She wanted to see where the books came from.
In a more innocent age, before the war, before the arrival of the Seraphim and all that entailed, it would have just been a quiet date. Not anymore. Not when a trip to the library meant venturing into the fallout zone.
Accordingly, Storm Hamilton took the two old pistols from the drawer of his antique writing desk and stuffed them in a leather satchel. For a moment he considered bringing an extra box of ammunition, but decided against it. They would only be out for a short time, a couple hours at most, just long enough to give her a view, to reveal that secret part of himself that no one else knew. He left the extra bullets in the drawer, closing it, then walked over to the bookcase.
His sharp blue eyes scanned the titles on the overstuffed shelves. He ran a finger across their worn spines, searching for one in particular. Finding it, he pulled it out and put it in the satchel. Then he shoved the books on that shelf to one side, creating a space for whatever loot he brought back after today’s outing.
Lastly, he buttoned up his grey trench coat and threw the satchel over a shoulder. Stepping to the door, his hand reached out instinctively for the brown fedora that hung on a tall hat rack. Considering whom he would be meeting, he reached the hand back further and grabbed the yet unworn black bowler instead, throwing it on his head.
Satisfied with the way he looked, he headed off for Ground Zero.
He found Trist waiting for him, standing anxiously outside the doors of the pub. Her arms were crossed over a light-pink Seraphim jumpsuit. Her high-set, slanted eyes darted back and forth, scanning the surrounding streets. Her nostril slits flared with agitation. Her bald, oval head stood out against the portraits of thick-haired humans posted on the surrounding walls. After all these years working side by side with these aliens, he still found himself a bit unnerved by the sight of them.
He wondered what could have attracted him to her. Then she turned her head and, noticing his approach, her face lit up like a star alone in the night sky. A smile cut across her face. She watched him come, not bothering to step out to meet him, but rather drawing him in with her gravity.
“Sorry I’m late,” Storm said to her, in a deep but quiet voice. “Were you waiting long?”
“No, not long,” Trist replied, all sense of agitation gone from her features.
“Maybe we should move away from the door. You stand out like a sore thumb, as they used to say.”
Only after he had said it, did he realize how apt the image was for describing her hairless head, and the thin, almost fingerprint like lines that covered her scalp. He could now see the glitter of her favorite opaline cream on her ivory-grey skin.
They walked around the pub to an alley which provided the building’s rear access. There he took out the two pistols—a .357 revolver, and a smaller automatic—and placed them on a nearby bench. From the satchel, he also grabbed a thin wind jacket and sun hat, handing both to Trist.
“Put these on,” he said. She looked at him, puzzled. “As I said, you stand out. Best to not be too obvious. Seraphim don’t go into the fallout zone. Ever. That jumpsuit of yours—”
“Okay,” she said, snatching the items and donning them, but smiling as she did so. “It feels like an adventure.”
“I’m sure it will be exciting. Was for me my first time.”
“What are the guns for?”
“Why not bring along a blaster?”
“Not a good idea to bring any new tech. The scavengers have scanners that can detect the power cells.”
“Scavengers?” she blurted in surprise.
“What adventure is complete without a little danger?” he said encouragingly. “Don’t worry, I’ll be with you. And we got these.” He put the revolver in his coat pocket and handed her the smaller automatic. “A few shots are usually enough to scare them off.”
“Why do I get the smaller one?” she asked with a smirk. “Is it because I’m a girl?”
Her sarcastic expression was almost too much. He wondered how she had even come up with the remark, given that her people and the society the greys imprinted on Earth was egalitarian. But then again, she was always surprising him with her knowledge of human culture and language. Giving the girl the smaller gun? That was certainly fitting for the period he tried to emulate with his fashion and outward behavior. Fitting for those hard-boiled detectives in the old books he cherished. But the choice was not so sinister. The revolver was simply his favorite, perhaps due to its more archaic style. In the end, he could shoot a scav dead with either gun, if it came to that.
“Because the owner gets to decide who uses his tools,” Storm said finally. “And I’m the owner. Speaking of which, you know how to use one of these?”
She played with it in her hands for a few moments before she found the magazine release. Pulling it out, she glanced at the rounds inside, then slipped the clip back in and pulled the slide back.
“I think so.” She smirked again. “Still feels a bit small.”
“Just so you know, what you’re holding in your hands is a PPK. It was the weapon of choice for a famous special agent from Old London.”
“Special agent. I like the sound of that.”
Storm glanced over to check if the PPK’s safety was pulled down. It was. He was impressed. Following his example, she put the gun in her jacket pocket.
“One more thing,” he said pulling something else from his satchel. It was a small book, a faded paperback copy of Sarah Canary. “Here’s the first volume for your new collection. I think you’ll like it. It reminds me of…us. Just a bit.”
She grasped the book in both hands, her smile on the verge of going supernova. “Thank you!”
“Just in case our little expedition fails. Let’s head to the wall. There’s a gate close-by. I know a guy who lives just past it.”
“In the fallout zone? There are people who live in the fallout zone?”
“Darling, I’m about to change your world.” He grasped the tip of his hat in proper gumshoe form.
Trist stuffed her new book in a pocket. Storm hooked his arm around hers and led her down the street.
It was only a short walk from the alley behind Ground Zero to the border of the fallout zone. The blue glow of the radiation barrier could be seen from some ways off, rising into the air like an aurora. Turning a final corner, they saw the shiny metal structure emitting the light.
London had been one of the many victims in the nuclear war that almost ended human civilization, that would have ended it had the Seraphim not arrived just in the nick of time. The wall encircled the blast zone, where a nuclear missile had slammed into the heart of the city. The long structure served to hold in the radiation, so the aliens could build a new city — their city — on the outside. Most of the radiation had long been cleaned away, but the fallout zone still remained enclosed by the glowing barrier, and ignored by the Seraphim government, whose focus and pride remained centered on New London.
Storm led Trist along the wall, to a wide set of doors. Hitting a few keys on a nearby control panel, the doors hissed and slid open. The odd pair of adventurers stepped inside the airlock and Storm repeated the process, closing the doors on New London in order to open the way to the fallout zone.
Walking out of the airlock, the world became a much different place. Even the most derelict buildings on the other side were in reasonably good shape, if not decent. The outskirts still had building codes and regulations to follow, but inside the wall, this was not the case. Few buildings were undamaged in some significant way. Many were missing entire sides. The further a building was from the wall, the more damage and erosion it seemed to have suffered. There was a stillness in the air that could not be found on the outside. No birds, no insects. No crowds of people, or wild running children. If any place could be described as looking like a corpse, this was it. But Storm knew there was life here, hidden in the shadows or under the ground.
“The gate is not locked?” Trist asked.
“No. No one is forced to live here. Your people are welcoming in that regard.”
“But you said people live here.”
“They chose to live here.”
“Why would anyone choose to live here?”
“Because they don’t feel like they belong anywhere else, maybe. I don’t know.”
She ran a hand along a broken wall, causing bits of stone and mortar to crumble to the ground. The road was covered in this sort of stone dust. It was thick in the air, like a fog. Storm opened his satchel and took out two white dust masks. He handed one to Trist. She did not need an explanation.
He headed off down the road and waved for her to follow. She did, staying close to his side but looking around with eyes wide. They walked several blocks, following the direction of the wall. Storm always kept to the edges of the fallout zone. Who knew what you’d find closer to that nuclear cesspool at the center.
Eventually, they came to a mostly unscathed building with a wooded door. Storm tapped a fist lightly on the door; the other he kept in the pocket of his trench coat, firmly around the grip of the revolver.
“Who is it?” a male voice said from behind the door.
“It’s me,” Storm replied.
The sound of locks being unlatched echoed off the surrounding buildings. The door swung open to reveal an old, grey-haired, black-skinned man who was all smiles, except for the double-barrelled shotgun in one hand.
“Detective Hamilton,” the man wheezed. “It’s been a while.”
“Too long, old friend.”
“Come in, come in. Oh, you have a guest? This is new.”
“She wants to see the library.”
Trist smiled shyly with a nod. The man waved them inside, stepping to the side to let them into the fully-walled but windowless room. There was an electric camping lantern glowing in one corner of the small space and it filled the whole place with yellow light. On one side of the room was a chair and a table, on the other a bookshelf that was half empty and a set of drawers.
Storm took a small sack from his satchel and handed it to the man. “These should last you for a while,” he said.
“Thank you, my friend,” the man replied. “The ones I have are just about dead. Speaking of which, can you—”
“Of course, I can,” Storm interrupted. “I always do, don’t I?”
“Yes, indeed.” The old man wandered over to the drawers and pulled out several thin, metal objects. He returned, handing them to Storm.
“What are those?” Trist asked.
“Batteries. The old, recharging kind. Remember what I said about power cells? Henry uses these batteries for his lamps and other devices. I recharge them in the city and bring them back when I come to visit the library.”
Trist nodded in understanding then turned to the old man, offering her hand and saying, “Nice to meet you, Henry. I’m Trist.”
“I know who you are,” Henry said, grabbing her hand and pulling her in for a hug. Storm was surprised she didn’t squirm. “Storm has mentioned you once or twice. Any friend of his is a friend of mine. Care for some tea?”
As Henry walked over to the far side of the room, Trist turned to Storm and quietly asked, “How can he make tea without power cells?”
“With fire, young lady,” Henry replied.
“Fire?” Trist asked, stepping forward inquisitively.
Storm heard the click of the ignitor and the whoosh of a flame coming to life. “I knew I forgot something,” he said, pounding his fingers into his forehead to punish his lapse of memory. “You have enough gas to get by for a while?”
“Yes,” Henry said. “Got a few cans in a trade the other day. Don’t worry.”
“This… all of this,” Trist said, throwing her hands around to highlight the room, “is all so—”
“Surprising?” Henry suggested.
“Amazing,” Trist corrected.
“I take it she hasn’t seen your place yet,” Henry said to Storm. Trist raised an eye in Storm’s direction. He shook his head at the old man.
When the tea was done, they sat in metal chairs arranged in a circle in the center of the room. Storm removed his hat, running a hand through his short, dark hair. He set it on the edge of the table and grabbed for his cup, taking it in both hands, sipping the hot brew slowly, knowing to savor Henry’s skill.
“I don’t understand,” Trist said. “Why do you live here?”
“Hard to believe,” Henry said, “but this was my home before the war. I grew up here, and I expect I’ll die here.”
“But you’ll be better off in the city. You can get better medical care. You can live longer.”
“Perhaps. But is living longer the same as living better? I have all I need here. My books and my tea. And I don’t have any nosey greys telling me what to think and how to act.”
“Nosey?” Trist said, putting a hand to her nostril slits.
“Ha. I mean getting into other peoples’ business.”
“So, it’s about freedom? Humans value freedom. I read about that.”
“There’s a difference between knowing a thing and feeling it in your bones. Living it.”
They quickly finished their tea, Storm having to urge Trist to rush a few times to keep her on his schedule. He didn’t want her to be inside the wall for too long. He’d just give her a quick glimpse of the library, then they would head back home.
The entrance to the library was only a few blocks from Henry’s home, though near impossible to find for someone who didn’t know where to look. Storm smiled as he watched Trist fail to discover it several times before giving up in a huff. She gave him a dirty look. He responded by taking her by hand and leading her up a mountain of rubble. At the top, he let go and jumped down into the hole that had been hidden behind the hill.
The fall onto the library’s second floor was only a few yards, but Storm felt the impact heavily in his knees. After he landed, he looked up just in time to catch Trist on her way down. He hadn’t even needed to tell her to jump. He took two small flashlights from his satchel, handing one to her and turning the other on, casting a beam of white light ahead of them. Trist gasped audibly.
What remained of the library’s second floor was decorated with antique furniture—wooden tables, chairs, and sofas—but few bookshelves, all which seemed to be empty. The floor was not an entire level, more of a balcony that wrapped around a large, central room below. When he cast the light down, Trist gasped even louder.
The first floor had clearly been the heart of the library, packed with dense rows of bookshelves. Most of them were toppled over, and half of the room—indeed half of the building—on the side they had entered by had long ago collapsed. But one could still get a sense of the grandeur the place had once held.
He took her hand again, leading her along the balcony, to a curving stairwell, and down into the treasure room.
“There aren’t that many books left, at least ones in useable condition,” Storm said. “Many were destroyed in the collapse. Others were taken by people like me, who intended to read them, or by scavs intending to burn them. But if you dig around, you’ll find a few survivors.”
“There must have been thousands of books here,” Trist said in astonishment.
“At one time, tens of thousands. Maybe even a hundred thousand. And, as I understand it, this was small for a library in those days.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, a library isn’t a place for speaking anyway,” Storm said with a smirk. “It’s a place for listening. To the wisdom of the ancients. To yourself.”
“The wisdom of the ancients,” Trist said glumly. “Now that’s not something I ever heard growing up.”
“No, I imagine not. Your people don’t have much appreciation for the past. Also remember that this was before everything was fully digitized. Not so long ago, we had to read everything like this. On paper.”
“Can I look around?”
“Of course. Just don’t take too long. It’s getting late and we don’t want to be inside the wall after dark.”
She nodded, heading off, her small light illuminating a path that took her between and under toppled shelves. He watched her for several minutes as she ran her fingers along every surface, pulled out several volumes only to toss them away. Burned or faded, he assumed. It was almost like watching a child in a store for the first time.
Eventually, her light disappeared completely and Storm headed off on his own quest, to find something new for his own collection. He remembered a place from the last time he ventured here—a shelf mostly buried by the collapsed wall. He headed that way, shining his light forward to avoid any objects that threatened to trip him up.
Upon reaching the buried shelf, he noticed something strange, something different. It seemed that much of the rubble had been cleared away. This had not only opened access to the bookshelf, but also to a doorway just beyond. The opening was wide enough for a body to squeeze through, though perhaps with some scratches from the hanging stones to the side and overhead.
Storm bent down and reached a hand under the bookshelf, feeling for the soft firmness of a paperback, or better, the woodenness of a hardcover. He felt one. Wrapping his fingers firmly around the spine, he drew it out. The book was covered in white dust. Storm pulled his mask down and blew it off, creating a small cloud that briefly hung in the air. He used a hand to wipe away the remaining dirt. Shining his light on the cover, he saw the image of two faces carved in ice, which looked to be of a man and a woman. He read the title: The Left Hand of Darkness. He had never heard of this book, nor its author. It was a lucky find. He wrapped it in a cloth he took from his satchel, then placed the book gently in the bag’s inner pocket.
Suddenly, Storm saw a shadow dash across the corner of his vision. He turned off his flashlight, just as he heard the click of a hammer followed by the sonorous bang of the shot.
Storm ducked behind the rubble heap, leaning against his frail cover and drawing the revolver from his pocket. He gripped the pistol tight in one hand, the flashlight in the other, straining to hear over the echoes of the gunshot. He was certain the shot had come from the open doorway, and now listened for the eventual footsteps that would follow. He heard them, closer than he had expected. Leaning out, he clicked the light on, revealing a crouched figure in ragged clothing holding a long rifle. Storm fired off two shots, dropping the man to the ground.
Beyond the new, bouncing echoes, he heard more gunfire. A loud, crashing bang followed by small pops that he was sure came from the PPK. He rushed towards the noise, stepping through the rubble as carefully as he could, but without the light of his lamp, not wanting to reveal his location. He could see Trist’s beam up ahead, dancing on the walls. Another loud bang. Two more retaliatory pops.
Storm leaned around a set of toppled bookcases, just in time for someone to trip over his shoulders. The figure landed hard on the floor. Storm pointed his gun, right into Trist’s face. It was covered in dirt and fear. She had lost her dust mask as well.
Tucking the gun in his waistband, he grabbed her by the collar of her jumpsuit and dragged her next to him, behind the bookcases. He could hear her heavy breathing, even imagined he could feel her pulsating heartbeat. He drew the pistol back out, and hearing steps approaching from beyond their little cover, fired off a couple shots. The footsteps ceased, but he did not hear the thump of a body. Silence returned to the library.
He knew they could very well be surrounded. But the bookshelves only protected them on one side. They had to get out. The stairs to the second floor were just a jump away.
“We’ll have to run for it,” he whispered to her. He felt her hand squeeze his arm in acknowledgement. “Do you still have your gun?” Another squeeze. “Good. Just fire the whole clip off the way you came. That’ll keep them down for a while. Just long enough.”
Storm dropped his flashlight on the ground, seizing Trist’s sweaty hand in his own. Then he ran for the stairs, dragging her along. He heard the crackle of the PPK being fired rapidly, heard the rounds ricocheting off the rocky floor. Without letting go of her hand, he ran up the stairs. He dragged her up the spiral incline, feeling her stumble twice, but yanking her to her feet each time. They reached the second floor, where the orange light of sunset was coming in through the entrance hole. In the dim glow, he saw another figure.
More shots echoed from below. Bullets skipped off the ceiling. The figure ahead raised a large weapon. A shotgun. Storm raised his own, hoping, pleading the gods to make him quicker on the draw. The momentum tipped his hat to one side. The shotgun came level with the floor as Storm pulled his trigger. The man fell back, the shotgun going off into the ceiling, loosening a boulder which dropped onto the rogue’s body. Storm rushed forward, firing another shot into the man for good measure.
Tucking the hot barrel into his waistband again, he waved Trist forward with both hands. She rushed towards him. He placed his hands under her arms, throwing her up and out of the hole. Then he climbed up after her.
This time it was her chance to take him by the hand, dragging him down the road. They ran past Henry’s house without stopping, straight to the airlock. Storm pressed the open command on the control panel and turned back to face the road. He drew the pistol instinctively, only to realize coldly that he was out of bullets. The doors hissed open and Trist dragged him inside, hitting the inside panel with a hard slap. Storm watched the road between closing doors. He did not see anyone following them.
Once safely on the other side of the wall, Trist fell to her knees. Storm leaned down and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. He didn’t know what he could say to comfort her. To his surprise, she was laughing.
“Woo…” She gasped for breath. “That was an adventure.”
“Are you alright? You’re not hurt?”
“No…I’m fine,” she said. “I might have got one of them. Maybe. But no more fallout zone for me, I think.”
“Probably a good idea.”
“But I got a book,” she said with a smile.
She took it from her coat pocket. It was a copy of Storm’s favorite novel, The Maltese Falcon. He smiled. Then laughed. They both sat there for a long moment on the road, cackling together.
“I say we do something a little less adventurous for the rest of the evening,” Trist said, leaning her head on his shoulder.
“I know a nice restaurant —”
“No, no. I think I’ll choose the place this time.” Her high-set, slanted eye winked at him awkwardly.
Storm threw an arm around her and looked up to the amber sky.
by JM Williams