Just two years ago, there was a city here. Concrete and glass in perfectly surveyed lines, shining coldly in the morning sun; steel spires puncturing the sky, outlined in neon that glared at the people thronging the streets below.
Jade struggled to see that city now, even though she was standing in it. The bones of it were there, but it had grown flesh in those two years. Green vines as thick as trunks wound around the sharp corners of concrete and glass, with leaves longer than she was tall throwing the streets below into shade, and flowers, so many flowers, rioted up walls and across vine-bridges, and competed with each other to turn their faces to the sun.
The colours clashed so brightly that Jade squinted and turned her gaze down. Clambering over a thick, green-grey trunk required her attention and a quick, precise slither to the other side. Her boots crunched on chewed-up tarmac and she heard the slither of spines behind her; the trunk’s defenses were slow and sluggish, but dangerous nonetheless. She took another step away from it to give herself room and glanced around, her hand resting on the hilt of the machete sheathed on her left thigh.
She was in what was once the entertainment district. If she concentrated, she could still see the lines of the theatres and their billboards, choked up now with stems and vines, carnations and lilies. The ‘scrapers of once-glamourous hotels rose up on either side, swelled out of their graceful shape now and shading everything between into a muffled, green valley.
Sometimes, it seemed that the flowers ate everything they could. Sound, sunshine. People.
Jade pulled a scanner out of her belt and whacked it twice with the heel of her hand. It bleeped in protest but its screen blinked into life anyway. A line swept back and forth across the display, revealing little flurries of readings, but nothing solid. The movement of sap within the vines, nectar within the flowers, like a network of slow-moving rivers. Not a single human pulse.
Jade listened, searching the still air. She could hear the soft shifting of the vines and trunks. They grew steadily, expanding with a rhythm like breathing. Here and there, buds swelled and stretched, as proud as pregnant bellies. The ripest ones split with the gentlest tearing sound, and unrolled into great fans of leaves, or unfurled into the new softness of petals.
A block away, glass cracked slowly and grit trickled down; the vines were pressuring their way into another building. Just last week, a ‘scraper in the financial district had toppled over sideways, its innards squeezed so hard that five floors had collapsed. The building had wanted to fall, to give up and lie down, but the vines wouldn’t let it. Instead, it had slumped to rest sadly against its neighbour, like family huddling to commiserate their inevitable end.
Jade’s head snapped to the right: there was the sound that had drawn her here. It was a scraping, like something heavy and hard being dragged, too quick and harsh to be the plants. Unless the flowers were evolving; it wouldn’t be the first time.
She turned the scanner in that direction and was rewarded with a blip on the top edge of the display. It was blurred by all the other readings and she scowled at the stupid thing. There was no way of knowing if it was the survivors she was looking for, or something more ominous.
Either way, she had to find out what it was.
She set off in the direction of the noise, swapping the scanner for the machete. Her steps were muffled by fallen leaves and petals: some crunched into pieces under her weight; others squished into the layers beneath, rotting into a fragrant and sickly bed. She was sure that the ground-level plants fed on the fetid mess, and that was why it wasn’t knee-deep already. With so few people left in the city, what else did they have to feed on but their own fallen?
The side-street was narrow and the buildings so close that a canopy had grown between them, turning it into a long, green throat. Glancing up, Jade saw roses draping down from the web of vines across the sky. The flowers were larger than her head and ripe with thorns. Somehow, even the petals had spiked edges. They were three storeys above her, though, so she tried to restrain the urge to duck her head as she pulled the flashlight from her belt and forged her way into the dark passageway.
Inside the shade of the street-throat, the footing was softer, squelching unpleasantly, sucking at the soles of her boots. The beam of her flashlight swung back and forth, pausing on a knot of vines that were probably covering a dumpster. They were edged with mushrooms. That was new: when had mushrooms joined the plant party? Had spores been mixed in with the seeds and were only starting to show now? Or was this something new?
Jade shook her head and pressed forward. As much as she wanted to untangle what had happened to the city, as much as the granddaughter-of-a-scientist part of her relished the mystery, she had a job to do here. She couldn’t think about the bombs that had fallen on the city, or the payload of seeds they had embedded into its bones, or the riots that had followed. Those were thoughts for the dark hours, and they came then whether she liked it or not.
She could hear the scanner on her hip pinging as she got closer to the source of the scraping noise. It pushed her onwards, through the close, green dark of the street-throat and towards the squinting sunlight in the wide avenue on the other side. The flashlight went back on her belt and she knocked the leaves draping over the end of the throat with the flat of her machete blade. She knew to only cut them if she absolutely had to.
She ducked out and checked the scanner: the readings were pinging from her left, across the street. Lampposts running up the centre of the street had been turned into a lacework of smaller vines, each one topped with flowers in pink and white trumpets.
She had to hop over the live stems on the ground to get to the barrier, but there was no way through. She would need to cut a path through to get to where the noise was coming from. A single, clean slice downwards made the vines fall away and she hopped through quickly. The vines shrank back from the cut, spattering her with sap, and spines snapped out of the green flesh. The spines were as sharp as needles and full of seeds. One snagged her sleeve: Jade tugged it free and wiped the sap from her forehead.
She froze at the click of a loaded weapon. A little glance back confirmed that she was out of reach of the vines and their spikes, but the smaller stems moved more quickly and they were already trying to close the gap she had made. She turned her attention forwards: two men in the patched leathers of strangled-city scavengers crouched behind an overloaded shopping cart with broken wheels.
“Hands up, cop scum.” The man on the left had a pistol levelled at her.
Jade suppressed a sigh. She wore her uniform because it showed she wasn’t a scavenger and most people still trusted the badge. There were some who remembered the ordinance that caused the plant party, though, who remembered the precursor to the bombs: bullets that embedded seeds in their targets as a ‘humane’ alternative to shards of metal. She had been one of the cops who trialled those bullets but she never needed to admit it: she tended to get blamed regardless. She blamed herself, too.
“I’m looking for survivors,” she said, lifting her hands. The machete blade bobbed above her head. “There’s a shuttle waiting to take you out of the affected zone, over to the next state.”
“Right, and we’re just supposed to believe you?”
Jade lowered her hands slowly. The man on the right ducked behind the cart. “I need to show you something. Don’t panic.”
With her hands held out so they could see, she drew her left sleeve back until a curl of green was visible. A slender stem unravelled from under the cuff of her jacket, growing out of the back of her wrist, and it laid a single flower on the back of her hand.
“We’re all on the same side here,” she said.
The two men looked at each other, then straightened slowly. The pistol lowered.
“All right, we’re listening,” the gun-bearer said.
Jade nodded and took another step away from the slithering vines she had cut. She glanced at her flower as she slid her machete away, and she could have sworn that the snapdragon was smiling at her.
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