Saltwater Flats (First Quarantine Ring, Saltwater City)
Node: Summer Begins
Behind the clouds of the new monsoon, the ancient mainframe Chang rolls too fast across the sky. He’s a big guy, but he appears much bigger than he should because his orbit is deteriorating. His period is down to two hours now, and he casts a veiled shadow over the rooftop of the old Woodward’s Building, engulfing Uncle Wai’s carefully cultivated garden.
Kora leans against the fence that holds old Delphine in her pen. Stares mournfully into Delphine’s golden eyes.
“Uncle Wai’s got it,” she tells the goat.
The tendril information scales Kora’s got plugged into the single-band halo that circles her head wave gently. For all Chang is so close, the people of Saltwater Flats don’t have access to him anymore. Only the citizens of the glass towers in Saltwater City can tap in. As soon as she can afford it, she’ll add rings to her halo, or even a full helmet, so she can get wiser quicker. She needs all the help she can get.
“Ma-aaa-aaa-aaa,” says old Delphine.
“K2’s sick too.”
“Uncle Wai says that so is big brother Everest, though I’ve never met him. If he comes back to us, he could save us. But I don’t think he’s coming back.”
“And Charlotte’s got it.” Kora never calls Charlotte Mom. It seems too corny. “Women aren’t immune you know, Delphine. If they’re hungry enough, if they’re depleted enough, women can get it. If Charlotte’s got it, that means I’m the only one left in our family who doesn’t have the tiger flu.”
“Don’t be like that.” Kora knows Delphine cannot actually understand her grief and dread, but still, the tendril scales atop Kora’s head droop.
She scratches the old goat between the eyes. Delphine’s hair is pleasantly coarse, and her forehead is warm. “Soon it will be you and me against the world.”
Behind Kora, the jars in which Uncle Wai grows potatoes lean against crumbling retainer walls. The jars are huge, each one big enough to hold Kora, her goat, and a couple of tigers too. Forty floors below those walls, in the streets of Saltwater Flats, women—young and old, healthy and ill, happy and sad—go about their daily business, shop for a bit of chicken for supper, a few vegetables, a bicycle, a second-hand cake mixer. A wealthy few rest in quiet cafés, sip tea, and eat steamed buns. Others stand on street corners arguing. There are no men in the streets. The men are shut up in houses, covered in lesions and coughing their lungs out, the nasty and condescending beside the gentle and well intentioned. Or else, they are already dead. Except for the tiger men, a small contingent of male survivors who have the flu in all its contagion but whose symptoms never proceed beyond a modest cough and the occasional lesion. Miraculously, they thrive in the privacy of the Pacific Pearl Parkade, doors closed to the world.
Although the tiger flu has a taste for men, it doesn’t discriminate against the wealthy. In fact, the first to succumb to the fourth wave was the hated despot Aloysius Chow-McPherson. The citizens of Saltwater City rejoiced, as did the denizens of the surrounding quarantine ring known as Saltwater Flats. Then Chow-McPherson’s kindly brother, Ferdinand, took ill. The people still rejoiced, because, though kind, Ferdinand was a high-ranking member of a despotic family. The family company, HöST Light Industries, ruled the city in its own best interests. Chow-McPherson’s wife, Sophia, took charge. But she too got sick. Then his daughter, Isabelle, took over. As Kora is all her family’s got, Isabelle is all the city has got. She better be enough.