Duct Babies.

The babies are in the air ducts again.

I hardly bother to ring the landlord any more, he gets sick and tired of the bother, and it’s only me that complains. On the edge of the differential zone, the babies are the least of it.

Although, at least the other things around here don’t talk to me. Last night, soaking in the bath, one of the babies started to talk to me; a high pitched lisping parody of a child, it said filthy things through the fan vent, distorted by the air conditioning. In the end I vomited into the sink before sleeping on the sofa, with the TV running a white noise signal from a generator I bought a week ago. I find it easier to sleep with it running, drowning out all the sounds from outside, and sometimes drowning out the sounds from inside too.

I turn the TV on again now, let it random scan at the top end of the scale, see if there’s any bleed over from the zone, Liberty 3. there’s more bleed over from Liberty 3 than any of the other Liberty strikes, I think it’s the size. Liberty 1 is only a hundred yards across, the most they need to do is put iron railings around the fucker to stop stupid ass kids from falling in. here around liberty 3, two miles across, with the thames going in one side brown, and coming out the other yellow, straight into the maw of the Barrage reprocessing plant, they’re still building walls. They put up another auto-gun turrent opposite my flat last night, that now makes six I can see, all quite capable of drilling me full of holes if they thought I was trying to get over the wall. And what’s the bloody point? What do they think is going to happen? The last returnee was six months ago, and no-one who made it over has come back since. Not right side out anyway, and they don’t live more than a few seconds when they come back.

There’s a scratching right above me. I get the broom handle I keep next to the bookshelf, and jam it into the ceiling tiles a few times, until the scratching intensifies and whatever is making it jams off over the Perkins’ flat next door. A few moments later, I can hear their kid start bawling, I don’t know if he’s got the self awareness to know about its evil doppelganger crawling around above him, or understand the sick little nothings the fucker will be whispering to him. Like I care, the little fucker keeps me awake half the goddamn night..

white noise.

Sleep.

***

Awake. Screaming outside. Fucking too early, my hangover has only just got hold, and all I can feel is a waxy ache starting around the top of my neck, that I know will have me trying to claw my own eyeballs out in an hour. Go to the window.

Someone standing on the wall. I pinch my brow, hoping this is a pro-hangover hallucination, but it isn’t. When I let go it is still standing there, looks like a teenager, was maybe. It must be a returner, the autoguns would have taken out anyone coming from this side. It looks at me, and I step back, out of sight behind the curtains, whether it survives or not, I don’t want to be noticed by one of them, not be a face on a list. I lean round the window frame, and twitch the curtain back. In time to see it drop to the ground, landing lightly. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but its knees looked like they bent the wrong way as it absorbed the drop and stood back up quickly. It stepped forward slowly, looking about, lifting its head up, as if sniffing the air like an animal. It might have been a young man in a former existence, and it relaxed noticably as it took another step. The autoguns were beginning to tune into it, red-dot markers were circling the area on the ground.

It was at its next step that it lost coherency, like every returnee before it, shaking like an epileptic in a fit, the backward knees folding to a kneeling position, while in rapid succession its skin tore and peeled back into nothingness, followed by its musculature, internal organs, so fast they appeared to explode into thin air, and then the skeleton, by this time not identifiable as anything naturally evolved on this planet in the last few million years. Mercifully for my sanity, the process was over in only a few seconds. I’d seen worse, especially in the aftermath of the Liberty strikes, when there were quite literally crowds of returnees, demolishing themselves in a variety of physically impossible and psychically scarring ways. Its why I’m still capable of living in the city, and not one of the refugees scurrying to the country with nightmares and no outdoor skills.

If only the damn babies would curl up and dissolve, I would be a markedly happier man.

There’s the giggling again. Fuck it, I’m calling the caretaker.

***

“You complain no more! No-one else complain, no-one else complain babies!”

Mr Worziak’s complaining in broken english reminds me that I’m just really, really fucked. Civil servants get the shit end of the draw when it comes to digs, and I got the shittiest end so far. I’ve put in for a transfer every three months since I started.

I nod, and point at the vents. Mt Worziak makes some half hearted pokes at the ceiling with the end of a broom, and I hear some scurrying in the darkness, and metallic creaking disappearing off into the interior. There’s some muffled cursing in Indian, and I guess they must have ended up over the Singh’s, where they’ll be having dinner with the children. A moment later, and there’s deeper cursing and similar thumping at the ceiling with a chair as Mr. Singh joins the fight.

And I’m the only one who ever complains.

Worziak shuffles to the door, chuntering in Polish, which I don’t even have the faintest chance of understanding, and he’s still muttering to himself as I close the door behind him.

I slump into the comfy chair I keep in the living room, looking round at my meagre belongings. Random paperbacks I buy from the newsagents when I’m bored. Everything from jackie collins to isaac asimov, I’ll read anything to break the monotony.

It’s hot tonight, high summer, humid and heavy. The air’s too thick for me and I can feel the sweat on my face. I go to the fridge, crack out a generic can of something brown and caffeinated, and hold it to my head, my eyes, the back of my neck. There’s no way I’ll sleep properly tonight anyway, so I lay on the sofa, and turn on late night TV. MTV with the sound turned off. I read my book, and turn my brain off for the next few hours.

***

Work is a semi abandoned annex of the admiralty.

The population of London is still mostly what it was on per square habitable mile, but with large chunks of it missing to the Differential, administrative control got distributed, most of it to Manchester, just in time for it to be dissolved into the Not. What remains of British Government is hiding in bunkers below St. Paul’s, communicating with the opposition based in Birmingham, which was missed off the targeting list for the Libertys. A Gate opened up in New Street station in the centre, but it ate a few trains, and disappeared up its own singularity, grand total one hundred twenty dead, fifty who slipped in non-coherency within the next twenty minutes, and no residue to speak of. No explanation was ever given for why the whole place didn’t shred itself like every other Gated city, but I figure even the Differential didn’t think it was worth the effort.

My job is stamping pieces of paper. Pieces of paper which I never read. My existence has degenerated into officiating the existence of recycled cellulose. Most of it is material requests from CitySec, privatised from the Met Police, for hardware to bolster La Migra around the South East, keeping our fellow citizens from fleeing into the EU. It’s better that we keep them in anyway, as even CitySec doesn’t have a policy of shoot on sight, like the French do once they’ve got beyond the apogee at 11 miles through the tunnel. We have autoguns to police the areas open into the Not, but they have autoguns to keep the refugees out.

My stamps aren’t to confirm the requisitions, just to acknowledge that they exist. My colleagues are the ones making the decisions. They’re paid more, but they get reshuffled more, shouted at more, and they stress more. Work stress is something I’ve never had to deal with, keeping my head down and making sure I have enough ink for the day.

Every hour I take a fag break. I’m the only one who smokes in the office. Strictly speaking it hasn’t been legal in the city of London since the eschaton, but there’s not enough police to notice, so I have a little spot round near the bins, just out of the wind, which blows a storm of dust past my little nook as the black clouds roil dry across the sky, changing colour weirdly over Libertys 3 and 6, and trailing a dirty yellow stain with the wind. It’s pretty quiet out here, near Liberty 9, which took out the core of Parliament, now there’s no roads which go anywhere interesting, other than other government offices. The most I have to worry about is doc vans carrying bits of paper with stamps on, or bits of paper with no stamps on.

After my fag, I go to take a leak. I’m stood in a shiny white bathroom, in front of a urinal, and the giggle coming from the air vent leaves me sponging my trousers down with quick dissolve paper (no stamp), before I can go back to work.

***

I take the tube home.

Opinion is split on the underground, it gives a large proportion of the population the screaming mentals. There are things sighted regularly down there, shadows of the Not, who stand rock still while the carriage ploughs through them. Most of us hardened Londoners just don’t care any more, or don’t notice. I try not to notice now, I have a well developed ignorance gland, at least while I’m out of the flat. Somehow though, I think it’s getting harder not to see and hear. It’s the first time the babies have followed me to work, leastwise.

Us hardened londoners. That’s a laugh.

This evening, the height of the rush hour, and I’m sharing the ship with a couple of Harry Ramps, which the busies don’t bother to eject any more, a Crescent player, with his armband indicating his membership, and a couple of straight faced merchant bankers with traditional bowlers, but tell tale shoulder holsters which keep even the Ramps away.

I slouch in my seat, and try and exude as much fuck-offness as I can, which is still pretty hard, although at least I don’t look worth mugging. Today I’m wearing my least stained shirt, my lucky supermarket jacket and my twenty year old antique Nikes. I stuff my hands in my pockets and slouch as low as I can without actually sliding onto the floor, and stare at my reflection in the gloom. My cheeks are more hollow than I remember them. I remember to shave, with the eleccy razor she got me before she disappeared, but I don’t use the mirror if I can help it.

There is a screech as the train slows into Aldgate East. It’s ten minutes before I realise that we’ve been stood still. The doors are shut, but we aren’t going anywhere.

The bankers sit still and ignore me as I boot the join in the doors a couple of times, get my fingers in between and get them a few inches open. The Crescent player grabs one door while I yank at the other, but goes back to his seat to make some notes on a crumpled tube map that I can see has the decommed sections outlined in black, reminding him when to get off. It’s a kind of Zen thing I understand these days, given that it’s a game with no rules, and for the last five years, no way to win. Not when the station that you need to end the game exists only in a theoretical physics kind of way.

The tramps are still asleep, or might be dead for all anyone will ever check.

The engine in still running, and I walk down the length of the train. The cleaners don’t have to come down as much now, with a reduced clientele, and the lights here are still working. I look down, counting the tiles, keeping my feet within the longitudinal grouting, even paces, measuring the geometrics.

I hadn’t noticed anyone further down when I looked through the connecting doors, and I can confirm there’s not another soul on board. Including the driver.

I look up at a monitor, and I’m staring back from it, looking like a complete fucking dumbass.

Fuck this.

I run.

***

I can’t hear the babies.

I can’t sleep.

The news reads like Orwell, there’s a war going on somewhere, but no-one knows who we’re fighting, or about what. Some eastern European wasteland, ring fenced by No Zones, disenfranchised Spetsnaz on one side, throwing low-yield tactical weapons through the Not Heres, and seeing what happens. Most of them don’t make it through, but hunting through my recollections of the last two weeks, I remember something on a piece of paper about something eating a few hundred square miles of Poland, and leaving a mathematically perfect curved plane.

The news doesn’t report suicides, but a CitySec report, pre-stamp, noted an increase in the last few months. I know that Worziak was cleaning a stain off the pavement in front of the block with a garden hose ten days ago, and the quiet old biddy from the top floor hasn’t been seen since.

The streets are still empty when I walk home.

I still can’t sleep.

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