Letters from the Waste: Part VIII is the eighth installment of fragments collected from the world of the Puritan, a world not so distant from our own. Separation proves painful, though alliances may form from necessity. Click here for the previous part.
Mom and Dad,
It’s taken three years, but I’ve finally been transferred to Central Station. I’ve even been promoted to Notification Supervisor. I get the feeling Maria may have had a hand in that, but I’m not going to complain. I haven’t seen her in months (and I hope to keep it that way), so I haven’t had a chance to complain about it anyways.
Mary is doing extremely well. She’s so young, but so quick. I only wish that I had more time with her. With my move to Central, I’ll have half-an-hour less of a commute, but I still don’t get off my shift until six. That leaves only about two hours with her in the evening before I have to put her to bed.
She likes that storybook you sent her, The Little Prince. I almost can’t believe that you held onto it for so long. It’s the only thing she will fall asleep to, even though sometimes when we finish it she seems so sad. She hates sleep. She’s even worse than I was, and I’m sure you know that that’s saying something. The early chapters typically send her off to dreamland, but sometimes, when we reach the end, she throws her little arms around me and whispers, “we won’t leave each other, will we, mommy?” I tell her no, of course not. Eventually, when she did it a third time, I asked her what made her so worried and think something like that. At first, she just stuck out her bottom lip and turned her face away from me. I asked her again, and she finally looked at me with her big brown eyes. “Where did my daddy go?” she asked.
I had always dreaded this day. Deep down, I had always hoped we would never need to talk about her father, even though I also knew, deep down, someday we would; with everything that she watches on the television, all those shows spouting the ideals of a “united family,” even on her children’s shows, it was really unavoidable. I just never thought that it would happen so soon. We are doing fine–we are fine; I am doing the right things–but I fear everything the world has shown Mary makes her believe that there’s something wrong with us. I had thought for a long time what I might say when she asked about her father, but, once she actually did, I forgot everything I had prepared. Finally, I explained to her, “I love you. And your daddy loved you too, very much.” She thought about this for a little while. “Then why did he go?” I looked over at the book. “The Prince loved the aviator too, right? But, in the end, he still had to go. He couldn’t come back.” Again, she thought about this, scrunching her nose. “So daddy left, because he loved his rose more than us?” I had to look away from her for a few seconds when she said this, so that she wouldn’t see me crying. She leaned up again and threw her arms around me. “He just… had to cut down his own baobabs.” I looked down at her and held her in a big hug. “You’re my rose, Mary. And I’m your fox. We will always have each other.” I held her like that for a long while, until she fell asleep in my arms.
After that night, I did not want to read her the book anymore, but she insists on it. She thinks of herself as a little prince. It makes her happy. I can’t take that from her. Every day, she goes to school, ready to explore, and then comes home again to Flora, across the hall. The woman has been so kind in helping me with Mary, and she still seems eager to. Her husband died years ago, and the rest of her family was moved to Minnesota, so we sort of take care of each other. Mary loves her.
You guys should file for a vacay permit to come and visit. I know that Dad doesn’t think he can get one, but you’re really only just across the way on the Jersey side, and I could pick you up from Central Station myself. I know that he’s also still annoyed that the two cities aren’t considered the same since the recent expansion, but don’t be stubborn. Think about it.
I love you both. I will talk to you soon. Mary says that she loves you.
Grace and Mary
Fragment 0213 – Page 218 [Partial translations provided]
January 21, 2054
I have to assume that everyone is dead but Ya and I. Our hotel room was attacked by both EAO agents and PLA. The only reason we made it out alive at all was because they were just as busy dealing with each other as they were with us.
Shortly after seeing the SUVs pull up outside, I heard yelling out in the hallway; both the EAO and PLA squads had gathered on either side outside our door, and I picked up their heated discussion about jurisdiction, whether to kill the asset, and a pissing contest founded entirely on bits of regurgitated propaganda. The girl was already awake with me. She started walking towards the door, but I grabbed a hold of her and told her to stay quiet. Wednesday and the family woke up when bullets started flying in the hallway. A few of the shots broke through the room’s thin walls. Almost immediately, one bullet hit Wednesday in the shoulder. I grabbed my gun and pulled Ya behind the desk. Suddenly, the bullets stopped.
I stood up, looking for some way out. Wednesday and I did not have nearly enough ammunition to deal with one of the squads, let alone the two of them. I went back to the window, leaving Ya behind the desk. The room had no balconies to climb out on. There was only the river, six stories below. While looking for anything else to help us, the spotlight of a nearby helicopter fell upon the window. I threw myself to the carpet, just as gunfire poured through the glass. The shattered pane fell on my head, but I was uninjured. Wednesday yelled for me to grab the girl, as he led the Sun family to break through the door to the adjacent room. Ya’s father had been shot in the leg and was being helped by his wife and one of the brothers. My partner went to shoot the handle of the adjoining door to breach the lock. He got off only one round before a stream of bullets answered him from the other side. Wednesday and the rest of the Sun family were gunned down before our eyes. The black silhouette of armed men appeared in the cracks in the door, breaking through the shredded wood paneling. With only a split second left to live, I grabbed Ya and dove through the broken window. We had only one chance: to land in the river below.
I thought that we had a pretty good chance of surviving. Cliff divers made jumps like this all the time. On the rarest of occasions, by some miracle, some people had survived falls after their parachutes failed to open. Of course, most of them wound up with shattered bones. Focusing solely on the positive aspects, however, this wasn’t my first experience escaping out of a window; it had proven necessary to jump from the third story of a hotel room when smuggling refugees out of Chechnya, but I was younger then, and there were awnings to help break the fall. Still, I was unfortunately out of options. Sixty feet up–I knew that I had only a moment to lift Ya above me, bend my knees, and hope that I would land in the water feet-first, toes pointed.
Except, looking down sometime during the roughly six seconds we had in the air, I realized I had made one fatal mistake. I had not given enough of a push off of the side of the building, and between the river and the side, there was the narrow roadway below. I went to throw Ya towards the river so that she might have some chance. EAO agents and PLA officers looked up from below, a cacophony of shouting, and watched us fall. It would have been over. It should have been over. I heard Ya crying, shrieking with an anger and sorrow I had never expected to hear from a child.
Something pushed me. Something invisible, it changed the arc of our fall, throwing us out to the river. The dark ripples rushed up towards us. I felt my body breach the cold water and sink several meters beneath the surface. The city lights, shimmering underwater through the bubbles and waves, faded. I blacked out.
I woke up drenched, yet I was not in the water anymore. I heard someone sobbing next to me and fire crackling and the crumbling of rock. A high ring of debris surrounded me. Somehow, the hotel we were in had collapsed on one side, but not anywhere on top of us–the perfect circle of a crater that we occupied was untouched by debris. I could still see the tops of other buildings nearby just above the mounds of concrete, steel, and glass. No earthquake had caused this. In a daze, I looked down again. Ya was clutching my side, sobbing into my jacket. On the other side of me, there was a row of bodies. They were carefully laid out, side by side, unlike the chaos of the scattered rubble. I recognized them: her parents, one of her brothers, and Wednesday. Somehow, despite the blood stains over their clothes, they seemed peaceful. Even the dust, the remnants of the building’s collapse, had been lifted off of their bodies. Over and over, Ya kept repeating “他們死了，我找不到他.” She must have been talking about her other brother. I placed my hand on her back and she looked at me. She was sad and she was angry. Everyone she loved was gone. I know that it was not my fault, but I should have done more. We should never have stayed in the hotel; we should have gone somewhere else. I thought we had more time.
I went to push myself up off the ground. Pain flashed through my left leg. It was broken. Ya refused to move, kneeling on the broken concrete. Balancing on my right side, I attempted to lift her off the ground, but she started to scream and kick. A perceptible pressure strained on my chest, pushing back against me. “我們不能離開他們,” she shouted at me. I put her back down on the ground and kneeled next to her. I told her we had to or we would end up like them too. I told her that she had to trust me, or we would both die. The pressure on my chest lessened. Her tears flowed more than ever. She pulled away from me and walked over to the bodies, throwing herself down upon them, hugging her mother and father as well as she could. I was about to tell her again that we needed to leave, when she stood up, kissed her brother on the forehead, and came back to my side. She placed her small hand in mine and said nothing. Hobbling on one foot, I looked for the easiest path out of the ring of broken rock.
Coming to the bottom edge of the crater’s inner circle, I quickly deduced that, with my broken leg, it was going to take a lot of effort and pain for me to climb to the other side. My only hope seemed to be that the girl, having demonstrated the sheer potential of her unexpected abilities, might be able to lift me over. However, the sound of shifting rubble from a single direction hinted that someone was already climbing up to confront us. A head bobbed over the ridge. The upper half of their body continued to rise into view. I recognized the uniform: PLA. His lifted shoulders showed he had his gun drawn. I shot at him, and he threw himself to the ground, out of the line of fire. Two warning shots were fired back above our heads.
For about half a minute, I waited for some sign of approach, but there was none. As I prepared myself for a hasty escape over the debris, Ya safely behind me, she tugged at the back of my jacket. “只有一個。其餘的人在崩潰中死亡，但更多的人即將來臨,” she whispered. I was about to ask her how she knew that, but the man’s upper body again came into view over the lip of the crater. I fired at him immediately, before he could get off a single shot. His gun tumbled out of his hand and slid down the slope. I had hit him in his right arm. Now, without a weapon, he lifted his good hand into the air in surrender.
[“Why do you want this girl?”] I yelled to him, keeping my sights trained on his forehead. He refused to answer me. He did not need to. The girl had demonstrated her abilities time and again; according to the intel given to us, this was not the first building that she had collapsed, although this was a much bigger incident. They wanted her, possibly as a weapon. Perhaps they were the ones who made her in the first place.
Based on the insignia on his arm, the man–I later learned that his name is Liu Chen–was the rank 少尉 [Shao Wei]. Smaller potatoes. His arrival proved fortuitous to me in two ways. First, this guy was obviously trained, but I assumed that his relative rank meant most of the specific information about this mission was above his pay grade; he was auxiliary support, probably a driver. Second, my broken leg meant that scaling the crater before additional operatives arrived would be difficult. Running away would be impossible. Driving an escape vehicle for myself would be equally so. Ya might have been able to use her powers to help us, but I couldn’t ask her for something like that in her current state.
This man was exactly what I needed. After a bit of coaxing (gentle threatening), I convinced him to come closer and let me balance on his shoulder while we were hiking out of the crater. The gun in my hand was probably the deciding factor, although he might have also been afraid of the girl. We did not really give him a choice. I ordered him to drive us to a nearby parking lot, where we hotwired and hijacked a second car, and then to take us to one of the major ports. Both the EAO and PLA had tracked us to the hotel, so the Astrolabe was no longer going to be an option. We were going to have to stow away on some other ship, one bound for anywhere but here. After coercing Chen to cut through one of the remote fences of a larger dock, we found ourselves on the edge of a dry dock, next to a large cargo freighter. The freighter was clearly put-in for repairs, so we would need to sneak over to one of the different vessels.
And this is where the situation became more complicated, a complication on top of complications: Chen. The silhouette of the large ship, moored in the dry dock, loomed like a hulking phantom next to the trio of us. It was quiet as it can be in a city, but there was no real way of telling if anyone else was nearby. [“I think that we want the same thing,”] I said aloud (or something along those lines), stopping. I kept my gun aimed at Chen. [“I think we both want to see the end of the Puritan.”] I was hoping to appeal to a common interest. It was Ya and I’s best chance.
Chen was standing at the edge of the pathway, looking down at the damp, corroded metal floor of the dry dock. [“That depends on who you ask,”] I heard him say.
[“What do you want?”]
[“I want what you want.”]
[“I don’t want to kill you. I want you to let us go. And I want to let you go. I think that you’ll see that that is the best thing for the both of us. As I said, we want the same thing.”]
He shook his head. He told me that he did not know that for certain, that he did not know where my allegiances truly rested, even though he was correct as to his own intention. I told him that he was going to have to live with that uncertainty. I walked closer to him, closer to the edge of the pathway. I told him to let us go. I told him to get out of here. He told me that he did not think he could do that. He told me that I did not have as many options as I thought. I prodded him once with the muzzle of my pistol.
He took advantage of the proximity. I really should have seen it coming, but my mind was shaken; my senses were dulled. I thought that I had the upper hand, but the moment I touched him, I had come too close. In a clumsy but forceful instant, he grabbed a hold of my arm and my neck, throwing off my aim and my balance and thrusting me towards the precipice of the dock.
Clumsy, for, in the wrenching motion, I managed to at least get my arm free–his arm was shot, and his grip was not strong enough–and I did not go over the edge. But my footing was thin. I was balancing on the corner of the walkway, my shoes searching for friction, the front of the soles finding nothing, the fronts of the heels pressed up against the rim, my left leg ready to give out. I groaned, and I heard Ya scream, but I felt nothing pulling me up, none of the same sourceless force that had saved us a few hours prior. My center of gravity was off. I could fall at any moment–the angle was too severe–but Chen had me by the collar. I grabbed his shoulder to hoist myself up, placing my hand over his wound, but he pressed his whole body against me, pushing me backward.
My eyes locked with his. I could feel his breath meet mine, our bodies only separated by the width of the gun pointed at his heart. He should not have lost his grip on my arm.
[“Pull me up,”] I threatened.
[“I’ll shoot you.”]
[“You won’t though. Reason one,” he said, breathing heavily now, sweat building on his forehead, “if you shoot me, someone will almost certainly hear it, and then they will come looking. Authorities will be called. Would I be wrong to assume that that’s why you didn’t kill me the instant that we crawled through the fencing? Why you offered me the chance to leave, without making any noise or mess?”]
[“You would not be wrong.”]
[“Good. And reason two,” he whispered, tightening his grip, “if you shoot me, you fall.”]
[“I’ve survived worse,” I interrupted, having just recently done so.]
[“You might survive this too. It’s not that deep. But you might hurt yourself further, and then it would be very, very difficult to climb out of there, with or without help. You would almost certainly be caught, as would she.”]
[“Almost certainly. That’s not quite enough to scare me.”]
[“Is it worth the risk? We will have the girl. And you will never leave. You may be executed. Almost certainly.”]
[“Is all this to say that you can offer me a more positive, alternative outcome?”] I could feel his arm shaking. He could not hold onto me forever.
[“I come with you. If you claim to be working towards the destruction of the Puritan, an ally can’t hurt. And I would like to see that happen.”]
[“I can’t trust you.”]
[“You don’t have any better choices.”] And, before I answered, he stepped backward, pulling me with him onto solid footing. Ya hobbled to my side, tugging me back to the middle of the path.
[“Alright,”] I finally said. [“Alright. Yes. Why not? This operation has already gone to Hell.”] I nodded, and, before I could entirely realize why I was saying it, added “谢谢.”
So, here the three of us are, sitting in a cargo container full of boxes of flashlights, gliding over deep waters, bound for heaven-knows-where, bound on a mission to overturn an overturned world. I’m keeping an eye on Chen. Chen is watching me. Ya is watching us both. None of us are probably going to get any sleep any time soon.