Chronvalescent (a story in the “Departure” universe)

If you’ve never read “Departure,” then this story might not make as much sense. Then again, it might not make much sense mostly because I wrote it…

NOTES: Not edited, so there will be mistakes/errors. I am around 85% finished with the story, which has sort of come on strong over the last few days out of nowhere. I AM planning on a sequel to “Departure” (and in effect, this story as well), which will be titled “Arrival.” This story together with “Departure” will give a more complete backstory to “Arrival.”

CHAPTER ONE

“We have to go, Drea,” Melly said, tugging my arm.

“I don’t want to,” I said. She heard the sulking, near-whining in my voice. “Well, I don’t. I want to stay here with you.”

“You can’t,” she said, her voice heavy with emotion. “You know you can’t. We’ve talked about this for years.”

“I don’t care,” I said.

“Bullshit. You DO care. You’ve seen what happens when you miss your departure.”

“I don’t care,” I said again, feeling every bit the petulant child that I sounded.

“Then you lied all these years,” she said with sudden anger as she let go and pushed me away. “Because if you cared, you wouldn’t do that to me. You wouldn’t make me watch it.”

“It’s not fair, goddammit!” I nearly screamed. I only kept my voice down because the Hackers were everywhere in this part of the Bower.

“I know, baby,” she said, her face immediately back to the crushing defeat she’d tried to hide from me for the last few months. Hell, the last year or more, but it really began on my 39th birthday. She stroked my cheek, trying to wipe away my single tear without allowing herself to shed any. The heartbreak in her face made me want to fall to the floor and just give up. I would just lie on the floor and cry until I missed my departure. The memory of what happened to the unlucky (or stupid) ones who missed their departures was ingrained in us from childhood. Even without the instructional holos we were forced to watch at various intervals in school, there would be one or two who drove the message home every month when they refused to depart.

“Come on,” Melly said. “We have a ways to go just to get topside.”

When I refused to budge, she cupped my cheeks and pulled me in close. I stared into her eyes for an eternity while she nearly brought me to orgasm with an intensely passionate yet soft, loving, slow kiss. My mind whirled as her tongue gently flitted against mine. Time became nothing. My departure became a worry for someone else. I was no one and nothing, my only thought on Mellisandra and how much I loved her.

*

I watched her from across the street, the darkness holding me in its arms and safe from the prying eyes—both organic and electronic—searching for prey. Or in the case of the Enforcement Bureau (check this), lost souls who had wandered too close to the barrier. The EB’s wouldn’t go but a couple of blocks into the Bower. Any time they ventured too far in, the gangs who controlled the blocks would ambush them. The blockers were so adept at it in the maze of rubble and broken-down buildings that the government only assigned the automated guardians for the last century or more. They stopped sending the guardians in beyond the secondary barrier when the gangs began to fashion powerful weapons based on the tech they salvaged from the guardians.

I glanced down the street, then behind me. I’d only been in the Bower for a few hours, but I was already scared to death. I couldn’t go back topside unless I wanted to sit in a cell for nineteen years until my departure date. Or be immediately sent through the Justice portal. No one knew what was beyond either portal, but we’d been taught that the “other” one inside the Justice Ministry basically led to the worst hell humans could imagine.

I was afraid to move. I’d made it half a klick into the Bower but there were too many scabs patrolling the trash-strewn streets. Most of the overhead lights had been shot or blown out long ago, and the floodlights from the EB’s at the barrier only penetrated so far. Where I was, they made long, garish shadows that resembled my worst nightmares after sitting up with my friends and telling ghost stories when we were little.

I looked back to the woman who had her back casually parked against the concrete facade of a demolished corner store. She looked as out of place as I did, but for her, it was because she held herself with the kind of confidence that not even the blockers did. I stood out because I was a scared topsider. I might as well have a spotlight following me everywhere. The fact that I’m a girl only made me that much easier of a target. I hadn’t seen a single female in the few hours I’d been hiding other than the one now staring at me. Or at least in my general direction.

I held my breath as she began walking toward me. I knew I should run. I had to run. All of the tales of murder, rape, and slavery in the Bower flashed through my mind. They were punctuated by the failed departure holos we’d watched in school. If those were true—and I’d seen two failed departures in my twenty-one years already—then the Bower tales were true as well. Those thoughts were wiped away by the fact that the woman had simply dissapeared into the shadows. I strained my ears and eyes, my mind screaming at me to not even breathe.

“You should probably come with me unless you want to end up a corpse,” a woman’s voice said from behind me. I whirled around to see her hunched down, finger over her lips. “Keep your voice down,” she whispered. “Some Rockos are nearby, and we’re still close enough for the guardians to venture in. Trust me, you don’t want to get caught between those two.”

I only nodded my head, too frightened to do anything else. I didn’t trust her, but she seemed more trustworthy than any other humans I’d avoided up to this point. She held out a hand and I took it, feeling the hard, callused pads of her fingers contrasting the soft, warm skin of her palm.

“I’m Mellisandra, but I mostly go by Melly,” she said softly.

“I’m Drea,” I said. If she didn’t have a last name and lived down here, then I wouldn’t have one either.

“Where are you from, Drea?” she asked, looking around with eyes as alert as any guardian’s.

“Haven District,” I said.

“Yeah? How’s life up there, these days?” I wasn’t sure if she was just making smalltalk or not and only stared at her. “I grew up in Allsworth District,” she said. She gestured for me to get ready to move. Allsworth bordered Haven on the north side, and I’d been there plenty of times. I started to answer her but she put her finger over her lips again with one hand, and silently counted down from five with her other. When she made a fist and slipped into the shadows, I followed, praying I wouldn’t trip or make a noise that would give us away.

Three blockers stood at the end of the alley, backs to us. Melly and I waited behind a rusting dumpster. I hadn’t made much noise, but she was a ghost. Twice I hadn’t seen her turn down another alley or opening between piles of rubble and nearly cried out when she reached out from the darkness to pull me in the right direction.

“What do we do?” I whispered. The blockers looked like they weren’t going anywhere for a while.

“We wait,” she whispered back. She leaned in close to my ear. “They’ll eventually move on when some unfortunate slips up and makes a noise or is seen.”

The Bower smelled like an old, smoky chimney with an underlying odor of unwashed humans and open sewers. Melly smelled like she’d just bathed in bath oils. Her scent was intoxicating, and I felt stirrings within me that I hadn’t experienced since Navine and I had spent our last night together almost three years earlier.

We waited almost an hour before the blockers took off at a run. Melly pulled me from our hiding spot and ran to the intersection, veering right, the opposite direction of the three men. We ran and walked and holed up for the next four hours until we came to a culvert under the broken road. The pipe was sealed with welded metal, but Melly knocked softly on it. Two return knocks followed, which Melly responded with another coded knock. The whisper of locks being disengaged was followed by the eerily silent opening of a door just large enough for us to duck through. We walked for another five minutes until we came to a wide platform that ended in concrete stairs leading down.

“What is this place?” I asked, hoping she wasn’t leading me to the slave pits or to a pimp in exchange for whatever currency they used down here.

“You’ll see,” she said and squeezed my hand.

When we reached the bottom of the stairs, I looked out over the platform to the small village below. The light was dim but everywhere, and there seemed to be normal activity going on in the narrow streets.

“Welcome to Garden City,” she said, reaching out for my hand again. We stood at the railing staring down at the city-within-a-city-within-a-city below.

“You live here?” I asked, relishing the warmth of her hand in mine.

“Sure, this is one place I call home.”

“There’s others?”

“Of course. The Bower covers the entire city. A sort of undercity. Just like topside, there’s districts down here, though none are official beyond the group holding on to the territory.”

“So it’s true,” I said, more to myself than Melly.

“What? All those tales of lawlessness to the point the Guardians won’t even venture more than a few blocks in?” She laughed. “Yeah, it’s true.”

“How do you know who controls what block? How do you get from each safe spot to the next? How does anyone live down here without sunlight or food services or any of that?” I became exasperated, almost panicking at the thought of what my life was to be like living down here. What I’d done to be forced to live here.

“Shhhh,” she whispered, cupping my cheek with her gentle, soft hands once again. Hands I envisioned had killed someone in order for her to survive in The Bower. Hands that made me want things I’d left behind when <old girlfriend> became nothing more than a painful memory.

“I’m scared,” I said softly, holding back tears that I’d abandoned long ago.

“I know,” she whispered, pulling me into a hug. “I was in your shoes once.”

*****

I checked the webbing that held extra knives and other odds and ends, then did the same for Melly. I gave her a thumbs-up. I felt scared inside. More scared than when I’d first ventured into the city’s underworld as a wanted woman. I couldn’t decide if I was more scared at having to step through the Justice portal or at the phantom pains that shot through me when I I thought of the inevitable outcome if I DIDN’T step through the Justice portal.

Melly cracked a grin and slapped me on the shoulder. I made sure my pistol was ready one last time. Over the last two decades, I’d learned some hard lessons. The ugly scar that littered too much surface area of my shoulder was the worst, and after being ravaged by a scattergun by a blocker, I usually triple and quadruple checked my gear before venturing outside of the safety of our various havens.

“I love you,” I said, trying to keep my emotions in check.

“I know,” she said with a wink. “You ready?”

“No.”

“Drea…”

“I know, I know. But I’m not. I KNOW we—I—have to do this. Even if we had two centuries together, I’d still not be ready.”

Dark clouds of bitterness crossed her expression before she shrugged them off. I hadn’t meant to hit a nerve.

“Melly,” I begged, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

She held up a hand to stop me before I could launch into an apology that would only make both of us begin crying again.

“It’s okay, Drea. I know you didn’t mean it like that. It just hurts, you know? I spent all that time alone… then you came along…”

“It was a mistake. You can say it.”

She turned on me with a hateful expression. “Don’t you ever say that!”

I waited for her to lash out at me, to hit me, to scream at me, but she did nothing at all except stare into my eyes until I looked away. “Falling in love is never a mistake. Ever. Remember that, wherever you end up.”

“I’m sorry,” I said in a small voice, but she’d already shouldered her pack and began walking toward the security door to the undercity.

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