espair billowed through the sky in the guise of clouds. Formless, the shroud of charcoal mist devoured life and hope, leaving the city below to wallow in its own tragedy. Rain, four days of it this week, saturated the ground with rivulets of muck and poison. As black as the mud, the rounded girth of an aging monolith of plastisteel and broken glass glimmered wherever moonlight caught it. Old wires drifted from its side, like the probing tentacles of some great beast searching the air, connected only to the frigid wind lofting them about.
Coventry Tower clawed at the heavens, reminiscent of 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.
It was barren here. So empty even advert bots did not bother with the place.
Annabelle squinted up into the droplets, a mournful stare sent at evil shapes drawn 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, they grinned and wrung themselves out to bring more rain out of spite. Whorls of grey churned about in the devils dance, and took on ever more terrifying forms as the faces called her by name.
She glanced down at her old boots while navigating puddles dotting the blackened muck. The hiss of the downpour overpowered her squishing steps and let her approach a group of four men, three crowded around one, without notice.
The three were clad in black; a red smear on each of their arms approximated a capital ‘E,’ the mark of the East End Boys. At their center, the tallest loomed over the fourth. A wiry figure 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 as the wind reached under her ragged half shirt. Loose, 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 swirling about. She stared at the men, her trembling fingers tugged at the hem in an attempt to pull it down a little further over her rain-soaked thighs. She had helped herself to Spawny’s jacket, hoping he wouldn’t notice while passed out. Water beaded and rolled off the coated synthetic denim that held his fragrance as well as Penny’s perfume. Either was an improvement over the stink of the dusty chemical rot lurking in The Ruin.
Again to the sky she looked, while the men argued in dire whispers. The demons and creatures had faded into steely clouds, wafting in the wind. She rubbed her face with one hand, as a tremor started in her arm. The zoomer was wearing off. Anna tuned out the conversation in front of her, and pulled her sleeve down to expose her left wrist. She tugged at a skin-colored patch of rubberized plastic. The spent derm came free from her arm, leaving a one-inch square mark with rounded corners.
She winced at the touch of her thumb rubbing cold rainwater over the red burn at the center. Too many times hitting the same spot had let the chemical eat into her skin. Drawing her arm against her chest, she suppressed a whimper. Anna tried not to think about the drugs so close to being out of her system, or about cold water matting her short white hair to the sides of her head, or the miserable wreck of a life she led.
A gurgling wheeze startled her into looking up. The tallest of the Boys had a hand around the neck of the little man, lifting him into the air with a metal fist. Knux was the first of the East End Boys to get a whole arm replaced, and few dared ask where he got the money for it. Rain flowed around the dark plastisteel limb. Anna stared transfixed; for an instant, something inside it called to her.
The ever-present shadow of a beard twisted as Knux frowned. “Oi Mate, what do you think this is, a charity?”
The man gurgled, his attempt to speak failing. His legs kicked as Knux lifted him higher, and he flailed. Annabelle looked down, thankful it wasn’t her getting the treatment. The chirp of a firing circuit added fear to the cold. Between the sound and an icy trickle down her back, she could no longer resist shivering. Knux stuffed a boxy grey pistol into the face of his would-be customer. Rain beaded on the plastisteel frame, running over the glowing LED ammo counter and onto his still-flesh left hand.
“You’re into it for almost a grand now, bucko. The tap’s cut off till ya make a payment.”
Knux’s cybernetic fingers snapped open, releasing his grip at the same instant his other hand smashed the pistol sidelong across the man’s face. The impact sent the junkie to the ground with a wet splat, where he sprawled on his hands and knees in black mud. Straw-brown hair hung past the hood of the poncho, blotches of red appeared in the puddle below his face as blood fell, drop by drop, from his nose.
The man sat back and rubbed his neck, coughing. “I s-s-swear I’ll g-g-get it, really I swear. Is bad man… I just need―”
The Boy to Knux’s right kicked the man in the face, flipping him over backwards into a puddle large enough to count as a tiny lake. “Cut off means cut off. When ya got at least half the dosh, we kin deal.”
Poncho wailed in protest as 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 would kill him to make an example of not paying; in this case, quite likely the police would do it when the man did something foolish in his haste to get money.
Knux spun on Annabelle, startled by her quiet approach. She cowered, staring at the ground where water pooled around her boots up to the shin. Looking down felt like staring up; shifting leaden clouds rolled across the surface, swirling. 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. “Well hey there, 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, 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, it would have been them cowering from her. The thought of it sent a tingle crawling up her spine. They 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 through her mind as the image of a well-dressed man smiled at her. 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 Zoomer, ya poor dearie, what’ll ya eat?”
Quaking, she kept her gaze on ripples spawned from the walls of her boots. “I can beg for food… I can’t beg for zoom.”
She fumbled through a battered handbag, rifling around trash and empty wrappers until she found a three-inch plastic fob: the credstick. The man on the right tugged her shirt up to expose her breasts, and the air washed over her, crisp and cool, speckled with freezing dots of rain. The part of her that used to blush had broken years ago.
“Well then, this lil’ scrubber’s got quite the pair.” Knux helped himself to a feel with his living hand. “Size o’ peaches.”
The man to her left shook his head. “Gotta be fake. Too round.”
Knux smirked, patting the underside of her right boob, making it bounce. “Now where’d a slag like this git the creds fer ‘at? They feels awrite.”
“Yeah, Spid. This one blows her whole allowance on candy, ain’t gonna afford any work.”
“Tim’s got a point there, mate.” Knux’s throaty chuckle became a phlegmatic projectile, which vanished into a nearby puddle.
She stared at the ground. Numb, she ignored the grimy paws 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 urgent lack of drugs in her blood added to the nausea of what they suggested. She was not so desperate she’d shag three men in the middle of The Ruin where anyone could see. The shudders could not hide the presence of the thing in the back of her mind. With the drugs so thin, it swam to the surface. Coarse hands teased at her exposure, circling her nipples; she looked to the right and bit her lip, shoving her right arm behind her back so they couldn’t see the tiny, warm spark crawling through 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 as he licked at her ear. Scared, she pushed 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.
“Oi, what the hell.” Tim let her go, rushing to his friend’s side.
Annabelle scurried to the right a few paces, almost falling from her effort not to allow the thick mud to pull her boots off. 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. Kin pay me the balance nex’ time.”
With that, he retreated to tend to his misbehaving arm and screaming friend. Anna trudged away, stepping with urgency between areas of old paving that peeked through the mud on her way back to the tower. She peeled one of the dermal 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 drawn down to the abyss through a rent in the Earth.
She squatted, unable to walk through the woozy onrush of the chem coursing through her veins. Once more, faces swelled out of the clouds and laughed at her. Raindrops screamed as they fell past, the sound of millions of tiny men falling to their deaths. Blue sparks arced between her bare legs, snapping at the water for an instant before vanishing. She curled tighter into herself as the taste of ozone filled the air and the sound of the wind mutated into a howling roar. Rain fell on her in a hail of ice needles.
Springing to her feet, she ran ahead, slipping and falling several times in her haste to avoid the sharp things streaking out of the sky. A goblin darted out from behind an overturned car; yellow eyes filled with greed gleamed out of the darkness. She drew up short, and took a step back, ready to scream. Its clawed hand raked at the air as it edged 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 no older than ten stared up at her. His look of hope fell to one of resignation. She was every bit as poor as he. The boy gave her a sad look before he ran off to the tower.
To Annabelle, the building beckoned, despite the lime green fire raging through the closed windows. The weather fell on it like gasoline, turning the ebon spire into a torch shining a sickly glow over 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, they were wild and terrifying. Now, for the most part, she could recognize them for what they were―illusions. The loss of reality used to last much longer. Tolerance let her will away the sights after a short time.
Annabelle clutched her head, chanting, “It’s all in my head,” over and over for several minutes. Wild, nightmarish changes in The Ruin lessened. She remained motionless in the rain for a time with her eyes clamped shut. The Zoom filtered through 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 hard, she was in control. The reassuring fog in her head remained, forming a gate the Devil could not breach. She wobbled to her feet and slogged through mud toward the monolith of gloom.
Coventry Tower sat at 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 it was so close to the refuse that collected here.
Created long before her birth, The Ruin existed as a tangled mess of collapsed buildings, old cars, and crashed military craft. This place adopted those whom society no longer wanted, a refuge for people with nowhere else to go.
It was her home.