Chapter 17 (counting down to 0)
It was so close Ria could smell It. Wet earth and a sticky sweetness enveloped her. She had no idea how long she was standing that close, that intimately close, with It. When she looked at Patience and Michael, Sonja and Lynx, she saw that they were out of synch. They were moving slowly and seemed trapped in a hidden gelatin that slowed their movements to a crawl. Inches from the safety of her friends, and Ria was now completely alone with this thing. It took its long hand-like part and stretched it around her shoulder and under her breasts, drawing her body against It. Gravity was altered around it, attracting and detracting energy that stood Ria's hair on end. Her bedroom used to be her sanctuary. Now it was a foreign place of strange objects she didn't recognize. Its grip tightened and Ria's left lung collapsed inside her chest. This was it. She was leaving her friends, her body, everything, and nothing at the same time. Standing, wrapped in the layers of Its extremities, she suddenly saw why. Why everything. She saw. Everything.
Black willow and swamp chestnut ripped through wood floors splintering them into millions of particles. A fine dust escaped into the air. Roots, branches, and vines invaded every corner, crack, and crevice of Ria's room, winding around the furniture. A moist native soil saturated the ground as smooth cordgrass grew in front of their eyes. The air filled with the wet oil stink of the bayou, dredged in summertime. Just before the door shut Ria saw that the room, her body, and It were nothing stretched across the armature of the bio-physical world.
Michael always had a royalty to his posture that earned him the nickname, Prince. Perhaps it was his shoulders that spanned wide like wings or the straight chiseled nose that betrayed his half Syrian history. As the floors shifted, sinking into the hole that was Ria's now shuttered remnant of a room, there was nothing regal about how he fell to the ground. Sonja landed on top of him with Lynx cracking hard against a bookcase. Patience sought the safety of the air, jumping up onto the couch and scrambling to the back of the room. As the groaning house settled into its new geometry, a thick silence fell over them.
"Just so…we're totally clear….we all just witnessed that shit." Michael gasped for air. They were all frozen in place, their brains attempting to reconcile the visual information with the physical sensation.
"Who's screaming, man?" Lynx asked.
"No one screamed, Lynx. It was a floor breaking," Sonja replied quietly.
"What are we going to do? We have to call someone." Patience 's voice was muffled behind the sallow couch.
"Who! Who is going to come over here and 'save' us, Patience?" Michael growled back, his anger rising from an unknown fear and sudden adrenaline drop.
"I don't know, Prince!" she yelled back. "Someone."
"That's such a white response. No, it's a white woman's response."
Patience began shaking uncontrollably, the fear visible in the dilated blue dot of her eye.
"We call the law and guess who gets shot?" Michael continued, "Guess! I'm pretty sure it's not the wilting lily being held hostage in a crank house in fifth ward…"
"Shut it down. We're all flipping out." Lynx struggled to sound authoritative.
"'Call someone.' Really? Like black people just 'call someone'." Michael ranted as he stood, helping Sonja to her feet. "And what about Sonja? Jesus." He instinctively pulled her into a hug that she knew was more for his than for her sake. Lynx half stood them stumbled backwards, feeling sick. A hot explosion of pain from behind his eyes led to a thin trickle of blood.
"Don't yell at her," he tried to say.
"Oh my god, you're bleeding, Lynx." Patience switched gears, racing to the kitchen for a cloth. The blood was red and sticky and gave the room the taste of a dirty penny.
Patience returned to the living room with a wet rag, handing it to Lynx.
"Michael, Ria is in there with It. We need to help." Sonja pulled away assertively and looked around the room for some kind of weapon or tool. "Something is wrong…" Her words were silenced by an explosion as a hole in the roof lifted it partly off the ceiling joists.
"Outside!" Lynx yelled, grabbing for Patience, but finding her two steps ahead of him. She slid down the hallway in her flip flops, racing for the front door. Michael pulled one of the windows open and jumped the short four feet to the dirt below. Sonja edged her way out, falling easily to the ground, and then popping back up without complaint.
The night reeked of filth and rain in the hauntingly yellow light of an impending storm. From Ria's room, an enormous albino live-oak tree erupted through the aged asphalt shingles, producing large puffs of insulation. Although moving slowly, the tree was growing in front of their eyes, reaching higher and higher until it disappeared beyond the sky rail above.
"What the..." Michael, for once, was at a loss for words. Lynx and Patience came around the side of the house and stopped in the street staring at the enormous arboreal invader. Birds screamed and the wind picked up as a second explosion shook the area. Debris rained down hard causing them to all run to the warehouse parking lot. The air was vibrating and in a hair-splitting second they were all under the awning as they watched the sky fall. Wood boards, bright white plastic, and a fibrous powder fell in tiny rocket bundles. Then, in one large mass, a house hurtled from the sky, plunging into the cemetery. A deafening silence followed, echoing around them. Even the grackles stood eerily frozen. The air settled and a haze from the forceful collapse swelled around the site.
Michael finally spoke. "Patience, you either laced us with that shit you cook or a house just fell down from upper city." No one answered him.
You have to make choices in life, son.
I don't know.
Don't know what? What to do? No one knows what to do. We are all blind seeking refuge in numbers. Lynx, do you know why I gave you that name?
You should know. I named you for a star way off in the universe that was discovered in nineteen hundred and forty-five. This guy— always a man—named the star Lynx 'cause it was really soft, kinda clear. He said you had to be lynx-eyed to see it.
Good eyesight. That's what I wanted for you, son. It's an old saying.
My vision is perfect.
Yeah, but can you see well?
I see fine.
Can you see what's gonna happen to us?
Did you decide?
What are we going to do?
"LYNX!" Michael shook him hard.
Someone was yelling his name, but every part of his body felt heavy and slow.
"There is no way anyone survived that fall," said Patience, her breath coming out ragged.
"Come on, brother. We need to check the house." Lynx came alive and shot out from the relative safety of the defunct industrial plaza running full speed to the cemetery. "There he goes. See, now I look weak." Michael shook his head for a moment and then jogged after him.
Cemeteries in Texas always seem to be haunted by an all too violent history. This one in particular cradled over a hundred forgotten boxes buried like rotted fruit along the bayou's lip. The heat of the day mingled with their sweat drenching them through their clothes. Lynx chose his steps carefully stumbling in the dark. It was hard to tell how many people lived in the residence. Things were so much bigger and more unnecessary in Upper City. He stepped around as many graves as he could discern, but hesitated when he saw a cracked headstone shorn at the base. A scan of the remaining intact parts of the house revealed a fiberglass exoskeleton over a wood and steel frame. Lynx reached the remainder of the front door, entering through its split face. Michael looked back at Sonja to verify she was ok and not following him into the unsteady ground. To his relief she was deep in discussion with Patience. Turning his attention back to the scene in front of him, he called out.
"If you can hear me, make noise! Bang on something! Lynx, you find anything?" As he spoke, the front façade that clung meekly to the steel frame fell flat to the ground. Standing in the now freestanding doorway to what used to be the main bathroom was Lynx and a narrow turquoise box.
"You found a fancy box."
"It's the only thing not destroyed." Lynx walked around it looking for latches or a compound reader. It appeared seamless in construction and finished with a matte, rubberized paint.
"How is it standing?"
"I've never even heard of something like this. What would they need a huge rubber coffin for?" Lynx was trying to remember what he read about the upper city. He never visited, but few people from the ground ever did. The dividing line between their side and the rest of the population was both monetary and prejudiced. He often wondered if they forgot what the ground looked like or got sick so far from nature. They probably had fake forests and re-generated oceans in tanks with holographic screens. He would never know.
The box opened with a sigh of decompression. It separated into three quadrants that folded back against each other revealing a wide-eyed man in tailored jeans and grey sneakers.
"Oh my God, it worked." The upper city man had a tan and expensively cut hair, but everything else about him suggested someone who didn't care about appearances. The first three buttons of his white shirt were open revealing a silver chain dangling below.
"Are you okay? Are you hurt?" Lynx tried to touch the man's shoulder, but he jumped out of the box and was squatted down near the ground.
"Whoa! This soil is incredible. I'm going to take some with me." He put a handful in his jean pocket and then immediately pulled it back out. "I'll get it later. Shit! You saw that?! I knew it! I knew they would work. I told the city. They didn't believe me! Now I have proof! Hey, either one of you have a retina scanner? I take mine out to read. I was reading when...the ground gave out. I think it had to be structural. Did you see it?" The man was talking so fast Michael and Lynx couldn't get a word in.
"Slow down, man." Lynx tried to cut in.
"…I mean, how did they not expect that to be the end result. It's a logic based statement. If, then…"
"What's your name?" Michael said without raising his voice. His eyes fixed the man in one place forcing him to calm down.
"Dev. My name is Dev." He narrowed his eyes and looked, more slowly this time. "I'm just a little shocked. A lot shocked, a little excited."
"I'm Michael, and that's Lynx. You built that pod?" As Michael introduced them, Lynx felt the soft white leather-esque interior. It was a new feeling to touch something designed to feel good.
"It's a crash pod. I designed it on spec several years ago as an evacuation measure for structural failures but the city refused to get them past R and D. Too expensive."
"Maybe it was the color." A smile hovered on Michael's lips.
"Well, if you have to have one for each family member in your living room at least it won't look terrible." Dev was looking at his creation with a mix of pride and calculation. Everything could be better in his mind.
"Was there anyone else in the house with you?" Lynx asked.
"No. It was just me. What time is it? I forgot how dark it is down here." Dev looked up, shading his eyes from the glare of the Upper City lights that formed a halo above the ward. "I worked with NASA before it moved to the offshore base. I used to come down to the ground all the time. 2-3 times a month. Usually for testing. I design for extreme habitats. Aerial, underwater, desert...space sometimes."
"Extreme like that?" Lynx pointed past the rubble to the live-oak. Dev turned around and his eyes shot up to the sky.
"Now…that is extremely interesting," he whispered.
NOTE: This is the third part of a dystopian science fiction novel entitled "Zer0:Emancipation." The 20 chapters will count down every month from 19 to 0. The book centers on the near future in Houston, Texas, after the collapse of the oil industry. Four friends live and struggle together in a shotgun house located in the fifth ward. The numerical entity 0 arrives and begins to live with them, eventually revealing itself to be not of this world. Time begins to collide with space, creating holes and paradoxes in reality as the numerical representation of nothing erases everything. Racism, individual identity, and governmental failure are critical themes woven throughout.