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Abella walked into the constable’s truncheon before she saw it.
As it thumped gently into her chest, she snapped back to herself and took a step back, noticing the barricades and the red-cheeked policeman who had been patrolling them before he’d stepped over to intercept the oblivious Abella.
‘I’m sorry, Miss, but you’ll have to go around. There’s—’ the elderly Joe began to tip his bonnet but stopped short as he noticed her stained overalls and work boots. He cast a more appraising eye over her, then sniffed in disgust and took his own step back, bumping against the makeshift wooden barricade.
‘Street’s closed,’ he said, his tone unrecognisably sharp compared to moments ago. He squared his shoulders and shuffled his feet, staring past her as if the matter, too, was closed. Abella massaged the back of her neck as she strained to look over the policeman’s shoulder. After thirteen hours wrestling with the pressurised valves of the pumping station, all she could think of was getting home. The street beyond was was the major thoroughfare separating the lower parts of the city, where Abella lived, from the middle districts, where Abella worked. By now the street should have been coming alive, with all the bustle of the morning. But it was silent. Abandoned. And most shockingly, unlit in the predawn grey—if not even the lamplighters had been through, then something was terribly, terribly wrong. A cold knot formed in the pit of her stomach.
‘Please, I came through here just last night and everything was fine.’ She had, hadn’t she? She was too tired to remember. ‘My home’s just on the other side, in Little Knoll. My housemate was supposed to—’
‘You get some of that muck in your ears, shitslinger?’ the Joe snapped. The edges of his wild, bushy moustache dipped as he wrinkled his nose at her. ‘Street’s closed—find another way around. Now get outta here before you make me sick.’
The thought of walking back the blocks she’d need to find a cross street settled on her like a crushing weight. ‘Can’t I just—’ she began.
The constable blew through his moustache and Abella saw the knuckles of his truncheon hand whiten. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘if you want to swim through that miasma-soaked street then be my guest. But don’t expect me to come running in to pull you out when you start choking on it.’ He took an exaggerated step to the side and continued to look past her, as though there were something incredibly interesting in the direction she’d come.
Abella stayed in place for a moment. She scanned the darkness before her, straining her eyes to see in the poor light—was that shadow at the bottom of the street’s valley a pile of sacks? Or a person, crumpled where they’d coughed themselves to death? The questions begat other questions—would they have bothered to block off the other, poorer end of the street? Would Molly have seen a barrier, too, and known to walk around?
Reluctantly, she turned and began to trudge back the way she’d come. She tried to avoid looking at the constable, but didn’t turn around quick enough to miss seeing his smirk.
The middle districts of the city of Burne, like the name implied, were an ephemeral band more or less between the low-lying area where the docks and the poorhouses and the ever-increasing sprawl of slums were located, and the wealthier parts of the city that enjoyed the views and fresher air of the hills. Abella tried to stay clear of the upper areas when she could, but the city’s ever-increasing reliance on the benefits of technology meant that the middle districts were slowly filling with the factories and housing of the nouveau-riche industrialists providing all parts of the city with their mass-produced products and steam-powered services. In some cases, the middle-city location simply meant cost savings in the transport of goods and fuel for the boilers—for the central pumping station of the city’s rapidly expanding sanitation system, the location was essential if the upper crust of society wanted reliable pressure in the nascent network.
But just because the wealthier folk of the city needed workers like Abella in the middle district, it didn’t mean they had to like it. Which is why she generally tried to stick to the lower streets. Unfortunately, her detour meant she was forced to walk by one of the major middle-city train stations—and that meant middle-city people.
Walking with her head down and her gaze fixed resolutely at the ground only a meter or so ahead of her, it was still impossible to miss when she was passing the station. The smell of coal-smoke and engine grease was overwhelming, and steam from the engines mixed with the fog of the passenger’s breath in the crisp morning air. A mélange of overlapping sounds threatened to overwhelm Abella’s exhausted senses, from the chugging of the engines and the whine of the pressurised metal of the boilers, to the rabble of hundreds of voices in dozens of languages and accents as factory workers, bankers, shopkeepers and schoolchildren milled together, boarding and disembarking the trains that took them from their homes to their destinations and back again.
If there was any location which better represented the middle-city’s mixture of social class regardless of wealth or religion or race then Abella didn’t know it—besides her pumping station, that is, which represented an altogether more earthy version of the principle.
‘It’s ones like her what done it, you know?’ someone said nearby as Abella waited for an opening among the press of people. Although not addressed to her, she didn’t need to look to know who the subject of the man’s derision was.
‘Done what?’ a second voice asked in sleepy reply.
‘Are you daft, man? What’s happened to Lady Pontrefact! Haven’t you heard? She slept with the window open a few weeks ago, and the miasma came through—now the family diadem’s missing, and she’s up the duff to boot!’
The second speaker snorted. ‘That’s what she’s telling daddy Pontrefact, is it? Bad air’s what came through her window?’
‘Shut up, she’s a proper Lady, she is. Not like this lot, comin’ up from the slums and fouling up our air. The miasma only used to be a stink ‘til they built that fecking shit station down the road, now look at it—people and property going missing, half o’ them turning up dead. Where’s it gonna end once the whole city’s piped up and breathing what’s coming outta there, huh?’
‘With a lot of lifted jewels and swollen bellies?’ Abella could just about hear the speaker rolling their eyes.
‘Laugh if you like—but sleep with your window shut, ‘less you want your missus poppin’ out a blackie like that one. Or worse.’
Abella sank her head further beneath her shoulders and took a deep breath. She shoved her way through the crowd, forcing the milling crowd aside and earning several barks of disgust as people realised who they were brushing up against. She didn’t care. Both her body and soul ached to be home again. To wash, have something to eat, and to sleep—not necessarily in that order.
Maybe even to wake up without screaming.
Her boots, feeling heavier with every step, stuttered over the rough-cut cobblestones by the railway station but eventually, she was through the crowd and across the middle city. The road returned to the familiar packed clay and dusty dirt that she was used to, and the early morning mist transitioned to a light drizzle. The rain drew the petrichor out of the lower city roads and filled her nostrils with the unmistakable scents of home. The stink of old horses left to die, the shit and the sweat that fell from them as they pulled their carts through the streets; the overflowing cesspits and decades of chamber pots emptied into the gutters; the dogs dragging scraps from butcher’s buckets and trailing the grime across the street; the smell of typhoid and boils and above all else, the stench of people too desperate and too poor to live anywhere else but the literal arse end of the city.
She raised her head and breathed freely at last. She was home.
Abella passed through the street of Little Knoll twice every day, sometimes more, and day or night it teemed with the ebb and flow of the city: sidestreet stalls and barkers; cats and rodents and dogs fighting over fishtails and the aforementioned butcher’s entrails; draught horses braying as they pulled their clattering carts along the rutted streets; children running between the carriages, squealing and laughing and kicking muck-filled puddles at each other while their parents swept their stoops and gathered in small knots to trade news and gossip, groups which ebbed and swelled like breathing things as members flitted in and out, taking the most interesting stories down the street faster than any newspaper could possibly compete with. Men and women stepped out of their doors and mentally shouldered the burden of another day’s work. Many of them were dressed as Abella was, and with these she traded sympathetic nods and smiles as they passed each other. And yes, there were several furtive-looking or raucous, still-drunk men and women slinking out of doorways which weren’t their own. These didn’t spare Abella a second glance as they passed her and her work-stained coveralls, hurrying back to change clothes before their own days working in the middle districts began.
‘Long night, my a-beauty Abella?’ Maurice the butcher called to her between the thuds of his cleaver on the block. As always, he drew out the syllables of her name to match his little joke. She smiled, making the butcher’s age-dimmed eyes light up; the joke had lost its shine some thousand repetitions ago, but she knew it was sweetly intended.
‘Long walk, I’m afraid—low road’s swamped in miasma.’
The butcher sucked his front teeth in a tsk and shook his head. ‘More and more of the city by the day. I’ll tell the twins.’
‘Thanks, Maurice, I’m beat,’ Abella said with genuine relief. The last thing she needed right now was to get trapped in an unending conversation with one of the Ouyen sisters. There was no better way to get news along the street, but they had a terrible habit of taking it in turns to extract as much gossip from you as possible while the other went to spread it.
Maurice cast an appraising eye over Abella as she moved to continue along the road. ‘Hold up, love—here, take a tail or two with you for the pot.’ He reached beside his block, clucking to his dog as he pushed its muzzle out of one of the buckets where he kept his cuts. He lifted out a pair of kangaroo tails, roughly segmented and mostly free of fur.
‘Oh. Thanks, Maurice, but I couldn’t—’
‘Take it. Lord knows you working girls need a bit of sleep and a decent feed before you fall over. I can’t do much about the first, but dammed if I’ll let you go without the second.’
‘Really, Maurice, thank you but I can’t—’
‘Oh, just take it, love. It’s not charity, if that makes you feel any better—these things usually just go to Flip, anyway, and he’s fat enough for three hounds.’
The dog looked up at the sound of its name and swivelled its head between Abella and the tails. It whined as though it had never been more betrayed in its entire life.
Abella watched as Maurice deftly wrapped the meat in a sheet of last week’s newsprint. He handed it to her with a wink. ‘Throw a few potatoes in with that and you’ll be eating better of than any of those upper city twats with their little pastries, no mind about it.’
‘Thank you, Maurice. Really.’
He waved her off. ‘You tell your Sarah to take a day off some time so she can come back for a natter and we’ll be more than even. It seems like an age since she’s been by—I miss our chats!’
Abella snatched the wrapped meat from the butcher’s outstretched hand and clutched it to her chest before he could see her tremble. She focused on her breathing, lest her voice catch when she answered. ‘I’m sure she misses them too.’ She flashed a crooked smile and fled before he could say anything further.
* * *
‘I seen a rat this morning.’
Abella paused in the middle of fishing her house key out of the front pocket of her coveralls. She was literally meters from her bed. Of course.
‘Did you, Mrs McKenzie?’ she asked, forcing a smile onto her face as she turned to this Witness Of The Rat. On the next stoop over, her neighbour was standing with her arms crossed in the universal sign for Quite Miffed Actually and scowling at Abella with an unmistakable We Are Going To Have Words About This expression. ‘That’s quite unfortunate. Was Linus able to catch it for you?’
Mrs McKenzie continued to glower while her cat, hearing its name, yawned and rolled over on the stoop, stretching as though it hadn’t a care in the world. Which, of course, it didn’t—least of all catching rodents. It was the laziest animal Abella had ever known.
‘Unfortunate’s not the word, girl. It’s not a lack of fortune what brings rats, it’s a lack of hygiene,’ Mrs McKenzie clipped. ‘It came out of the wall while I was stoking the fire this morning. Your wall.’
‘I very much doubt you can see anything in that filth-ridden sty. What’s the use of your Sarah staying shut up in there all hours if she can’t keep the place clean then, eh? I can smell the sourness comin’ from you lot even with me doors and windows shut.’
Abella drew a deep breath in her nose and out her mouth. ‘Well. I’ll see if we can’t get to the bottom of it, Mrs McKenzie.’
The woman sniffed. ‘Of course, I don’t expect you to notice. A fox don’t smell their own rut, or so they say—’
Abella was fairly certain that wasn’t something anyone, let alone Mrs McKenzie’s oft-invoked they went around saying.
‘—but sooner or later people will stop being polite about it and start talking. Why,—’
How long had it been since Abella had even sat down, let alone slept? She was so close. The door in front of her seemed to swim in her vision as her eyes struggled to focus on it. She furrowed her brow. Hang on.
‘—be wealthy to be respectable. Now, perhaps I’m just old-fashioned that way, but if you don’t take pride in—’
A cold thrill swept from her core to her fingertips as she realised what was amiss with the door. It was ajar. And Molly had never turned up to take over Abella’s shift. Just like—
She turned a glacial smile to her prattling neighbour and hefted the package Maurice had given her. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs McKenzie, but my dinner is beginning to ooze onto my overalls, and I’m sure you understand what a bother bloodstains can be. Perhaps we can continue this conversation tomorrow?’ Without waiting for an answer, Abella pushed the unlocked door open and stepped through.
‘This used to be a decent neighbourhood, you know. Before your sewer lot moved in, we—’ Mrs McKenzie shot after her, before being blessedly silenced by the slamming door. Abella leaned against it, taking full advantage of the moment’s respite while she scanned the dark room. Her heart thudded in her throat.
The house—what little of it there was—was in shambles. Food scraps and rags were thrown in haphazard piles across the rude floorboards which, where they weren’t cracked and bowing, were soiled with dirt and stains. The low copper tub which served as washing facilities for themselves, their laundry and their dishes sat half-full of murky grey water with the shadows of indistinguishable contents lurking below the surface. Beside it, the other bucket they used for less clean purposes droned with the echoing hum of blowflies. A similar drone sounded from the cast-iron pot on the hob, above the now-grey ashes of their tiny firebox.
Abella breathed a short sigh of relief. It was all the same as she had left it when she’d dragged herself to fill Sarah’s shift nine hours ago.
Her eyes came to rest on the only other piece of furniture in the room—the small, creaky bed which served round the clock duty for the three… the two women who lived here. To Abella’s equal relief and frustration, the familiar lumps and bumps of her housemate Molly were visible beneath the threadbare blankets, moving gently up and down as the woman breathed. On the head of the bed, a thick and dribbly candle flickered, it’s reflected light dancing on the ornate silver case of matches that Molly kept beside it.
Abella drew in a deep breath to steel herself for some very pointed words of her own, then doubled over in a fit of coughing as one of the room’s uninvited winged occupants was sucked through her nostril and into the back of her throat. Tears in her eyes, she stumbled over to the room’s only window and forced the swollen and juddering frame open. She cursed as she spat the still-buzzing intruder back on to the street. The only thing worse than Mrs McKenzie’s attitude was having to admit that the woman was right. Even after months of spending every waking hour in the pumping station rerouting sewer gas and cleaning clogs out of the pipes, Abella’s nose could still smell the clear difference between the air blowing in from the street, and the air that was practically oozing out from their room.
‘Ay, Bella, whatchu opening that for? Ye’ll let the miasma in, ye daft gel,’ a sleep-slurred voice came from behind her. Abella turned to see Molly stretching to face her, a rake-thin arm lifted as she rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes.
‘If Brün sees you coming in, you might wish it had,’ Abella said as she stepped over to the bed and blew out the dangerously-low candle. Molly’s eyes shot open as she woke up enough to realise what her housemate meant. She jolted into a sitting position and feverishly groped for her coveralls, lying crumpled on the floor.
‘Shit! What time’d ye leave?’
‘I stayed through the end of her shift, so if you’re fast you shouldn’t be too late for yours,’ Abella said, sitting on the foot of the bed while Molly scrambled to her feet. She rubbed at her shoulder. It was going to be agonizing when she woke up.
‘Pump fifteen sticky again, were it?’ Molly asked as she hopped on one foot, hooking her shoulder straps at the same time.
‘Yeah. I left it with Edwards though, so you’d better check he’s actually cycled it properly when you get in.’
‘Edwards? Ye tryin’ to backdraft half the city?’
‘I didn’t have a lot of choices now, did I?’ Abella shot back. She shook her head. ‘Mol,’ she said more quietly, ‘how many times has it been this month alone? I can’t keep doing this.’
Molly’s headlong rush to dress paused slightly, before continuing in a noticeably more guarded manner. ‘Maybe we’s needin’ to talk about it, then.’
‘What’s there to discuss? We already—’
‘I means to th’foreman.’
Abella froze mid-massage, the pain in her shoulder receding as she felt her stomach fall through her boots, leaving a trail of ice behind it. ‘You can’t be serious. We need those shifts, Mol. You know what’ll happen if they find out Sarah’s not coming in, and good luck finding a third paycheque to cover the rent, otherwise—who do you think’s going to want to move into this?’ Abella swept her arm to encapsulate the room.
‘Ye think I can keep doin’ this, either?’ Molly, now dressed, whirled to face her. ‘Ye’re not th’only one who can barely stand, time ye get home. Ye think coverin’ for her on top o’ me own shifts ain’t—’ she clutched her chest and coughed, a deep and wet hack that went on for far too long.
Abella leapt to her feet and reached for her friend. ‘Are you all—’
Molly waved her off, supporting herself on the edge of the bed while she wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of her other hand. The wet redness shone against the paleness of her wrist.
‘I gotta get to work,’ she growled, snatching up her silver case of matches—the only thing she’d had on her the night Sarah had found her lying bloodied on a street near the docks—and pushing herself back to a wobbly-legged stand.
‘Molly, if you’re sick—’
‘What’s it matter?’ She turned away.
Abella’s exhaustion and sense of duty waged a silent and brutally short war inside of her. She could cut Molly off easily. She could pull her back to bed, fire up the hob and throw Maurice’s meat into the pot. They could eat; they could rest. But in only a few hours, Abella’s next shift would start, too. And while she was on the pumps, Sarah’s shift would start alongside her. If Molly wasn’t at her station and able to move from the end of one to the first half of the other, someone would notice. And Abella didn’t have the strength to cover a full double shift again. So, instead of stopping her friend, she sank on to the bed and watched as Molly staggered towards the door. The sick woman paused there, still catching her breath before she faced the street.
‘I miss her too, ye know,’ she said, staring resolutely at the door and away from Abella. ‘But she ain’t comin’ home. Whether she been blackbirded again, run off her own self or, God help her, scraped off the street wit’the knackermen’s horses, it’s done. We gotta get someone else pitchin’ for the rent, or we done too.’ She took a shaky breath and squared her shoulders before pulling the door open. ‘Get some rest,’ she said as she stepped through, pulling it shut behind her. Seconds later, her head bobbed by the window. ‘And if ye ain’t gonna shut this, at least get th’damn cadle lit—ye know ‘s’all what stops the bloody miasma.’
Abella waited until she heard the woman’s stuttering steps fade into the clamour of the street streaming through the still-open window. Then, lacking the strength to even shrug off her coveralls, she let herself drop backwards onto the bed and fell directly into sleep.
* * *
There was no sound except the slap slap slap of Abella’s workboots against the cobblestones as she ran. The sound echoed through the empty streets of the city, bouncing off the dark, rain-slick buildings and rippling through the puddles as she sped by.
Her heart thundered as she struggled to draw breath, but she couldn’t slow down. She looked back over her shoulder and it was there like a thundercloud come to earth. No longer the invisible force that flooded lungs and impregnated highborn women, the miasma roiled through the streets, dark and thick and veined with flashes of red lightning.
Her foot snagged on something while she fixated on the approaching death, and she splashed to the uneven ground. She felt dizzy. Her vision swam and her thoughts flowed like treacle—was the outer limit of the miasma already infecting her? She licked her lips, and her tongue tasted a sour tanginess that filled her with inexplicable panic. She tried to stand, but her foot was stuck in whatever she’d stepped in. She looked down her leg and she saw it was a corpse. Her foot had broken through its ribcage and crushed the space where its heart should have been. Its skin had greyed. Its hair was lank. The chords in its neck were still taut and the skin around its eyes was veined with red lightning which sparked in tandem with the approaching cloud and left afterimages in Abellas eyes and it was Sarah, it was her Sarah, left on the street to rot.
Abella screamed and pulled at her foot and Sarah’s eyes opened and she clutched Abella’s leg and she wouldn’t let go. Abella screamed louder and the corpse opened it’s ruined mouth in a sick parody but no sound came out, only the thick, coiling, greasy miasma. The dead woman pawed at Abella’s leg as she ripped it free and scrambled to her feet. She looked between the corpse and the approaching storm front. She turned away and tried to run, but when she looked down Sarah was holding her feet again and pulling her backwards. She looked up, and in the distance, she saw the pumping station and she knew she had to get there. Except the miasma was there too. No, it was coming from the pumping station, just like the man from the train station had said. She watched it boiling from the chimneys and oozing through the windows and running through the pipes that spread underneath the city. She watched as thick plumes of miasma exploded upwards from the sewer venting points, blanketing the entire hill in choking horror. She heard the screams begin, then fade away to nothing as a horrible unnatural silence blanketed the colony.
And the miasma from behind rolled in around her like a bushfire, and she was consumed.
* * *
Abella jolted awake to the distant sound of thunder, low and booming. She sat up and rubbed her forehead, the worn wooden frame of the bed creaking loudly in the total silence of the room. Save for the surprisingly faded tenderness in her shoulder, she felt barely rested. Her coveralls felt clammy as the sweat of her nightmare was hit by the chill evening air blowing through the window. Her nose wrinkled as her awareness returned to her surroundings and she remembered she’d fallen asleep right next to Maurice’s gift. It really would have soaked through the paper by now.
She tsked in disappointment and lifted it to check how badly it had soiled the bedsheets, but struggled to see properly—the fading light of dusk made everything look a shapeless grey as it filtered through the open window. She rubbed at the patch of bed where it had been lying. Her hand came away wet. She sighed and a curse rose to her tongue, then died in her throat as realisation crashed into her. It was getting dark. Her shift began at midday.
She leapt off the bed and tossed Maurice’s package to the floor. She scrabbled through the detritus until she found the single clock the girls owned—it had been Sarah’s. She angled its face towards the fading light of the window. It read two o’clock. She shook it and swore before tossing it on the bed—Molly must have forgotten to wind it when she’d come home from her last shift.
With no idea how late she was but knowing she had no time to lose, Abella ran to the door, ironically thankful that she’d slept in her coveralls and boots. She burst out into the street and locked the door behind her, bolted down the stairs and started to run towards the pumping station before she realised what else was terrible, terribly wrong.
For the first time since she’d moved to Little Knoll, the cacophony of the street was absent. Worse, it was utterly—unbelievably—empty.
She slowed her headlong rush and came to a dusty stop in the centre of the vacant street, beside one of the few lampposts in their part of town. She gradually looked up to confirm what she already knew from the encroaching, chill darkness. The lamp was unlit. Just like they hadn’t been along the Low Road.
Abella turned in a circle, looking up and down the street again. Her breath caught in her chest in short, shallow gasps getting faster and faster.
‘Hello?’ she called. Her voice echoed in the empty space, bouncing between the close-packed houses. Not even the clatter of startled animals in the sidestreets rose to answer her query. She squinted as she saw something hazy in the distant air—an evening fog, or something worse?
Whichever it was, she wasn’t going to stay to find out.
Abella whirled and ran, her mounting panic lending her speed. The street, empty for the first time in Abella’s experience, seemed eerily long and wide as she sped towards the base of the hill on its western end. From there, the road would eventually take her to the middle districts, and further still to her pumping station. She bolted past the abandoned stalls, noting the furred shapes slumped by the buckets and the still-laid-out breads and meats with rising horror. She hoped Maurice’s Flip wasn’t among them. Not even the ubiquitous flies buzzed atop the unguarded cuts.
As she reached the end of the street, she heard a weak cough from behind one of the stalls, and slowed her headlong rush. She turned her head to look while she passed, and saw a familiar set of workboots poking out from behind the rude wagon stall which had once held a variety of fruits, now toppled.
She felt cold dread pass over her and, without thinking, she stopped her run to the safety of the hill and turned back to the woman half-buried underneath the produce she’d fallen into.
‘Molly. Molly!’ Abella cried as she dug the woman out. ‘Are you okay? Can you breathe?’
Her housemate clawed weakly at her throat as Abella tried unsuccessfully to pull her into a sitting position. Molly looked at Abella with wild, too-open eyes completely shot through with throbbing red veins. The chords of her neck strained as the woman struggled with each laboured breath.
She croaked something unintelligible, and Abella leaned forward to hear her better.
‘Pock…et,’ Molly rasped. ‘’s th’… only thing… works.’
Abella set to rifling through her friend’s overalls. The pockets were filled with the daily detritus of working with machinery in a sewerage plant, but she instinctively knew what she was looking for—there could be only one thing the dying woman would want.
Abella drew out the silver tin of matches Molly had always kept with her, and fished one out, striking it against the tin’s striated side. The tip of the match flared into dancing light, and Abella waved it in front of Molly’s nose. The sudden point of light seemed to refract off the red veins bursting across the woman’s skin, and Abella felt her heart hitch as she realised just how debilitating Molly’s condition was. The prone woman breathed deep and coughed again as the smoke entered her nostrils. The force of her wet hacking blew the flickering matchlight out. Abella quickly moved to light another, but Molly shook her head.
‘Not fer me,’ she rasped. Abella tried to ignore her and moved to light another, but the dying woman reached up and grasped her wrist. Her red-lined gaze burned into Abella. ‘Get goin’ ye… daft… gel.’
‘I’m not leaving you in the gutter to die alone,’ Abella replied. She struggled to loop an arm under the fallen woman.
‘I ain’t yer Sarah. Get—’ Molly’s rebuke was interrupted by another fit of coughing. Abella looked up and down the empty street as she finally wrestled her into a sitting position.
‘Help! Please, my friend needs help!’ She cried out twice, three times, but the only answer she heard was her own shouts echoing off the abandoned brick-fronted buildings.
She sobbed, trying to lift Molly. But even after her uncommonly long sleep, Abella was too exhausted to lift the half-starved woman. Her shoulder twinged, and she collapsed backwards, sending Molly tumbling to the dirt road beside her. The sick rattle of Molly’s breath began to hitch.
In the quiet, as she lay there listening to her friend die, another sound reached Abella’s ears: the heavy clunk of a door latch. She shot to her knees in an instant, scanning the street for the source of the sound.
Across the road, two houses down, the door behind the butcher’s block creaked open a sliver.
‘Is that you, Bella?’
‘Yes! Yes, please Maurice, help me get her inside!’
His voice floated back to her, reedy and thin as his obvious fear robbed it of its usual vibrancy and betrayed his age. ‘Is it safe?’
‘It’s gone. Look—’ she waved her arms about, as though dispelling fog. ‘I can’t even smell anything. Please,’ she said again, pouring all the emotional weight she could muster into the word. ‘I can’t just leave her here.’
The door across the way creaked open further, and Maurice’s face appeared from the shadows beyond. ‘Okay. We’ll bring her in here. Just—dang it, Flip!’ he cursed as the dog shot out from between his feet and bounded into the street. It whuffled around the front step, quivering with agitation, then looked up at its master and yapped.
‘Get out of it,’ Maurice scolded as he tried to step around his pet. Flip bounded around him, jumping at his hip while Abella turned back to Molly. The woman was hardly breathing at all, her bloodshot eyes staring unfocused and unseeing into the middle distance.
‘It’s okay,’ Abella told her, cupping the sides of her head in her hands. ‘We’ll get you inside, and we’ll light some candles for you, and—’ she stopped as she heard another sound. An icy hand of terror clenched around her heart. She turned back to face Maurice. He’d stopped only a metre or so from his front door.
He was doubled over, coughing. A deep, desperate hack matched with a wheezing intake as he struggled to breathe around a rapidly closing throat. Beside him, Flip had stopped jumping, and was inching forward on his belly, nose twitching as he whined softly.
‘Maurice?’ Abella called. He sagged to one knee, bracing himself on the dirt road as he turned his face toward her. His kindly features were contorted with pain, and blossoms of deep purple burst across his reddened face as blood vessels in his cheeks and eyes burst one by one. Tears of agony and betrayal streamed down his face. He rasped something unintelligible and collapsed to the road. Flip slumped in the dirt beside him, legs kicking weakly.
Beside Abella, as if to drive the horror home, Molly wheezed a final gasping breath. Abella watched as the light died in her friend’s eyes.
She scrambled backwards, finding her feet. For an interminable moment, there was no sound in the world beyond the pounding of her heart. Her vision greyed in from the edges until all she could see were the bodies in front of her. She swayed, stumbling over nothing on the packed earth street. Then, in the distance, the sound of thunder boomed again, low and rumbling, the force of it shaking the windows of the houses around her. It jolted her back to herself and she turned, her legs finding the strength of unthinking terror. She ran, desperately seeking higher ground. Her breath grew ragged, gulping air as her body burned oxygen.
She didn’t cough once.
* * *
This time, nobody stopped her as she bolted through the lower city and into the middle. Which is not the same as saying that the streets were empty.
Red-veined bodies were scattered everywhere. Men, women, horses and dogs. Some had been overcome suddenly, dropped in their tracks amongst their stalls, in their carts, or facedown on the road with their newspapers still clutched where they’d fallen on them. Others had taken longer to die, their desperation betrayed by their clustering around doors and halfway up hills, seeking the safety of higher ground. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she noticed that not all of the doors were shut and not all of the fallen bodies oriented as though they’d been trying to get to safety when they’d fallen, but any curiosity that came with the thought was crushed under the weight of her terror. She ran, until she couldn’t run any farther and collapsed against the side of a bluestone-fronted building, panting and holding her side. She looked around her, and realised that amidst her flight from the bodies and the unnatural silence of the city, she’d ended up at the fringes of the upper city. It wasn’t any better. For all their elevation and modern sanitation—clearly visible from the discoloured line where the centre of the clay and bluestone road had been dug up for pipe installation only months ago—the miasma had been here too.
She wiped her grimy eyes with the back of her hands and sniffled as tears of shock and exhaustion began to run into her sinuses. She paused, her brow crinkling as she sniffed again. The air blowing from the upper city districts had an unusual, unexpected tang to it. For a moment her heart thundered in her chest and she went absolutely cold, imagining tendrils of invisible miasma coiling around her. She held her breath while her mind raced, desperately seeking an avenue of escape. How do you outrun something you cannot see? What if she took off in the wrong direction?
Frozen by fear, unable to will her quivering legs into action—any action—the burning in her lungs became too great. Stil slumped against the wall, she breathed in.
Abella blinked back her tears and chanced another breath. Again, nothing. The acrid tang carried on the wind seemed to be only that. There was something naggingly familiar about the scent, but it wasn’t the miasma. Or if it was, it wasn’t affecting her.
She pushed herself off the wall, her quads burning as she slowly picked her way through the street. She tried not to look at the contorted bodies of the city’s upper crust who had died in just as much gasping agony as Maurice, regardless of their wealth and station. If nothing else, the fading light made that part of the journey easier. Even as she stumbled over them in the unlit streets, she didn’t have to look at their faces. She had no mind of where she was going, she only knew that she had to move; she had to get away. She had to leave the city.
She stopped as the thought hit her. She’d never actually left the city before. Well, that wasn’t exactly accurate: she knew that she’d been blackbirded in from somewhere, but she’d been so young the memory of being handed over for her first job in a textile mill was only a hazy blur; she had no real memory of the boat journey or where she’d been before then. The city, the colony was all she had ever known.
And now, she might be the only one left. How far had the miasma reached? She couldn’t remember hearing about it being reported outside the city, but then again the snatches of colony news she’d heard during her commute and from the Ouyen sisters had seemed beyond her concern. She’d had little but food, work and rent on her mind since Sarah’s disappearance.
She made her way towards a low bluestone and ironwork wall running in front of one of the fancy buildings and climbed it for a view over the city. From her elevation, she could see across the darkened streets and shadowy rooftops, all the way to the bay. Several large ships bobbed gently there, crane arms caught halfway between loading and unloading cargo when the miasma had rolled through.
She stayed there, watching as the last rays of the sun sank beyond the watery horizon. As her eyes adjusted to the gloaming, she noticed something strange. She’d already grown to expect the lack of lamplights throughout the city, but several areas nearby seemed to be glowing. Orange light was reflecting off the clouds just as it did during the nights of the Founding Festival. But who would be lighting bonfires today, of all days?
In the utter silence of the street, Abella heard the click of a door latch. She squinted in the dark, and saw someone stepping through a door about fifty meters down the street. Her heart soared. She leapt down and began to jog towards them.
‘Hey. Hey! Oh my God, I thought I was the only one left!’ Abella babbled as she ran towards them. She was so far away that all she could see from this distance was their shadow, but not even the sound of insects broke the utter silence of the city. They must have been able to hear her. But if they did, they gave no indication of the fact. They simply descended the stone steps of their building and began to walk along the street, heading in the opposite direction. There was a languid character to their movement which, even from this distance, seemed unsettling. They didn’t seem to react at all to the bodies they shuffled around as Abella came closer and closer.
‘Wait!’ Abella called. She was so focused on the retreating shadow that she began to stumble over those same bodies sprawling across the road. Before she could reach the stranger, her foot caught on some faceless socialite’s scarf, and she tumbled to the ground with a squeal.
For once, fashion saved her life.
The shadows of the city disappeared as the street cracked and burst upwards in a sudden spray of flame and dirt. A wave of concussive force lifted Abella from the ground and sent her tumbling backwards as the world turned into a chaos of fire and stone and red-veined body parts. Her ears rang with a high pitched whine and the rumbling after-notes of thunder. Not thunder—explosion.
She pulled herself to her hands and knees and retched in the street. Her empty belly had nothing to offer but bile. She staggered to her feet and looked at where Hell had come to Burne.
The street was destroyed. Huge chunks of earth were missing from the centre of the road, which was cratered at the epicentre of the blast. The bluestone walls around her were spattered with dirt and viscera, and sections were crumbling. One of the buildings on the other side of the blast had sloughed sideways, completely blocking off a side road. Everywhere, wooden debris was burning and the air was choked with smoke and dust. There was no sign of the person she’d seen walking away, only destruction where they’d once been standing.
She shook her still-ringing head and stumbled to the nearest section of wall for support. She stood there in the flickering orange glow of the ruinous flames and realised with an aching heart that the light she’d seen hadn’t been bonfires at all. There were no survivors gathering together. The city was being destroyed, piece by piece.
Something clicked at the back of her mind. The sounds of thunder she’d been hearing. The light of the fires. The pattern of the destruction along the street, exactly matching the path of the sewerage pipelines that were being installed all over the city. Sticky pump fifteen, and a factory full of dead workers not there to vent the gas still accumulating in the network because of the…
She pushed herself off the wall again, swaying as her centre of balance danced a hornpipe around her. She grit her teeth and set off towards the hulking smokestacks of the industrial district, still just visible against the fading light of the sky.
If there were any other survivors besides her, she wasn’t going to let them burn.
* * *
Two more explosions shook the city before she reached the pumping station.
The squat, five-funnelled brick building hulked in the exact geographical centre of the middle district. Normally belching a mixture of coal-smoke and steam into the air, the giant stacks were as lifeless as the rest of the city. Abella felt her innards clench with sudden anxiety. What state would the boilers be in by now? She might be facing an impossible task. Worse yet, if the gases were accumulating under the plant itself…
The iron gates of the worker’s yard were open, and she crossed into the body-littered property. The miasma must have had hit at morning call—not all that long after she’d left. Only a few of the positions in the plant were filled with salaried workers like herself, Molly and Sarah. The less skilled work of the station was doled out to the workers rallying in the yard every morning. The wide, open space churned with desperate labourers; people with so little left to lose that the shame and the stink of working in the lowest positions of the pumping station was no longer enough to keep them away. These poor unfortunate souls had been out in the open, completely unprotected and with no hope of escaping the miasma when it rolled through. The entire foreground was clogged with their red-veined bodies. It smelled of vomit and fresh death. Nothing moved as Abella took in the scene. Not even the usually inescapable cloud of blowflies disturbed the eerie silence.
And the horrifying silence of the pumps within the station.
She hustled through the open side of the building—there was no point to doors on a factory that never stopped running—and jogged two at a time up the iron steps to the upper gantries. Her clanging footsteps echoed through the unnerving quiet. There were two main pumps that she needed to check, both at the centre of the factory, but first she had to investigate the rear boiler and see when it had last been stoked, depressurised or—
Something in the corner of her eye caught her attention as she bolted past the foreman’s office, set on the upper level with an unobstructed view across the work floor. She skidded to a halt and turned to look through the open segment of the wall that served as the office’s window. Inside, still behind his rude beechwood desk, sat Brün, her foreman. He was staring straight ahead, with a vacant expression that suggested he was seeing nothing. But his skin and eyes were clear, free of the fatal red veining that had marked the other corpses she’d passed. As she stood there, the heavyset bald man blinked and slowly turned his head in her direction. He was alive.
‘Brün! I thought I was the only…’ she trailed off as competing thoughts crowded her mind. One of them shoved the others aside, barreling into her awareness like a steam train. ‘What are you doing?! Half the city is over-pressurising out there, and you haven’t even tried cycling the pumps yourself? How long have you been sitting here?’
Brün blinked at her again and continued to stare vacantly. She threw his office door open and came in, and as she got closer she could see that his breathing was rapid and shallow, coming in unhealthy-sounding gasps. She rested a hand on his shoulder and lowered her face to his, her brow furrowed with concern. ‘Hey, you all right?’
Brün didn’t answer. He just slowly turned his head to face her again, as though his neck was pivoting on rusted tracks. Abella bit her lip and cursed internally. He must be in shock.
‘C’mon, Brün. I really need some help here. Let’s get you moving.’ She tugged on his arm but he remained resolutely seated.
‘Come on.’ She insisted, stepping behind him and sliding her hands under his armpits. ‘Get up.’
She stumbled backwards as the foreman immediately stood, throwing her off balance. The chair clattered to the floor, and Brün turned around to face her, uncaring. She dusted her now dampened palms on the front of her coveralls.
‘Okay. Good. Now come on, we’ve got to get the boilers running again before this place blows to hell too.’ As if on cue, a low rumble sounded in the far distance. Brün didn’t seem to notice, but he followed as Abella turned and exited the office.
Bringing the pumping station online from a cold start would have taken hours at the best of times—longer if it had been only Abella working by herself. To their luck, the massive boilers that regulated the pressure throughout the city hadn’t gone completely cold, so even with Abella having to direct the vacant Brün step by step, they were able to get the facility back to hobbled operation in a fraction of the time. Abella squinted at the various gauges and dials attached to the system in the newly-steamy air and cursed again. The explosions throughout the city had resulted in a major drop of pressure throughout the network. Without teams on the ground to close vents and valves along those streets, she and Brün would have to regulate everything from here—what they could, at least. There was nothing they could do for those areas which had been cut off from the network and re-sealed by explosive rubble. She just had to hope that the gaping holes in the street would do, and that the rubble would be porous enough to prevent the fermenting human waste building up to explosive levels again.
What they could do from here, was shunt off the pipes leading away from the pumping station itself and prevent any further pressure from building in the wider system. It would have the unfortunate effect of increasing the pressure below the facility to critical levels, but if she and Brün could work in concert they might just be able to bleed off the pressure before it got too unsafe. The problem was, she and Brün couldn’t work in concert. Hours after she’d found him in the office and countless valves and steam vents turned, he still followed her around like a simple child. He only moved or acted when she explicitly told him to, snapping his attention from the mindless fugue he slipped into once he’d completed each task she set him.
Steeling herself for a half-hour or so of frantic running between the pipes, Abella turned the damnable sticky wheel of pump fifteen closed, facilitating what she hoped would be a controlled backdraft of the network’s pressure to send the flow—and therefore the accumulating gases—heading directly back to the pumping station. Her foot nudged against the fallen body of Edwards—a young red-haired bloke with an equally young family only a couple of houses north of Maurice. She shuddered as she realised those vibrant, noisy kids had probably been playing somewhere in the gaps between houses that morning. Brün was standing by the secondary intake valve for the tertiary boiler, having just finished cycling the pressure there as she’d asked him to.
‘Okay, big fella,’ she began, hoping against hope that a cheery demeanour might snap him out of his apathy. ‘Let’s head down to central before the pressure gets too—’
A scraping, shuffling sound broke through her banter. She leaned over the side of the gantry she was on and looked towards the main floor below. Lurching through the shadows of the building, lit only by the dancing light coming through the thick glass windows of the sealed boilers, moving bodies were rapidly filling the space around the central pumping unit.
Abella all but leapt down the gantry stairs, clattering down the rungs with frenetic joy. As the hours had ticked by, she’d grown more and more accustomed to the idea that most of the city was simply gone—seeing so many people alive filled her with a hope she couldn’t have dreamed of when she’d left Molly and Maurice twitching in the street.
By the time she reached them, giddy and gasping from her rapid descent, she was ready to leap at the closest person and envelop them with a hug. But once she stepped off the stairway, something clenched in the base of her gut. An indefinable sense of unease that flooded from her core to the rest of her body. She breathed through her mouth, and tasted an unfamiliar tang in the air; one that transcended the mundane stench leaking from the sewage being pumped all around them. It was the same wrongness she’d smelled blowing from the upper districts.
She looked around her, at the survivors standing stock-still and emotionless on the factory floor. People that would never have been seen standing with each other only a day ago; a wide range of race and class and profession, all huddled together with their hands by their sides and vacant expressions on their faces. Just like Brün. She stepped forward slowly, all sense of anticipation and excitement in her movements replaced with dread. Something about this scene was horribly, horribly wrong.
‘Hello?’ she called to the mob as she sidled around them and headed for the scant protection of the light coming from the scuttle beneath the central boiler. ‘Can I help you?’
The crowd stared back at her, unseeing and unresponsive. They turned in unison to track her movement as she made her way to the central pump, and the pressure gauges for the sewer gas beneath the facility that were controlled from there. Something told Abella that she shouldn’t take her eyes off them, so she fumbled around behind herself looking for a wrench on the squat table beside the main release valves.
‘I’ve a rather important job to do here,’ she said to the crowd. ‘What are you doing in my factory? Are you looking for something?’
‘Not anymore!’ a bright voice sounded from amidst the crowd. The slack-faced survivors stepped to the side as though responding to an unspoken command and revealed a short, ludicrously-dressed individual at their centre.
It was a man somewhere in their indeterminate sixties, but who had apparently fashioned themselves with the most expensive jewellery and clothing they’d managed to get their hands on regardless of fashion or any consideration for how the garments worked in concert. Silks and velvet clashed in gaudy colours and patterns, and gold and silver rings jostled against each other on the man’s heavily-adorned fingers. His hands rested on the brass cap of a well-worn cane and a diadem that seemed as though it would have been better suited to a wealthy debutante glittered atop his head. He was smiling above a thick and unruly grey-streaked beard which contrasted starkly with the dark tones of his skin, and his face was full in that manner of the well-fed elderly that erases wrinkles and makes exact approximations of age impossible.
But above all else, the one thing that Abella noticed was his eyes. Unlike those of the other survivors around them, they were as clear and as filled with calculating awareness as Abella’s.
‘There you are my wonderful, darling girl! What an incredible job you’ve done.’ He said, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he broke into a wide grin. ‘I couldn’t be more proud of you.’
Abella squinted through the steam leaking from the nearby boilers. It was hot down here. The air was heavy and humid, hanging over them like a blanket and wetly plastering her hair to the back of her neck. She continued to grope on the table for a wrench.
‘Do I know you?’ she asked the stranger, who bared his teeth in a performative grin.
‘I suppose I can’t expect you to remember me—you were so very small when your mother took you away. But I remember you, dear daughter. And I’ve spent a long time looking for you. I’m glad to see it was worth it!’
Abella stopped her blind search behind her back and frowned at the man before her. A spike of emotion thrilled through her like a current, and she heard a clank to her left as Brün began to descend from the walkway where she had come. She turned her head in that direction and stopped cold as her eyes swept across a familiar face hidden amongst the crowd.
Sarah was standing there, as emotionless and still as the others.
Abella cried a wordless, emotional keen and leapt forward, pushing the unresponsive survivors out of her way in her visceral need to reach her missing lover. She felt like she was swimming through the steam of the boiler room, the air getting thicker and heavier the closer she got to Sarah, her Sarah. She was dreaming, fighting to run as her legs turned to lead.
The man’s voice cut through the thick air like a scythe. Abella tasted the strange tang in her mouth and blinked, confused. She was standing amidst a group of strangers. Wasn’t she going somewhere? She twisted her head and her face scrunched together as she struggled to remember.
‘That’s better,’ a pleasant voice came from behind her. ‘Now, turn around so I can get a proper look at you.’
Abella found herself pivoting to face the stranger. Her body felt heavy. The gaudy old gentleman stepped forward and paced around her, putting her uncomfortably in mind of the time she’d been dropped off to her first employer at the textile factory.
‘A little underfed, but that’s not really going to be a problem anymore now, is it? Yes, I think you’ll do perfectly. And the scent of you! Oh yes, perfect indeed.’
Abella shook her head, trying to dispel the fog crowding around her thoughts. ‘What is this?’ she asked. ‘What’s going on?’
‘So inquisitive! I’d almost forgotten what it was like to hold a proper conversation.’ He stopped in front of her, beaming from ear to ear. ‘We’re going to have so much time to get to know one another properly, don’t you worry about that.’ He held a clenched fist to his lips and bit his knuckle with barely contained excitement. ‘Oh, you’re wonderful!’
‘Stop saying that!’ Abella shouted. It was too much. The horror of the day, the physical effort of bringing the pumping station back to life, and now this ridiculous goblin of a man preening in front of her. Her shoulder ached, and her chest burned with rage and terror, and as she shouted she felt the pressure around her mind ease. She worked her tongue around her mouth. The tang was gone.
The stranger’s eyes glistened with surprise, but his grin only widened. He stepped back, and Abella felt a sudden claustrophobia as the crowd around them pressed closer. Abella also stepped back, pulling her rooted feet from the ground. She thumped into something solid, and felt one of Brün’s strong arms wrap around her. He gently shifted her to the side and sidled forward, placing himself protectively between Abella and the stranger.
‘Now now,’ he cautioned. ‘Let’s not go bringing our drones into this. We’re simply having a nice, civil conversation between a father and his long-lost daughter. Besides,’ he added with considerable more menace, ‘I’ve brought far more with me than you have. Even some… special ones, unless your little outburst has me very much mistaken?’ He arched an eyebrow and Sarah lurched out of the crowd to stand beside him.
Abella’s mouth felt dry even amidst the choking humidity of the factory floor. Somewhere nearby, she heard a ping and a hiss as the pressure of the pipes continued to increase unmonitored. ‘What have you done to her?’ she asked. The stranger held his arms in front of himself in mock protest.
‘My dear daughter, I did nothing more than save her for you! Why, when I found her, she was walking aimlessly around the streets like these other simple drones. Off on their own little fallacies with no master to serve—ah, but I could tell she was different! I could smell the scent of you all over her, the moment she stepped out of those godforsaken stinking slums. So distinct, so similar to my own that I knew I was finally in the right place.’ He slinked to Sarah’s side, running a hand over her possessively and tugging his fingers through her hair. ‘She’s almost as lovely as that lass who gave me this wonderful crown.’
‘Stop it! Get away from her!’ Abella shouted with another surge of emotion. The stranger’s hand stuttered, and he stared at it in bald-faced wonder. He blinked and shook his head, as if dispelling an unpleasant thought.
‘Remarkable,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Utterly remarkable. So young, and yet…’ He turned his gaze back to Abella with renewed avarice. ‘We are going to rule this colony, you and I.’
Beside him, Abella thought she saw a glimmer of something familiar return to Sarah’s lifeless eyes. Was it the humidity of the room, or were those tears she saw on the woman’s cheeks?
‘I told you to get away from her.’ Abella said, mustering all the strength she could to take a step forward. It was still like walking through treacle. The stranger held his hands before himself again, this time in mock surrender and took an exaggerated step sideways.
‘Better?’ He asked. Abella ignored the question.
‘What is this? What’s going on?’ she asked again. This time, the stranger appeared to be considering the question. He chewed the inside of his lip for a moment before lifting his cane and rolling it between his hands while he answered.
‘My own father was a man of such small ambition; such limited vision. He was happy to playact as lord over his own little fiefdom out in the middle of the countryside, far away from anyone new. He just sat there, mouldering on his paltry throne while our drones dropped off at alarming rates, our colony barely sustained by the handful of travellers we could turn.’ He began to pace in a circle, sweeping his arm in the general direction of the crowd around them. ‘It’s so much easier when you’ve established yourself for a few generations, you know; especially out where they all tend to breed close to one another. If you find a good place where only few of them are allergic, chances are that sort of blood runs nice and strong in the villages nearby. But that was before all this happened.’ He kicked at one of the pipes nearby, sending a ringing shock up the pressurised metal. Abella’s heart stuttered in her chest as she heard the copper singing dangerously close to bursting point. The madman claiming to be her father didn’t seem to notice.
‘Cities. Industry.’ He spat the word like it was venomous. ‘People leaving the villages and being sucked up by these sprawling hell holes. No youth left to wander into our domain. Drones wearing out all around us, unable to be replaced, and my father laughing while he feasted and fucked the shrivelled up old hags that remained.’ He shook his head.
‘When I grew strong enough to take over, there was naturally a short period of… confusion as I assumed control of his drones and our village. Your mother—who I’d taken special care to keep as far from his influence as possible, saw an opportunity while I was consolidating my reach and absconded from the home I’d made for her. She took you with her.’ His lips curled into a sneer. ‘Once she got far enough from me that the importance I’d imprinted on her to protect you faded, she dumped you the first chance she got. By the time I caught up with her, she’d no idea where you’d ended up.’
Abella frowned, struggling to follow the track of the man’s monologue and what it had to do with the question she’d asked. One part was clear, however. She’d always assumed she’d been blackbirded from somewhere before she was dropped off at the textile mill—she’d never considered that her own mother had given her up. If that is what had happened. The stranger continued to ramble on, railing over his trials as he searched up and down the various colonial ports looking for Abella and a suitable place to set up a new hive together. Somewhere not so disconnected from the world and doomed to stagnation. Somewhere vibrant, with a surfeit of drones. A city of his own. Throughout it all, Abella tried to make sense of what he was saying—the old man spoke as though he was appealing to some shared knowledge between them, but as far as Abella could fathom he was speaking utter nonsense.
‘You mean to say,’ she spoke up, cutting him off in mid-ramble, ‘that the miasma—the bad air that’s been rolling through the city for weeks—that’s something that you’re doing?’
He stopped his pacing, and dropped his hands to his side. ‘No? Well, partly I suppose, but you know what it’s like.’
‘I don’t know!’ Abella shouted in frustration. ‘Nobody knew! People have been dying all over the city and you didn’t think to tell anyone about it?!’
He looked at her, his face crinkling into genuine puzzlement. ‘They’re drones,’ he said as if that answered everything.
He shrugged. Abella ground her teeth to stop herself from screaming.
‘You swooped into this city like a plague, killing or kidnapping everyone important to me and you have the gall, the absolute mad delusion to come here and talk about it like it was nothing.’
‘Killing them? Weren’t you listening to a single thing I just said? I’ve been here for months now, trying to follow the wafts you were leaving behind—besides being a waste of good drones, if I just started killing everywhere I went somebody would be bound to notice. It’s not the middle ages anymore, we can’t just go around wiping out entire communities because we feel like it. Collect enough bodies in the one place you’re bound to get a couple who’re immune, and the last thing you want is them finding one another and coming after you like the old days’ He shook his head. ‘Please. I’d not have lasted the past twenty years combing through the colonies if I couldn’t tell when to exert myself and when to draw back. I’m not the one who’s been swamping the streets with my scent, regardless of whether the drones there will be suitably receptive.’
‘Then who has?’ Abella challenged. He blinked at her like she was an idiot.
‘Who else? You, of course.’
The oppressive heat of the room seemed to settle over Abella, weighing her down like a heavy woolen blanket. She sank to one knee as her head spun, and Brün—along with several other people standing closest to her, leapt forward to steady her.
‘No. No, I woke up and the entire city was like this. There’s no way I could have—’
The stranger shrugged. ‘Been feeling tired lately? It’s harder to control when you’re not looking after yourself: a healthy hive has a healthy ruler.’ He repositioned his diadem, which had slipped down his steam-slicked hair and looked around the room, as if only noticing it for the first time. ‘Hard to smell anything in here, I reckon. These pipes go all over the city, do they?’
Abella thought back to sticky pump fifteen. To crawling half inside the tube to work the mechanism free. ‘I couldn’t have. Maurice and Molly… Little Knoll isn’t even connected to the—’ She broke off as she realised. No, it wasn’t connected to the sewerage system. But it was a low-lying area of the city, where bad air would pool. So they’d always slept with the window shut, to stop the miasma from getting in. But it had been open last night, and she’d walked and run through those streets without issue. Without noticing the tang that seemed to hang around this stranger.
A fox don’t smell its own rut.
‘I couldn’t have,’ she said, weaker now.
The stranger rubbed a hand over his face and pulled it away wet. He looked at the glistening patina of sweat and steam with disdain.
‘My goodness, this is exhausting. Why don’t we continue this conversation somewhere a little less… moist.’ he said.
‘I can’t… I…’
‘Now, please.’ he said in a tone that brooked no disagreement. The drones surrounding him, including Sarah, straightened to attention. But the crowd nearest to Abella continued to fuss over her gently, ignoring his command. He hissed through his nose as he drew in a furious breath. ‘I said: We. Are. Leaving.’
‘Insolent child!’ The stranger shouted, clenching his fists around his cane. Abella watched in genuine amazement as the old man actually stamped his foot in infantile rage. ‘You will do as I say!’
She glared back at him in response, and the crowd around her straightened menacingly.
‘Even if I wanted to go anywhere with you, I’m not leaving here until I fix the—’
With a subsonic whump that was felt before it was heard, the tertiary pump at the other side of the room burst. Dull-pointed rivets and twisted chunks of iron and copper shrapnel ripped through the crowd, with the unlucky individuals closest to the pump absorbing the bulk of the pressurised explosion before it reached Abella and her father. The shockwave of the explosion in the brick-walled space was still enough to knock Abella to the ground and set her ears ringing far worse than she’d felt them in the street. She rolled, patting her hands over herself to check for bleeding or broken bones, and she felt her fingers close around something hard. She reached into her front pocket and pulled out the small silver match tin that Molly had pressed into her hands as she’d died. Her hand shook as it gripped the case with tightening grief. Regardless who’d been responsible for the miasma in Little Knoll, she had a duty to fulfil.
Before she’d completed her newly-resolute thought, Brün had lifted her back to her feet and she was running towards the main boiler in the centre of the room, slipping Molly’s match case back into her front pocket. Her cotton-wool ears couldn’t hear the stress of the metal pinging, but she could feel the air around the pressurised container thrumming with explosive potential. Working by instinct and long familiarity, she and her silent foreman began to turn the wheels and valves necessary for bleeding off the pressure, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt a familiar squeeze on her right shoulder. She turned to look at Sarah, who gave her a tight smile and immediately took position by the pump. Her eyes, when they’d locked, had been blessedly clear but she, of all the people Abella’s father had brought with him, could see the danger they were in. Their reunion would have to wait.
With no time to lose, Abella forced her attention back to the gauges before her. The pressure was coming under control, but in the time she’d wasted listening to the old man’s rant, she’d missed the opportunity to use the central pump to redirect the flow of the sewage where she needed it to go. Now that they were bleeding that pressure off instead of using it to direct the system, she’d have to find another way to vent the gas. Luckily, there was one—it just wasn’t horribly pleasant. She stepped over to one of the central release valves, preparing to divert the accumulating gas into one of the large smokestacks that towered over the building. As she did so, her wounded hearing caught the sound of an irate voice rising above the rushing underwater sounds swamping her senses.
Her hand froze in place, still reaching for the wrench she needed to loosen the valve. Her mouth filled with the now-familiar unpleasant tang of her father’s influence.
‘Good. Great. Now, look at me.’
Abella’s head turned in the direction of the voice, even though every muscle of her body screamed in protest. She noticed from the corner of her eye that every other head in the room had turned in the same direction.
Her father was standing near the pipes leading from the main sewer line, supporting himself heavily on his cane. He panted as he looked about the room with wild eyes, all manner of poise and control he’d exuded when he’d first walked in completely gone. His ridiculous diadem had been lost somewhere along the way.
‘You are… Wow. You. You’re something else,’ he rasped, lapsing into a hoarse chuckle. ‘Tied me up talking while your little bomb wound up, eh? Clever… clever brat. Almost as cunning as my otherwise damned useless sister.’ He reached into a pocket of his now grease-soiled coat and drew out a handkerchief. He dabbed at his forehead and wiped around his beard, spitting out something unpleasant that had landed on his lips. ‘You really had me there, you know, playing the fool about your influence, like you didn’t understand. Like you hadn’t hidden among the reek of those slums just so I couldn’t find you. Almost got me doubting what I’d seen in your little darling there; how deeply she stank of you. Do you have any idea how long it took me to break her? And I still couldn’t get her to lead me to you in the end—if you hadn’t decided to start billowing out everywhere who knows how long it might have taken me to find you, even with her by my side. Between that raw power and my experience, there’s not going to be a drone entering this city that we can’t own.’ He snapped his trembling fingers in Abella’s direction, though it took several attempts before they made a clicking noise. Sarah walked over from beside her, to stand next to the old man and help steady him as he rose to his full, unimpressive height.
‘This is what’s going to happen,’ he said, putting the handkerchief away. ‘You’re going to follow me out of here and we’re picking out a nice place where we can stay until you learn how to properly respect your father. Then, we can think about where we can install you to make the most of our coverage across the city. A few visits a week should be enough to keep you in line. Long enough to work on breeding a proper heir I can bring up right, anyway, like you should have been from the start.’ He prodded Sarah rudely in the belly. ‘These drones are all right for a bit of fun, but it takes so very long to find one capable of popping out something useful. As father used to say, blood is always better; just think what a child born from both our power would be like!’
A mixture of revulsion and grief lanced through Abella’s heart, but it wasn’t her that moved in response to the old man’s threat. Beside him, Sarah’s face twisted with tense determination as she stepped away, forcing herself to move with a strained, wordless cry. Abella’s father, who’d been leaning on her for support as much as he’d been using his cane, toppled forward in surprised confusion. The break in his concentration was apparently enough to stifle whatever effect he was having on the room, and Abella found that she could move again. Her hand closed on the wrench in front of her, just as Sarah found her voice again.
‘She doesn’t belong to you!’ Abella heard Sarah scream as she kicked the old man squirming by her feet. ‘And I don’t belong to her. She is mine! You can’t have her!’
Abella hefted the wrench and stepped forward, intending to end the confrontation once and for all. Her father, lying prone on the floor and jerking under the fury of Sarah’s boots, nevertheless managed to scrabble at the brass end of his cane and twist it, pulling out a blade half it’s length and thrusting it upwards. It buried deep into Sarah’s midsection with a sickening gristle sound.
Abella stopped cold, ice racing through her veins as though she herself had been stabbed. Sarah stumbled backwards, falling against one of the sewage pipe valves and clutching at the blossoming redness spreading across the front of her coveralls.
‘Get her!’ The man on the ground commanded, and Abella felt herself jostled by a dozen hands as the remaining drones under her father’s control leapt to fulfil their master’s wishes. Focused solely on the horror in front of her, Abella distantly noticed that even Brün had shucked whatever influence she’d had over him, and was now gripping her as solidly as the others. She didn’t care. All she could see was Sarah.
The dying woman locked eyes with her. She mouthed something Abella couldn’t hear nor see through her tears and the steam-laden air. Sarah heaved herself sideways, using the last of her strength to loosen the valve she’d fallen against. It turned, rotating downwards and sending her sprawling to the ground, where she lay without moving. Abella wailed and thrashed against the iron grips restraining her but she was lifted off the ground, left to flail her legs uselessly in empty space.
‘That’s quite enough,’ her father said, heaving himself to a tottering stand and hobbling between Abella and her fallen lover. He picked at his ruined clothes in a futile attempt to preen them into something respectable.
‘I can’t say this went how I imagined our reunion going, but fine. It’s done now. You wanted her? Then congratulations, she died as one of yours, just like everyone else you killed today. Now we’re getting out of here.’ he paused and sniffed the air, then coughed in a half-retch and reached for his handkerchief again. ‘By God, it smells worse than ever.’
Amidst her grief, Abella had to admit he was right—a blast of foulness was rapidly filling the room. She looked over her father’s diminutive shoulder and visually traced back the path of the valve Sarah had opened with her dying strength. She’d diverted the volatile, stinking gases accumulating in the pipes to vent directly into the room instead of through the smokestacks above. And suddenly, Abella knew what she’d been trying to say.
She narrowed her eyes and returned her gaze to her estranged father. ‘You just don’t get it, do you? She wasn’t just some mindless drone to me, or you, or anybody. She was herself. Always was. And she died doing her job.’
The old man scoffed. ‘What? Protecting you?’
‘No,’ Abella said, snaking one of her restrained hands into the front pocket of her coveralls and drawing a match from Molly’s precious silver tin. ‘Protecting the city. From bad air.’
She struck the match with a work-hardened fingernail, and the world around them disappeared in fire.
* * *
‘Hell of a thing,’ the constable said, whuffling a tired sigh through his moustache and casting an eye over the ruins of the pumping station.
‘Aye,’ the workman said, leaning on his shovel. ‘Still, it’s fer the best though, innit? No good puttin’ these sorts o’things in the city herself; ye’ve gotta get them out where their stink can’t go leakin’ and gettin’ people all loopy.’
Both men nodded sagely as they watched the gaggle of coveralled workmen in the crater below them picking through the rubble, stacking any bricks and singed beams which could still be reused. The constable pulled his pocket watch from the crisp corners of his somewhat over-stressed front vest pocket.
‘Day’s getting on. You’ll want to be calling your men in afore the lamplighters get here, I reckon.’ The other man laughed as he watched the sun sinking beyond the roofs beyond the burned-out factory.
‘Why, Gerry, don’ tell me ye’re payin’ mind to them’s talkin’ about th’ ghost, all burned up an’ horrible what comes out at night, clawin’ through th’ rubble an’ calling some lassie’s name?’
The constable shuffled his feet and adjusted his hat, staring resolutely towards the sunset. ‘I’m just saying people have gone missing around here over the past week, is all. Got to expect some undesirable elements creeping back into the city after something like this. Plenty of empty houses which weren’t sealed up properly, left for crooks to hole up in or burgle. And there’s more than one captain down at what’s left of the piers who’d pay a handsome sum to blackbird a strong, fit worker or two.’
‘Aye, but tha’s why these fella’s’ve got them a boss wit’ mates in high places, innit?’ The worker laughed, bumping shoulders against the constable. The policeman chuckled along, despite himself, then stopped as the last rays of light disappeared behind the burned-out city’s skyline. He worked his tongue around his teeth, tasting a strange sourness there he hadn’t noticed before.
‘I say,’ he said, turning to his cousin, whose laughter had also drifted off. In fact, it was eerily silent, and the constable realised the sound of bricks clacking together had stopped some time ago, without his noticing. ‘Do you smell something?’
Thanks for reading! If you want to stay away from bad air, you can lock yourself in your house, shut your windows, and settle in with the 2019 Terry Talks Fiction anthology, Tales of Sorcery and Silicone, available on Amazon or to read free through Kindle Unlimited.