The blood-orange sun rode low on the horizon, a seething scar of vibrant color slashing the otherwise gray sky. A distant horn blared for the fourth time, and Jackson knew he’d pushed the limits as far as he could afford. Maybe further. Another night would soon be upon them. His eyes fluttered as he internally accessed the Almanac through his embedded connection, checking the exact time for the day’s sunset. 18:32 GST. Six more minutes. He scanned the abandoned streets around him, noted the long shadows pooling in the rusted alleyways. A faint wind swept by, with a hint of the approaching winter on its breath, rattling loose bits of scrap metal some long-forgotten street merchant had once used as a sign. Jackson fiddled absent-mindedly in his jacket pocket, fingering the entirety of his find for the day: a couple of biochem batteries, both leaking something viscous, a tangled nest of magnium wire, a live 18-kilojoule shell. Not a bad haul this close to the Vault.
He inhaled deeply, taking in the crisp autumn air with its crackle of ozone. Sharp, familiar; exhilarating when paired with the knowledge that if he dawdled another five minutes, he might find himself trapped outside for the night. He wondered whether or not Gev would ever really lock him out; the gatekeeper had certainly threatened to, often enough. Still, Jackson had never waited past three signals before. Gev might not be the only one angry back at the Vault tonight.
Jackson shut his eyes one last time, imagined himself standing alone, enshrouded by darkness; bold, defiantly alive. For a moment, it almost felt real. Then a chill overtook him, the sudden sense of someone in the alley behind, close, grasping.
He gasped and spun, slamming his back hard against the nearest corrugated steel wall, eyes sweeping the streets and alleys for any sign of movement. His heart pounded out the empty seconds, inability to move battling instinct to flee. But there was no one. Nothing to fear; no more than the day-to-day horror of living.
Unclenching his fists, Jackson felt for the first time the sting where he’d crushed the magnium wire through the top layer of his palm. Enough bravery for the day. He slid along the wall to the corner, then broke into a run. He twisted through the network of alleyways, spilled out onto a wide road beneath a sagging maglev line, and spotted the Vault just as its engines were firing up to draw the heavy steel gates down with the sun.
The Vault was aptly named: a short, squat, angular building made of concrete, wider at the base than the top. Its only entrance or exit was through the front where an eight-inch-thick steel gate controlled access. In fact, most of the Vault stretched down underground, below the city, like some kind of human hive bored out of a cement iceberg. A hundred or so tenants lived inside in an uneasy tolerance of one another, bound together by a mutual need for survival and little else.
Gev, the burly gatekeeper, leaned on a four-foot length of iron pipe, and shot Jackson a dark eye when he plunged through onto the smooth concrete of the Vault entryway. Jackson returned a nervous smile. Last one through again. Sure he was young, but he was still the bravest tenant in the Vault, at least as far as he was concerned. Gev grunted, propping his pipe against the wall, and activated the gate. Jackson turned back to savor the final glimpse of the outdoors, decaying city though it was, as it disappeared beneath the plated steel doors. It would be another eleven hours before he could go out again. With security came the familiar quiet desperation. The safety of the cage.
Then something new. A faint smell of smoke, a piercing whine of steel against steel. Jackson glanced to Gev. Gev stood silent, mouth working without sound, like some great pale fish striving for oxygen in the open air. The gates strained, shuddered, and finally heaved to a halt, angled awkwardly eight feet from the ground. The growl from the engines rose in pitch, and the odor of overheated mechanicals grew strong. Still, Gev stood, staring at the struggling gates, and the fading light beyond.
Jackson at least had sense enough to respond to the obvious signals. He rushed to the controls and shut the engines down before the damage was permanent.
Jackson roused Gev from his apparent paralysis with a slap to the shoulder. Gev swiveled to look at him, wild-eyed.
“The gates! Jammed!” he stammered.
“I see that,” Jackson answered. “We should get ’em down, yeah?”
Gev grunted, and moved to the stalled structure with unusual grace for a man his size. He tugged on the gate, tentatively at first, then with growing aggression. It held fast. Jackson joined Gev at the door, lending meager strength and an unvoiced apology.
“Young fool,” Gev growled between vain attempts. “Why were you gone so long?”
Gev hauled on the door with all his might, veins bulging in his neck, face purple with the strain, but the gate ignored his effort. Jackson gave up the brute force method, and instead took to examining the jury-rigged system of salvaged gears, refurbished pulleys, and mismatched cables that ran the gate. Looking at it now, Jackson was mildly surprised it had ever worked before.
A pair of men appeared from within the Vault interior, and stood silent in the entryway, staring dumbly as the last red rays of sunset deepened to purple.
“What’re ye doin’?” said the first, a broad-shouldered man named Fuller.
“Ye gotter shut it,” said the second, called Whit, voice cracking with the barest hint of half-crazed fear. “Ye gotter shut it!”
“It’s off the track,” Jackson called to Gev. “It’s wedged against the rail.”
“Ye gotter shut it!” shouted Whit, and in the next instant the two newcomers were upon the gates, heaving madly. Gev easily pulled Whit off by his collar, but before he could do more, Fuller kicked him in the groin. Gev inhaled sharply as he doubled over and dropped to a knee, and Whit scrambled back away from him. Fuller continued wrestling with the door, while Whit backed his way to the engine control panel.
“Stop!” Jackson yelled, moving to help Gev. “It’s off the rails!”
“He’s tryin’ ter let ’em in!” Whit shrieked, jabbing a bony finger at Gev. “You seent it!”
Whit flipped the switch again, and the gate jerked once more, straining against itself. Jackson lunged towards Whit, but Fuller caught him around the neck and held him fast. Gev grabbed Fuller around the waist, and the three writhed together in a constantly shifting knot of human limbs. Jackson finally managed to work his way out of Fuller’s grasp, and once he was free, Gev settled the matter with a heavy elbow to Fuller’s jaw. Fuller dropped in a solid heap, lying motionless on the smooth concrete floor. By then the commotion had brought a cluster of other tenants to the entry. They stood and watched for a brief moment, unable to comprehend the bizarre scene before them. Smoke from the engines clung to the low ceiling, mingling with the mass of mechanical bits that strove to lower the wedged gates. Then, one spoke, voice hushed in awe, or terror.
That was all it took. Without understanding, the tenants threw themselves upon the struggling steel doors. Gev tried to push the group back, but the human tide overtook him. Jackson found himself thrown to the floor.
“It’s off the rails!” Jackson cried, as he skittered out of the way of the stampede. “Stop, we’ve got to realign it!”
It was no use. The small crowd of tenants was rapidly growing, and each new arrival brought his or her own share of panic, until beneath the unyielding gate was a frenzy of clawing and shouting humanity, crushed together, united in purpose, devoid of cooperation. The engines whined, shuddered, and then were sickeningly silent. Still the tenants fought. Gev, big as he was, lay struggling beneath stomping feet, drowning in a churning sea of individuals-turned-mob.
“Stop! Stop!” Jackson screamed. “Just STOP!”
And suddenly, they did. For a heartbeat, Jackson thought they were listening to him.
But then he heard it, too.
Out there. A distant, ethereal shriek, electric and cold, at once human and electronic, like the squall of digital noise translated through atrophied vocal cords. Then another. Answered by yet another, not so distant.
Whit curled himself fetal in the corner of the entryway, hands covering his ears like a child in a thunderstorm.
“Late,” he choked out. “Too late.”
Then the chaos resumed, as the tenants of the Vault abandoned all thoughts of sealing the doors and turned instead to blind panic. The screaming throng pressed and writhed its way back, deeper into the Vault interior, forcing Jackson away from the entrance. Why they ran, he didn’t know. The gates were the only real protection they had.
He tried to fight his way free of the mass, working back towards the gateway, where Gev alone had re-doubled his efforts to free the lodged door. Jackson broke from the crowd, but as the last of the fleeing tenants passed, he froze to the core. Out beyond Gev, pairs of pale blue pin-prick stars hovered in the darkness, appearing from every alley, growing. Slowly, like shadows stretching, consuming the landscape in the day’s final hours, they approached. The soulless electric shrieking increased in volume and intensity, until beyond the gate all was a cacophony of sinister white noise that seemed to seize Jackson’s spine and shatter all reason.
The last that Jackson remembered was Gev turning to pick up his heavy iron pipe, with a look that was resigned yet quietly determined.
“Go on, boy,” Gev called, gripping the pipe with both hands like it was some great rusted warhammer. “If you’ve got a place to upload your soul, now’s the time.”
Gev strode out into the night, and the Weir were upon him.