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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“We really need to get you a doctor.”