When the Roses Fade to Black

By:
JA Howe



"Yes? ‘Dot - all right - colon, semi-space.’" The Reader put the porn movie on pause. "Enter."

Cherryn, knifing the Fireman who she was with in the hallway, in the back of the neck, slipped inside as he collapsed. "Rainbow Gallagher, at your service." The Reader barely had time for those words to register before she too was slit through.

Quickly, Cherryn settled herself into the chair shoving the Reader underneath a closet board that sat against the wall. She mussed up her already messy hair and stuck the proper probes into their general places, just in time for the footsteps along the corridor. "I’ll go this way, you that one," "aye aye, bueno." She turned the porn back on in time for the guard to poke his nose through the door. "All well in here?"

"Uh-huh." Cherryn affected a half guilty, half non-caring slumped posture in her chair as the guard caught sight of what she was watching and he chuckled.

"Yah, what our tax dollars go to, eh?" and the door slammed again, accompanied by some disgusted muttering about "sickos, all of ‘em… nothing along this way, Marty."

The guy in the movie was just licking somewhere interesting at that moment, but she cut it off; Cherryn had places to go and people to see. Quickly she headed down a back route, in the opposite direction of the guards.

She’d spent two months in the park, accompanied by Larry’s head on a pole which rotted slowly in the cooling weather. In that time, Cherryn learned to steal and knife fight in the streets of lower Black Worm, and so she had enough food to survive. She’d seen Dara a couple of times but it was becoming less and less frequent. Once she’d run into Rick and had a couple nice nights with him holed up in the suite that his sometime-circus troupe used. The rest of the time she was on her own. Rainbow Gallagher, hardening to stone, he’d called her with a wistful look when they parted. He’d given her some money to buy food; he didn’t realize at the time that she’d stolen more.

Then the cops had caught wind of her hiding place, and the Rainbow was on the move again. She’d tried a mart for a few days, then caught a bus farther downtown, hoping to really disappear into the depths of the Lower End of the city. The few site workers she bumped into helped her with a couple close calls she had heading that way; she was becoming legendary among them.

But Cherryn was no site worker, she knew; legend or not, she was also notorious and therefore a constant danger to herself and those around her. She also knew from her experience at the coolers that she couldn’t always necessarily trust the site people either, all the time. She must figure out how to get away.

This last time had been far too close for her comfort; she knew she must make a bigger move. And she had no idea how to do that. So for now she simply went onward, trying not to kill any more. Who knew how many had died in that explosion at the frozen corpses place? And she remained alone, now. People tended to shy away from her new growing status as a quick-knife. Cherryn was more of a legend than she’d thought by now, she was beginning to realize. It was said she could come out of nowhere and would drink your blood to survive.

It was said she would kill a child if she had to.

It was said that she was the quickest and most clear shot in town, perhaps the world.

It was said that she was somehow magical.

Mostly, she was on her own.

Still, there were some willing still to help her. There were enough people in the projects, folk on the rough side of town, who lived for the kill, who shot for their own gang’s codes and no rules of NutriCorp, and who would offer her assistance from time to time. It was kind of a status symbol among them, she’d learned from Dara. "I was with The Rainbow." That’s what they called her.

The Rainbow.

Eventually, she thought, Cherryn would be long forgotten to everyone but herself. Maybe she’d forget that old name too: dear, naïve Cherryn.

"Psst? You the Rainbow?"

"Yes."

"This way." The disembodied voice yanked her into the shadows as footsteps went past. Cherryn breathed. It wasn’t the first time she’d had a close call, and it wouldn’t be the last, she was sure. But so far she’d survived.

They headed down a corridor and then another, the dampness growing the farther down they went. A stench that only cities knew grew with this, and so did mushrooms and rats and cockroaches. Different than the tunnels she’d gone through to get to the main city where NutriCorp Inc was, she thought in passing, as she had to eventually start holding her hand over her nose and mouth. Still she retched.

The person who guided her chuckled cynically. "Smell of meat and veg’s," he said. "Don’t worry; we’ll be free of’t soon enough."

And soon enough they were. Three more turns and they were down in a drier section of the sewers under Black Worm. "Cozy, huh?" he clicked on a flashlight that gave only a little light - batteries stolen from Readers, she decided, walking carefully in what little light it gave off. "Watch your step. This way." She was fast guided along the way now, an underground walkway covered in marble and tiling that clicked under their feet. "Used to be a type of conveyor service, before they stopped using conveyors for fear o’ terrorists’ gas." He laughed again as she hesitated. "Don’t worry; tons o’ people live down here in various spaces. Perfectly safe, really."

A door banged open and suddenly she saw a brighter, real glow. They were now in a fairly cozy space, the plaster walls painted and covered in faded posters from times now gone away. A tiny grate held a small glow which she stared at with interest; hard furniture of metal covered in musty upholstery stood round. And he had books. Hundreds of hundreds of books. They were like those in the building she and her family had taken when they’d escaped the flooded river - it seemed so long ago. Cherryn burst into tears at the sight of the books, as vivid memories of her lost family and the river people came to her. And there were arms around her then, and a voice saying "It’s okay, m’chroi; let it all go, let it all go. The fairies’ll take it and make you better, then."

She awoke to who knew what hour, on a soft bed, him curled around her. She felt oddly safe here, like she’d not felt safe anywhere in a long while. She fell back asleep. When she woke again, he was gone.

Cherryn got up and went into the other room, where her savior was poking at something that burned over the grate. She looked at him for the first time. It was Rick, the magician, who worked with the circus. Handsome with his dark hair and blue eyes, she’d always thought. He grinned at her. "Sleep well?"

"Yes."

"Don’t worry, I’ve vegetables here. They aren’t very good ones, just pilfered from the back of the shopping place a few blocks up…"

She shrugged. "I’ve eaten rat before."

He looked at her cautiously, taking her all in. "I don’t doubt it."

"Wasn’t you who saved me, then."

"No, that was my friend Martin," he laughed. "Spotted you in trouble, and decided on it. You’ve friends among the site workers, that’s certain."

"He’s a site worker then?"

"Is ea, as he’d say. Speaks funny, non? But he knew that I knew you, so he decided to bring you here."

"I’ll be gone soon."

"No rush. I’m not for leaving town for a bit; cops are on our tails for some stuff so we’re all hiding out. You hang tight." He indicated a plate. "Have some food."

"Thanks."

She stayed with him for a bit, under the sewers. He began teaching her to read beyond what she’d had to know for Nutri work, and Cherryn took to it fairly fast. Slowly, she began to confide in him about all that had happened to her, that had made her into who she was. "Ssh, you’re a beautiful person, it will be all right eventually," he would say holding her when she woke up crying in the middle of the night.

"Nobody ever told me that."

"Then it’s time you believed it," he said softly and held her even tighter. "You know, I never used to trust people either."

"How can I trust anybody, when they all seem to be on to me?"

"Let it go, dear. Let it go."

What are the garbage bits left over after a war? The Romans, they say, left their metal roads in Britain that was and even now when lightning strikes those areas, you can see a line of fire. But what of the paper cups and the metal bits of guns and various other shrapnel, the clothing, the concentrations of gases in the air and ground?

What of the people left over? Still fighting, still internally battling the remains of the days long gone, the memories of murder or things people said to them long long ago, that are still fresh in their minds? What of them?

Cherryn sighed, thinking of Dara one day. She wondered how the dark woman was. Dara had been her best friend so far, in all this mess; she’d sent people to help Cherryn when she needed it most, had known intuitively almost when to do so. "How is Dara?" she asked Rick when he returned from a daily hunt for food at the store.

He looked at her coldly. "She’s fine. Get your things."

Cherryn started. "Is something wrong?"

"Do you want to explain this?" he walked over to her and waved a pop disk in her face.

"’Murderer Found; Nutri Wants Revenge,’" she read in absolute amazement. "The - Rick, that’s a pop tab!"

"It’s all over the enet too, I’m hearing," he said to her. "I knew something was going on when you just happened to have so many friends among the site workers. When you just happened to get out of that explosion at the freezers without harm. When you made it all this way without being caught. You’re not that good a fraud, Cherryn, or whatever your name is. I should have known, since I work with them all the time at the circus!"

"Of course you wouldn’t get it; you never killed anyone did you?" she said, rallying back. "You never had to kill to survive."

"Yeah, yeah, ‘poor me.’ It isn’t my problem that you’re fixated on this person, so much so that you made yourself into a poor copy of her. You really should be in a mental institution, but I care for you, so I’m going to let you go. Let some other poor slob be fooled by your tricks.

"But I am going to help you one way," he said to her as she gathered the few belongings she had, including her rainbow cloak. "I’ve already told the site workers about you, exposed you to them, so that you can’t feed into this insane fantasy by getting any more help from them. They know you’re crazy now. They won’t help you anymore." He took her arm roughly and led her to a doorway. "This will lead you out towards the surface. I don’t want to ever see you again." And he slammed the door behind her.

Cherryn had a good while to think over the situation while she headed up the underground causeway. There were stairs here, and ramparts that dipped down towards black falls, and unusual booths that she couldn’t find a reason for. All was dark, or dimly lit, and it didn’t help her mood.

At first she cried a little and then she found that she couldn’t. She was reminded of the girl - what was her name? - who’d come to find her on the shore of the river just after Cherryn had run from the murder, who’d bitched her out for ruining their plans. Who hadn’t given a damn about how Cherryn might feel about the situation. Then she was just angry, and bitter. One more person to hurt her.

Of course it was ludicrous. She almost laughed aloud as she came out into partial sunlight, and could hear faint gunfire and yelling - sounds of the city - again. She had just been reading a story about someone who thought they were the king and had been imprisoned because no one believed them, but of course in the end it was found that they really were that person.

Cherryn wandered around downtown, ignoring the sounds of fighting as she’d gotten so used to it. She wanted to see for herself what this article was. Caught sight of it at a local newstab, and stopped to look.

"Of course I heard," Dara said hours later as she and Cherryn sat in her greenhouse petting the cat. Dara sighed. "And you’re right; Rick has never killed anyone so he doesn’t know what it looks like, or what it feels like. Just let him go. I wish I could have gotten to the site workers before he did, but what’s done is done. You will find other allies, Cherryn."

"Don’t call me that," Cherryn said bitterly. "If I’m so damn bad at impersonating myself, I’d might as well not be myself."

Dara sighed. "You know, in this world, there’s so much pain. My grandmother used to tell me about the times before the war years, when she was a girl. I don’t think that’s any better though. Just different. Don’t let it destroy you. That’s what I’m saying.

"The government needed someone to blame; that’s why it happened, you know that. They didn’t want to look bad for not catching a dangerous criminal." She grinned at Cherryn. "They - and Rick - can’t fathom the concept of someone too smart for them to grab. Ignore him. You’ll never make him change his mind, you know."

"Si, you’re probablemente right."

"So put him aside. There are still people who care about you."

"Oh, yes, he cares enough to tell the site workers on me so that I can’t have any more help for this illusion."

"I’m not talking about him. If he’s only willing to accept the illusion, then he isn’t worth it. Let him go."

Cherryn gave Oscar the cat a squeeze as he jumped into her lap. "For my own safety, I need to let both of us go, I think," she said.

"Well, then, Rainbow Gallagher, let me tell you this," said Dara. "You’re in pain now, I know, but look at it this way: it’s necessary to have pain to be able to appreciate the good things in life. And sometime, you’ll find good things again."

"My friends, for one thing," said Cherryn giving Dara and Oscar a squeeze. The cat yowled in complaint and jumped off her lap as the two women laughed.











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