It feels as though it has been a long time since John has looked at a clock, though of course he has no way to tell.
In the end it did not take long for his enemy, under the duress of the war, to break into the same enlightenment that John discovered. In what he must assume to be years The Enemy has wrought terrible changes in the city. The air is thinner these days. John never deduced what The Enemy had done to cause that, but he can only dimly remember a tree that wasn’t strangled bare. And there are no seasons anymore, just a pervading gray between the horizon, as though the city has been concreted off. Time has broken free of the minute and hour hands; night is but a blushing of the sunless sky, and comes in stuttering fits.
All public facilities have long since broken down, as the men and women who could maintain them were called away to fight and die. There is water when it rains, and that is not often. There are no police, and no law to need them. With no doctors left and no hospitals still standing, disease wastes almost as much of John’s forces as The Enemy does, although the same is true for him. They have long ago extinguished electricity altogether, to deny the advantage of it to each other. No-one is making clothes, and so both armies are nude. There are no more guns, so they fight with knives and bones and jags of ruin. They make stinking tent camps among the mossy ruins of the skyscrapers that once pushed the city’s borders towards the sky.
The war is a saw-blade of victories and tragedies. In one disastrous misstep leaves John’s citizen-militia perilously thin, and so he breeds his populace together frenziedly to replace them while an elite force holds the front lines. No-one but they are exempt. For months his streets are cacaphonic with ecstatic moans. In an eye-blink of ten-some years his forces are restored to full might. The weak, disabled, and dead are recycled to fuel those remaining, for the sake of efficiency. So it goes.
Meanwhile his wife Naomi grows frail and old trapped in their secret palace underground where she is safe from The Enemy. All of the friends John gave her over the years have been conscripted to the war effort for want of real soldiers. The plastic surgeries that keep her looking twenty, then thirty, forty, when John still had time to mate to mate with her, are unraveling. She has read all the books in the palace until they fell apart, and watched all the movies until the power went out for good. For a while he had music played for her, but there are no more musicians, and no more spare bodies who can become musicians; the Enemy has only grown more vicious with age. So mostly Naomi sleeps, and combs her thin, white hair, and polishes the worthless little baubles in her room, and screams at the walls, and organizes her closet over and over and over again.
Except now she is doing none of those things. Now she has packed a suitcase and is dragging it down many flights of candle-lit stairs to the chamber from where John directs the war. She is gulping air by the time she appears at the door-less aperture of his war room, that chill concrete box.
He has not moved from this spot in some time. Others bring him food and water, and take his shit away in pails. She swallows a vestige of disgust at how his finger nails, the color of scab, have grown into the bare floor, and worm ever more thickly through it like roots. Before him is a map of the city in pink kindergarten chalk. A score of naked , filthy children squat around it with nubs of charcoal, scratching and smearing as the front lines twang two and fro.
“John,” she says. “I’m done, John. I’m leaving.”
Bur she is not. She has threatened this before, but she knows that it is impossible. There is no way out of the city.
“John, please. Let me go. I don’t care anymore.”
She must be patient. They have come this far already, and lost so much. Victory is nigh, and no matter how broken the city is, it can be fixed. No matter the millions dead, they can be bred back to life, stronger than ever before. He is breaking all the old rules. He is between the atoms of the city now, and there he knows that here he will find a way to kill The Enemy once and finally. The machine can be repaired, and the wish that it will make real for them is for everything to be as it was.
“John, please. Listen to yourself. Do you even know what you’re saying? Do you… do you even know you’re talking?”
John can see in the ashen distance dark masses that draw nearer with every passing day. The other cities are coming. They are finally coming, as he always knew they would, skittering ravenously across the country on legs of annexation and urban renovation, leaving snail-trails of temporary causeway in their wakes. They see him weak, and think this is their moment to pounce and devour him. And maybe he is weak, but an animal is most dangerous when it has nowhere to run. Fine. Let them come. When they dig their teeth into him he will breach like a dying whale and crush them beneath him. He will become all they are, and from the rubble, from bloody silt, from radioactive smoke, will rise something greater than his city, greater than any city.
Tears drip through the wrinkles in his wife’s face. “Please John. I don’t care about any of that. I’m begging you. It hurts, John. Let me go. Please. Please. Please.”
John stops listening, and walks her back upstairs to sleep for a time. She will see, when the city is his alone again, him and only him. All great things are founded upon hardship and sacrifice. Happiness must be fought for, tooth and nail, bled for until you’re brittle-dry. What kingdom ever stood on peace? This is how I build my Rome, my love. This is how I build my Xanadu. We have walked our forty years, you and I. Just give me one more day, Naomi. I promise.
Just one more week.
Such as they are.
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