David and I are working towards a longer form graphic novel project, that continues on with a sci-fi world I’ve been building through some of these stories. I thought I’d take the opportunity to use this project to explore some of the characters that will appear in that comic in more detail.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Summers’ stomach rumbled as she pushed her way through the throng of people that clustered around the overflowing bar. She gritted her teeth, and kept counting slowly in her head. Five, six, seven, eight—
The tight corridor on the sixth floor of the endless tenement was packed, loud and sweaty, people blowing off steam at the close of a long week. A district full of bars and rotting speakeasies, lining the sides of the narrow hall. Summers held her backpack in front of her, clutching it tightly, trying to move through the crowd and make it home to sleep. She needed sleep, could feel it desperately scratching away behind her eyes. Nine, ten, eleven—
Summers lived on the eighth floor of the tenement, in a small apartment, a carbon copy in a long line of small apartments. Cells, cages, pods. Work had ground her down hard today, to the soles of her feet, and she just needed to weave another kilometre down the corridor to get to the next functioning elevator dock that could take her upwards.
The entire city had slowly clustered together over decades, buildings bleeding into one another until they were replaced by these limitless tenements: the so called ‘barricades.’ Each of the barricades stretched on for miles, self-contained villages that packed floor after floor of apartments and markets and workplaces, forgotten and allowed to slowly rot. Full of people, rotting as well. Equally forgotten. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—
Summers hadn’t been outside in days. She would lie in her windowless apartment at night, and imagine that the old, rusting fan that tried vainly to keep the stale air moving was actually a cool breeze, blowing up from the ocean.
Now, as slovenly men buoyed by moonshine yelled at her, and the smell of bootleg alcohol and cigarettes filled her nostrils, Summers desperately gripped her backpack and pushed forward, hoping to get back to that fan and feel the ocean. Sixteen, seventeen—
Suddenly, a man pushed her to the ground. Summers yelped as she fell onto the feet of an elderly couple, who sat on milk crates at the front of a small café. They looked down at her, stared with glassy eyes and said nothing. Summers rolled back to her feet – and saw the man who pushed her, dressed in an old soiled, torn spaceport uniform, running through the crowd with her backpack.
She panicked, warm fear pushing outward into her skin. She needed the bag. Needed the bag, so much, needed it, and he was, here he was—
She got to her feet, and fought through the crowd after him.
“Hey! Hey, stop him! Stop—”
It was useless. The crowd was too loud. It was Friday night, the working week was winding down, and the poor residents of the building were preparing to burn away their thoughts for a couple of days of uniquely deserved escape. They didn’t care about a tired young woman and backpack.
Summers ducked and weaved through people, just keeping sight of the thief.
At one point, the man looked back, catching her eye.
His face was badly bruised, his eyes sharp and gleaming. He grinned at her, and turned down a side corridor, away from the bars and the people.
Summers hurried forward, mustering all of her strength to shove away revellers and force her way towards the turn.
She hated this fucking place.
Ninteen, twenty – where was she?
The corridor the thief had taken was narrow, a shorter, lateral cross-pass that worked its way to the edge of the building. The building’s electrical lighting was mostly forgotten here – ambiance bounced around from the main thoroughfares to partially highlight the grime and trash that Summers hurried through after her target.
He was slow, limping. Summers gained ground, felt her chest heaving with the exertion and the panic. He ducked around turns, threading an erratic loop in an attempt to lose her. A few times, he succeeded, but Summers kept running, kept pounding over filthy floors and negotiating people winding their way home. And every time, she would find him again a few turns later. His direction was clear – he was heading out of the barricade, blindly hurtling towards the edge of the building and the smog-filled air. Ever forward.
And eventually, Summers stopped following him at all, and hurtled forward herself, mindless and possessed, until she finally saw it.
A glimmering night sky, at the end of the corridor. She ran, now, straight ahead, ignoring her target all together, eyes fixed on the lights.
And soon, she burst out onto an open balcony – a walkway that marked the edge of the barricade – and lingered on the edge of the outside world for the first time in six days.
Air picked at her cheek. Sounds filtered toward her, distorted through distances not possible in the confines of the barricade. They billowed like a dream.
Summers stopped, and let the moment take her hand.
She turned to her left, and saw the strange man with her backpack, standing at the railing a few corridors down, watching her.
His shoulders rose and fell, tired but measured. He ran his blackened hands across her bag, biting his grinning lips. Summers watched him in silence, soaking in the quiet.
She stepped forward. Held out her hand. Eyes demanded her property.
And with that, the man turned and vaulted the balcony, out into the world.
Summers clutched her outstretched hand to her mouth.
She slowly moved up to the man’s leaping place, and carefully craned her head over the railing.
Paper flew up into her face. She brushed it aside, and watched it tumble out into the city, pushed by the wind. A photograph of a family, printed on an ancient laser jet. She watched it take flight. Wished she could join it on the breeze.
Six floors below, the thief twitched on the concrete road. Blood pooled around his body, his legs bent strangely from the fall. He tried to crawl forward, but strength was rapidly leaving his body.
Summers’ backpack lay a few metres away, zippers burst. Photographs tumbled out into gutters, some slicked with blood spray. A tiny snowstorm. Summers said goodbye to each of the pictures, quietly and with resignation. They weren’t ever going to last, even if she’d kept them so very, very safe – but she had hoped. Always hoped that something would last.
Summers thought of the man, in pain below, and immediately forgave him. He was dying for nothing. Just scraps of herself, useless to him, rolling away now in the night air. Summers looked to the other side of the wide street. Leaning on a car, a few Cabinet police officers. They smoked and laughed, pointed at the horribly bent man in front of them, bleeding out on the street.
Summers thought about calling out to them for help. Their laughter floated upwards and hit her like the photograph, and she quickly thought better.
Instead, she ducked her head, turned away, and started her counting again.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.