Out Amongst Them Part II

By: Bill The Butcher

Jasmine was eleven years old when she first heard of the Other Side as something more than the abstract (as in “Do your homework or I’ll send you to the Other Side”). Till then the Other Side had existed only in the same sense as Fairyland or the Far Side Of The Moon. She knew it was there but never actually wasted any thought on it.

There was a man who lived across the hall from her, in a small corner flat. He wasn’t old, probably, but to her eyes he looked ancient. He used to smile at her when he saw her in the corridor or on the stairs, and generally pass the time with a few jokes of the sort which would make eleven-year-olds giggle hysterically. Jasmine no longer remembered precisely what he looked like, or even his name, but she did remember that he seemed fairly lonely and never had any visitors.

On this day she came back from school early because she had begun her period unexpectedly and had, of course, not carried a sanitary napkin with her. Her mother had been at work, and the door locked, so she was forced to wait in the corridor, the blood stickily coagulating on her thighs.

The man across the hall had returned from somewhere and seen her waiting, and the stain on her skirt. “You can clean up in my bathroom,” he said, and even though her mother had told her never to go with anyone outside the family, the old man wasn’t exactly a stranger and there was still over an hour to wait.

When she had come out of the bathroom, the old man had greeted her with milk and chocolate biscuits. They had sat on his sofa, eating and drinking, and talking of her school and friends.

“Why doesn’t anyone ever visit you?” she had asked suddenly, on impulse.

The old man had glanced at her with amusement. “You noticed, did you?” The amusement fell away from his face. “They think I’ll be exiled to the Other Side, and they don’t want any guilt by association.”

“Exiled? Why?”

“I…” the old man looked at her, as though measuring how much she would be able to understand. “I think things,” he’d said at last, “which don’t go down well with some people. They think my thoughts might, you could say, cause trouble. So they think the authorities will exile me to the Other Side, and they’re afraid that if they mix with me, the authorities might exile them too.”

“The Other Side?”

“Yes. You know what the Other Side is, don’t you? Across the Wall. They send people over there as punishment.”

“And they’ll exile you there?” Jasmine had been too fascinated to be frightened at the thought. The Other Side was the land of monsters and ghouls, where nightmares grew and naughty children were sent to die. “What will happen if they do?”

“Who knows?” The old man had grinned. “Nobody ever came back to tell the tale. Maybe the Hunters know, but they aren’t telling.”

“What are those thoughts? They must be very bad thoughts.”

“Oh, awful,” the old man had agreed. “Incredibly horrible thoughts. Someday I’ll tell you just how horrible. They’d make your hair turn white.”

“When will they send you?”

“Maybe tomorrow. Maybe never. They haven’t done it yet, so these people are probably all just afraid for nothing.”

“I’ll be your friend,” Jasmine had promised solemnly, her eleven-year-old hand thrust out to seal the bargain. “I’ll visit you whenever you want.”

“Thanks.” The old man had glanced at the clock on the wall. “Your mom will be getting home soon, won’t she? You’d better get back in the hall again. She won’t be happy if she knows you’re with me.”

“I’ll be back,” Jasmine had said.

But she had never been back, because three days after that the old man’s flat had suddenly been empty and nobody knew where he had gone, or when. And after that there had been a new tenant, a beautiful and bad-tempered young woman who snapped at Jasmine for making a noise with her shoes in the hall, and the old man had almost slipped her mind. Almost, but not quite.

She’s found out, of course, that what he’d said was true – certain incorrigible criminals are punished with expulsion beyond the Wall. She’s never discovered what had happened to him, or what happened to those exiles. Only one thing does she know for sure – they’ve been pushed out into this same wrecked and destroyed city, with its glowing river of poison and its towering edifices of ruin.

She finds, with a start, that probably quite a lot of time has passed while she was reminiscing. The lightning’s as bright as ever, and the rain coming down so hard that at every flash it turns bluish-white, like an opaque wall. Ross will have plenty of opportunity to hide in that, she realises.

Hunter Two is looking across at her. She realises he’s asked her something.

“Would you like something to eat?” he repeats. “You’re probably hungry.”

“No,” she says, feeling his eyes on her, and drawing away slightly. “I’m fine.” To distract him, she points into the rain. “Is that something moving there?”

“Not that I can see.” He turns back to her. “If I may ask, why would a woman want to come on this kind of tour? You’re not the type of person we get most of the time.”

“Is Ross?”

“Sometimes an odd one or two slips through, of course.” Hunter Two shrugs. “Leader will find him and get him back, and after that we’ll carry on the rest of the tour as usual.”

“If he doesn’t want to carry on? Ross, I mean.”

Hunter Two laughs shortly, his teeth gleaming in reflected lightning. “He’s signed the release, as you did,” he says. “You read the fine print, didn’t you? Once you come over this side, you’re committed to following the Leader’s orders. And if you disobey…”

“What?” It’s not the rain that causes the chill in Jasmine’s gut.

“Hunter Leader can take whatever action he thinks appropriate,” Hunter Two says. “Anything at all.”

***************************

“They’ve been gone rather a long time, haven’t they?” Jasmine asks.

The lightning still flashes and the rain is still heavy, but the storm’s definitely past the peak of its force. Hunter Two looks across at her. “They’ll be back,” he says. “Are you worried?”

“Not really. It’s just that…” her head snaps round. “I saw something moving!”

“Where?” Hunter Two is leaning forward, his pistol in his hand, eyes peering into the night. “What did you see?”

“I don’t know…movement, something moving.” She doesn’t add that the moving thing was loping forward as though on four legs, but it had been fairly big, about as big as a man. “I just caught a glimpse from the corner of my eye.” She sees something else moving through the curtain of water, beyond Hunter Two, and now there’s no doubt. “There’s one more behind you,” she tells him.

He glances round over his shoulder, his hand darting to his pocket to drag out the flat black radio set. “Leader, this is Two. Leader?” Even over the rain Jasmine can hear the hiss of static. “Damn,” Hunter Two says, dropping the radio, the pistol held high. “This damned storm!”

The things in the rain are getting closer. Still too far off to see clearly, but they are coming, several of them, pale scuttling forms in the brief illumination of the lightning. Hunter Two fires, the pistol’s crack sounding flat and inadequate. The oncoming things seem to pause. It’s difficult to be sure.

“Get your gun,” Hunter Two snaps, pulling his bullpup rifle off his shoulder. He’s flat on the ground, arms and chest propped up on one of the bags, the rifle’s short barrel tracking back and forth through the darkness. “Get down now.”

Something clatters on the ground next to Jasmine’s foot, skipping away. A stone. Another, smacking into one of the pillars, knocks off splinters, one of which smacks her hand.

Hunter Two fires, a short stammering burst into the rain. “Come on, woman,” he snaps without looking round. “Move!”

Afterwards, Jasmine will wonder whether she made her decision on the spur of that moment or whether she merely implemented a plan she’d already subconsciously prepared a long time ago, and come up with no answer. With Hunter Two’s attention wholly focused on the pale things now coming even closer, she grabs the nearest bag and walks away into the rain.

It’s like being under a waterfall. The rain momentarily knocks the breath from her body, the water smacking so hard that the skin of her hands goes numb from the impact. Staggering slightly, with only a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure Hunter Two’s not watching, she slips round the side of the building into the alley beyond.

The walls on either side tower over her, enveloping her in darkness, rainwater sluicing down the shallow slope up to her ankles. She pauses a moment, long enough to drag on the rucksack. It isn’t hers, the straps adjusted differently, for a larger, plumper body, but that can’t be helped for now.

From behind her, round the end of the alley, Hunter Two’s gun fires again.

******************************

Jasmine has always loved animals.

Back when she was a child, she used to be scolded for taking food and giving it to the dogs in the park, because of course food was expensive and the dogs in the park had people willing to take care of them, so it wasn’t even as though they needed the food. Later, she had thought about getting one of her own – but by that time she had far too much work to be able to devote time and energy on a pet. And the years had passed.

She remembers that time, now, as she watches the animal shuffle towards her across the floor.

She’s in what was probably once a set of offices of some kind, the remnants of furniture still crumbling around her, the lightning flashing intermittently through the windows.

At first, when she first came in here to hide from the storm and from whatever prowls the night, she had thought she was alone. But then she had heard the eager snuffling sound, and then, in a flash of lightning, she’d glimpsed the animal for the first time.

It’s small, low to the floor, and she can’t see it clearly, but it’s probably a dog of some kind, and it’s wary, yet eager, like some of the dogs in the park who had been mistreated so long that they had virtually come to expect blows and kicks, yet needed a little love and a scratch behind the ear. She feels her hand reaching out instinctively, but then remembers where she is, and just what might be in the room with her.

Anything is possible across the Wall, Hunter Leader said before they left. Anything.

The creature growls.

Lightning flashes, so close that it banishes the shadows completely for an instant, the thunder making the walls tremble, but she scarcely notices the noise. In the instant of light she sees the dog, crouching, the thin tail stiff, lips drawn back so the teeth are bared, the tufts of fur gingery on its blotched skin. Its ears are flattened against its head, and yet it shuffles forward, its fear struggling against its need.

There’s only one thing it could need from her. As the darkness falls again she scrabbles inside the bag and holds out a stick of preserved meat. Something snatches the food from her and above the sound of the rain she can hear the click of claws on the floor, moving away.

While it’s busy with its prize, she quickly seals the bag, and steps out again into the night.

The rain is less now, the lightning and thunder fading, but the darkness is even thicker, liquid, like the distilled essence of shadows. Somewhere, far across the ruined city, the Wall towers, keeping normal people safe, but here, where danger is everywhere, it’s just one woman alone, and the night.

Now, with a chill more intense than the one she had felt while waiting with Hunter Two, she wonders what it is that she’s doing. It’s a dread that sits like a cold stone in the pit of her stomach, and yet there’s a comfort in it, in the thought that she’s finally burned her bridges, that there’s no way but onwards. And it’s just as she thinks this that she notices the light.

It’s just a flicker of orange at first, a tongue of fire inside a building, seen just for a moment, and then blotted out as though by a door being shut. For a moment she wonders if it could be Hunter Leader and the others, but then it strikes her that setting a fire would guarantee drawing attention, so it’s the last thing they’d do. And, therefore, whatever has set the fire belongs to this side; it’s part of this blasted and poisoned world.

Well, now, so is she.

She has no conscious memory of walking through the rain towards where she’s seen the fire, but some time later – it’s probably some minutes but feels like an instant – she’s inside a corridor. The black mouths of empty rooms yawn to her left, and on her right, windows give onto the night. The last of the lightning still flashes, far away, but she has no need of it. What she’s looking at lies at the end of the corridor. It’s a narrow strip of light, flickering and orange-red, firelight shining through a partly-open door.

She watches her hand rise almost of its own accord, reach out and push the door open. Automatically, her feet carry her forwards across the threshold.

With difficulty, she silences a gasp of shock.

At one time, this might have been a movie theatre. She’s standing on a balcony, high over the main floor, in the centre of which the fire is burning. Around the fire, figures bend and bob and weave, arms and legs rising and falling rhythmically. Faintly, she can hear them chanting.

Slowly, trying not to be seen, she creeps closer to the edge of the balcony. Smoke from the fire eddies past her, acrid enough to bring tears to her eyes, and thick enough so that she can’t see the figures down below clearly. She kneels, and bends to peer over the edge.

“They’re singing,” a quiet voice says at her shoulder. “It’s part of their social bonding.”

She’s so startled that she almost pitches over the balcony, but a hand is on her shoulder, dragging her back, pulling her over backwards on the floor. She looks up at the man keeling over her. He’s dressed all in black, and has a lined face, deeply creased, the eyes sunken. His hair and beard are sprinkled with grey.

He raises a hand. “I’m not going to hurt you. Don’t worry. You can get up now, but be careful.”

“Who are you?” She speaks as quietly as he does. “Why are you here?”

“Shouldn’t I be asking those questions?” She can see now that he’s younger than she’d thought at first, much younger, but aged before his time. He grins at her, the firelight far below flickering across his face. “Of course, I do know who you are…a lost Hunter, aren’t you?”

“Not quite – I mean, I was with a Hunter group, but I ran away.”

“Oh my. A refugee? Why, may I ask?” The man grasps her hand and gently pulls her away from the edge of the balcony. “It’s better that they don’t see us up here,” he says. “They might not like it.”

“Who are they – and you?”

“I see we shall have things to talk over,” the man says. He ushers her to a low long lump against the wall, which turns out to be a rolled-up carpet, and gestures to her to sit. She realises that he must have been sitting here and watching her since the moment she had come in. “But, first – what’s your name, and why did you run away from the Hunters?”

“My name’s Jasmine. And as for the other thing, the best answer is, I don’t know. I was feeling threatened by them. In fact, come to think of it, my entire life’s been spent feeling threatened in some way or the other. And then I had this chance, and everything seemed to come together all at once.”

The man nods, the lines deep in his face. “Jasmine, you’ve lived all your life on the other side of the Wall, haven’t you? The proper side, where everything is nice and people have lives? Well, what do you know about this side, then?”

It’s a question that takes her by surprise. “Well, ever since the Happenings, this side’s been, um, a wasteland, and populated by-”

“Stop!” The man holds up a hand. “You said the Happenings. I know, that’s the word everyone uses, but do you know what that means, actually? No?”

“Isn’t it when the world…changed?”

“That’s a good way of putting it – the world changed. Of course it did, but it wasn’t in a single afternoon, the way everyone seems to think. No.

“These Happenings,” the man went on, after a brief pause, “as you call them, stretched over many, many years, from the time of the Great Industrial Age. You’ve heard of that time, of course? They still teach about that in schools, and call it the Golden Age.

“Well, it was a Golden Age for those at the top of the heap, but for the rest, those who actually had to do the manufacturing and the growing and so on, it wasn’t quite so golden. In fact, it wasn’t golden at all. They had to compete to get the work, because they needed the income, but that meant the cheapest bids always won through. And safety standards, pollution controls, and suchlike things, cost a lot, a very large amount, and companies which cut them out of the budget did better than others. You see how it is?

“So, the Golden Age was basically the poorest of the poor trying their best to keep the rich happy, so they might get some of the crumbs falling off the high table. And for a long time that’s how it went – until the inevitable happened. The pollution reached a tipping point, and then the resources began to run out. And can you guess what happened then?”

Jasmine looks at him and across the great empty space of the movie theatre at the far wall. The smoke eddied, and the chanting sounded again, thin and distant. “The industries collapsed?”

“Precisely. And all the people who were trying to scrape a living from them – what happened to them?”

“They rebelled?”

“Very good. I did always enjoy an attentive audience. Of course they rebelled, and they were put down, pretty savagely too. The only thing was, they were too many to wipe out completely, and the land was mostly too poisoned to recover.”

“And so they set up the Wall? To keep the workers and the poisons out?”

“Of course. The Walls, actually, all over the globe, wherever there had to be a…separation. And as a dumping ground for all the fresh poisons, from whatever manufacturing that goes on these days. And another kind of dumping too; I think you can guess what sort that is.” The man cocks his head. “The chanting’s stopped,” he says softly. “It’s time we left this hall. They wouldn’t like it if they knew we were watching.”

“They – across the Wall, we think of them as…”

“Yes,” the man finishes, “I know. Monsters.”

**********************

“My name is Arakelian,” says the man. “I was a teacher.”

The rain has stopped completely, and the sky has begun to clear. Arakelian grasps Jasmine by the arm and pulls her close to the side of the building. “Your Hunter group will probably be out looking for you,” he murmurs. “It’s best that we move somewhere safe.”

“You were expelled here from across the Wall? Why?”

“Why do you think? It’s cheaper and easier to dump us here than to imprison us – the freethinkers and dissidents, the ones who would make too much of a racket; and it’s got one hell of a deterrent effect too, hasn’t it? There are a lot of us here, and growing in number all the time. The pressures on the other side must be getting out of hand.”

Light suddenly shines in the distance, and there’s the unmistakable sound of an engine, growing quickly louder. They shrink back against the wall of the building, flattening themselves to it. Far away down the avenue they can see the vehicle, long and high, searchlights on its roof flicking back and forth as it comes.

“The luxury tour bus, I assume,” Arakelian says. “They don’t usually come this way, so I imagine the normal route’s closed due to damage from the storm.” He pauses. “They’ll be here in a minute, and if you want to go back, here’s your chance. Step out into the road, wave to them, have them pick you up, and tell them you were accidentally separated from your group.” She feels his eyes on her, evaluating. “Well?”

She doesn’t hesitate. “No. I made the decision, one way or other. I’m not going back.”

“Very well, then. Get in here.” They enter a narrow alley, so narrow that Jasmine can brush both walls with her fingertips. Arakelian leads her to a low door set at street level, and pushes it open. “Quickly,” he whispers, “inside.” With a rumble of engines and a flash of light, the tour bus speeds past. Arakelian pulls Jasmine inside, and they’re enclosed in darkness.

Light flares suddenly, a flame setting a torch alight. Arakelian holds the torch at waist level. They’re in a corridor, low and roughly-finished, which reminds her of the passage through the Wall. “Follow me.”

They turn a corner and come out into a very small yard. Suddenly, there are figures all around, surrounding them. Hands grab at Jasmine’s bag, at her clothes, pushing her back against the concrete so she can’t move. A knife, glittering in the torch’s light, is at her throat.

“Wait!” Arakelian shouts. “This is a friend! Not a Hunter.”

Slowly, almost with disappointment, the hands drop away. Jasmine looks round at them, at their tattered clothing, their sullen faces. They are all sorts, fat and thin, big and small, but when she looks at them she feels there’s something missing. A few of them look back at her with interest, but many more with slack-eyed stupidity. One or two turn away, muttering.

“It’s OK,” Arakelian repeats. “Don’t worry. All fine.” The last of them turn away, some still looking over their shoulders at her. Their eyes are black, empty and frightening.

“I forgot that some of them are here tonight. They don’t really trust any of us, fully, and as for you…” He ducks under a narrow arch and out into another street, extinguishing the torch by dipping the end in a puddle of rainwater. “You saw them? All the poison’s been working on their bodies as well as their minds. Some of them can’t even walk upright anymore because their skeletons are so deformed.”

“Where are we going?”

“We have a place near here, some of us.”

“By ‘you’, you mean whom, exactly?”

“As I said – teachers, doctors, and the like. The indigestible trash of the real world.” He turns to her to say something more, and gasps. His hand thrusts at Jasmine, shoving her aside so that she staggers.

There is a vicious flat twang. Arakelian slowly topples over, a black stick sprouting from his neck, his body striking the road with a dull thud. He begins flopping around, choking.

“There you are.” Hunter Two steps from the shadows, the crossbow in his hands pointing at the exact centre of Jasmine’s chest. “Dump me and run away? Leader ordered me to find you, and bring you back. Bitch.”

Jasmine has stopped herself from falling by a hand on the wall. She tries to kneel by Arakelian’s jerking form, but Hunter Two impatiently shakes the crossbow at her. “He’s done for,” he snaps. “You come on. Keep your hands in plain sight. Let’s get out of here and then you give me that gun.”

The gun. She had actually forgotten the gun. For a moment she wants to grab for it, but he has the damned crossbow fixed right between her breasts, a bolt all ready for use. Gingerly, she steps over Arakelian and steps forward.

The spear hisses out of the darkness so unexpectedly that she almost screams with shock. It smacks into Hunter Two’s shoulder, the crossbow clattering on the road, and he stumbles back, crying out, pulling the spear free. Staggering, he turns and runs away into the darkness.

Someone steps out of the shadows. It’s one of those she’s seen already, in the yard, big, slope-shouldered, but with eyes that are as intelligent as they are furious. “Why did you come here?” he grinds out. “Vermin.”

“But,” she protests, “I didn’t mean to. This wasn’t my fault.”

“Doesn’t matter what you wanted. Now they come after you, right? Make trouble for all of us. No, don’t touch Arakelian. We take care of him. He be one of us now – not you.”

“What do you want me to do?” Jasmine watches as several of them emerge from the yard and pick up Arakelian. Though alive, he’s unconscious and obviously in a bad way. “Will he live?” she asks.

“That be not your concern, woman. You did enough harm already. Go.”

“Go where?”

“Anywhere. Out of our clan area. Spread your poison where you will, not here.” The big face thrusts itself at Jasmine. From this close she can smell him, a mix of sweat and fear. Yes, he’s afraid, and because of the fear, even more dangerous, and a little crazed. His eyes flick back and forth, not looking at her, scanning the street for danger. “Go now, before I change my mind about you.”

Slowly, Jasmine turns away and walks down the dark street. Unbidden, a thought comes to her mind that only a few hours ago Hunter Leader was warning them that they’d probably see something tonight. The night’s still far from over, and she wants to laugh when she thinks of what more might be left to see.

She feels the wind of the bullet just before she hears the report. It cracks past her head and smacks into the wall behind her, showering her with plaster. She’s already diving for the ground when the second shot arrives, still hastily fired as if by someone shooting one-handed, and then a ripping automatic burst that smacks into the road and the wall, chips of brick and plaster stinging her face as she cringes into the deep shadow at the base of the wall as far as possible, fumbling at her side for the rifle’s sling.

Then the gun falls silent for a moment, and she’s up and running, firing the Chinese gun into the darkness as she goes, not knowing or caring if she hits anything, the bullpup rifle shuddering in her hands until the magazine clicks on empty.

Jasmine keeps running.