Welcome to my serial science-fiction/fantasy adventure, The Only City Left. This is the story of Allin Arcady and his adventures through a dying, planet-sized city called Earth.
If you are new to The Only City Left and want a quick catch-up, you can read a synopsis of Parts 1-30 and then start at Part 31. You can reach an individual part of the story by browsing the Table of Contents.
At the end of Part 33, Allin and Tumble had exited the maze of traps surrounding Pudlington and were on their way, hopefully, to the Roof of the World, the surface of the city-planet Earth.
The Only City Left: Part 34
“How far down do you think we are from the surface?” I asked.
We had been walking for half a day already, and while intellectually I knew that this was a tiny portion of the journey ahead of us, I felt an excitement in the pit of my stomach. I’m on the right path again.
“I couldn’t tell you, Allin,” Tumble replied from beneath the brim of his wide, conical leaf hat. He had produced that hat and a black and red poncho from his backpack earlier and donned them both without explanation. “I have a general sense of the route we need to take from having studied schematics for this part of the city. But those are centuries old, so forgive me if we seem to be moving in a roundabout manner. I’ll do my best.”
“Of course, of course, I understand,” I assured him. “Can’t do any worse than I have.”
The corridors we walked through showed the ravages of time. Broken, decayed ceiling panels littered our path and ages-old wiring hung down in clumps from the gaps above us. Occasionally, a light still flickered anemically, but for the most part I relied on my wristlight. Tumble walked farther ahead, taking point since he could see well enough in the dark. Because of our distance, and out of a healthy respect for whatever might be lurking around us, we spent most of the day in silence. I was used to traveling alone, but when Tumble called a halt for a meal break, I looked forward to the chance to talk to someone outside of my own head.
We picked a spot mostly free of debris, sat down with our backs against the wall, and pulled our food out of our packs. I had several nutri-bulbs, enough to tide me over for a few weeks, so I picked one out and dipped it in the remaining jelly. It actually made the usually tasteless bulbs more palatable, making me even sadder that most of it had leaked into my cocoon bag.
“You found the jelly I packed for you,” Tumble noted with a smile. “I hope you enjoy it.”
I bit my tongue and kept repeating He meant well he meant well he meant well to myself. Oblivious to the mess he had caused, Tumble gnawed on a hard roll and fish jerky. He offered me some, but I passed.
“So why the getup?” I asked to change the subject. Tumble had set his hat between us and I nudged it for emphasis.
Between bites, he explained that the existence of a city of cats was thought by many to be a legend, and the cats preferred to keep it that way.
“We were pets once, even food to some,” he said. “I’d rather our existence not become well known, lest whatever humans remain think of trying to return to those days.”
The thought of eating one of the humanoid cats turned my stomach. I scowled at him and asked, “Are you kidding me?”
His face was stern as he replied, “No.”
“That’s messed up.”
He nodded and then our conversation ebbed for a while. Illuminated by my wristlight, the corridor around us lay still in its senescence. It felt as if the whole universe consisted of the sphere of light that contained Tumble and me. It was hard to imagine the enormity of the city outside of our bubble universe, and if I thought about it too much I would want to curl up and not ever move on.
I tried to distract myself from those thoughts by eating, but Tumble’s talk of humans dining on the catfolk put me off my nutri-bulb. It seemed like no matter what amazing things humans could create—the city, genmod cats, whatever—we could find just as inventive and malicious ways to destroy them.
“What do you think happened?” I asked Tumble softly.
He didn’t need me to explain what I meant. Everyone who lives in the city must have the same question ever-present in their mind.
He nodded but didn’t answer immediately. While I waited, I snapped open a tiny compartment beneath the dome of my wristlight and slid some crumbs of nutri-bulb inside, food for the glowing algae. They must have been hungry because their glow increased considerably as they absorbed the nutrient-rich scraps. When I closed the compartment back up with a snap, Tumble was ready to talk.
He looked up and around, as if he could see through the ceiling, past the sagging wires and broken light fixtures.
“I have always thought that the humans created something they could not control,” he mused. “A virus, or a machine, or some other being, like myself, who by all rights should not exist.”
He wiggled the thin but very human-like fingers of one hand before his face, then made a fist and unsheathed his claws.
“Not that I don’t appreciate my existence,” he continued. “But it is easy to imagine that man’s hubris outpaced his caution. Yes, if you forced me to pick one, I would guess that mankind created its own destroyer.”
“But the city’s mostly empty now,” I said, not arguing, just teasing out the implications. “Or at least it feels like it. So where are they, these creatures that turned on their own creators?”
Tumble sheathed his claws and turned his hand palm up.
“Who knows? Maybe they killed each other off, or maybe I’m entirely wrong. It’s the great unknowable, isn’t it? Now I have a question for you.”
I nodded for him to go ahead.
“Say we reach the roof of the world and you see the sun. What then?”
It was my turn to sit and think. I had never considered it. Reaching the surface seemed like such an impossibility that all my focus was on getting there in the first place. I admitted as much to Tumble, and asked, “Why? Do you have a suggestion?”
I was sure he would suggest joining the fight against the werewolves, but to his credit he stayed away from that forbidden topic.
“No. Only that you consider it, lest you achieve your goal and then have nothing else to live for.”
“Do you think we can make it?” I wondered. “I’ve tried for three years and it seems like I’m no closer than when I started.”
“We can but try. If I’m not mistaken, I’m leading us to an elevator. Working or not, that should be a nice shortwait—” Tumble cut himself off and held out his hand for silence.
Whatever he sensed, I felt it, too. My neck hairs stood on end and a shiver shot down my back. We both stood up and Tumble settled his hat over his head again, tightening the chin strap with an economical yank of his hand.
“Get ready,” he warned me, one second before the ceiling caved in on either side of us.
Out of the fresh holes in the ceiling dropped several men. There were eight of them, similar in their gaunt frames, ragged clothing and dirt-streaked faces. Each carried a dagger or sword that looked as battered as the wielders. One of the men, distinctive in that the beak of his nose looked almost as sharp as the point of his sword, declared, “Give us all your supplies and we’ll kill you quick.”
I tensed, ready to fight, but I felt a gentle pressure on my calf and looked down to see Tumble pressing his hand against me.
“I’ve got this,” he whispered, and stepped forward, a diminutive, shrouded figure. To the men, he stated, “You don’t want to do this, I assure you.”
Beak-nose laughed and his men joined in. “I guess we’ll kill you slow, then.”
* * *
10/7/12 News: The Only City Left is now listed on the Web Fiction Guide, a wonderful place to find all sorts of online fiction. If you are so inclined, I would appreciate any ratings/reviews/recommends on that site to help get TOCL noticed. Thanks!
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Logo Credit:The TOCL logo is courtesy of Jande Rowe of the webcomic Aedre’s Firefly. If you haven’t already read AF, I encourage you to go check it out. Not only does Jande produce the comic, she reviews other long-form webcomics, gives tips and instructions on creating a comic, and is endlessly supportive of other creators. For a great review that will bring you up to speed on Aedre’s Firefly, check out this page at Webcomic Alliance.