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By train, by steam bus, by river boat, by horse-drawn wagon.
Through an alien dystopia.
To find herself.
~ 1 ~
Amarylla sinks deeper and deeper into a pool of sulky depression with every jounce and jolt of the ox-cart. Wooden wheels, banded with old scrap steel from who knows where. Bare wooden seats, jammed into the crude box side-by-side and knees-to-butts like the cheap seats at a circus. Like she’s supposed to be watching some mangey dancing bear, instead of the sheer rock face beside her. No way she’s turning to look the other direction, where there’s nothing at all between her and the fast white river. At least a billion feet straight down, and these locals yammer on like it was nothing, nonsense about their chickens and Aunt Mamie’s gout and the likelihood of even more rain. She squeezes her eyes shut again, scrubbing non-tears away on her shoulder.
And they left New York why, again, exactly? What was it that Father had to do so badly, off in the hinterlands of the northern plains? She gave up operas and riding lessons for what?
Electricity. The stuff of myth and dream, ancient legends from before the bugs came. There is no electricity anymore, Father! Get over it, already! I don’t care what some idiot in the outlands says. Some outlandish idiot. Father’s the Chief Civil Engineer for the entire Federal Republic of New York. In the seventeen years he’s held the job, he’s expanded the railroad system from a few miles of old subway and elevated track in the City until now it runs along the entire coast of New York, from Philadelphia to Boston. If Father and people like him haven’t figured out electricity in the seventy-two years since bugfall, then there’s no way in the world some backwoods hick is going to do it, not in all of his pathetic backwoods lifetime.
The vehicles have gotten smaller and cruder, the rides rougher and shorter, ever since they started. They left the City in Father’s private coach, pulled behind Lady Freedom, the first of the old oil-burners to be rebuilt, and now the last one still in service. It’s just too hard to get oil. All of the “newer” locomotives are the older ones, either wood-burners or coal-burners converted to burn wood. Wood can be gotten from the scrubby forest so swiftly reclaiming everything. The diesel locomotives won’t work at all, even if the engines can be made to run, because apparently, the diesel engines didn’t actually drive the wheels? Don’t ask her – she’s just a girl. Ask Father. And try not to let your eyes glaze over as he answers. All she knows is the diesel locos have all been cannibalized for other projects, years ago.
Mother steadfastly refused to come, although when Father said Amarylla was coming, with her or without her, she couldn’t seem to quite get up the courage to cross him. She stood on the porch and waved as the carriage pulled away down the street toward the train station. Amarylla’d been to the station a million times, of course, yet had she known then the extent to which that opulent old building, with its gleaming tile floors and its stainless steel pre-bug furniture, would come to stand in her mind for all she had left behind, she would surely have stood there like a tourist, spinning in slow circles and gazing at it all until Father came back to drag her away. She’s always thought that if she were half the woman her mother is, she could face anything, do anything, achieve anything, and yet even her mother couldn’t stand against that drag-you-away-grimly facet of Father.
Amarylla’d never been out of the City before, and as the walls approached, looming between the eroded, windowless hulks of the abandoned towers, she found herself striving for the calm, cool detachment she knew her mother would feel. All she could manage was to not squeal and bounce, her eyes never leaving the steadily growing gap as the gate was opened for them. The train never stopped, never slowed. The gate slid open just far enough, just soon enough, closing again just as quickly as it receded behind them.
Amarylla was in the wasteland.
Beyond the City walls, there was a sudden change in the scenery. Inside, all the streets were clean and busy. All the buildings were in use as far up as people were willing to climb the stairs. Above that, they were stripped bare, everything movable hauled off to some other use, the glass gone from the windows. There was a rush and a press and a clatter, all the people of the City going busily about their days, and all the trees and flowers and animals you ever saw were there because people wanted them there.
Outside, the forest was everywhere. There was a clear strip on either side of the tracks, but beyond that, the trees were clearly winning. The tracks crossed a wide, muddy river on a bridge far too spindly to hold them, and then ran for some miles alongside the largest road Amarylla had ever seen. It wasn’t just a road, actually. It was a twisted, tangled skein of roads and lanes and ramps, each at least as wide as Fifth Avenue, which she’d thought was a huge street. Overpasses were collapsed, trees grew up through the pavement. Signs and poles lay across the lanes everywhere. For miles and miles outside the City, the road was a scrapyard, pre-bug cars pressed end-to-end and side-by-side across its full width. Amarylla had seen cars exactly once in her life. Six months ago, far in the northern end of the City, in a place so wild and dangerous that Father’s guards had come down off the top of the carriage and walked beside it, their rifles in their hands and their eyes on the dark buildings around them, they’d passed several burned and rusted shells of cars, all the bits that could be used or sold long since carried away. Relics from the pre-bug times had held no attraction for her. She was sixteen. She watched the face of the young guard nearest her window, her heart beating so hard that her whole body hummed. She’d seen that face over and over in her dreams since then, alert and purposeful. So alive. So male.
Studying the cars packed onto the road beside the tracks, she could see that they had been scavenged just as the cars in the City had been. In the first few miles, where they were closest to the City, whole cars had been carted away bit by bit until their passing was marked only by the rust and drippings they had left behind. As the distance grew, the cars were less and less picked-over until finally she began to see whole cars, disturbed only by the passage of time, their tires flat, their paint dulled.
Kneeling on the seat with her fingers curled over the edge of the open window and her face in the freshest breeze she’d ever felt, she noticed something odd. The road was several lanes wide, as far as she could tell beneath the crush of cars, but all the lanes led in the same direction, away from the City. When she told Father that it was odd that such a large road would only carry traffic in one direction, he laughed once, a small grunt of unfunny amusement.
“Think again, Amarylla. Your planet has just been invaded by aliens from outer space. Logic says they’ll attack the cities first. What do you do?”
“Um, leave. And how much do you care about a small thing like traffic laws?”
“Oh,” Amarylla said in a tiny voice. Suddenly the road beside her, the cars packed on it, the stained spaces where other cars had been, all held more sadness and depression and panic than she could bear. She closed the window and sat down, staring hard at the empty seat facing her. She closed the curtains. She got out a book and didn’t read, staring across at the seat where Mother was supposed to be.
If she was, she could ask her. She wouldn’t know, but she’d muddle through some part of a hazy answer, and then Father would get all exasperated and set them both straight, with a sideways swipe at her school and its stubborn ways. But at least she’d know. If they didn’t attack, then why did so many people die? Why were so many cities ruined? Lauren says her father says there used to be ten million people in the City. Well, in what was then called “New York City,” as odd as it is to think of New York being just a city, instead of the largest country on the coast. Ten million people. Now it’s less than a thousandth of that. A thousand dead people for everyone living in the City now.
“But they didn’t attack,” she said after an hour or so.
“Against all logic, yes, they did not attack,” Father said, with that finality of his. The crisp rustle of the papers he was studying told her it was best to leave him for now, and she went up the cramped circular stairs to the small observation dome on the top of the car, two leather benches running the long way, back-to-back under an arching bubble of dark green glass. She’d brought her book with her, and she could sit here and not read just as easily as she could sit downstairs and not read.
She could see the guards in their cupolas atop the cars before and after theirs, the only other cars in this train. Sometimes, they’d fire their machine guns into the land around them, but she could never see what they were shooting at. She secretly wondered if they were shooting just for the sheer little-boy thrill of it. The shooting never lasted long, just a burst now and then, answered by a second from the other guard car.
Sometimes, on curves, she could see Lady Freedom, all her mechanisms flashing in the sun, the large white flags of a special train rippling beside her low stack. Once, she saw the engineer or a brakeman, standing in the gap between the locomotive and the tender, his head and shoulders in the wind above the train. He stood there for some minutes, and then he was gone.
Late the first day, when the train had to stop to take on water, she wasn’t allowed out. “It’s not safe,” Father said. “There aren’t any walls out here, you know.”
No walls. She’d known they were outside the City, outside of any city, outside of civilization itself, but somehow she’d missed the thought that there were no walls around her at all. No walls between her and the bugs.
“What if they come?” she asked, when she could breathe again.
“The guards will handle it, if they come,” Father said, and again, his manner said Drop it. This conversation is over. Usually, she obeys that unspoken command, but… bugs. What if the bugs came during the night?
“Will just plain guns kill them?” she asked in a tiny, tiny voice.
There was no answer for a long time. She studied her nails, afraid to look up and see if he was mad at her for going on, for showing fear, for not being him. Then he wrapped one arm around her, something he almost never did anymore.
“Amarilypad,” he whispered to her, “they’re just bugs. Big bugs. That’s all they are. Just big, giant centipedes. They’re not magic, and they’re not evil, and they’re not out to get us. They’re just bigger versions of the things you find under rocks in the park. Yes, just plain guns can kill them. Just plain bullets. Just plain human ingenuity. We can kill them. We can wipe them off the face of the Earth. And it’s going to happen sooner than you think, baby kid. Sooner than you think.”
She would not cry! She would not cry! By sheer force of will and the speed of her blinking, she would not cry, but then he cupped his hand around her cheek, and it was too late. She huddled in Father’s arms a long time that evening, long after the train was moving again, long after dark, long after she had fallen into a sound sleep where her just plain Father and his just plain bullets chased bugs across an endless scrapyard.