Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Timeshare Chapter One - Moscow in the Summer.

Hello everyone!  If I do this right, this blog should be the first chapter of my debut sci-fi novel, working title A Murder on the Theriopolis, releasing this fall on A Carrier of Fire.  The second chapter is available to read at the link at the bottom of this blog.  Both chapters of this story, "Timeshare," are available to download in full for Microsoft Word and as a PDF file.  If you like what you read, please share on your social media platform of choice with the hashtag #WanderingCityBlues or by tagging A Carrier of Fire on Facebook or Twitter.  Honest to God, every like/comment/share/retweet is important.  Thank you for support and keep an eye out for updates on the aforementioned Facebook and Twitter links!  We love you!

Timeshare
by jonny Lupsha

All content in this file © jonny Lupsha and A Carrier of Fire, 2015 and 2016.

Preamble:  100 Words about Walter Atherton

His elbows resting atop the balustrade, Walter Atherton took one final bite of the apple and casually tossed it over the edge.  When he was a boy he’d watch the apples fall, bouncing repeatedly against the steep, nearly vertical walls, but by now he’d lost interest.  He could imagine it falling as he walked away though, down the hide of the great beast atop which they’d built their city.  Eventually it would slip into the red-orange haze that covered the surfaces of the Earth and come to rest on her barren soil.  We should be somewhere near Chicago, he thought.

Chapter One:  Moscow in the Summer

Sean awoke in lurches from a deep sleep, a sleep brought on by his share of alcohol – and then some.  He was in his cot.  The daylight loomed bright outside, but the bright orange tent that he’d called home these last few weeks on Proteus was so thick that it was much darker inside.  A sliver of blinding light tore a paper cut gash down the tent flap.  The potted plant hanging from one of the tent poles swayed gently with each of Proteus’s footsteps below him.  At its stillest, the plant rested at a slight angle to the left from where Sean lay.  His head dumbly ached as though the head of a spoon were rubbing somewhere against the middle of his brain.  His mouth was dry and his tongue a bit swollen; his skin felt sensitive and thin.  Gentle pangs of nausea probed at his abdomen and he was warm to the point of discomfort and slight dizziness.

He had to regroup, to take stock of what he knew in the moment.  Sean knew this feeling well enough to know he should’ve stopped drinking before he did last night.  He also knew that if he got up and left his tent, the man who lived next to this rented space would let Sean help himself to as much water as he could carry from the man’s home supply.  What was his name again?  John something?  Something Johnson?  For the life of him he couldn’t remember the man’s name, although they’d become acquainted since Sean’s arrival, since Sean had a silver tongue – he was skilled at making friendly conversation with people and making them like him.  Finally, he knew he needed more time before dressing himself and making his way to his temporary neighbor’s house to quench his thirst. 

Last night he’d gone out for drinks with some locals, including the mayor, to celebrate picking up the tourists today.  Proteus would shamble into Moscow late in the morning, close to midday, to make his customary visit to the Moscow International Business Center.  Once there,  he’d stop for exactly one hour and admire the skyscrapers, which were some of the only man-made structures tall enough to still be visible over the fog.

Shit, the homecoming, Sean thought.  He scrambled out of his cot and leaned his head out of the unzipped tent flap, looking to his right to check the time.  The sunlight in the east blinded him for a moment and he remembered his hangover just as the throbbing came to his temples.  After a moment, his irises adjusted and he saw that the sun was low enough in the sky that he wasn’t late, but high enough that he should get moving.

His anxiety vanished.  The relief he felt rippled throughout his body, affecting his hangover in various ways.  The tremendous cessation of pressure in his body gave his skin a nice chill but caused his shoulders to ache, joining his head in their throbbing.  Sean crawled back inside and collapsed onto his cot for one more moment.  He laughed a bit despite himself.

After dressing, Sean checked his face in the shard of mirror hanging from the wall of his tent.  He was a little worse for wear but his dirty blonde hair and thin face were still admirable.  He had a few days’ worth of stubble on his cheeks and under his nose and chin, but his high cheekbones, slender nose and pale blue eyes offset the more ragged elements of his appearance.  He’d turned 30 the day he arrived on Proteus.

Sean talked his neighbor – whose name was Jeffrey Johns, as it turned out – into feeding him before he went to the reception.  Sean figured it was enough of a price to pay to act sober and decent to his unwaveringly pleasant neighbor.  Perhaps he had an easy time of it because Sean and Jeffrey were cut from the same cloth in regards to their amiability.  Jeffrey wasn’t much to look at – a plump, middle-aged man with a wide nose and round chin and skin that shined from a hint of oiliness – but even when he interrupted someone or if he spoke while eating, Sean found himself looking forward to hearing what the man had to say.  Sean, meanwhile, had always fascinated people with his anecdotes and jovial nature.  He was the type of person you just wanted to be around.

Sean’s headache had returned with a vengeance from the seemingly Herculean efforts of dressing himself and walking to Johns’s house, but now with some vegetables and clean water in his belly, he was starting to crawl out from under the rock of dehydration.  He was better able to take in his surroundings now than when he had first entered.  Johns’s house was the same quaint size and offered the practicality of all the houses he’d seen on the titans.  There was a small kitchen and eating area on the right when you entered, and past those there was a bedroom on the left and a living room on the right.  The kitchen was open to the living room and, all in all, the house was less than 1,000 square feet.   The walls were white and the carpet in the living room had seen better days.

While they ate, Sean spoke matter-of-factly about his uneventful journey to Proteus – leaving his assistant the responsibility of dropping the tourists off at OKO South Tower several weeks ago while Sean himself migrated from one walking city to the other to receive them on Proteus today.  The mention of Proteus sparked a thought in Jeffrey’s mind.

“Are your ankles killing you yet?”

“How’s that?”

“The slope!”  The gears in Sean’s brain were still getting up to speed; it took him a moment to realize what Jeffrey was talking about despite Jeffrey using his knife to gesture a diagonal line several times.  Sean watched the knife flick back and forth with bits of food stuck to it, then it clicked – he was asking Sean if he’d acclimated to the peculiar angle at which the city sat on Proteus’s back.  Proteus wasn’t quite as tall as Triton, on whom Sean’s hometown was built, but his front two legs were much longer than the back two.  He walked on all fours, so his back sloped downward from his head to his hindquarters.  When The Founders built the city on Proteus nearly 85 years prior, they constructed low stilts on which the houses would sit in order to compensate for the slant.  To anyone unaccustomed to life on Proteus, walking up and down steep hills all day was murder on the ankles.  This disorientation was furthered by some of the dwellings that were built since mankind moved onto these beasts.  Either laziness or some sense of pride had overcome the residents and they put together much of the newer living space flat across Proteus’s back without correctional foundations.  Some of the newer buildings were constructed respective to Proteus’s sloping back instead of to gravity like the older ones.  This led to a hodgepodge of a city in which some new buildings – Sean’s tent included – sat with one side higher than the other, their roofs pointing perpendicular to Proteus’s hide.  Whenever someone poured a drink in a new building like this, the liquid tilted towards one edge of the glass more than the other.  Plants hung at angles that weren’t quite 90 degrees to the floor.  Towards Proteus’s head, the problem got so severe that homeowners had gone to such measures as sawing off half the length of two table legs and installing belt buckles in their beds so as not to fall out.

“Oh!  Yes, that was an adjustment.  Truth be told, no offense to your fair city but I’ll be much more comfortable getting back home to life on a flat plane.  I don’t know that I ever got my ‘sea legs’ out here.”

Sean finished his food and set his fork down on his plate.  Johns swallowed a bite of his own breakfast and pointed his fork at Sean, wagging it up and down.  “You know that reminds me of a story Granddad used to tell.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.  About The Founders.”

Sean tried to hide his excitement.  He never missed an opportunity to hear about life in the old days, nor about the events surrounding mankind leaving the surface.

“If you need to leave, though, I don’t mean to keep you.”

Sean snuck a quick peek outside.  It still looked like mid-morning; he had probably an hour before he had to be at the docks.  “I’ve got time.”

Jeffrey continued to eat as he spoke.  “I’m sure you’ve heard about how crazy things were when people first moved up here.  Nobody knew what to do with themselves.  How would we maintain a global government if we had no idea when we’d meet?  Why bother upholding our unique cultural identities when we only stood over our native homelands for a few hours at a time, and so rarely during the year?  Sure, back on the surface immigrants from all over the world had brought their own cultures with them to new lands, but back then there were whole neighborhoods where one nationality lived.  Some American cities had several square blocks that were called ‘China Town’ and ‘Little Italy.’  Since we moved up to the theriopolises, we’ve all been kinda one on top of the other.  Anyway, soon enough, these ‘discussions’ about culture and law and order turned into quarrels.”

Sean nodded impatiently.  He’d heard all this before from his own parents and was starting to worry there wouldn’t be anything new in this tale.  But he let Jeffrey continue.

“Now, even besides the grade of the hill, do you know why it feels funny walking down our streets compared to yours?”

Sean didn’t.  He shook his head no, only realizing then that he’d been meaning to ask someone about getting his sea legs while he was here.  It was something besides the slope, as Johns had just said.  He wished he’d thought of something to say about it before admitting his ignorance.

“It’s because your body is used to the rhythm of your own leviathan, Triton, walking in his own way.  With those big wide tortoise legs of his, the motion of your city is different from ours.”  Jeffrey made a spider-like shape with his hands by putting his wrists together and crooking his fingers out like claws.  He then rocked his fingers back and forth, side to side, mimicking how Triton walked.  “Like this, yeah?  Here, Proteus’s large forelegs also make him walk more on a two-leg rhythm instead of four.”  Jeffrey abandoned his Triton imitation and instead put his first two fingertips on the table and made them walk like a human.  “See?  It’s a very different pattern than what you’re used to.  His hind legs don’t affect his back movement as squarely as Triton’s since they’re shorter and smaller than his forelegs.

“So keep in mind that back down there, the surface is completely motionless.  The ground is always flat, and immobile, like when Proteus stops to look at a skyscraper.  And they were used to that being the norm.  When we ascended, it took some of The Founders weeks before they got used to the ground under their feet moving.  So granddad tells me they had a town meeting once, at the beginning, and these two officials were arguing with each other over this or that.  Those boys kept on raising their voices and shouting, and so help me they were clinging onto tables and benches for dear life while they’re screaming at each other!”  Both men chuckled.

“And what makes it worse,” Johns continued, “eventually this fight came to blows.  These two old-timers were trying to duke it out, both suffering vertigo and seasickness, and they’re leaning on furniture to fight!”  Jeffrey laughed harder and harder as he continued.  “Finally one of them put his weight into it, cocked his fist back and leaned into this punch with everything he has.”

“So did he knock the other guy out?”

“He missed him by more than a foot!  He lost his balance and fell on the ground.  He ended up throwing up all night.  See, your inner ear has a bit of fluid in it that’s sensitive to any movement.  Since you were in your mama’s belly, your brain’s gotten used to the swaying of Triton’s step.  So when you set foot in our city, your inner ear lost its rhythm.”

“No shit.”

“No shit.”  Jeffrey batted his eyebrows up and down once to emphasize his point and took a sip of his water.  Sean kept those men in his mind, hiding their unease with loud words and bravado even as they held onto support.  It sounded like it would’ve looked very dramatic.  He finally snapped back to his conversation and realized he had to go.  He excused himself, thanked his host for breakfast, shook his hand and made his way to the docks.

Sean stopped just once while he walked to the docks.  All along Proteus’s back, there were small man-made outcroppings with balustrades on either side of the city and he made his way to one of them.  He looked out over the horizon and saw a comfortably familiar sight.  It was the same view he’d seen every day of his life:  the horizon split into halves, with the blue daylight offset by the reddish earth.  It was partly cloudy today, but the clouds were spread out enough that the sun shined brightly despite them.  Below the sky, the rust-colored red orange fog sat mostly still.  82 years prior, that poisonous fog had driven mankind from living on the surface to living on the backs of the 13 colossi that emerged along with it from the depths of the sea.  In his youth, Sean had heard hushed stories about what happened to the humans who didn’t live in a theriopolis like he did.  There were plenty of urban legends about whole tribes of people living on the dirt.  They were child warriors with a life expectancy of less than 30 years, living in villages inside skyscrapers just below the 1,000-foot fog ceiling.  His older relatives also talked about other people who lived in underground fallout shelters, and others still who had tried to develop floating sky cities.  There were as many rumors as there were relatives, it seemed.  Since there was no way to separate the truth from the fiction, these stories were often as frustrating as they were fascinating.  And although Sean always denied believing in such fairy tales, whenever he found himself enjoying the view near a city he’d always lean forward a bit and squint, keeping an eye out along the top of the haze for feral adolescents carrying babies of their own.  He’d never admit it, but the old stories stuck in his mind.  I’m just looking because I know I won’t see any people like the ones in the stories, he thought.  It’s so stupid.  Sometimes he almost believed himself.

Sean rejoined the bustling life of Proteus.  He passed the septic manager, who stopped at every house on the way to Proteus’s tail end asking people to add their waste to his wheelbarrow.  When it filled, Sean knew the man would drive the barrow to the back of the city and heave it over, then start again from where he’d left off.  You couldn’t pay me enough to be the shit bucket guy, he thought.  Walking further towards Proteus’s head, he heard the humming of the people who had already gathered at the harbor.  Some of Proteus’s clever residents had moved their shops there for the day and were already haggling with customers over trade prices.  A weathered old woman missing several teeth shouted in Thai over the din, attempting to barter away a piece of curved glass to an Australian man with a backpack in exchange for some plant seeds.

ที่จะเริ่มต้นไฟ!” she said.  ที่จะเริ่มต้นไฟ!”

“Yes, yes, I got it!  Thī̀ ca reìm t̂n fị!  Missy, I know what the bloody glass is for; these here are the only goddamn Rockingham cucumber seeds you’re bound to see in this lifetime – or any other, for that matter.  You understand?  The last seeds above the surface!  If you want them, I’ll need three from you.”  He held up three of his fingers.  “See?  Three.”

ห้า?”

“Yes.  S̄ām.  Three.”

She held up two fingers.

“No, no, not two,” the Aussie said.  “Three.  S̄ām.”

She paused, cursed in Thai and handed over the pieces of glass.  He in turn gave her the small plastic baggie of seeds and pulled out a pre-rolled cigarette from his backpack.  He stowed two of the curved glass pieces and held the third up as if inspecting it.  The Australian man then looked back at the cigarette he held in his hand and gently turned the glass until it shined on one end of the cigarette.  Immediately, the refracted glint of light from the glass began to burn the paper.  The man took a drag from the cigarette before stuffing the third glass into his pocket.  He walked away smoking and the Thai woman shook her head.

“Cheap son of a bitch.”

Other merchants with an eclectic range of goods lined the street.  One family had wooden toys and doll furniture with a sign out front that said “REAL WOOD BROUGHT FROM SURFACE, HUNG FIVE YEARS TO DRY OUT FOG.”  An entirely uninteresting-looking man had water filtration systems available.  Teens sold pouches of custom-blended herb cigarettes.  Two middle-aged women had fresh vegetables and pornographic magazines.  Those with customers bartered shrewdly.  Those without eyed passersby hungrily.  Sean moved past all of them and rounded the dusty corner where he finally arrived at the docks.

It looked like half the city was at the pier, waiting anxiously to welcome back the two dozen or so wealthy vacationers.  Sean Bellamy pushed his way through the crowd, trying not to draw attention to himself while looking for Proteus’s mayor, Bill Pulaski.  Finally they spotted each other.  Sean made his way to the far back corner of the crowd where Pulaski stood on a small makeshift stage with his wife.  The couple proudly beckoned Sean up to them.  Now, standing on a stage with the mayor, receiving more attention and applause than he’d hoped for, Sean Bellamy remembered what it took to get to where he was.

Self-sufficiency had been a central part of titan society since before Sean was born.  Most people didn’t mind thinning their own soup once in a while to help their neighbor if his crops didn’t come in, but too much dependence on others was taboo as soon as word got out – and with most people living 80 years in communities with a population as little as 1,000, word always got out.  Like every other boy and girl growing up, Sean was raised learning to farm crops from hanging indoor gardens.  He could salvage compost and soil substitute from his family’s garbage and he could run the simple water filtration system that caught rain from the rooftop and drained to the barrel on the side of their house.  Beyond that, however, most children showed talents in some trade and worked towards apprenticeship.  Sean didn’t.  His natural charm let him slide by for some time, but eventually it wore out its welcome with his neighbors back on Triton.  His father’s disappointment in him weighed on Sean more heavily as the years passed.  Sean’s mother always said “Something will come along,” but the confidence in her voice started to fade.  Sean took odd jobs to bring in food and supplies, but his father’s words were never far from his mind:  “You go out and make something of yourself.  Become the best at something – make yourself indispensable.  Not this petty bullshit you been doing.”  He decided the best way to earn a name for himself would be to solve a problem the community faced and he wanted to be known as the one who solved it.  If it were a big enough problem, god willing he could use it as the foundation for his career.

Every few years, in at least one theriopolis, people started to get bored and restless living in such a confined space.  Sean had read of something similar once: the Hawaiians called it “Island Fever.”  Up on these towns they took to calling it the Wandering City Blues.  People could walk around town and visit friends, but eventually it became so much of the same damn thing that people got fed up.  On the theriopolis, it led to unrest.  The crime rate spiked.  There were even suicides, which were shocking – the culture of the value of human life had shifted dramatically since Ascension.  When Sean was a child, his father’s father told him that there were once billions of people roaming the surface.  Of course, when Sean questioned his mother, she gently reminded him how prone to exaggeration his grandfather was.  Now with the human species down to five digits, every death weighed solemnly. 

However, despite how important each life seemed – and no matter how much of the world people saw as their titans roamed its surface – so much of the Earth was swallowed up under the cover of fog that it often looked the same, mirroring their lives.  Like Alexander of Macedonia, the human race seemed horrified that there were no more lands to conquer.  So there were sometimes self-induced fatalities.  The fog was so uniform that many people would visit their local cartographer just to ask where they were.  The cartographer’s office was a schizophrenic’s dream, full of maps and globes and colored pushpins detailing the routes of the titans – or, at least, the titans who had steady migration paths.  When people got too restless and the city officials noticed, they would try to arrange a party, event or cultural festival to spice up the quiet lives of those living on the beast-cities.  It’s why they’d started the street hockey league and the exchange student programs for the kids and the boxing tournaments for the adults.  Then one day a year ago, Sean had an epiphany.

If people want off of the leviathan so damn badly, why not let them?

He spent plenty of time in the cartographer’s office that spring, working with the old man and his maps.  Triton walked 48,057 miles on his unending circuit around the planet, stopping at 50 of the world’s surface cities that had the highest populations pre-ascension.  It took Triton over four months to circle the Earth.

“So if we keep a steady course, we’ll pass Moscow once on March 2nd of next year, then again on July…15th.  Is that right?”

The old man licked his lips.  “Sure, but why Moscow?”

“Proteus stops in Moscow.  That knuckle-walker loves skyscrapers and there’s that huge cluster of them downtown at the uh, what’s it called, Moscow Business Complex?”

“Moscow International Business Center, sonny.”

“Right!  And if you’re really as good as you say you are at keeping track of the leviathans – “

“Hey, now; don’t doubt my work for a second, smartass…”

“…Then Proteus will stop in Moscow a few weeks behind us.  In fact, Proteus will get to Moscow on…”  Numbers flew through Sean’s head as he calculated Proteus’s schedule.  Proteus gets home to Dubai on March 31st, plus 68 days around the world and another 57 to Russia makes “August 3rd of next year!”

They double-checked their math, then triple-checked it.  Dusting off his childhood sales skills, Sean drew up a three-week vacation plan and approached the city with it in the ominous town hall.  “It would be like a…” Sean checked his notes and his next two words came out awkwardly, despite echoing throughout the room.  “…’cruise ship.’  Have you ever heard of one of those?  Surface-dwellers would get bored of their own towns and book passage on a boat that would take them around the oceans just to get away from it all.  Only instead of a motionless city and a trip around the ocean, we’d have an immobile getaway from a moving city.”  He knew Triton’s mayor had a copy of his notes in front of him – in fact he’d had his nose buried in them since Sean entered city hall.  Sean had learned from school that people tend to embed information in their brains better if they’re reading and hearing at the same time, so he maintained his calm and consciously took his time presenting the idea so as not to skip ahead of the mayor’s busy eyes.

Triton’s deputy mayor piped up.  “’Just to get away from it all?’  It does have a nice ring to it.”

The mayor, Will Staps, nodded in agreement.  “We could really sell this ‘getaway’ idea.  People are always excited about new things, and if it works right we could start booking them regularly.  Travel would be a bitch but I think our citizens would pay for the chance.

“At the same time, we don’t want to lose any of our population permanently.  What with the missing colossi and those lawless lunatics on Sao, we can’t even put an accurate figure on how many human beings are left on the theriopolises.  10,000?  20,000?  I can promise you it’s not more than that and we’d hate for Triton to suffer 10 or 20 family bloodlines Mr. Bellamy.”

At the mention of his name, Sean perked up.  “That’s not a problem sir; they wouldn’t be able to carry enough resources to develop long-term settlements atop the skyscraper.”

Mayor Staps thought.  “Bellamy, have you worked out all the kinks in this?  Since it’s your name – and your cut of the profits – at stake here, I’m assuming you have.”

Sean hadn’t, but this was his only chance.  “Absolutely.  I just need to take one final quick look at OKO South Tower next time we stop in Moscow.”

Silence hung in the air.  It was deafening.  Staps finally looked up from Sean’s papers.

“Okay.  Let’s give it a try.  We have them sign liability waivers in case of any injuries and we book a vacation.”

Word escaped Triton’s city hall and buzz generated quickly.  In a few months, half of the theriopolises and all their posh socialites had heard of the idea and were throwing riches at Triton and Proteus for the chance to be the first vacationers since the ascension.  Amazingly, the faint-hearted gentlemen and dainty young ladies who won the bids for the trip underwent all the travel without a hitch.  Over the next several months, these travelers spent considerable time working their way from the other leviathans – including Proteus, Galatea and Naiad – to Triton, where Sean had hired an assistant to provide them with their packs.  Each pack held three weeks’ food, several gallons of water and a sleeping bag scavenged from the surface years before. 

And today was the big day – August 3rd.  Sean Bellamy waited shoulder-to-shoulder with Mayor Pulaski of Proteus to welcome the first post-ascension vacationers back from their trip.  Sean figured there was more glory waiting for him in the pickup than the drop-off, so he trusted his assistant, a young Triton resident by the name of Alan Vaughn, to get the vacationers onto Moscow’s skyscraper by himself while Sean left for Proteus well in advance.  Now, waiting at the docks for Proteus to lumber up to the Moscow International Business Center just 20 days after the tourists landed, Sean was brimming with excitement and pride in his work.  He’d had a brilliant idea that not only helped save the theriopolises from another bout of Island Fever but could incorporate a whole new branch of peoples’ lifestyles.

From the lookout tower behind them, they heard a young boy shout “Moscow dead ahead!”  The excitement grew to a fever pitch.  Musicians banged on drums that sounded throughout the late morning sky.  Children chased each other in games of Tag through the crowd.  The cigarette vendors announced they were offering free pouches of herbs to the travelers upon their return.  Mayor Pulaski laughed and patted Sean on the shoulder.  It was a veritable quarter-mile-high parade, a celebration of mankind once again overcoming adversity.

My God I’m going to be rich, Sean thought.

The dock workers readied a 15-foot ballista to fire to the tower.  They’d done it a hundred times before.  Two workers cranked the handle near the seat at the back of the ballista, bringing the string back until the limb itself bowed backwards and clicked into its set position at the latch.  A third man, already seated and waiting, was handed a long, arrow-shaped grappling hook trailing nearly a quarter-mile of rope behind it.  He placed it under and between his legs, into the flight groove on top of the long barrel.  The poorly-named “string” that ran from one end of the limb to the other – and would project the hook on its path to OKO South – was more of a thick belt of rope than it was a string, but the name had always stuck.  All that remained, as they knew from experience, was to await the order.  When the hook fired and caught on the tower, they simply reeled it in on the spool and let the travelers strap onto the ropeway and climb back across.

As they neared the cluster of towers, OKO South came closer and closer.  A minute before the harbormaster was ready to give the order to fire the ballista, something in the crowd changed.  The onlookers at the front, who had surrounded and cramped the dock workers eagerly, got quieter.  Their raised hands lowered and their faces fell.  Each row of people stopped jumping, stopped shouting, stopped cheering one after another.  The drummers stopped their music, stood and stared at the tower.  Sean and Mayor Pulaski were the last to realize something was wrong.  One drummer dropped his fat drumstick and it rolled noisily downhill, clanging and clattering towards the stage.  An eerie silence enveloped the crowd, but eerier still was the sight that awaited their approach atop OKO South Tower.

Birds cawed and crowed.  Why are there so many birds? Sean thought.  The mayor charged up through the crowd, pushing people aside until he reached the balcony, its low railing chipped with dozens of marks from previous grappling hook attachments.  He borrowed a pair of binoculars from a nearby gawker and glassed the rooftop.

27 bodies lay on the roof.  They were slathered in a grotesque soup of blood, vomit and bird feces.  Many of them were being eaten by the birds.  The birds had been working on some of them for a while, picking through their fancy clothes and moving their jewelry aside to get at the carrion beneath.

“They’re all dead.”  Pulaski didn’t mean to let the words escape his lips, but they did, and though he spoke quietly, everyone heard it.  He lowered the binoculars from his eyes and pushed them against someone else’s chest.  He thought it was their owner but he couldn’t be sure.  But he had no more use for them; he’d seen enough.

As he sauntered back to Sean Bellamy, his knees weak with the horror of the corpses he’d seen, the crowd’s eyes followed.  Sean could barely see the rooftop from where he stood but he knew something horrible had happened.  The roof was a macabre light grey with trickles of red dripping down its sides and an abnormally large flock of birds perched on (or circling) it.  There were no birds on any of the other skyscrapers nearby.  The pieces of the puzzle started falling into place just as Sean looked down and saw Proteus’s mayor within 10 feet of him, shambling slowly.

“What did I do?” Sean asked earnestly.  His mouth was dry and the words barely croaked out of his throat.  His thoughts slowly turned away from whatever happened to his tourists and towards the unfathomable amount of shit he’d gotten himself into.  He cleared his throat and asked the mayor again – in a monotone voice, with tears welling up in his eyes – for the news.  In a sense he was asking for the fate of the rest of his life.

“What did I do.”

*  *  *

The harbormaster called to fire the shot as soon as Proteus stopped to look at the skyscraper, just like clockwork; the dock worker in the gunner seat didn’t hesitate.  The hook reached the top of the building and splashed in a puddle of fecal matter and blood.  The other dock workers reeled the line in, leaving a bit of slack to ease their journey.  Then they fastened their climbing harnesses onto the ropeway and zip lined over to the rooftop on OKO South to retrieve the first body.  Without the distant sound of Proteus’s footsteps pounding against the earth, the hushed crowd seemed even quieter.  When they got to the nearest corpse, one of the dock workers reeled and found himself retching over the edge of the building.  This sent a wave of gasps and murmurs through the crowd.  The few family members of the deceased who were in attendance were shocked back to coherence for the first time since seeing their relatives blanketed by excrement and entrails.  They began to sob.
Pulaski’s mood had turned from horror to anger.  In his rage he knew the only proper course of action was to keep a cool head for the sake of the city, the dead and their families.  Even still, he could only partly mask his tone and when he spoke it was through gritted teeth.

“Get the doctor.”

It took the deputy mayor a minute for the words to reach his ears.  He dumbly looked at Mayor Pulaski, who returned his gaze with a fire in his eyes.  The deputy mayor blinked several times and ran to retrieve the town physician while the dock workers resumed their unsavory task.

They wiped the body off as best they could and batted two Eurasian Sparrowhawks off the corpse with the backs of their hands.  The birds cawed with displeasure but flew off to peck at another body.  The dock workers unfurled a tarp, which they usually carried for transporting supplies between colossi, and folded it into a makeshift body bag and put the body on it.  They tied up either end of the tarp so it resembled a canoe, then they each fastened one end to their own climbing harnesses, near the men’s spines, and began the long climb to transport it back to Proteus.  The men talked while they worked their way back across the rope, the foot ascenders which were strapped to their boots preventing them from sliding back to the building.

“Is she slipping?”

“No.  She’s staying up on my end so far.”

“What the Hell happened here?”

“Like I know?  Just don’t say anything unless someone asks you for info.”

“Copy that.”

“Of course you could’ve seen more if you hadn’t blown chunks over the side there…”

“Man, fuck you.  Those birds were picking her damn guts – “

“Okay, just shut up right there.  Stop it.  We’re getting close to the docks and if her family is there and they heard you goin’ on like that?”

“Alright, alright.  Jesus.  Let’s just get there.  How far we got?”

“I’d say another 200 feet.”

“How are we gonna make 25 more trips?”

“26.”

“My point is we’ve got less than an hour and we probably took close to 10 minutes getting to this one and bringing her home.”

“Like I said, keep your head down and follow orders.  Let the boss and Mayor Pulaski figure out this nightmare.”

“Fine.”

“And try to keep your breakfast down next time.”

They arrived in silence, unhooked their cargo and set it down gently.  Mayor Pulaski had returned to the front of the area with a reluctant Sean Bellamy.  Pulaski offered his handkerchief to the dock worker who’d thrown up, shooting him a dirty look.  “Clean yourself up for Christ’s sake; some of the people on that tower were your neighbors and friends.”

Just as the dock worker sought to defend himself, the deputy mayor arrived at the harbor with the doctor, who carried his medical bag.  The doctor scurried up to the body and untied the tarp.  With a full and close-up view of the deceased, the crowd backed away several steps in a hurry.  A young man howled in agony and shoved through the crowd, kneeling in front of the dead woman and gently stroking her sullied hair.  He wasn’t too proud to cry for his loss.


Her boyfriend, Bellamy thought.  For a half a moment he was proud of himself for his simple deduction but the overpowering odor emanating from the victim brought his attention back to the scene at hand.  Reality sank in again and Sean Bellamy realized that for his negligence he’d likely be thrown off Proteus, every bone in his body breaking on impact with the barren surface after a quarter-mile fall from the city, liability waivers be damned.  The only thing he had to wonder was if he’d die of a heart attack on the way down before he hit the ground.

Continued in Chapter Two, "Ghettobelly," right here.

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