The world has suffered economic collapse and multiple environmental crises. In a flooded city, Ava Murasaki is searching for her activist sister Sophia. Meanwhile, Valerie Newlin lives in the secure complex of the Scylla Corporation, the world's only remaining multinational. There, she finds evidence of something horrifying in the Corporation medical research data. Set in a searingly real near-future, Survival is a story of what people will face for those they love.
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The office towers stood with their feet in water and crowns lost in the haze above. Ava had no desire to enter any of them. The boy rowed the boat with barely a ripple on the surface of the water that engulfed the old business district. Ava shielded her eyes from the sun as they approached and the buildings reared up above her. The odd unbroken window could be seen among shards and empty sockets on their faces.
The boy manoeuvred the boat alongside one gaping window and heaved himself into the building, gesturing for Ava to follow. He had instructed her to be silent but Ava wasn't a talker. As he dragged the dinghy into the building after them, the knuckles of his spine showed through his skin in precise definition. She shifted the bag over her shoulder.
The boat dealt with, she followed him into the depths of the building. The stairwell was only partially lit, snaked with electrical cables and data lines from solar voltaic panels on the roof. It was like creeping into the depths of a living organism. The doors they passed were identical and an armed guard stood outside each one, young all of them, teenage boys and girls, carrying weapons that looked heavier than they were. The building hummed with the mechanics of a small society. Hundreds of people living in close proximity, behind floor to ceiling tempered glass windows grown misty from their collective breath, several floors above the flooded city.
Ava's guide stopped outside one anonymous door and, with a nod to the boy guarding it, slipped inside with Ava on his heels.
"She's here," he said into the gloom and walked away without so much as looking at her. Ava was barely breathing.
Partially silhouetted in front of her were four people, two of them carrying weapons, the two in the centre with their arms crossed in front of their chests. The boy closest to her seemed young, too young to remember the world before, when the building they stood in was home to a business. People who spent all day working on tasks that would only need doing again tomorrow. Then they'd drive home to suburbs in vehicles, on streets that now lay metres under-water. Ava hadn't lived in this city before it was flooded but she knew what cities had been like; she grew up in Tokyo. The Tokyo of school days and skyscrapers, before it became a nuclear desert. To these young people, the world had always been half under water, the remaining landmass had always been a war-zone and living was just the space in between.
Ava held the backpack in front of her. Fruit, noodles and vegetables, in exchange for her sister.
"I brought what you asked for," she said.
One of the figures identified itself as a leader by stepping forward. She wore a shock of white-blonde hair and was older than the others. Perhaps she had once walked on city footpaths too.
"When you leave here you will forget about this place. Understand?"
Ava gave a stiff nod. One of the boys took her bag and slung it over a wiry shoulder.
"Sit down." The woman gestured to an old office chair. "And tell me how you know Sophia."
"She's my sister," Ava said. She returned the woman's blue gaze without flinching. You'll have no trouble from me, she tried to say with her eyes.
After a long moment she broke eye contact and her posture relaxed.
"We did some work for Sophia," the woman said. "Security tracking, mostly. She didn't need much help. She was very good at what she did, that's why the Boy Soldier recruited her. Until ..."
"Until she didn't come back." Ava finished the sentence.
"We don't accompany people like Sophia out in the field," the woman said. "We just offer tech support."
"Look, I don't need to know what she was involved in. I just want to know where she's gone."
The woman looked up to meet her eyes again and for an instant Ava had a glimpse of loss. How many activists did she help? How many didn't come back? It was a brief moment, and then she looked away.
"I'm sorry," she said avoiding Ava's gaze. "There's nothing I can do."
"What do you mean?" Ava swallowed hard.
"We intercepted a message; apparently she was taken by Scylla Corporation heavies. She's gone."
"Are you trying to tell me that Sophia is ... dead?"
The woman found the courage to meet Ava's eyes again and she held them, answering Ava's fears with a long, mournful look. Ava looked away first.
Later, as a boy rowed her back to the heavily populated areas of the city, Ava felt strangely grateful to that stranger. The woman might have opened the door to something dangerous but Sophia chose to walk through it herself. At least this woman who carried herself like a soldier had looked her in the eye and told her that Sophia was gone. She'd ended the long nights of waiting, yearning to hear Sophia's footstep on the stairs. She'd allowed Ava to think the unthinkable.
The squid leapt upriver, following the advancing tide, dark arrows above the water's surface. These were only a metre long, each obeying its own instinct to move upstream as the salt water encroached into the fresh. At least the bigger ones stayed in ocean, deep where it turned to black. Eventually, there would have to come a tipping point, numbers of predators that could not be supported by the food chain. But the changing salt levels and warming water had thrown everything that was known about ecology into the unknown. It was a new world, but to Ava it felt so old.
Ava gripped the railing of the ferry carrying her across the river to work and tried not to think. She had cultivated a reputation for being hard-nosed, tough, which served her well. Sometimes, when all she felt was loss, or fear, she let her dark looks and the tall-ships tattooed up her arms do the talking for her. Most of the time that was enough.
As the boat approached the far shore, grilled seafood and chili scents filled the air. Ava hadn't eaten properly in days and a rush of hunger left her reeling. Alongside it surged a memory of Sophia, pushing away the food on her plate and claiming not to be hungry. She would slip outside and offer the rest of her food to a kid on the street. If strength was Ava's protection, kindness was Sophia's. Generosity of spirit that neither the flood nor the grief could rob her of. And look how that had worked out.
She stepped off the ferry onto a punt sitting low in the water, nodding to the boatman as he wielded his pole. They didn't speak. Idle chitchat was dangerous. And anything could carry disease: a handshake, a coin, a kiss. At least coins and tokens could be boiled. Their value changed with the changing demands of the city. The air still carried the scent of burning human flesh from the pyres towed out to sea on barges during the last outbreak. Fear could draw people together and just as easily pull them apart. And there was something deeply disturbing about the fatty, almost edible smell of burning human. About the rumours of how the starving survived. The once unthinkable had a strange logic.
The water extended deep into the Southside suburbs but hawkers still sold their wares out of boats. Their shouts competed with each other and flies hovered thick around their piles of wares. The fishiness was layered with a deeper scent of sweet overripe fruit and rank vegetation. Ava gestured to the boatman to pull alongside a stall where she bought a bunch of bananas and calamari on a skewer. She chewed on the fried squid as the punter wove through stalls, eventually bobbing to a halt at a makeshift dock where the water ended. She dropped the coins she paid him straight into a jar of bleach he held towards her, and walked away.
Ava worked in Southern Oscillation, one of the few permanent bars on the Southside. As she made her way past the stalls that clogged the street, kids emerged from the crevices and shadows they called home.
"Hey Ava, whatcha doing?"
"You have any food Ava? A dollar?"
"What have I told you about hanging around here bothering the customers?" Ava asked them. The kids all shared the same grubbiness and wore a uniform of feigned indifference. They hunted in packs. Piranhas of the streets.
"Here." She gave the closest kid the bunch of bananas. "Take this and stay safe."
The kids scattered, vanishing into the small spaces that protected them.
The bar was on the second floor of an ancient weatherboard house, the walls shedding snowfalls of white paint as Ava's boots hit each timber step. Upstairs the room was drenched in murky half shadows, the day shift was ready to leave, and seated at the bar, a regular bowed his head over a house brewed beer.
"All right, then?" Ava asked, wiping the bar in front of him.
The man grumbled something into his beard.
"Just let me know if you need anything, mate."
Ava flicked on the outside lights and the bar seemed to grow, dominating the street with a winking leer. It was a friendly dive known for its abrasive staff just as much as for its cheap drinks. Soon, the place was packed and Ava managed the place with the deftness of a conductor.
"Ava, another beer?"
"Wait your turn, mate," she cautioned.
"Ava, how's about a smile?"
"Get in line, buddy," she quipped as she threw a wink at the colleague pulling a beer next to her.
As she served, she wore gloves and dropped the coins she took from customers straight into a bucket of vinegar and boiling water. Later she would fish out the coins and deposit them, still hot, into a locked box. She watched the bar with one eye, the street with the other and kept the bar open later than usual, despite it being quiet. In Ava's mind the silence at home, Sophia's empty bed, loomed. She needed distraction almost as much as she needed tips.
Later that night, Ava tossed on her single bed. In her dream, she heard the heavy boot of the security man's footfall on the stairs outside and sat bolt upright. She turned and saw Sophia, curled up in the bed across the room, the scent of fear and cigarette smoke clinging to her. As she watched Sophia slowly sat up bonelessly.
"Why did it have to be you, Soph?" Ava asked her dead eyes. "You have someone who loves you. Why couldn't someone else fight those battles?"
"You think everyone in the resistance isn't loved by someone?" Sophia's empty shell responded.
"You didn't have to take responsibility for this."
"But it is my responsibility. And it's yours. We live in it." Her voice was expressionless coming from a deep emptiness.
"I don't even know what you're fighting. Who you're fighting."
"Yes you do. You just choose not to face it." Sophia's head jerked forward on a limp neck. Ava couldn't remember the last time she'd seen her sister's easy smile. "Ignorance is cheap, Ava. Then it costs you everything." The light shifted and Ava saw Sophia's face was whittled down to the skull, her eyes sockets, her lipless mouth locked in a forever bony grin.CHAPTER 2
The streets of the Complex were quiet by the time Valerie Newlin left the underground labs for home. It was getting dark and the transportables that housed the single residents were lit up from the inside. They'd be sitting down to a meal of food grown in Scylla Corporation gardens, from seeds developed in Corporation labs. Further away, her own brick and mortar house sat in a compact row of ten others, homes for families and senior staff. Corporation board members and high-profile staff lived in bunkers deep underground. Perhaps her mother had been offered a home there? Perhaps that might have saved her? The thought writhed acidic in her stomach. She wasn't sure if she was more afraid that the Corporation couldn't have saved her mother, or that it wouldn't have even tried.
The smell of noodles and vegetables hit her as she walked into her own front door. In wordless grief, her foster brother Lucas had stepped into the chasm left by her mother's death, preparing meals and keeping the house ticking. Valerie had discovered an inexplicable resentment as he took over tasks her mother had owned in life. True to form, he was in the kitchen as Valerie walked in, dishing out strands of stir-fry and noodles into two bowls. A third sat empty on the counter.
"No sign of life from your father?"
"He's buried in new test results." Valerie took her own bowl and sat down at the table. "I made him turn off the computer before I left, but that doesn't mean he won't find something else that needs doing."
"I think he's avoiding coming home," Lucas' voice was serious. "I know David's always been focused on his work, but don't you think he needs to spend time with his family right now?"
"We all cope differently."
They ate in silence. Outside, the alarm from the laboratory exhaust sounded in the humid night, an exchange of gases deep in the facility having breached some upper limit. The bell rang for the prescribed twenty seconds and stopped as the pressures within equalised. Valerie realised she'd been holding her breath.
"How are you, Val? How are you coping?" Lucas put a gentle hand on top of hers. She slipped her hand out from underneath his and cupped her bowl, relishing the warmth.
"I'm getting by."
Lucas looked like he was going to push the subject but his head turned at the sound of the front door opening.
"Don't panic," David called through the house. "I just thought I might come home before midnight and see my family for a change."
He accepted the bowl of food Lucas offered and sat at the table next to Valerie.
"Change is as good as a holiday they say, Dad," she said, shooting him a grin.
"Well, we're all due for one of those." David smiled back and started to eat.
"I learnt some new things today."
"Oh yeah? That lab tech's not giving you trouble, is he? He can be prickly."
"Nah, he's just shy."
"Got him wrapped around your little finger, I bet."
"I dunno, he seems nice enough."
"We're lucky you don't use your powers for evil, Val," David squeezed her shoulder briefly. "You could charm them into walking right off a cliff. Your mother was like that. She always saw the best in people too."
Her dad had sadness in his eyes, but warmth too, which was a relief from the emptiness that had taken up residence there. She gripped his hand hard.
She glanced over her shoulder to where Lucas stood, feeling awkward at being observed, and realised he'd already left the room.
Alone in her bedroom, Valerie took out the drive with the stolen files on it. She mouthed the word to herself, under her breath. Stolen. It sounded like an exhalation. Like a threat.
Scylla Corporation, the world's only surviving multinational, owned high tech labs and 12 floors of research facility deep underground. There it produced medicine, food from genetically modified seeds, answers to the new problems of survival facing the world. And in every city it had a lab, surrounded by a secure complex. A walled town for researchers, staff, their families and a huge security apparatus. In a world that had descended into chaos, Scylla was the law. And Valerie had stolen from it. She shouldn't still be within the Complex. Her heart raced, every cell in her body urged her to run. But nothing would attract suspicion faster. Act normal. Whatever that was.
A knock at her door gave her a start and, palming the drive, she turned to see Lucas looking sheepish in the doorway.
"I just wanted to make sure you really are okay." He looked at the window, at the mirror behind her, anywhere but in her eyes.
"I'm fine Lucas."
"It's just, I lost my mother too. And my father." The Nguyens were a husband and wife scientist team, killed when the power station they worked at outside Tokyo melted down. Valerie couldn't remember Lucas ever having spoken about their deaths. Her curiosity was mingled with a little relief, because what could anyone say? How could anyone come to terms with the directive from Scylla Corporation to seal the power plant off, trapping employees and first responders inside.
Lucas met her eyes finally. "Grief can make you do strange things. Things even you don't understand. I know."
"I'm fine. Right now I'm just really tired," she said. Even when he reached out to her he was strange.
"OK. Goodnight then."
Valerie stared at the back of the door Lucas had closed behind him, the first tendrils of panic growing inside her.
He was right. Grief could make you do strange things. She looked at the data drive in the palm of her hand. Things even you don't understand. She thought back, retraced her steps to the lab, around the computer terminals. Had she seen Lucas at all at work? Not for days. But still. He had looked at her so directly. And he had said, I know. Did he know?
She pictured Lucas' parents, entombed. Disintegrating. The device in her hand felt leaden. She wished she didn't have to carry it. But she knew no-one else would. She found herself childishly pining for her mother, to come in and allow her to spill her secrets and somehow make everything okay.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Survival"
Copyright © 2018 Rachel Watts.
Excerpted by permission of Rachel Watts.
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