He had put this off as long as he could.
Disappointment led to disappointment. It had taken months for him to dredge up the courage to face the possibility of the loss of his final scrap of hope.
The apartment house had a cheery appearance, belying the history that he now knew it concealed. There were no burglar bars on the doors or windows, unlike most of the buildings in the neighborhood. Curtains were visible through the windows, the doors were of an attractive wood.
The building was a quarter mile from the once great garment factory in King's Row, on the lower level, in a residential area that seemed miles from the industry to the west, the warehouse district to the south where Jon had spent much of his days as a scavenger.
Behind the building, a block over, were a series of parks. At one time, it must have seemed the idea place for a young couple to raise their growing boys. Now the parks were haunted by gangbangers.
To the northeast, another block that had once contained a much larger park had been leveled in the name of progress. Naked earth, fences, and sewer pipe formed a hunting ground for Clockwork.
In an alleyway between two buildings to the east, Jon was unsurprised to find a knot of Vazhilok standing over a fresh corpse, the dead man lying on his back, his eyes wide and staring. The scrapper took special pleasure in sinking his claws into the unalive zombies. It was hard to hold back, knocking the reapers and mortificators to the ground before calling in for a pickup.
It made no difference, of course. The Vazh who had killed his brother Sam 15 years earlier were most likely long dead.
But it felt good, anyway.
Jon finished his circuit of the neighborhood, searching for any hint of familiarity, and finding none. At last he could put it off no longer. Squaring his shoulders, he walked up to the front of the apartment house, opened the door.
The police report of Sam's death had listed this apartment house as the residence of Ezekiel and Samuel Norman. Other documents had confirmed that the same apartment had originally been occupied by Matthew and Sarah Norman, their parents.
Standing in the shadowy front hallway, he gazed around himself, again trying to dredge up some shred of memory. Finding nothing, he looked over the tenants listed, found apartment 6A. The name plate said only "Jones". Taking a deep breath, he pressed the intercom button.
It was a long time before the intercom crackled. "Yeah? What is it?"
"Good afternoon, sir," Jon said politely. "You don't know me, but my name is Jon Smith...."
"We don't want any!" The intercom went dead.
Jon blinked, stared at the button, nonplussed. He pressed it again. "Excuse me, Mr. Jones, I'm not a salesman, I just want to talk to you about a previous tenant of your apartment."
"Well, they ain't here now, so go away!"
The silence that followed the crackle filled the hallway.
And that was that.
Maybe I could write him a letter, explain that I just want to see the inside of the apartment, Jon thought.
It was an idea. Just not a very good one.
This Mr. Jones had every right to his privacy. Why would he allow a total stranger to come into his home?
It was time to let it go.
Jon walked out the entrance doorway, sat down on the steps of the building. He rested his metal elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands, sat watching the bustling traffic moving up and down the street.
Turning his head, he counted up six rows of windows. Somewhere, up there, was where apartment 6A was. Sometime when he was a boy, he had looked out one of those windows onto this street, or one of the side streets or alleys.
He tried to imagine what it would look like from that angle.
As the sun sank toward the western zone wall, he closed his eye, pressed one hand over his monocle to shut out all sight.
Darkness descended, lights began to flicker on in the various windows lining the street. He was about to give up when an image flashed through his mind.
He sat, alone, in the dark. Silence was all around him, despair washed across him in waves. There was a sound, coming from the darkness, one that he refused to acknowledge. Then a crashing blow, excrutiating pain in his head, and more darkness and silence.
And that was all.
He sat well into the twilight, but nothing else came to him.
He stood, turned to the east and began the walk to the train station.
The efficiency had acquired another piece of furniture. In place of the small table, there now stood a larger desk, with drawers. The ring binder and box of papers in the closet had been moved into hanging files in one of the drawers.
It still stood the purpose of dining table. Jon Smith, nee Ezekiel Norman, had taken to eating while going over paperwork.
The scrapper finished pulling on his boots, arranged his jeans legs over them, stood, added the pouch laden belt, picked up a backpack and slung it over a shoulder, picked up a piece of paper from the desk, read it again, folded it, and slipped it into a pouch, picked up his keys, and walked out.
Hyperstride carried him to the Atlas Park tunnel in mere seconds, and thence to City Hall.
He pulled the folded paper out, smoothed it, handed it to Jonathan St.John-Smythe.
"You're sure you want to do this, Jon?" the science advisor responded, after perusing the document. "You know how dangerous this is going to be. You'll be entirely on your own. No backup. No Medicom transport if you get in trouble."
"I know," Jon nodded, determination clear even on his often difficult-to-read face. "This is something I have to do, Jonathan. If I had any doubts, I wouldn't have taken all the trouble of working my way through the system to get the paperwork pushed through."
"All right....if I can't dissuade you." St.John-Smythe turned, indicated a doorway at the back of the office lobby. "They're waiting for you. One of our police teleporters will take you outside the Paragon city limits, to a staging area we maintain. You'll be outside the war walls, and off the grid. You're on your own after that. Once you leave the teleport station, it's up to you to get yourself back in one piece in order to be teleported back inside the zoned area. We aren't going after you if you don't make it back."
"I understand," Jon confirmed. They'd been over this procedure many times. He shouldered the backpack, turned to the back of the room.
He paused, turned to look over his shoulder.
The teleport staging office maintained its own small force field. The teleporter, one of the Taxibots so well known in the Hollows, raised an arm to indicate one of the two doorways out of the sterile room, returned to its passive stance, waiting with cybernetic patience for the next time it would be called into service.
Through a bullet-proof glass window, he could see a couple of clerks in police uniform working behind desks. They looked up long enough to verify his identity, one of them pressed something out of his line of sight, and a red light over the indicated door turned green, the action accompanied by a hollow metallic "clack!" He took a deep breath, stepped forward, opened the door, and stepped into the outside.
The real outside.
It wasn't easy getting out of the war walls, and it was dangerous to be there, even for a Hero with a growing list of battles to claim. Outside the zone walls his transponder wouldn't trigger the Medicom teleporters. He was literally taking his life into his own hands.
It was a risk he was willing to take.
He didn't bother pulling out the map he had already memorized. The staging area was just outside the western border of Independence Port. He turned back to the north, activated hyperstride, and began working his way around the IP zone wall.
Outside the war walls, off the grid, he had run into trouble more than once. A too-close call with something large, angry, and nameless had left him nursing wounds that troubled him for hours, even with his accelerated metabolism and healing abilities.
The journey was taking longer than he had expected. His food was running out faster than he had anticipated, and he needed to find fresh water soon.
He'd spent the night on the second floor of a burned-out building, having barracaded himself inside as the sun was setting. In the distance to the west he could hear the buzz of Rikti machinery. The original Rikti crash site was in that direction. He had had a rough time working his way around, and finally through, their lines the previous evening, necessitating his overnight stop.
The alien invaders had not yet surrendered the war they had already lost.
A responding crash forewarned him as he began tearing down his barracade. Something was waiting for him on the other side, almost certainly something hungry.
Abandoning the door, he turned to a window, picked up a scrap of burned wood, smashed the remaining glass out of the frame, stuck his head out far enough to check the surrounding street, grabbed his backpack, and jumped.
He didn't wait long enough to identify whatever hunted him, but activated hyperstride and took off in the morning light. He moved in starts and fits, dashing from point to point, stopping to check landmarks, read the occasional street sign that still stood, leaning, sad reminders of a time not long past.
A couple of hours later, he almost missed the aluminum pole; bent double, the street sign at the end was buried in a mass of vegetation gone wild. Dropping to one knee to pull at the weeds, the words he had been searching for lept at him.
Heart pounding, he stood, surveyed the area, then, on an impulse, reached down and wrenched the battered sign from its erstwhile support, slipped it into his backpack.
It wasn't like too many people would be needing its guidance in the future.
He moved slowly, watching for ambushes, while also searching for identifying marks. Another street sign yielded a cross street marked on his map. A drunken mailbox displayed a building number. Another building had its street number emblazoned in brass numerals over the smashed door, one digit hanging by a single screw.
He took the time to pull out his hand-drawn map, verify his memory.
He was getting close....very close.
Just outside Steel Canyon, there was an area that had not been considered important enough to include inside the war walls. Under the glow of the walls, keeping his good eye wide open, constantly glancing around himself, he worked his way to the rusting metal gate which stood in the unprotected space east of the Steel zone wall, west of Siren's Call.
The sign was scarred, the letters nearly illegible, but he knew what it had once said.
The howling of warwolves was the least frightening sound coming from the abandoned cemetery, but Jon squared his shoulders, looked around himself, and jumped over the fence, preferring not to enter through the exposed gate itself.
He kept to cover as best he could, often making a wide berth, or backtracking long distances, in order to make his way to the section he had memorized.
He wound up crouched behind some bushes, leaning up against the cold stone of an above-ground mausoleum in an attempt to remain out of sight of the monstronsities that grouped, and fought, in the midday light.
He was prepared to remain for hours, although he would have preferred being able to sit down comfortably.
He was about to pull the backpack off his back, intent on grabbing a snack, when the area of his interest cleared.
Slowly, carefully, he left his cover, and stole forward.
He had to pull back grass and weeds to read some of the headstones, but at last he found what he had come for.
The single double-sized stone began with the name: "Norman".
Below it, one on the left, the other on the right:
"Matthew; 1951 - 1991"
"Sarah; 1953 - 1984"
The records had indicated that he had arranged for his father's burial after the accident in King's Row, but he had no memory of it, and the engraved stone surrendered no clues.
Crouched down, he pulled off his pack.
"I'm sorry, Mama, this is the best I could do." He took a bouquet of red silk roses from the pack, pushed the stems as deep into the weedy grave as he could manage.
A second bouquet of forget-me-nots were similarly placed on the second grave.
"I'm sorry, Papa. I wish I knew what happened to Sam after he was killed."
He closed his eyes, waited, but still could dredge up no further memories. He could recall no faces, no voices, beyond the one that he guessed had been his mother's, and what he now understood was Sammie's laughter.
He uttered silent prayers, then looked around, and began his trek back to the police teleport office.
Copyright terraforming.com, November 26, 2012