Chapter One: Z
Part I: Colossus
This city is ruined already. Bombs left these skyscrapers half-eaten and crumbling. The streets between them are as weary as I am, weathered by the wastelands and always looking as if they just survived another battle. I play with the wrappings of my right hand, my knuckles bleeding through the bandages, and trudge through sidewalks choking on waste.
Eli should be in one of these sorry towers. Colossus is more dilapidated than I remember. Knowing that this city is hundreds of miles from my own is making me homesick. I miss the spoils of my beloved Aurelian where the markets are fat with wares rather than these torn and empty tents, these merchants either killed or wandering now with the rest of the undead. I miss the sounds of my people laughing above their music and their games, the rhythmic footsteps of my soldiers marching through the streets and setting out on patrols, and the clatter of weapons as children prove themselves as young warriors in the training yards. Colossus greets me with silence. The people here either joined the undead or were devoured by them a long time ago. This is what it is to be an Ancient, descendants of our ancestors who survived the end of the world: we laugh and drink and run to the battlefield to claim our victories until we become legends, but in the end, the wastelands come for us all.
I limp through the wreckage clutching the gash in my thigh, the old shirt I tied around it slick with blood and smelling foul. I need a medical unit, antibiotics, and something for my pain, but I doubt I’ll find supplies here. The city streets remain empty as I approach the main square. Instead of civilians bowing to me as they should, I receive only the respect of insects scuttling across the asphalt and rats fleeing to the storm drains. The stench of rotting meat wafts from every alleyway. The civilians manage to show themselves after a few paces but they do so without the reverence I deserve. I pause at the stack of their corpses burned in the hopes that the flame would stop the spread of the plague that killed them. A flag bearing the emblem of the Ancients droops from a flagpole above them, and the sunlight symbol of our empire spreads its halcyon rays across a backdrop that’s frayed by bullets. I don’t think I’ve ever seen our banner intact.
Some of the bodies are twisted with their spines out of place, their vertebrae poking through the cracked fissures in their skins. What little flesh refused to burn is consumed by reddish-black sores. I scratch a similar mark on my arm. This is a bitter reminder of what’s coming for me.
My radio hisses in my pocket, and below the static, the angry, high-strung voice of my commander struggles to cut through. Her languid and plucky Aurelian accent makes her spiteful transmission difficult to take seriously. She rattles off a string of numbers: “three four two seven, do you copy? Over.” Then she gives up the formalities and screams into the radio: “King, if you can hear me, then you need to answer me now!”
I push the switch and put the radio to my mouth. “I copy,” I say. Dehydrated and sweating with a fever, I manage a whisper at best.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“Are you hurt?”
“You’ve been missing for weeks. What happened?’
“I got a message from a resident here. Said his name was Z.”
There’s a hatch in the middle of the sidewalk about three yards from where I stand at the funeral pyre, its cover painted scarlet.
“King, did you hear me?” she asks. The radio scolds me with static.
I throw the volume dial as close to silent as possible without losing her transmission. “Yes, I heard you. The contact said that he saw our broadcast and our posters.”
“He has information on Eli?”
I hobble to the bunker door and crouch beside it, the wound in my leg burning as I ease myself down. I stick my tongue between my teeth and bite it until I taste blood, holding back a scream, but Thief hears me gasp through the radio.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asks. “Are you okay?”
“Fine. I’m fine. The contact said that he saw Eli. I came here as soon as I got the message.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was busy.”
“That excuse isn’t good enough for me. Going out there alone and telling no one…I thought you were smarter than this.”
“I wasn’t alone. We were attacked.”
“Attacked? Attacked by what?”
“Some of Titan’s scouts. I’d like to think they mistook us for the undead, but I don’t think that was the case. They targeted me specifically.”
“But we’re not in conflict with Pallas. Why would Titan target you? Why start a war unprovoked?”
“I don’t know. I’ll be discussing it with the Empress and the council...but Thief, I was the only one who made it to Colossus. They captured Atlas. Nova and Rook are dead.”
She’s quiet for a time. You cannot mourn the dead until you’re home and you can bury them. You cannot be distracted by their passing when you’re out here. Thief has always struggled with this rule more than most.
I set the radio on the asphalt face up. Thief’s footsteps echo through the speaker. She’s at the Aurelian, I assume, pacing through her shop of mechanical wonders, smoking a cigarette, and loading a few rounds into a shotgun. The unmistakable click of her mounting the weapon confirms the vision.
“Did the guy say he knew who the kidnapper was?” she asks.
There’s the snap of a match, then the sizzle of a flame lighting rolling paper. Smoke might as well curl from the receiver. “Have you–” she pauses to take a drag–“have you found the guy yet?”
“I’m looking now, but I doubt I’ll find him.”
“What do you mean?”
I bend my ear to the hatch. My hair, longer now than I prefer it, falls in front of my eyes. The curls are matted with dirt and blood and begging for a good wash. The gore twisting through the ringlets must be from that head wound that should’ve killed me, and the lump the mats are hiding throbs as I press my face to the ground. My vision dims and blurs. My hearing is unaffected by the wound and I can listen to the noise coming from the hatch: snarls, howls, and the scraping of boots across a steel bunker floor. Sometimes a rat squeals. It’s a safe house—or, well, it’s supposed to be. Now it’s more of a tomb.
I pick up the radio. “This city is corrupted,” I say. “I’m guessing the residents went to the bunkers when the first of their infected became beasts, not realizing that they were taking the disease with them. If anyone’s alive down there, they’ll either corrupt or they’ll be eaten. I’m going to guess that our contact is down there too.”
“You don’t think that Eli’s down there with them?” she asks.
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because if the kidnapper’s smart enough to evade me this long, then they wouldn’t be so ignorant as to take my son into the bunkers with these other idiots. Risking Eli’s life means risking whatever prize they’re using him to get–”
I freeze. The pebbles on the sidewalk are jumping. The city is growling as if it has a beast trapped underneath it, something larger and more terrible than all of the undead in the bunkers combined. I silence the radio and take cover behind a wall that was once a skyscraper in another age. The sudden wash of adrenaline through my body makes me want to hurl. I clap my hand over my mouth and set my gaze on the sky.
A starship drags its belly over the city’s spires, its body painted black, its cannons pointed at the ground. The rounded hull means that it’s fat with explosives. A bomber from Pallas sent by that wretch of a general to purge the wastelands of the undead. I’m infected; Titan won’t spare me.
The starship disappears over the distant city line where its soldiers will search for a way to continue their genocide under the guise of heroism. I stifle the temptation to track it down and discover Titan’s location along with the rest of her “good samaritans.” All the good people she’s killed for the sake of eradicating the disease, I’ll have to avenge them another day.
There’s an apartment complex up ahead that’s more intact than the rest of these towers, an open sign leaning against the window of a bar, its neon lights forgotten and gray. Sewage leaks from its foundation and adds an acrid sting to the city’s stench of rot. A shadow passes by a window on its second floor. It could be an infected brute wandering the same room it died in or it could be my Eli pacing the length of his prison while he waits for his kidnapper to return.
“Please,” I mutter. “Please let it be him.”
I check the sky. The starship left no trace of itself besides a trail of smoke. I turn up the radio. “Are you still there, Thief?”
“Yes. What’s going on?”
“An airship from Pallas flew overhead. It went West.”
“It disappeared.” I cross the street and stand at the apartment door. The drapes of dust in the windows obscure its insides but judging from the strong odor of putrescine and feces wafting through the cracks I’m sure whatever’s in there has been infected for a long time.
I hesitate on the door handle to take the safety off my gun.
“That ship will be back,” Thief says. “I’ll bet Titan knows Colossus is corrupted. She’s going to destroy it. You have to get out of there!”
“Not until I find Eli.”
“He might not be there. That message you received could be a trick. I don’t like this– “I’ll be alright. Take care, Thief.”
“No, no, don’t hang up. Don’t you fucking dare hang up–”
I shut off the radio and push inside.
A curtain of spider webs adorns a hall less than fit for a monarch, and a carpet of dead insects leads me to a bar made from the salvaged wing of a starship. Flies crawl across the eyelids of the corpse lounging on its surface. The body isn’t old, it hasn’t begun to stink, and its flesh is free of maggots. He was male, about fifty judging by the silver in his hair, his skin the color of the sand that blew across the table from the shattered window behind him. A light bullet blemishes the space between his eyes. He clutches a hologram disk in his right hand, his fingers swallowed by white boils and yellow sores, its joints malformed with the beginnings of a mutation. I guess whatever killed him managed to get the job done before he discovered the extent corruption would warp his body.
I’ve pillaged plenty of corpses in my travels, but plucking something from one that’s still warm never ceases to turn my stomach. I work the disk out of his clammy fingers, gritting my teeth and suppressing a shudder, then, fearing that his hand might twitch, point my gun at his head. He stares unmoving at the ceiling while ants weave through his lashes. His irises are the same color as mine: grayish-green with red lines worming through the tissue. A trademark of infection.
The hologram disc lights up under my thumb. I keep my weapon trained on the corpse while the device throws pixels into the air: a thousand blue points that make the dust shine around them. Eli’s profile flickers across the platform as if it were a face etched on the back of a coin, his wide nose lifted with the pride I instilled in him, his downturned eyes a reflection of his quiet temperament. Even through the hologram, they portray his intelligence; his gaze is as bright and focused as it is when he’s lost in his books.
Eli, a mechanical voice chants from the disc. Missing. Age: ten. Height: fifty inches. Weight: seventy pounds. Last seen wearing black pants and a tan shirt. Last seen May fifth at the Aurelian City capitol.
If I look at his face any longer, I’ll be choking on tears. I tap the center of the disc to turn off the lights. Three fucking weeks of searching to no avail. Today has the be the day I bring him home.
I slide the disc into my pocket and search the corpse for ammo, patting its vest and running my fingers along its belt. “I’m guessing you were Z,” I say, collecting a handful of coins and light bullets. There isn’t much else besides empty shotgun shells and more sand. Whoever killed him didn’t hesitate to despoil the body, then judging by the decimated shelves behind him, ransacked the bar as well.
Something falls upstairs–a chair, a picture frame perhaps, it isn’t very loud but it’s heavy enough to loosen a packet of insulation from the ceiling. I hurry to the stairwell and prepare a light charge, my gun humming as a sunburst warms in its belly, but the sudden tremors through the building overwhelm its whine. The pillars rock in their moldings, the cracks in the drywall deepen, and pink insulation drops like dirty neon rain. The crashing noise of a starship engine tears across the sky. I take hold of the banister to regain my footing but the boards underneath me sway and I pitch to the side, smashing my shoulder into the wall. What a grand and graceful entrance indeed.
“Shit.” I stumble up the urine-scented steps. The door to the second landing is secured with a deadbolt. I aim my gun at the latch, fire, and a bullet of light explodes from the barrel with a quick snapping sound. The door rockets open.
The gun is way too hot. This is what I get for using salvaged ammo; there’s supposed to be liquid in the cartridge that cools the bore and I don’t think that’s happening. I can’t risk having a light bullet melt the insides–or worse, explode in the chamber. I keep the weapon raised regardless, kick open the door, and rush into the room.
Eli looks up from the windowsill where he sat to watch the starships. His hands are bound with a rope and there’s a cloth tied around his mouth. He jumps down, staggers, and then runs into my arms.