A Stranger in Block 73925

Bianca scurried from her hiding place across the flooded street to the entrance of the abandoned building. She knew could not get in here: the concrete archway and façade had collapsed long ago. She crouched among the ruins and listened. No sign of danger; just the omnipresent rain. She darted around to the side, stopping at any pile of rubble large enough to provide cover. You never knew who was watching.

Her brother, Nero, had once off-handedly told her this place used to be a bibiotheca, a library. He hadn’t meant to make an impression, but Bianca had a book fetish. She craved those ancient things made of paper, and sometimes the skin of dead animals (so Nero told her), that stored just one story or article, instead of the hundreds of thousands available on the glowing Screens. And the words in books never changed. They never updated. They captured and preserved one particular moment in time, forever. Unless they were destroyed.

And, unfortunately, many of them were. Nero had unleashed an uncharacteristic flood of tears when he told her that most of the books had been burned for fuel long before they were born.

               “People need heat,” he had said, frightened and confused at her unusual hysterics. “And the books aren’t lost. Most of them still exist on the Screens.”

               “It’s not the same!” she had shouted when she caught her breath.

And it wasn’t. Books were objects. They had size and shape and smell and feel. Every book in her collection, even the different editions of the same book, had its own unique personality. They were like friends. She knew them. And it was her mission in life to rescue as many of them as she could.

Bianca knew the loose vent on the side of the building. She had used it before. If you were small, like she was, you could wriggle through the shafts until you reached the basement level, then take the stairs up to where they used to keep the books.

Before entering the shaft, she revved the dynamo of her electric torch, allowing the high-pitched vroooom to echo into the darkness. Then she clambered in and stomped along the metal passageway, bent over, crouching on her haunches, holding the torch in one hand and banging the walls with the crowbar in her other hand. Rats, the only other mammal species on Earth, were a constant danger, but they usually retreated from unexpected light and noise.

The basement floor was flooded with age-old standing water, like the basement of her own building, and every other building in Xochimilco. But her shoes and her dirty trousers were perpetually wet anyway, so she hardly noticed, even when she climbed the short flight of concrete steps to the basement door and entered the lowest level of the actual library.

Most of the shelves were gone: the wooden ones used for fuel, the metal ones for scrap. A few rusted or rotten remnants were still scattered around the floor. The library had once been carpeted, and the place stank of damp, mould, and decomposing fabric. Plaster had been flaking off the walls for centuries, and the ceiling had collapsed in some places, so there were piles of reeking muck all over what remained of the flooring, and places where the floor had rotted through. And this was where she had to look. These uninviting places were where books might be concealed, long hidden from the scavengers.

Bianca crept forward and prodded the first pile of slime with the straight end of her crowbar. Nothing. After an hour’s fruitless search, she was ready to give up. Her rest shift would be ending soon, and she needed to get back to her Block.

Her crowbar was, as usual, caked in filth. She set her torch on the floor, with the beam pointed straight up, bathing a part of the vast, empty room in dim light. Then she hunted around for something, some long-discarded piece of cloth or something, she with which to wipe her crowbar.

A faint clang resounded from above, and Bianca froze. Was anyone else here? There never had been. This whole building had, as far as she knew, lain abandoned ever since the bulk of the books had been burned. It was probably just the structure, slowly collapsing. Or a colony of rats at work on the upper floors. She would have to be careful when she explored them, on some future visit.

Still, she gave up her search, skittered back to her torch, and made for the basement, opting to rinse her crowbar in the floodwater there.

Ten minutes later, Bianca stood before the structure known as Block 73925. Her block. Most people would try to enter through the front (and only official) entrance. But if she did that, she would have to explain to the guards how she got out in the first place. And if she went in by her secret exit, someone might see her and find out. So she used a third option. She hung her crowbar on her belt and began to scale the wall. It was not easy, but she was light, and surprisingly strong. She had been climbing up things for as long as she could remember. It was a great way to avoid people, or escape from them.

She did not have to climb far. Some handholds presented more of a stretch than others, and one required a short leap, but by the time her fingers really began to hurt, she was in reach of the rusty metal ladder. Checking that her footholds and her left handhold were all secure, she reached down with her right hand and grabbed the crowbar. Then she leant over as far as she could, until she hooked the ladder and pulled it down. When it was low enough, she made a leap for it.

She was lucky this time. Usually she dropped the crowbar a few times and had to climb carefully down to retrieve it. But this time, she made the ladder in one leap.

When she reached the last landing, Bianca leaned over the rail and grasped the overflowing drain with her gloved hands, remembering not to look at the ground, now nearly 2,000 feet below. She gave a tug on the drain. It held. She tugged harder. It still held. One last tug. The cracking sound as the metal drain moved perhaps a centimeter was like a gunshot. It set her heart racing, but as she held still and listened, there was no answering sound except the incessant rain. Then her heart sank as it slowed. The drain would not hold forever. Someday, she would have to find a new way up. 

But the drain would hold today, so she crawled onto the rail, grasped the drain, and pulled herself up, her boots scraping the wall for purchase, until she had managed to haul herself onto the roof.

While she was here, she might as well collect their Portions. Her family kept their allotment in the far northwest corner, between the ledge and an ancient cuboid structure which Nero believed had once contained ventilation equipment of some kind. It did not hide their plot entirely from view: they still had one direct neighbor, and beyond that a row of plots extending the length of the roof, and Bianca had no doubt that any number of nosy Residents were well aware of its privileged position, but it was easier to overlook than most of the other plots which consumed the available roof space.

The allotments were five-foot cubes of chain link fence, with only narrow walkways, barely three feet wide, between them. Each one contained an assortment of large jugs for collecting rainwater, and wide, shallow dishes for cultivating the algae and hydroponic fungi which were the principal vegetable components of the Earth diet. Each family was responsible for its own water,  algae, and fungi, and there was great variety in how the many plots were arranged. Bianca’s family had one very large water jug, with a wide metal funnel stuck into the narrow neck, and several algae dishes, some of which were once actual dishes for serving food. A second, smaller vessel was meant to look like a water jug, but it had a false bottom, and was used for storing surplus mushrooms. Nero had designed it, reasoning that more water fell from the sky every day, but mushrooms took time to grow. If someone did break into their allotment and rob them blind, they might live off the hidden mushrooms until they could grow more.

But as it happened, they had never been robbed. In addition to the out-of-the way location of their plot, Nero had also built a custom lock for the gate, from a heavy padlock he had found while scavenging for chapulines, and some old broken Screens he had picked up over the years. It looked like an ordinary padlock that required a key, but that was just a disguise. In fact, the keyhole emitted an infra-red beam which scanned your retina if you looked directly into it. If it recognized the retina, the lock would open. Only Bianca, Nero, Melissa, and Bill could open it. The system wasn’t perfect. If someone tried a key, or attempted to pick the lock, the likelihood was that they would break the emitter, rendering the lock unopenable. It could also be cut, in theory anyway. But there was very little scrap metal left any more, and all known tools were catalogued and kept in a central locker, signed out to Residents who had need of them on their work shifts. Bianca had never known any of her neighbors to have a pair of cutters that could open even the chain links of the fences, let alone her brother’s padlock. Victims of burglary were generally those who had shoddy makeshift locks or no locks at all. Opportunistic thieves would take one look at Nero’s lock and move on to an easier target. Of course, if someone had a reason to target Bianca and Nero specifically, that would be different. Which was why they preferred to visit the allotment in secret. 

Bianca crept around the ventilation shed to the corner, keeping her eyes and ears primed for signs of other Residents. It was impossible that she was the only one on the roof, but with nearly 500,000 square feet of space, it was reasonably likely that the was the only one in this section. If she did happen to see or hear anyone, she would, as always, move purposefully toward the main roof access, as if she had already collected her family’s water and veg for the day. Then Nero would have to make an attempt before his shift.

There was nothing to hear or see; nothing but more rain. She crouched down by the gate, lifted the lock and, pushing her goggles up, looked directly at the keyhole. The lock clicked open. Bianca pantomimed using a key, in case she was being watched after all, and let herself into the allotment. The jug only filled two of her five plastic liter bottles and part of a third, but she was able to harvest three portions of spirulina and seven brown mushrooms, including three from their secret dish of compost, hidden behind the large water jug. She stowed the veg quickly, locked up, and was nearly twelve allotments down the row, walking briskly toward the main roof access, before a voice halted her.

               “Hola Bianca. Tienes prisa, como siempre.

Bianca stopped dead. She would have screamed, but her shyness had long ago broken her of the habit of expressing herself with her voice. As a result, she had a reputation for being calm and detached, which belied the anxiety and turmoil that usually surged inside her.

               She turned and saw Pilar, from the 77th piso, sauntering up from the row to her right. Bianca could not greet her with more than a nod, as she was still catching her breath and swallowing the bitterness that had exploded in her mouth, but Pilar stopped to chat anyway.

“Going to your allotment?”

Bianca took a deep, steadying breath through her nose before replying.

               “I’m on my way down.” She was careful not to admit she had already been to her plot, for that would clue Pilar in about its general location, but Pilar casually looked past her up the row anyway.

               “Why do you always gather the Porciones?”

               “I’m not,” she lied. “I mean, I don’t. Nero does too.”

               “I never see him.”

               “You don’t work on his shift.”

               “I don’t work on yours either, Which, by the way, doesn’t start for two hours. Does Nero come early, like you?”

               “I don’t know. I have to go.”

               “You don’t know when your brother comes for the Portions?”

               “I have to go,” Bianca said again, and tried to squeeze past Pilar.

               “Go where?” Pilar asked her. “Your shift doesn’t start for two hours.”

Pilar was still blocking Bianca’s path. It was more thoughtless than malicious, but Bianca was inclined to resent it all the same. If she were less timid, she might have shoved Pilar aside or pushed her down. As it was, she could only think of dropping more information, to appease her.

               “I’m going Foraging.”

               “There’s Foraging on now? Can I come?”

Bianca gritted her teeth.

               “Isn’t it your Rest?”

Even through her goggles and scarf, it was clear that Pilar’s face fell.

               “I guess,” she admitted. She was somewhat younger than Bianca, maybe 15 or 16, and may have thought she could do without sleep, as Bianca herself had done at that age, sneaking off to abandoned rooms on the ground floor to read by the light of the contraband torches Nero had built for her. Bianca took the opportunity to walk away.

               “Hey!” Pilar called, her face brightening again. “Is Nero awake?”

               “I don’t know!” Bianca called back, without turning around. By now she was almost sprinting for the access door.

               “Next time tell Nero to collect the water and veg!” Pilar called after her, but this time Bianca made no reply. Shouting once was taxing enough.

By now, people were beginning to pour through the roof access door, which was only a single slab of steel on rusty hinges with no lock. As usual, the stream of damp and drab Residents seemed to go on forever, but Bianca made an effort to stand up straight and angle her hood so that part of her face was clearly identifiable. It was a good idea to be seen using the normal exit. It was always a good idea to be seen being Normal.

Eventually there was a break in the stream and Bianca was able to squeeze into the descending staircase, making slow, careful progress to the landing, where the stairwell proper began and there was enough space to walk. She did not want to spill or drop her family’s Portions in the fray. As her eyes adjusted to the dim, gray light from the broken windows at the ends of the hallways, she kept a lookout for penetrable spaces in the crowd funneling toward the roof access on the dark and sodden Top Floor (the least covetable floor in any building, for every roof leaked). It was like a game. She twisted and paused and darted, trying to touch as few people as possible, and congratulating herself on improving her “score”. It made the terrifying, daily act of negotiating these throngs of people bearable. She knew the nearest usable stairwells on any given floor, and the most direct and least crowded routes to and from wherever she was likely to need to go. That, along with collecting books, was what she did. She was a sneak. Her mind absorbed and retained paths and passages and hiding places as readily as it did words and facts. If it didn’t, she wasn’t sure she would have survived.

Her favorite shortcuts were the Shafts, but they weren’t safe to use when carrying Portions, or when others were watching. Like the fire escapes, she preferred to keep the Shafts a secret. Some of them still had cables dangling, which you could climb, and there were two Cabins still intact enough to serve as hiding places, lying on the ground floor. But all the other Residents regarded them only as Deep Pits in which to fall or dump trash. Bianca tried to not even look at the Shaft doors, some of which were missing, or dangling loose. Instead, she made for the South Wing stairwell, which was narrower, but completely unlit and pitch dark even during the day, and thus unused by Residents.

There was no way to slip through the door completely unnoticed, but most of the shuffling throng was too focused on gaining the roof to pay attention to her. The unlit stairwells were dangerous places, and they stank of Residents who had chanced the danger and lost. But one of the advantages of the Dawn Backshift, Bianca knew, was that the Predators had largely gone to sleep. That was why she did her Errands before work. Only a particularly determined or disturbed Predator would be following her at this hour.

Bianca slipped through the door and pulled it closed. Then she paused for nearly a minute, listening for any sounds, breathing slowly and through her mouth. She could feel the fetid air. She even imagined she could taste the human meat rotting, so much more nauseating than the paler, less viscous smell of rotting plants or the dulled rot of the dark mold that coated nearly every surface in her world. But she knew from her reading that the tongue could detect only five basic “tastes”, so her revulsion must be nothing more than the power of suggestion. Still, it turned her stomach to consider what mix of bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and savoury a rotting carcass presented.

She reached out slowly, groping for the bannister, and made her painstaking way down the stairs, from landing to landing, through the stinking, moist nightmare dark, ears and mouth wide open, avoiding the airs and wary of any sounds of movement. The Buildings were all rife with cockroaches – you could even forage for them in places like the stairwells – but they were hard to catch as they tended to make their nests deep within the walls. And some people got sick, or even died, from eating the “house roaches” (whereas the wild ones were generally safe). But other than food poisoning, the roaches were harmless. The danger was from the two surviving mammals on Earth: rats and humans. The rats ate whatever they could find, and were especially common in the stairwells. They were easily frightened in small groups, but had been known to swarm and attack lone, sick, or injured Residents. And as for humans… Well, they had been the most dangerous creature on the planet since they first evolved, as far as Bianca could tell from her reading.

There was a story in one of her books called “El juego más peligroso”, in which the villain, Zaroff, says that “el hombre” is the most dangerous animal to hunt. He says this is because humans can reason, and are thus harder to outwit. But Bianca felt that a man hunting other men for fun, or “sport” was the true indication of how dangerous people were.

It was a confusing story in many ways, and she had had to reread it many times – including several times in angelés – despite  it being thoroughly unpleasant, because there was so much she simply didn’t understand. First, there was so much space. Zaroff lives alone on something called an isla, which seems to be the opposite of a lago: a piece of land surrounded by water. The land is smaller than the big lands most people lived on now, but it was much bigger than a Building, or even a Distrito, and Zaroff had it all to himself. He also had a big house for himself, smaller than the Buildings they had now, but apparently cleaner and drier and somehow beautiful. And then there was the hunting. Bianca knew from other books that humans used to hunt and eat the old mammals, and that they even farmed them, somehow, the way they now farmed only fruits, vegetables, and grains. But Zaroff spoke of hunting animals without intending to eat them. Nor did he eat the people he hunted. It was a leisure activity, like Bianca’s reading, or Nero’s tinkering, or the men who visited the madres. But why, she wondered, would you kill an animal for no reason? In her world, you only killed a living creature for food, or to stop it killing you. Or both.

But “El juego más peligroso” was fiction, and there had never been a Zaroff, and probably no human had ever hunted other humans just for sport. People apparently used to write stories about things just to scare each other. Which probably meant that the real world used to be much less scary.

This reflection, cool and calculated, helped take Bianca’s mind off the sightless nightmare down which she was carefully treading. It kept her calm, kept her from panicking in the dark, and making a fatal error. If she bolted, for example, she would almost certainly fall down the stairs, or perhaps topple over the bannister, or run into the wall and knock herself unconscious. In which case her only hope would be that she could remain unconscious while the rats ate her.

How many turns was it now? She needed eight, but was the last one six or seven? There was no way to tell. This was the hazard of letting her mind wander in the stairwells, and why she ultimately preferred to scale the Shafts. Bianca stood still for several moments, gripping the railing, painstakingly breathing through her mouth. She would have to exit at the nearest door, which meant she would have to cross the landing and begin feeling her way along the wall. After several more slow breaths, she pushed off from the railing and began to step, cautiously, one foot in front of the other, her hands outstretched, waiting to feel the wall.

Realistically, it can have taken no more than a couple minutes, three at the most. But of course it felt much longer. She heard scuttling from below, probably roaches, and probably a good sign. They would retreat if there were rats, or if Bianca herself were moving clumsily enough to alert the rats.

Suddenly there was a squelching sound, somewhat like putting your foot in mud, as Bianca stepped in something thick and sticky and oozy. The noise, though empirically quiet, rang out in the silence. Bianca gasped and froze, and forgot to breath through her mouth. The full force of the rot and the moldering fecal damp hit her. She doubled over and dry-heaved uncontrollably, simultaneously terrified of the noise she was making and grateful that she had not yet had anything to eat or drink. When the heaves ceased, she stumbled forward, aware that she now had precious little time to find the door. She still stepped slowly, listening hard for any sounds other than her own. But she forgot to put her hands out again. Her head hit the wall, not hard, but enough to smart. As she pulled it away, there was a feeling of wet stickiness on her forehead, near her left eye. She did not bother to wipe it off; instead, she put her hand to the wall, and began to step carefully along, hoping every moment to feel the horizontal crack where the door began. Even through her gloves she could feel the damp dragging of what she assumed was mold crawling up and down the wall, but this time she would not let herself smell the stairwell.

Was that clicking sound her imagination? It had sounded only once. Surely even rats were not so cunning. If they had a mind to attack, they would attack. If not, they would hide. Her heart beat faster, and each step seemed to grow in distance and time, as if the dimensions of the stairwell were changing, stretching, drawing the exit away from her in some kind of hideous game. But when she finally found the door, she nearly shrieked in delight. Disregarding the noise, whether her own or from another source, she grabbed the bar-shaped handle and wrenched it down, slamming her left shoulder into the door – many of them were swollen shut with damp.

The door burst open in an explosion of light and comparatively clean air, and if anyone had been standing near it in the corridor, they would have been knocked to the ground. Bianca herself had to stop short and steady herself, finding to her surprise that she was already near the middle of the hallway. And the hallway was empty, and remained so just long enough for the door to slam shut. Then the dull murmuring sounded from around the corner and another throng of people appeared, clogging up the available space. She had merely emerged during a random break in the crowd, Bianca thought as she scuttled off to the wall opposite the stairwell door, letting the stream of Residents pass. However long it took, she would rather wait here, hidden by the disinterested passersby, than swim upstream, making both physical and eye contact in order to reach her own apartment. With her back pressed against the wall, she looked around, hoping to learn which floor she was on, though she well knew that most of the signs had faded away or been defaced.

Then her blood went cold as the door to the stairwell opened. A man stepped out: tall, wiry, his head slightly hunched, as if accustomed to bending down to peer at shorter people. His clothes, like everyone else’s, were dark with damp and dirt and mold, and looked black even if they weren’t. His coat was stiff, and a hood of softer material, pulled up even indoors, protruded from beneath the collar. The upper part of his face was in hidden in shadow, apart from his eyes, which caught what watery, tepid light filtered through the filthy windows as he searched the faces of the throng, and his lower face was covered in a black stubble, like another, more palpable shadow. As Bianca watched him, terrified, his eyes found her and locked her gaze. El juego más peligroso, she thought. Then a tall man passed between them and she ducked, scurrying along with the crowd until they rounded the corner. She plastered herself against the wall again and sank down to a crouching position. A careful observer would probably note the bob of her hood above the shoulders of the passing Residents when she moved, and the man from the stairwell was more than likely a careful observer, but she needed to make ground while the crowd offered her some measure of concealment. People didn’t do bad things when witnesses were about.

Bianca rounded the corner, still hunching, gritting her teeth against the constant colliding limbs and torsos, and the human ripple she knew she would be causing. When they had made it a few metres past the stairwell door, she stood up, turned sideways, and tried to slip along between the wall and the crowd. She pursued a random course, determined by which turns were quickest and most convenient, nearly disorientating herself in the process. She did not dare look around her, as if checking whether the man was following her would cause him to be following her. Eventually she found herself by the main, central stairwell, which was 30 feet wide and ran down the centre of the building, open to the floors, with a skylight above (long since discoloured and chocked with grime and inedible mold, but intact, for it was not made of glass). She squeezed onto the stairs, fighting for a space against the hundreds and hundreds moving in the opposite direction.

The stairwell turned at right angles, forming great rectangles as it joined the four wings of the Building. Bianca got off at the next level down. She had miscounted in the dark and come out too early, but whether that had been fortunate or not, she couldn’t say. She could only say that she was still alive and unhurt. So far. 

Next Chapter: The Isle