It can’t last forever.
Aran’s father had said it and his father before him, but the wall still towered over the shanty towns and villages that ran the length of the old border.
The land beyond had had a name once, the Southern Democratic Union, or something to that effect… everyone just called it the SDU. There was still contempt and fear in their voices when they talked about it, even though no one had heard from anyone in the SDU in generations.
The engineers who’d built the ancient barrier hadn’t stopped short at the physical, the structure was riddled with transmitters that blocked any signal that might get in or out. When it had first been installed, the wall had sported technology the people in the villages could only dream of now; there was no way their home built radios were going to penetrate the field.
There was a time when that hadn’t mattered. When she was a girl Aran had sat with the rest of her family, listening to the promises from the dying Capital: The dustbowl would shrink. The reactors would stop spitting poison. It was all going to be okay. They said it as boldly as the big bands played the anthem after the broadcasts, but each year more families came south, and stopped short against the impassable barrier. No one played the anthem anymore.
Many tried to keep moving, convinced that there was a better life beyond, but even as everything else failed, the wall’s defences stayed strong. Balloons and gliders were shot out of the air. Those who tried to climb were fried, turned in to dry, contorted mummies that were slowly skeletonised by the streaming dust.
There were rumours of weak points, places where they said people got through. It was one of those rumours they were chasing. Whether they might be able to cross at Dark Bridge, or what people found beyond the looming barricades, no one could say. No one faced the wall twice – no word ever came back.
Aran looked up at the hateful impediment that had presided over her short life. The wire and concrete might as well have been the veil between life and death, yet she must face it now for Rachel’s sake – there was no cure this side of the wall.
Her friend coughed and shifted her weight, as she strained to get a better view of the shanty town in front of them. “Is this it?” Her companion breathed, the phlegm gurgled in her throat.
“It’s Dark Bridge alright,” Aran said. The scrawl on the old road sign swinging in the ceaseless wind said it was so. Dark Bridge and all that went with it, the desperation and those that made their living on it.
Rachel took a deep rattling breath and stood straight. “I’ll have to walk in,” she said, “don’t help me unless it looks like I’m going to fall over.”
Aran nodded. She wondered if Rachel knew how she looked to her now, strong, determined, her shoulders pulled back, her hands instinctively hovering near those pearl handled pistols she’d paid too much for, back in Long Creek.
When she wasn’t stooped or curled over, Rachel was a truly striking figure. She was over six feet tall; her hair, bleached white by the sun, cascaded in curls from beneath her broad hat and her face looked as though it had been chiselled by a sculptor… If you didn’t know she was dying, you might mistake her for the fighter she had once been.
It warmed Aran to see some of the woman she had once known return. It gave her hope, but also brought home how bad her friend had become.
Rachel hadn’t stood straight in months and the glassy look in her sunken eyes, that others would no doubt mistake for cold-bloodedness, spoke of pain that only Aran could guess at.
Aran took Rachel’s shaking hand and gave it a squeeze, her friend’s response was pitifully weak and her fingers were cold.
“Once more unto the breach my friend…” the memory of the bones she’d seen on the well-trod road to Dark Bridge made her stop short of finishing the quote.
Rachel took that as the signal to move, and started down the track towards the low shacks on the outskirts of the town. Aran glanced at the bullet holes riddling the sign, then followed.
The sound of an old keyboard whined through the streets of Dark Bridge, drifting from the two storey saloon. The speakers had long since blown, but someone was doing their best to squeeze a tune out of it. Aran tried to pick out the tune from the wheezing sound, but she couldn’t pin it down – probably something before her time.
A warbling voice strained up over the discordant mess of notes You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…
The phrase sent a chill through her. Rachel took it in her stride and swept through the hanging doors. Like any settlement, Dark Bridge’s business would be handled in the saloon.
Rachel headed for the bar and Aran stuck close, she had no illusions as to how the grizzled patrons might act if they thought she was alone.
“Help you?” The barman must have been pushing fifty, and the rag he swept across the streaked counter couldn’t have been far behind.
“I hear you can buy a crossing here,” Rachel said.
The barman’s face brightened. “Pilgrims are you?” He sniffed and hocked an unpleasant wad into the spittoon. “You can buy a chance, though no one’s tried in ages.”
Rachel looked at the crowded chalk board above the bar. “Running tally?” she asked, keeping her face straight.
The barman snorted at the joke. “All about runin’ I’d say.” He leaned over the bar and eyed her guns. “You any good with those?”
“If I have to be,” Rachel replied.
“Well you’d do better to sell them for a new pair of boots or some of those old shoes with the rubber on the bottom.” He indicated the board. “I’ve been here, best part of forty years and no one who shot it out ever made it.”
It was not what Aran wanted to hear. All the way she’d worried about the plan. Rachel couldn’t run, she was a hero for just standing steady. They were betting everything on a single shot and Aran knew her friend’s eyesight wasn’t as good as it had been. Even if the bullet hit, there was a lot riding on a very old schematic.
“So, when do you want to make your run?” the barkeep leered. The patrons leaned closer to hear the answer.
Rachel smiled. “No time like the present.”
Aran’s doubt deepened. She knew they didn’t have much time to play with, but now that it came to it she wasn’t sure they should rush things.
They’d been walking for hours to get here and if the barman thought running was the only way they stood a chance…
Aran wanted rest, but she knew why Rachel couldn’t risk it. If you’re well you rest and you might be stronger tomorrow; someone as sick as Rachel couldn’t bank on things not being worse.
The barman didn’t seem any happier than Aran at the prospect of an immediate crossing, “Come on, lady, play nice. Give me time to scare up some bets – get a crowd going. We’ll need the numbers to confuse the sentry.”
Rachel let out an uneven breath, and glanced back through the saloon’s cracked window. Aran watched her studying the angle of the sun. It was nearly noon already but there was still time.
“Okay,” Rachel conceded, “three hours?”
The barman’s brow wrinkled. “Short notice is going to cost.”
Rachel nodded and beckoned Aran over. The smaller woman grunted and lifted her sack onto the bar. The salvage gleamed on the stained wood. The barkeep looked impressed. “All this?”
“No point trying to carry it,” Rachel said.
“Can’t argue with that.” Nor could Aran. That sack had started to weigh heavy in the last hour.
The barman swept the goods to one side. “That’s the run paid for. Can I get you something to eat while we wait? You don’t look in the best shape for this.” Before, Rachel answered, the barkeep’s eyes flicked to the boy at the door. “What you standing around for? We got a woman making a run here.”
“Two,” Rachel corrected.
The barman’s eyes fell on Aran and his lips twitched. He looked back to Rachel with new respect. “Aye, two it is, then.”
Aran could imagine the words he hadn’t spoken, smart move bringing cannon fodder.
The boy whipped out of the bar and his voice echoed through the streets: “It’s a run, someone’s going to chance it! Come and bet, earn some scrap to stand in line. Run in three hours. Don’t miss it!”
Aran looked around the room at the patrons, already exchanging slugs of metal and old electronics in wagers on whether the tall woman would make it.
She knew none of them rated her, she was as dark and short as Rachel was tall and pale. If Rachel seemed the stallion, then these folks took her as the mule that followed in the Amazon’s wake.
Aran loved Rachel, but she hated how people dismissed her as an afterthought when Rachel was around – worse she loathed that it was likely only her friend’s presence that meant she could even be in the saloon without harassment.
It was an endlessly confusing feeling to be grateful for someone’s presence and resent needing them in the first place. It wasn’t fair to either of them.
Life isn’t fair. Aran bore down on the thought as she always did – the bit that held back her screams.
It took less than two hours for the crowd to form. Dark Bridge was clearly as starved for entertainment as anywhere else along the wall.
Aran noticed people holding pieces of the salvage that Rachel had given the barkeep – the baiters had been paid.
Aran gulped and took her place in the slowly assembling column of people moving for the gap in the wall.
Two rusty sentry bots squatted at the long-ruined guard booths. Only one of them raised itself at the sudden influx of people.
That was why they had chosen Dark Bridge – one less sentry to cope with.
Rachel touched her arm and gave her a thin smile. “Last chance if you want to turn back – wouldn’t blame you.”
“No way I’m letting you go over that bridge alone,” Aran said. She hoped her voice wasn’t shaking too much.
Rachel threaded her fingers through Aran’s own, for an instant she imagined them walking down the road in the old world, the one her grandfather had used to describe with tears in his sunken eyes.
She could make out a low tree just over the bridge. In a few minutes, she told herself, they would be past that tree without a trouble in the world. There were would be clinics on the other side of the wall, they’d take care of Rachel’s cough and they’d live out their days in…
“Stay focused,” a voice hissed from behind. “I’ve got me three days’ ration riding on you.”
Aran didn’t turn back but her eyes did drop from the tree to the pockmarked asphalt on the bridge in front of it. It was not so very long, that bridge, two minutes and she would be across…
She heard Rachel wheezing next to her, it wouldn’t be two minutes, it would be a life time, the sentry would turn – they’d never reach the tree.
They’d come close enough to hear the sentry’s metallic pronouncements: “All individuals seeking to cross have your ident cards ready; certificates for minors and foreign nationals must be stamped.”
It was all a nonsense, no one had made an ident card in thirty years, but the baiters held out their scratched-up squares of plastic and the sentry bleated the same complaint: “Identity unrecognised, proceed to holding for processing.”
The crowd of milling people started to thicken and the robot struggled to keep them contained without the assistance of its counterpart. No one crossed the yellow line, only the runner would do that.
Aran felt the pressure of the crowd building.
“Please have identification ready. Today’s processing error quota is ninety five percent.”
Aran tried to wet her lips, but her mouth was dry.
“Remember go left, there’s some cover behind those old tyres. Won’t take long for it to sense your body-heat, though; you want to get to that old car wreck in the middle of the bridge. You might need to look out for drones, but we’ve seen them less and less.” The guy behind her was saying, “Don’t let your friend slow you down.”
Aran didn’t need her advisor to tell her that he’d bet on her to finish alone, probably smart enough to see that Rachel wasn’t as strong as she made out.
“Insufficient data. Ninety- seven.”
“You know what to do,” Rachel whispered. “I only need one shot.”
Aran looked at the dark rings under her friend’s eyes, and wondered if that were true anymore.
Was she betting her life on a false hope?
Did Rachel even love her back?
What if they were all right, and the big cowgirl was just letting her go first because…
“Ninety-nine.” She felt Rachel shove her forward and she suddenly found herself over the yellow line.
Red lights erupted from the old guard posts and a weak siren wailed.
“Unapproved access. Stay where you are. You have ten seconds to produce valid identification.”
The droid began to advance and Aran stood there waiting for it to approach. A murmur went through the crowd and many started to backpedal. She was supposed to run, then the bullets would all be going in the right direction, but if the decrepit robot opened fire at her where she stood now, the yellow line wasn’t going to be any defence against stray lead.
“What the hell are you doing, girl? Go. RUN!” Her friend, the gambler, shrieked.
Aran stayed where she was. She desperately sought the crowd for Rachel.
The white-haired pilgrim stepped forward, and time seemed to slow. Aran knew the apparition before her from a time before the sickness and pain.
Here, at the end of their journey together, Rachel was the woman she had started out with.
The steel came off Rachel’s hip in a blur and the heavy pistol barked twice.
The crowd collapsed in on itself now, running in all directions. There could be no more convincing proof that the two women were mad than that they had expected to harm the heavily armoured robot with a hand gun.
They were right, for all its speed and precision, the shot had done nothing.
Aran slumped to her knees.
She was going to die.
The old man who had sold them the schematics for the security bot had been wrong; or he had ripped them off. It didn’t matter now.
The robot’s min-gun began to whir.
“Aran,” Rachel’s voice was hoarse.
Go, maybe it won’t notice you. She thought it but couldn’t find her voice.
Flame danced on the barrel of the gun, but it was the spot a meter from her that erupted.
That was still close enough to send debris whirring at her and Aran felt something cut her face.
Rachel was running for her.
The robot spun and Rachel was forced into a long dive to avoid the wild arc of fire.
Rachel landed up on her back, gasping like a new-landed fish.
“Hit…” she gulped for air. “Hit the targeting.”
More lead filled the air as the robot attempted to make up for its inaccuracy with sheer volume of rounds.
Rachel winced as a volley narrowly missed her and reduced the robot’s colleague to a rusty cloud.
“We’d better get out of here, darlin’.” Rachel shouted over the noise and they started to leopard crawl over to the wall of tyres that blocked the left side of the road. Fragments of rubber fell around them like black snow, and then the mini-gun let out a noisy clacking – empty.
Aran laughed aloud and began to rise only to cast herself to one side as the robot advanced towards them on spinning tracks. Its long metallic arms snaked out, grabbing strands of Rachel’s pale hair.
Rachel gave a shriek and a tickle of blood flowed from the corner of her mouth.
Had she been hit? Or had that cry been too much for her damaged lungs? Aran threw herself against her friend without thinking about it, dragging her from the robot’s grip and leaving tufts of white hair in its steel clutches.
Aran got her shoulder under Rachel’s arm, and hurried her over the broken surface of the road. It was her intention to put the tyres between them and the robot in the hope of gaining a few strides, but the thing just barrelled through the rubber and kept coming.
A skull grinned up at Aran from the road surface, one of the few bones that hadn’t been swept over the edge of the bridge by the ceaseless wind. Aran wondered if the bottom of the gorge beneath would be full if she stopped to peer down.
A few more shared steps. Rachel lolled against her.
There was more blood.
Aran forced them forward.
The robot must be close enough to touch them. She heard the skull pop under the metal tracks.
The tree on the other side of the bridge looked just as far away.
“Hey, over here!” The voice was distant, but it had immediate effect. The robot spun and headed back to its post at top speed.
Aran recognised the gambler’s voice. Either three days of food was worth more in Dark Bridge than she had ever guessed, or she had to wonder what odds they had put against her…
“Over here, you rusting idiot” the man cried, before running back and disappearing around the corner.
The robot reached its post and froze, clearly conflicted about which fugitive to follow.
Aran shifted Rachel’s weight and kept plodding – she didn’t dare look back to see what the robot decided.
Cold fear gripped her, intensifying with each step. Rachel got heavier as she went. Only the fact that she hadn’t yet dropped the revolver dangling from her hand gave Aran any hope that she wasn’t carrying a dead woman across the border.
“Rachel? You still with me?”
The word echoed on the tortured concrete and touched the bones Aran imagined stretched beneath them.
Was there any such thing as always?
Bones are buried, walls crumble – could love last longer than that?
“Always,” Aran breathed.
She took another step, keeping the flashing silver of Rachel’s gun in the corner of her vision – Rachel wouldn’t let that go till the end.
They were nearly at the edge of the bridge, when she heard a buzzing behind them.
She tried to speed up, but she knew she would not be fast enough.
Something stung the back of her leg and she went down, tipping them both over into the dirt on the other side of the bridge.
The tree was so close.
Blood was welling from the low calibre bullet wound in her leg, and the drone that had shot her was coming back round for a second pass.
She scrabbled at Rachel’s hip and drew her second revolver from its holster.
Aran struggled to make out the exact position of the buzzing drone against the glare of the sun.
She’d never been much of a shot – she tried to remember everything Rachel had taught her.
The drone swooped down rotors screaming, she squeezed the trigger. The first shot caused the drone to buck and the second made smoke start to coil from the little killer’s engines, but it was not enough, the drone’s remaining engines surged and it began to bring its gun online.
A pistol sounded behind her.
The droid shuddered and began a low dive into the gorge.
“That’s my girl,” Rachel said.
Aran twisted painfully and dragged herself next to her friend. It was only when she lay back that she registered that they were in the shadow of the tree.
Rachel propped herself up on an elbow, looked back at the battered sign on their side of the bridge. “You are now entering the United States of America,” she read.
Aran laughed. “They use the word united then put a wall across it.”
Rachel studied the expanse around them. “You’ve got to wonder if they were trying to keep people out or in.”
Aran shrugged. “A wall works the same way from either side.”
Read more of Toby’s writing here.