Celia walked through desolate streets, bordered on both sides by the timeworn remains of buildings long since abandoned. It was quiet; even the city birds flew from rooftop to rooftop with little more than a gust of wind to mark their presence. She walked with a careful confidence, boldly marching through while keeping an eye open for anything out of the ordinary. The quiet may have unnerved others, but Celia thrived in it. It gave her a strange sense of power, being the only one who not only dared to break the silence but did it without so much as an attempt to cover it up. She studied the buildings as she went along, looking for one in particular. Things had changed since she’d last been there, vines of various plants entwining the concrete and forcing themselves into even the smallest of crevices, pushing pieces apart as they grew. They would break the buildings, and yet it was those very same vines which kept them together after they were broken.
Yes, things had changed, but Celia was certain she would recognize her building as soon as she saw it. And she did.
Expecting some sort of change, she almost overlooked it, but did a double take and stopped in her tracks right in front of the doorway. Like its neighbouring buildings, the never-resting vines that seemed hell-bent on covering the entire city had snaked their way around its front, covering some of the wall and slipping through empty window panes and chips in the wall, but other than that there had been no apparent change to the building she had once called home. Breathing heavily, which she assured herself was a result of the backpack’s weight on her shoulders, Celia began walking towards the gaping hole in the wall where the front door and a window had once stood. Ducking under a jumble of thick iron rods, long since aged with rust, she stepped over a cluster of concrete debris from the remains of the wall and entered the first floor. It was, aside from the coating of dust that now covered every available surface, and the vines once again making their presence known, exactly how she, how they, had left it.
She trailed her hand across a table where they had lain one of their friends when they’d been forced to extract a bullet, walked on the floor where they had sat in a circle planning for the future, stepped into a large empty room where they had practiced hand-to-hand combat with one another, all a lifetime ago. As she made her way through the building, reminiscing on times lived and lost, she kept one goal in mind; the goal that had driven this trip down memory lane in the first place. Glancing around doors and checking every hiding spot she could remember, she did her best to find him, drawing the line at calling his name aloud. The silence that she had been queen of moments before was now smothering; it was a sleeping beast she dared not wake, a delicate object she treaded around lightly lest she break it. It would have made things too easy, ended her search too soon. If she called his name and received no answer, it would be indisputable evidence of his absence. She found it easier to let herself down slower, one floor of the building at a time, gradually using up all her hope until she reached the top. That way, she reasoned, if she did not find him at least it would not come as a huge blow, all at once and overwhelming. As she continued on, with no luck in finding any signs of recent human activity, the sadness and the nervousness gradually gave way to simple rapture at being able to relive the memories, both good and bad. She almost completely forgot her original purpose, so enthralled as she was in her reminiscences. A broken railing that Andrew, in a fleeting moment of immaturity, had decided to slide down made her laugh aloud, and a shattered windowpane only a few floors from the top had her holding back tears. Finally though, the anticlimactic conclusion to her travel through time came when she pushed open the rusty, stiff hinges of the door to an empty rooftop.
The wind gently tugged at her clothes, a soothing, calming feeling coursing through her veins trying to combat the sudden feeling of emptiness that was now making its home in her heart. She picked her way around several dry bushes that had sprung up through the gravel covering the ground, making her way towards the billboard that stood tall and proud over the city on the roof’s edge. What it had once advertised there had long since faded, beaten into submission by the weather’s elements, and now all that visibly remained was a dark purple collage of various shades, plaster peeling away in several areas to reveal the brown board beneath. She climbed the ladder to the platform two rungs at a time, and stood on the edge for a moment, watching over the city, over her city, with hands on her hips in a dominant, proud gesture before sitting down with her back resting against the board and her legs swinging over the edge. She closed her eyes and imagined a star filled sky, a warm body sitting next to hers, a hand in her hand. When she opened her eyes she was utterly alone.
Celia climbed down from the ladder, and made her way back down through the building, two steps at a time. Andrew would be getting antsy, and she still hadn’t gotten to the real purpose of her detour.
The rumours were well known around the base; she was certain if Andrew had known the location he would have put two and two together, but thankfully she’d managed to keep that little piece of information to herself. A serial killer, almost certainly male, was said to have ‘claimed’ the street, using it as his culling grounds. Naturally the Chief had sent sentries to look in on the stories, whose origins despite efforts were never pinned down, but nothing came up conclusive and they were shortly withdrawn for more productive assignments. After all, Rebels were in as short supply as they were in great demand, and manpower could not be wasted.
“As unfortunate as it is, I have more pressing issues on my hands at the moment,” he had said in a brief meeting to address the matter. “Mainly those which actually pose an immediate threat to Rebel lives, Cleansers being the most significant.”
Which, of course, Celia understood. She and the Chief may not have seen eye to eye whenever they met, and they often locked horns on certain issues, but at least she understood him. Agreeing with him though was another matter entirely.
She had always been an instinctive person, and her instincts had told her there was more to the rumours than the Chief believed. The fact that he had issued a warning to any Rebels considering undertaking a personal investigation outside of the base, and that this had immediately bristled her rebellious personality, had had nothing to do with her decision to do just that. And even if it had, what was the point of being a Rebel who couldn’t rebel?
The story about the building falling and obstructing the path hadn’t been made up to give her an excuse to go; rather it was the excuse she had been waiting for since deciding to check the area out. You couldn’t get out of the base without a valid reason, meaning approval from the Chief, and it wasn’t like sneaking out was an option. She wanted to get more out of her job, not lose it. So, as much as she hated it, she was forced to be patient for some time. And then the building had come up, mentioned by chance by Garry while working on an explosive in the base’s lab, or as he liked to call it, the garage.
“Where is this?” she had asked immediately, recognizing the street name from studying the map of the area.
“Codaline Street, I think?” It wasn’t the one where the murderer had been rumoured to be, but it was close enough for her to take a detour without it taking a suspicious amount of time out of her schedule.
“I know that area! Hey, if you want, Garry, I could go check it out for you.”
“Well… I don’t know…” he pulled at a wire, his eyes averted from her own. In their time together he had apparently come to learn that eye contact brought him one step closer to submission. “I mean, shouldn’t the Surveyors do that? It might be dangerous for you.”
“You haven’t reported it to them yet, have you?” This was met with more wire-picking.
“No…” he admitted eventually.
“Well, then great! I’ll just swoop down there quick as a wink and check it out for you.”
“Garry, it’s okay,” she soothed. She didn’t want to work him into a panic; he would occasionally get frustrated and start acting out, more often than not inflicting harm on himself. “It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine, Garry.” He had balled his hands into fists and they were now raised up to his temples; not a good sign. “Garry, listen to me. Garry. Are you listening?” He still wouldn’t look at her, but he managed a nod. “It’s okay. What are you so worried about?”
“I don’t want you to get into trouble with the Chief again.”
“You know I won’t get in trouble with the Chief. I’m too smart to let that happen!” This earned her a quick laugh and a second of eye contact, but he shut back down right after. “Garry, why would I get in trouble with the Chief? What I’m doing isn’t bad, it’s good!” Finally he lowered his hands from his head, resting them on the table. He looked into her eyes, but suddenly she found something about his gaze unnerving.
“I know you, Celia Fletcher. I know you, and I know when you’re up to no good.” She faked a perplexed smile, trying to hide how his words had shaken her. Garry was always doing things like that; you thought you had him all figured out and then he would pull the rug out from under your feet by saying something completely unexpected.
“Garry, what on earth are you talking about?” At this he had looked back down to the explosive’s parts, arranged on the table before them.
“Don’t talk to me like you’re one of them. You promised you wouldn’t talk to me like one of them.”
“You’re right,” she said after an uncomfortable pause. “I did promise. And I’m sorry. But I won’t get in trouble. I promise. I’ll be extra careful, just for you.” It was then that he said something which scared her more than anything in recent times had scared her before. His eyes had met hers, and she’d felt the severity of what he was about to say before his mouth even opened.
“Celia, I have a bad feeling. A bad one. If you go looking for the seeing man, something bad is going to happen to you and to everybody else.”
There was a moment where neither of them said anything, Garry seeming to study her face to gauge the effect of his words while she herself tried to puzzle them out, doing her best to push aside the inexplicable cold feeling they had left in her heart. She had opened her mouth to ask him what he meant, and that was when her Digifile had pinged with a notification. Relieved at the excuse to pry her gaze away from his, she murmured an excuse me before reaching for the device.
“I’ve been assigned a recon mission with Andrew,” she had said, whispering without noticing. “We’re going to check on a possible Cleanser building.”
“Don’t go, Celia.” She looked up in surprise. Somehow Garry’s presence had escaped her attention.
“It’s a direct order from the Chief, Garry. Whatever it is, it must be important. I can’t just ignore a direct order from the Chief. Not if I want to avoid getting in trouble, like you said I should. Besides, it’s nowhere-” she had been about to say “it’s nowhere near the street with the collapsed building”, but just before she did she read the location and noticed that it was in fact more or less on the route there.
“Ah- nothing. Look, I’ve got to go. Don’t finish this thing without me, okay?”
“I have to go, Garry. Andrew’s probably already waiting.”
“Celia!” But she had kept walking, ignoring Garry as he called after her and ignoring the stares of the other Rebels in the garage.
The visit to the building had been another happy coincidence; she had of course been aware of its location, forever imprinted in her memory, and had subconsciously sensed as she neared it, but she had refused to admit to herself that it played any part in her decision to travel there. It was simply on the way, and she had taken the reasonable opportunity to revisit it.
But now she meant business, and forced herself to focus. All other thoughts and feelings had been set aside for the time being, allowing her to put her undivided attention towards finding the killer. It wasn’t a question of whether or not he existed -she could feel in her gut that the rumours were true- but rather of whether or not she would be able to find him. After all, the sentries had already come and gone, turning up nothing in the two days they had investigated the area, and she would only have a matter of minutes, at most half-an-hour. Any more than that and Andrew would know something was up. Not that he would ever rat her out to the Chief, but he would be extremely angry if he found out, and it would take him weeks to forgive her. Sure, he would forgive her eventually, but it was still a long time, and if she had the option to avoid it altogether, which she did, then she would. So, unrealistic time limit it was. Thankfully there was one card up her sleeve; something that the sentries had almost certainly lacked. She was alone, small in stature, and appeared to be unarmed, all of which would, if everything went according to plan, make her irresistible to a murderer. Celia wasn’t planning on finding the killer. She was planning on having the killer find her.
She turned right at the intersection, supressing the urge to turn back and give her building one final glance, and found herself passing a street sign that read ‘Web St.’ She stopped directly before the white line that seemed to indicate where one street ended and the next one started, the toes of her shoes lightly kissing the paint in a tempting, almost taunting display of indecisiveness. Celia stood there with the whole world ahead of her and the whole world behind her, and the whole world was nothing more than one long stretch of road, and she felt insignificant. She felt alone.
She felt powerful.
Right foot first, she stepped over the line and walked onto Web Street.
A strange feeling overcame her, and it took her a moment to realize that she had been expecting some sort of change once she took the first steps, but nothing happened. It was just another street, not unlike any other.
Except it wasn’t. Not if the rumours, and her instincts, were to be believed.
The trick would be to get the killer’s attention without scaring him into hiding. A murderer didn’t get to be the source of so many rumours by being stupid, and he would have almost certainly perfected the art of caution. If she began firing off rounds into the sky and screaming her head off chances were he would stay hidden, and reasonably so. On the other hand walking through undetected would be just as ineffective. Her hopes were currently sided with the probability that he would be watching the street for passersby, the apparent preferred method of catching victims amongst the serial killers that had run-ins with the Rebels. If that didn’t work she knew she would have to improvise, meaning a delay that she couldn’t afford to have. Her tour of the building had already taken up more time than she had planned; any longer and as much as she hated to even contemplate the notion she might have to call the whole thing off, if not for a later date. Her brow furrowed at the thought. No. It wouldn’t happen. The fact that things had worked out so well for her in getting the chance to not only get out of the base but to also be given a time limit-lenient assignment, so close to the location, was proof to her that this had been meant to happen. Proof that it wasn’t all for nothing. Proof that something would happen here, and the matter would be closed. For Celia, it was as good as physical evidence.
She felt so full of energy that for a moment the thought actually occurred to her that he might somehow see it in her and stay hidden, and she forced her shoulders to slump into what she hoped would convey a more defeated, vulnerable state. After all, it wasn’t that ridiculous to assume he would be able to read her body language. Not in a place where it was the first and potentially last source of information for determining if you were dealing with a friend or foe. People lied; it was as simple as that. Lying was something Celia knew a lot about. People lied, but very rarely did their bodies. Their actions conveyed more than they wanted or even knew. Not to mention more often than not you wouldn’t even get to the discussion part of the encounter to give them a chance to lie. One of the unspoken rules of the city was shoot first, ask questions later. Using someone’s body language to interpret their intentions, behaviour, or even a general idea of what kind of person they were was an invaluable, if not necessary skill.
She was now almost halfway down the street, and had yet to see any sign of life. Shit. She was drawing to the point where she would have to take more involved action in drawing the killer out. That would mean making noise. Which might draw in more than one killer, likely more than she would be able to handle. In the ensuing chaos she might be able to kill whoever it was along with her target, at the very least escaping with her life, but it wasn’t something she was looking forward to. This was partially untrue; some part of her craved the chaos, and it was no small part either, but rationale convinced her it would be best to stick with the plan, for once. Something about the day had unsettled her. She felt strange, as though the ground beneath her feet was slightly angled and she had only just realized it. It took her a moment to identify this sensation, because it was one she was quite unfamiliar with; she felt uneasy, vulnerable. Celia felt cautious, for the first time in a long time. In that moment it didn’t occur to her that this was a result of Garry’s ominous warning, which was exactly what it would turn out to be. Part of it, at least.
She was passing by an alleyway a few feet before the first intersection of the road when she heard the noise echoing out from its walls. It sounded like metal knocking against metal, but faint and somehow hollow. She stopped directly in front of the space between the two buildings and stared down into the passage. The sun’s rays were angled to its left and as such only the top of the right hand building was illuminated. The rest was shielded from the light, shadowed but still visible. The alleyway itself was cluttered with various unidentifiable things, their details smudged out by the darkness. A fire escape clung to the wall of the building on her right, the stairs descending from the top floor and opening up into a platform at every subsequent floor’s emergency exit. Its final platform stopped just before the last floor, the ladder to connect this final stretch to the ground hoisted up in its track and folded across the platform’s floor. With only subliminal interest she noticed something bunched up on the platform next to the ladder, pieces of whatever it was hanging off the sides and seemingly through the grating, but she paid it little attention. The noise came again, seeming louder, although she suspected that was only because now she had been listening for if not expecting it. With cautious motions, her eyes surveying the area as her feet seemed to glide through the air crossing over one another and stepping over the gravel without a sound, she walked towards the alleyway stopping just before its entrance where the light gave way to darkness. She would later remember having a distinct feeling of no, of this is wrong. A distinct feeling of danger.
But hand in hand with this warning instinct had been one of inevitableness, one of unavoidable consequences set in stone. She felt like her future was already written out for her, and that there was nothing left to do but play on in her preordained role.
She stepped into the alley.
The change in temperature was immediate and obvious, and she pounced upon the opportunity to accuse it as the sole source of the chill that suddenly caused her body to give an abrupt shiver. Now that she was out of the light and her eyes had adjusted Celia could make out the items in the alley. A large dumpster, filled with the useless and decomposing remains of a civilization long since faded from living memory, several rusting machines of unidentifiable purpose, stacked up against one another in a careless heap, a pile of what appeared to be nothing more than rubble from the ruins of buildings that had been worn down by time, the pile itself reaching almost up to Celia’s waist. The items continued down the list only adding to the peculiarity of this miscellaneous and seemingly random collection, all of which only had one thing in common: they all distracted and diverted Celia’s attention, as they had with every other unfortunate and now deceased soul who had found themselves walking that very same ground, towards the very same sound which had first caught their interest. She found herself unconsciously studying each thing, wary of hidden dangers, still searching for the source of the noise, or perhaps simply conditioned by the world she had grown up in to simply be aware of her surroundings, to always be on the lookout for things that could be of use or present a threat. Regardless, as such her vision rarely left the things to her direct left and right; despite her slow, cautious pace she was still too preoccupied with studying every item carefully for her eyes to absorb the information before she had only just walked past each one. Her sight, aside from a few fleeting glances to confirm the absence of an immediate threat, did not study what lay ahead of her in the alley. This was the exact intent that had been in mind when those items had first been collected there several months before, and this seemingly innocent slip-up was her undoing, just as it had been the fatal flaw of the ones before her.
She was below the fire escape’s platform now, and her eyes did a double take as she noticed an object at the base of the right side wall. It was an effigy, the evidence of its longevity and neglect etched across its surface in the form of cracks and chips. What remained was propped up against the wall to balance its broken base and keep it from sustaining injuries from another fall, of which it appeared to have endured many, now barely holding itself together. As if in ignorance (or spite) of this fact, the face of the knee-height statue was a childish display of superiority, its protruded tongue and sneering grin seeming to mock Celia from where it rested at her feet. Something about the statue annoyed her, even upset her, possibly more than it should have, and she felt the sudden urge to quell her repulsion with a swift kick to its head, or perhaps a good stomp or two. Before she could decide the best way to wipe that smug expression from its face, she heard the noise a third time, this time from directly above her. Instinctively, just as the others before her had, and just as had been planned, she looked up to its source. Hanging down from a string that looped around the grates of the fire escape platform were two rusty tin cans, empty and open at the top. A faint breeze passed overhead, and they rattled once more, clanging against one another in such a way that it seemed as though they were almost asserting their innocence. Look, Celia, we’re nothing more than two tin cans, blowing in the wind. Nothing ominous here. She continued to stare at them, almost transfixed, unknowingly taking a step closer. The tins rattled again, and suddenly there was nothing innocent about them; the sound was that of bones rattling against one another as they hit the ground, the faint whistling as wind passed through the cans a scream in the dark. Celia took a step back, and that was when she activated the snare trap.
At first her eyes shut reflexively, although she wouldn’t have been able to make sense of what had happened even if they had stayed open; everything moved too fast for her mind to take in. When she did reopen them her vision swam, the image swaying and moving before she could discern what she was seeing. Her body was in pain but she could not tell where or why; a confused and overall ache seemed to dominate her senses, a distinct feeling of being constricted, of something pressing against her body everywhere. She felt like she was being smothered, being squeezed. Vomit rose – or did it rise? Who could tell what was rising and what was falling? – in her throat and she quickly swallowed it back down with a grimace; she knew, just as she had known there was a real danger on Web Street (ha-ha, joke’s on you now, isn’t it Celia?) that if she threw up now she would drown on it. The panic had not yet settled in; it was trying desperately, she could feel it at the back of her throat just like the vomit, ready and eager to bubble over and drown her, but she swallowed that too and forced her mind to settle, to think clearly despite the insistent and urgent ringing of warning alarms. She closed her eyes to block out the motion sickness, and waited until she felt her body’s swaying motions slow to a rest before opening them again. After a moment for her vision to adjust and absorb what she was seeing, she was able to piece together what had happened.
She was looking through a black mesh of strings crossing over one another in an endless sea of X’s, and through the holes in the net she could see the ground of the alley several feet below. Craning her neck to look upwards, she moaned in dismay and horror as she saw how horribly wrong her body was twisted up in itself, crushed in the tight net. She felt sure something was broken. Her left arm in particular seemed bent at an unnatural angle, and she hesitated to move it but sighed in relief when she did and felt nothing more than a dull ache. Above her she could see where the net tied off, the rope then feeding through the grates of the fire escape platform’s floor. Shifting her body into as comfortable and ideal a position as she could manage, she tried to reach up for the tie-off, intending on trying to untie or loosen it, but she found she could not reach it. Her arms were too tightly pressed together, and her weight pulled on the net making it taunt and impossible to manipulate or stretch in her favour. She groaned in frustration, hating the feeling of being immobile even more than the thought that she had fallen for something as obvious as a trap.
Something was digging painfully into her lower back, and she shifted again to try and ease the pressure, so focused on relieving the pain that she did not even stop to think what the source could be. She squirmed, carefully and decisively at first, but growing more and more frantic as her efforts were met with failure. She began to thrash around violently, biting her lip to keep back the screams of frustration (and yes, she might as well admit it, of fear) until she began to bleed, the warm liquid filling her mouth with its unmistakable metallic tang. The thing beneath her continued to pierce her back. Pierce. She repeated the thought with a sudden clarity, and grinned despite the pain and fear. Shifting once more, this time onto her side as best she could, Celia bent her arm behind her back and tried to reach the place where her knife was tucked in its sheath, on the left side of her lower back. Certain she would dislocate her arm long before any progress was made, she fought to not only ignore the complaining ache of her joints but to push the limits even further. When her fingers brushed the leather-wrapped hilt of the kukri she gasped in surprise, so convinced of the futility of her situation that she had thought the knife to be nowhere near within reach. As she inhaled her arm was pulled back and her hand drew away from the knife. Realizing what had happened she quickly emptied as much air from her lungs as possible, and with astounding effectiveness her fingers once more found themselves pressing against the knife. Still holding her breath out, she began to fumble for a grasp on the hilt, which proved to be the most trying part of her ordeal. It seemed the miracle that she was able to reach the knife was nothing more than a cruel tease; one final joke, played on her.
Eventually she could hold her breath no longer: her body screamed for oxygen, lungs burning and chest constricting. She inhaled deeply, sucking in the air with bittersweet relief. Immediately her fingers began to once more draw away from the knife, almost theatrically so. She tried to get her breathing back down to a regulated rhythm, one she could use to prepare for holding her breath again, but her body was still recovering from the oxygen deprivation and her breaths were deep and long, impossible to slow. She was forced to wait for almost a minute as her body calmed and settled back into its regular rhythm, and each agonizing second felt like a minute in itself, knowing her time was short. You didn’t just set up a trap and leave it.
Someone would be coming for her.