By Sunny Moraine | March, 2011
Andy Gaijin leans over the fire; he's drunk and leaning so close that I wonder if he might singe the fibers of his coat. But I don't worry about it. It's not my coat. And if he catches fire in here, in his drafty canvas shelter, I think I might just step outside as quickly as possible and wait to see how it all comes out.
"That much fuel?" He clucks his tongue and cocks his head; one of his eyes is milky and blind, the skin around the socket scarred and a shiny pink that pulls in odd ways when his face moves. I can't stop looking at it, though I imagine he might take offense. If he weren't too drunk to care. "That's a tall order, friend. Tallest I've ever had, maybe. What you want with that much?"
"I have to cross the glasspan," I say, and he whistles between the gap in his teeth, his sparse eyebrows shooting up under the brim of his hat. I don't quite roll my eyes. "I'm serious. I need to get across it and I need to go tomorrow at the latest."
"Devil's on your ass?" He chuckles dryly. "Or something worse? Spill, friend. If I'm going to spill for you. Tell me all your juicy secrets."
I don't want to. I want to say as little about this as possible. Some of it is that it's dangerous--I don't trust him to not sell me out in a heartbeat if he thinks it might be more advantageous to him than taking my trade--but a lot of it is just that it's embarrassing. And we should all be beyond shame here at the end of the world... but of course we aren't. Of course we still can't get over ourselves enough to get over that.
Or at least I can't. Everyone always tells me I'm too civilized for my own damn good.
"It's California," I say, and my mouth twists with distaste at the name. It didn't use to do that. My mouth use to do a lot of other things for that name, though. "I broke it off with her, she didn't like that... now she's saying I stole from her. I'm thinking a trip might be healthy."
"But the glasspan." Andy whistles again and tips his hat back with his fingertip. "That's a long way to go from a jilted lover. Why not just head south for the winter, little bird?"
That, I'm not entirely sure how to answer. Some of it is that I'm not sure the south is far enough--you can only go so far in that direction before you hit a whole lot of nasty water, and California's reach extends further than a lot of people even know, especially when she's angry. But some of it might just be that I'm tired of this coast. I'm tired of the poisonous kipple, I'm tired of drifting from settlement to settlement with a lot of other bored, sad-eyed people. I'm tired of brown sunrises, dead fish, dead birds, weeds choking through the ruins of the cities. I'm tired of all of it, and five hundred miles of heat-melted sand sounds like it actually might be a nice change.
A change, anyway. Which might be nice by definition.
"I just want to go," I say, tossing my head back and regarding him coolly. "You want to interrogate me, or you want to take my trade?"
He snorts a faint laugh. "And what'd you have in mind for that?"
"Why don't you tell me what your going price is?"
He laughs again. "Shrewd. All right, friend." He leans back and looks at me speculatively, and I'm not sure I like that look. Not that I like much about Andy. And it's cold in here, and my coat isn't doing much to cut the chill, and I wish he'd just get on with it, because we both know this is pretty much a game. He knows what he wants.
I just hope it isn't anything too... physical.
"That much fuel," he says slowly. "You know fuel is harder to come by right now, than it's been in a while. So I gotta factor in things like supply and demand, the current state of the market--"
"Cut the crap, Andy."
"I'll give it to you for a song." He grins at me. I blink at him, trying to process it.
"I don't have a song."
"I know you don't, little bird. That's the point, isn't it? Value for value. You get me a song, I'll get you all the fuel you could ever want."
I leave him in there, grinning after me; you can feel a grin like that, like greasy fingers against the back of your neck. I'm muttering to myself, things it wouldn't be advisable to say to someone who has something I need. Even though he knows that price is insane. Maybe he figures there's enough of a chance that I might meet it, or that I might bring him the next best thing--whatever that is. And I could tell him to go fuck himself, go to someone else, but there's no certainty that I wouldn't get the same deal elsewhere, or worse, and anyway... I don't trust Andy, but I trust just about every other aggregator less.
The night outside Andy's shelter is cold and wet and I pull my coat tighter around me, looking out at the settlement fires, the sallow flickering lights, ropes of neon here and there--flowers in the dark. When I was little I used to think they were pretty and I'd play in their light, all purple and blue and red, and that was when I heard my first song. It was an old woman who lived in the shack with us, and I called her Gramma, though I don't think she was actually related to me at all. There, in the dark, she let us hear her song. It was like being ripped open by the sweetest, gentlest hands. The hands of an angel. I remember crying for hours and not knowing why. I remember wishing it would stop, what her song had done to me, and hoping that it never would.
Of course, it did. And no, I couldn't sing it for you now. It wasn't my song. She let me hear it, but she never gave it to me, and as far as I know it died with her. Now there are fewer and fewer songs in the world.
And Andy wants me to get him one.
I head out into the kipple. It's more dangerous at night, just because you can't really see where the hell you're going--though the low clouds provide decent skyglow--but I can't afford to wait. If I'm going to keep to my own timetable, I have to move quick, and my timetable is only partly determined by me. Would Cali really have me killed? Honest to God, I'm not sure what she'd do. I've only ever really seen her angry once, at a pimp from the inner dense who was skimming off the top, and they found the last piece of him--an ear--a day or so after they carted the rest of his bits off to the dog pens. He never meant anything to her at all, whereas I like to think she was fond of me while it lasted, so it's not really a fair comparison.
But I was the one who got stupid and dropped her. And hell hath no fury.
I pull my facemask into a slightly more comfortable sit; the eyepieces are fogging up, killing what little visibility I have, but there's not a lot to be done about that. No one is sure anymore how the ring of debris that outlines the Jersey settlement got so incredibly lethal--it's not radiation, or at least not all of it, and I prefer to not think about that, because a facemask and an airtight suit won't help me with gamma rays. Some of it is disease, or was, but the truth is, most people who take any kind of scientific interest in the kipple--and there are a few, believe it or not, even in these latter days--are of the opinion that not even bacteria does all that well in here. There's some, sure. But it's in the same category as the radiation: I can probably ignore it and get out of here alive.
The air here is bad. Corrosive. It burns in your lungs. On the edges of the kipple in both directions, it's not so horrible, and people can live there--because people can live anywhere. But they don't live very long or very well. And in here, in the denser kipple, with the crumbling blocks of concrete and the towers of rust and the pools of sticky black water and the piles of unrecognizable, liquefying trash, you need a facemask and a good filter if you want any of your lungs remaining after an hour, and you want an airtight suit if you don't want your skin breaking out in huge yellow blisters that stink like hell's breath when they burst.
I am looking for a song.
All of the other songs in the better places have been found already. Some of them have been passed on, used for trade like I intend to use this one, and some of them have gone to the dog pits and the stew pots with their owners, because something as valuable and powerful as a song might never be traded at all in the end. The bottom line is this: if you want a song, now, you have to be willing to go where no one else wants to go.
So why don't I just go south? Why don't I just find something to trade that Andy might take? Why am I here, picking my way through toxic sludge, sweating rivers into my suit and wishing that I could reach under my facemask to wipe off my eyepieces? I'm still not sure. Some of it could be that Cali honestly does scare the shit out of me--if she wants me, if she gets me, she isn't going to do whatever she has planned to do to me quickly.
And some of it is that song. The song in the darkness, so sweet it hurt my ears and my eyes and the surface of my skin, wringing tears out of me like water from a sponge. More beauty than the world can contain. I don't remember how it sounded, but I remember how it made me feel. I've never had a song of my own before. Never even for trade. If I'm going to die--and we all are, sometime--I want to have a song before I do.
The kipple is silent except for the sound of dripping water and the crunch of my boots--I'm far enough away from the dense that I don't even hear bleedover sound from there, and it just makes the whole thing more eerie. If I get into trouble here, no one's going to help me out.
Though, that might still be better than Cali.
There's an impassible tangle of concrete and wire ahead of me; it almost looks like something someone constructed, maybe to keep people out--or to keep other people in. It's jammed between the ruins of two buildings, mountains of rubble. I look at it for a few moments. A tear in my suit at this point might be really uncomfortable or might be really lethal, and I don't really feel like rolling the dice on that one. So I could go back, try to retrace my steps and find another way around, but that's a risk too. The kipple does strange things to light, space, and time, and it's way too easy to get lost in here, even where the land seems relatively open and clear. It's best to move in straight lines: straight in, straight out again.
And I really don't want this to all have been for nothing. So I pick the less treacherous of the piles of rubble and I start to climb.
I've already been sweating into my suit but now it pours off me in rivers, soaking into my boots, chilling my skin and itching horribly; wanting to scratch is a kind of madness that can kill all on its own if you don't keep control of it. My breath is loud in my ears and fetid in my nose as I bend over and use my hands as much as my feet, hulking along like some kind of monkey, waiting for the rush of cool--and soon to be burning--air on my skin as the integrity of my suit fails.
At the top of the pile I take a moment, stand and look out at the field of garbage, the glowing sky so low. From up here it almost doesn't look so bad. It looks like a wasteland, sure... but parts of it are glittering dully, scraps of metal that haven't yet rusted their shine away. Some of the towers and jags look almost like trees.
There are supposed to be forests across the glasspan, vast spreads of green. I've heard of it, but I can't imagine. Not yet.
Moving gingerly, I start back down again, trying to not think too hard about how I'll have to make this climb again on the way out. I'm trying so hard to not think that I don't notice that I've started to slide until it's too late to do anything about it, and then I'm tumbling, falling back onto my ass and only trying to not pitch forward onto my face, the inside of my head a roiling sea of panic and rip and tear and the way, very soon, the lining of my esophagus might start to bubble.
It doesn't happen. I slide to a stop on my back, staring up at the brightly sallow sky, my breaths roaring in my ears and every part of my body feeling bruised. But I don't feel that soft rush of air. I don't hear any hiss. I don't really hear anything, once the sound of my own breathing has faded into the background.
And then I do. Soft. But there.
I've heard it said that once the world was full of songs, that they were everywhere--so numerous that people didn't give a second thought to them. That's nearly impossible to imagine, but some people say it's true. Then war came, long war that scorched the surface of the world, blackened the sky, poisoned the ground and killed something in us. Now there are no more new songs, and that--so we are told--gives the ones from before a power they never had then. We are hungry for them. There is something inside us that is starving for them, scenting the air like skinny dogs aching for any scrap of meat. So we hear echoes, sometimes. We hear snatches of what's no longer there. Snatches of what might be. I've heard of starving people hallucinating food, people dying of thirst who see mirages of cool blue lakes. So we hear the whisper of songs.
And sometimes the songs are actually there.
I drag myself to my feet and stumble forward, for once heedless of the hideous discomfort of my suit and mask, and what's waiting for me if either fails. There's the remains of another building in front of me, and that in itself isn't strange, but it's much less a ruin than the rest of the crumbling structures around it. The roof is half intact, and three of the four walls are mostly in place. The door is blocked with fallen beams, but they're so rotted through that I beat my way easily through them, the broken bits of them falling away with wet thuds. The doorway beyond yawns, black and dead.
But I swear I hear something.
I have a flashlight in one of my pockets. It's small, compact, powered by a solar panel set against one side, and it's not the most reliable thing in the world, especially with sunlight as weak and thin as it is now, but it's better than nothing. I pull it out and it flickers on, and I peer through the doorway, squinting through my fogged eyepieces and not quite able to breathe.
Inside is the same wet chaos as outside--though it's maybe a little less wet, thanks to the roof. Broken shelves, corroded metal, the faint glitter of broken glass everywhere. I step into the room and my boots crunch on it as I try to keep an eye out for sharp edges. A cut in the suit would be painful, but a cut in me--that would be lethal. No question.
In a far corner, up against one of the more intact walls and relatively sheltered, I see a small, dark shape that stands out more than the others... though I couldn't really say why. But I step toward it, my flashlight beam cutting out through the dust and dripping water, and that's when I hear it again. Soft, rhythmic, tinkling sound like a scatter of falling glass on a tile floor.
It's not just an echo. It's there. I have time to fail to believe it, and then it really hits me, and I'm doubling over, trying to get my breath, stomach clenching with things I don't even have a name for. I'm briefly and horribly afraid that I might be sick inside my facemask. But it's past that kind of sick. It's like an ache deep in my bones, like my marrow is crying. The song is very soft, lilting and sad, lifting itself into the air like a little cloud of glittering dust.
And then it's gone again, cut out like it was never there.
It takes me a minute or two before I can get myself together enough to straighten up and lift my flashlight. What the beam catches is a small dark box sheltered in the crumpled remains of some metal shelving; dark wires are leading out from it, connecting to an even smaller panel that shines in a dim shaft of light from the broken ceiling.
A solar cell.
For a moment I don't move. If this is what it looks like, this is the first time I'll have ever found a piece of tech from before that was still working without repair.
At last I do move, careful and slow like I might somehow spook it, and just as I'm almost close enough to touch it, there's a crackle and a flicker and there it is again, swelling into the air, and I don't hear myself cry out, my hands raising to my ears under the hood of my suit, the flashlight clattering to the floor and going out.
But before it does, I see what it lands on. Not all the shining material on the floor here is glass.
The thing crackles off again and my muscles obey me a little easier. I scramble on the floor for the flashlight; it doesn't go on immediately and I feel an instant of panic, but then the beam pushes out into the dusty air, and I see what I want to see. What I haven't quite been able to believe I saw.
Discs. Maybe hundreds of them, spilled across the floor like gold from a treasure chest in an old book. Lots of them are broken, some of them scratched to the point where I know they'll be useless--but more than a few look all right. And I look back up at the little black box, and I know what this is.
Maybe most of the songs left in this part of the world. Sleeping in the heart of the kipple, waiting for someone stupid enough and desperate enough to come and wake them up.
Everything in me lurches and jumps, and again I have an awful moment where I think I might be sick. And just then the box crackles on again, and it's a different song, something swelling and pounding, attacking the inside of my head--but not angry. I think of an enormous golden bird exploding down through the shattered roof, picking me up in its claws and carrying me into the sky. My eyes are stinging, blurring, my arms wrapped around my middle and the flashlight dropped and forgotten again. There are words in the song but I can't make them out, and anyway I don't want to; it feels like it should be beyond words. I'm seeing flashes of things, glimpses of something long gone now: light and life and a time when people weren't afraid and time itself wasn't so short and so pointless. Before the glasspan, before the dense and the kipple, before Andy Gaijin and California.
So many trees.
I reach out. I don't know that I'm doing it until it's done, and my fingers find a button on the front of the little box--I have no idea how I know which is the right one--press it and the song goes silent. And I'm alone there on my knees, surrounded by a thousand sleeping songs, the richest person in a thousand miles. My throat is aching and my face is hot and itching with tears. I am thinking of Gramma and her cracked old voice and her song.
And I am going to have my fuel.
Andy Gaijin is asleep when I get to him, sitting in his ratty high-backed chair, his head lolling to the side and a runner of drool at the corner of his mouth. I look at him, standing in the doorway of his shelter with the thin dawn light at my back, and I heft the little box under my arm.
I'm going to have to be careful here.
"Andy." He snorts and stirs but he doesn't wake up--from across the room I can smell the alcohol rank on his breath. I try again.
"Wha?" He jerks, lifts his head and blinks blearily at me, swiping at his eyes with one hand, and for a moment he looks absurdly like a sleepy little boy. "You... hey, there, friend. Back already?" He shakes himself and sits more upright, rubbing his hands together. "You get a song that easy?"
"I did." I'm tight-lipped as I step forward. There's a prickle at the back of my neck--that, I expected, and I feel it pretty much whenever I'm around Andy. This might be different, though. It's hard to be sure. "Got it right here."
"Oh, you marvel. You marvelous beauty, you. And I think..." He glances into the shadows behind him, and right about then is when I know I'm fucked.
Or he thinks I am.
"I think you don't want to move a goddamn muscle."
He doesn't say that. She does. She steps out into the light, and at the same instant four men appear from what seems to be thin air, muscle-bound and very mean-looking, closing in on me. Blocking the exits. I'm aware of them, but I don't look at them. I'm looking at her. California Centeno, tall and beautiful with her dark hair coiled in a rope over her left shoulder, gun leveled at me, eyes like chips of black ice over the barrel.
"Hi, Cali." I'm not surprised at all, and I don't think she expected me to be. We always knew each other well enough. And I know Andy Gaijin.
"You fucker." She says it casually, like she used to say things to me in bed, after. Or during. Cali does everything casual. "You go when I say you can go. Figured you'd get that by now."
"I don't want any trouble, Cali." I still have the box, and I start to shift it in my arms, like I'm just trying to hold onto it, little incremental movements that might or might not even be visible in the low light. Trying to work my fingers into the right places. "I just want to go my way."
She laughs, a lilting sound that always did make me kind of weak in the knees. "It's so cute how you think you even have a way. You're going to give Andy here whatever you promised him, and I might kill you a couple of hours sooner than I was planning on. I think that's a fair deal." Her smile vanishes and her expression chills. "Give him what you brought him. Now."
"Very." And I see the greedy glitter in Andy's eyes, even the dead one. Yes, I walked right into this. But it's not like I didn't suspect it anyway. And I suspect something else, as I slowly hold out the box: I suspect that no one here besides me has ever even heard a song before. Something so rare, a lot of people never have. Songs are becoming like things from legends and fairy tales, and I've met more than one person who doubts that they even exist.
If Andy or Cali or her thugs had ever heard a song before, they would have made me put the box down first fucking thing.
Something so rare is powerful. In more than one way. I take a breath, and I press the button, and I pray that it's the right one, and that there's a charge in the thing.
Sound washes over us. It's deceptively lulling and smooth, but it's like a gentle hand that gently smothers, and all at once they're all gasping. I see tears in Cali's hard ice-chip eyes, like the ice is melting. She clutches at her throat, lowers her gun halfway. I feel her thugs stumbling back, confused, disoriented. Maybe they're remembering lost childhoods, mothers and fathers, dreams, dead worlds. And I'm there too, with them, struggling to stay on my feet, struggling to control the churning in my gut and heart. But I only have to stay up long enough to run.
Even when all I want to do is stay and listen.
"Make it stop!" Cali cries, but it's a weak cry, and she doesn't even sound all that committed to the idea. I look at her, backing toward the door, and I've never seen her face like that before, like something in her has been ripped open, and pain and loss and grief and joy are all bubbling to the surface, dark water finally released into the open air. Andy is the same, looking so small and so lost that I honestly feel pity for him.
All of us, to live, we harden ourselves. We push things down under that hardness. The pressure builds, but there is nothing left that can release it like the songs can.
Andy hadn't known what he was asking for.
I turn and run for the door and the morning outside it. Around the side of the shelter and into Andy's yard, and normally I'd have to contend with one or two of his own people, but I see them drifting toward the shelter, moving like people in a dream. The song continues, and it keeps pulling at me as I shove the gate open. Of course Andy has all the fuel I need, and it doesn't take me all that long to find it, but every second the song keeps going is like a gift, because the fucking thing could die at any moment. I grab the canister and haul it, arms straining, back toward the gate. Toward my bike, parked just outside it, with a bag full of songs strapped to the back. I fill the tank and I manage to get the rest onto the back, and then I pause, unable to stop myself, listening to the last of the song dying away in the cool morning stillness, a small crowd of people clustered around the shelter's doorways, listening in total silence. Listening like I did once, in the dark, tears burning my eyes.
Tears are burning them now.
But I get on the bike and I go. Behind me, I hear an enraged scream as the song cuts off.
The glasspan is hard to look at. It's hard to walk on, hard to ride on, hard period. But I fly across it. Halfway across, maybe. I don't know. Maybe it goes on forever, and maybe there isn't anything beyond it, because maybe there's no beyond at all. But I can be content with this: I left on my own terms, and I took my treasure with me. Secured behind me is enough treasure to rule the goddamn world, but I don't want to do that.
I just want to listen. I want to sit under the trees and listen.
I push the bike harder, and it surges forward. I lift my arms, hold them at my sides like I'm flying, carried by a golden bird. I'm humming under my breath, and I don't recognize the tune. It might be a new one. It might be one that no one ever heard before.