Blue flashes. The air-train breaches the energy dome and climbs. The storm shrieks. Below, the outskirts of New Paris spread like frozen claws. Old Paris does not come into view as much as New Paris evaporates and the slums melt in.
The dome’s green shimmer casts its ugly pallor. Graveyard gray. Human resistance. A pallor that accentuates the separation of the walled city from the rest of death.
New Paris, Louis knows, is no different than Great London. Most major cities have contracted, adopting the Party Line: lean and black. The seething sickness of old humanity is cast out. Now, the flowering intelligence of new humans takes its night-ful place.
Only it's a lie. Humans in the walled-off zones are no longer humans. Yes, they have some of the same genes, but the similarities end there. Add to the amalgam, the augmented people. Those who wish to become, in stages, what the new humans are now. They exist at the pleasure of the new humans. They, the augments, are the caretakers of the new breed. If breed is even the right word, Louis thinks. If it is, the augments are like blissfully ignorant slaves, and more AI than human. More dead than alive.
Concentric rings of humanity define Old Paris. The slum rings. Veritable wastelands, pockmarked by crumbling buildings, debris-filled avenues, and death. The farther from the city center, the core, the darker things become. Until there is nothing except the nuclear scars from the V-Wars. A landscape remade into an image of nothing.
And yet, Louis sees hope.
Louis feels the air-train turn now. Below them, the projected sun begins to sink. The colossal air machines wind down for the night in New Paris. Beyond the walls, the slummers file into the Catacombs beneath Old Paris. Like rats, they descend further underground until they reach the abandoned subway tunnels. The Refuge. Constructed during the Great Awakening by the AI machines, the Refuge is all they have now. Fabulous public works decaying and unused, except as a slummer's last hope. Perhaps this is doom, Louis ruminates.
Myra is out cold in her seat. Her head tilts forward, chin held in place by her harness. Kojak and Star are alert. They watch the conductor's avatar and the rest of them. There are no other live people aboard.
So far, they've not hit a snag. They were able to use a public air-train with their false identities. But Louis knows something is wrong. It's too easy.
The slummer's life in Old Paris isn't easy, Louis thinks now. They will seal off the subway cars and pass the air canisters around, and try to sleep. During the night, they will move their dead to the tunnels and later, add them the Catacombs, bone by bone. It’s life by attrition and death by reward. In the morning, the slummers will reemerge from their grave-like hovels. They will collect, bicker, and fight over the food supplements deposited by the Party. Food supplies that diminish by the day, as the Party loses interest and as humans disappear.
Myra awakes. She takes in her harness. "Where are we going?"
Louis turns, "Great London." He knows she has not been unconscious.
“London? But..." Myra blinks.
Louis waits for her to finish. "I heard it's dangerous. That there are terrorist attacks," Myra says.
"She means us," Kojak says. He smiles. "Someone's got to do it." Kojak kneads the bridge of his nose, then watches the avatars around them. One in particular, has his interest. A clown. It's for entertainment but it's irking him. He turns to Star. "Can you zap that thing?"
"Not if you want this train to keep flying," Star answers. "These old things fry easy."
“At least it’ll put me out of my misery,” Kojak quips.
Myra is shaking her head. "So, you are terrorists?"
Louis answers, "No." He doesn't elaborate and Myra leaves it alone. Instead, she watches the view beneath.
"Are those still the slums?" Myra asks.
Louis looks down. The air-train has views in every direction. A bit unnerving for the faint of heart, but the newbies—new humans—have removed timidity from their genome. He sees that Myra exhibits no fear.
"Slummers live there, yes," Louis explains.
"But how do they survive? There's no clean air or water this far out, right? I know that near the walls, the food drives keep them alive, but out here?" Myra seems truly confused. Again, Louis senses a lie.
"Ingenuity, Ma'am," Star says.
Kojak grunts. "And old fashioned grit." He glances at the clown again. "God, I hate avatars."
"Are you kidding me?" Kojak turns. "You're a newbie?" Kojak removes his harness but Louis is faster. He steps between them.
"Colonel! She's a--" His knife is out.
"I know. Put it away."
Myra glances at the Star. "You knew too?" Star nods.
Kojak refuses to sit. "But Colonel, she'll get in our heads and--"
"No, she won't. She's our contact."
Kojak stands down. "Her? A fricking newbie is our snitch?" He glares at Star. You knew and didn't tell me? Kojak sits back down. "I thought we were a team."
Louis sits next to Myra. She smiles. "You knew?"
Louis nods. "That's why John Kremel had no information, right? You have it."
"I apologize for the ruse, but I had to make sure," Myra explains.
"Okay," Louis says. "Now explain why we're here."
Myra makes a steeple with her hands. "I contacted you because we are family." It’s a simple statement of fact. She stares at Louis. He doesn’t react.
Kojak's ears perk up.
"We are what?" Louis asks.
"You and I. I'm your sister." Still no outward emotional reaction from Louis.
"That would sure explain a lot of things, boss," Kojak interrupts.
"My sister? How?"
"Half-sister. Our father was a sympathizer."
Louis thinks back.
It's early morning. Twenty years ago. They are on an excursion before sunrise, in Old Paris. As they come out of their subterranean lairs they spot them. Blue-heads trying to beat the crowds to the food boxes. It is always a problem. More often than not they'd be dead from oxygen deprivation. But ones like these save up oxygen cans days beforehand. Either that or they trade on the black market.
These blue-heads are different today, because they aren't blue-heads. They are newbies. Louis knows immediately. He feels them. He feels their buzzing, like the bees he's seen in the old vids. Except, he is the only one of their patrol group that does.
He tries to halt them. Explains to the pack leader that these aren't blue-heads at all. That they aren't even using air cans. That they are in danger.
The pack leader pushes on. Says she isn't letting a bunch of blue-heads steal food. On the way, they find the real blue-heads. They are dead. Gutted.
"They took their organs," Louis says. He bends down. "These cuts are surgical." When he looks up again, the newbies are there. The pack is down, convulsing from the mind links. The pack leader's eyes turn crimson and her back arches as if she is full of electricity.
Louis is back in the present. "The collectors," he says.
Myra nods. "Our father was a collector until he found you that day.”
"Found me?" Louis asks.
"He never knew you existed until that day when they killed your pack--except you didn't die."
© 2020 Jack Shorebird