Layer 10: Twisted Metal
Alistair glanced around the Juno reactor, out of either stale melancholy or sharp paranoia. Neither would be out of the ordinary for them. Alice was still unconscious on her mattress in the corner, and that wasn’t unusual given how much she had exhausted herself. The Skeleton Key Of Shadow, as she called her abilities (though, only to herself) was a power best suited to a sprinter, best used in short bursts, and rarely for extended periods. Of the few who knew of Alice’s ability, none had any idea if it carried side effects, or what they might be, so it was best to play things safe.
A tendril of hair, shining like a golden wire, curled around Alice’s closed left eye to frame her eyelid. Her hair had a tendency to do that, shift-ever-so-slightly while she slept peacefully. She used to have nightmares, from which she would wake with her hair writhing about like a nest of salted worms, but they seemed to be a fading relic of her past. Alistair noticed something, stood, and walked over to Alice’s sleeping form. With a cautious, trembling hand, they slid her hat off her head and placed it, brim-down, on the mattress. Satisfied, they returned to their seat— and froze.
A bolt of terror tore through me. I felt it again, the presence of those featureless eyes watching me, except this time from all directions. The localized pressure from before, like a pair of needles, was spread out, forming a dull pressure around my skull. Just stop it. You’re not real. You’re not watching me. You can’t reach me here. I’m safe. Each counter-delusion only reminded me how wrong it was to react this way. Most people would feel watched and write it off as a quirk of psychology, nothing to be worried about; just another latent bug in a program meant to keep them alive in a prehistoric savannah. I couldn’t shake the feeling, though, because my system had adapted to a new rule of nature. One where it’s still most useful to assume you are being watched for the sake of survival, but you have to sit with that knowledge. To escape the eyes, you have to blend in as much as possible, give into the drive not to flee or fight, but to freeze. Doing that means not being so reckless as to be categorized a threat to oneself, while also not being paranoid enough as to be considered a threat to others.
So, I told myself the eyes weren’t there. If I believed it enough, surely my brain would get the hint someday.
A car speeds by somewhere outside the window, and barely scratches my still-rattled mind.
That was close, I think. To think, I was almost noticed, that I was so careless as to leave the door ajar. That miniature square half-door, my one way into the lives of Alistair Macabre and Alice Persephone Nightshade VII. The only way I can do my job. Well, not the only way— I’m sure that computer had been riddled with spyware, some of it ours, but otherwise there wasn’t much I could do during the hours Alistair spent shut up in that study out of space.
I drove on through the night. A half moon illuminated the broken cloud cover, casting them in a silvery blueness. The only break to the indigo sea on the ground was the occasional pale yellow streetlamp, but otherwise I sailed through the empty streets at a nice pace. If everything went to plan, I’d make it back just before sunrise. That’s good.
And then, a bolt of terror shot through me.
I pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road like a man possessed, and got out. In retrospect, I don’t know why I did so, nor why I stood watching the road in front of me. I just got this… feeling. Like some other vehicle would have just hit me, even though I was the only one on the road at this hour. My eyes stayed glued to the asphalt ahead. Nothing happened, but I had no reason to stop looking.
Minutes ticked by as images flooded my mind, images of a fate avoided. I saw my body torn and twisted, flesh indistinguishable from contorted metal. Bone and glass, equally shattered and jutting. Sensations, too, saturated me, the unending tide of another vehicle bearing down on me perpendicularly, crumpling the car like a can, tearing pains and shooting soreness piercing me all at once. Leaden sickness in my gut as my organs bled. A neck locked by whiplash, my eyes frantically darting around like some kind of inverted owl. My brain is bruised and fogged with shock, only allowing me to think I’ll be ok, despite my obviously being on Death’s doorstep. But it’s ok. I escaped that fate. I’d live on. I wouldn’t fade out like that, because I trusted my instincts.
I was so consumed in this fantasy of a fight to survive in flesh torn and twisted that I barely even noticed the incisors locking into the back of my neck— human ones, at that. All the fear I felt moments before left me, along with any feeling but an anaesthetic relief to be alive. Not exactly hope itself, but an infatuation with the existence of a tomorrow for myself. Dizziness slowly pooled in my head. My vision filled with static, until all I could see was a single centered fragment of the white dashed line demarcating the lanes. My veins felt hollow, and watery blood splashed around my circulatory system. My heart shuddered to keep me alive, just to keep panicking over a death that never was. I tried to move a hand, and realized I didn’t know how to. All I could do was torture myself with visions of that crash that didn’t happen and rejoice in my hellish reality.
I licked my lips, or the metallic edges that stood in for them these days. Shreds of fearful brain still lingered, and I wouldn’t waste a morsel. As sweet as the Jelly was, terror was in the depth of its flavor. It was the difference between eating raw sugar versus a slice of cake. I can’t believe I ever settled for Royal Jelly, I thought.
Lest I rile the Hunters, this had to look like an accident. So I set about mangling the car, punching out the windows with my sickle-tipped legs and churning metal beneath my claws. I tried to bend everything from the front back, so it would look like a head-on collision. With a final heaving effort, I hoisted the vehicle’s shell overhead and flung it several feet, hood-first, into the far side of the ditch parallel to the road. Finally, I smeared forgotten blood from my meal in the grass, so it looked like a wounded animal had limped off into the thinning patches of forest to die. That ought to do it. My stalking ground, this cursed patch of road, was seen by all but the most lunatic as a common crossing for deer, nothing more.
As I reveled in the fading aftertaste of my meal, a throbbing, pulsating pain began from the back of my dilapidated skull, rattling the silver death mask that had become my face. I instinctively whipped around to find a procession of figures in tattered black cloaks shuffling up towards me. Glancing up the line, they had gotten within a few feet of me before the pain alerted me to their presence. All of the figures, from the tallest, broadest adult (who reached about 9 feet) to the shortest child picked at their pale arms, the only bit of exposed skin, as if to pull out the hairs. From the closest procession members, though, I could make out their true objective; the shufflers were pulling strands of deep purple and maroon yarn from beneath their skin. One strand apiece, one never-ending strand that nonetheless never trailed on the ground but just kept pouring from their skeletal forearms like velvety veins. The procession overtook my stunned form and kept marching down the road until they faded from view. It was only then that I realized: their footfalls were silent, and they left no footprints in the loose sand on the shoulder of the road.
Layer 11: VI_VI_Sect
The night bore on. I couldn’t sleep in this chair. Sweat seemed to pool under my skin, condensing on my hollow veins. I couldn’t tell if the pulsating industrial noise was stuck in my head, coming from my earphones, a result of some nest of pipes outside my window, or just another auditory hallucination. The gaze on me had long since faded. Nothing existed except the screen. With heavy eyelids, I scoured each pixel of spirit photography I could find, hoping to wear myself out sorting editing artifacts and supernatural warping. A dull ache nested in my washed-out brainstem. Rheum and tears baked into a crust around the eyes which sat in sunken sockets. Pallor was cast upon my face. Gaps studded my memory of the time since arriving home that I wanted to chalk up to forgotten stints of sleep; the writhing sensation in my intestines told me that was an overly optimistic projection. I blinked, and one of my eyes clicked in its socket, pushing a bubble of evaporated moisture from under the lid. The computer fan began to hum, then buzz, then roar, but I pushed on despite the strain on my hardware.
The machine didn’t matter. The ghost must be fed.
Amateurish work, really. I screenshotted the shattered line of pixels where the glow began and linked the image, with no further context, in a comment. Next one was a standard ghost model from a common prank app. This is getting boring, I thought, stretching my arms above my head in a futile attempt to stave off spine stiffness. Was that door always there? Behind Alice’s mattress, there was a square door of about the same width as the main entrance to the Reactor. At any rate, it’s behind the mattress. I could feel my eyelids getting heavy, my head slumping, fog setting in over my thoughts…
Only for an electronic message tone to jolt me awake again. Dammit. I looked. It was from a twelve-year-old account called MortalKombatUltra, who was probably reputable if their account had been around that long. A quick scan of their posts and replies revealed nothing less reputable than the typical cyclical memetic gags, so it seemed ok to trust the message’s contents. They were as follows:
Hello there. You seem to know what you’re doing, so I’ll tell you something neat. There’s this stretch of road that isn’t. Go down the alley on Betterman, between Wharfham and Ibitsu downtown. It’ll end in a dead end if you’ve got the right one. Turn around and try to leave the alley, and you’ll be there.
It’s up to you to trust this now.
I looked over at Alice. In her unconsciousness, she couldn’t join me, and I know she wouldn’t want me to just leave, but there was no other way. Who knew if MortalKombatUltra had told anyone else about this “road that isn’t”, people potentially less capable than myself. People who could get hurt. Yes. I’ll go alone, this once, so no one else has to.
I strode over to the door to the Juno Reactor and placed my hand on the ornate doorknob. From the inside, it was a plain industrial panel of gray steel, with a single small window. Exactly like you’d see in a public school, or office building, or old folk’s home, except for the details. That window was latticed with brass detailing in place of the black plastic you’d normally see. Instead of a stainless, rectangular handle, this door had a delicately filigreed knob, with a brass emblem of a squid’s head mapped to the globular ornament. From there, lines emphasized each curve and tentacle like ripples in a pool of quicksilver. The most immediate modification one could notice was the lock—or rather, locks. There was one, as expected, on the aforementioned doorknob, that accepted a skeleton key. (Both Alice and I held a copy.) There was also a sliding deadbolt that could not be undone from the outside, a chain lock with links thick enough to stop most bolt cutters, and a small metal bar at the top and bottom of the frame, mimicking the castles of old with modern technology. Undoing all these was a hassle, but a necessary one: technically, any door could lead to the Juno Reactor, if no one was in the room said door would normally access and the opener knew of the Reactor. No one had ever accidentally broken in,
I just didn’t want to take chances.
Should I leave a note? I thought, but I was already out the door by the time I finished considering it. No use unlocking the noisy main lock, and chance waking Alice up, just to leave a message in my place. Yeah, I’ll go alone. It’s ok.
I walked into a rainy night on Ibitsu Boulevard. Neon lights stained the torrential sheets all shades of pinks and blues, and street lights dripped pale yellow pebbles into the glistening obsidian road. It was a world of light, not a ray of it from the sky, but all from human minds and hands. I nervously pondered this as I strode the several blocks to the intersection between Betterman and Ibitsu. Most people, at this hour, were returning home to the gargoyle-studded towers uptown. If not, they were traveling off the streets, either up- or down-stairs to labs or studies, or to the Internet. Either way, my hunched, purple-cloaked form stood out against the currents of people and the less stable stream of motor vehicles that divided us.
Thinking of the cars reminded me that I was ultimately traveling to a patch of road myself with no reliable way back. I really should have left that note, I thought, as I turned onto Betterman Lane. Well, it’s too late for that now. I’d hate to jam pieces of paper under a door that doesn’t fit the criteria to link to the Juno Reactor.
The new street offered a totally different atmosphere to the crowded “second day” on Ibitsu. Here, the rain fell in a silent mist, and the only illumination came from a single flickering street light, much more yellowed than its cousins. Nonetheless I could still see my destination, or at least the door to it, in the form of a gap between two brick buildings. I approached it, and kept walking. Once around the block, to pre-emptively confirm it didn’t reach the street parallel to Betterman, which it didn’t. (If I had been paying attention instead of getting lost in my own thoughts, I would have noticed that on the way in.) I kept walking with my eyes on the low skyline. No one was visible on the rooftops, and no one was on the street level. Someone could have hidden in the throbbing pipes, someone with inhuman flexibility and strength, but if I considered a second Gargoyle in the middle of this case, I had already lost. My mind flashed back to the handsome puppet, and the disfigured beetle-man Kurtzberg, but neither of them seemed built for climbing.
I rounded the corner back onto Betterman Lane. Once again, the streets and sidewalk were empty, the doors were all locked for the night, and no one was watching my back from bustling Ibitsu. I left the domain of the lone streetlamp, and entered the pool of indigo shadow and dull humming that was the Alley. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the complete lack of light, but once they did I realized the corridor was functionally not much wider than my shoulders. From the outside, it looked like two people could comfortably walk side-by side past clean-cut brick walls, but now that I was down in it, I could see the source of the hum: layers on layers of pipes, gauges, vents, and miscellaneous industrial paraphernalia coating the walls like ivy. All of it seemed to pulsate to a rhythm of sorts, hinting at it being one complex setup, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. So, I pressed on, rather than display my defenseless back to the street.
I was walking for way too long. Even with my cautiously shuffled steps, there’s no way it should have taken as long as it did for me to reach… I looked back. No, that seems right, but I would be able to see the end in front of me, touch it even. I brought a hand forward and felt nothing. Blindly groping forward, still nothing. I turned to the side, and shimmied forth with my hand on the uneven wall of metal growth, but I couldn't distinguish between one chute and the next pipe by sight, much less touch. In short, I had no way of knowing if I was making progress. Despite the sinking feeling in my gut, I had to press on.
I walked, and counted to 300 in my head, pacing myself on the churning, ever-louder beat of the pipes. I don’t know why I even bothered turning to check— the pale yellow glow of the streetlamp was no further away than it was earlier. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. Maybe I wasn’t meant to find the end of this path. I turned back when an impossible glimmer caught my eye.
I don’t know how it even shone with the one light source being so far away. I don’t even know if I imagined the glow, if it was some primal core of my brain sensing something the way it would have seen a leopard’s eyes in pitch darkness. Some sixth, or even seventh, sense, the kind of complexity in our brain that is necessarily unknown. One of those wrinkles to the human mind that allowed for curiosity, but itself slipped into vestigiality in a post-food-chain era, making it a waste of time to investigate. Nevertheless, something was there: two thin, cylindrical pieces of rusted steel, jointed together with a loose bolt, and pneumatically twitching. I assumed it fell from one of the two walls of metal, but I didn’t know where to begin fixing it, so I pocketed the scrap as evidence and kept walking.
Straight into a metal box.
I heard a bell-like crunch as I pulled my forehead away from the now-shattered gauge. The hollow ring from the (empty?) box tore through, and eventually assimilated into, the pulse of the pipes. Looking in front of me, intently looking, with a purpose, I could make out the fuse box I had walked into, a dark green service door, and tubes branching from the box outwards, like veins giving life to the mass of pipes behind me.
Up on those tree-like tubes was a sight I’ll never forget. It was dessicated and hollow, but unmistakably human. Leathery skin clung to an empty ribcage. In fact the entire torso was flayed open, and completely dry. Both of the body’s arms and one leg were pinned out to the side like a combination of a crucifixion and the Vitruvian Man. The skull was a mess. The face was skinless from the nose to the middle of the neck, the facial bones were so scarred as to look like shredded plastic, and everything from the eye sockets up was shattered into what appeared to be an emptied cranium. I don’t know why it mummified so, instead of rotting as it should have. Maybe the techno-ivy was some kind of advanced disinfection unit. I forgot my instructions wholly, though, and bolted from the alley. When I passed back onto the sidewalk of Betterman Lane, a belated wave of nauseated dizziness forced my eyes shut.
Layer 12: Onyx Wings Behind Despair
Alistair stumbled through the door, shattering my sleep with the heavy turn of the lock. I looked up with bleary eyes, and they were a mess, covered in rust-colored stains and sporting tattered holes in their purple cape. I think they had a black eye, too, unless that was just a trick of the light, nothing more than the normal black circles they sported from a minimal sleep schedule. Either way, the bright red scrapes up and down their one visible arm were certainly not a good sign.
“So where did you last see this ghost?”
“Phantom. The Phantom in Purple,” Seelie insisted, as she was wont to do.
“Everyone has a name for it. Where was the damned thing?”
“In the alley, below me. It stared at my camera for a good long while, but the tape is dead now.”
The black-suited man wrinkled his brow above those red wrap-around sunglasses. “Do you have the slightest bit of proof you saw it? That it was here?” he asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. “The higher-ups’ll have my hide if I don’t come back with something tangible for the Records.”
“Sorry, I would have led with that if I had one. I’ve heard how you people are.” She reclined dramatically against the doorframe, allowing the loose crimson sleeves of her velvet dress to fall to her elbows. “Is there anything else I can do to help?”
“Come with me to the Spire. Please. I’m sorry to trouble you, but we need to ask more questions in a more controlled environment.”
“Just come on inside! I’m dying just looking at you standing there so poised. It looks terribly uncomfortable. Join me for a moment and I’ll answer any questions you have.”
“I’ll have to take a rain check,” the man in black said with a cold smile. “I should get going now, with or without you.”
Seelie put on an exaggerated pout. “Oh, fine, but give me one moment. I need to shut off my computer.” She carefully logged out of the Necronomicon forums and powered off her desktop before walking through the still-open door.
I opened my eyes to find myself standing in a box. A 100 cubic foot box containing a stretch of road, but nonetheless a closed space. It didn’t have any walls, but the bounds were as apparent as the invisible lines denoting the difference between the last step in a staircase and the floor one travels to on it; one could easily feel them out. And, in this case, I felt I could not cross them.
There were other clues, too, like how stale the air was, the trapped stink of decay from the woods, the lack of a breeze, the way my shadow fell just-so-slightly removed from my feet. This road should have been bustling, or at least seen some use, at this hour, but it was entirely desolate. What time was it, anyway? It was bright as noon, but entirely due to the density of street lights; the sky above me faded into a light purple. The more time I spent here, the less natural it felt, and the more it felt like a room meant to resemble the outdoors than a closed-off section of it.
As I thought, I paced the stretch of road available to me, and right when I realized how enclosed this room was, a rotting stench boxed me in the nose. I stopped dead in my tracks, momentarily stunned by how foul it was, and yet how elusive its source was. This wasn’t the cyclical decay from the forest, either; this smell was indicative of life fed to industrial machinations and turned to sludge, rot removed from the conservation of energy. This was the smell of suffering, dismemberment, playing with one’s food, gazing into an entropic fire and sending its heat spiraling away to the depths of space. It was, in a word, excess.
Peering over the edge of the asphalt, I saw what it was, exactly, that possessed that curious and terrible stench. The ditches on either side of the road were filled with
Flaccid chunks of skin
And combinations of the above
All wriggling as one.
I could hardly react when a greasy black mass lunged forward at me from the depths of this deathly river. The flying carpet, drenched with decay and bloated with disease, was probably once a crow… Or for all I knew, it could have been a dove dyed black with decomposing tissue. Now, though, it was a pained abomination. I sidestepped the frenzied lunge at the last minute, causing its all-out attack to crack a patch of the graying asphalt into a cloud of dust and gravel. The crow lay still, either unconscious or dead. I flung a single cross-shaped dagger into its heart, or the closest approximation I could find, to make sure it wasn’t hurting any more.
“Quite valiant.” The scarred voice came from the hill behind me, a view overlooking the gore nest that spawned this hellish bird. I turned
And finally laid eyes on it.
The Man In Yellow. The Steely Manticore. The creature I had been hunting for what felt like a lifetime. Although it looked more like a centaur, with a metal scorpion’s body in place of a horse’s, than any description of a manticore. There was still no doubt in my mind that this twitching mass of biomechanics was the Manticore I had heard about.
The Flaying Chains swelled and burst from my left arm, leaving only a javelin of bone where a hand once remained. More and more skin unraveled and tore, up past my elbow to my shoulder, to the point where I was debatably humanoid. My arm, that lone ivory shard hung limp, surrounded by countless metal strings and four industrial-sized chains fit for crushing. Each small chain ended in a bladed cross, and the crushing Pillars boasted heavy headstones to boost their weight. I swung the jangling mass at my foe—
A wave of nausea shot through me. Alistair was doing something they shouldn’t, I knew that, but what, exactly, I had no idea. Since I was stuck inside this room out of space! Locked in here! My shadow distorted around the edges, and that gave me an idea.
Metal hit metal. Tiny little blades took hold in the jagged asymmetry of the creature’s hide, and got stuck as the Pillars bent plates back around them. But only for a moment; the Manticore’s mighty metal trunk twisted, and I hit the pavement hard. All the air was pushed from my lungs, and the force of the impact snapped the firmly anchored chains from my control. Tiny links rained down like a rain of quicksilver. The Manticore chuckled, deep in its throat. It was a sound absolutely devoid of mirth, and almost of passion as well; almost like the beast was bored.
I might as well put on a show.
If I had been paying attention, I would have felt my shadow ripple, as if a pebble had fallen into the same two-dimensional space as it. But all my focus was on manipulating the Four Pillars. I slammed them into the Manticore, again and again, until the headstones broke off and cracked open on the asphalt below. But that wasn’t enough. With flicks of my remaining fingers, I sent the final links flying at each of the beast’s scythe-tipped legs. They melted cleanly, forming flexible spears.
It was clear I was doing something; even the Manticore, with its metal parody of a human countenance, made its savviness clear with a tilt of the head and a bemusing clicking sound. Even that bastion of strategy, common wisdom, and psychological warfare was floored by my next actions, actions I didn’t even understand fully at the time. The first point tore into my remaining shoulder, one link at a time shredding bone and muscle alike, before erupting out the back through my right shoulder blade. Two chains, link by agonizing link, pierced either side of my navel and burrowed around my viscera until they found the sides of my hips, at which point they shot out, to act as second, stilt-like legs. The final chain, rather tamely, wrapped itself around the ivory remains of my left arm. I was now a tripod, twenty feet up in the lavender sky, dangling tiny knives from silver strands. Each leg locked into distinct segments and began pulling me
Towards the river of rot.
The Manticore began his terrible laugh again. “You can’t escape the desire to die, Allistair Macabre. It’s baked into you. You just need to burn yourself up and self-destruct, to honor your purpose in this world. I’ve seen the story of your birth, and I pity you, but you need to embrace why you existed in the first place.
You, and all humans, are food for those of us who know more. For us civilized enough to command mountains, you are to move them for us. Out of all humans, though, you should be more willing than most to die for the cause, any cause, so long as it catches your eye. You should BURN!!!”
I whipped my left arm downward, in an attempt to skewer the damned Manticore’s head on the chain, but missed horribly. All I got out of those foul metal jaws was another joyless chuckle for my efforts.
The creature struck back. It let its neck go limp and vomited slick, rust-colored oil straight up at my new center mass, while I was squirming to recover my chain and avoid the rotten assimilation I was being dragged towards. I took the oil full force, and realized it was actually
The Manticore’s sickened blood.
It reeked coppery and rotten, it stank of rust. When it hit skin, I felt it seep into my pores, I felt that I’d never be clean again. That slime would never wash out, or stop twitching, crawling, churning, frothing. I’d try to sleep, and want to go scrub myself raw. Any time I was sitting still, by myself or in a crowd, I’d feel marred by it. I’d feel that oiliness sliding around on my skin any time I let myself think, with no noise, forever. And that, knowing that the Manticore’s blood spray could wound me like that, just made it all the worse.
I tried to stave off such thoughts, but —
You know the theories. You know it’s probably all hopeless.
You know we’re either racing towards the end all other sentient species met, or else have passed it and are all alone, or else are working under them, or else—
“Shut up,” I told myself. For there was one ray of hope, one absolute truth in this universe. And it was right here on this planet.
As surely as there was light, my shadow would fall, and fall it did. Right onto the corpse of that poor crow.
I picked up the greasy mass of feathers with my spare chain. Feeling out the beak, I made that my new spearhead in place of the now-dulled final link. All the while, the Manticore looked me dead in the eyes and made promises of “moving as one,” “strength in numbers,” “true community.” He bullshitted me that I couldn’t trust my own two eyes, that everyone I knew was out to get me, everyone except him of course. Just accept the churning black tide of rot. “Just lay down and be preserved and rest on your laurels, sleep at last, as a beautiful doll,” he told me, with all the saccharine sickness of a politician.
It was that last word that snapped me out of it. Doll. That word Kurtzberg had called me, that thing I wasn’t but always was compared to. That thing I thought I was for so long, that thing I tried to emulate; that idea I now hated and yet still held fast to, the idea of myself as some static representation of a person rather than a real, live, animal. I dug that obsidian beak into the Manticore’s pointed ear. Feathers flew by in the eternal second it took to impact, like some filthy dart, and like a dart it stuck true in its target. I shoved more and more and more and more of the thick chain in through the Manticore’s ear, and I couldn’t even hear the beastly howls that resulted. My face was so clenched that my inner ear couldn’t vibrate, so I was temporarily deaf.
Maybe this wounded monster was more of a siren than a manticore. Regardless of what it was, it stumbled off into the woods, hopefully to die, and I recalled the Flayer. The pavement came to me with a meaty thwack. As my left arm reconstituted itself, I could feel the holes in my shoulder, gut, and hips sting more and more. But that didn’t matter.
The box shattered. Nothing changed at first glance, but the atmosphere sharpened. Everything seemed much clearer. That lavender skybox seemed to layer into cerulean, instead of being one flat tone like before. You could see some of those ever-present towers from the Old Ward, too, which couldn’t scratch the artificial cleanness from before. The stench of death remained, but it was slightly less concentrated. There was a pile of wrecked cars on the side of the road. I picked one, opened the door, and found a familiar lock.
Alice was sitting up on her mattress. “What happened to you?”
I gave her a weary look, and passed out.