying, “I think you should let her go or you might find yourself in a world of trouble.” As she said the words,, she made herself appear bigger, made him imagine that her shadow was longer, that he would regret tangling with her. She suggested that she would bite and scratch and scar him like a cornered cat. She pushed the images into his mind to mingle with his thoughts.
She opened her eyes again. The pimp was barely holding on to the young girl’s arms now, a thin thread of control and desire so fragile that a light wind would break it. Mimi stepped forward and she saw the pimp flinch. She projected the image of jagged teeth, dripping with blood, drool running down the corner of her mouth. The pimp stepped backward, letting go of the girl’s arm and tripping over a piece of trash behind him. He crawled, crab-like, backward away from Mimi, never taking his eyes off her.
“You can… you can have her, man. Just leave me the hell alone.” The pimp crawled to his feet, still a clumsy crustacean, stood, turned, and bolted. He risked one last glance backward before he rounded the corner out of the alley.
Mimi turned her attention to the girl. She was huddled in a corner, and Mimi realized she had cast her net a little too wide. It was the one thing she still struggled to control after so many years of training. She routinely targeted additional people with her suggestions. Noatla had suggested that this was because Mimi was so powerful, but Mimi just found it frustrating. The girl was weeping and shaking in terror as Mimi approached her.
Again, Mimi closed her eyes. This time she projected the sense that Mimi was an angel, a being that while sometimes terrible, was there only to assist her. Noatla had told her that idea of an angel was so deep in the psyche of the city, that it was a powerful tool to soothe people. Symbols were powerful persuaders; the more ancient the symbol, the more powerful. Noatla had suggested that all sisters of the Order of the Eye read up on ancient mythology and religions, as it would help with their abilities.
The girl noticeably relaxed and Mimi moved forward, reaching out a hand to help her up.
“It’s okay. I’m here to help.” Mimi kept her voice soft and calm.
The girl appeared to consider, and Mimi soothed with more encouragement. The girl blinked and then, hesitantly, she reached for Mimi’s hand.
“What’s your name?”
A stutter, words just above a whisper. “T-t-Tanya.”
Mimi smiled at the girl, but inside she was frowning. They had looked for Shannon’s lost ex-girlfriend Tanya for decades now, but she had appeared to have vanished. Even with Serah’s help, there had been no progress. It was as if she had never become a Runner in the first place. The strange thing was, others were vanishing from the streets too. All the sisters reported missing persons in the Mids and the Lowers, and they had even heard rumors of Security Officers missing. On her last visit, Shannon had insisted that it was somehow related to Tanya, but considering the distance in time, it didn’t seem very likely to Mimi.
“Well, Tanya, where do you live?” Mimi knew the answer already, but asking was part of the game.
Tanya shook her head. “N-n-nowhere. My parents… k-k-kicked me out of the house.” The girl’s frown was a kilometer long.
Mimi smiled. “Well Tanya, it just so happens that I’m also from Nowhere, so you’re in luck. There’s a place for people just like you.”
Mimi guided her through the alleys and down into the underground. The girl required constant soothing. She was cagey. It was probably the drugs. As they ventured through the old subway tunnels, she kept glancing back down the corridor. Anytime a light flickered, or one of the old steam lines sighed with age, the girl flinched.
Skimming her mind, the girl could think of nothing but her next fix and some of the fresh trauma she was gifted at the hands of the pimp. Mimi would have to pay the sleaze bag another visit, as she discovered, through skimming, there were several more girls under the creep’s thumb. But, first things first, they had to get this girl in a safe spot and get her clean. The addicts were sometimes trouble, but most of the time with a little persuasion they did okay.
“Where are you taking me?” The girl’s voice was a little stronger now.
Mimi smiled and soothed images of safety and warmth, of hot meals and bathing. “A safe place for women who have been through what you have.”
The girl was willful, though, and Mimi wondered, not for the first time, if she had been a giant pain in the ass in her early days of the Order of the Eye. How many times had Noatla had to soothe her? It took so much effort and energy to soothe someone constantly. She was starting to feel skimmer’s fatigue, the mental fog that came on from constantly using her ability.
The last week had been a marathon session. Two dealers and a pimp, picking on innocent runaways. Why were there so many more of them lately? The whole city seemed on edge. Even Fatima had complained of fatigue, and she had never heard Fatima complain about anything. Something was happening in the city, she could feel the tension rising, but no one seemed to have any idea what was going on.
They rounded a corner. Metal pipes framed the passage and twisted in the direction of the door. They ran down either side of the opening, and as Mimi pulled the young girl toward the gray metal door, she could feel the girl hesitating. The girl’s mind spiked with fear, of locking doors and imprisonment.
Mimi turned and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“You meant the actual Nowhere?”
“Yes, what did you think I meant?”
The young girl shook her head. “It’s just I’ve heard things about this place. I mean, no one in Orphan’s Alley believes it’s real. They say it’s guarded by banshees or ghosts or something.”
Mimi laughed. “Well, it’s certainly well-guarded.”
“Jeanine, this girl I met in Orphan’s Alley, said that once someone goes in, they never come out again. That they hurt people in there.”
Mimi frowned. “Do you think I want to hurt you?”
Tanya appeared to think about it for a moment. “Well… if you did, why would you protect me from that pimp?”
Mimi nodded. “I was once like you. Without a home, without friends, wandering the streets. Me and a few others started this place to help protect the women who don’t have a home. We got tired of being afraid to go to sleep somewhere or of running into the SOs. It’s true that not a lot of people leave this place once they enter, but you will see why in just a moment. And I promise, you can leave anytime you want. Even now, if you wish.”
The girl appeared unsure, but she didn’t give any sign that she would run. She just stared at Mimi, almost as if she was trying to skim her, but not quite. The girl definitely didn’t have the gift.
Mimi moved quickly toward the door and knocked three times. The sound of knuckles on metal traveled down the corridor. It mingled with the sound of venting steam and dripping water.
After a moment a voice came. “Who is it?”
Mimi didn’t answer with her voice, she answered with her mind. It was the easiest way to gain access. The other way involved passwords, and Mimi could never remember the damn things.
Transmitting directly, Mimi said, “It’s me, Rosita, open up. I’ve got another one.”
The sound of a metal lock clicked and screeched an ancient protest. Mimi glanced at the young girl, and found terror just behind her eyes. The girl was wondering how she had gained access without a word. But, Mimi thought, at least she wouldn’t have to soothe her alone now. Rosita was an excellent soother; it was why she was assigned to work in the shelter. Mimi quickly warned Rosita of the danger of the young girl bolting, and Rosita pressed forward with a calming presence as she walked through the door and took the girl’s hand.
Rosita said, “Welcome to Nowhere.”
It helped that Rosita looked the part of a kind and nurturing mother. She had a small round face and button nose with dark hair in twin braids and soft brown eyes. Her round body and wide hips always made Mimi think of her own mother, and Rosita happily played the part of mother to all the women who came to Nowhere.
As they passed through the door, they came to a large, open space. The space, once primarily concrete and pipes, now had small square containers with plants and flowers growing, with UV lights dangling just above. Mimi had made sure to plant plenty of flowers in her section. It made it a lot easier to bring some to Shannon during their time together, and it made Shannon happy she wasn’t smuggling them all the time.
Several small shacks made from spare parts either smuggled or donated dotted the landscape. None of the shacks were much to look at, but they were a safe space. Each of the shacks had two sets of bunk beds and a little personal space for each of the four occupants.
In the center was a community kitchen and a bathing area. It had taken Mimi two years to find all the spare parts for that kitchen, and even Noatla had helped to smuggle a few parts so they could have an old-fashioned oven where they could cook fish from the underground and garden vegetables. They did have a food dispenser too, but if they used too many rations at once, it might bring notice to their little hideaway.
“And your name is?” asked Rosita.
“Tanya.” The girl’s stutter had disappeared. Her voice was strong and confident. Mimi reminded herself to sit down with Rosita again and try and learn some of her techniques.
“Come, Tanya, let me show you around your new home, that is, if you’d like to stay here.”
“And what if I don’t want to stay?” There was a sudden and surprising sharpness in the girl’s tone. But Mimi recognized it, it was the tone of someone who had suffered in the place they had once called home. It was a hesitation to trust. Mimi had probably used that same tone when she was asked to join the Order of the Eye.
“You may leave at any time.”
The girl looked around for a moment. “Aren’t you afraid I might tell someone where you are if I leave?”
“No.” Rosita smiled, but a current of power flowed from that single-syllable word.
The truth of it was, the Order protected this place now. If the girl left, they would transmit a number of confusing directions into her mind as they escorted her back to the surface. They would also take a very long route out. Both things served to confuse, and of course, even if she did make it back, or someone showed up who wasn’t welcome, there were always at least two sisters present onsite. Not to mention Serah and Shannon were only a kilometer away, and both of them were capable in their EnViro suits.
“Come, Tanya; I’ll give you the tour. Mimi has other things to attend to.” Rosita took Tanya by the hand, and they walked toward the shacks.
Mimi was puzzled, so far as she knew, she had nowhere else to be. Then she felt her. Mimi turned and saw Noatla entering the door, ducking to keep from hitting her head. She shut it behind her.
Mimi met her Matron with a warm smile. Noatla returned it with a hug. She always felt tiny in Noatla’s arms, like mother and child.
“How are you, Mimi?” Noatla indicated Rosita escorting the young woman. “I see you found another one?”
“Yes, third this week.”
Noatla frowned. “You are resting your mind enough?”
“Probably not, but I will take a day.”
Noatla nodded. “Good. Do so. Three times, you say? That worries me. Things have been very tense in the Senate. Everyone, even Senator Swanson, who is normally a symbol of patience and compassion, is on edge. It’s as if someone is agitating the entire city.”
Noatla frowned. “No, I don’t think it could be. Not even she could influence an entire city like this. Besides, we never did find any evidence of her presence.”
Mimi said, “Yes, but nor did we ever find the missing Recycled Runners. And what about the disappearances lately?”
“There is no evidence that all these things are connected… still… I have put all our sisters on alert. We are still scouting for new members. We still need one more to be at full strength again.”
“I don’t ever like to think of them as replacements, especially considering the way that Shandie gave her life in service to the order–”
“You mean, to protect me.” There was still guilt there. Leahara and Shandie had died at the hands of the Recycled. It was a sacrifice that Mimi would never forget.
Noatla smiled. “You would have done the same for them if your position was reversed.”
Mimi knew that to be true now. She would give her life for any of her sisters, but back then, when it had happened, she wasn’t so sure. In a strange way, their deaths and that guilt had solidified her place in the order, had made her a part of the family.
“In any case, Vala is investigating one candidate, though she doesn’t look promising.”
Noatla didn’t reply at first. She opened her mouth to say something and then closed it.
Mimi knew exactly who, they had debated her for months. “Reevas? You’ve got to be joking right? I thought we weren’t sure if she had the talent, anyway?”
Noatla sighed. “There’s something there with her, I feel it. I just don’t know what it is. And I did say it didn’t look promising. But that’s part of why I am here. There is another candidate.”
“Yes, a young girl, naive and inexperienced, but has the talent and is quite powerful.”
“Where did you find her?”
“She was a recent student of mine in the scholar school. I have been keeping an eye on her.”
“So why do you need me to investigate her, then?”
“Well, there are two reasons. One, her attitude reminds me of yours.”
“Meaning she’s stubborn as hell?”
Noatla had a smirk on her face but didn’t comment. “And two, she has, for some reason, and despite being offered a number of excellent job options, chosen to work in the docks.”
“As in the Runner Docks? Why in the world would any woman choose to work there?”
Noatla smiled again; her thin lips cracked slightly to reveal her perfect teeth. “Well, why would any woman choose to be homeless?”
It was Mimi’s turn to smile. She shrugged. “Fair point.”
“I want you to try and find out why she has chosen the docks and of course, your opinion as to whether or not she would make a good sister.”
Mimi shrugged. “Okay, when?”
“She’s on the clock, so I thought maybe you could take a look now.”
“Alright, but… why the rush?”
Noatla bit her lip. “Because I think something is happening. I am not willing to say that it is Miranda, but there are too many strange things going on to ignore. We need to have the order at full strength just in case, and my intuition suspects that this girl may be exactly what we need.”
“Alright, I’ll take a look.”
Mimi started walking to the door, but Noatla grabbed her hand and stopped her. “Remember Mimi, if you see anything strange in the docks again…”
But Noatla didn’t need to say anything else. Neither of them needed to skim to know what the other was thinking.
The girl definitely had the talent. Skimming her, Mimi noticed that she thought of it constantly. Like Mimi had so long ago, the girl assumed she was alone in her abilities. She was a thin, blond thing, and Mimi immediately spotted her in the docks. She watched her for hours, masking herself from sight the way that her sisters had taught her. The young girl had barely moved from her little concrete island office.
Then, something happened. Mimi watched as a Runner emerged from one of the many tubes that led from cold storage to the main docks. The young blond walked out of her concrete office, tablet in hand, and did her inspection.
Mimi crouched and listened to their interaction for a moment.
The girl said, “Runner… 17? Wow, that’s the lowest number I’ve seen so far.”
The Runner replied, “Ain’t no lower number now.”
Mimi stood up straight and looked carefully. Did the girl just say Runner 17? Mimi and practically everyone else in the city had heard of 17. According to the rumors, he had, by himself, disabled Mex’s EnViro shield when it had once attacked Manhasten. He was said to have been in more battles than any other Runner, that he was invincible in combat, or at least unkillable. Serah had said he was very attractive and spoke of one time when they had spent an afternoon in the Barrens together. But, as she looked at the man with dark skin and the long black braid, she didn’t think he was anything to write home about. Of course, the young blond was certainly taken with him. She could barely collect her thoughts. It almost made Mimi laugh.
A cold chill took Mimi, summoning gooseflesh. She had the sudden sensation that something was behind her, watching her. For a moment she felt frozen, unable to move. Then she pushed against that feeling and knew, with absolute certainty, that something or someone was behind her. She pivoted, raising her mental and physical defenses, ready to use all of her skills to strike.
And there it was. Only a dozen yards away. One of the creatures who had taken her sisters’ lives. The blue lines running up its pale face, those blank, white on white eyes pointed in Mimi’s direction. How had it snuck up on her in that EnViro suit? It cocked its head for a moment and then turned and walked toward the main entrance. Then, before it exited, it stopped and turned back toward Mimi. It waited. Mimi started to walk forward toward it. Still, it waited. Was it waiting for her?
Some Recycled Runners were still employed in the docks, but Noatla had proposed and passed a bill that put tighter restrictions on them. They had to be announced by the AI and monitored now wherever they went, and it required special permission for them to leave the docks or the subterranean areas.
But after the incident forty years ago, there were still dozens of them missing. None of the Order had ever found any trace and the one place they could have gone underground was completely inaccessible to everyone, even Noatla.
Was this one of those missing ones? It was heading up to the main level out of the docks; it wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. She had heard no announcement by the AI, and it seemed to be watching her. No, not watching, beckoning her to follow. It said nothing, but there was a definite calling to her.
Mimi felt anger bloom inside of her. Was this one of the ones that had murdered Leahara and Shandie, and had nearly killed Serah?
She began walking toward it quickly, and as she did, it turned and began walking up the steps of the docks and out toward the streets through what was once Grand Central Station. Mimi felt her heart beating faster, felt her desire to catch up to it and destroy it grow. She tried to reach out to it, to shatter its blank mind as they had done to so many of the creatures on that terrible day, but nothing happened. It simply kept walking.
A part of her was telling her to stop, to reach out to her other sisters, not to approach the thing alone. A part of her was screaming at her that it was a trap. But she felt the deep hunger to catch up to it, to find the others like it and end them all. It was a kind of madness in her. Her footfalls grew closer together.
Then a voice boomed over the intercom. “Alexa? Alexa, please return to your office immediately. You know the policy about speaking with Runners.”
It froze Mimi in her tracks. She blinked and looked around. When she looked back toward the exit, the Recycled Runner was gone.
What had she been doing? She should know better than to chase after one of those things. She and all of her sisters had pledged never to try to take them on again without at least six other sisters present.
Something horrible occurred to her then. For the last forty years, she had learned to persuade people into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. The key had always been to find something that the person wanted, some desire, no matter how deep, and suggest that it would come true if they went along with whatever she wanted. Had someone just done that to her? Had they used her desire for vengeance against the creatures to goad her, to push her into following it? And if so, to what purpose?
Mimi felt the coldness return, but this time there was no Recycled Runner. The coldness was from within. It was the terrifying idea that someone might be laying a trap for her and her sisters.