Chapter Twenty-Five: When Joss gets her hands on a few too many informational brochures
Faye sipped on a cup of coffee outside of a cafe near the Plaza de la Independencia. It was night. It was gently raining. And she was, as previously mentioned, sipping on a cup of coffee. Of hot, freshly ground, freshly roasted coffee. Of—
“I don’t understand how this is happening,” she said, glancing from the cup of coffee to the patio table she was occupying to the perfectly functional cafe behind her. Joss looked up from the brochure she was reading. She had been reading it out loud, but had stopped when Faye had made a “kill me now” gesture that was more visible than she had intended.
“Same,” Joss said, “I also never thought I’d have to more or less accept immortality as a trait in a traveling companion. Though, to be fair, I also never thought I’d have a traveling companion. What type of person has a traveling companion? Well, I guess a lot of people, but they’re not usually called—“
“I meant the coffee, Joss. I don’t understand how this coffee is happening.”
Joss’s mouth made a little “o” as she glanced from Faye’s cup to her own.
“That too,” she said, taking a sip. “Though I feel like this still makes more sense than traveling with the immortal stepchild of Father Time.”
“Not even close,” Faye said.
“Hot coffee on a rainy night is a little easier to wrap my head around than drinking said coffee with an undying woman—“
“No, I mean I’m not the stepchild of Father Time. Father Time doesn’t have any stepchildren. And anyway, I’m nobody’s ‘child.’ More of a construct than anything else, I suppose, and ol’ FT certainly wasn’t the one who made me.”
“Silly me.” Joss took another sip of coffee. Faye swirled her mug around, one way, then the other, not quite able to wrap her head around the fact that it was real. The United Nations had declared an “International State of Emergency” four months prior to this cup of coffee. One month after the first flood had begun. That first flood had lasted ten days,. Ten days, and a twelfth of humanity’s settled places were gone. Ten days without a shred of stars or sun, ten days of pounding storms. Ten days of nothing but deafening, dark water.
Yes, the UN had declared an international state of we’re-all-going-to-die four months ago and, a week after that, the Ecuadoran government nationalized every industry having anything to do with the production and installation of solar panels. Quito was fully solar-powered by the end of the month—something that wasn’t immediately logical, seeing as there was a near-constant layer of clouds between the city and the sun. But this city was also very near the middle of the earth. Which, apparently, meant that it stayed well-radiated, regardless of cloud cover, and which kept the panels in power. Or something like that. Faye was sure that was also why a little bit of a sunburn had brushed itself across Joss’s cheeks and nose. Anyway. The power had not yet gone out in Quito. The lights stayed on, the water flowed, and the cafes remained open.
“If Father Time didn’t create you,” Joss asked, plucking another brochure from her pile on the table, “then who did?”
“You know,” Faye began, “I never really thought to ask, if you’ll believe it. It wasn’t something I was curious about. The Creator, maybe, or maybe the first families. Maybe Need itself—Need has been known to create many things, I’ll have you know—but, regardless, it wasn’t a question that I ever had. That I have. Until people ask it of me. But then, between people, I forget again. Forget to care about the question, I mean.” Faye shrugged, finishing her cup of coffee. “Don’t think I’ve ever had a better cup of Joe,” she stated, feeling buzzed. It had been a while since she’d been this well-caffeinated.
“Yes, but have you ever been this desperate?” Joss asked. Faye shrugged.
“Yes. And no. I’ve been worse, but in less despondent global situations, so, better.”
“Mmhmm. What did you mean, ‘between people?’” Joss asked, sounding more casual than she had ever sounded in the whole time Faye had known her. Faye watched the other woman, a grin cracking her lips.
“What do you mean, what do I mean?” Faye asked. Joss made a few flustery “hmph”ish sounds.
“You…what…oh, whatever.” Joss did that thing she had started doing with her face. The one where she flared her nostrils, just a little, and breathed deep through her nose. Faye thought she did it in an attempt to keep the rest of her face smooth and calm. Faye, mustering as much melodrama as she could manage, leaned across the table and took Joss’s hands in her own.
“Joss, darling, just because you’re not the first, doesn’t mean you’re any less special.”
“You’re impossible,” Joss snapped, wrenching her hands back and trying not to sputter too much. “You’re—you’re—oh, whatever. Be enigmatic. See if I care. I’m sure your personal history isn’t that interesting, anyway. I don’t actually want to know, anymore. So there. Ha.“
Faye just grinned at the other woman, who eventually went back to reading her brochures. Stiffly, and with quite a bit of active avoiding-of-the-eye-contact. Faye leaned back in her chair, tilting her face skyward. It was sometime between midnight and dawn, but it was also cloudy and drizzling. The city’s solar-powered lights glinted off of a layer of white-grey atmosphere, keeping Quito as bright as a rainy afternoon.
The city had surprised Faye in more than just its ability to keep the lights on. They also had no shortage of food. Which all but defied reason, as the place was packed ten-to-one of what it had been, pre-International State of Emergency. But no, there was an utter lack of food shortage. After the U.N. had declared that the world was imploding, there was a global rush on anything that could float. Every yacht, raft, and pool noodle had disappeared practically overnight. Importantly, that boating rush had effectively removed all cargo vessels from circulation, which had all but collapsed various shipping industries, including the ones that connected South American supplies to North American demands. As such, Ecuador’s agricultural exports hadn’t been exported. Throughout the city, warehouses full of coffee beans, bananas, and sugarcane waited for trucks that weren’t coming to take their cargo to ships that would never arrive. And these warehouses weren’t just full of Ecuador’s agricultural surplus. People from all over South America had fled west, towards the Andes, once the gravity of the global weather situation had sunk in. Across the continent, small farms and massive agribusinesses alike had, in acts of extreme prescience, loaded every truck and train they could commandeer with produce and had sent them west, towards the mountains. Quito had received the fruits of this foresight, as had a handful of other mountain metropolises. And so Quito’s warehouses were full of goods from all over South America, goods meant for a global marketplace. Which was why Faye had consumed more coffee, quinoa, and overly ripe avocado in the past hour than she had in her past four lifetimes.
“Apparently, Quito is only the world’s highest constitutional capital. Bolivia has two capitals, and La Paz is the world’s highest administrative capital,” Joss said, looking up from her brochure. The woman had about a dozen of them scattered across the table. “It beats Quito by a bit. By whatever 3,640 meters minus 2,580 meters is.” Joss frowned at the pamphlet, wondering why in the world it wouldn’t do the math for her. Faye nodded along, wondering what in the world was taking Tarin so long.
“Apparently,” Joss went on, picking up another pamphlet, “this city lays in the Guayllabamba river basin, and was founded when a king followed some falling stars across the—“
Faye was definitely paying attention to the conversation. One hundred percent. Ninety-eight percent. At least every other word was for sure landing somewhere near her ears. They were sitting outside the Hotel Plaza Grande, waiting for Tarin and watching people move through the Plaza de la Independencia. The rain didn’t effect the business of the streets, nor did the time of night. Faye had never thought of herself as a claustrophobic person. She wasn’t so sure, anymore. Every inch of this place was filled past capacity. The city wasn’t crowded. There weren’t crowds of people, from street to street. The city was one crowd. One never-ending crowd. Every building in this mountain metropolis had been converted into some manner of home, and every home housed ten different families, adopted or otherwise. People flowed out of rooms and into hallways. Out of hallways and into streets. The streets overflowed, and burst into another municipal building, another yoga studio, another museum. People slept everywhere, cooked everywhere, lived everywhere. Faye was surprised she and Joss were the only ones sitting at their table. She kept expecting eight more people to join them, to go halfsies with her on this chair. She closed her eyes, imagining herself in a nice, empty meadow. She took deep breaths. It almost worked.
Massive buildings of state walled in the Plaza; among them, two palaces, a cathedral, and the Municipio de Quito. The Hotel Plaza Grande—or Palace Hidalgo, depending on who Faye talked to—had one of those lobbies that was just as much a local history museum as it was a purveyor of customer service and luxury stays. Swords and flags from Quito’s revolutionary days sat inside glass cases, identified by little engraved metallic plaques. Imagined portraits of Quitu rulers—the indigenous people who had lived on this mountain before empire was a twinkle in Spain’s eye—lined the walls of the small-batch coffee stations and guests’ lounge. And, most relevant to Faye’s current status as the sole member of a captive audience, the hotel lobby had a wall of pamphlets beside the front desk informing guests about everything from pub crawls to Galapagos tours to the storied architecture of Quito’s Historic Center. Joss had raided that wall of pamphlets. She had taken one of each, had spread the bulk of them out on the patio table, and had decided that now was the time to teach Faye all about Ecuador’s coffee exports and “family friendly” volcano hikes. Because apparently Quito was also the only city in the world to sit so near an active volcano—a factoid which really blew Faye’s mind. She chuckled, far too pleased with herself. Puns were just too much fun, and the current apocalypse had done little to change that. “Puns, in the time of apocalypse.” She made a mental note to write that book.
“Is the Pichincha volcano blowing your mind again?” Joss asked, barely bothering to look up from the booklet she was reading about the high rises of Quito’s north district.
“Always,” Faye said, smiling. She twisted in her chair, turning away from the hotel and towards the Plaza de la Independencia and its sea of people. She scoured the crowd, blinking away the rain, trying to find Tarin and Baby.
“Save me any?” Tarin asked, sitting down behind her, next to Joss. She could only be proud that she hadn’t jumped. She turned in her chair to face her apocalypse family. Baby smiled at her, waving two little hands. Baby had just learned how to wave, and was flexing the new talent at every opportunity. It just about murdered Faye, every time. But in the good way.
“You get supplies?” Tarin asked. Faye nodded, patting her pack.
“Enough food for a week, new tarps, and some rope.” Tarin frowned, then shrugged.
“Well, I would ask “why rope?” But then the universe would be bound to put it to use, and I don’t want to give you the satisfaction.”
“Well. You have a point there.”
Faye smiled, reaching over and squeezing his shoulder.
“Did they leave?” Joss asked. Tarin nodded.
“Yes. They finally did, about an hour ago. They walked the city for a bit, gathering supplies. Then they headed west, towards the sea. Back the way we came.”
“To get the child who’s half of all of time?” Joss asked. Tarin nodded.
“I guess they think she can’t die. Or, at least, can’t drown.”
“Huh,” Faye muttered, “not what I would have put money on.”
“Oh?” Joss asked. Faye shook her head.
“I wouldn’t have thought they’d come back through Quito. Or would have headed up, not down. Towards the monastery, or something. Maybe back to Peter’s tomb?”
“They’re pretty young,” Tarin said, getting to his feet, “and they haven’t given up. Have to give them that. But yes, I was pretty surprised when I realized where they were going. I thought we’d be traveling together, when all was said and done.”
Joss and Faye stood and saddled themselves with their bags.
“Young, indeed,” Faye said, her heart skipping a few beats. She glanced at the empty coffee cups, thinking she’d, perhaps, had one too many.
“Not possible,” she murmured, shaking her head, clearing it of the highly caffeinated vertigo.
“How much oxygen is in this air?” Joss asked, her eyes blinking hard. Faye laughed, realizing they’d had more or less the same experience, standing up.
“Plenty,” Faye said, taking the other woman’s arm. She was a little wobbly. “You’re just old.”
They set out. Tarin led the way, weaving through the crowdiest-crowd Faye had ever seen. She breathed as calmly as she could, held on to Joss, and tried to blank out everything but Tarin’s back. It basically worked. She basically was able to ignore the stinking, soaking world crushing her from every side, jostling her, breathing in her space.
Tarin had them in alleys and side streets before too long, though. These places were still crowded, but didn’t qualify as full contact sports.
Faye blinked the water out of her eyes. The drizzle had turned into a solid rain. Soft city lights bled into the harder lines of people and buildings.
“Wonder what the going rate for goggles is, these days,” Tarin asked, slowing down long enough to bundle Baby up in some strips of new tarp.
“Oh,” Joss said, glancing up at the sky. It was growing darker, was churning, and the rain fell harder.
“I reckon it’s a few hours to dawn,” Faye said, taking Joss’s arm and pulling her forward. Tarin had begun to move again and she didn’t want to lose him in the crowd. Which was thinning, now that the weather had turned.
They trudged through the city, faces down, hoods up, for the better part of an hour. They eventually reached a hiker’s trail that led up and out of the city’s basin—“people backpack the Andes all the time,” Joss had told them, “and come down into Quito for rest and supplies”—where they stopped.
“I wonder how much of the trail has washed out,” Joss said, staring at the waterfall of mud and sludge running down the mountain.
“No more than any of the other trails we took, coming in,” Tarin said. He sighed, checking the straps on Baby’s sling. Faye walked over to check on Baby. She got a wet, giggling wave. She kissed Baby’s head.
“What a trooper,” she murmured. She thought back to the mermaids, to the colors and music of that strange underwater gathering. She wondered if the merpeople would take Baby, if everything above the ocean went south. That mer-festival had seemed like a pretty good life. Faye wondered if there was any way to give a human gills. She’d seen stranger things.
“What the—“ Joss began, making Faye look up from Baby. She didn’t immediately know what had startled the other woman, and looked around, scanning the soaking, twilit world for danger.
“What’s the matte—“ but Faye stopped, seeing it. Well, feeling it, anyway. It had stopped raining. Faye looked up, stared at the sky.
The clouds whirled, thunderous and thick. They tore at the sky, grasping, shaking. Faye’s ears popped and her lungs struggled, the change in pressure sudden and extreme. The clouds rendered themselves. They collapsed into each other, whooshing, roaring, sparking with electricity, disappearing from the sky. It was all so sudden, so uncomprehendingly sudden. Wind from nowhere blast across the mountain, whipping through the city and wrenching Faye from the muddied path. She grabbed Tarin and Baby, twisting around so that nobody landed on the infant. She fell, hard, and got a mouthful of mud in the process. And then it was over.
“What… in the world,” Joss murmured. Faye sat up, wiping dirt from her face and hoping that the ringing in her right eardrum was less than permanent. She didn’t bother asking any follow-ups to Joss’s query. The clear red sky couldn’t have answered her questions, anyway.
A bright crimson spanned the length of the horizon, still and silent. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. No sun or moon, either. Faye could only guess at the time. Dawn. Dawn-ish. But she wasn’t so sure time mattered, anymore.
“Well,” Joss said, wiping herself down, “I’d say we’d better hurry.”
“Right,” Faye said, dazed, her eyes unable to leave the burning sky, “right. Yes. Okay.”
Joss took Faye’s hand, then Tarin’s. She pulled the Couriers towards the trail.
“Step to, oh immortal ones,” she said. Well, chided, really. “I was just beginning to believe you, too. And I can’t stand to be wrong. Not now. Not after all this. So, step to. Step to.”