2056. Banlo Bay (formerly Houston)
The plaque in front of me was engraved with the words "Survival is triumph enough."
I ran my hand over the side of the wall, feeling the ridge where brick met mortar. I hadn’t planned on coming—shouldn’t have, but it was on my way, and the Banlo Bay Historical Sites Committee sent a nice letter inviting the survivors to their memorial. It was a single salvaged wall of the orphanage, each brick inscribed with the name of a kid who died here. The grand opening of a gravesite.
The sentiment was stupid. The telltale signs of decay crept in only a few blocks down; this monument should’ve been real wall and not some bauble. Still, bystanders gathered to admire the carnage that occurred here years ago, as though it was some long-forgotten history.
“Sorry,” a woman mumbled as she stepped on my toe.
“Sorry,” I counter-apologized.
The misstep pressed her shoulder against my chest, her head below my chin. Hadn’t been this close to another person in years. Her scent struck me: fresh-cut petals of lavender or lilac or something. The nearness, the sensation was dizzying—rusted departments of my brain cranked into shambling frenzy.
I moved away, then turned to watch her. Big brown eyes perplexed with gloom, a chocolate brown ponytail and tanned skin. She looked confused about being sad. Survivor guilt was baffling.
She must have run from this orphanage as a child, like me. She must have felt the danger in the air and snuck past the caretakers who thought corralling us inside the building would be safer. She must have sprinted across the grounds only to turn and see swarms of thirsty, terrified people force their way into the only building with running water and electricity for miles. Then she must have seen it burn.
The start of a twenty-one gun salute. I flinched so hard I nearly inverted.
Policemen in black coats shot their weapons into the sky as a sign of respect and surrender. The way things were going, though, I’m guessing the ritual had new meaning to the firing squad. They were taking shots at God for all this shit luck.
The crowd grew; people stepped out the small shops that lined the street. Downtown Banlo Bay filled the horizon, a gleaming glass city. When you could see that skyline, it meant you were safe. Relatively, anyway.
Enough of this. I’d die someday too, and I wouldn’t even get a brick to show for it.
Was it wrong to be jealous of a burnt orphan corpse?
At last, the policemen lowered their rifles, loads blown and chambers empty. The fireworks were over.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something suspicious: a Stranger. Someone who didn’t belong; someone wrapped in a trench coat, towering over those around him. Gloves, scarf. Not an inch of flesh revealed. Conspicuously inconspicuous. He wore a tall hat with a wide brim, some kind of black Victorian thing, mottled with moth bites and burn marks. Everyone was politely avoiding him. You never talked to Strangers, and this guy was definitely strange.
But I was aware of the danger. A Stranger was the worst thing in the world to be standing in the middle of a crowded bunch of upright citizens.
I made my way to the back of the crowd.
The sound of shooting returned suddenly in stereo and as a chaotic, arrhythmic mess. People started screaming.
I turned in time to see the Stranger in the trench coat and hat firing an assault rifle into the air. Throughout the crowd, three more men in similar clothes began firing upwards, just mocking the salute, spinning in place and peppering the sky with ammunition.
Strangers, fucking with people again, pushing the world past the brink.
Someone bumped into me, then another, pushing me onward. People ahead of me tried to turn and run. Tension rose. More gunshots. Havoc was cried, and the dogs were loosed. The wall of flesh in front of me expanded like a lung, forcing me into the mass of squirming bodies trying to escape.
Not my first mob. The only way to survive was to be the fastest rat in the swarm. I turned and ran. Some of the people I pushed past were standing on their toes, trying to see what was going on, trying to see if it was anything serious.
Gunfire was always serious. I looked at their faces and I saw cadavers. Curiosity was a luxury; these were sparse times. The smart ones were running with me. We collided like atoms; the crowd reached critical mass, and I was at the crest of a great upset.