(To push myself to write faster and release more often, I’ve started a short fiction challenge. Every Monday I’ll release a piece of short fiction – maybe a short story, maybe a poem, maybe something else entirely. The goal isn’t for every piece to be a masterpiece, but to improve my skills and the speed at which I write.)
The Shifting City
A dull thud.
A high-pitched shriek.
“Fuck,” said Charlie as he bolted awake.
Charlie had slept on the couch. His sister had slept in the bed, but now she was sprawled on the floor, muscles tensing and twitching, that horrific shriek coming from her.
Charlie checked his watch – 1:15am. He didn’t have long.
The motel was a shit hole, with faded green carpet on the walls and a sink that dripped no matter how hard you turned the handle. But it was fully booked, and Charlie knew it was only a matter of time before some asshole barged in, wanting to play hero.
His sister’s face stretched in horror as she clawed at the floor. Blood seeped from beneath her nails as she peeled off curlicues of wood.
A herd of pigs thrown into a jet engine.
It was the only way Charlie could describe his sister’s horrific squeal. And worse than the sound was the way it sustained. Though she never seemed to take a breath, the scream continued uninterrupted.
Charlie had been lucky to get three hours of sleep. Lucky that, for whatever reason, Beth had calmed down long enough for him to hail a cab and move her to this motel. But luck had run out, and her screams were going to bring attention they didn’t need.
It’d been thirty-six hours since Charlie had found her like this. Thirty-six hours – a short time under normal circumstances, but Charlie’s life before seemed like a foggy memory. Another life entirely.
A bang on the front door.
“What the fuck is going on in there?” roared a deep male voice.
Shit, thought Charlie.
He ran toward his sister and put an arm around her.
“It’s okay, Beth. You’re safe! You’re safe!” said Charlie.
Beth shoved him away and continued screaming and clawing at the floor. One of her nails cracked down the middle.
“You’ve got to be quiet,” said Charlie, moving again, cautiously, toward Beth. “If we get kicked out I don’t know where else to take you.”
“Stay away from me!” yelled Beth, her tear-filled eyes bulging.
“Open the door, honey!” came another voice from behind the door, this one female. “We want to help!”
“There’s a guy in there with her,” said a second female voice. “I saw ’em go in together.”
“Open the fucking door, man, or I’ll knock it down,” said the booming male voice.
Charlie looked frantically around the room. There was a window leading to a fire escape, but they were on the third floor. Charlie doubted he could get Beth to climb. Doubted he could even get her to stand.
Charlie grabbed Beth hard and turned her to face him.
“Beth, it’s your brother, Charlie,” he said, shaking her violently. “For your own safety, you’ve got to shut up! Do you understand me?”
“Fuck this,” said the booming male voice. “I’m going in.”
There was a loud smash and the front door rattled on its hinges.
“Wait, wait!” screamed Charlie, standing and hurrying toward the door. “I’m coming!”
Charlie unchained three locks and swung open the door.
“What?” he said with feigned impatience.
A big guy with a bald head pinned Charlie against the wall. Two women rushed past them into the room.
“You think it’s fun smacking around your girl?” said the bald man, drops of his saliva splashing on Charlie’s face.
“Oh my god,” said the young woman, seeing Beth’s blood-smeared hands. “You poor thing!”
“Stand her up,” said the older woman. “We’ll take her to our room.”
“Don’t touch her!” said Charlie.
“Shut up,” said the bald man. “Leave them girls alone.”
The women stood on either side of Beth, grabbed her under the arms, and started to lift. Beth writhed, knocking away the women.
“We’re just trying to help,” said the younger woman. “Come with us.”
The women moved again to lift Beth, putting their hands on her shoulders. Beth flailed her arms and shrieked even louder (which Charlie hadn’t thought was possible).
“What the fuck did you do to this girl?” said the bald man.
The women grabbed Beth’s flailing arms and hoisted her up.
“Come on, come on,” said the younger woman.
Beth jerked forward, tore her arms free, and clawed the older woman across the face.
“Jesus!” said the older woman, recoiling and clutching her eye.
Beth fell to her knees, her body prostrate on the floor. Her hair had fallen forward, exposing the back of her neck and the horror which had been implanted there.
“Shit,” said the bald man, backing away from Charlie, his eyes widening with fear. “Why the fuck did you bring her here?”
Charlie rushed to Beth and crouched beside her. Her shriek had been replaced by a quiet sob.
“That bitch!” said the older woman. “Coulda scratched my cornea!”
“Come on,” said the younger women, putting her arm around the older woman. “Let’s go. Nothing we can do for her.”
The women slinked from the room.
“You’ve got three minutes to get her out of here, then I call the police,” said the bald man. “We don’t need that trouble around here.”
Charlie shuddered as he got a clear look at the monstrosity on Beth’s neck. A maggot-like creature weighing several pounds, with pus yellow skin and pink veins, had embedded itself at the base of her skull. Its slimy skin throbbed as its hundred-tooth circular mouth pumped neuro-toxin directly into her brain.
“Three minutes,” said the bald man, shaking his head as he left the room.
Beth was subdued enough that Charlie thought he could move her. But to where?
Charlie knew that brain bugs were only used when someone very rich, and very vicious, had it out for you. The kind of rich that meant going to the police wasn’t an option. Either they’d be in on it, or they wouldn’t give a shit. Most likely they’d throw Beth in a solitary confinement box, and Charlie would never see her again. Almost all bugged inmates died in prison and it was the same for hospitals. Normally, brain bugs were used for extortion or to encourage payment of a debt. But when Charlie had found Beth, there hadn’t been a demand, or even a note.
The siblings hadn’t spoken in two years. It wasn’t a falling out, so much as a drifting apart. Beth had married wealthy and was living the high life in Monaco, while Charlie, still poor, worked twelve hour days as a diesel trader. Two days ago, Charlie received an email which read “Without help, your sister will die. We are observing, but cannot interfere. 425 Konias Blvd.” The email sender was listed as unknown.
Charlie draped his sister’s arm over his shoulder and walked her downstairs and out the motel. He hailed a cab, lifted Beth into the back, and climbed in. Beth leaned against the window and closed her eyes.
“Where to?” said the cabbie, an old Chinese man missing his front two teeth.
“Meyers and Black Ave,” said Charlie.
“No way,” said the cabbie, laughing. “I not go that part of town.”
“I… I have to go. I’ll pay whatever you want,” said Charlie, taking out his wallet. “A hundred? A hundred fifty?”
“Save your cash,” said the cabbie. “You go there, you need money. That way they rob you. Otherwise they just stab and leave you die in street.”
“Fine, then take us as far south as you can,” said Charlie. “We’ll walk the rest.”
“Okay, but it’s your funeral,” said the cabbie, smiling widely, his tongue poking through his missing front teeth.
Orange streetlights flicked past the windows as they sped south, the cabbie swerving between cars like a maniac. Charlie looked at Beth and noticed dried tears on her cheeks. The cabbie is only partly right, thought Charlie. If we die, there will be no funeral. Our bodies will never be allowed to leave.
Meyers and Black was the entrance to the Shifting City. In a time when every square inch of the planet was mapped and updated in real-time, the Shifting City was where people went to disappear. Buildings there were built on an elaborate system of hydraulic platforms, so that every night, they moved and rotated. By the next morning, any map you had was worthless.
Even the city’s residents weren’t aware of the its full layout. The most one person knew was the few blocks within which they lived. Navigation was a complicated, expensive process, involving trades, bribes, and worse. This made the city practically impenetrable to the police, allowing a vibrant criminal community to thrive.
Charlie had heard rumors that a chemist deep within the city had discovered a hack to remove brain bugs. When a bug attached, it embedded wormy tendrils deep into the brain. Incorrectly removing the bug released a vicious poison, resulting in instant death. Each bug was programmed with a unique chemical lock – a chemical compound that, when applied to the bug’s skin, would retract its tendrils. Only the chemist who attached a bug knew the chemical compound needed to remove it. But this chemist at the center of the city had supposedly found a way to scan bugs to reveal their chemical locks. And since Beth’s bug had come with no demands, no clue as to how to have it removed, finding this chemist was their only hope.
And so, on the basis of a rumor, they were heading to the Shifting City, the most violent city in the most dangerous state in the union. Charlie had no weapon and no idea how to throw a punch. He didn’t even know how to talk tough. All his life he’d kept his head down and stayed out of trouble. For what?
I shoulda been a delinquent, thought Charlie, lowering his head into his hands.
The cab pulled to the curb. Outside, a single streetlight glowed dimly, and the gutters overflowed with garbage-filled water. A woman covered in black soot stumbled down the sidewalk, mumbling to the sky.
“Okay, buddy,” said the cabbie. “This as far as I go.”