Q-City: Chapter One
by James Gathright
Q-City is a serialized science-fiction story written by James Gathright. It is published here in several parts.
An accident in another universe transforms a rural city into a living entity determined to protect a populace it’s never met. An aspiring florist is expected to become the conduit between the living city and its new people. An artist is tasked with solving the mystery of how this all came to be. A retired police officer defends adventurers in a universe she no longer understands.
The world watches – nervously trying to figure out how, in the blink of an eye, Fresno, California became the most interesting place on the planet.
“You can’t complain about how hard the work is when you’re digging a grave,” she told the boy. The shovel sliced into the damp ground and she lifted, hefting dirt out of the hole, hearing it thump beside her.
He just stared at her, wringing his hands, trying to understand. She couldn’t tell his age, fifteen? Could be twenty. He had followed her out of town with the other refugees and latched on to her for some reason. Now he had to watch her bury her husband.
It was dumb luck that the Armenian cemetery was just outside the change zone, or what she was calling the change zone. There wasn’t anyone here to help her, and she didn’t have the keys or the know-how to operate the machinery. She had a shovel and an iron will. Rafi was supposed to be buried here, and no matter how much the world had just changed, Rafi was going to be buried here.
She had carried him – physically carried him – for twelve miles. She had found cloth of some sort, god knows what the stuff was, to wrap him with. Now she was about five feet into a six-foot hole, bone tired, and worried where she was going to find her next meal. Food for her, now food for the boy.
“My name is Alex,” he said. He had said that several times. He could be shell-shocked, he could have any one of a number of diagnosable problems, she had no idea. She had spent her life trying to help people, and people needed help now more than ever. Retirement was well-passed, so she no longer had the badge to back her up. She just did it because that’s who she was.
The shovel bit dirt, she pushed, then lifted, then threw. Thump. Her eyeline was just above the edge of the grave now, She could see the city’s skyline a few miles to the east through the trees. Everything about it was wrong.
The buildings that should have been there were gone.
Ugly, run-down tan and gray mid-rises replaced overnight by sleek stainless steel. How? The straight, square rectangles constructed in the middle parts of the last century were burned into her memory, she had grown up here. She could name those buildings, even tell you the different names they had through the years. The Security Bank Building. The Pacific Towers. The Del Webb. All gone.
What was there now was beautiful and terrifying. The whole city – at least the parts that weren’t destroyed – was stunning. Clean, white homes, made from some sort of plastic combined with bright metal. People just woke up in different houses. Their stuff was all gone, replaced by different things, things they didn’t understand, things they couldn’t use.
No food, no electricity. Panic. They looked for help from the authorities, authorities who no longer had the tools they needed to do their jobs. No police cars, no firetrucks, no guns. No help came. Everyone was on foot, wearing what they wore the moment everything changed, and that was what happened in the luckiest parts of the city. Other parts just disappeared. Some neighborhoods exploded, some were filled with twisted metal and plastic and people trapped inside, mutilated.
Rafi must have died almost instantly, a twelve-foot shard of metal appearing out of nowhere, piercing him from groin to neck. He had kind of screamed, but it was too sudden for anything but shock. The blood everywhere with its iron smell, the expulsion of other bodily fluids. She was ashamed that her first reaction was to vomit, watching him fall in slow motion, his expression one of total incomprehension.
It took her three hours to get out of the wreckage of their block, dragging him through holes in what used to be buildings. The next block over was pristine, perfect. It made no sense.
Her shoulders were killing her now, and this was probably deep enough. Deep enough, at least, that she had to struggle to pull herself out. The boy tried to help, making it harder, his hands slipping all over her.
Then she sat, legs dangling in the hole as the sunlight started to leave the sky. Rafi lay beside her, wrapped in cloth. She was going to have to look at him again, she would probably even kiss him again. She wiped back a tear. She didn’t want to cry, she wanted to be all cried out.
“Here,” said the boy, forcing something into her hand. It was a protein bar. He must have had it on him when the change happened.
“No,” she said, trying to give it back. “This is yours, you need this.”
“Got one,” he said, holding up his own. “Lemon.”
He tore the foil away, and so did she, grateful for this small wonder. Two days ago she would have thought a lemon-flavored protein bar was awful. Today it was manna.
“Your name is René,” the boy said through a mouthful of food, smiling.
More than an hour later Rafi was laid to rest. She was covered in soil, blood and sweat, but could finally let go.
She looked up at the boy.
“We’ll sleep here,” she said. “Tomorrow I’ll find someone to help you get to safety.”
“Where you going?” he asked.
“Back to the city. I can help, and I want to know what happened.”
He frowned. “You going now?”
“No,” she said, but she was wrong, because that is when the robot arrived at the Armenian cemetery.