Ninth Day, Eighth Month
The earth in Chulao now cloyed in the air, acrid with carbon and a strange, singing sourness that lingered in the mouth. The clean rigid lines of the city were fractured, white sandstone broken to reveal hollow concrete bones, vertebrae of iron bars twisting into the sky. The rubble bled into the streets, every so often tumbling down in a flurry of discarded papers, broken china and faded books. It was silent, now, save from the odd murmur of a helicopter overhead.
They had made love, then, in Apartment 21BwA. It was a sacrilege, perhaps, as the carcass of the town reeled and the small bodies of lives unlived were dug out of their unsuspecting tombs. It wasn’t planned. Tom had boiled water on the gas stove to clean the cut on his hand, and she had wrapped it in the fabric samples they had found in the drawer. They hadn’t agreed to do it. It was wordless, his fingertips lingering over her waist, her chin coming to rest on his clavicle. It wasn’t sexual, just closeness, closeness in the heart of that wound. She had lain on her back and stared up out of the open balcony doors at that cerulean blue above that didn’t care nor mind nor shift what that the mortals suffered or sinned below. Numb reassurance, her hands creased around the cotton of his shirt. He performed love like an athlete, press ups and perseverance, eager to please. She didn’t mind. She wanted him, then, in the shock and the strange unscreaming that inhabited both their lungs. The low rhythm of his breath, his eyes purposefully on her. This could be any other day, in that momentary illusion that life went on.
Afterwards, they lit cigarettes, which they never did. He had cigars, sometimes, and she would watch over red wine at the other end of the room. But today they had cigarettes. Round in the mouth and lit with habitual disapproval. Just this once, to calm down, no one said. “Do you think we’re going to die?” She had said, after a while.
“Of course,” he had replied. “But the question is when.”
There was something wrong with this attack. Not that there was ever such a thing as a normal atrocity, a normal assault, or a normal war. If it had been nuclear, there would be the familiar click and ring of Geiger counters across the city. People would be vomiting now, their hands shaking around their abdomens as others backed away in panic. The government had announced that no rescue efforts would be made until the threat had been determined to the wider population. So, around the dazed streets of Chulao, there was nothing to do but wait for the symptoms to emerge before making a guess. It was just too early to say. Chemical, maybe. Biological, possible. They were now trapped in a petri dish of broken buildings and burnt out streets, waiting for their pain to be monitored and studied for the curiosity of the world.
She had passed a mother in the street on the way back from the food market at 08:39. The woman was still thick with dust and matted with soot from the attack, but then again, no one had enough running water now. Water was to drink. The woman was limping beneath the bridge archway carrying a small wrapped bundle. As the woman grew closer, she knew what it was. The smell was unbearable. Flies filled the nostrils and the mouth, and the skin had bloated like melted wax. But the woman still petted at it, stroking her child’s back, singing softly. There was nothing to be done. Perhaps they would all die soon. Let the woman hold her child.
“My guess,” Jon had told them that afternoon in Apartment 24AwA, “Is a delayed reaction nerve agent.” He was a large, lonely man, in his late forties, seldom to be seen without a large grey cat sprawling across him, pulling at the threads of his thinning suit. His right eye had been badly damaged in the initial attack, prompting a steady line of curious neighbours. “They wanted our government to let volunteers and emergency staff in, spread contact with the substance. Then they’d just watch as it destroyed us. But the party knows that, they’re on to them. That’s why they won’t come and help.”
“Or it could be nothing,” she had replied. “A double bluff. Just a standard bomb?”
Tom had said nothing to this at first, staring down at his tea cup. Every ache or pain or cough felt so final now, so filled with a terror that now began something. “Then why don’t they come? What do the party know that we don’t know?”
“It’s a PR issue,” she had replied. “The party can’t come and help us because they will start national panic around it being a trick. There would be riots if the emergency forces returned to the capital.” They all sat in silence. No one knew. It could be incompetence, it could be fear, it could be cruelty, but no one was coming.
She had decided to close the balcony doors when they returned to the apartment. Although they were on the seventy fourth floor, the great wound from the bombsite was still too close for comfort. Perhaps they would be exposed to fumes. Dust. Bacteria. It loomed huge and gaping out of the white stone, billowing thick grey smoke, that moved slowly in round tumbling shapes. The attack had hit the Chulao Governmental Tower, an obvious target, but nonetheless surprising. It seemed strange not to see it there, out of the corner of your eye, to remind yourself to turn your feet and not walk too close to the blocks where once you played and dreamed and first kissed. It had been a clean place, shaded by large oleanders and thick elms, where you could sit and read while the statesman minded their own business within. All gone, now. A dark crater where Satan bellowed and bayed for blood in the dark.
“No one is sharing any symptoms,” she told Tom brightly, fumbling through the papers. “Perhaps they will come now. Cover that hole, rebuild everything.” Tom said nothing, as he preferred to do when there would be an ugly answer. He didn’t agree with her politics. She’d always been a party member, even as a child. Plaited hair and the party badge. It wasn’t so much an issue of national pride as realism. To succeed in this world, it was best to be seen as enthusiastic. Tom preferred an almost militant disinterest. But now, he just pressed his wide hands to the glass and stared at the crater.
“Do you remember Narpai?” He asked her, quietly. She frowned. The word was true, the shape and the sound familiar in her mouth. But nothing. A concept that didn’t exist, gone, broken down and hidden in the dust. “The city, the one in the C4 quarter. By the sea. It had a port and-” He stopped. All public buildings were the same, prescription architecture, all facts thereafter unremarkable. “It was attacked a few years ago. Chemical agent. What happened to it?”
She shrugged. “Places fade out of the papers after a disaster is over, I guess. It’s probably fine now.” He shook his head, taking off his glasses. “I’ve never read, heard or seen about Narpai in years. If you go to get a permit to travel, Narpai is not on the list. If you go to get an atlas of Nation C, there is no Narpai. If you go to the C4 museum, there is nothing-”
“For goodness sake,” she snapped. “Don’t you think that someone in Narpai would have visited and said something by now? If it was-” She stopped. “They couldn’t all have died, Tom?”
Tom didn’t move from the window, staring down at the wound. “No one ever survives, baby. We’re just tests.” He raised a fingertip, pointing down. “Tests to show the party what they are capable of.” The smoke was billowing wider now, rolling thick and slow through the streets below. “We don’t matter to the enemy. We don’t matter to the party. We never mattered. It is safer for them to pretend we never existed.”
He laughed. “If I’m crazy,” he asked, opening the balcony door, “Then why don’t they come?”