An interlude

Forgive me.

I am not so good at telling stories. It’s a human things, and I am not… well. You like them with a beginning, a middle, and end. You like them with conflict, that gets resolved in an unexpected way. Your lives are not like this. Is this why you like it so much?

I’m sorry. This is already not going as I thought.

I thought you might like some context. I am told ‘not too much’ by my friend, who urges me to keep some mystery, some secrets, until the revelation is most effective. I will abide by this.

Some context.

Once, there was a body. The body was short, stocky, muscular. Over the muscles, it ran to fat. You would call it a female body, because it possessed breasts and a vagina, but this confuses me. I am female, and possess none of those things. Nevertheless, you have decided that an accidental factor of birth is what decides these things. I disagree, but that’s not what this is about.

The body had brown skin all over. Pantone 7-14-C.

(Currently, not my currently but your currently, story currently – the body is sitting in a run-down examination room, hearing two people argue in a separate office)

On top of the body was a head, as is normal, and the head had a face, as is also normal. The face wasn’t pretty, and wasn’t ugly. It was an average sort of face. The face of an ordinary person. It had a pointed chin and a broad flat nose and average-sized eyes that were very dark brown. It had hair, too, but my friend is laughing and shaking her head, and so I gather that the hair shouldn’t be mentioned. Only, it was a mess.

In the head was a mind (why keep it in such a dangerous, vulnerable place?) and that’s where the context comes in, because the mind was mush. You know this, of course, because you’ve been told but – it’s a little more complex than the human thing that called herself Red 87 could possible know.

Red 87 was in there, of course, stumbling around and trying to make sense of something impossible. But…

I have permission; I was in there too. Or, not me, but a part of me. Guiding, trying to help. My brother was there, too.

And that was the problem, after all.

Chapter 5: Rest Stop

They hid themselves behind walls. Patchwork walls, all metal and broken concrete and rough clumsy bricks. Guards, anonymous behind face-covering helmets and protected by armour – a strange combination of metal, chain, leather and scavenged body armour.

It never used to be this way. She had clear pictures in her head – pictures with no context, but she knew they belonged here. No walls, in this picture, no walls; just vast concrete lots filled with vehicles, and a glass castle housing fast food joints and newsagents and amusements arcades. And people, people, tired and baggy-faced, with the kind of fixed and distant absorption that comes with long journeys.

She looked up at Fen “Doughnuts,” she said. “There was a Doughnut case here. They were good.” Red 87 smiled, brief and golden.

Fen frowned. “How could you possibly know that?”

“I used to come. I used to… in my little car. I liked the doughnuts, and they didn’t – they weren’t there, in the city. So I would come and buy three in a box…”

“You couldn’t have. Everyone died, Red.” She didn’t sound angry she sounded… flat. Heavy. Like sand after the tide. (And had she ever seen the sea? Had she walked on sand?)

Red 87 shrugged. “Not everyone, or you wouldn’t be here.”

Fen glared out from the corners of her hard little eyes, and Red 87 turned away from it. Fen could bruise a person with a look.

The guards were looking at them. The shorter one turned their head. Red 87 couldn’t see eyes or noses or mouths behind the helmets, but she thought the shorter one was saying something to the tall one.
They both turned their heads towards Fen and Red 87. Something about the way they held their bodies… tight, hard, leaning forward, heads cocked.

She shrank away, inside herself, wanted to be small and invisible.

“Fen,” said one of them when they approached. The smaller one. Their voice was strange, buzzy, metallic. “Fen,” they said again, drawing out the e.

“Here to trade?” The taller one, this time.

Fen shrugged. Her face was still, her body tense. “Got something to show Dr. Nerman.”

“Not sure we should let you in, Fenny.”

Disgust, unmistakeable. Red 87 looked down at her feet in their old boots, the cracked and filthy tarmac.

And Fen – who in these short hours had shown to be a knife in human skin – she spoke soft, and wheedling.

“Please. Dr. Nerman will want to see this. Her research.”

“It’s your safety we’re thinking about, Fen. Plenty of people here who might want to… hurt you. Be dreadful if that happened.”

The shorter one laughed. Fen twisted up her mouth. Red 87 raised a hand to her matted, tangled hair and slowly twisted one lock around a finger. Her mouth was dry. The sun was in her eyes.

“Please,” she said, out loud and barely aware of it. “My feet. They’re bleeding.”

The attention was on her. She stammered, fell apart. Had she once liked people? Been sociable? She couldn’t remember. If she had been, she was afraid now.

“This woman is hurt,” said Fen. “You may not… think much of me. But she’s hurt. Badly.” A pause. “You know how the doc feels about that.”

Quiet. A bird sang.

“You’d better go in,” said the smaller one. “Straight to her office. Wouldn’t want anyone getting ideas. We can’t spare the people to help you.”

Fen laughed.

“Come on, Red. Let’s get you to the doctor.”

Red 7 muttered in her ear. “I thought you were getting me help. To go east.”

“You’ll get it. But you need the doctor, first.”

And then Red 87 was startled out of thinking, because there were people. But they were wrong, unlike, unsimilar. They did not look like the kind of people she remembered. They did not look like her. They did not look like Fen.

“What did they do?”

Fen smiled. “It’s just the hacks,” she said, as if that meant anything, as if that could apply to anything “They combine weird in some people, is all.”

“The hacks,” said Red 87, watching with wide eyes as a glorious creature walked past, with silver skin and silver eyes and silver hair that floated like it was underwater.

“Yeah, some are more cosmetic than practical, but that’s what people used to care about. Plenty of people with hacks that do some good.”

So many people, laughing, talking shouting. The stink of them, like musk and meat and sweet-sour sweat, their faces. Their skin, the normal colours – all the normal ones, from palest peach to darkest brown – but other ones, too. Kaleidoscope skins. Eyes like jewels. Bodies that were shaped strange, or wonderful, or both. One person walked past, their body round and plump, and looked at Red 87 with the faceted eyes of a fly.

“Did you come from one of the pure human compounds or something?”

“I came from the tank.”

“Whatever that means.”

“I don’t know. Fen?”

“What?”

“How long has it been?”

“How long has what been?”

“Since the world became…” Red 87 swept her arm around her, taking in the people, the ruin, the chaos. In a way, it took in the destroyed city, and herself too.

Fen shook her head. “Forever. No. Longer than living memory. Maybe… my great-grandmother. She said her own great-grandmother was a child, before. When the hacks were newish, fashionable.” Fen snorted, as if the concept was ridiculous. “She was 3. Didn’t remember anything.”

A great grandmothers great grandmother. Even assuming early conception, short generations, she was seeing maybe one-hundred years gone, one-hundred years for the world to become unrecognisable.
Her legs went strange and distant. She sat down hard on the floor.

“I was in that tank nearly six generations,” she said to herself. “Maybe more.”

“What… are you saying you were alive? Then?”

“I think so,” said Red 87 “But I don’t remember.”

A pause.
#

“We really need to get you a doctor.”

Chapter 4: Go East

Go east, go east, on paths of knives, go east and go alone.

Like a storm in her head.

It was fine, it was fine, because they were still going east, with this strange woman first and Red 87 following. Still going east, and that was good.

Until they weren’t any more.

Then it was obliteration.

GO EAST GO EAST GO EAST.

Nothing else on her head but that. GO EAST. It hurt her, in her head, in her body, in her bones. GO EAST.
Something else, though, something smaller and quieter, barely there. No, it said, No. There’s no point if you die on the way. There’s no point. It’s OK. You can detour. It’s OK.

But it hurt too much, and she thought she was sobbing out loud. It hurt too much. Her hands were on the floor. She was on the floor. Thick blackish red dribbles landed on the dust. She was two people, or maybe more, and one of them was far away, noticing all the hurting with scientific distance. The other/s were in her.

It’s fine, you can break this.

“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”

Shh. Shh. It’s fine.

GO EAST GO EAST GO EAST.

Shh.

Then… something. In her head. Like the sound a car makes when it speeds past, only in a feeling. A swelling, a pressure, a diminishing. A rush and a fade. A pulling away.

Her vision went gray and blurry, her stomach went to acid. She vomited. She hadn’t eaten, so all that came up was a thick, gelatinous yellow stuff.

She wretched again, but this time nothing came up.

When she stopped, the pain was gone. It left whispers in her, a certain stiffness in her muscles – but it had vanished into nothing.

Go east go east –

The urge for the east was still there, but it wasn’t so overwhelming now, it wasn’t all there was. It was like hunger – desperate and yearning, but she could put it aside for a time, if she needed.

Something wonderful.

You’re welcome

She got to her feet again, shaking, in a cold and grimy sweat all over. The woman was looking at her.

“You sick?”

“No,” she said. “Not now.”

A pause, and the woman nodded. “You’ve got blood on your face,” she said.

Red 87 wiped the back of her hand across her nose and mouth. She looked at the blood for a little while.

“Do you feel like you can keep walking? Day will close up soon. Not good to be out here after dark.”

“Yes. I think.”

“Come on. We aren’t far.”

It wasn’t so bad, now. She felt… more real. Les disconnected. These things were happening to her, to her.

And she was working out who that was. One thing she knew about herself was that she could walk for hours. Perhaps it wasn’t much to know that, but she was glad she did.

There were things that should be sad, things that should be asked.

Her mouth stumbled on words.

“What,” she said, and coughed, and tried again. “Name. What…” She fought for it. Struggled for the words. “What is your name?” she managed at last, and, exultant, shouted it again, a victory cry. “What is your name?”

This, yes, this. This was one of the ways to be a person. She’d remembered it. Maybe not so mushy after all, maybe not so damaged.

“My name?” said the woman. Her eyes went down into slits again, her face grew even sharper. “Who gives a shit about my name?”

Red 87 pressed hard hands tight against her ribs, feeling the ridges of bones under cloth and flesh.
“I… Name?”

“I’ll be glad to get you to Rest Stop.”

“OK.” Red 87 looked down at the floor. Dirt and broken asphalt and weeds coming through. Her feet were hurting again.

The woman sighed. “People call me Fen.”

“Fen.”

The woman paused. “Yeah,” she said. “Fen.” There was something poisoned in her voice.

“What is Fen?”

“Fucks sake.” The woman picked up a piece of rubble from the ground and tossed it aside. It clattered away.

“Red 87,” she said.

“What?”

“Red 87. That’s what I’m called.” She was remembering the simple words again.

“That’s not a name.”

Red 87 shrugged. “It’s what I have.”

“Fen’s a bad word.”

”I won’t use a bad word for you.”

Pause, silence, a sideways glance.

It’s what I have.” She laughed, and after a second Red 87 laughed too.

“Fen?” said Red 87.

“Sure. It’s not so bad.”

Fen paused, and let Red 87 catch up. They walked slower now. The sun was high, and hot on Red 87’s head.

Fen glanced at her, frowned and looked away. Not so much later, she did it again. And again. By the time the sun was a little lower, the shadows behind them long and stretched, Red 87 had lost count. “What’s wrong?”

“What?”

“You keep looking at me.”

Fen scowled and looked away. She didn’t look back again.

Time stretched, and compressed, like fabric. Fen stopped, shaded her eyes with her hand.

“Nearly there,” she said, and pointed. In the distance, not so far ahead, Red 87 could see a small pale

spot amongst the green and brown ahead of them.

“Rest Stop. They can get you sorted out, if you’ve got something to trade.”

“I don’t have anything to trade.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Fen?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll sort it. I’ve got connections there, of a sort.”

Chapter 3: Scavenger Discovery

She found somewhere else to rest, a house empty with no dead in it. Poor woman, poor woman, she needed sleep.

But other things don’t, or they don’t need it at night, and they followed her scent and found her there. And they watched her sleeping body with gleaming eyes and something vicious on their mind. They watched, hating, until dawn started to mark the sky with light, and then crept away to wherever nighttime things sleep.

So she didn’t know.

But when she woke she did know another thing. She knew how the tanks worked.

They were for emergencies. Emergencies only. A person in a tank could live, undamaged, for six months, a year, while work was done to fix or cure them – but longer than that and the brain broke down, the muscles atrophied, the flesh became vulnerable. These days (those days?) they were mostly used to grow flesh-shapes with no brain-stems, with limbs and organs for harvest for a sick person.

RED 87 had been in that tank a lot longer than a year. Maybe more than ten years, or twenty, or thirty. It was a wonder she could walk, a wonder that her brain could fire at all. No wonder her memories and thoughts were like a rotten tangle of cloth.

She ran one brown hand over the dusty red of her jumpsuit, trying hard to make it not shake. There was new dirt under the nails that had been baby-clean when she spilled out.

Go east.

The urge, like the urge to eat or drink or shit, unignorable, essential, part of her. Go east.

So tired. So bone-aching tired already. Limbs and muscles sobbing softly in their cases of fragile skin. A headache, from dehydration and constant exertion, lurking at the edge of sensation. Her feet. Oh, who knew feet could hurt so much. They were swollen, would barely fit back in those boots. Those thick socks stiff at the bottom with her blood. She bowed her head down to her feet, and rough hanks of tangled and oily black hair hunkered down over her face. She moaned. Only a day, and how long would she have to walk, how far east did she have to go? Her feet. Her poor feet.

But they went back in the boots anyway, and after the first few stiff and awful steps she could ignore the pain and put it somewhere else in her head. Because what other choice did she have? She couldn’t refuse the east.

Slower going this time, slower work, because a hungry and sore machine is not a capable one. But the city was only so large, only so wide, and the externals were withering away. So not so far, not really. Another day, two, with no clean water and no food and feet that were bleeding. And from then, further, maybe, further still, to the other side of the country where the land flattened down to meet the sea and the sky was huge and weighty. Weeks. Months.

Go east.

When a creature suffers, strange things happen. It becomes focused on the result. Other senses drift away. Red 87’s sight blurred, till she could only see pebbles and horizon, and nothing in between. Intact buildings, rubble, ruin, all passing her like they didn’t matter. She heard only the wind and her own irregular footsteps, felt her heartbeat pounding in temples and throat.

So it says nothing of her capability, of her skills, that she could be surprised – that she could be trudging half in a trance, and find herself faced by another person, having never heard or even seen them. One moment she was walking, muttering a little song she’d made up to herself one step two step three step step all day you can do it red strong and good step step step and then she was staring at feet that weren’t hers.

Red 87 blinked, twice, and lifted her tired head, and was looking at a woman. She was narrow, angular, with very curly hair that she’d cut close to the scalp. There was a face there, too, all sharp lines and freckles. An ugly scar across cheek and lips.

“…the hell?” she said.

“Going east,” said Red 87, politely, like she was sharing conversation with a friendly stranger in a shop. “Got to go.” But then she fell backwards, onto her arse, hard enough to jar her spine.

“Don’t think you’re going anywhere.”

The woman crouched down, arms on those sharply pointed knees (everything about this stranger hard and sharp like a knife, except the mouth, the mouth was soft and full and scarred. Even the eyes, the brown eyes, they were like being cut)

“I can’t…” said Red 87. “No words.”

“Who are you?”

“Dunno!” she laughed. “Going east. My feet. They’re bleeding.”

“Let me look.”

Red 87 shook her head. “Going east.”

“In this state you won’t get further than Old Mutterway before you just die in the dust.”

A pause. An argument in a brain. The capability still there, but distant from her. “Food,” she said at last. “Water. Sleep.”

“At the minimum. I… know a place nearby.” The woman tilted their head to the side, made her narrow eyes even narrower. “Can get you there.”

Red 87 looked up, at this woman, at her eyes, at her mouth, at her clothes, which weren’t much more than clumsily-woven squares sewn together. “Yes.”

“Come on, then.” A hand, offered and taken. And then two women, one short and soft, round and tender, the other tall and looking carved out of hard wood. One striding, the other limping. To a new place. To the east.

 

I am a monster. Anyway, don’t forget that I WANT to incorporate your suggestions, whether they be tiny (she finds a special thing!) or large (they are attacked by mutants!). Please leave them in the comments. Be aware that really big suggestions may take a few updates to include, and that by posting a suggestion you are giving me the right to use it or not as I see fit, including in future publication attempts.

Chapter 2: Broken City

Red 87 was barefoot, and already bleeding, and the city was broken.

She could(n’t)…. remember… or rather she knew something at the same time as she failed to remember it. She knew the city as its old self, the information was there in a neat little nugget, but there was nothing attached to it. It came like something implanted.

 The city was supposed to be the ideal city, the first of its kind. It was built in a series of interlocking circles, with all circles except the central two miles having both habitation and retail opportunities. There were open park areas with open and covered seating in the diamond between four circles. The central two miles offered more specialist retail opportunities like clothing stores and furniture stores, whereas the habitation circles offered cafes, general stores, butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers and chemists. Every citizen had, at bare minimum, a one-room habitation cube, with one hot and one cold meal provided by the state. Further desires could be fulfilled by employment, but at least no-one would ever starve or freeze.  There was a high-speed train ringing the outskirts of the whole city, with stops every quarter turn. From those stops, a visitor or resident could catch one of a thousand regular trams to any other part of the city…

She could see that train track in the distance; or at least, she could see fragile poles towering high, and on them the tattered and tangled remains of a track. Around her, things seemed neat, not all destruction. Neat… but not untouched. Weeds grew from tumbling walls, and came from broken windows, and doors gaped open like dead mouths.

How long?

But despite this, there was life. Birds sang, having taken over the rubble for their nests and their food hunting. She could name every one from their songs. Vines and brambles and vines and even trees sprouted from the cracked pavements and crumbled walls, and on this beautiful day they were visited by bees and butterflies, because they were in bloom. Somewhere in the ruins, she knew, rats watched her, and badgers and foxes, and all the things that liked dark dens and plentiful prey.

She breathed in deep. The air was fresh, slightly dusty, and full of pollen.

East.

She went east.

Red 87 scrambled over sharp-edged stone and jagged metal, and she cut her hands and feet, but ignored it. The urge for the east was too strong. It was a compulsion. She would keep traveling that way, she thought, even if her feet were worn through to the bone.

But she was human, made of meat and bone and electrical impulses, an imperfect machine that needed energy from food and moisture from water, and time to sleep.

Just a machine, just a machine, complex and inefficient machine…

She thought it in time with her footsteps, she thought it in time with her heartbeat. I am a machine. Time passed. The sun rose until it was above her, and then behind her. Sometimes she slipped, and the detritus of the past crumbled underneath her, and sometimes she walked (east east always east) without trouble or struggle. The destruction got worse as she went on. She went from only the highest and most arrogant buildings brought low to whole sections of city charred down to their roots. But then, with no reason at all, there would be a street or a park seemingly untouched by anything except time.

Her feet were already bleeding.

Try the buildings over there.

She looked over to the left, tired eyes focusing. Here, the buildings were cubes, white cubes, in good condition. Windows were intact. Window boxes harboured weeds and spiders. Curtains still hung in the windows. They looked like their inhabitants had left for work and just never returned.

Try them.

She pressed a hand to one of the doors. White material, smooth. She knew it. Remembered that texture under her own palms. Her skin was very brown against the white and she remembered that too. Remembered… something. People. Other people. A woman, with red hair and freckles all over, and a large broken nose. A man, pudgy and quiet, who smiled soft when she…

And gone. She gritted her teeth, but the shriek still came out. She sounded, even to her own ears, like a wordless animal. She slammed her hand against the door.

A soft beep, a green light glittering, and the door opened.

Go on then.

One hesitant foot inside a door frame, bare, sore soles finding stiff threadbare carpet instead of ragged stones and grit. Body inside next. Eyes seeing what there was to be seen.

Oh, it was sad and oh it was pathetic. No-one there, no soul there. A house abandoned is a house despairing. A house with paint all chipped and dingy. A house where the pictures have faded on the walls. A house where….

A house where in the bedroom something sorry and best forgotten lay under a rotted away quilt. A grin that is not a grin. Two grins. Curled up around each other, yes, because they didn’t know they were going to die and it happened at night, while these two creatures, beloved and beloving, were deep in warm and peaceful sleep, their hands in soft contact with each other, breathing each other into their dreams.

Don’t think about it.

No, don’t. Find… yes. In the wardrobe. There are clothes that she doesn’t want to weigh herself down with, but there are thick socks and good shoes, still good after all these years. She might wonder at that, if she had more mental space. She will wonder about it later. She will wonder about many things later. As yet she is all misfiring signals. She should be in a facility somewhere, relearning how to use a knife and fork. Extended tank time is dangerous.

(where did she get that from why does she know it.)

((WHO is she))

She is Red 87 for now, and that’s all that matters at this time, in this place, she is Red 87 and her feet are bleeding, and the water here is cold but clean. So she washed her feet, wanting to cry as the water flowed away all red and brown and black. And she dried her feet. And she wrapped thin soft cloth around them. Red spots bloomed through. She put the thick socks on over, and then the good boots. Better already.

Find weapons a knife a broken bottle a gun anything.

In the kitchen there was a knife with a white ceramic blade. A good knife, very sharp,  with a brightly coloured plastic blade protector. she takes it with her.

Late. The light had gained that dusty gold colour that came with a late day. She could rest. She should rest. Here?

No. No rest where those poor things don’t sleep.

So she breathed deep, and found a word. An important word, and good to remember. “Sorry,” she said, “And thank you”.

 

Alright, readers! That’s this week done with. Don’t forget, if you have ideas for creatures she should meet, things she should do, or what could happen to her, say it in the comments and I’ll do my best to include it.

Chapter 3