The Eastern Gate was deserted, save for the huddled family that awaited transfer to the Deep. He could see from their dirty and malnourished faces that they were no surface dwellers, their skin was too ashen and pale, pallid even in the sweet air of the cities' edge. No, these people were from the Deep, the shanty slum that rose from the core, eight levels down. Those that lived there often gave it a different name however; many simply called it Hell.
The family waited silently, faces impervious to the wind's caustic blast, hands and wrists blackened from their toil within the Wall. He noticed the bags of meat they slung over their shoulders, their wages for the day, frozen chicken parts overstuffed into black bin-liners.
A dilapidated transport vehicle drew up with unease, saturated with weary bodies. Men and women were packed onto every row, even covering the roof. He watched the family clamber up with a languid grace and hang from from the rear bumper as the vehicle heaved to pull away.
So stoic, so tough he thought, remembering what his friend had told him a year before the flood. The key was with the masses, hardy folk just like them. But already he was ahead of himself. To stand any chance of galvanising the people he knew it was imperative he found his contact first.
The forged ID chip embedded in his temple satisfied the Sentry Gate and the barrier retracted. Alvanya's sprawling cityscape opened out, a patchwork quilt of precious metal towers and geodesic domes, shimmering and golden like encrusted Fabergé’s. Huge glass monoliths rose from a throng of glowing plazas to meet with a teeming sky gridlocked with congested traffic. Small personal carriers broke ranks and zipped in and around bloated Dirigibles that floated freely above the madness.
He remembered what he'd first read in the manual; keeping the masses under extensive surveillance, Dirigibles were like great blights in the sky, crushing any hope of revolution. He could take one out with a Cloud Burst Grenade but again, this was all premature - he'd need to find a weapons cache, fast.
The pale blue icon on his HUD indicated the location of Peter, the rogue android who skulked around unseen within the Deep. Remaining unidentified by the Dirigibles on the way down to meet him was his first task and from what his friends had told him, navigating the initial surface levels was going to be far from easy.
He played about with his perspective, moving it back so he could observe his own ludicrous form as he walked down the roadway, the cities' looming centre closer with ever step. He managed to settle on a tracking shot, his muscular silhouette striding towards the glorious sky-line as the evening sun began to set. He knew it was vain but he didn't care, he'd waited so long for this experience. From the moment he'd found it two days ago, Alan had told himself that he'd milk Iron Fall for all it's worth.
His heart sank at the sound, straight back to reality.
“Alan, come quick. I need your help.”
He clawed at his headset and wrenched the connection. Reality's drab palette bled back into view.
Where sculpted buildings had once stood on the horizon, posters of semi-naked women now stuck to the wall. A carpet, not a roadway, now stood beneath his feet, drowned in trays of takeaway and day old cans of fag-ashed beer.
“Alan,” came the mechanised voice, amplified through a baby speaker on his desk, “please, come quick. I need your help.”
Disorientated and with a heavy set of eyes, Alan looked in the direction of the kitchen, his heart filled with dread. It was eleven fifty a.m.
Bernie had been due her breakfast well over three hours ago.
He sprinted from his bedroom, trying not to think too hard about how long she'd been left pressing the button. That's why he'd created the system in the first place, so she never got into difficulty again.
It's pointless if I don't respond.
Bernie looked up and moaned as he entered the kitchen, the large red button now tossed on the floor.
“I'm sorry,” Alan said, and meant it, but there was no time for reassurance. He stormed over to the apparatus and began frantically checking the life support interface for clues.
“Alan,” continued the automated voice, seemingly on constant playback now, button or not, “come quick. I need your he--”
Enough, he thought, grabbing the speaker unit from the floor and pulling out the power cell.
Now able to think, a quick study of the main monitor told him the problem.
“Oh Bernie, darling, I'm so sorry.”
The food/waste processor had locked, meaning her breakfast hadn't passed through the tube array and into her gut. Correspondingly, the waste from her gut hadn't passed back out either. He manually activated both processes on the machine and Bernie moaned out in a corresponding cry of relief although it could have easily been frustration.
He looked over to the machine, cursed.
Again, no harm had been done but it was yet another malfunction - combined with all the others, a worrying portent for the future. In many ways he knew he was lucky to have it still working at all, it'd been running on burnt systems for nearly six months and of course there was zero chance of a refit any time soon. He supposed that playing fully interactive video games in 3D wasn't the most responsible thing to be doing given the circumstances, but then Alan always remembered the saying about having a month to live and how you'd end up living it.
I'd try and claim back some of the time I'd lost.
He thought angrily about the alarm system he'd put in place, the number of times it had activated over the past few months. Perhaps what irked him more about today was that he'd not noticed the alarm sooner, like the game had tuned him right out. Pillaged from the abandoned flat two flights down, last year's best-seller had been playing for all of four hours and yet it had felt like five minutes. He'd only got past the introduction, found out the elaborate back-story of his character and bought some rudimentary implants when his quest had been rudely broken. He looked at the alarm with disdain. If only it was in some way louder.
An hour later he'd made the necessary adjustments to the chair's audio outputs, chatted to Bernie and then fixed himself a stale sandwich. He was enjoying a cup of tea and a cigarette on the balcony step and was feeling quite pleased with himself as he gazed out upon the gutted tenements, the dark and stinking waters that lapped at their base. Everything was back in order, he was thinking, the new system he'd rigged up loud enough to wake the dead.
And then his heart sank.
He could hear the sound of a motor-boat. It meant only one thing.
Second later Roy Martin drove his speedboat onto the estate.
On his rounds, as usual, Alan thought with a groan as he watched the ex-scout leader circumnavigate the abandoned cars submerged on what used to be the approach road, then cut the motor to expertly drift into the centre of the estate. The outline of the boat soon became lost in the black and murky water beneath the tenement blocks as Roy scrambled up onto the prow.
“You still al-right Al?”
“Oh, fine,” Alan shouted back. “No problems here.” He wished he wasn't wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown - it was lunchtime after all. “We're still fine for at least another fortnight mate, thanks for asking.” He thought about explaining his tawdry dress but couldn't be bothered. A man like Roy didn't do excuses.
“Right,” said Roy, clearly unconvinced. “Well, I'll be running ferries for the next week pal. After that, well...then the fuel runs out. If I manage to find more I'll let you know but...” He pulled a pained expression. “For now all I'm saying is--”
“Yeah, yeah, I get you, one week.” Alan forced a smile. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“Don't mention it. I'll make another call in a couple of days if you like? Would hate to see you both left behind.”
Alan made a dismissive gesture with his hand, as if not to bother. Roy pretty much ran out of steam after that.
“How's Bernie though?” he said eventually. “Still getting on OK?”
“Good...Good.” He looked about himself, as though he'd lost his car keys somewhere in his jacket pockets. “Right, well. Guess I'll be back next week then.”
“Uh-huh” Alan nodded with another weak smile. “See you then. Take care.”
"Yeah," said Roy, blowing out his cheeks. He fixed Alan with a solemn stare. "You too. And make sure you keep good care of her, you hear?" And with that Roy started his motors and pulled away from the estate.
I'll take better care of her than you ever could Alan thought as he watched Roy make his noisy exit. When he was satisfied that his visitor had finally gone he treated himself to long yawn and a stretch, then made his weary way back inside.
He eyed Bernie's electric blanket wrapped around her legs as he re-entered and tried to repress the familiar burst of anger that ensued. In the earlier panic he'd forgotten all about it but it'd been a constant thorn in his side, in full since the building's boiler flooded and subsequently eating into their dwindling fuel supplies. More importantly, reducing the time left for him to play Iron Fall. He sighed again, harder this time.
“Mr Martin just called by in his boat,” he told her as he fixed himself another cup of tea.
She said nothing of course. But from her eyes he knew she recognised the name.
“He wanted to take us away.” Al smiled. “I told him not yet.” The thought of how she'd survive on the boat. How she'd survive after for that matter. His blood turned cold. “Not until the last minute, al-right?”
He kissed the top of her head, slurped from his cup and gazed at the collection of council notices and final demands piled up high by the letterbox. He enjoyed looking at them now, remarking to himself how funny they seemed, so benign, pointless.
“Remnants of a bygone age,” he'd remarked to Bernie, days earlier.
After all that bother, the stress, now it seemed their right, in a way, to live here for a blissful few weeks in idyllic silence for as long their generator would allow. In his head he'd jokingly come to refer to it as Blackout Day and from his calculations he'd worked out that they had three weeks of stolen fuel left for the Generator he'd found, more than enough time for him to complete Iron Fall. He had no great desire to let Roy Martin take him to the city's island before then. Besides, he'd seen the reports on the news. It simply wasn't right to take Bernie to such a place, not now, not ever. Put simply, it was a journey he'd be taking alone. And right now, even the very thought of it was out the question.
He looked up at the clock. Nearly noon. He would come back at four but until then the day was free. There'd be no guessing he'd spend it. How he'd be spending all his days until Blackout Day for that matter.
Five minutes later and he was on the back of a waste truck, riding with the maintenance crews as it hurtled on down towards the foreboding quarters of the Deep.
Oliver is 32 and lives in North London. Working in Environmental Enforcement for Local Government, you can usually find him forcing entry into squalid homes or inspecting dodgy takeaways. In his spare time, Oliver loves to write science fiction and for his blog, www.oliverleawilson.co.uk. He has previously had two other shorts published my Short Story Me.