SciFi Sessions: Faded pages torn from old books

by Andy Best

The dirty rain lashed down in solid walls that marched forward in rows. An oppressive heat filled the atmosphere and the gaps between the rainfall were flushed with rolling clouds of steam. The sky above was obscured. Rare breaks were all brown-grey haze and glare. The sound of the water crashing down was one continuous roar as it fell on a sprawling right-angled maze of watery channels, broken only by occasional spurts of gigantic foliage. The maze was punctuated by the looming shadowy outlines of tall rectangular buildings whose details could not be seen through the steam, rain and radiating heat waves.

Deep down in one of the channels was a tiny boat, a metal flat-bottomed army launch just big enough for two people. The launch had a transparent canopy and a hand steered propeller engine at the back. They left no wake as they slowly cruised the sunken street since the water around them was continually churned and tossed by the driving heavy rain.

The boat crept into an artificial canyon formed by decaying tower blocks of crumbling concrete and broken glass. The rains came down straight and the steam drifted in between the buildings. A little way in front of the boat, barely visible in the heat haze, an island of grey silt poked up through the water’s surface. It was caught up against one of the buildings and sprouted a clump of sixty-foot high bay leaves on drooping stalks as wide as temple pillars. The two-man crew steered the tiny boat under the oversized leaves where there was a merciful break in the sheets of rain.

A sudden crack and burst of thunder hit so loud that debris tumbled from the building wall and splashed down into the water. It was shaken as if struck by a sonic weapon. Without warning, one of the huge green leaves drooped further, spilling brown liquid in a torrent. The wide column of water crashed down next to the boat and the two figures inside struggled to stay on their feet as the launch tipped right to left. Above them the leaf slowly returned to its upright position, swaying as it went. Peering out from the sheltered spot, the opposite side of what was once the street could not be seen for spray and moisture. The roar all around was deafening.

The inside of the launch was remarkably dry. The two soldiers wore minimal uniform and markings. Olive green shorts, damp and faded, black under-vest tops that hugged the skin and flexible black boots. Their compact plastic molded pistols were secured by means of a simple armband fixed at the bicep. Each had the national flag, red with seven gold stars, tattooed below the back of their necks along with their service numbers. Beads of sweat rolled off Xiao Ling’s nose and chin and the steam in the air displaced visibly when she exhaled. At times the din faded and her ears were filled with the rushing of blood and the rasp of her own breath. She could taste salt in her mouth. The other soldier, an older looking man, raised a handheld communicator to his mouth.

“This was a fucking bad idea. We haven’t cleared the strip yet and it’s been a full hour.”

Xiao Ling stared over vacantly, unable to hear clearly over the din. She turned her head and looked back out at the silt island. Rivulets streamed all over it on their way down to the murky channel. The streams ran down the decaying walls of the tower and fell from the edges of broken glass panels.

The communicator crackled and a voice answered.

“You must be right on top of it. You’ve got to give me a landmark sighting to confirm the location. Stay on course, do not veer north. Repeat, north is choked with sludge. The sludge is lucent and your meds won’t protect you there. Stay focused.”

Chen wiped his brow with the back of his hand. It was a futile gesture. He puffed out an uncomfortable breath and motioned onwards. Xiao Ling nodded and indicated the silt heap again. The launch set off and re-entered the full force of the heat and rain. Then, without warning, the shadowy, steam enshrouded wall of buildings to their side disappeared and gave way to a vast lagoon. They cut the boat’s engine and drifted.

Xiao Ling stared hard into the open space. Walls of falling water cut her vision into flashes. The steam here had nothing to cling to and rose quickly up in clouds that were disintegrated by the large raindrops. The open lagoon was murky brown and choppy. A stench of brine and rotting matter clung to the air. Then she saw it. Every few seconds the haze broke for a brief glimpse of beyond. There was the blurred silhouette of a tall tower.  The top was distinct. She took the communicator.

“Tall tower, four spikes converging to a point, some kind of globe between. Looks blue, can’t confirm. At least thirty floors visible above the water line, a big one.”

“That’s Tomorrow Square. Mark your chart. You’re on top of the art museum, to the south. It’s an older building and could be completely under.”

Chen steered the boat around and suddenly the stone carved wall of a gothic building materialized among the clouds of moisture. It was covered in thick patches of creepers and moss that was soaked by the rain. The boat couldn’t slow in time and they bumped up against the side. The soft green growth cushioned the impact and the boat remained upright. The windows of the building were large arches with no glass inside. Only two of the floors were still above the water line. Standing up several meters above the roof was a nineteenth century clock tower. An off-white circular clock face was present on each of the visible three sides and one of them still had the ornate cast iron hands. The hands didn’t move. Xiao Ling and Chen fixed the boat beside a cracked faceless gargoyle and clambered through one of the openings.

The entire floor was a single waste-strewn open space peppered with bare supporting pillars. The air was still humid and stifling but the noise of the pounding rain was reduced sharply. The first booted footfalls from the two soldiers echoed all around with a thin papery rasp. They panted audibly from the extra effort needed in the extreme heat. Xiao Ling reached out and touched a grey concrete pillar, it was sweating. Chen pointed down at the dirty ground, there were damp footprints.

The sound of something breaking rang out across the room. Xiao Ling drew her pistol and lined it up. Chen studied the hand held communicator’s screen.

Without warning, a humanoid figure broke from behind one of the pillars to the rear of the cavernous chamber. It ran away from them towards the far wall, which could not be seen clearly. The two soldiers broke into a sprint, Xiao Ling securing her pistol with two hands. The figure stopped and looked back. Xiao Ling didn’t hesitate. She dropped to one knee, raised her pistol and squeezed off three rounds. The three muffled clicks were followed by three sharp bangs that amplified around the chamber. Chen winced and cursed under his breath as his ears rang. He raised his hand to his temples. The figure crumpled into a heap.

They carefully approached then rolled the body with their feet. It was a female. The facial features were strange, the skin off-color and where there should have been dark eyes, there were green irises. Chen raised his communicator.

“Mutant terminated, sector A, the art museum.” Chen blinked hard. His brow was glowing red. Lines of water ran from his temples.

“Chen, are you OK?”

Xiao Ling’s eyes were suddenly drawn over Chen’s shoulder and into the room. Another figure broke from behind a pillar and ran off to their left. Xiao Ling raised her pistol at speed and let off a reaction shot which hit the pillar and send out a spray of dust and debris. The figure stopped in its tracks and raised its hands.

“Don’t shoot, I’m pure. I’m human.”

“Don’t fucking move,” shouted Xiao Ling as she closed on his position.

The man was wearing raggedy dated clothing and showed no obvious signs of mutation. Chen followed slowly holding up the communicator to take a scan. His hands had visible tremors and he shook his head as if trying to clear his vision.

“He seems clean.”

“- don’t kill me -”

“We can’t know for sure without a field DNA test, which we don’t … Chen?”

Chen’s eyelids fluttered then he collapsed to the ground. The communicator landed with a crack and the screen shattered.

“Shit,” muttered Xiao Ling under her breath.

“My name is Mr Li,” said the man quietly, “I’m a librarian, there’s a library upstairs.”

Xiao Ling crouched over Chen. He was shaking and his eyeballs had rolled up. His skin was flushed and covered in red blotches. She looked beyond him to the windows. They were filled with creeping mist and the sound of rain beyond. Vines had entered and were crawling along the inside walls like tentacles. Xiao Ling frowned. Her hair stuck to her forehead and her brow ached.  The man spoke again.

“Have you been to the North?”

The words hovered around Xiao Ling’s ears as if they were written in the thick air. Her head buzzed in bursts. The rain outside echoed around the chamber like it was falling into a metal tank. She blinked hard and moment passed.

“Shut up. What are you doing here? You’re not clean, you couldn’t survive. Now back up,” she raised her pistol. “What’s this about a library? What’s up there?”

“I read about it in the library. Have you been there?”

“Where? The library?”

“No, the North.”

Xiao Ling focused but it seemed hard. She looked across at one of the pillars and the man disappeared altogether. She snapped back and he re-appeared. Blind spots.

“There are no books about the North here. The North has only been a place since books stopped coming here,” she explained in a firm but calm tone.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”

Xiao Ling hesitated and didn’t reply immediately. The man’s calm stare unsettled her.

Xiao Ling’s ears were full of her breath again. She swallowed and started to regulate her breathing in the correct manner. She dropped her shoulders to aid relaxation.

“No, I’ve never been there. I’m from Harbin. The rain belt doesn’t reach there but it’s hot.” She looked back down at Chen, his eyes were bloodshot and he wasn’t moving. “The meds,” she muttered again.

Her gun was still raised. Xiao Ling took a couple of deliberate steps back and lowered it. The man started to speak.

“Xiao Ling looked out of the frosty window and saw that the world had been covered by a blanket of beautiful white. She jumped out of bed and got quickly dressed. After pulling on her rubber boots, Xiao Ling ran out into the snow.”

Xiao Ling’s face tightened. Her ears rang.

“It crunched underfoot and she left a trail of footprints wherever she went. The wooden eaves of her house were decorated with translucent icicles of varying length. She climbed up on the porch and snapped one off. A glorious chill shot up her arm. She held it tight and let the drops of liquid roll off it and fall into her open mouth -”

Xiao Ling tried to form a question but no sound came. She swallowed hard and steadied her hand. She raised her pistol. The man continued.

“- Ling’s eyes widened as she looked up. Sleigh tracks on the roof?”

She squeezed the trigger and put a round into the man’s forehead. He fell immediately and heavily. A trickle of sweat dropped into Xiao Ling’s eye stinging it. Then she turned to Chen, lowered her aim, and put two rounds in his head too. She picked up the smashed communicator. A brief, weak crackle sounded out.

“Mutant terminated …”

It was dead. She threw it to the ground and it separated into several pieces. She looked up. There, in the darkened corner, was a spiral staircase leading to the next floor. Xiao Ling stepped over the two bodies without looking down and slowly advanced to the foot of the steps. Strewn all about the base were faded pages torn out of old books.