Their voices are all that remain.
The old world is gone, burned away in the Wrath. What’s left of humanity huddles in the shadows of the Tears, strange black spheres that protect the last cities from the storms. No one knows what they are or how they work, but if you listen, you can hear them whispering… But now the spheres are failing, falling silent.
When one of the Gardeners who protect and maintain the Tears is murdered, Julia and her partner, Zach, are summoned to find out why. Their search for a killer will take them from Angel City’s crumbling skyscrapers to the salt flats of the Pacific Desert.
But what they find goes far beyond murder, threatening to wipe out the last remnants of civilization. They can save their city – but first they have to save themselves.
. 1 .
I unslung my crossbow and put my back against the cracked concrete wall. These raids didn’t usually end in violence, but people got emotional, and emotional people did stupid things. I worked the lever on my steel ‘bow and slid a bolt into place. On the other side of the door, Zach did the same with his weapon. When my partner was ready, he nodded.
I banged on the wall with my fist. “Greenguard! Open up!” I shouted. People seemed slightly less threatened by a woman’s voice than by Zach’s big booming one. We needed the advantage. I hated these jobs even when they went smoothly.
There was a burst of activity from inside. Furniture scraped and voices whispered harshly. “It’s the Greenguard, Sam. The Blackthumbs are here!”
“Quiet! Go and hide!” hissed a second voice. A baby began to cry, but was quickly muffled.
My hands were full of crossbow, so I couldn’t punch the wall. I banged my head against it instead. Blackthumb meant someone dangerous – usually one of the Greenguard – and that really wasn’t how I wanted this to go down. Shit.
Zach frowned until I finished my temper tantrum and then cocked his head at the door. No one drew the curtain. The apartment had a computerized polymer door, of course, but the power that made it work had failed long, long ago. Now it was pried and propped open, covered by a mat of stiff woven fibers.
Not for long. Zach grabbed a fistful of the thick cloth and gave it a sharp yank. The hanging gave way with a snarl of ripping fabric. I stepped through, my crossbow tucked tight against my shoulder, but pointed down at the floor. Zach was right behind me. A middle-aged man with thinning brown hair was herding a pair of children out of the room. All three jumped as I charged into the apartment.
“Where’s the kid, Garza?” I said.
Sam Garza pulled his two children protectively against him. One was a girl of nine or ten with her father’s straight, fine brown hair. Her brother was a few years younger. They stared at me with wide eyes, at Zach and then up at their father. Sam’s lined face was pale and his kids began to cry.
“These are my children,” said Sam. “Gabby and little Samuel.”
“Where’s the other one?” asked Zach.
“These are my children,” Sam repeated. “Two’s the limit. We would never break the Gardeners’ law.”
I glanced around the apartment. We were on the tenth story, high enough that Zach and I had to climb up two ladders and a crooked set of stairs that would probably collapse before the end of the year. No one lived this far up from the ground that didn’t have to. The highest floors were always the first to collapse. They were a long climb and a dangerous fall from the busy streets and markets below.
But Sam’s clothes and those of his children were good linen – not cheap cotton or agave weave – and dyed a deep, vibrant blue that I didn’t see very often. A copper water pitcher sat on the counter, polished and well cared for. Dinner was still on the table. It looked like nice fat gopher snake, not the grainy gray crickmeal I expected from a highriser.
“You’re a dyer, Sam, and you obviously bring in good barter,” I said, nodding to the table. “What’s a man of your means doing up this high if not for privacy?”
Sam tightened blue-tinged fingers on his children’s shoulders. Zach moved to the doorway where Sam had been taking them. My partner stopped and brushed aside the curtain that hung across it, leaning in. He motioned with his crossbow and then stood back. A woman emerged from the back of the apartment. Her head hung, dark hair falling over her face and over the baby she held to her chest. She shifted the child in her arms and her nipple popped out of its mouth. The baby fussed until Sam’s wife resettled it against her breast.
Zach shook his head. “Two children, Garza,” he said. “You know the law. The Whisperward is already straining to feed and protect us all. A third baby means another mouth to feed and someone else goes hungry.”
“Please, don’t take her!” the woman begged.
“Mary, be quiet!” Sam said, but took up his wife’s plea. “Please, sir, we didn’t mean to. Surely she was a gift from God!”
“The Gardeners speak for God,” Zach replied without hesitation. “Two children. No more. You know what happens to the extras.”
Mary cried even harder and the other two kids clustered around their mother and baby sister. Sam stepped forward and I tightened sweating hands on my crossbow. The weapon was suddenly heavy in my arms. If things went stormy, then this was when it would happen. This was always when the parents did something stupid. Sometimes they tried to bribe us. Sometimes they came at us with a kitchen knife. One hysterical woman even threw a potted cactus at Zach a few months back.
Don’t be stupid, Sam.
“Don’t give her to the storms,” Sam pleaded. “Take me instead! Leave my children and take me. I’ll go willingly!”
“And leave your wife to raise three children on her own?” said Zach. “You’re the tradesman. You want your family to starve without you?”
Sam hung his head and shook with bitter sobs. He was breaking down now and I doubted he would do anything violent. He had taken his only shot and missed. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the guy. There’s nothing like birth control to make me hate my job.
Zach looked away from the family. I doubted that the mourning Garzas could see it, but I knew Zach well enough to read the turmoil beneath his steely expression. This was different than killing the mutants that strayed into the Whisperward, different than hunting down thieves or dreameaters. He hated this as much as I did.
“Zee, do we have to…?” I said, but Zach was already speaking.
“The Gardeners have read from the Book of Law. You have broken that law.” Zach’s jaw was clenched and sweat beaded along his brown brow. “So here is what we’re going to do. Julia and I are going to leave now. But we’re coming back tomorrow. And when we do, we’re only going to find two children. Rosy?”
Sam and Mary looked up hopefully, but Zach kept his expression stern and his crossbow leveled at the family. With his dark eyes and square jaw, he did stern way better than I ever could.
“Two children,” he repeated. “You find a way, or we have to do it ours.”
“There are refugee families who have lost their own children–” Sam began.
Zach held up a big hand. “Shut it. I don’t want to know. Just make sure your family’s the right size when we come back tomorrow.”
We hurried out of there before the Garzas could blubber their thanks too much. I didn’t like this job nearly enough to enjoy being thanked for doing it. And I really didn’t want any of it getting back to Gregory. Getting chewed out by the boss wasn’t as bad as birth control, but it still wasn’t fun.
It was a long climb back down and not much easier than going up. Some of the buildings in Angel City had ropes and pulleys running through the old elevator shafts, but rubble choked the one in the Garzas’ highrise and no one had ever managed to clear it out. The upper stories probably only had a generation or two left before they collapsed, anyway.
When we got to the sixth floor, Zach and I climbed down the ladders set up against the outside walls that led to lower rooftops nearby. From around our necks, we pulled the bandanas tied there up over our mouths. Zach settled his wide-brimmed hat low over his brow, but I left my goggles up on my head. The dust wasn’t so bad today and the view looked out all across Angel City.
Angel City was the largest Whisperward in the west, second only to far-off Apple City. There used to be other cities than the walled Whisperwards, but that was a long time ago. Now we were all that was left of civilization.
From up here, I couldn’t see all the cracked walls and the rusting bits of exposed rebar. The harsh white daylight was giving way to the flaming colors of sunset and shadows softened the sharp edges. A dozen other ancient buildings rose around us, apartments just like the Garzas’ stacked up into the sky. The top stories were gone, cracked and crumbled away decades or maybe even centuries before my birth, crowning each highrise in jagged angles of broken concrete and shattered glass that threw back the flaming sunset colors until they glowed like torches.
Below us spread the patchwork of houses and markets, cactus fields and scale farms built up from ruined old buildings. One of those farms was likely where Sam picked up his nice little dinner. As the day darkened toward night, the lizards crawled over each other to find the warmest spots on the cracked cement while the night herders waved off black clouds of evening insects. I wondered if the prices down there were any better than Harrison’s, my usual scale farmer.
In the center of Angel City rose the huge, dark shape of the Stormsphere. The shiny, perfect black dome was never dulled by dust or damage and reflected the sunset fire on its perfect western curve. Haloed in red and gold, I could almost believe that the Stormsphere really was the Tear of God that the Gardeners claimed.
I slipped on a rung and Zach scolded me for daydreaming. Again. “You’ve got the sharpest mind I’ve ever seen, Julia, but you let it wander way too much,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time Zach had taunted me. My mother always said that kind of thing, too. Let your mind drift and a dreameater will gobble it up!
Maybe Zach thought that he needed to father me a little. God knew I was the malcontent child of the Greenguard. I began to answer, but my bandana slipped and the wind whipped the tip of my auburn braid into my mouth. I spat it out again.
“Eat thorns, Zee,” I teased.
I think Zach scowled at me under his own bandana, but I doubted he meant it any more than I did.
The lowest levels of the apartment buildings were patched up and better cared for than up where the Garzas lived. Down here was where the important people lived, where the foundations were strong. Zach always said that I should be grateful that I had one of those lower-level apartments. We had both grown up in poor families, but making it into the Greenguard was the next best thing to being a Gardener. We had privilege and power and all that good shit. Sometimes I missed my mother’s eighteenth-story apartment, but by the time we were on the ground again, my legs ached and I was actually glad for my neat, clean little second-story home. Now I just had to get back to it.
A group of kids ran around the corner, laughing and shrieking as they played. In the distance, I heard some poor parent’s shout, trying in vain to summon them back for dinner. The children pulled up short at the sight of me and Zach.
In our olive drab fatigues, big black boots and steel crossbows, they knew exactly what we were. Greenguard. Blackthumbs. Our suits were made of something that the Gardeners called carbon fiber, though I guess there weren’t any carbon plants left and nothing that grew in the Whisperwards made cloth like that anymore. They were stain-resistant, repelled the dust, and were next to impossible to tear or cut without a very sharp blade.
The children skidded to a halt, crashing into each other, and eyed us warily.
“Evening, kids,” said Zach. He touched the brim of his hat in salute.
“Good evening, sir,” they chorused.
I remembered how I looked at the Greenguard when I was a little girl, with a confusing mixture of fear and respect. The Greenguard practiced birth control and took away the extra children, but they also fought the dangerous mutants from beyond the walls and protected us from dreameaters and Whitefingers. I never wanted to be one when I grew up, but they were heroes.
Still, it was impossible to forget that our job was to kill. Our official name was Greenguard, but everyone in Angel City called us Blackthumbs. Not even our oiled metal crossbows or the knives sheathed on our hips could hold the children’s attention for long, though. As soon as we passed, they leapt into motion once more, continuing whatever raucous game we had interrupted.
“Hey, Zee,” I said.
“Thanks for what you did back there. With the Garza girl… I really didn’t want to give her to a storm.”
Zach shrugged his broad, muscular shoulders. Like me, he was one of few Blackthumbs not born to a Greenguard family. He’d grown up like the Garzas. A lot worse, probably. His lantern jaw worked for a second before he spoke.
“They’re our people. I was just doing my job,” Zach said.
“I doubt Gregory would see it that way.”
“We’re not Whitefingers, Julia. We don’t worship the storms. We don’t breed dreameaters to hunt innocent souls. And we don’t kill people that we don’t have to. As long as we can count only two Garza children tomorrow, then the peace of the Whisperward is preserved and we don’t have to execute a baby girl.”
“What if the Gardeners ever change the law? Only one child?”
With all of the refugees from Sun City and now Bridge City, too, the Whisperward was filling up. Fast. If Angel City wasn’t already at capacity to support them, then it soon would be. And every day, more people were arriving at the gates, tired and hungry after month-long treks across the deserts that separated the failing Whisperwards.
“I don’t know,” said Zach.
“Do you think there’ll be a pruning? Even the Gardeners would never order that, right?” I asked.
Zach shrugged again. But I could tell he was worried about it, too.
Published 05.05.2014 by Loose Leaf Stories