Shortly after the rain season, I received a letter from Udalma. It was a one-piece envelope with no names or runes inscribed, just the seamless granularity of prematurely aged parchment. Real paper. I paid two drops to the fresh boy and made mental note of burning down the house before leaving. It was scheduled for repurposing anyway, and it wouldn’t be long until the Collectors showed up to claim whatever neglected limps or body parts I might have left behind.
The kid, his skin still untouched by plague or sin, grinned at me with pristine teeth and, as the two drops were absorbed by his immaculate palms, started towards one of the Black Alleys with the careless, uncalculated steps of a first body.
The fact that a fresh boy had been able to find me, even if Udalma was behind it, meant that half of the city already knew where I was. After collecting what little perpetuals I had, I severed the link with the house and I set off, ready to leave behind Chronos End once and for all. It didn’t take much time until the inquisitive mechanical whirring of the Collector’s scouts filled the darkness of the back streets. I waited for some minutes and, as I took what I swore to myself would be the last step on that lost corner of the city, I commanded the ironite within the sub-plastic beams of the house to ignite.
Leaving the district was not hard. It was dispute night and most of the patch-robbed monks that wandered the Street of Icons were in the upper tiers, wondering perhaps what new allegiances they would have to swear now. There were rumours, as always, that Gunga Din was losing influence and that perhaps his time was coming to an end. He was already way past his sixth rebirth, so maybe this time the rumours were right. One could never now. There are many voices down here, and not all of them have a mouth.
The station was at the end of the street. It was an old, crumbling piece of clumsy architecture hastily put together and later forgotten. Most of the wretched things at Chronos End had also forgotten its purpose. To them it was only another piece of inconsequential cityscape, a constant reminder of all the things that had been denied to them. Now, it was the home of some rusty addict with less than half a body that wasted away his days trying to hassle some drops from those careless enough to approach him. His left arm was a tangled mass of cheap ironite that burrowed into what little was left of his first skin. His eyes, shut close by layers and layers of accumulated rust, oozed a brownish liquid that streamed down his cheeks, leaving a trace of iron and blood that the Collectors harvested from time to time in exchange for a couple of drops.
It is often said that the only way in this city is down, and for a good reason: once you have been expelled from the upper tiers, the city stops recognising you as one of its kind. Doors that used to bow before you stand now as an impassable wall. Stairs stop working, materializers stop producing, and before you know it you are down here with all the discarded body parts from the previous season. No one is really sure how it works, but it does, and that’s all most people need to know. Until they wake up one morning and find out that they cannot get out of their own bedroom and the mirror refuses to show their reflection, that is.
The doors of the station opened before me with a sound I had almost forgotten. A gust of sterile, recycled air escaped from the station and mixed with the decay and rotting metal of Chrono’s End, generating an eclectic mixture of odours. The beggar, aware of the change, lifted his wasted arm towards me, eye-balls rolling so hard beneath lids long gone that I could almost hear them scratching against the small lumps of blistering rust. From the insides of his chest came a drowned sound that wanted to be a word.
“Drop? Some? Please?”
His face, cleaved in two by the attempt of a smile, looked at me from below. Under the repurposed light of the failing bulbs, it looked as if it was already part of the floor itself. I produced whatever drops I had left and let them fall on the man. He absorbed them one by one, his smile increasingly stretching as his synth registered the chemicals and sent impulses of unrestrained joy and boundless ecstasy through his system.
As the doors of the train closed, I saw him looking at me from beneath his impossible eyes, and for a moment there I was afraid that his smile would break his face in half.