Author: Ian Hill

Maisie swept through the workshop, skipping from bench to shelf and beaming at everything. As she went, the loose sleeves of her shoulder-draped coat knocked over little bottles of gears and springs. Her astrakhan lapels gathered ceiling-sifted motes, and her velvet vest turned from purple to gray. Her hair was soon thick with that agitating admixture of dust, soot, ash, and ossified spores that clung to everything on the city’s borders. This didn’t bother her, though; should she need it, a rubber-faced breathing mask with a ridged oxygen hose swung from her hip, expressionless lenses flashing iridescent from their oily coating.

Maisie hadn’t been to the workshop since she was a child. Her grandfather had willed it to her a decade ago, but only that morning had her access card updated to let her in. Such delays were expected, especially with buildings once used for perimeter security. But now she was here, and she loved it with all of its tiny, featureless dolls; all its green-barred lamps; all its mallets, spools, and chunks of hewn soap. Maybe she would move here among the curled wood shavings and hand-braided wicks. The colorful medals hanging from her collar surely warranted such a whimsical shift.

Maisie’s wandering eventually took her to the tower’s balcony—a parapet-guarded overhang that afforded a fantastically unobstructed view of the outer wastes. The city’s walls were high, but now—finally—she was higher, and she could look out at that rotting sprawl and really see what people had wrought. Her excitement hardened into a lump. All was gray and brown and leached out there in the swidden desolation; mangled buildings flowed into each other, sucking swells of mud swirled in slow maelstroms, and trash heaped up in tremendously decayed mountains. Spore haze danced sickly at the horizon, and evil, dark vapors surged to and fro, rolling through black valleys and leaving shimmering trails of melt. A constant rain of what look like blighted stars showered the wasteland; everywhere one of the tiny, dazzling fuzzes landed, a flash of light went out and etched things into char.

Maisie watched the bizarre display for a while, eyes reflecting the fitful plague. Then, a flash of pink in the murk drew her attention. Someone was moving around down there, picking between mounds of refuse, meandering aimlessly. Maisie leaned over the guardrail and squinted. It was too far to see, so she ducked into the workshop, retrieved a brass telescope, and, with one boot braced against the steel, propped herself up like a surveyor and looked again.

There was a little girl out there. She wore a stained jumper, and she trailed a doll from her right hand. Maisie’s heart leapt. She watched as the child scoured mold from mirrors, picked maimed toys from sludge, and played fetch with a leprous dog that followed her around. At one point, the girl climbed to the top window of a gutted, rolled hotel and pretended to be a princess. It made the woman’s heart ache.

Within the hour, Maisie was knee-deep among the scum and corruption, mask on face; at least its nose was stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs. At length, she found the little girl in a sort of glade of garbage, wheezing and petting her fungal puppy.

“Hi,” Maisie said, voice distorted.

The girl looked up.

“Come to the city with me.” Maisie extended a gloved hand.

The girl smiled and made to stand, but she stopped. “What about Rufus?”

Maisie peered at the trembling mutt and shook her head. “He’s sick.”

The girl smiled even broader and plopped back down, carefree. “No thanks!”

Rufus rollicked; Maisie’s heart broke.