The worst thing, the thing that makes her want to hiss and snarl and pace around like a lion in a cage, the absolute worst was back when the full story came out, and she just couldn’t bring herself to feel anything about it. Not in the right way.
It would have made more sense, she thinks, if the news had broken her heart. That’s how the story should go, right? The aloof girl the hero pined for, realizing she really did love him only after his hopeless sacrifice?
She couldn’t do it.
She hadn’t liked Joe. She didn’t know anything about him. He was one of the hundreds of kids drifting around the city, all obscurely dissatisfied and none of them sure why. They were the generation that grew up knowing they lived in a better, safer world; the generation that knew something important had been taken away from their lives. She ought to know. She’s one of them, even if her parents never set foot in the mines.
It might have been harder, probably, if “love” had been in the equation. All she could feel is, what a waste.
On the night before everything changes for the first time:
She goes home before midnight for a change and kicks her shoes off, making little black marks where they hit the wall, one-two, she hangs her coat up and locks her doors, one by one, and she goes to bed.
A few hours later there are explosions. There are sirens. The windows rattle from a thousand metal boots marching in step.
She doesn’t go to the window. She knows what’s happened and that history is being made out there, and she cannot bring herself to look it in the face. This isn’t the history she wanted to be a part of.
She doesn’t go to the window. Instead, she closes her eyes and hugs her knees, and she shakes as the screams rise from the darkened streets.
She doesn’t get much sleep in the following week. She paces around the apartment, waiting for a knock on the door, waiting to be hustled into a black van and interrogated — “what are your connections with the recent act of insurgency? how long have you known the malcontent?” — or maybe one of the robots (Sniper Joes, of all the wretched things) will just shoot her dead in the street and that will be that because who’s going to care? The only person who cared enough to do anything burned himself up in a conflagration for all the world to see.
The week passes, and the next, and the next.
Nothing happens. Not to her, not to her mother, not to anyone she knows. The frightened-rabbit-about-to-sprint look fades from people’s eyes. Life goes on, the day-to-day normalcy creeps back in, and the city takes a collective cautious breath. And things continue much the same as before.
When the bar closes one day (a sign appears on the window, “Property sold & under new management :) Your patience is appreciated,” but it never does reopen); when the curfews tighten and the robots patrol more and more openly in the streets, and the telescreens assure the people of necessary steps being taken to curb criminal behavior, for your safety and the preservation of the city; when some of the people hospitalized after the explosions (for “shock and smoke inhalation”) are simply never seen again; when she looks up and figures out that everything has changed, it is really much too late.
When she is twenty-five, her mother dies, and she tries not to resent her too much for that, no more than she did as a child for splitting up with Papa and hauling her all the way here, to a place where her name and accent stand out so outrageously that she spent years sanding them down. Even now she scowls when she’s asked to repeat herself, and she can’t help but suspect that people are interested in her for being odd and exotic.
Instead, she tries to think of how hard it must have been, to leave family and homeland behind with nothing but a suitcase and a kid in tow, and how wonderful it had been to live in this silver-and-neon metropolis that promised everything and cost nothing.
She cannot blame her mother for how the promises were revoked and the costs became higher than anyone imagined, no more than she can blame her mother for dying young and leaving her alone. She thinks about sitting in her mother’s lap and reading their big book of mythology, and falling asleep to dreams about witches and talking dolls and burning skulls.
It doesn’t really help.
Eventually she enlists a neighbor for help. They spend a Friday putting her mother’s belongings in storage (until she’s ready to look at them alone, maybe in a month or two months, she needs time, that’s all). Together they tape up the boxes and stack them tidily away, and the mindless activity almost drowns out the sick feeling that she isn’t mourning like she should.
She thinks of herself as standing at a right-angle to the rest of the world, never seeing things as she should, never being grateful for the things she’s been given. She has her life, her health, a roof over her head, a home in the safest, most advanced city in the world. She’s selfish to be asking for more, isn’t she?
The Doctor decides that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, and the citizens no longer deserve their leisure. A buddy gets her a job at the television network — not that one, Doctor Wily manages his own broadcasts, this is separate from that.
At first she makes the coffee and staples the papers and she isn’t qualified to do much else, but she makes friends with the technicians, “getting her feet in the door,” her mother would say, and by and by she’s a junior assistant and learning as she goes. It’s not what she dreamed of doing as a kid, but she finds that she likes fixing things and keeping the wheels running, and hell she doesn’t have that many options, so she sticks with it.
(Sometimes she looks up, and sees the few channels their network distributes, and the insipid variety shows and bland daytime TV, and how the newscasters do nothing but parrot everything that telescreens say. Why bother? she wants to ask, but someone might be listening.)
She’s responsible for unlocking the doors first thing in the morning and closing things up at night, which is not conducive to a forgiving sleep schedule, but it’s not like the network station is a nuclear reactor or a goddamn bank, the world won’t end if she misses a lock or two. And so she comes in one morning and sees a side door wide open, practically still swinging on its hinges, and her heart just stops dead oh fuck she is so completely fired.
Nothing's missing or broken. What she does find is a piece of paper on the floor, a schematic hastily sketched in ballpoint pen. She notes the list of frequencies jotted in the margins, compares it with some of the equipment in the control rooms, and thinks, Someone’s trying to set up their own network.
(What she doesn’t ask is, why go through the trouble of a break-in? Over time, the libraries have gotten emptier and sparser, who needs any of those old books anyway, Wily Co. provides for all of your needs, no need to look back, no need to think. If someone wanted a crash course in engineering, they’d have to pick it up on their own any way they could.)
She does the only thing she can think of: On her smoke break she burns the paper into fine ash (can’t get caught with evidence, must stay unaccountable), and she starts taking caffeine pills at the end of her shift. After she signs out of the building she dawdles around for hours, waiting to catch a glimpse of — something.
The mystery engineer never shows their face, and after a few weeks she stops looking.
Calling long-distance is expensive and a pain in the ass, but she ponies up the money twice a year or more. She hasn’t talked to her father since she was nine, but she steels herself enough to dig up an address book from her mom's stuff. (She only takes two other things from storage: the old mythology book and her mother’s red winter coat, red as berries, red as blood.) The conversations are awkward and stilted and unsatisfying, and every time she puts down the receiver and wonders if it’s really worth the effort, but six months later she’s dialing the number again.
You should come home, her father says once, his voice distant and distorted through the wires.
She pinches the bridge of her nose and looks out the window. She can’t find her childhood home in her memory, just vague images of the snowball trees in the yard and her father’s workroom. It feels like something she dreamed up one day.
This is my home, she says, and it isn’t a lie. She feels closer to the people here — her neighbour with his bitten nails and dyed hair, the tech guys who never treated her like an idiot when she was just starting out — than she ever did to her maybe-real-maybe-not relatives. As lost as she feels here, she doesn’t want to turn her back on it. You can love a place and still want it to be better.
(She does not say that one day, she casually took the bus to the edge of the city, and on the outskirts she saw the sniper-bots lined up, not moving or patrolling, just watching, and she had run like a mad thing back to the city center, praying and praying that none of them had seen her.)
Another time, her father tells her he actually visited the City once. It had been a student exchange program, when he was just about her age; he talks about one night when he missed the train and had to bunk on a park bench until the ticket booths reopened, and instead of sleeping he’d counted the stars until the sun rose.
She nods and makes “mhm” noises, and doesn't tell him that all the parks have long been paved over with concrete and steel, and the light pollution is so bad you’d hardly know there were stars up there, and while the trains run like clockwork they transport goods, not people. And no one, no one would ever get caught out after curfew.
They tell her that the city is The Wave of the Future. She feels like the future is scraping away at the past, hiding it away in the boxes and corners where no one bothers to look anymore, and the more she tries to reach out to the past the more reasons she finds that it’s not worth it, it’s too depressing and too much effort and she’ll be happier if she leaves it alone.
But she thinks back to the book of myths, and she knows that boxes are there to be opened, no matter how ugly its contents.
Two months shy of her thirtieth birthday and a red robot arrives out of nowhere. She follows the people to the skull fortress, to watch as he stands alone against the robot masters, as he fights alone, as he falls alone, and the déjà vu strikes her hard between the eyes.
Perhaps, while so many snipers and sentries are lying in pieces on the ground, she could have just walked away to take her chances in the desert, but the opportunity passes and she finds herself back in the apartment, holding her wrists under a cold tap until the red haze is gone from her vision and the lament of the crowds has faded from her ears.
The heat is still too strong to bear.
None of her long-distance calls will go through. She dials and waits and dials again and she tries to find someone in the phone company who will tell her what the hell’s going on, and it sinks in that they’ve been cut off. The city might as well be an island in the middle of the ocean now, or in another galaxy. Nobody in, nobody out.
She doesn’t dare write a letter. The last thing she wants is for her father to get caught up in this.
One day, she finds her neighbour in tears — no histrionics, no sobs, just standing on his front door and weeping like a child. When she worked up the nerve to ask what’s up, all he could say (in front of his own apartment) was, “I want to go home.” He isn’t the only one who feels like a stranger in their own home.
Coming home late one evening, she bumps against a girl in a grey coat, who drops her bag and a sheaf of papers goes spilling all over the pavement. She scoops them up and holds them out, and can’t help but read the topmost page. Certain words and phrases catch her eye —
The dead will rise
Fighting the good fight
Solidarity against the steel
She looks up and meets the girl’s terrified eyes.
Wait, she says, but the girl snatches the papers from her hands and bolts away into the night.
It’s summer, and there are clouds of midges everywhere, tiny and practically invisible and coming from out of fucking nowhere, it’s not like there’s any natural vegetation for miles around. Almost everyone flees into the comfort of the indoors with its temperature control and air conditioning, but she can appreciate the tiny private joke, even as she slaps the bugs away.
They’re out there. She can’t see them. She doesn’t know how to reach out to them. She knows that anything they do will be stupid and small and only of minor annoyance. But still, but still.
It’s autumn, and something like genetic memory tells her there should be red trees and fires and chestnuts. She cuts out little construction-paper leaves and hangs them over her door and her walls, and she lights a candle in her window.
I’ll come back for you, she can almost hear. When everything’s said and done, I swear I’m gonna make it right.
It’s winter, and she puts on the red coat and a floppy black hat, and leaves the house before the snowplows are out. She can’t pretend that she lives in a different world just because there’s snow on the ground, and soon enough all the pretty whiteness will turn into gritty salt and grey slush and black ice — but she can believe, if only for a while, that she’s living in the city that her father saw when he was last here, and under the snow the grass is waiting to grow again.
It’s spring, and a blue robot rouses the city.