Well this one is grim. Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge of the week was a subgenre mashup this time around, and I rolled “Dystopian” and “Satanic Horror.” I’m not sure I like the results, but they seem appropriate. I decided that dystopia was dark enough, and thought that I’d try for a Luciferian take on the whole “Satanic” bit this time around, but that apparently wasn’t enough to tip the scales towards the lighter side of things. Even well intentioned Luciferians can’t compete with a dystopian state this time around. I think I’m in need of something a little happier or more optimistic next time.
Her name was Lucille, and she wore the standard safety gear like a professional. Her coveralls were a faded grungy black, but she had a crisp, clean patch sewn onto one shoulder, a simple black circle with a four pointed star falling, no, dangling from a parachute. A flare. There was a word around the bottom: Phosphorus.
Benny stood awkwardly to one side, yelling to be heard over the spitting sizzle of cutters and joiners, the high pitched revving of the old rivet guns. He clutched his helmet to his head as he leaned in towards her ear, his other hand resting on the thick tool belt that cinched his blue jumpsuit.
“How can I help you, ma’am?” He and Lucille stepped back from the site as a woman drove by with a lift covered in high-strength beams. Benny still wasn’t sure why he’d been picked by the foreman to give Lucille a tour, but at least it would distract him from the feeling that he was sealing himself into his own massive, open-air tomb. He’d heard of Phosphorus before, activists or info-terrorists or something in between, but he’d never expected to meet one of them. His cousin’s friend claimed that her niece was part of the group, but they’d always seemed like something different. Somebody else’s problem. Like so many of the other things that he tried not to think about.
“Benny, right?” Lucille shouted back. She stuck out her hand, and when they shook her grip was firm. Her smile was entrancing, made her face go from plain to captivating. “I’m here to help you.” She emphasized the last word with a forcefully pointed finger. “Come on,” she waved towards the foreman’s shed, “it’s quieter in there.”
Benny followed, mystified.
The shed had all the expected comfortable detritus: scattered papers alongside the cheap monitor and computer unit, a few crushed empty “coffee” cups kicked to the corners of the room, another half full one gone cold on the desk, pencils and pens sticking out of a little plastic mug. There was a display showing satellite imagery and a news crawl up in one corner of the room, details on yet another warlord who’d risen from the fleeing masses of the Indian subcontinent to take part in what was now being called the Himalayan Conflict. It was the same story there as was being told almost everywhere; people fled before the ocean’s terrible anabasis, unable to beat back the sea as it marched steadily higher. They fled in search of a dry place to sleep, in search of land that would grow something other than salt. And for the most part, the places they fled to were already occupied and they were turned away. They died in droves. And some of them decided to take matters into their own hands, to take the land they wanted and needed by force. It was an old story by now, just another fact of life, like the ocean that hung terrifyingly high above the city outside the flood barriers.
Lucille scrunched up her face as she reached for her ears and dialed down the dampening on her plugs. She walked over to the far wall, covered in memo-screens, and leaned up against it, looking at Benny. He blinked at her expectant look, then hurriedly dialed down his own plugs. Lucille smiled again.
“So, Benny, it’s like I said.” Her smile died slowly, an earnest look replacing it. “I’m here to help you. We’re,” she waved a hand at the patch on her shoulder, “here to help you.”
Benny shook his head. “I don’t get it. Why would you help me? What would you do?” The question of whether or not he needed help was moot. They both knew he needed help. Anyone still living in the lower city did. But there was so much that was wrong, he had no idea where to start. He wasn’t the only person he knew who woke to nightmares of a sudden drowning, water appearing where none should be.
“We both know that you’re working on something that’s fundamentally fucked.” Lucille stared him in the eyes, gesturing back towards the work site before crossing her arms. “They pay you to reinforce the foundations of their towers, but there’s no space for you in their ark. You’ve seen the plans? I mean, you lead work teams, right?”
Benny shrugged, trying not to look at her. “Sure but, I mean, we just do our jobs. You know.” It was just another thing that he tried not to think about: all of the plans for the skyscrapers were clearly designed with ‘wet feet’ in mind. Once they finished reinforcements, the buildings should be impervious to water levels above even the height of the flood barriers. They’d have sealing blast doors and flood gates and airlocks and everything, just what they’d need to keep any water, any person, out. There wasn’t anything similar being built for the people in the lower city, just these towering fortresses.
“Sure,” Lucille nodded sympathetically. “And the fact that you and yours are just going to drown when that bad storm comes doesn’t really enter into it, because there’s nothing you can do.”
Benny stared at her, shifting uncomfortably. Her statement was a little too close to the truth. There was a reason that most people down here dreamed of drowning.
“Look, Benny, what if it didn’t have to be that way? I didn’t just come here to jerk your chain. Like I said: I’m here to help. Let me,” she stopped herself, then tapped the patch on her shoulder as she continued, “let us help.” Lucille stood up from her spot on the wall. “You can give me that tour now if you still want to think about things. Just don’t forget that there could be another way out of this. Phosphorus is ready,” there came that smile again, “to help light your path.”
The tour gave Benny time to think. As he led Lucille through the trusses and struts, through the massive reinforced foundations, through the walls that would eventually hold out any water, any thing that the tower’s owners didn’t want inside, he slowly came to his decision. It wasn’t surprising to him, even though he’d avoided thinking about it for so long. Of course he’d accept. If he didn’t, he knew how things would end. Maybe, if he took her help, things might go differently. Anything was better than drowning.
The plan was very simple. The towers were the only way for anyone in the city to survive when the water came over the walls, and each one represented an incredible investment of time, money, and effort. They were more valuable than nearly anything else around. So, with Phosphorus’ help, Benny and his friends would occupy one. Tower 12, the one they’d just finished, would do nicely. Time was running out, since there were only a few more towers to go.
Phosphorus, as usual, wouldn’t have any physical presence. They would provide technical support, giving the occupiers information about what others were up to, keeping them in touch with the outside world in case the powers that be tried to cut them off, and maybe even wreaking havoc in their opponents’ systems if everything went to hell. The occupiers would have only one demand: they wanted to make sure that their families, and other residents of the lower city, would be given a place to live in the towers. Like rats clinging to flotsam, they wanted to survive even if the city as a whole could not.
They put the plan into motion, with Phosphorus breaching the building’s security and giving them access to its systems, and for a blessed few days everything went perfectly.
Standing on top of Tower 12, Benny could see the whole oblong lozenge of the city laid out below him. Surrounded on all sides by massive flood walls, water glistened beyond, an innocent sight despite its promise of imminent death. Benny blew on his hot cup of chicory, sipping as he looked at what he and his friends had accomplished. From up here, things looked alright. Scary, but survivable. The towers stood tall and strong, and below them the lower city nestled in tightly, buildings huddling in the skyscrapers’ shadows like little chicks around a hen. The sight worried him.
The height always gave Benny vertigo, and he didn’t like to go near the edge. Nor did he like what he saw from up here, pretty as it was; it was too easy to look out and ignore the fact that the people below would drown when the water came over the wall. It was too easy to ignore the problems that he knew were down there, the same things he’d tried so long to ignore. The food shortages, the way that desperate people preyed on each other, they way that the police, secure in the knowledge that they were safe in their tower homes, didn’t care about whatever went on down below. It was all so far away from up here, and Benny couldn’t help but worry that the Mayor wouldn’t listen to their complaints, even now that they’d seized this unoccupied tower immediately after fixing it. His buzzing phone, the same one Phosphorus had given him, pulled him out of his thoughts. He accepted the call.
“Benny, I have some good news for you.” Lucille’s voice came through, distorted and compressed. Benny mumbled a hello.
“It sounds,” Lucille continued, “like the Mayor is going to give his response to your terms this afternoon. He’s got a press conference and everything.” Benny could practically hear her beaming from the speaker. “2 o’clock! You should watch it. This’ll be great, Benny. We’re making progress here at last.”
Benny thanked her, and hung up before she could continue. His dreams of drowning hadn’t gone away.
Benny and his compatriots were huddled around the hijacked display when the time came. Mayor Livewright’s image came through clearly, a lone man in a light suit standing behind an elegant podium.
“My fellow citizens, I speak to you today on the topic of the criminals who have occupied Tower 12. I have received their list of demands,” the mayor stared intently into the camera, “and I have considered them with my staff.”
Benny’s phone began to buzz. He turned away from the group and answered it.
“Lucille, what is it? This is going nowhere.” He could feel the frustration and anxiety tangling in his gut.
“Benny, you have to listen to me—,”
“No, Lucille, you don’t seem to get it. This is going nowhere. The mayor is just fucking us over, he called us criminals.” Benny finally had someone to vent to, but Lucille’s next words cut him off completely.
“They’re coming for you, get out of there Benny!”
“What?” Benny stood frozen in shock. The mayor was still blathering on about how he hoped that everything could be settled equitably, how the troublemakers should give themselves up.
“They’re coming from the other towers, they’re going to—,” Lucille’s call cut out.
Benny looked around, bewildered. He ran out of the maintenance room and down the corridor, slowing as he came to the final windows. Helicopters passed out of sight over his head. The sound from the display cut out, sudden complaints from his fellows ringing down the hall.
Benny turned, running for the staircase, but soldiers in combat fatigues came out first and he went down, tasered.
The flight out was a short one, the first and last helicopter flight of his life. His companions were bound next to him, zip ties holding them together. It took barely any time at all to pass the remains of the great green lady below them. The fall from the helicopter was even shorter. And then Benny’s dreams came true.