Illustration by Abby Brown
Quincy wasn't sure what stood over him, through foggy eyes at dawn. If not for the grog of morning, he might have thrown it off instead of analyzing it. It was the size of a child, wrapped in wiry fur. Only around its face, hands, and foot-hands did it show skin. A tail flicked behind it with curiosity as its fingers twiddled over Quincy's forehead. Then it plucked a hair from his head.
"He-hey!" He bolted upright. The thing sprung backwards and latched to a tree. Amidst its panicked screech, Quincy heard something even more alarming- Crichton laughing. Quincy spun on an axis of fury to find his companion in stitches.
"He was eating bugs out of your hair for five minutes!"
"Screw you, Crichton," Quincy bit, though he chuckled himself, once the shock faded. "What in the hell was it?"
"A monkey," Crichton said, " You wouldn't know it from three days, but this Jungle is filled with animals."
Quincy watched the hairy little humanoid meld into the canopy like he was made of leaves. The forests of The Terra Layer were monitored tree for tree. With no need for animals to spread their seeds, it was entirely barren of life bigger than insects, to pollinate the seasonal flowers. As far as animals went, Quincy was in the dark beyond dogs and squirrels. The intricacies of biology studies had kept him from animal science classes, and the path of a Strand Nether Layer Biologist. What he knew amounted to: he was smack in the middle of Strand's recently lacking conservation effort.
"What else lives in the jungle?" Quincy gave into curiosity.
"Snakes. Jaguars. But you've got closer concerns," said Crichton, "Until we get clothes for you, people will...say things. Don't talk to anyone and stay close to me."
"People?" Quincy echoed, following automatically. "Like... Tribesmen?" He stopped himself using their usual, derogatory title- they could be within earshot.
"Silvereach used to be a Strand regulation dam. The people who live there may have been Tribesmen. They, their parents, or their grandparents stormed the place and drove the Ranks out. Now it's an exclusive refuge," Crichton told him.
"And you're part of the club," Quincy guessed.
"I stayed with the Reachers for a while, before I met Levi."
"Is... Levi how you got involved with Charlotte?" Quincy nudged.
"The truth is a short leash, Quincy," Crichton glared back. The jungle fell away from three-hundred feet of sloped steel over a shallow creek. The gates of Silvereach. A ladder of rusty rungs climbed to a platform and door in its side.
"This..." Quincy booted sediment across the pebbly banks.
"It comes in from outside the Tower. When Strand had Silvereach, they varied the filtration, with the Tribesmen downriver as an indicator of safety. Now The Tribes stay away from the Reachers, so long as the water's clean." Quincy stared into the crystal, flowing mirror, the only the evidence a world still existed outside Strand's great Tower. He might have dipped his hand in it, if not for the stern knock on the iron above him. He rushed up the ladder behind Crichton, awaiting answer by the door.
"Trespassing?" a haggard voice came through.
"On Levi's orders. Crichton," he said.
"The orders." The laugh that came through was like a steel ball rolling down a gutter. The man that ushered them through the squealing door had almost as much hair frizzing around him as the monkey. He welcome them into a dank, steel hallway rife with moss from water leaks.
"A damn scrub?" the doorman licked the yellow stumps of a three-toothed smile, "How'd you know we was short on food?" Quincy tensed when Crichton grasped his shoulder.
"He's not the garden variety. Shot a Ranger out of the sky," Crichton said. He led Quincy past the laugh-wheezing doorman to a tall cascade of stairs. When they reached the dim crack of daylight up top, Crichton said, "Allow me to reiterate: stay close to me. Don't talk to anyone."
What existed at the apex of the dam was a great deal for Quincy to process in a short time. In Crichton's brisk wake, he gathered that Silvereach was a city bolted and welded by amateurs from scraps of steel and twisted driftwood. Several bridges spanned the raging river that fed the dam. In their haphazard construction, Quincy spotted both warped window frames and armored vehicle remnants. Tents and heaps of tin marked what might have been stores or homes. The people slinking about were hardly less dogged than the doorman; men draped with scraggly hair, women with wiry, strung out styles. Every one of them showed ribs through thin skin.
The five minutes it took Crichton to find them lodging were a waking nightmare. The whispers of the wandering masses were impossible to dissect, but for the universal agreement on hunger, and willingness to eat the scrub. Through stirring crowds, Crichton and Quincy crossed bridges, dodged down alleys, and hooked turns. Most of the Reachers trickled away, the deeper into the metal maze they wandered. All but a nimble child who tracked them between the feet of withering adults. Quincy and the boy locked eyes just before a door of nail-ridden planks slammed him and Crichton inside a shelter. Most of its walls were partially open to the elements, and only its door set it apart from a lean-to. It was filled by three bent-branch cots and a desk made from half an upright row-boat.
"Excuse me," said the slender man behind the counter when Quincy plopped on one of the cots. "Ah, Crichton," he noticed. That, somehow, was enough to settle matters of both payment and supervision. The man stepped outside.
"So..." Quincy breathed through his fingers, "Are they actually cannibals? Or..."
"It's your clothes," said Crichton through the slats that hardly passed for a door, "They think you're a scrub- a Strand cadet. Did you notice anyone following us?"
"Just a kid."
"Check your things to see if anything's missing, then forget about it. Do not leave this building until I come back." The door swung shut behind Crichton before Quincy could protest.
"And I was worried about wild-men," he sighed. Quincy littered what little he had left across the floor.
The telescope blade Crichton had given him was there, but the gun-stick had disappeared. Though bewildered, Quincy had every intention of heeding Crichton's advice. Then he felt the bottom of his pocket where his bandanna had been. Quincy belted the blade before he left.
YOU ARE READING
Strand: the Silver RadioScience Fiction
A shape against the night, in the light of a highway construction sign, is a young man in trouble. An artist in an artless place, he must fit into Strand's machine, or be thrown away like garbage. From the best laid plans to hapless coincidence, Qui...