Monday. 24 Days to Halloween. 2:15 A.M.
You'll die if you look back.
All of the city still smelled wet, was glistening and wet, the unlit buildings, the paved roads and the sidewalks, the dead leaves packed in the gutters like mud, all of it was still wet. When the storm began the young girl took shelter under the nearest freeway overpass. There, soaked and shivering, she withdrew her arms from the sleeves of her black hoodie and hugged them to her core for warmth, and waited. After the storm passed, she continued her journey, still unaware of the final destination but propelled nonetheless.
At this late hour the unafflicted straights slept inside their homes under snug thermal comforters, wholly unaware that the dragon could awake any moment. Less than a year ago he'd laid waste to the kingdom, and already the people had forgotten what he'd stolen from them. The girl had not forgotten.
He'd appeared in the night sky with a brilliant flash like that of an atom bomb. The shockwave converted homes and trees into matchsticks, people into clouds of red and white dust. He poisoned the skies, and the cursed red precipitation, congealed like old blood, covered an area six miles in diameter. Everyone exposed fell ill, though it was the grownups who got it the worst. For each who recovered from the blood fever, four more perished. Those under twenty fared better, their innocence inoculation; that's what Victoria chose to believe. Those who recovered became starbabies, permanent carriers of the pathogen. Their parents' corpses were piled up against the containment fence to await the weekly cremation. During the early days, long before the Wall, the only company the dead kept were fly swarms thick as black clouds, and one little girl, walking dead.
Now, almost a year later, there were still some afternoons she awoke in a cold sweat. Some meals she tasted the rain on her lips. Some nights she smelled the burning embers, and could feel the pathogen coursing through her blood, alive.
No matter what, don't look back.
What had happened at Tyler's still seemed a blur, but she did remember the yelling. Eventually, she cracked like a porcelain girl, very unheroic. When she started to bawl, her boyfriend withheld his assault long enough for her to collect her belongings in an old backpack and retrieve Summerside from its secret place under their mattress. Then, she stuffed over her head her beloved helmet made of the scales of dead dragons. It protected her from a hostile world and, more frequently, she liked to believe, the world from her. Storming out of Tyler's house to face the unknown she did not feel very brave at all. Only her helmet would keep her safe.
"Don't be a fool!" Tyler called after her, as she mounted her motorbike, green and black just like her helmet, like the slain dragon she often dreamed. "You're living in a fantasy land, Victoria! It's time to grow up!"
"You go to hell and you stay there!"
Then she revved the engine and rode off into the dark city, and cried until the storm came and soaked her through and she remembered who she was. Victoria Esposito. The fearless hero.
Summerside rested in a leather scabbard strapped to her back, which was attached to a harness she'd crafted herself. Over top and partially concealing the sword was the same faded canvas backpack that'd held her schoolbooks several lifetimes ago. Now the bag carried most of her worldly possessions: a few outfits; a scorched paperback of Arthurian lore written by Elisabeth Faulkner, who was a respected Professor of Medieval Literature at the city college Victoria would've attended if the college still existed; and her special pills.
The bike rumbled between her legs, hungry. Fewer than a dozen tanker trucks were allowed into the quarantine zone every day. Gasoline prices spiked as a result. What little she had would have to last her for... how long? She knew how to cheer her bike up. "Let's try it again, okay? You ready? Go!" Shifting her weight to the rear and pulling back on the bars, she popped a small wheelie—she was getting better at them—until, panicking at the sudden burst of momentum like she always did, she quickly leaned forward again. The front tire squeaked against the slick road and she decelerated, her heart thumping.
"Better," she whispered. "We'll get it."
Reaching a part of the city where the pleasant rebirth smell of the recent rain was replaced by the stench of clogged sewage lines and wet trash piles, she knew she'd left the safer, straighter neighborhoods and crossed the invisible border into the slums of Meteortown. Here, the older narco vamps, most of them addicts for the dust, lurked from shadowy perches with glowing cherries dangling from their lips, or held communion at defunct bus stops. Most of them wore their antilux goggles or stylish black Insomniacs, and those who did not had stars in their eyes. Every week there seemed to be more and more vamps, and fewer of the original starbabies. Didn't anyone notice?
They seemed to recognize her as one of their own as she glided past them. Mostly they left her alone, but now and again the younger men would shout lewd remarks because she was a girl who could ride a motorcycle better than they ever could. She wasn't bothered. Her helmet's tinted antilux visor not only protected her eyes from the rare lights still burning, it also made her invulnerable to their taunts. It was Victoria's knightly armor and also her shield.
She maintained a general direction toward ground zero, toward the crater. Something drew her home, like a moth flitting over a crackling fire pit before the headfirst plummet into it.
Keep moving. Don't stop.
Bouncing over a set of railroad tracks, she found herself somewhere she'd never been before. The streets were cluttered with abandoned cars, firebombed junkers, rust heaps picked clean of their valuable parts. In every direction stood barbed fences and gaunt grey buildings with closed truck bays and shattered windows. Most factories and warehouses were shuttered within the first week of the quarantine. Industrialized districts were abandoned and claimed by the darkness.
In Meteortown, when streetlamps blew, no one replaced them. The few that flickered with the last of their lux would soon die, too. The vamps liked it that way. The darkness was home. It was far more comfortable than wearing those awful antiluxes all the time. Victoria hated the way the goggles constricted her skull and left circular imprints around her eye sockets, but they had to be so tight. Photophobia, they called it. Chiefly symptomatic of Regressive Stardust Syndrome. RSS.
Blue light washed the entire street, its originator taking shape behind her. A Ghost. She identified it at once. The newer stealth black police hybrids had a tendency to separate from the shadows like living inky masses.
She leaned into her bike. "It's okay, buddy. To be fair, you were going a little fast back there. What's a Ghost doing this deep in vamp territory anyway?"
To Be Continued.