The rideshare slowed to a stop early. Nim glanced up from his phone. “This ain’t it. There’s no tower.”
“No road, neither.”
Nim clambered out of the back seat. The door locked behind him. The trunk popped. He looped his backpack on, grabbed his sweet potato pie, then released the pending crypto payment in his phone’s app. On every side, burned out or collapsed structures cradled an old retail corridor. Cracked sidewalk and crumbling asphalt abruptly gave way to bluestem and bottlebrush tall enough to brush the hem of Nim’s cargo shorts. He tried not to imagine ticks staking out claims on his brown skin. Aletha’s presence, her influence, suffused this space like shards of glass beneath a tranquil river’s surface. The red spray paint marking the next buildings to be burned. Neat stacks of pavement ready to be hauled off. Salvaged copper piping, a bin of rusted batteries. This is where she’d been hiding from the world. From Nim.
“Hey! Thanks for the tip and the stars.” Between their masks and the window, the driver yelled politely. “Sorry I can’t go further, but they’ve been ripping it up out here. Jackhammers and shit. For months. Heard there’s worse than spike strips in the grass.”
“No problem.” Nim hadn’t accounted for walking, and he was losing daylight.
“Sure you don’t want me to stay? This ain’t back east. People different out here, especially since the satellite came down.”
“Forreal? Thought it burned up.”
“Nah bruh, it hit places. Everyone from the D to the Chi checking they rooftops for a sliver these past few weeks. I know I did.”
Nim’s mask hid his grimace. “China does make good on settlement money.”
“Exactly. They already own all the farms through here anyway. Better than getting stabbed over a UN airdrop by some redneck.” The driver tossed her phone beside a 3D-printed Glock in the passenger seat. “Ain’t you been viral or something? Swear I’ve seen you before.”
“Prolly the locs. Why didn’t you flirt this hard on the drive up?”
Her eyes crinkled above her mask as the car hummed off. Nim strode into the boulevard of rabbit warrens and gopher holes, wild grass swallowing his boots. The air felt remarkably cooler. A kestrel monitored Nim’s progress from a second story windowsill, plucking apart a squirming rat.
His offline map pinged Turtle Tower a mile up. Reception was still trash, but a new message from Aletha popped.
:one year archive – delete? y/n:
Fam where are you? These people keep callin me bout u and this fellowship $$
listen can we talk. i know it hurts they took our work from us
Aletha I heard u. pick up the phone
did i do something wrong
hey nerd. just wishin you happy bday
:two weeks ago:
Fuck thema nd fck U
Fuck all hteway OFF
You ghost me for a year and wtf w this audacity
they got me trending #NimbusSoldOutOnUs
:one week ago:
nimbus. we need to get this footage out
what footage? Fam are u good??
people need to see it
*unread – 4:03am*
I need you. I need to see you. Don’t you love me?
Nim stopped. That last part. How long had he buried it? Through studying and organizing, arguments and arrests. Being each other’s antennae when pepper spray doused demonstrators at the Exxon-Chevron trials. Holding hands; savoring the gift that blindness offered him. Crowdfunding for ally bail or a few weeks’ worth of red beans and rice. Finding employment for displaced coastals when Brooklyn drowned for the last time. Working on Aletha’s dream in agile sprints. Abandoning it. Finding it again.
The prize followed. The fellowship. One tipsy night of celebrating, a bottle of TCapri between them, long fingers intertwined with his, pulling Nim from the suite’s couch to the bedroom. And after, a relieved, awkward hangover brunch. Aletha thankfully agreed they were close, but not that way. And not the fuck buddies way, either. Not that it wasn’t nice. Not that Nim didn’t lie his way through the whole thing, just to stay close. Aletha disappeared soon after, with her half of the fellowship, leaving Nim with more money than a kid from Akron could dream, international speaking engagements.
They were supposed to be in this work together. Screw the work, they were supposed to be—
The kestrel stretched one wing out, then plummeted from its perch. Nim’s eyes followed it straight down. The bird’s feathers burst like a flicked dandelion. He pulled his mask tighter.
A Rottie with no collar emerged from an abandoned building down the street, trotting over broken glass and grit, all black and rust and muscle. Nim’s phone vibrated with a new text from Winter, but he ignored it, eyes fixed on the dog. The Rottie loped sideways, not limping, just…unbalanced. Its jaw hung askew, no drool. A tip of playful pink tongue lolled out. Not sick, but not right, either.
Nim’s phone buzzed again as he crossed the street.
“I know you didn’t just leave me on read.”
“My bad. Reception’s trash, but I can talk now.” The Rottie’s chunky head dipped over the dead bird. Even this far away, Nim heard delicate bones snap. He turned a corner. “The lead checked out, Winter. She been here for a minute.”
“So I know my timing is shit. I get why you need to do this, really.” Winter’s voice hitched. “But I need to speak my truth, too. I need to know if my heart is safe with you.”
“I’m committed,” Nim heard himself say. When did lying get so easy? “It’s just complicated right now.”
Signs of Aletha were everywhere now. Every passing street held a DIY aspect of her arcology model. Here, vertical hydroponic gardens with vines wreathing a faded, spray paint mural of a silver-haired Colin Kaepernick and Ayọ Tometi, smiling and worn, but raising their fists. There, a weatherproofed book exchange. Stacks of reclaimed bricks on half-rotted pallets. Aletha’s ideas and tactics were all nothing new—most were ancient, actually. But whatever came next, warring fiefdoms or a resurgent Chinese world order, this land would have fragments of her DNA all up in it.
“Did you hear me?”
“Sorry, go ahead.”
“I said I don’t think you’re dealing with this. What if she’s changed, yo?”
“Like that Zamunda shit they saying online? Bought a mansion somewhere, getting hand-fed grapes?”
“Isn’t that her right, though? Y’all’s fellowship didn’t come with strings. And they’re already using the principles in Paris and Tokyo.”
“But not Lagos and Caracas…not Oche.”
Winter’s breath hitched. Her Jamaica birth town had dropped another foot below sea level for every month they had dated. “I’m just saying. The blueprint is out there for the world to see. No one can deny how brilliant she is. Why can’t a Black woman ride off into the sunset? Just this once?”
“I ain’t arguing that point, Winter.”
“Fine. So where you hosted at?”
Nim pressed his lips shut. She didn’t deserve his petty. Winter was in awe of Aletha, probably a pinch intimidated, but never blinked whenever they traded ex stories. She deserved Nim’s best, not these shambles. But what else could he offer right now? Aletha’s text had snatched him up by the roots. “I’m coming up on the tower, there’s people up here. We’ll talk more tonight, cool?”
“Cool. Be safe.”
Shit. He cut off the call too soon. Shit. Nim fired off a text reply, cussing out the spotty reception, assuring Winter he loved her back. He waited. The message status showed sent, but not delivered, and definitely not read. Shit shit shit. The barrenness ended as abruptly as the paved road. Community steeped as the sun grew bored with its daily stranglehold. Children double dutched like back home, or encircled a young dunny lucky enough to hold a functioning tablet. Others tossed a football, more duct tape than leather. Through plate glass windows, barber chairs lined old storefronts. Compost barrels formed a neat row down an old alleyway. A young woman jerked at the sight of him, then hustled a wheelbarrow around a corner. Something dangled over its edge and fell free. A child’s shoe.
A block from the tower, men and women wearing bandannas eyed Nim’s approach. They encircled more people in faded hoodies with porch-door screening duct-taped over the faces, roving through rows of wooden boxes in an otherwise empty lot. Nim grinned in spite of the guns. An apiary. The nearest guard shouldered his AR-15 to raise a hand in what Nim took as greeting.
“Looking for a friend,” Nim called, shuffling closer. “Brought her some pie.”
The guard shook his head. “Hold up now—”
Nim pitched forward. Sudden pain clamped around his calf. “Ah, shit!” An old grate swallowed his leg to the knee.
“Oh, you poor thing!”
“Are you okay?”
“Is the bone broken?”
People surrounded him on every side, concerned, still holding rifles or shovels, clothesline, and a bread knife. Nim yanked his leg up, beyond embarrassed. For a moment, his imagination went left, picturing hidden traps beneath the metal, ready to carve him open. “Just a scrape, I’m good.” He forced a laugh, trying not to think about rust. “Didn’t drop the pie.”
The guard thumbed over his shoulder. “Walk with me.”
Nim’s reflection licked its lips in the man’s aviator shades. A salt and pepper beard edged around his mask. He led Nim away from the apiary, into the shade of a reclaimed office building. A fountain lay just before the entrance. Turtles with dark shells populated the basin, claws scraping through glittering coins and buttons. Their heads were all retracted despite two feet of water. “Are they okay?” Nim asked.
“Hard to say. They’ll come out when it’s feeding time. Name’s Cume.”
The man’s brow drew down beneath his sunglasses. “That’s funny?”
“I mean…yeah. I’m Nim. Nimbus.”
The shared laugh helped Nim breathe easier, but Cume’s hand stayed on his rifle.
“You know about the pie, so you must know Aletha.”
“Helped her think through applying her theories. Actually, help is probably too strong a word.”
Cume laughed again and gestured Nim down another roadway, carpeted with wildflowers and grass. “Yeah, you definitely know Aletha.” An ache curdled his voice. “She was just here a couple weeks ago. Got a broken bone set.”
“She’s survived worse.” Curiosity nudged out Nim’s worry. “Can I ask…are y’all really building it?”
“You’ve seen the sidewalk we’re grinding up. You tell me.” He pointed down a side street. Two cement trucks rotated beside a massive excavation, nearly a block wide and twice as deep.
“Yup. We doing thangs,” Cume declared proudly. “I don’t care what people say about her. She’s a genius, through and through. For us. Imagine what she’d do with some actual resources. Or hell, a working government?”
Nim winced. They never did settle on a name for the heart of Aletha’s arcologies; the power source. Almost Perpetual Motion Machine? Not Quite Infinite Renewable Power Core? Even the acronyms were janky. But like most things Aletha, she hadn’t let that stop her, even if it meant building the homebrew, DIY version without the IMF’s strings.
How could Nim stay mad at her? The coals were simply gone. He didn’t know what lay beneath them, didn’t want hope to fill this sudden scramble of emotions. “So where is she? In the tower?”
“Yeah, but not here. Down the way.” They skirted through several large clear enclosures churning with tilapia. One fish’s fin was deformed so it swam sideways. The others avoided it. “It’s gonna be dark soon. These streetlights just for show. You, uh, got a place to stay?”
Nim almost missed his meaning. “Oh…yeah. But we’re not together like that.”
“But she called you, right? Texted? Why else would anyone visit the middle of nowhere?”
Nim frowned. “Does it matter?”
The wiry man glanced at Nim’s pie. “Strangers show up every so often, checking on people they know. Started a few weeks back. They never leave that tower. Like she’s building another community but left us out of it.” Nim scowled, but Cume spread his palms, the first time he released the rifle. “Ain’t none of my business. Be safe.”
Down the way led to a mile-long swath of unshattered sidewalk and pavement among more abandoned homes and offices. Aletha needed help badly, Nim didn’t question that now. But why am I last on her list? Rusty pickaxes and jackhammers littered the ground within sight of the next tower, abandoned. No solar panels or rain barrel collectors. A single blue van parked before the tower itself. Optic white lettering on the side read:
SATELLITE SETTLEMENT LAWYERS
Free radiation symptom checks daily.
DON’T MISS YOUR PIECE OF THE PAYOUT
Gotdamn vultures. A handful of weary looking folks lined up before the van abruptly scattered as Nim approached. If Aletha’s ideas flourished back at Turtle Tower, they were withering on the vine here. Weak soil and weaker gardens. No sign of goods exchange. Decay wafted past him; overpowering then gone in the next breath. Good breeding grounds for—
Scorches blistered the southeast corner of the building, a repurposed hotel. The top three floors were burned like nothing Nim had ever seen. When he blinked the darkness left an imprint, a negative space, the opposite of staring at the sun.
So close, now. An ache of longing and loss peeled open Nim’s chest. If Aletha came around a corner right there he would choke on the spot, gag on all of his love boiling back to the surface. Shit. Winter must have a sixth sense. Nim had lied to himself this whole time, and she endured it.
Arguing voices rose as Nim approached the van. A light-skinned man with a clean cut beard slid a mask back on. Latino, maybe. Weary circles bruised his eyes. A sticker name tag identified him as Carter. “We can squeeze in one last interview. Where were you when the satellite came down?”
Nim meant to tell him to take his crypto and fuck off, but instead said, “I don’t live here. Looking for a friend.”
“You from back east?”
“More or less.”
“Did the new seawall hold? We’ve got no coverage out here.” Nim shook his head, and Carter’s face sagged. “Who are you looking for?”
“Aletha Shaunnessy. She would’ve been involved in some outreach here.” The man’s eyebrows ticked up a fraction. “You know her.”
“Couldn’t forget. She backhanded my partner with her cast a few weeks ago. She’s…inside. Hold on.” He ducked into the van. There’s a mini desk, laptop, IV drip beside a gurney—Nim’s gut clenched as the man reemerged. “I shouldn’t be doing this, sharing sensitive info and all. But you’re friends, right? More than friends?” Nim crossed his arms. The prying fizzled out. “We’re about to get out of here, but here’s the room number. Good luck.”
Outside the building’s lobby, Nim glanced back. Carter pretended not to record him with a phone. Inside, small pools of wax covered the reception desk. Dead candles, beside a ruined notebook, pages too blotchy to read properly. Visitor check-ins? No…not dates and times. Blood pressure, temperature. Fear spiked through him—midway down a page, one entry might be Aletha’s name. He couldn’t be sure.
Beyond that, a gloomy inner courtyard, the elevator bank on the other side. Sweat bloomed on Nim’s forehead as he found the stairs instead. Undulant movement, almost a humming prickled the balls of his feet. He stopped half a flight up. Cold certainty pooled in his stomach. “Nope.” No way people lived in this place. He turned on his heel and strode out into the twilight. The van still waited outside. He pounded on the door until Carter cracked it open.
“You’ve got me fucked up. What’s really going on here?”
Carter opened his mouth, but a woman interrupted, sunburnt with a short ponytail hanging near her nape like a drop of spoiled honey. “We can trade questions.”
“And you are?”
“You’re not lawyers, so what—doctors?”
“Scientists.” Nim’s lip curled. “Okay, PhD students really. Doing the same as you.”
Karen’s smile didn’t sync with her eyes. “Finding out what makes this community tick.”
Nim grimaced. He’d been recognized. Great. “Bull. No accredited program would even fund the decals on your little research van, let alone the money you’re promising these folks for their information. You’re not supposed to be here.”
“If anyone appreciates breaking rules,” Ahmed spluttered, “It should be—”
“You don’t know a thing about me. So you’re gathering satellite debris. Or the shit is, what, radioactive? And you let me go in there?”
A small whine pulled everyone’s attention toward the front of the van. The Rottie padded forward, stub tail wagging eagerly. Naked spine stood out between its shoulders. A blistery, purpled mass pulsated between vertebrae.
“Oh fuck,” Karen whispered.
The dog’s head tilted playfully, the lolling tongue dangling through white teeth. The flesh extended like melted taffy, stretching down to the pavement.
What the absolute fuck.
Something pink and translucent slipped up from between the Rottie’s shoulder blades, delicate as a long flower petal. It swiveled toward Nim.
“Inside,” Ahmed hissed. Nim scrambled in after them. Karen slammed the door shut as new meat leaves peeled out of the dog’s spine, binding to its legs.
Nim’s chest heaved as muffled, slurping sounds emanated from beyond the door. “I think it’s eating my pie.”
Ahmed squeezed his eyes shut. “It’s ambulatory. Allah yarhamuna.”
A low thrumming sank into the van, like raindrops testing the metal in radial patterns. Nim’s ears couldn’t process it fully. A tortured howl made him jump.
“It can’t get inside.” Karen rested a hand on Ahmed’s shoulder. “Think. Think through it.”
“A…threat response. A spore. I don’t know.”
“But why now?”
“I don’t know!”
“Excuse me.” Nim was amazed at his own calm. “Can y’all fools drive and talk at the same time?”
“I’m sorry.” Ahmed buried his head in his hands. “We should have told you. The satellite that crashed wasn’t a satellite. It was a meteor.”
“A contaminated meteor,” Karen corrected.
“There are people in that tower.” Nim’s throat tightened up. “My friend.”
“No shit,” Karen snapped. “Two of our friends got taken. We’ve been trying to find a way to cut them out. We thought maybe someone it didn’t recognize might…”
The two shared a guilty look.
“Cut them out?” Nim repeated.
“It’s hard to explain.”
Another howl sounded outside, further away. The same dog? Another? Nim forced himself to think. “So how does it spread?”
“We’re pretty sure its bloodborne.”
“Ahmed, sorry, but no. We’ve seen plenty of cuts. Scrapes.”
“But that doesn’t discount—”
Nim plugged his phone into a wall outlet as they argued. He remembered, at Turtle Tower, folks’ alarm when he fell through the grate. The fear in their eyes. The ready tools in their hands. The pain in Cume’s voice. She was just here a couple weeks ago. Got a broken bone set. He tried to warn Nim without warning him. “That shit came out of the dog’s spine,” Nim interrupted.
Karen and Ahmed ceased arguing.
“You saw it?” she breathed.
“So…marrow, as a gestation medium. Some sort of prion.”
Ahmed shook his head. “Maybe. I’d guess instinctual if—”
“You’re wasting time,” Nim cut in. “Let me out.”
“Nimbus, she had a cast on when we first showed up.” Karen touches her jaw and winces. “That makes Aletha one of the first. She’s probably dead or worse.”
“Then how’s she texting me?” Nim snapped.
Nim showed them the latest timestamp. “This explains why she’s been so erratic. She’s been here since it fell out of the sky.”
Karen frowned at the message. “What’s the footage?”
Nim ignored her and reached for the door. No way this woman squeezed another scrap of data from him, especially not about Aletha.
Ahmed grabbed his wrist. “It’s not safe.”
Really? The same dude who let him saunter in there before? “And it won’t be any safer when the UN finds out.” Nim jerked his arm free. “They won’t bother with evacuations. They’ll announce EOAs, just like Sigma variant—remember that? China will level—”
“The emergency outbreak authorization is already in effect,” Ahmed interrupted quietly. “The planes will be in the sky at dawn.”
Despair caved in on itself beneath Nim’s ribs. Anger filled the new hollow. “This is that bullshit,” he rasped. “You’re just…collecting as much data as you can. For science. You’re not even trying to help these folks.”
Karen tapped a code into her tablet, unlocking the door.
“I…I’ll go with you,” Ahmed stammered.
“No, I will.” Karen tossed him the keys. “Just be ready.”
Nim stepped out warily. Twilight engulfed the surrounding street, the tower. Nim strained for any noise louder than the blood pounding in his ears. Every instinct raged at him to stay out of that tower. Every dog-sized shadow made his eyes water. But how could he leave Aletha alone, believing she had called and he didn’t answer? Nim was right about her, about them. Her message proved it. He just needed to see it through.
“Which way?” he whispered.
“Down,” Karen murmured. “Do you have signal?”
“When we get close, try to call her.”
“Karen?” A hopeful voice trembled out of the lobby.
Karen gasped. Ahmed’s head popped out of the van. “Ava!” Ahmed hissed.
The woman stood within the lobby; matted, dark hair brushing her shoulders. “You didn’t forget me, thank god. I called and called and called—”
Karen and Ahmed buffeted Nim aside. Ava stumbled toward their embrace, weeping. Her lab coat matched Ahmed’s except for the grime and a frayed, filthy hem. Shoes tore up like she just ran five marathons—
Nim stopped. Her shoes. Bits of broken toenail pointed straight down, peeking through torn, stained leather. Ava teetered on one foot like a ballerina. The other twisted, dangling, like it just happened to touch the ground.
“Wait!” Nim shouted.
Karen reached her first. They squeezed tight, fingers interlaced. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Ava rasped. “You hear them everywhere inside. Nonstop.”
“How many? Which floor?”
“Inside me, Ahmed. Inside my bones…”
Ava licked her lips, eyes glazing over, teeth red and wet. Nim pulled at Karen’s shoulders, but the other woman held her close.
“Ava, you’re hurting my hand. Avaaaaaaaaaaaaa…”
The woman’s fingers corkscrewed like centipedes, looping around Karen’s, tightening, pulling them wide. A wet pop. Karen screamed.
Nim and Ahmed pounced forward, shouting. The tiny web of skin between Karen’s middle and ring finger stretched taut.
“Ow fuck get her off me please no”
Ava’s looped fingers faltered—
“Slide them loose!”
“Gotdamnit I’m trying!”
—then they squeezed. The flesh gave way. Karen’s hand bisected down to the wrist. Her scream eclipsed sound, a wordless hiss of air and pain.
Ava’s eyelids fluttered. “Yes. Oh god I’m so sorry—” She licked the gaping wound between Karen’s knuckles rapturously, and released her. She retreated back toward the lobby, toes smearing the peeled linoleum. “Kill me.” Nim’s breath caught at the dim ribbon protruding from behind her, snaking back into the elevator core.
Ahmed’s jaw fell open. “Did you see—?”
“Duct tape,” Nim whispered hoarsely.
Nim’s chest felt ready to burst as they hauled Karen back to the van. “How many? How many people in this building?”
Ahmed’s jaws worked. “Maybe fifty? Three families for sure.” His eyes widened. “Nimbus, no. This place will be ash by dawn, inshallah.”
“Then tell the folks down the way!” he snarled. “Warn them!”
“But they could be—”
“Same as her! Look at her! They deserve the same chance you’re giving her and you know gotdamn well what her status is!”
Ahmed slammed the door shut in Nim’s face. Nim heard Karen’s muffled, pleading sobs before the van sped off.
“Fuck!” All of Nim’s uncertainty and anger clamored for him to do the same. He could get word to Turtle Tower himself. Live. But he couldn’t turn his back. That’s not who he was; not why Aletha reached out to him.
“Sorry, Winter,” he murmured. “Guess you were right about me.”
He scooped up a loose piece of brick, stuffed it in his backpack. Pried up another one and hefted it. A piece of broken glassware from his pie fit in his off-hand.
Heat and sound threatened to suffocate him with each step deeper. Voices echoed from every fissure. Calling out for loved ones. Beyond the lobby, a tortured atrium twisted into the tower heights, abandoning any semblance of right angles, or humanity. His phone’s light revealed spherical hollows instead of doors, ringed with drywall and wood that appeared gnawed upon.
People dangled within those spaces, larval, swaying shadows. Weeping, laughing, pleading. Nim swallowed down bile and listened.
“Mama, I need me a care package. They greens ain’t right.”
“Bae we said sickness and health…”
“Call me back.”
“Te adoro con locura. Llámame ya.”
“Your constituents deserve better, Gordon. Time to knock on some doors.”
“Ama zilna asdiqa?”
“Pick up your phone.”
He stopped, waiting until he heard it again, teased a direction. Down. He swallowed and called out. “Aletha. I’m here.”
The entire atrium fell silent.
“Nim…” Her voice carried him into service halls, past machine rooms flooded with muck and slime, putrid enough to make him lightheaded. Through pink roots that resembled coiled muscles, wriggling into basement cracks to avoid his phone’s light.
In one room, a door remained. He found her, curled next to a dust-covered wall of metal controls and levers, nestled in a spiraling gob of drywall and chewed up fabric.
Aletha’s eyes opened, blinking in his phone’s light. Nim swallowed down a plum in his throat. “Hey, nerd.”
“Nim. You came.”
Despite the filth, they embraced. Somehow she still smelled like herself, jojoba oil in her locs, the faintest hint of frankincense on the nape of her neck. “You called me. I had to.”
“I knew you’d come.” That familiar thrumming suddenly suffused Nim from head to toe, viscous enough to make his teeth ache. “Fuck you for coming.”
Nim heard his own spine pop. He gasped in pain. “Aletha…my ribs…you’re breaking—”
“Tell me you love me.”
“I…I love you.”
The pressure dissipated. Nim sucked in fetid air, gagged.
“Sorry. It keeps me lucid, even if it ain’t real.”
Her words filtered through Nim’s shock. “It ain’t real?”
“The infection ties up our dopamine, I think. You heard all the other tenants?”
Nim nodded. “All trying to connect with someone.”
Her eyes dropped down. “I…I’m so sorry, Nim. Take this.” She extended a muck encrusted phone. “Battery’s dead, but the SIM card’s good.”
Understanding trickled into Nim’s brain. “Your footage.”
“I did what those chuckleheads outside should have been doing. These are interviews, from the people who put the fire out. The first exposed.”
“No. Ingested, maybe. It’s hard to explain. They use us like bait. Pulling more people in. Brain chemistry is all retrofitted. Drenched in dopamine for every attempt we make to connect. You shoulda seen folks early on. Texting until their phone screens cracked. Trying to write letters. Sing. Anything to avoid the crash.”
“Jesus,” Nim breathed. “That’s why you tried to cuss me into deleting your number.”
Aletha fixed her eyes on his. “Yes. It’s using our love against us. Gets inside our bones. Makes us build…whatever this is. A colony.”
“Nim. I got our arcology to work. It’s not even an hour’s walk from here.”
“I know.” Tears swelled in Nim’s eyes before he blinked them away. “I came through there.”
“Are they…still whole? Is it—”
“Let’s get you out of here. This shit will be worse than Sigma if we don’t tell folk.”
“Yes.” Aletha licked her lips. “But listen. You need to leave. Now. They haven’t broken your bones. That’s how it gets inside.”
They both stared at the sodden cast on her wrist.
“No,” Nim groaned, slicing away at the tendrils around her. “No no no…”
Aletha’s hands lingered on Nim’s fingers, caressing them.
“Nimbus,” she whispered. “Let me go.”
“This whole place is finna get torched. The government—”
“But the work, your work, the people—”
“Go save them.”
Something rippled between Aletha’s ribs.
“Please. I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“I’m not leaving. I can’t!”
“Then help me get home.”
Nim pulled her upright, supported her weight to the lobby. “Seven floors,” Aletha rasped. “I can do this.”
“We’ve got the footage. Nothing up there’s serious enough to waste time on!” Thrumming came from every side, or…outside? Would they hear the planes? He couldn’t carry her out, but he could make a litter, something! “We gotta get moving.”
“You’re the only one who came,” she whispered. “Scared off everyone else.”
“Stubborn.” Nim shrugged.
“Don’t I know it. You’re the only one strong enough to see this through.”
Nim wiped a hand over his face. An exasperated laugh escaped him. “This is so fucked. Fine. Seven floors. Then we out.”
Aletha smiled. “We out.”
The whispers and songs returned, louder with every floor. People burrowed into slick walls beside the open stairs, eying him hungrily. Close enough to be melded together, they howled or prayed as Nim hobbled past. Aletha clung tight to his shoulder and muttered encouragement to folks she recognized. “It’ll be over soon.”
Legs burning, they reached the seventh floor. “Where’s the apartment?” Nim panted. “I can grab whatever you need.”
Aletha nodded to herself, limping toward a common area. A balcony lay beyond it. “Should be high enough.”
Nim’s throat dried. “What are you saying?”
“This thing inside me has survival instincts. Self-preservation. But it can only see what I see.” She stepped onto the balcony, closing her eyes. “I need you to do this. But you’ve got to do it fast.”
Nim pressed his fists to his mouth, squeezing the sudden anguish down. “You lied to me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. But I can’t go with you. And I’m tired. So fucking tired.”
“But we can still—”
He nodded, scrubbing his eyes. None of this was fair. She needed him to be strong, and real. He leaned in close, her locs tickling his face. “I’m…going to miss the hell out of you. It’s real for me. I love you.”
Aletha’s eyelids fluttered. She sighed deeply, and a smile dimpled her cheek. “See you on the other side.”
Nim planted both hands on her ribs and shoved. She tumbled awkwardly over the rail. Translucent petals of flesh flailed out of her shoulders, grasping for the balcony. Nim only had eyes for the moment of peace on her face. Did she believe him? Or think his words another appeasement? He would never be sure.
The building grew silent again as Nim limped his way downstairs, numbly cradling his swollen arm. An ugly sprain, but he would live.
Outside he stopped in disbelief. The blue van idled in front of the hotel. The headlights flashed, beckoning him forward. “Not yet,” he muttered. “I need to be sure.” Stomach roiling, Nim forced himself to circle the building, find the place. No movement stirred in the wilted sunflower patch beneath the seventh-floor window. Nothing breathed.
For a moment, his rib cage collapsed inward. A pained keening pierced his throat. His friend, all of her unrealized joy and peace and potential, was gone. Nothing else mattered. Except those folks back at Turtle Tower, Aletha’s folks. They needed him now. He trudged back to the van.
“Nim. You found your friend.”
Karen emerged from the side door. Petal-like appendages unfolded from her back. They creeped forward, she the marionette suspended in mid-air. “She had more research, didn’t she? That clever, greedy…trying to steal what’s mine.”
Nim froze. “She didn’t. She just didn’t want to spread the…”
Karen abruptly burst into tears. “Noble until the end.” The crying melted into laughter. “But not me. You’re judging me, aren’t you? I can see it on your face!”
Nim backed away, knees turned to mush. “We can’t go together, Karen. You know what’s about to happen here. Can you even drive…like that? What do you think the first people who see you will do?”
“Nothing! I’m fine!”
“Not in your…condition. Our condition. I can still drive.”
Nim cradled his sprained wrist, still cowering back. Her petal limbs shivered, the droning sound he recalled inside the van. “Yes…you’re smart,” Karen beamed. “Smarter than Ahmed was. No time to waste.”
Nim slid in behind the driver’s seat. Karen considered him before curling back into the van. The humming resumed, pitched low enough to make his teeth ache. Nim threw it into gear and wheeled around for Turtle Tower. Cume and the rest were well-armed. He prayed it would be enough.
Karen’s voice rumbled cheerfully behind him. “I’ll be needing whatever she gave you, Nim.”
“I…I’ve got it right here.” Nim felt around in his backpack, his hand closed around a brick instead. He inhaled deeply, cranked the wheel and jammed the brick over the gas pedal. The engine revved. The van lurched forward.
Nim leaped out. The van wobbled dangerously. Flesh petals sliced apart the door, the walls, an instant before it crashed into the tower lobby.
Nim never stopped running, not even when low flames illuminated his path. He hoped the whole building caught fire. He ran until his legs burned, until he could do nothing but stumble through the night. But he refused to turn around.
After what felt like hours, a search light halted him. “That’s far enough!”
He had made it. “Y’all remember me! I…I had a pie!”
A muffled argument, then Cume’s voice rang out. “Did you find her? Spill, kid.”
Nim made a gasping ruin of it, but the key words got through. Quarantine. Infection. Bombing. “Contingency six!” a voice bellowed. “Get our people moving!”
Vehicles spilled from hidden driveways and boarded-up storefronts. The guns trained on him didn’t waver. “I’m fine,” he whispered, tears streaming down his face. “She wouldn’t have sent me here if I wasn’t. She wouldn’t let me bring her, she made me…”
Cume growled. “Damnit, come on then.”
When the first bombs fell, close to a hundred people had fled Turtle Tower with every provision they could carry.
The midnight caravan halted in the false daylight, leaders murmuring in tense circles. In the bed of a rusted pickup, an elder wrapped Nim’s sprained wrist. Cume approached on horseback.
“You’ve got a place with us, forreal,” Cume murmured once she finished. “That would have been our asses and not a soul would know.”
“I’m sorry you have to build all over again.”
“Starting over don’t mean starting from scratch. We’ve got the knowledge, and thanks to you, we’ve still got the hands. Think about staying on with us. I mean it.”
Cume flicked the reins, trotting off.
Nim’s tears flowed soon after, sobs that pummeled his insides. Everything hurt. Everything. He stared at the tower flames until they burned down, vowing to right the record on Aletha. Then he cried some more. Sleep would not come.
His thoughts touched Winter as smoke merged with the graying dawn sky. He tried to dial her, wincing. Switched hands.
“Nimbus. You called.” Genuine surprise and hope bled into Winter’s f. “Did you find her okay?”
“I did, but some shit went down you wouldn’t believe. We need to talk about it in person.”
A tremor entered Winter’s voice. “Are we…good?”
Nim took a deep breath. “You love me, right?”
A soft gasp pushed through the phone. “I do. You know I do.”
“Come pick me up then. I need to see you. It’s time we had a fresh start.”
Something about that felt right and good. Real good. Beyond good. Cume smiled at Nim and Nim nodded back, already scrolling through his contacts for the next person to call.
(Editors’ Note: “Our Love Against Us” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 48A).
© 2022 DaVaun Sanders