A tin-can-like railcar rattled and wailed along stubborn lines somewhere beneath Rook’s feet. Around him, bodies were packed tight as rebar in a wall, each holding onto a rickety, threadbare handle. Some didn’t even bother. These jolted and bumped into the people around them, stirring up the clammy, lukewarm air that was expelled by so many breaths venting into so small a place. It smelled like rot and clung to his skin like a film of sweat.
For the umpteenth time, Rook glanced down to his left and right knees. Two small, round heads covered in dark hair were still there. The smaller had fragile brown hair, long and thin like her mother’s but beautifully delicate. The other was only slightly larger, but his was rich brown and curled tightly against his skull except for a patch on the left side where jagged white scars broke the wavy locks. A set of small hands obediently wrapped around each of Rook’s legs.
When we get on the train, hold tight to me. People will bump into you, but if anyone grabs you or talks to you directly, tug my pantleg.
The two children’s eyes had been wide and dark as he explained the simple rule. They were still too young to quite understand what was happening.
Probably best that way, Rook thought.
“Nice little girl you got there,” a man across from him breathed. The man was normal height but a strong build. A soiled rag concealed his lower face, and shredded leather wraps covered clothes that, if once colored, were now faded essentially to grey and brown.
Rook could not help but wonder what had caused the shredding to the man’s leathers. And if it had anything to do with the Bowie knife tucked conspicuously between two wraps on his chest.
The man elbowed a fellow passenger, a woman with hair braided into a latticework net that fell across her back. “She’d be a tasty pink morsel, huh?” The two shared a laugh, and the man turned his sunken back to Rook. “How much do you want for her?”
“She isn’t for sale.” The words rasp across the dry back of Rook’s throat.
The man chuckled humorlessly. He grabbed a new handle closer to where Rook and his children stood, and stepped into them until he loomed waist and shoulders over the kids. “C’mon. You won’t need them where you’re going.”
Tight silence filled the stale air between the two men.
“Oh, crack off you waster,” someone muttered in the crowd.
The man paused and laughed into his rag mask. He stepped back to join the woman, whose eyes still leered at Rook and the young girl at his knee. The two leaned in and whispered, shared another laugh, and turned back toward the front of the train.
Rook wrapped an arm around his children’s shoulders and held them tighter to his knee. “Sierra, Levi, are you okay?” The boy shrugged wordlessly, and the little girl turn to hide her face in his pantleg and shook her head. “Shhh, shh, it’s going to be okay,” he murmured, stroking her hair. “Remember where we were? With the clouds and the air that stung when we breathed?”
Sierra looked up from his leg. Her tiny eyes were so bright. He puffed out his cheeks and held his breath as he said “breathed.” Her eyes lit up even more and she smiled, hiding her head into his pantleg, and nodding. Levi just stared at him under a furrowed brow. Rook cracked a smile. “It won’t be like that here. Here you can go outside without a mask. There might even be other children your age!”
Sierra looked up, eyes wide again. “Really?”
“Maybe! It’s a city here – not just the factory. There are places to play, we’ll find a place to live – a place that’s just ours.”
A shuffling of passengers beside them gave a glimpse of the window to the outside.
Rook gasped dramatically and pointed out the grungy glass. “There it is, guys!”
A slate grey sky and a barren ground framed a mountain of metal. At its center, a column skyscraper rose far above the buildings below it until it brushed the clouds. Behind it, a sprawling complex of steel and glass shaped the rest of the skyline. Tiny black dots sifted between these two structures like clouds of gnats. The buildings themselves crawled with life. Behind these two buildings, other skyscrapers tried to peak through but were obscured by the footprint of industry. Rolling gray-blue waves were just visible in a wide lake beyond.
Ruins surrounded this central hub. The husks of burned-out skyscrapers from a bygone era stood on their knees. A deep black pit gorged the right side of the cityscape and bellowed faint white smoke. And all around the steepled city, as far as they could see, were the husks of war. Burned out spacecraft buried by years jutted from the land. Empty shells of vehicles and the eviscerated footprints of city blocks fought to protrude from a ground more covered in steel than soil. Smoke from fires old and new rolled in sporadic columns out of the region around the city.
Rook hugged the two children tight. “It’s a home for a lot of people like us,” he said shakily. “My bosses are rebuilding it to be a nice place. And we get to be a part of it!”
“What’s it called,” Levi finally murmured.