By Mark Bilsborough
Jason turned the corner and the city laid itself before him, lolling gracelessly down the hillside and into the valley below. At first glance it seemed the same as when he’d left, thirty years before. But as they moved closer, he realized there was something different. It felt quieter than he remembered, but that wasn’t it. And then it hit him. The city’s soul had gone.
“We walked three days for this?” said Hender.
Jason glanced over at his travelling companion. “Don’t be negative.”
Hender just grunted in response. Jason didn’t really care what he thought. He wished he’d stayed behind at the Refuge but no, his friend scented a great adventure, free from the constraining walls of their slowly disintegrating home. Almost as soon as they waved goodbye, though, he started moaning. Jason stopped listening.
By nightfall, they reached the heart of the city, after hours of passing through clean well-kept streets, immaculately serviced by maintenance robots. From time to time, they saw lights shining behind drawn curtains, high in the upper stories of old brick tenement blocks and newer chrome and steel apartments. They’d passed through the vastness of the city all day but hadn’t seen any people.
They reached a restaurant called Lucy’s with light spilling out onto the street. It represented the first real signs of life they’d seen, and strongly appealed to Jason’s growing hunger. The place was half full, but any noise there stopped as soon as the two of them entered. The barman nodded as they walked over to a circular bar in the middle of the room, and conversation resumed.
“Not seen you here before,” said the barman.
“We’re from out of town,” said Jason.
“Way out of town,” said Hender.
Jason nodded, and the barman led them to a table. They ate everything laid in front of them, then they ordered more.
The other diners were mostly middle aged or old, all except a young couple in a table in the dark part of the room, right at the back. They didn’t look tired, they looked exhausted.
A woman entered, dressed in a long red cloak. As she walked over she let the hood fall, revealing long curly auburn hair. She glanced at Jason, then sat in the vacant seat between Jason and Hender.
“Mind if I sit here?” Before Jason could answer, she called across to the barman, who brought over a bottle of Merlot and three glasses.
“We don’t…” Jason started.
She silenced him with a hand on his wrist. “Go on. Live a little.” She poured and sat back, sniffing appreciatively. “Most of the vineyards have closed down now, you know. On account of the dwindling numbers of connoisseur drinkers.”
“We don’t drink,” said Hender, wine dripping from the edge of his mouth. “Usually.”
“You must think us uncouth. I’m Jason. This is Hender.”
“Lucy.” She smiled. “Yes, this place is mine. And I think you’re charmingly different.”
She eased back her red cloak to reveal an expensive dress with pearls round her neck, and the distinctive flash of gold in her ears.
“You’ve dressed up. Were you expecting someone?”
She waved dismissively. “My little idiosyncrasy. It’s Saturday night. You’re supposed to dress up on Saturday night, right?”
“Where is everybody?” said Jason. The lighting had edged down a notch, and Hender had disappeared somewhere. Another bottle appeared on the table. ”Last time I came to this city it was heaving. People everywhere.”
“They’re still here, mostly. But like everywhere else you, well, you know.”
“Pretend I don’t know.”
“Where did you say you were from?”
Jason waved vaguely out of the window towards the East. “A community in the hills. We’ve been kind of cut off.”
“No V worlds?”
“Just farming and prayers.”
She laughed. “Should have guessed from the funny clothes. And the fact that you’re here at all. So what brings you to the big city?”
Jason gave her the brief version. About the Community and how it had been set up, years before, as a back-to-basics antidote to the bored listlessness of the robot-serviced paradise that the Elders had seen coming. He skipped over the bit about how the Refuge had reached capacity and the elders had placed prohibitions on childbirth. About the hunger, the deprivation, and the pointless rules and discipline. About the stupidity of thinking you could cut yourself off from the world and somehow it would be all right.
“It’s a little world up there, and times are tough. One day I woke up and I said to myself, ‘ice cream. I want ice cream.’ So here I am.”
“Then ice cream we shall have.” She laughed. “We do an excellent Rocky Road in here.”
The ice cream was even better than he remembered. “So,” he said as he licked his spoon. “The tanks. Tell me about them.” He was vaguely aware that Hender should have been back by now, but the wine blurred his thinking and the food made him slow.
“Boring. Let’s talk some more about farming. You people still grow your own food? Yourselves?”
He could see Hender now, at the table in the back of the room, talking to the young couple. Jason looked more closely at them. They were disheveled, with lank, long hair tied roughly in ponytails. Despite the gloom and the sympathetic candle glow, Jason could see that they were pale, as if denied the sunlight which still peered occasionally through the rain-sodden clouds. “Who are they?”
“Izos. Making a rare excursion back into the real world. Don’t see many of them these days.”
“Immersion Zombies.” She shook her head in irritation. “Damn. You’ve got me talking about the tanks after all.”
“Does that explain why there are no people around here?”
But instead of replying she sat up, pulled her shawl around her shoulders, and made her way slowly to the door. Then with a smile, she nodded gently to Jason and left the restaurant, leaving behind a waft of perfume and the icy blast of the late evening chill.
Hender returned just as Jason finished the bottle. “I’ve got us a bed for the night.” He gestured over to the exhausted couple. “Close, too.”
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