Despair billowed across the sky in the guise of clouds. Formless, the shroud of charcoal mist devoured life and hope, leaving the city below to wallow in the tragedy of its own existence. Rain, four days this week, saturated the ground with rivulets of muck and poison. The rounded girth of an aging monolith of plastisteel and broken glass as black as the mud surrounding it glimmered wherever moonlight caught it. Old wires drifted from its side, reaching into the sky like the probing tentacles of some great beast searching for prey that would never come.
Coventry Tower clawed at the heavens, the raised finger of an enormous old crone. Its shadow spread ominous upon the field of debris over which it ruled. The old tower block apartment had been the only structure in the district to survive the airstrikes; fate itself had ordained it the home of the unwanted.
The barren land around it contained so little, even advert bots didn’t bother with the place.
Annabelle squinted up into the rain. Angry faces glared down at her, evil shapes drawn upon her mind by the drugs in her blood. Clouds had become a roiling fog circling the upper parts of the building, alive in the images of demons and imps. Their eyes flickered from the glow of hidden moonlight. The shadow creatures tore open their flesh, wringing it out to bring more rain out of spite. Whorls of grey churned about in a devils’ dance, the images shifting to ever more terrifying forms. Thundering voices called her by name.
She glanced down at her old boots while navigating the puddles dotting the blackened muck. The hiss of the downpour overpowered her squishing steps, allowing her to approach a group of four men, three crowded around one, without notice.
The three clad in black all wore a red smear on their sleeves approximating a capital ‘E,’ the mark of the East End Boys. The tallest loomed over the fourth man, a wiry figure who tried without success to avoid the rain with a poncho of dull beige plastic. The small man whined and pleaded, his effort to wheedle a bargain out of the Boys failing.
Annabelle shivered at a blast of wind reaching under her ragged half-shirt. The decrepit cloth flapped like a flag for the Manchester United Frictionless club. Her glossy indigo skirt of faux leather did little to stop the chill. Painfully aware she hadn’t owned a pair of smalls in at least a year, she stared at the men, tugging with trembling fingers at the hem in an attempt to pull the skirt down a little more over her rain-soaked thighs. She had helped herself to Spawny’s jacket, hoping her besties current boyfriend wouldn’t notice while passed out. Water beaded and rolled off the treated synthetic denim; it held his fragrance as well as Penny’s perfume. Either offered an improvement over the stink of the dusty chemical rot lurking in The Ruin.
She peered up at the sky while the men argued in dire whispers. The demons and creatures had faded once more to steely clouds wafting in the wind. She rubbed her face with one hand. A tremor started in her arm. The zoomer had worn off. Anna tuned out the conversation in front of her and pulled her jacket sleeve down to expose her left wrist and a tan patch of rubberized plastic. She picked a fingernail at the corner and tugged. In a moment, the spent derm came free, leaving a one-inch square red mark with rounded corners.
Anna winced as she rubbed cold rainwater over the chemical burn at the center with her thumb. She had been hitting the same spot too much, and the drug had eaten her skin. Drawing her arm against her chest, she shivered, trying not to think about how close to sober she’d let herself become. The demons of moments ago had been a flashback, not a high—a warning that withdrawal stalked her. She also tried to ignore the freezing trickles of water rolling over her head, matting her short white hair, or her miserable wreck of a life.
The gurgle of a breath startled her into looking up. Knux, the tallest of the Boys, lifted the little man into the air with a metal fist around his throat. He’d been the first of the East End Boys to have a whole arm replaced. Few dared ask where he got the money for it. She fixated on streams of water flowing around the dark plastisteel limb; for an instant, a feeling inside it called to her. Threads of electricity teased at her senses, appearing in tiny threads of amber light.
An ever-present shadow of a beard twisted as Knux frowned. “Oi Mate, what do you think this is, a charity?”
The man clawed at his throat, his attempt to speak emerging as wheezes and gasps. He kicked his legs back forth, emitting pleading moans. Annabelle looked down, thankful someone else got the business. The chirp of a firing circuit added fear to the cold, and she could no longer resist shivering. Knux stuffed his pistol into the face of his would-be customer. Rain beaded on the plastisteel frame, running over the glowing LEDs and onto his still-flesh left hand.
“You’re into it for almost a grand now, bucko. The tap’s cut off ’til ya make a payment.”
Knux smashed the pistol sidelong across the man’s face, simultaneously releasing his metal-fisted grip. The impact sent the man sprawling into the black mud on his hands and knees with a wet splat. Straw-brown hair hung from the hood of his poncho. Blotches of red appeared in the puddle below his face. Blood dripped from his nose.
The man sat back and rubbed his neck, coughing. “I’ll get it, really I swear. I just need—”
The East Ender to Knux’s right kicked the man in the face, flipping him over backward into a puddle large enough to count as a tiny lake. “Cut off means cut off. Bugger off ’til ya got at least half the dosh.”
Poncho wailed in protest as the two Boys hauled him to his feet and sent him off with a boot in the ass, howling with laughter at his frantic sprint. She knew they’d kill him to make an example of someone who owed too much. In this case, Old Bill would likely do it when the man did something foolish to get money.
Knux spun on Annabelle, startled by her quiet presence. She cowered, staring at the ground where water pooled around her boots up to the shin. The glassy puddle made looking down feel like staring into the sky. Shifting leaden clouds rolled across the surface, swirling into each other and expanding. The sight gave her vertigo, as though she could fall into the endless sky.
He grinned, baring metal fangs where his canine teeth used to be. “Oi, luv. Mus’ be in need if yer out in this parky mess.”
She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, trying to find some warmth. “Me last zoomer’s all clapped out. I’m in a bad way.”
The other two returned from taking out the trash, and the trio formed a half-ring around her as they had with the other man. Fear of what they could do with her added to the angst of her sobriety. In another life, they would have been cowering from her. The thought of it sent a tingle crawling up her spine. The Boys loomed, indelicate in their obvious gandering. The man on her right brushed a hand over her cheek, wiping the remains of mascara away. A thunderclap rolled across her mind, the image of a well-dressed man she used to work for smiled. What was his name…?
“Only got one left, but I’ll give it to ya on the cheap. Hundred creds.”
“Giro was light this fort.” Annabelle sighed. “I got sixty five.”
A hand on her ass, a voice in her ear from the left mimicked that of an old woman. “Your last sixty five on a zoomie, ya poor dearie, what’ll ya eat?”
Quaking, she kept her gaze on ripples spreading outward from the walls of her boots. “I can beg for food… I can’t beg for zoom.”
She fumbled in a battered handbag, rifling trash and empty wrappers until she found a three-inch plastic fob: a credstick. The man on the right tugged her shirt up to expose her breasts. Anna didn’t protest or move. Cold air washed over her, speckled with freezing dots of rain. The part of her capable of blushing had broken years ago.
“Well then, this li’l scrubber’s got quite the pair.” Knux helped himself to a feel. “Noice li’l peaches.”
The man to her left shook his head. “Gotta be fake. Too round.”
Knux smirked, squeezing one of her breasts with his human hand. “Now where’d a slag like this git the creds fer ’at? They feels natch-rul.”
“Yeah, Spid. This one blows her whole allowance on candy, ain’t gonna afford any work. ’Sides, them things is way small for jobbers.”
“Tim’s got a point there, mate.” Knux’s throaty chuckle turned into a phlegmatic projectile that vanished into a nearby puddle with a ploink.
She stared at the ground. Numb, she ignored the grimy fingers smudging her pale skin. “They’re real. Sixty-five and a show then? Will that do?”
“I’m thinkin’ ya keep your creds and do us a favor instead, lass.” The guy on the right winked.
Annabelle covered her mouth; the trembling lack of drugs in her blood added to the nausea of what they suggested. She hadn’t reached a point of desperation that she’d shag three men in the middle of The Ruin where anyone would see. Oncoming withdrawal couldn’t hide the presence of the thing in the back of her mind. With the drugs gone, it swam to the surface. The Boys continued pawing at her exposure. She looked to the right and bit her lip. At a sense of prickling warmth, she shoved her hand behind her back so they couldn’t see the tiny spark crawling over her fingers.
“I’ll get the rest of the creds in a couple o’ days. If it pleases you lot, I don’t fancy a feck in the mud.”
Tim pulled her by the hips against his body. Hot breath flushed around her neck and filled her nose with the fragrance of synthbeer. He licked at her ear. Anna’s heart raced, her throat tightened, and she found herself pushing at him to get away. The presence stirred in her mind, riding the wave of fear. Knux’s metal arm flew into a spasmodic fit of twitching while Spid grabbed his head and screamed. A faint wisp of silicon smoke drifted on his breath and rose from the M3 plug behind his ear. Small bits of cybernetics in the Boys flickered in and out of her awareness like ghostly fireflies.
“Oi, what the hell.” Tim let her go, rushing to his friend’s side.
Annabelle scurried off a few paces, almost falling from her effort not to walk right out of her boots in the thick mud. Gulping, she pulled her shirt down and tried to calm herself. “Must be bum ’ware, shortin’ out inna rain.”
Knux swiped the credstick from her and offered a thin sheet of white plastic with two flesh-toned derms. “Take ’em, ya look a mess.”
With that, he retreated to tend to his misbehaving arm and screaming friend. Anna trudged away, moving with urgency while trying to keep to areas where old paving peeked out from the mud on her way back to the tower. She peeled one of the derm patches from its backing and pressed it into the tender skin of her right forearm, two inches south of her wrist. Within seconds, the uncomfortable sharpness of sobriety faded away to the reassuring calm of a zoom high. The thing in the back of her mind roared, vanishing like a demon dragged down to the abyss.
She squatted, unable to walk due to the woozy onrush of the chem invading her veins. Once more, twisted faces in the clouds laughed at her. Raindrops screamed as they fell past, the sound of millions of tiny creatures falling to their deaths. Blue sparks arced from her bare legs, snapping at the water for an instant before vanishing. She tasted ozone in the air and curled tighter into herself. The howl of the wind mutated into a demonic roar and the rain came upon her like a hail of ice needles.
Anna sprang to her feet and ran, slipping and falling several times in her haste to avoid the sharp things dropping from the sky. A floppy-eared goblin darted out from behind an overturned car. Yellow eyes filled with greed gleamed out of the darkness. A tiny pair of tattered camouflage shorts covered its middle, the rest of its leathery skin bare. She drew up short, taking a step back, ready to scream. Its clawed hand raked at the air as it took a step closer.
Mottled green and brown gave way to grime-covered skin. The form changed, standing straighter. The claw became a hand upturned, begging. Glimmering greed melted away to curiosity. A young boy of about eight stared up at her. He realized she had no money or food, gave her a sad face, and ran off to the tower. She watched him until he disappeared among concrete slabs, and turned her gaze up to Coventry Tower.
The building felt inviting despite the lime green fire raging inside most of its windows. Seconds later, the rain ignited, falling on it like gasoline, turning the ebon spire into a torch illuminating the devastation around it.
She buried her face in her hands, struggling to rein in the hallucinations, the unpleasant side effect of her necessary evil. Years ago, the visions had been wild and terrifying. Now, for the most part, she recognized them for illusions… usually. A year ago, the visions lasted much longer. She developed a tolerance and could will away the sights after a short time.
Annabelle grabbed two fistfuls of her short hair, chanting, “It’s all in my head,” over and over for a moment. Wild, nightmarish changes in The Ruin lessened. She crouched there in the rain for a time with her eyes clamped shut. The Zoom gripped her brain, caging the writhing beast within. When she looked, the world had returned to bleak rainy normality with only a hint of faces above. As long as she concentrated, she would stay in control. The reassuring chemical fog formed a gate the tiny demon in her head couldn’t breach. She wobbled to her feet and slogged over the mud toward the monolith of gloom.
Coventry Tower jutted up from the center of The Ruin, an area once known as Tower Hamlets before the war bombed it to oblivion and back. From Bishopsgate in the west to Hackney Road in the north, the crushed and flattened remnants of buildings came to an approximate end by Grove and Burdett streets. Beyond that, abandonment left intact structures empty east to Gillender Street, but no Proper wanted to live in them, being too close to the refuse that collected here.
The Ruin had existed as a tangled mess of collapsed buildings, old cars, and crashed military craft for far longer than her short life. This place adopted those whom society no longer wanted, a refuge for people with nowhere else to go.
Annabelle called it home.