Riddles from Dystopia: Chapter 1

The story I told those ill-fated pilgrims in Library was as true as any of theirs. I lied only by omission, and what I withheld from them then cannot harm them now.

They’d have forgiven my dissembling, anyway, if they’d known about it. They’d have expected it, even thanked me for it, because they understood that distortion and elision reveal more about their subject than any subject can on its own, that untruth is to a storyteller what negative space is to a painter, a kind of fourth dimension.

I would settle for three, where I am now.

Here at the brink of oblivion I am the tallest object for countless miles, a perpendicular intrusion on an infinite plane. Every day the ground tugs a little harder, and I know that I am shrinking, that my spine is bending, that I have already lost an inch, maybe two, and that it is just a matter of time before I am reabsorbed into the clay, the memory of a wrinkle in an ironed sheet.

Until then, the pen. I am not sure what I am writing, or to whom. Most likely I am babbling to specters. Nevertheless I fill these pages furiously, unceasingly, because I know that they contain the only unchanging copy of my history, that in my corrupted recollection the past will not remain still; it bends and flexes and warps until it is something else entirely, something vaguely like a story that I read once, a long time ago, in a language that I no longer speak, after too much wine.

Ironic, I suppose, that after all these years rummaging for shards in mankind’s detritus, I should have created one for myself in this bargain-bin notebook.

Five words were missing from the story I told those ill-fated travelers, all that time ago: ORDER THE COFFEE GRIND PANCAKES. I’d found them scrawled by an unsteady hand on an unruled index card in Arcy Christian’s false sepulcher, bold and black and wet and untouched by dust.

Five words, and now we are three who know them: I who transcribed them here, in this homespun shard; you, poor specter, who exhumed this stillborn tale; and their author, who is as mysterious to me now as he was then, to whom I owe everything, and nothing.

From the-place-once-called-Elberton I proceeded to Terminus, widely regarded as the largest polis in the Sprawl, though no one really knows if that’s true. A light rail system still runs there, one of the few inorganic survivors of the Scourge. I rode it from the city’s perimeter to its center, where I found a read-only shard terminal in a moth-eaten bookshop in the basement of a skyscraper, whose grinning proprietor charged me an extortionate sum for its use.

I found nothing about Route 14. Nothing about coffee grind pancakes. Nothing about Last Resort. When I logged off of s:Terminus several hours later, the book shop was closed and its attendant had fallen asleep on his stool. Remembering how much I’d paid the man, I picked a hardcover at random from the nearest shelf, thrust it into my backpack, and left the city.

The bus out of Terminus ran through razed suburbs and vacant backwaters. Massive weeds sprung up through cracks in strip mall parking lots; huge, gnarled roots unseated sidewalks; birds nested in collapsed roofs and rusted gutters. Everywhere, the earth was reclaiming lost ground.

Too late, I thought.

When the unpeopled world beyond the bus window got too lonely, I turned to the passenger sitting beside me. He was a very young man, so young that he still had verve left in his eyes, and he glanced up from his phone a little too quickly, as though he’d been looking for an excuse to do so.

“Going home?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“And where’s home?”

“I’m not sure,” he said through a crooked smile. “I’ve never been there.”

“In that case,” I said, “how do you know it wasn’t Terminus?”

He shook his head for just a little too long, as though he’d forgotten why it was moving. “No. Not that place. That place wasn’t real. It was like an old movie. Too big and dark and damp.”

“You could say that about the whole world,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said, and his eyes drifted away from mine until they settled on the back of the seat in front of him, having discovered some new pattern in its threadbare upholstery. “This one, anyway.”

I turned my own eyes back to the window, and resolved to keep them there for the rest of the tip.

In Rocket County, a day later — nothing.

In Crescendo, two days after that — nothing.

The shard in Bluegrass had fallen to the Scourge the day before I arrived, a full week after leaving Elberton. I found a city official and offered to run diagnostics, to see if any data could be recovered, but when the woman heard my fee she shook her head and began to walk away, muttering something about budget cuts. I said fine, that I’d do it gratis so long as I could study the shard’s contents after my work was complete, but still she declined, quickening her pace.

By the time I got to Arc I was ready to give up, convinced that what I’d found in Arcy Christian’s grave had been an elaborate hoax, an interactive exhibit devised by some pre-Third performance artist. But in that city I found the first reference to Route 14 that I’d encountered since ascending from the underworld. It was a log entry from a Splitweb tourist named October who had passed through Arc on her way south from Upper Reach, a small town on the northern frontier of our continent:

Pick a bar in Upper Reach. That one in the alley will do nicely, with the unmarked door that doesn’t quite close and the cloud of cigarette smoke brooding over the burnt-out jukebox. Find the oldest person in the place, the guy who looks like he might drink stale coffee from a flimsy paper cup because he likes the way it tastes. Buy him something strong, from the shelf just above where they keep the cleaning supplies. Look him in the eye. Don’t smile. Don’t frown.

Eventually he’ll say something, and if you can keep him talking long enough he might just tell you that the whole world’s been keeping a secret, that Upper Reach isn’t the end of the line, that there are people living farther north, much farther north, rebels and runaways holed up in pre-Third ruins, and that the only way to get to them is to find a highway called Route 14 that isn’t on any maps, that isn’t connected to any other roads.

Normally I sleep on trains and buses when I’m traveling long distances, but I was so elated after discovering October’s entry that I decided to splurge on a motel. Two blocks from the terminal bank I found one with a big, block-letter sign that advertised running water and sound-proofed rooms. Behind its lobby’s bulletproof window a pockmarked night manager was scratching a tattoo on his neck and watching a moaning screen. He scanned me warily, then leaned over and barked a number through a metal chute. Sometimes I wonder if hotel night managers achieve a kind of actuarial genius over the course of their careers, assessing risk and calculating premiums in near real-time based on some algorithm involving a guest’s wardrobe, facial expressions and speech patterns. I was in no mood to haggle, so I tossed what was probably too much money through the chute and accepted a pair of key cards in return.

The room I’d rented was drab but sterile. Its only decoration was a large-format reproduction of a pre-Third street map in a faux-wood frame bolted to the wall over the bed. I dropped my backpack on the floor and was about to kick off my shoes when I noticed something flashing through the slit in the black-out curtains.

It was a liquor store, just across the street, illuminated almost exclusively by neon signs. There were so many of them daisy-chained together that even from my hotel room I could hear them humming my name. You’re celebrating, Joe. Come toward the light.

As I’ve said already, I was in no mood to haggle.

I walked across the street, into the liquor store and through its aisles of bottles and boxes and cans until I came to rest in front of a poorly stocked humidor. Normally I’d have opted for champagne, but October’s hazy dive bar kept leaping into focus and blowing smoke into my face. So when I’d found a cigar that claimed to contain tobacco and nothing else, I took it to the counter and asked the cashier if she could cut it.

“Pay first,” she said, and her round, watery eyes made her look like an anime hero in the vivid pink glow.

I unfolded some cash and studied her while she counted it. Long, straight black hair and a taut, sinewy frame that she owed to a cardio regime or a coke habit. A cockeyed name tag pinned to her uniform identified her as Autumn, and the tail end of a botched tattoo or an intriguing scar peaked out from underneath her sleeve. She’d pair well with the cigar, I thought. But another part of me knew that my head wasn’t right for intimacy, that if I somehow got her back to my hotel room I’d spend all night studying the ceiling, overthinking October’s clue, oblivious to who or what was in bed next to me.

“Want me to light it for you?” she asked.

When I nodded, she smiled so broadly that I got the impression she’d been waiting all day to set something on fire. She slid the cigar out of its sleeve and held it between her lips. When she extended the pinky of her left hand, a white flame shot out from where its fingernail should have been. Her chest bellowed until the tip of the cigar burned as brightly as the filaments in the neon bulbs buzzing around us.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she said, handing me the cigar. “I got this tensil a couple months ago and I don’t get to use it much.”

“Not at all,” I said. I could taste her cherry lip gloss on my first drag, and something tingled under my beltline. “That was fun to watch. Thanks for the light.”

“Enjoy the cigar,” she said. “You picked the best one.”

To hell with it, I thought. I was celebrating. The lightbulbs had told me so. “Can you adjust the heat on that thing?” I asked.

“On my tensil? Yeah,” she said, and she demonstrated by producing the kind of gentle, teardrop flame you might find on an aromatherapy candle.

I fished around in my coat pocket for one of the key cards the night manager had made for me and placed it on the counter. “I’m in room one, across the street. You should come over. We can play with your tensil.”

She laughed. “I don’t know you,” she said. “And anyway, I’m here for another four hours. You’d better hang on to your key.”

I shrugged, trying to appear unfazed. “I don’t mind if you wake me. I’ll even save some of this cigar for you. I hear it’s the best one you sell.”

She hesitated just long enough.

“Don’t knock,” I added, before her aversion to risk could rally itself. “Just let yourself in.”

I was out the door and into the night before she could object, watching her head shake and her lips curl through the polychrome glare in the store’s gallery window.

When I got back to my room I stuffed my bag and most of my cash into an air duct over the toilet, just in case Autumn decided to indulge a vice other than lust while I slept. Then I sat on the doormat outside and sent plumes of smoke riding off on tradewinds while I considered the journey ahead.

There were a few shards between Arc and Upper Reach, but they were small and I’d only need an hour or so in each to pan for clues. I could make the trip to Central City in two days if I caught the right trains, assuming they didn’t break down or derail. Then I’d have to wait two more days for the only bus that runs to Upper Reach, or else pay a small fortune to rent an electric.

Halfway into my cigar I decided to catalog what I knew — or thought I knew — about Route 14. Rather than sift through October’s meager paragraph, which revealed precious little about the mysterious road beyond the rumor of its existence, I decided to start with all of the things I hadn’t discovered in Terminus. I considered the information I hadn’t found in Rocket County, the data that had been missing from the shard in Crescendo. It was a technique I’d learned the hard way, over decades spent searching the Splitweb without knowing what I was looking for: Assemble the gaps and they’ll reveal the shape of what’s missing.

For example, I knew that if Route 14 had been built before the Third, I’d almost certainly have found it in the old maps, on those marvelous space-photos from the days before our fearless leaders turned all the satellites to shrapnel. But there were no maps of Route 14 in any of the four shards I’d visited since leaving Elberton. So, it was built during or after the Third.

Except that it couldn’t have been built very long after the Third, either. Someone would have remembered its construction, rare as new roads are these days. And there were no Splitweb records of the thing appearing. Not anywhere I’d seen, anyway, and I made a living looking for anomalies like that. In fact, October seemed to portray the old road more as a novelty, as an odd tidbit of local lore, than as any kind of practical thoroughfare. A moldering public works project from a bygone era. An express route to no-man’s-land, funded by an earmark on some long-forgotten stimulus bill.

Still, it wasn’t entirely abandoned. There were October’s “rebels and runaways” to keep it company. Escaped convicts and latchkey kids, I imagined. Maybe that was its appeal: If you wanted to shake reality, to vanish, you hopped Route 14’s crumbling blacktop to destinations unknown.

So there it was, the vague outline of my missing puzzle piece: an unrealized infrastructure investment, a sunk cost, instantiated then abandoned some time during the Third, annexed by society’s outcasts. It was an escape route.

As to who built it, or why, or where it led — those questions would have to wait. I was low on information, and even lower on tobacco.

I coaxed one last lungful of smoke from the cigar, savored it for too long, then manumitted it to the breeze and ground the smoldering stub into the concrete, remembering too late my Parthian promise to Autumn.

Back inside, I undressed and showered. When I looked into the bathroom mirror, I barely recognized the face looking back at me from under a week’s worth of stubble. I considered shaving, but decided to wait a little longer, afraid of all the new wrinkles I might find.

I didn’t think I’d sleep. There was too much heat in my brain, too much neon. But I’d been running up a tab with my circadian bookie, and this time he’d come to collect. I felt the blindfold first, then the gag, and before I could so much as twitch I was over the parapet and into the muck, watching the light recede above me, higher and farther, a keyhole at the end of another dark hallway.

My dreams were wild and carnal, a primeval flesh-and-fire rotation that left me weak and desiccated. When I woke the next morning my room smelled faintly of singed hair and body wash, and I couldn’t remember whether the burn mark on my chest had been there before I’d gone to bed.

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