Ground

The ground was dizzyingly close. Hanging just four storeys up, weight supported by the plaited-steel climbing rope she had appropriated somewhere around Floor 600, Helen marvelled at just how far down she had come. If somebody had told her a year ago that she would ever be within sight of the slabs and soot of Earth, she would have laughed in their face. A year ago, she would never have had cause to venture below Floor 1000, never mind the supposedly unassailable barrier of 100. Now she was so close to Earth she could almost smell the tarmac of the street below. Adjusting her harness, Helen let herself drop another two storeys. She caught herself again when she was swinging level with the second storey windows, or where windows would have been had they not been blocked up with cement and iron bars all those years ago. She released the catch once more, but instead of the soft whir of unravelling rope she heard the reluctant twanging of a climbing harness with no more rope to give. Helen swore. The expletive hung unnaturally loud above the dead streets despite the gas mask obscuring her mouth. Her calculations must have been slightly off. With no more rope to let out, she would not be able to lower herself the final storey as gently as she had originally planned. Helen glanced about in hope that there would be a handy ledge or windowsill that she could safely pull herself onto to readjust her equipment, but there was nothing except yet more smooth, ungraspable brickwork. She swore again. If she wanted to reach the ground, she had no choice but to fall the rest of the way. The anchor holding her was a remote bolt-claw. A highly advanced, government issue device. It had the advantage over all other anchors because it was possible to attach it to virtually any immovable object. It was both immensely strong and, theoretically, incredibly difficult to come by, although not if you worked in a government facility and had high security clearance. Helen had been a cadet. Her clearance hadn’t been the highest, but it had been high enough. Steadying her position, Helen loosened her jaw so as to not break all of her teeth on impact and pulled the clear protective goggles over her eyes. She punched in the bolt claw’s release code and felt the rope slacken above her, automatically retracting into the harness on her chest. She kicked herself sharply away from the wall, keeping her knees bent to avoid shattering her shin-bones as she landed. As soon as she felt her feet hit the ground, she rolled, creating a storm of dust and grit that arose in clouds around her. The noise was deafening; every crunch and crack her body made as it bounced across the tarmac seemed to tear a new hole in the blanket of silence. So much for an inconspicuous arrival. Eventually, she skidded, face-down, to a halt. Sweating and feeling faintly sick, Helen pulled herself to her knees. Her whole body was shaking; she couldn’t decide whether it was from the shock of the fall or from the thrill of what she had done. Her knees, her hands, were touching the actual earth. When was the last time anyone stood on this particular spot, this particular street? She might be the first person to disturb it in hundreds of years. Despite everything that had happened, it was difficult not to find that thought just a little bit exciting. Satisfied that she had broken no bones when she landed, Helen began to check her equipment. The bolt claw, the harness, oxygen canisters, gas mask, the rest of her supplies—all were undamaged by the fall. Lastly, she pulled out the stolen LZ 4000 series and checked its clip. It looked fine, but to be sure, she adjusted it to the lowest setting and fired a ten-second pulse at the ground. The cobblestone she trained the beam on began to smoke. The gun was fine. Equipment in order, Helen shouldered her pack, cleared the remaining dust from her goggles and clambered to her feet. There was no light, or at least very little, it having all been blocked out by the colossal towers swaying above. The balconies and suspension bridges built miles into the sky were selfishly soaking up all of the sun’s rays. It was also bitingly cold and Helen was glad of the army issue thermal clothing she had the foresight to put on under her combat gear 300 floors ago. She pulled out a pair of gloves and wriggled them on. Instantly, they shrank to fit the contours of her hands. Like a second skin, the adverts had said, and for once they weren’t exaggerating. With her night vision starting to kick in, Helen was able to make out the particulars of the place she had chosen as her landing site. It was a narrow, litter strewn street lined with ghostly shop fronts. Decaying mannequins peered eerily at her, their hollow eyes reminding her uncomfortably of the horror films she and her brother Joe had gobbled up when they were children. Almost all of the windows were broken or boarded up, and the walls seemed held together by the spray painted messages that were daubed across them. A car was parked at an odd angle across the road, roof bent inwards and doors wide open. The windscreen had shattered and dark, glossy oil had bled from the engine to form a glistening puddle that spanned the width of the road. Staying close to the wall for support, Helen made her way slowly to the end of the street. As she walked, she felt the comforting weight of the 4000 series bumping against her hip. The gun famously emitted a beam so powerful that, at close range, it could bore a hole right through a man’s skull, fry his brain and cause it to trickle out of his ears. Helen knew this was true because she’d seen it happen: the second time, she had been the one pulling the trigger; the first time she couldn’t bear to think about. The next street was much wider, though no less derelict. There were faded white and yellow lines painted onto the tarmac, just visible under grime, and deep metal grooves running down the middle of the road. On the other side of the road, behind an iron fence and surrounded by an expanse of dry, cracked earth that must have once been grass, was a structure that seemed immeasurably old. Though now barely registering against the towers that surrounded it on all sides, its imposing spires and sculpted colonnades must have once dominated the city skyline. Presumably it had been considered too old and unsound to act as foundations for the new towers, or maybe they had just forgotten to demolish it before everyone fled upwards. Whatever the reason, Helen found herself feeling glad that this place had remained untouched, even though there was no one but her around to appreciate it. With some vague notion of finding a sheltered spot in which to sleep and plan her next move, Helen began to pick her way across the city. Remnants of the old way of life were everywhere: double-decker buses rusted in place, crumbling park benches, peeling billboards still bearing evidence of advertisements long since washed away. Even though it was entirely devoid of it, Helen couldn’t help but feel that this dead city had more life about it than the thousands of shiny floors that glittered, out of sight, in the sky above her. Up there, the sheer volume of people made it almost impossible to ever be truly alone, although that didn’t mean that Helen wasn’t often desperately lonely, especially after Joe died. It was strange, but the further down she had climbed, the less lonely she had felt, somehow. Maybe it was because the whole thing felt so much like a dream. She came to a bridge that stretched over a railway. Against all odds, there was still a signal light flickering dismally at the side of the tracks. Her attention was attracted by a strip of black and yellow tape that stretched across the width of the bridge about thirty yards ahead. It was the first thing she’d seen so far that wasn’t a depressing shade of grey or brown. It was also flapping as though caught in the wind, except the wind should have petered out hundreds of floors above, caught by the gigantic turbines that simultaneously powered the towers and limited their range of sway. She took a step towards it and the toe of her boot sent something hard skittering away into the dust in front of her. Though not pitch black, the light wasn’t good enough for her to pick out fine detail, so she pulled out her torch to take a closer look. The torch was cheap but powered by an Eternity Cell, the battery that lasts a thousand years, or so it said on the packaging. It was an outrageous claim but no one had yet lived long enough to disprove it. Eternity Cells were disgustingly expensive and most people were lucky to be able to afford just one of them. Helen was the proud owner of two, although - like the majority of her equipment—she’d come by neither legally. She used one to power the torch and the other to keep the 4000 series fully charged at all times. The object she had kicked was a human bone; possibly wrist, possibly calf, a medical professional would have been able to tell. It wasn’t alone; as she stepped back her foot clipped a pelvis that clattered away across the cobbles, leaving the majority of a ribcage and the lower half of a spinal column behind. How many human remains must she already have walked past in her journey across the city? Helen had never been a squeamish person, and her cadet training had long since rid her of any horror she would have felt at the sight of a body, but the thought still unnerved her a little. She swung her torch again and the beam illuminated a hand, complete with all five fingers, laying in the gutter. The arm to which it belonged was abandoned further up the pavement. In yet another derelict car to her left, an almost complete skeleton was sat in the driver’s seat, held upright by the seatbelt still wrapped around its torso. At some point the skull had detached itself and had rolled into the passenger side footwell, from where it now stared mournfully up at her. Helen felt a bizarre urge to laugh, but she bit it down. She was still wary of making too much noise. Helen reached the strip of tape. It was still buffeting morbidly in the non-existent breeze. She shone the torch’s beam beyond it, trying to discern if there was any reason why this side of the bridge required a marker of separation from the other. There appeared to be no difference; there was still the same layer of dust, the same air of decay, the same gloomy not-quite-darkness. Gingerly she reached out, preparing to lift the tape out of her way. There was a sound of crunching glass behind her and she felt something hot graze her cheek. Instinctively, Helen dropped to the ground and rolled, pulling the 4000-series from its holster and flicking off the safety. The cheap torch spun away into the darkness, its beam dancing wildly. ‘I’m warning you, whoever you are,’ Helen shouted through her gasmask. ‘I am armed and I will shoot.’ She flicked the gun’s setting to stun. She didn’t want to kill anyone - yet. ‘Helen?’ said a voice from the darkness. ‘Helen, is that you?’ A figure moved into the beam of the torch. It was a girl and she was wearing a mask, but Helen didn’t need to see her face to know who it was. The hair on her head was unmistakable - slightly longer than the last time she’d seen it, but still the same bright, feathery, turquoise-blue. Helen straightened up. ‘Hello, Kingfisher,’ she said. Kingfisher pulled her mask down and Helen could see that she was smiling. ‘I can’t believe you’re here.’ ‘No thanks to you.’ Helen held her gun steady. Of course Kingfisher was here. She had followed protocol, the same as Helen herself had done. When in trouble, head down, those were the rules. It had been drummed into them both. Kingfisher’s smile flickered uncertainly, as if their little reunion wasn’t going the way she had expected it to. ‘Put the gun down, Helen,’ she said gently. ‘I’d rather not,’ said Helen coolly, remembering the heat of the laser beam as it brushed her cheek not a minute before. ‘You did just try to shoot me, after all.’ ‘I didn’t know it was you when I shot,’ Kingfisher said, with a hint of reproach. ‘I don’t want to shoot you.’ Helen snorted. ‘Right. It’s other people that you don’t mind shooting me, isn’t it?’ Kingfisher’s smile died completely. ‘Helen,’ she said, ‘what happened at the compound... I can explain.’ For a moment, Helen was tempted to say ‘go on, then’, but what was the point? There was nothing to explain; being on the run gave you plenty of time to think, and Helen had figured everything long ago. She was supposed to have died at the compound. It had been Kingfisher’s plan all along, to make her the scapegoat for the assassination. A deranged cadet, operating alone—but Helen had messed up. She’d shot the guy too early. It had ruined the plan but saved her life. Helen had been so convinced that, if she ever crossed paths with Kingfisher again, she would kill her. She’d imagined the scenario countless times during the months of her descent, hating Kingfisher more with every floor she travelled down. But now that she was actually here with a gun trained on Kingfisher’s fluffy turquoise head, Helen couldn’t even summon the energy to feel angry with her. After everything that happened, she just felt weary and sad. Kingfisher was looking at her expectantly. Helen opened her mouth to say something when a beam of light shot over her head and the car behind her burst into flames. ‘RUN!’ Kingfisher screamed. Helen had not escaped execution and fought her way down 5000 storeys only to get herself killed now. She ran. More pulses of light rained down as she careered after Kingfisher, sparking off the stonework. At the end of the bridge Kingfisher bellowed ‘THIS WAY’ and Helen pelted after her. Untrustworthy as Kingfisher was, when given the choice between her and an unknown quantity of armed assailants, Helen would choose Kingfisher every time. They flitted into a side street, where Kingfisher came to an abrupt halt. ‘That’s far enough,’ she wheezed, clutching a stitch in her side. ‘They won’t cross the tape.’ ‘Who were they?’ Helen asked, taking advantage of Kingfisher’s momentary distraction to re-train the 4000 series on her scalp. ‘I’ll tell you later.’ Kingfisher looked up and saw the gun. ‘Oh, give it a rest, Helen,’ she snapped. ‘If you were going to shoot me, you’d have done it by now. Put that ridiculous thing away and come with me. Helen kept the 4000 series high. ‘Tell me where we’re going first.’ ‘Somewhere safe, OK?’ Kingfisher took a step towards her, and for the first time Helen could clearly see the expression on her face. The Kingfisher she had known before had been full of confident, haughty idealism. The girl that stood in front of her now simply looked small and tired and very, very frightened. ‘Oh, Helen,’ she whispered. ‘It’s all so much bigger than we ever imagined.’ Helen lowered the gun. ‘Show me,’ she said, and let Kingfisher lead her out of the alleyway, away from the bridge with its fluttering tape, and back into the streets drenched in endless night.

Georgina Beardmore