Borne: The Balcony Cliffs

Another novel I’ve been working on and hope to finish soon is entitled Borne. Here’s an early section, mostly exposition, that I’m not sure will survive intact in the final novel. Borne is set in a kind of post-collapse city.

My relationship with Wick was complicated by more than our sleeping arrangements. It was defined by where we lived, in the ruins of what I had dubbed the Balcony Cliffs. By the time I found the sea anemone, our fates in that place had become intertwined: Wick provided his biotech and chemical deceptions and I provided my talent for building traps both physical and psychological.

Throughout this warren there now existed allegiances and synergy between Wick’s creations and my traps that felt intimate—more intimate in some ways than the details of our physical relationship. At some point, just as a system of defense had connected, so too had our bodies. Out of what I told myself were extremes of loneliness, we had slept together. Maybe it had started that way, but it had moved beyond comfort into friendship. I had even been known to marvel at the contrast of his pale, almost translucent skin against the brown of my thighs. But even in such intimate moments, Wick could not quite cast off some invisible exoskeleton, some lingering stiffness that put distance between us.

This suited me to some degree; I had always tried to make it clear our fucking wasn’t personal. But the truth is when we were together, I felt connected to him by a series of fiery lines. I was intensely aware of these lines, almost as if wires surged out of my brain, the whole mass of corridors, tunnels, and rooms attached to sensors. Trip wires, too, sensitive to touch and vibration. I did not want to be that connected, but I had no choice.

If I had drawn the Balcony Cliffs on a map, it would have resembled the cut-away of the side of a massive mound, in this case filled with debris, cracked girders, human remains, abandoned refrigerators, fire-bombed or crushed cars…all of it mulched below or nestled within a dense ground cover of half-dirt, half-moss-and loam that had a springy, almost jaunty feel to the tread. New growth of what the generous might call stunted trees crept up through the moss to protect a central copse of tall pines.

An observer might have thought the place a vast midden, but under that weight, within the cross-section of the body that served as our home, the lines connected to a woman named Rachel radiated out to merge with corridors surging back through the mound, some of them dead-ends leading to places where the roof had fallen in from the flotsam pressing down, or where supporting walls decided they had suffered enough neglect. Corridors? Tunnels? The distinction had been lost as I had reinforced or hollowed out the best and left the rest to rot—all long before Wick’s arrival.

One route led to Wick’s rooms, another to the ladder in the lobby that shot up toward a telescope hidden in one of the pine trees above, another to the converted swimming pool that Wick had turned into a seething vat of biotech creations…and closer to the middle, where the lines grew more tangled, my apartment, as if I were some great trapdoor spider. Except my goal was simply to daunt. I was the Great Daunter. I wanted to make any intruder encounter not me but dead ends full of piles of books, a cradle never meant to be broken or sentimental, a few dozen shoes some with feet mummified inside them, the dried-out remains of some snarling dog-like animal that had wandered in, gotten lost, and starved to death in a corner.

From this center, the lines in my head radiated out most urgently to the western edge of the mound, which faced the Company across the great broken divide of the city’s southwest flank, the confusion deliberately multiplied, my purpose to create a maze for the unexpected visitor…before simplifying again at the exit to three passageways, only one of which led anywhere safe, and before that a door that from the outside appeared to just be part of the mound, obscured by the welter of moss and vines. A strong smell of carrion—one of Wick’s distortion pheromones—grew unbearably strong the closer you came to it. Sometimes even I had trouble finding that entrance, as if the smell helped hide its outline.

Wick added special beetles and spiders and other precise infiltration mutations as he called them—so effective that even after the Company had cast him out and he had lost their protections, the strength of rumors alone protected him for a time. These creatures registered in my network of lines as pleasing nodes, unless I was angry with Wick, and then I thought of them as irritating, interfering knots in the system.

Less controllable but also neutral ground: the cliff face itself, the eastern edge of the mound, overlooking the insane river of filth. No special protections applied there—just a veil of something like mosquito netting, nailed in place, that helped disguise us from anyone who might stumble out onto the other balconies to the north that jutted like stone chins. Sometimes we would see people on the balconies farthest away, beyond the perimeter of the mound. Distance always transformed them into tourists come to look at the scenic view.

We knew they were more dangerous than that but sometimes those people helped us pretend for awhile that we did actually live in the exclusive, the swanky, Balcony Cliffs, a place the rich had built so they could have that sunrise, that breathtaking view. In those moments, the lines radiating out from me to the mazes, the traps, the biotech would become thready, more tenuous, and I would sense the risk of relaxing into conversation with Wick and making believe we were just a normal couple in a normal time and place.

Sometimes, as I drifted off to sleep in my apartment, I could feel the solid weight of all the earth and remains of the old world above pressing down. The lines, the wires, would be snuffed out and I would experience a strange kind of comfort.

Wick and I were the last inhabitants of the Balcony Cliffs. Over the past few years before Wick moved in, the foragers and scavengers that had lived on the outer edges of my stronghold had disappeared, been killed, or moved on, leaving me with what some might still call squatter’s rights. I had discouraged Wick from letting any of his underlings take up residence with us.

This, then, is where I had brought my sea anemone that was not a sea anemone—into this cocoon, this safe haven, this sprawling trap that took up vast amounts of our time and resources. We both knew, Wick and I, that no matter how much raw material he generated or bartered for, the beetle parts and other essentials he had stolen would run out. Each day brought us closer to a time when those lines would snap and we would have to redefine our relationship to the place in which we lived and to each other.

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