Nina Hockson sat curled on her aqua-blue couch, legs pulled up against her chest, watching
the sunrise. She kept thinking one day she would see something beautiful in it, something that didn't just scream at her: death and decay. Burnt sunlight spread through a city's worth of smog,
sometimes so thick that the streets would seem to fill with a mustardy haze, and it would feel as the neighbourhood had been hit with some kind of chemical weapon.
In a way it had.
She didn't know the ins and outs – some people did, some people thought there was a
point in finding out – but she knew enough to know that the whole world was fucked. The bloom had spread through the atmosphere, carried in clouds, releasing spores that the wind had flung to the
four corners, and beyond. Spores soaked into everything. Into everyone.
She considered herself to be lucky, not being infected, not yet. She'd listened avidly to too many stories of victims rotting inside - liquefaction of bones inside a persons body - to have any courage left to face thatherself. She found herself checking her fingers and toes - turningher feet up to check the undersides. And she'd kissed that guy she'd been with, before she'd felt the hot decay in his cheek; his soft, dying jaw. So she stood in front of her mirror, checking inside her mouth, looking for any signs of it. It didn't spread like that, it didn't need to, not when it had already saturated the air itself. But she checked. She couldn't stop herself. She just couldn't.
When she was sure,when she was calm again, she went to the fridge and poured herself
some cereal. She mixed it with fruit-paste and cinnamon, spooned on the lemon curd and yoghurt. It made no sense not to have these things, even if she could barely pay her rent. Would the streets be
that much worse than this hole?
She felt sorry for the guy she'd almost been with overnight. He'd been okay. Been sort of nice to her at first, and their shared sense of placelessness had drawn her like a beacon. He'd seemed as lost as she felt, as totally adrift. He'd had that desperate, searching look on his face that she was sure she so often had on hers. They'd danced. He'd called her beautiful. They'd wandered the streets together, trash-talking strangers, half-looking for trouble. She'd known the walk wasleading to her place, to her bed, to an empty night that would still fill the void for a while.
She'd have done it, if he hadn't been sick, or if it hadn't taken her by surprise. She was sorry. But if he'd warned her, even a little bit....
Her hands were shaking.
She'd promised her brother that she'd try to stop using. She'd meant it when she'd said it, when he was within minutes of them carting him away. But it was another thing when the withdrawal starting kicking in, when the edges started to reassert themselves, and they were universally sharp. She
knew she was weak. She was broken. Please try to understand. Please.
She hated hitting thestreets in daylight. She didn't know how much credence she gave the
theory that it was safer at night, that the spores were more active in sunlight. They were more visible - they coloured the streets, reflected off walls – but she was readier to believe they were just
as potent at night, hiding in the dark, black-shawled assassins. She was one of the ones who wore a mask – she wore it anyway, in spite of her doubts, wore it sometimes at night, even guessing that the spores found their way inside. Capable of being absorbed through the skin. She could still remember the moment she'd seen that on TV: a grizzled old professor, talking to his hands, fidgeting, speculating on the fate of the planet. “It's likely that the spores are capable of being absorbed through human skin.... smaller than the pores.... potentially broken down in sweat.... and once they've bonded with even a few white blood cells......” She remembered the shock, the finally feeling it - viscerally, physically – waking up over the space of a moment to the fact that this was really happening. She could remember how wide her eyes had been, how she'd suddenly starting sobbing, and Vance hadn't knownwhat to say or do to stop her.
She slid into the alleyway and she waited.
He called himself White Tiger, or Tig for short. He'd dyed his hair white and threaded glow-in-the-dark fibres through it to underscore the point. His cheeks were tattooed with black and white tiger stripes. In another lifetime she would have found it ridiculous.
“Nina. You want something?”
“Yeah. You got any Kick?”
“You got coin?”
She nodded. Cash might be a thing of the past, but the underground world traded
cheerfully and secretively in a patchwork of barter. She had salt – and she could get tobacco, gold, glass, copper, graphite. She dumped a cube of salt into his palm and waited for him to weigh it. “Good?”
“You got the red stuff?”
He nodded. It was closer to purple really, a brooding maroon, striated with blood-red,
and a softer, sunset red. A sheet of thick paper that felt bubbly and rough, not much bigger than her palm. She folded it and slid it inside her sleeve.
“You okay still, Nina?”
“I think so.”
“Here's hoping, right?”
“I like you.” His fingers on her cheek. Letting her know that if she couldn't pay in salt, there were others things he'd accept from her in payment. His eyes pushed through her clothes, imagining the small scrap of body underneath.
He might be disappointed with the real thing. But she'd probably give it to him, next time she was short and craving; and it'd probably be no worse than doing it with any other guy.
“Take care.” He said.
“You too. Stay dark.”
She slid into a white dress, wrapped a blanket over her, dropped the paper square into a glass of hot water. She watched in fascination as the colours seeped out, how they seemed to swirl and spiral, with different colours seeming to take the ascendancy, only to be overthrown by others. Coloured vapours rose and she breathed them in. Reds danced and twined with shades of purples, dark oranges; white tendrils snaked out from somewhere, thin and forked like roots. But it all seemed to
blend into grey in the end – the residue on the inside of the cup was the same colour as thunderclouds.
There was an article on the TV about the ships. They always made her blood boil. If she
hadn't been partway high she would have turned it off, maybe thrownsomething at it. Now, in limbo, she just watched. Big white behemoths full of somebody else's hope. There were engineers and build-bots working all over them, swarming like insects. Some of the panels were latest tech, able to install themselves, to flip up just a little to let a new neighbour slot in next to them. Somewhere in
the hull, the wires were threading themselves through the network, linking everything up and feeding back their progress. “These ships... in very real terms, they built themselves.... the future of
Someone else's future. It was so unfair she wanted to break something. She wanted to hunt down every last privileged, over-educated shit on the list and punch their smug head in. They didn't deserve it.
Her head was swimming at last. Thank God. She could lay back and let a kaleidoscope play
out. Shapes and patterns formed and coalesced, brightened, faded, winked in and out of life. Her skin tingled, and she felt as if she could float. This part would only last briefly, but it would leave
her a little bit warm inside, a bit numbed, a bit sparkly, for the next couple of days. We all get through in our own way. Where do you get off judging me?
She still heard the call. She had to bring herself down from the clouds, back into the cold, into her own weight, so she could answer it. The screen showed a picture of Vance. He was allowed to call her once a week, always at this time.
She quickly covered the stained grey glass, tidied her hair a little, rubbed her face
with a sleeve. He mightn't notice. She could keep it together for the few minutes he had.
“Hey, Nina.” They dressed him in grey, a sleeveless, floppy grey jumpsuit. A wristband
kept him monitored, and could be used to shock him into agonising paralysis at the first wrong move. It sickened her to see that on him.
“Vance. Are you doing okay?”
“Sure. Of course.”
“Do you need stuff?” There was always so little time.
“No, I'm good. It's not that bad in here.”
“You shouldn't even be there. That dickhead got what he deserved.” A near-stranger
who'd been working in GrowCorp at the time of the catastrophe, who'd not likely had anything to do with that project. Who'd lain on the ground with his hands over his head; Vance: just one of six, kicking him repeatedly. They: just six among thousands who'd taken to the streets in the first set of riots.
We all get through in our own way. “Has your shit lawyer been back?”
“He's dropped your appeal?”
“We're out of funding. You know we are. Don't talk about that, there's three minutes left on the clock.”
“You want to hear about my career?”
“Well, you don't want to hear about my sex life.”
“Really don't. Hey, who do you still see from the old crowd?”
“No-one now. They're moved away most of them.” Or dead. Or in prison. Or dying too badly for anyone to want to go near. The slums were lower, were unfiltered, had taken the brunt of the outbreak.
“I've made new friends. Drayton. He's... he's a nice guy. He's sick though, but he isn't too bad yet.”
“You? You're still clear?”
“Yeah.” She was afraid to ask about him.
But he told her: “They're trying some things on us. Before you say anything.... it's risky, it's dangerous as shit-”
“But you're good, you're clean.”
“I won't be forever. It's not voluntary anyway. But it might be a good thing. That'd be a kicker right? The criminals inherit the earth.”
The high-ups don't want it anymore. “I totally miss you.”
“Right back at you, kid.”
“Be careful in there.”
“And out there. You be good. We're the only ones left of our blood now and-”
They always cut them off on the second. There were never any allowances. Nina stared at the glass. She wanted to make the colours appear in it, the ever-evolving shapes and patterns; she wanted it to glow and change. But she could only see grey – the grey of ashes, of soot, of rubble.