Clang… Clang… Clang…
If the last thing I heard was going to be that infernal noise, I just wanted it to be over already. Somehow I found the strength to open my eyes again. They felt strangely heavy, as if I’d been out for days. Not only that, but I was warm
, like I was curled against the side of some great, furry animal. But the thing that struck me the most was the fact that my limbs carried such strength. I felt…good—strong and healthy and alive. Yeah…I was definitely going crazy.
Abruptly I realized that when I had opened my eyes I wasn’t looking at gray. I wasn’t even looking at the sky. Hoping the strength I had in my limbs wasn’t just imagined, I sat upright and looked around. I was inside a house! But there were tools lying around everywhere. Pliers on the dresser…a screwdriver on the bedside table… Maybe I was in a live-in shop of some kind?
The warmth I’d felt was the blanket around my body and the mattress I’d apparently been sleeping on. Wait…sleeping? I hadn’t died? I looked to my right at the lantern flickering on the bedside table and unscrewed the top. I reached my hand toward the flames and pulled back with a start. It was hot to the touch, and I pulled back with a start.
“Yes, fire is hot.”
A man entered the room. He was tall and thin, but not boney. He looked agile yet strong, like a tiger. His hair was raven black, and his eyes were a deep silvery gray, surprisingly nothing like the gray of the world outside. Maybe it was his face. It was too young and vibrant to give him any similarity to that wretched place.
I opened my mouth to ask him his name, but my throat felt like sandpaper and no words escaped me.
“Here.” The man handed me a mug. “Water.”
Water? I looked down into the mug and would’ve gasped if my throat had allowed me to do so. I could see my reflection in the mug. This water was pure. Where on earth had he found this? Abandoning decency, I gulped the water down.
“Careful.” He rolled his eyes as I spluttered against the mug. “There’s plenty of water. Don’t worry.”
I looked up at the man beyond the mug. “What’s your name?” I asked, managing to whisper.
The man narrowed his eyes. “What’s yours?” he growled.
“Noah,” I answered, able to wet my throat enough to raise my voice at last.
“Noah, huh?” The man finally took his gaze away from my face, and I blinked. That iron stare had demanded my attention so fervently that when it left my face I almost felt relieved.
Still I followed his gaze to where it rested on my missing arm.
I looked too, suddenly realizing I wasn’t wearing a single thing besides my underwear. I scrambled to pull the blanket over my missing limb and my torso, trying very hard not to blush.
The man laughed. His laughter was warm, nothing like his eyes. It almost made me smile despite my situation.
“What’s up with you? Not so fond of being naked next to a total stranger?” The corners of his lips twitched upward in a mocking grin.
“N-no.” I shook my head. “Especially looking the way I do.”
“Why?” The man’s tone dropped dangerously low, and he frowned at me deeply. His eyes glared at me unblinkingly, and I felt almost afraid to answer him.
“Why what?” I gulped.
“Why, what’s wrong with the way you look? Are you saying you’re ugly for having a missing limb?” His tone rose, almost as if I’d angered him.
“Wouldn’t most people think that way?” I stammered.
think that way?”
“Do you think that you’re ugly?”
“Because I only have my left arm? No, I guess I don’t think that about myself…”
The man’s expression eased, and he smiled widely. He swung his leg up and settled it on the nightstand table. The lantern shook when his leg landed.
The heaviness startled me and I asked if he was okay.
The man burst into laughter again. He pulled up the leg of his pants and smiled down at his leg. It was metal from a bit above the knee down.
I gawked at it, not knowing what to say. I found it beautiful. The piece was gorgeous, crafted out of a sleek, black metal. The joints and ball of the knee were my favorite parts. I could almost see the inner workings of the design moving seamlessly within as the man took his leg down from the table and set it back on the floor.
“That’s more than a prosthetic.” I stared up at him. “It’s actually attached to your nerves, isn’t it? Like an actual leg would be?”
“Mhmm.” The man nodded. “It’s a bionic, the most advanced type of prosthetic there is.”
“How did you afford such a thing?”
“I make them. I’m a bionic mechanic. Made from carbon fiber, quality guaranteed. Ensured for years of use without wear. Not recommended for any sort of fighting, not that people have to worry about that kind of thing here.”
“Where’s ‘here’?” I looked around the room again, drinking in the sight of all the various tools.
“This is my shop and my home. You’ve taken my bed for the past three days.”
The man waved his hand as if swatting away a fly. “Whatever. Anyways, you’re in the city of Limerick, home of peace and virtue and all those other types of bullshit.”
A city? “How the hell has a city survived in this world? The best I’ve seen out there are the poor colonies of ten to fifteen people each. That’s where I was before…”
“They died?” the man finished for me. “Of sickness and malnutrition and the poor atmosphere, right? We’ve all heard the story. Lots of outsiders end up here.”
“Yep. You’re from the surface—from outside.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t suppose you would. Did you think humanity just vanished after the Last War tore the world apart?”
“I knew the colonies remained,” I grumbled. I really didn’t care for the mocking tone of his voice.
“Yeah, yeah, the sickly gazelles. You really think that’s all that survived? I wouldn’t blame you if you think humans are stupid and all—I mean we pretty much blasted ourselves into the oblivion—but we’re like roaches. We’ll crawl right back out of the rubble and start again.”
“No,” the man continued. “Some new queen bee will rear her ugly head and build the hive all over again once the old queen and her brood are dead. That’s exactly how Limerick and all the New Cities came to be. Someone somewhere got ballsy enough to think they deserved another chance, and whether or not they truly did, they gave it to themselves. Pretentious little bastards, huh? But it worked, I guess.”
The man nodded. “Yep. Now there’s a ton of New Cities popping up all through these underground tunnels. We’re really thriving down here. Makes you wonder how we really did it when you see all the people in the streets, smiling and going about everyday life.”
“The atmosphere upstairs is unhealthy, riddled with toxins. The kings and queens of promise thus decided it was best to live downstairs and away from what we ruined in the Last War. Down here we can, pun intended, breathe easy.”
A whole city of people thriving underground in peace, away from the horrors of the Last War? Rebuilding and living their lives like they would years and years ago, before the bombings and all the fighting? I couldn’t believe it.
“All this time I thought it was only rubble and ash under my feet.” I shook my head, almost unable to take it in. “Can you show me?”
“Show me the city! I’m so excited. I can’t believe we made it after all that destruction!”
“Are you serious, Noah?” The man looked at me as if I’d grown another head.
I cocked my head. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
The man rubbed his face with his palms. He groaned, like the decision he was about to make was difficult. “Fine. I’ll show you.”
The torn expression on his face puzzled me. “What’s wrong? You don’t like the city?”
The man stopped mid stride on his way out of the room. “No, I like the city plenty. I just don’t like how they keep us down here, even if it is dangerous upstairs.”
“I almost died
up there, so I can see there’re very good reasons not to go up there.” A chill snaked up my spine. “I thought the last thing I’d see was that ugly gray world. I’d die choking on sulfur and ash and never see another living human ever again. You can’t even imagine how that—”
“Careful,” the man snapped. “I lived up there too once.”
I clamped my mouth shut, afraid to apologize even though I wanted to. We stood there, him with his back to me, for what felt like hours.
“If…” I started hesitantly. “If you’re not allowed on the surface, then how were you up there to save me?”
For a long time I didn’t think he would answer. And then he chuckled. “I snuck out. Tell anyone that and your life is forfeit.”
“Yep.” He turned back around to face me, a huge smile stretched across his face. “I saved you, after all. If the authorities knew I’d been to the surface and
brought an outsider with me, we’d both be in deep shit. Only they can permit outsiders, and only after they’ve been given the necessary citizen’s ID and medical checkup. But that could’ve taken months, and you didn’t look like you had even days
left up there. So it’s best for all parties involved if you just keep your trap shut, ’kay?”
“You’re telling me I could be sick?” I uncovered my torso and checked my body for any cuts or rash marks, anything that could be a sign that the outside world had really gotten me ill.
“Not the point. Besides, I checked you from head to toe. No cuts, bumps, not even any bruises. The worst you suffer from is being too thin and maybe a tad of stupidity.”
I rolled my eyes. “Why save me if you’re just going to treat me like garbage? And are you saying you stripped
me and looked me over? What the fuck!”
“Don’t get so uptight. You’re very pretty underneath all that dirt.”
I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out. What the heck did I say to that?