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The Land of The Living

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Not a leaf, not a branch, not a flower in his world. -The Haunting of Bly Manor

 

The plants died first. All of them.

Oxygen was rationed.

Fought over.

The final war culled almost everyone who hadn’t already suffocated or melted away from radiation.

It was over. A global apocalypse. A planet doomed.

If not for BLY.

A bunker as big as a city, the rumors said, six levels deep!

The rumors were true. Down into the ground the survivors went.

A new civilization that will want for nothing, the wealthy founders promised of BLY, everything you had topside you’ll have here beneath!

They were wrong, of course.

There weren’t any plants.                              
 

 

 

100 Years Later

 

When Jamie was arrested they gave her a choice: execution or gardening.

She chose gardening.

She’d been fourteen. Young. Hadn’t known better.

Hadn’t known to take the fucking bullet while she had the chance.

At twenty-eight she made a run for it. A climb for it, more like, out of that fucking pit.

Up and up, through that underground pyramid.

They would come for her. To kill her slowly. Make an example of her. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the secret in her pocket and the mantra in her head.

Find the hatch, see the sky.

Let the fucking Bedposts come for her. BLY Recon, even.

Send an army, send a legion. Joke was on them.

Jamie planned to be dead before they reached her.

 

-∆-

 

The Fringes hadn’t changed much—the streets still reeked of burnt neon and piss. The air still buzzed with the radioactive hum of the Manor’s generators in the distance.

Mandated posters still hung in shopfronts, worn banners still fluttered from rusted awnings: Beneath, we Labor for Yesterday. BLY propaganda still going strong.

The buildings—scrap metal behemoths that loomed over the limestone streets like hungry giants—still looked one good tremble away from collapse. They leered down at the hollow-eyed nobodies slinking between alleyways, slipping into filthy bars and roach-infested hides.

Jamie walked quickly, hands shoved into the pockets of the oversized coat she’d managed to nab on her way up. Bit of luck, finding it—the pockets hid the metal band fused around her wrist, the rest of it hid her coveralls. Enough to avoid attention, anyway. With her hood up she blended right in. Just another foxer out for a fix. Better a junkie than an escaped gardener.

She turned down one narrow road then another, heading for the Row. The worst part of an already dangerous and derelict slum. Exactly the sort of place Peter Quint would be hiding.

Hopefully, anyway. He owed her a favor and it was time to cash in.

The streets were darker this side of town. Less neon, less electric glow.

There was a man standing in the shadows of an abandoned storefront. Dazed and wobbly. Couldn’t wiggle a tit in the Fringes without smacking a foxer.

“Oi,” Jamie nodded at him. “Peter Quint’s mech shop. Where is it?”

The man took a deep suck on his cannister. “Who’s asking?”

“His fuckin’ mum, what’s it matter?” She had an oxygen cannister in the pocket of her coveralls. Too big to hide the bulge. He was eyeing it so she flashed the knife in her other pocket. More contraband from her journey up.

“Quint?” She bared her teeth around the name.

“Turn right at the end of the block.” He pointed. “Cunt,” he muttered, once she’d started down the street.

 

The mech shop was on the ground floor of a crooked five-story building. Apartments, maybe. Fox holes, more like.

She pounded on the metal garage door. But it was too early for business hours and for all she knew Quint could live halfway across town. Fuck. It was only a matter of time before they caught up to her. The fucking band around her wrist pinging on some screen like a goddamn beacon.

Only one person had ever escaped the Bed and lived to tell. Had cost him, though. The metal bands could only be removed with an architect key. Rumor was, after Jamie helped him escape, Quint had cut off his own arm to ditch his band.

Jamie banged on the door again. Growled Peter’s name. She was about to give up, slip into some filthy café to wait, but suddenly the door was sliding open, metal grating against metal.

“Fuck,” Peter said when he saw her. He pulled her into the dark garage, dark-circled eyes darting around the empty street before he shut the door.

“Jesus, mate,” Jamie whistled low, staring at the mangled stump where his left wrist had once been.

“What are you doing here, Taylor?” His eyes were still darting, even in the cloaked stillness of the garage. He was high, Jamie realized. That tracked.

“You owe me.”

“Anyone follow you?”

Jamie held up her wrist and Peter cursed.

“They won’t know I’m missing til morning count. Have at least an hour before then.”

He nodded, then made a retching noise, hawking deep in his throat then spitting a gob of blood onto the filthy limestone.

Jamie shook her head. “Stuff will kill you if you keep at it.”

“It’s not the fox,” he muttered. Wiped bloody saliva from his lip with his mangled arm. “It’s chem-lung.” He flashed a wry smile. “Didn’t escape the Bed after all.”

“Fuck, mate. That’s—fuck. How long—?”

“In the Fringes?” He shook his head. “Months. A year if I’m lucky. Fox is the only shit that helps.”

Jamie nodded. Wouldn’t judge a bloke for that.

“So,” he nudged his chin at her, “what’s it gonna take to get rid of you?”

 

She showered in his tin-can of a loo, the water barely a trickle from the spigot and smelling vaguely sulfuric.

There was an electric razor under his sink, rusted and ancient. She used it anyway, brown curls collecting on the cement floor. She left the top long. Tied it up in a topknot the way the mech-heads did. The less she stuck out the better.

Thirty minutes later she was wearing someone else’s clothes. Mech clothing—gray leather breeches and black boots, short linen tunic. A brown canvas jacket with an interior pocket, perfectly suited for what she was smuggling. To keep it safe. Out of sight.

She did a quick rummage through his room—she wasn’t above nicking a thing or two for the journey. The last drawer had a bag of salted mill and a pistol. Shit. Guns were impossible to come by in BLY and if Quint had one he’d probably gotten himself in deep with something dodgy. She took the mill. Left the pistol.

Back in the garage Peter held out the start screw to a scrapbike.

Jamie eyed it. “That won’t get me ten metres into the Far Reaches.”

“The bones are old but the engine’s brand new, you snob,” Peter said. He smiled then, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “The Far Reaches?” There was something slippery in his tone, like the words had been rubbed in grease.

Jamie waved a hand. “Hypothetical.” She stuffed the cannister into the bike’s saddlebag and followed Peter out into the street, now crowded and loud.

“We’re square now, Taylor,” Peter said. “Forget you know me.”

“Likewise, mate.” Both be dead soon anyway. She climbed onto the bike and plugged in the start screw. The engine roared to life.

It happened quickly then. The girl, bumping into the bike. Pretending to bump it. Boosting Jamie’s cannister. She was slick about it, Jamie had to give her that. But after fourteen years on the Bed Jamie could catch a booster blindfolded and dead asleep.

She grabbed the girl’s wrist.

The girl whipped around, eyes wide. Either a play at innocence or genuine surprise to be caught.

Jamie tsked, plucking the cannister from the girl’s pocket where it had disappeared.

“It’s not fox,” Jamie said, slipping the cannister into her own pocket, “and it’s not yours.”

The girl looked ready to cry, which was comical, really. Then,

“I—I’m sorry, I didn’t—I really need it. I can pay you.” She glanced down at Jamie’s hand around her wrist.

Jamie let go, shoved her hand into her pocket. Wasn't quick enough. The girl had seen the band.

“Taylor?” Peter’s voice came from the open garage. “Alright there?”

Jamie nodded without turning. “I’m handlin’ it.”

The garage door slid shut with a metallic clank.

The girl was looking at Jamie, a defiant steeliness in her eyes.

Jamie shook her head. “You’re in the wrong place if you’re lookin’ for a clean cannister. Should try your luck in the Manor,” she chuckled, then revved the engine, about to drive off.

“I can’t go back there.”

That got Jamie’s attention. Both her words and the accent Jamie should’ve noticed sooner.

She looked at the girl. Really looked this time. She was wearing mech clothing—dark brown leather on the bottom, light tan tunic, massive hood hiding most of her features.

But her hands were Manor-born through and through. Soft and flawless like she’d never worked a day in her life.

The girl blinked, waiting. Any other day Jamie would’ve loved to know what a pretty Manor-born was doing outside the city’s thick glass dome. But not today. By now the Bedposts knew she was missing. She was on borrowed time. 

“Sorry,” she said, “can’t help you.” She was about to drive off when the girl stopped her in her tracks a second time.

“Maybe I can help you.” She dragged a finger across her own wrist and raised an eyebrow at Jamie. “I can get it off.”

A laugh tumbled out of Jamie before she could stop it. “I’m back to thinkin’ you’re a foxer cause you’re off your head. Bands don’t come off without—”

The girl held up something between two fingers. A small holographic triangle. Flickering in the dull neon lights.

“Jesus!” Jamie pulled the girl’s hand down, frantically glancing around. No one had seen. She took a steadying breath. Lowered her voice. “Where the fuck did you get that?”

There was a curl at the girl’s mouth like she knew the tides had turned. “Does it matter?”

It really didn’t.

Jamie weighed her options. She’d left The Bed with a plan, and this wasn’t part of it. Then again, without the band they couldn’t track her. Would buy her time, and that alone was tempting.

Fuck. Nothing for it, then. She glanced up and down the street. Nodded at the seat behind her. “Get on.”

 

-∆-

 

They rode to the edge of the Fringes where the slums ended and the limestone wasteland began, stretching out into the Far Reaches.

There was a tavern there, its rusted sign hanging crookedly from a single chain. The Glow Worm. It was closed. Abandoned. Chained front door, bashed windows. Most of the stores on the outer edges were the same. As the oxygen supply dwindled in the Archive people were less and less willing to venture too far from the Manor. As if the shining dome might leak elitism the same way it leaked oxygen.

“So,” Jamie hopped off the bike, “you cut the band off, I give you the cannister? That the trade?”

The girl nodded.

Jamie nodded back. She wasn’t going to give her the cannister. Soon as the band was off her wrist she’d be gone.

“Why do you need it so bad?” It suddenly occurred to Jamie to ask.

The Archive pumped clean oxygen into the Manor day and night. The Fringes breathed off Manor oxygen that managed to escape. Point was, you only needed cannisters in the lower levels. The city was set up that way. The lowest of the low forced to work for their cannisters. Oxygen as compensation. Every breath had to be earned.

“I’m leaving BLY,” the girl said.

Jamie started to laugh but the girl looked dead serious. “Leavin’? For where?”

The girl raised a shoulder beneath her bulky tunic. She still hadn’t lowered her hood and her face was always half hidden in shadow.

“A cannister will get you to the other side of the Far Reaches but it won’t get you back.”

“I’m not planning on coming back.”

Well. That they had in common, at least.

“Right.” Jamie sighed. Way she saw it she was doing the girl a favor. If she gave her the cannister the girl would sod off on her little rebellion and end up suffocating. “Let’s get on with it, yeah?”

She walked the scrapbike down an alley, dark save for a dim blue glow coming off a neon sign many stories above. The girl followed.

A glance left and right, then Jamie was holding out her wrist, the architect key fitting against the triangle etched into the metal. The band releasing with a satisfying snick.

Jamie chucked it onto one of the nearby roofs. The Bedposts would toss the building looking for her. Keep them busy for a few hours at least.

“The cannister?” The girl was standing there waiting, all trusting eyes and tiny smile. Christ. She wouldn’t last a day in the Fringes.

“Bit of advice,” Jamie jumped back on the bike, “don’t trust so easy.” She went to push in the start screw but it wasn’t there. She looked over her shoulder. Shit.

The girl was holding the screw in the palm of her hand, eyebrows raised. “I don’t.” Her lips twitched. “The cannister. Please.”

Fuck. Jamie didn’t need this. Not now. She looked up at the black expanse above and blew out a breath. Made a split-second decision. Launched herself off the bike and at the girl.

The girl managed to hang onto the screw, holding it in a tight fist behind her back as Jamie grappled for it, both of them off-balance and scrambling.

Jamie managed to pin her against the wall. “Whatever you're runnin' from, it’s not worth dyin’ out there over.” She nodded in the direction of the Far Reaches.

The girl glared up at her, holding her fist tighter when Jamie reached around, attempting to unclench her fist.

“You don’t know anything.” The words were venom-tipped.

They were face to face, inches apart, far closer than Jamie had been to a single person in years. The girl’s hood had been knocked off in the struggle and her hair was a smooth sea of blonde, her eyes big and indignant. Her skin was ethereal in the dim blue light, a dusting of freckles spattered across her nose.

It felt like taking a punch to the gut. Fuck. She was beautiful. Staggeringly so. Which was just…bloody inconvenient, for one.

The oddest part about it was that the girl was looking back. Really looking. Something hot and slick slithered in Jamie’s core and fuck if that wasn’t inconvenient too.  

“I can’t give you the cannister,” Jamie said, sounding genuinely sorry because suddenly she was.

“So let’s share it,” the girl said, nodding at her own words. “If we take the bike we’ll be quick, we’ll only need the one between us.”

“Don’t know where you think you’re gonna go, there’s nothin’ out there—”

“If that’s true where are you headed?”

Jamie swallowed. The secret was heavy in her pocket.

Just then a large black vehicle roared past the alley. Shit. BLY Recon.

The vehicle stopped just past their hiding spot, rumbling as it idled, letting men out. Jamie could hear the vehicle’s recon-projector whirring to life and any second now her own face would be projected onto the tallest building so everyone in the vicinity would know—

Jamie took another punch to the gut. It was her face on the building. The girl’s.

Jamie looked at her. “BLY Recon? You’ve got Recs after you?”

The girl gave the tiniest shrug. There was another vehicle coming. More Recs. Didn’t matter if they were looking for the girl, the Bedposts had undoubtedly put out an alert on Jamie, they’d take them both.

“Give me the screw,” Jamie hissed.

“Give me the cannister,” the girl hissed back.

There were Recs in the street, rushing down an adjacent alley. They had minutes, maybe less.

Find the hatch, see the sky.

That’d been the plan. It still could be. It still was.

“Get on the bike and hang on, I’m not stoppin’ if you fall off.”

But first, ferry a fellow fugitive across the Far Reaches.

 

-∆-

 

It took a long time for the electric glow of the Fringes to fade into the darkness behind them. The scrapbike rode easily over the empty wasteland, the path ahead lit by the bike’s solitary headlamp, a dim yellow beam that occasionally fluttered out before flaring back to life.

They fell into an easy rhythm, passing the cannister back and forth between them.

Hours into their journey they stopped for a break, stretching their legs.

Jamie watched the girl stretch in the headlamp’s warm glow. Fuck. It'd been a long time. Too long, honestly. And now she was strapped with the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen, all flashbulb smile and pink lips and pullable hair.

What’s more, the girl had a curious gaze that seemed to focus on Jamie every time she thought Jamie wasn’t looking.

“So, you gonna tell me your name?” Jamie asked, rummaging in the saddlebag for the mill she’d stolen from Peter. She needed a distraction from big eyes and stupidly thick lashes.  

It was Dani. The girl’s name. Dani Clayton. Jamie didn’t recognize the surname. A lesser Manor-born then, but Manor all the same.

“Gonna tell me why the Recs are after you, Dani Clayton?” Jamie scooped a handful of mill into her mouth.

Dani pursed her lips.

Jamie nodded. Swallowed. “That’s a no then. At least gonna tell me where you’re headed? Where I’m meant to drop you?”

Dani ignored the question, peering into the bag of mill with a scrunched nose. “What is that?”  

“Millipedes.” Jamie smiled at Dani’s horrified face and popped another bug in her mouth. “Bit different outside the Manor, innit?” She chomped it in half, crunching as she chewed. “What’s it like in there, anyway?”

“Awful. Perfect stone mansions with perfectly manicured greenturf and perfect people with perfect faces.”

Jamie couldn’t stop a smirk. “Boo bloody hoo.”

Dani glanced at her before her eyes flicked away. She was fidgety, a restless counterpoint to Jamie, who’d settled across the bike in a sprawl.

She looked at Jamie’s bare wrist. “How long were you down there?”

“Long.”

Dani seemed to attempt a smile. “In the Manor they say it’s going well. Rumor has it the gardeners have turned a corner, that they’re making progress on the Bed.”

“I’m sure they do say that.” While patting themselves on the back, no doubt. “Down below the gardeners call it the Deathbed, cause—” Jamie gestured vaguely.

“So it isn’t true?”

“All they’re doin' is poisonin’ the gardeners with chem-fertilizers. Burnin’ them with sunbulbs. You can’t grow plants without sunlight and air. The real stuff, like.” The secret in Jamie’s pocket hummed against her skin. “They’ve been at it for a hundred years and they’ll be at it for a hundred more.”

“The Archive only has enough oxygen for another fifty.”

Jamie shrugged. “Then they’ll be at it for another fifty.”

“I’m sorry—” The words burst from Dani and she looked embarrassed by them, like she wanted to stuff them back in. “I just—I’m sorry that you had to work down there. I’ve never met a gardener before but I always thought if I did—” a nervous glance at Jamie, “then I would say thank you for your service and I’m sorry.”

Jamie snorted. Then full on laughed. “Did it work? Feel less guilty about your privilege now?”

“I didn’t—that isn’t why I—I only meant to be kind, I wasn’t—” Dani’s cheeks were turning red, a furrow in her brow. Like she was genuinely hurt by the suggestion.

Maybe she wasn’t an elitist cuntworm after all. Maybe she was just naïve. Jamie could forgive naïve.

“Worse fates in BLY than gardenin’, I suppose. My mum was a breeder down in the Nursery.” She had no idea why she said it. She’d never told anyone before.

Dani’s eyes flicked to hers, sharp and wary. Something dark passed behind them, then it was gone.

“She hung herself after pushin’ out her tenth kid. Eleventh, maybe.” She was saying too much, but strange enough Dani looked like she wanted to hear. Jamie shrugged. “Rather be a slave in a garden bed than an actual fuckin’ bed, like. ‘S all I’m sayin’.”

There was a noise in the distance behind them. Rock smashing against rock. Dani gasped and grabbed Jamie’s hand before whipping around to face the dark expanse.

“Just a stalactite fallin’,” Jamie said softly, nodding upward when Dani turned back. 

Dani nodded, doing a doubletake at their hands and quickly letting go.

“Hey,” Jamie reached for Dani’s hand back, just to get her attention. Never mind that she already had it. “There’s a secret place on the other side of the Far Reaches, so I've heard. It’s a commune, like. Oxygen pirates. Brave few who’ve escaped BLY.” She couldn’t believe she was telling a Manor-born, fucking traitor she was. “’S called the Enclave. Was plannin’ to stop in for the night. Good people there. Decent. I’m sure they’ll let you stay on long as you need.”

As they got back onto the bike Dani didn’t ask if Jamie was going to stay on too, but the question was there in her eyes. Maybe she didn’t ask because the answer was in Jamie’s.

 

-∆-

 

They reached the Enclave a long while later.

There was a neon sign, bright purple, sticking out of the ground. An upside-down triangle. Jamie chuckled. Bold.

Loud music was pouring from the entry—a scrap metal doorway between two large rocks. The rhythm was pounding, giving the ground a pulse.

Through the doorway, down a short flight of stairs leading into the rock, was an airtight antechamber filled with stolen oxygen, flashing with neon lights and music so loud Jamie could feel her brain bouncing in her skull.

The music cut out suddenly, the people stopped to stare, and a woman approached them, hand on the hilt of a knife strapped to her breeches.

“Hands?” She barked.

“What?”

She nodded at Jamie’s hands. “Palms up.” She was formidable—small but fierce. Half her head was shaved, the other was box-braided to her shoulders, several of the tiny braids interwoven with neon twine.

Jamie lifted her hands, bewildered, and Dani followed suit. The woman checked them over.

“Clean,” she said, and the room erupted in applause. “Sorry about that,” the woman led them to the bar as the music started up and the others got back to whatever they’d been doing, “the Recs have triangles inked on their palms. Had to make sure you didn’t.” She gestured for them to sit.

“Why did they clap?” Dani asked.

“Escaping BLY is always worth a cheer,” she smiled. “It’s been—eight? Almost nine years since our last newcomer. They’ll be all over you later,” she nodded at the others as she filled two pints of muhd and put them down. “I’m Becs,” she winked. “Welcome to the Enclave.”

Jamie took a deep swallow. Fuck, she’d missed alcohol.

She held in a chuckle as she watched Dani taste the ale with the tip of her tongue and grimace.

There was a glowstick on the bar, sitting straight on a little base while blue light pulsed within. Jamie hadn’t seen anything like it before.

“What’s this?” She pointed at it.

“Proximity Radar. Prox-rods, they’re called. They glow red when they sense new energy, they whistle and shriek the closer that energy gets. Gives us fair warning when newbies show up.”

Dani sputtered and coughed beside her and Jamie slapped a hand on her back.

“I like it,” Dani managed, grinning down at the muhd between coughs.

I like you, Jamie thought, and fuck, that wasn’t part of the plan either.

Time slid by.

Eventually the others gathered around as Becs had predicted, introducing themselves, asking questions.

It was strange, the way the night began unfolding then. Maybe it was the commonality of being newcomers in a commune of old friends. Maybe it was the day they’d had—full of fate and fear and flirtation. Maybe it was the muhd. But somewhere along the way Dani shifted off her own stool and leaned back against Jamie’s, standing between her legs with her elbows on her thighs as she talked to a bald man with neon lipstick about the role of art in a post-apocalypse society.

It was definitely the muhd in her veins making Jamie brave enough to link their fingers. To run her thumb back and forth across Dani’s wrist while pretending to hear anything Becs was telling her.

Her heart skipped a beat when Dani turned her head for a split second—just long enough for Jamie to glimpse pink cheeks and a shy smile.

 

“You’re welcome to the room in back,” Becs said later, when Jamie started yawning.

Bloody convenient, that. Jamie was knackered.

Or, it was convenient, until she realized the room only had one bed. And just like that she was wide awake like she’d injected adrenaline into her eyeballs.

The room was a simple thing, limestone floor, scrap metal walls, a crooked bed.

Dani flopped down first, tipsy and smiling, leaning up on an elbow and reaching out a hand. Jamie slipped out of her jacket, toed off her boots and joined her, careful to leave space.

It was still there, sparking between them. An energy, frenetic and tingling.

“I heard you,” Dani said suddenly. “Telling Becs to look out for me.”

Jamie raised a shoulder. “Wanna make sure you have an easy go of it.”

"After you're gone.”

Nothing to do but confirm it with a slight nod.

“But—where will you go?”

“Topside.”

“What?” Dani was shaking her head, eyes wild and confused. "As soon as you open the hatch you’ll—”

“Be obliterated by radiation?”

“Well, yeah—"

“I know. But there’s somethin’ I have to do.”

“I’m going to convince you to stay.” 

Jamie smiled. “You won’t.”

“I’m going to try.”

“Why?”

Dani made a face. “Because I don’t want you to die, for one. Also,” she tilted her head, “because you’re nice. And you’re pretty.”

Jamie’s stomach fluttered but she didn’t respond.

Dani’s eyes flickered up. “Is—is that okay? To say?”

“Not used to it is all,” Jamie chuckled.

“You should be,” Dani said, sounding nearly offended. She shimmied up the bed and plopped her head back against Jamie’s stomach, reaching to hold one of Jamie’s hands between her own. “People should tell you all the time.”

She started trailing her fingertips over Jamie’s hand and maybe she was doing it absentmindedly but every nerve in Jamie’s body was suddenly standing at attention.

Dani swiped her index finger over the sensitive swell of skin by her thumb and Jamie shivered, smiling sheepishly when Dani eyed her.

“Feels good,” she nudged her chin at their hands.

Dani grinned and did it again.

The room felt full of static, like the thing between them was buzzing all around, waiting for one of them to snatch it out of the air.

It was Dani who reached for it first.

“Can gardeners…down below, are they allowed to…?” She didn’t look up from where she was tracing shapes into Jamie’s palm.

“To what?”

Dani shifted to raise an eyebrow at her.

“To—to fuck?”

Dani nodded.

“They’re not but they do.” Jamie wasn’t sure why she suddenly needed to add, “Haven’t in a while though.” She cringed. “Sorry, reckon that was. Weird. To say.”

“Why?” Dani blinked up at her. “Why haven’t you?”

“Um,” Jamie fucking giggled then, a mortifying sound she was certain she’d never made before, “yeah, I dunno,” she couldn’t meet Dani’s eyes, “not many…options? Down below?”

“Do you want to? Before you kill your—”

“Not killin’ myself,” Jamie said softly, stretching her fingers so Dani could rub hers between. “Dyin’s a consequence of goin’ topside, not the purpose.”

Dani was silent for a long while. Then, “But don’t you want to? Before?”

Jamie laughed. “Why? You offerin’?” She meant it as a joke. Something to chase the headiness from the room.

“I mean, kind of. Yeah.”

Jamie’s eyelids had grown heavy watching Dani stroking her hand and it took a minute for the answer to sink in.

“Wait, what?”

Instead of answering Dani sat up and pulled off her tunic, then the layers beneath.

Jamie just sat there like a rock, mute and staring, while chaos erupted in her head. This was…the farthest thing from the plan so far…

Dani was eyeing her and Jamie reached out before she could worry she’d read it all wrong. 

Jamie’s tunic came off next and then she was leaning back to look at Dani some more.  

Fuck. “You’re perfect.”

She was. Creamy skin, smooth and unmarked, so unlike—

Dani was staring at Jamie’s arms.

“’S lampburn,” Jamie shrugged, fighting the overwhelming urge to hide her arms behind her back. “From the sunbulbs. Happens to all the gardeners.”

Dani was just staring and Jamie felt like a fucking fool because what did she think would happen? She’d crossed her arms without realizing it, feeling utterly exposed and embarrassed and—

Dani pulled at her, tugged her down.

Jamie landed with a hand on either side of Dani’s head, and Dani turned slowly to kiss the nearest scar—a shiny smear across her right forearm. She pressed her lips there, then opened her mouth to taste Jamie’s skin with her tongue.

Jamie’s breath stuttered at the sight, and fuck, she wanted—

“Can I—” her voice was a rasp as she tugged at Dani’s breeches, “is this okay?”

“Yeah, yes,” Dani’s nod was frenzied, feverish as she helped Jamie pull off the tight leather.

The sight of Dani laid bare before her was a sunbulb bursting in Jamie’s chest and she had to touch her, had to run her hands down her ribcage, squeezing gently when she reached her hips, traveling further to her—

There was a tattoo. A small tattoo on Dani’s left pelvis. At first Jamie smiled at it—unexpected for a Manor-born to be inked. She leaned down to kiss the mark, sending Dani a quick smirk. But Dani wasn’t smiling. She looked terrified, and her hand flew down to cover the tattoo.

“’S fine,” Jamie said, “I like it, don’t be—” Then she realized. The tattoo. A triangle for BLY. The location of it. Jamie’s mother had borne the exact same mark.

“Please don’t—don’t turn me in,” Dani’s face was white, “I can’t go back—”

“Not gonna turn you in, but—fuck, I thought you—you said you were Manor-born, you—”

“I said I couldn’t go back there.” A tiny shrug. “The rest you assumed.”

Jamie’s head was spinning. “So—you’re a—a breeder? For the Manor?”

“I was a nanny. For Wingrave’s niece and nephew. He—Wingrave, I mean, he, um. Took a liking to me? I—I guess, and he—um. He—” She shook her head.

“Decided you were gonna be his.” 

Idiotic not to realize sooner. Dani was gorgeous. Perfect. Of course someone rich and powerful wanted to possess her. Use her to perpetuate a bloodline of perfect fucking spawn and fuck, Jamie wanted to punch something.

“Fuckin’ hell, Dani, Wingrave?” The family that had created BLY to begin with. Gatekeepers to survival in a planet-wide apocalypse. The Wingraves were gods.

“I stole his architect key so I could get out of the dome and I ran away before he could—” Dani swallowed, “before. And I’m not going back.”

“Good.” Jamie said softly. She flopped down next to Dani on her back. “Should’ve just said to begin with. Reason enough to share my cannister and give you a lift.”

Dani leaned up on an elbow and looked down at Jamie. Stared and stared.

A smirk pulled at Jamie’s lips. “What?”

“You’re a good person.”

“Barely know anythin’ about me.”

“I know enough.”

Jamie was about to say something like get to know me better and you’ll be changin’ your mind, but suddenly Dani was leaning down, laser-focused on Jamie’s lips and chasing all the self-degradation away.  

It was gentle at first. Tentative.

For her part Jamie held back, letting Dani set the pace. 

It didn’t stay gentle for long. Dani poked her tongue at the seam of their lips and whimpered when Jamie opened her mouth and Jamie was only fucking human and it really had been so long.

There was nothing between them and Jamie was high off the feeling of smooth skin against her own. Intoxicated by soft hair and sweet puffs of breath against her neck as her fingers trailed down.

She paused when Dani said her name.

“It’s just—I’ve never—” Dani glanced down the length of their bodies.

“With a woman?”

“With anyone.”

“Oh.” Fuck. “Right.” Wrong to be so turned on by that. Fucking lizard brain. “We don’t have to, honestly, we could just—”

“I want to.” Dani’s eyes were big as her fingers curled around Jamie’s biceps. “I really, really want to.”

“That’s—” Breathe. “Yeah, that’s um." Just be normal. "Sure. Righto.” What the fuck. “That's good. Very good. That you…want…that. And we’ll take it slow, we—”

Dani silenced her with a headshake, then she was tugging her down, dragging her teeth over Jamie’s neck and that was—Jesus, that was—

“Slow can come later,” Dani whispered. “I don’t want you to be gentle now.”

 

As they moved together Jamie's mind grew louder. Thoughts swelling like an ocean.

It was the last night of her life.

Whether she found the hatch or not she’d be dead tomorrow. Suffocation below or radiation topside. An unfamiliar pang ricocheted around her ribcage at the thought. Fear, Jamie realized. For the first time since the plan had taken root she was afraid.

But a childhood on the Fringes and years out on the Bed had taught Jamie the uselessness of fear. Of sadness. Of anger. She’d learned to take one thing and turn it into another. Fear into bravado thick as armor. Sadness into apathy. Anger into hard work despite the futility of the task they’d demanded of her.

And now, with Dani naked and beautiful and panting beneath her, she took fear and turned it into passion. Into breathless pleas and swallowed moans and nonsense words of fuck perfect god yes so good don’t stop. Into hands seeking and tongues tasting and slick and sweat and heat and fuck, the way Dani’s eyes never left hers, the way she whispered Jamie, the way her brow creased when she came and came and came.

Jamie seared the beauty of it into her mind like a brand, blistering and permanent, so she could picture it the next day when she went topside. So she could die with a smile on her face.

 

Somewhere between the fourth and fifth time they took a break, sated and tired.

Jamie went to the kitchen and found some curried mill—would’ve been worth a good bit on the Fringes where spice supplies had dwindled over the last twenty years.

Back in bed Jamie made a show of eating it, licking her fingers and humming dramatically. Either the ridiculous display worked or Dani was proper starving because a minute later she held out her hand.

“Fine. I’ll try one.”

Jamie gave her a particularly crispy one—those were the best—and tried not to chuckle at Dani’s pained expression when she took her first nibble. 

“It’s—” Dani blinked at the bag of mill, “not terrible, actually.” She reached for more and Jamie laughed, charmed and amused. It’d been years since she’d laughed like that and it shook something loose inside of her. Made room in her chest for more.

They sat there for a long time with the sheets draped around them, cross-legged and naked. Knees touching and eyes catching every now and then with a little smile.

Dani talked about life in the Nursery before she’d been recruited by Wingrave at thirteen. Thirteen and tasked with raising someone else’s kids. Thirteen and Wingrave’s eyes already on her, biding his time. Jamie decided she’d also imagine killing him when she went topside. That would make her smile too.

“Do you remember the Nursery?” Dani asked at one point.

Jamie barely did. She’d been four when Louise had hung herself. Four when her older siblings had been sent to work in the Cellar generating energy or in the Kitchen producing food for all of BLY. Four when she’d been dumped at a crowded children’s home in the Fringes.

“I remember endless rows of tiny houses, all the same,” Jamie’s eyes slid shut, memories coming in flashes, “too many children. Pregnant women with sad eyes. Men from BLY coming down to test the older kids. Assess them. Decide their future. How they’d best serve BLY.” Smartest boys to the Archive. Prettiest girls to the Nursery. On and on it went.

“I remember being lonely,” Dani said softly. “Isn’t that strange? In a place with so many other children, so many people…”

“’S not strange. Sometimes those are the loneliest places.” Like the Bed. Like the Fringes.

Dani was looking at her then, serious and sad.

Jamie nudged her knee with her own. “What?”

“I want you to stay.”

Warmth burst in Jamie’s chest, cooling instantly. “I can’t.”

“It peels your skin.”

Jamie looked at her.

“It does,” Dani gave an indignant little nod. “The radiation. That’s what happened to everyone who didn’t make it down into BLY. It cooks you, but it doesn’t happen quickly so you suffocate from the lack of oxygen first, but the whole time you’re in agony with your skin melting and your eyeballs bursting and—"

Jamie let out a snort. “You made up the eyeball bit.”

“The rest is true.” Dani clenched her jaw.

“I know.” Jamie smiled. “And I appreciate you not wantin’ me to die horribly.”

“I don’t understand,” Dani’s voice was soft. “You made it all the way here, even the Recs aren’t brave enough to cross the Far Reaches, you’re free—couldn’t that be enough?”

“No.” Jamie softened the honesty with a slow shrug. “The oxygen will run out. Fifty years, you said it yourself. Everyone will die. And that’s—we're meant to die, but I don’t want to die here, underground, crushed deep down in the dirt. For once in my life I want to choose somethin’ for myself.”

“But—couldn’t you stay for a little? Fifty years is a long time—”

Jamie looked at Dani. Decided. “I’m gonna show you somethin’.”

Find the hatch, see the sky. This—showing her—wasn’t part of the plan. But maybe it could be. Maybe it made the plan better.

She felt Dani’s eyes on her as she went over to the jacket, draped over a chair in the corner. Carefully, reverently, she pulled the secret from its pocket.

Turned to face Dani with it cradled in her hands.

Dani’s breath caught. “Is that—?”

Jamie nodded. Took careful steps back to the bed and settled onto her knees before Dani, the secret cupped in her palms.

Whatever reaction she’d been expecting it hadn’t been tears, but there they were, small and silent and slipping down Dani’s cheeks.

How?” Dani asked, and then, “Can I hold it?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jamie giggled, it bubbled up and she wasn’t even ashamed this time as she handed the tiny pot to Dani, who cradled it with careful awe.

Jamie watched her look the little leafling over, holding it right up to her eyes, examining every last detail.

“My first day on the Bed the girl stationed in the plot next to mine offed herself with a trowel,” Jamie said. “Wasn’t sharp, she had to really dig to get at the vein, and even then it wasn’t quick. Took ages. That’s when I decided.” She met Dani’s eyes over the tiny plant. It was a small, fragile thing—a little green stalk with two leaves no bigger than droplets. “If I was gonna keep my sanity I had to find a purpose. So gardenin’ became my purpose. I messed with the chem-fertilizers. Experimented with the sunbulbs. For years and years. And I did what BLY’s fuckin’ scientists have been tryin’ to do for a century.”

“And no one knows?”

Jamie shook her head. “They would’ve taken him to a laboratory,” she nodded at the leafling, “picked him apart under a microscope, tryin’ to figure what went right for once and destroyin’ all hope in the meantime.” She took the pot back from Dani. “I’m goin’ topside to plant him in the earth. The real stuff. Beneath the actual bloody sun.”

“But—” Dani was shaking her head, “he can’t survive up there—”

“Maybe not,” Jamie said. “Probably not. Deserves a chance though, doesn’t he?”

Dani reached out a solitary finger and held it beneath one of the tiny leaves. Holding it, but only just.

“I want to go with you.”

Jamie’s eyes snapped to hers.

“Just to the hatch,” she said when Jamie opened her mouth to protest. “I just want to see you to the hatch.”

“Won’t make sayin’ goodbye any easier.”

“It’s more time. With you.”

Fuck. “Dani, I—"

“Besides. I want to choose something too. For once in my life.”

Jamie blew out a breath through her nose. “You’re decent,” she said softly.

“You barely know me.”

“I know enough.”

 

-∆-

 

The next morning Becs dredged a pair of gasmasks up from somewhere in the Enclave.

“Relics,” she said, shaking her head at the monstrous looking things, “but every bit of protection counts.” She handed Dani the prox-rod from the bar. “So you can find your way back to us, though I don’t understand why you’re going. Everything you could ever need is right here.” She sent Jamie a pointed glare, as though she thought she was forcing Dani’s hand.

Jamie swallowed against a knot of guilt. She wouldn’t let anything happen to Dani. If they started running short on oxygen she’d send her back. Simple as that.

 

The gasmasks made breathing simple—there was a clasp by the nose for their cannisters, all they had to do was snap them in and breathe. There was half a day’s oxygen in each thanks to Becs—a generous contribution considering oxygen was never a sure thing in the Enclave.

Dani seemed to sit as close as she could, holding tight as they rode.

It was selfish, Jamie was realizing. Letting Dani see her to the hatch. She should’ve fucked off in the night—better for Dani to wake in an empty bed than watch Jamie climb out to her doom. But she’d been warm and perfect and iron chains couldn’t have wrenched Jamie away.

She’d just have to send her off beforehand. Spare her the horror of it. Would she even have time to close the hatch before the radiation started burning her? Would Dani be forced to hear her scream?

She wouldn’t, she decided. She’d bite her tongue in half before she let herself scream.

The scrapbike buzzed along the wasteland and after a long time it seemed the great cavern was closing in. Getting smaller. Leading to something.

“You’re sure you know the way to the hatch?” Dani had asked that morning, sitting in bed, watching Jamie dress.

Jamie repeated what she’d heard on the Bed. “Past the Enclave the cavern gets becomes a tunnel. Follow the tunnel til it runs uphill. At the fork turn left. When you see the metal road with the gleamin’ bricks, you’re close.”

“Sounds like a riddle."

“Hope not,” Jamie had laughed, "I’m shite at riddles.”

“I’ll be there,” Dani smiled then, sweet and sad, “I’ll help you find it.”

And Jamie hadn’t been able to keep from kissing her, pushing her back onto the bed, peeling off clothes she’d only just pulled on.

Jamie was lost in the memory of it when Dani’s arm snapped up in her periphery, pointing.

Just ahead, illuminated by the scrapbike’s headlamp, was the entrance to a tunnel. Jamie’s stomach flipped.

She wanted to turn back. Would’ve given anything to return to the Enclave and spend the next year in bed memorizing every last inch of Dani.  

But the leafling in her pocket was bigger than anything she could want for herself.

The tunnel began to tip uphill.

There were words on the rock walls in crude black paint: BLY is a lie. Beside it was a triangle with a line through it. Anti-BLY symbology. The sort of thing that could get you a one-way ticket to the Bed. Jamie chuckled. Whoever the artist had been, fuckin’ good on them.

It took far less time than Jamie had expected to come up on the fork. Or maybe it was the dread, speeding time into a blur. She veered left, the scrapbike bumping along as the tunnel leveled out.

Dani tapped her shoulder, lightly at first and then harder. It was impossible for Jamie to turn with the stupid mask on, so she stopped the bike and pulled it up as Dani did the same.

“Look,” Dani said, holding up the prox-rod. It was glowing red.

“Probably pickin’ up on our energy,” Jamie attempted a casual shrug despite the unpleasant tingle on the back of her neck.

But Dani was shaking her head. “It only started glowing a moment ago.”

Jamie turned to stare into the darkness behind them. “We’re getting’ closer to the top,” she glanced at Dani, “probably just the radiation.” Because who would be following them? Only someone with a death wish.

They continued on, the tunnel bringing them farther and farther from BLY.

And then, quite suddenly, there it was before them—the metal road. Strange iron beams bolted right into the ground. Jamie tried to drive the scrapbike down the center of the lane but there were shorter beams crosshatched and the bike was likely to pop a tire. Nothing to do but lean it against the tunnel’s wall and continue on foot.

The passageway had a curved ceiling, perfectly rounded. There were pipes attached to the walls too, lots of them, running infinitely on ahead into the dark.

It was only a matter of moments before Dani lifted her mask to say, “Gleaming bricks.”

And she was right—the dark limestone had given way to white bricks that glistened when Dani held the glowing prox-rod up to them.

They were getting close.

Jamie turned to stand in front of Dani, blocking her path. She lifted her mask. “We should say goodbye here.”

“This isn’t the hatch.” 

“Exactly. It’s a safe distance—"

“I’m seeing you to the hatch.”

“You won’t change my mind,” she said softly. “If you’re still plannin’ to try.”

“I know. I know I won’t. But you shouldn’t have to do this alone.”

Jamie let her push by then, and didn’t say alone would be easier.

 

They walked along the metal road for what felt like miles, the prox-rod lighting the way with its eerie red glow.

Jamie took the leafling out to check it over. She’d watered it that morning but it didn’t look as bright as it had the day before. If there was any hope for it she’d need to transplant it soon.

She was tucking it back away when Dani tugged on her arm and pointed up.

There was something on the wall. Some sort of sign. A large red circle, dull and cracked, a blue rectangle through its middle. 

“Westmin—” Jamie stretched up to clear the smear of dust and debris covering the word. “Westminster.”

Dani pulled up her mask. “What does it mean?”

“Don’t know, could be—”

There was a sudden high-pitched whine in Dani’s pocket. The prox-rod. She pulled it out. It was bright red, pulsing and screaming.

And then, the sound of footsteps in the blackness behind them.

Jamie grabbed Dani’s hand. “Run.”

They ran, hands clasped, as Dani held the prox-rod out like a sabre. It had quieted for the moment as its red glow struggled to light the path ahead.

With the mask over Jamie’s head it was impossible to hear anything outside of her own frantic breathing. Her own pounding heart.

Who the fuck would’ve followed them all this way? Not the Bedposts—they didn’t have the resources. It had to be Wingrave, or one of his men, coming for Dani. To take her back. Make her his.

Without slowing down Jamie lifted her mask, trained her ear. Fuck. The footsteps were louder, faster. Whoever was after them was running too.

The knife Jamie stole on her way up from the Bed was still in her pocket and she reached in, wrapping her fingers around the handle.

Just then the prox-rod’s glow caught on a pile of debris in their way—concrete slabs and bent scaffolding—impossible to pass.

Fuck, there's no—"

But Dani was pulling her away from the debris, yanking her into an alcove Jamie hadn’t seen.

It was a narrow hallway, dark and long, and Jamie barely registered the words on the wall: Subway Maintenance Access.

The hall led to a stairway. They took the stairs two at a time, one flight, two flights, three—only to find another long hallway at the top. They ran. More words. St. James. Westminster Abbey. Parliament.

There was another impassible pile of wreckage in the hall, debris from a large hole blasted right in the wall. Dani stuck the prox-rod into the hole. A passageway, it seemed. Rudimentary. Leading upward.

It was a blur—running, stumbling, pulling each other up and onward. Maybe they’d gone ten metres, maybe they’d gone a hundred, but suddenly they could go no further because directly ahead was a metal barrier. A doorway. Circular and smooth and fused to the tunnel’s bedrock. There was no handle, no lever, nothing save for a triangle etched into the center.

The hatch. 

Just then the prox-rod started whining again. Jamie tore off her mask, Dani did the same. Footsteps on the stairs. The prox-rod started screaming. Footsteps in the hall.

Jamie grabbed the prox-rod from Dani, standing in front of her. Whoever it was would have to go through her first.

She put her mask back on. If there was going to be a fight she’d need oxygen.

They both felt it when the person entered the dirt tunnel. There was no hiding—the prox-rod’s whistle was a damning beacon.

Jamie gripped the knife. Waited.

And finally the person reached them. Slowly stepped into the light of the prox-rod’s glow.

Peter Quint.

Jamie ripped off her mask. “What the fuck?”

“On quite the adventure, aren’t you, Taylor?” He looked past her and grinned at Dani. “Hello there.”

Jamie stepped more fully in front of her.

Peter hummed like he found the whole thing endearing. “Your little breeder bitch has her face projected all over BLY, you know. Wingrave is offering a handsome reward.”

“Get fucked.”

“That’s the point—I already am,” he said. “Months to live, remember? Unless I find the means to buy my way into the Manor for treatment.”

“You’re not takin’ her.”

He took a suck from his cannister. Probably fox, which meant he’d either be doped up and easy to best or super-human and impossible. But none of it mattered because a second later he pulled a pistol from beneath his tunic.

Shit. She should’ve stolen it when she had the chance.

He trained it on her with a grimace. “It’s not personal, mate. Honestly, I happen to like you,” he chuckled, “it’s just, I like myself a bit more.”

Jamie chucked the prox-rod as hard as she could, flinging it down the passage behind him. Plunging all three of them into pitch blackness.

It’d been impulsive—she’d only meant to keep him from having a clear shot, but she regretted it a moment later when he slammed into her, tackling her to the ground.

She fell backward, feeling the exact moment the little clay pot shattered in her pocket. She didn’t have time to think about it—the gun was still in his hand and she was blindly grappling for it.  

It didn’t matter that he only had one hand, he had brute force and in the chaos he’d managed to knock Jamie’s mask from her head.

“Run!” Jamie screamed into the darkness, “Dani, run!”

The gun went off then, Jamie felt the bullet zing past her ear. She took advantage of the recoil, of Peter being knocked off-balance for a split second, scrambling upward, planning to kick the gun away but just then there was a loud clank, followed by a great hiss like hydraulics.

“Jamie—” came Dani’s voice, “the door—”

She’d opened it. Somehow Dani had opened the hatch and there a crescent of dim light from the other side, just enough to see Dani standing with a palm against the smooth metal.  

Peter was getting to his feet and aiming the pistol and Jamie didn’t think she just moved—launching forward, following Dani through the open crack of the hatch. As soon as they were on the other side they spun to slam it closed, pushing against it with all their weight until they felt it lock in place.

“The architect key,” Dani lifted her mask to say softly.

Jamie nodded. “Well done.”

It was a stone room they were standing in, murky light spilling down from a stone stairway at the room’s far edge.

“Here.” Dani handed over the mask. Jamie’s was still on the other side. She took a breath and handed it back.

As her racing heart slowed her stomach began to sink. They were Topside. Together. And on this side the hatch was unmarked—no triangular etchings for the architect key. It was a one-way door.

“We’re trapped,” Jamie said softly, throat clenching at the realization. They were stuck, with only half a cannister of oxygen between them.

“Let’s hurry,” Dani said.

“Hurry? What—”

“The leafling. Let’s plant it before our air runs out.”

Jamie was silent as she retrieved the remnants of the seedling from her pocket. The pot had crumbled, the little green stalk had snapped in two, the leaves were missing altogether.

When she looked up, Dani’s eyes were brimming with tears. “We’ll plant it anyway,” she said. “It still deserves to see the sun.”

And all Jamie could do was follow her across the stone floor, up the stone steps, as a chorus chanted in her head: your skin will peel, your eyes will burst, she’ll die, she’ll die, she’ll die.

The stairway wound around and around, the light growing ever brighter.

All the while they shared the mask, but Jamie had begun to fake her breaths—the less she breathed the longer Dani would live.

The top of the stairway was in sight—bright light spilling from what lay beyond. Nearly there.

Jamie’s heart stuttered and she reached out for Dani. “If you hadn’t met me you’d be safe.”

“If I hadn’t met you I’d already be back with Wingrave.”

“You’d live—”

“That’s not really living though, is it?” She put her palm against Jamie’s cheek. “I don’t regret anything.”

Jamie kissed her then. Kissed her and kissed her, desperate and heated and sad. They only pulled apart when they couldn’t hold their breath a moment longer.

Dani handed her the mask. “Ready?”

Jamie took a breath this time, a real one, before nodding. “I’ll go first.” She pushed by Dani, intending to stick her own arm into the light. To test it. She wasn’t about to let the fucking radiation touch Dani’s perfect skin.

She gathered her nerve in the shadows at the top of the stairs. It was impossible to see beyond the doorway—the light was blinding. Worse than. It burned Jamie’s retinas, white starbursts exploding across her vision. She took a final breath before turning to hand the mask back and kiss Dani one last time.

But Dani was standing there, one step below, eyes darting left and right, a furrow in her brow as her mouth fell open.

“Dani?” Jamie touched her cheek. “What’s wrong?” It had to be the radiation, maybe she was more sensitive to it, maybe she—

“I can breathe.”

“Take the mask, put it on, hurry—”

“Jamie—” the furrow disappeared and Dani’s smile was wide and awestruck, “I can breathe."

Jamie barely had time to process the words before Dani launched forward, running through the door and into the blinding white beyond.

“DANI!” She ran after her, she had to get her back into the shadows, back to safety, but she couldn’t see. The light was so bright, like staring into a sunbulb.

Three things. She was all at once brilliantly aware of three things.

First, the floor, coming into view as her eyes began adjusting. Patterned. Black and white.

Second, she could breathe too. She’d taken several breaths accidentally in her panic and fucking hell—it was the purest oxygen she’d ever inhaled.

And last—Dani. Standing right there beside her. Perfect skin still perfect, flashbulb smile still wide.

It took long moments for their eyes to adjust, and even then they could only manage squints and glimpses, but it was enough.

They were in a massive room, stone walls and arched ceiling and beautiful colored glass windows. A hundred feet above them half the roof was missing, a hundred feet before them most of the front wall was missing too. Scars from the final war, undoubtedly.

“Jamie—tell me you see it—” Dani whispered.

And Jamie did.

She was on her knees before she even felt herself fall. Dani bent beside her, leaving space between. Space for Jamie to process.

It was everywhere. Spilling over the front wall, meandering across the checkerboard floor, tumbling like waterfalls down from the ceiling.

Vines. Leaves. Plants. Trees. Flowers. Life. Thick and strong.

There was more green than masoned stone—at some point, while humanity hid beneath, the scales had tipped in nature’s favor. The earth had filled in the spaces they’d left behind.

There were tears spilling down Jamie’s cheeks but suddenly she was laughing, loud and true, shaking her head when Dani looked concerned.

“All this time,” Jamie said. “Livin’ down below like worms. Meanwhile,” she gestured at the endless garden around them. “The big brains behind BLY never thought to check?”

“Maybe they did,” Dani said after some time. “Maybe they know.”

 

They left the gasmask on a square of untouched white in the middle of the massive room.

The vines and branches made it easy to climb up the front wall, to stand on its remains. White flowers bloomed on the branches around them.

There was an enormous clocktower in the near distance, a corner of it crumbled beyond repair, the rest of it with vines like fingers wrapped round, gripping tight to tear it down. Similar wreckage was everywhere—razed buildings, empty streets, a downed bridge dipping into a river that lay just beyond, brilliant and blue like the sky above.

It’d been a great city once, wherever they were, and now the hungry earth was swallowing it whole.

“Do you think it’s just us?” Dani asked. “Alone here?”

“Could be.”

“I want to see it all. Everything.”

Jamie looked at her. “Do you want company?”

She felt Dani’s smile all the way in the tips of her ears as they made their way into the sunlight.

Somewhere, miles beneath their feet, the beasts of yesterday cowered. Doomed to stay tethered and terrified.

Before them, the brilliant world was beckoning.