SH_screens_29-10-2015 14-58-28-546The sleigh screamed across the deserted corridors. The fury of its twin engines splashed on the walls with a glacial glow that cast deep shadows in the abandoned doorways of the buried skyscraper, gifting them a half life of shifting darkness as it passed by.

Magnetic levitation kept it clear of most debris on the floor, and the force of its propulsion smashed debris and old furniture into clouds of dust that lingered in the air long after the sleigh and its ghost light had left the area behind. The sleigh itself was an open model, of the old kind from back before Salvagers had embraced carbon fibre cockpits. Barely more than a seat between two metal skis, it was built of sharp lines and edges, brutal in its utilitarianism and dark orange colour.

Its driver was a grim-faced old man in a dark crimson jump suit, white curly locks flowing behind his bent head as he kept both eyes on the buried skyscraper’s hallways and byways. His gaze was partly obscured by thick smoked goggles, but it did not flinch when the skyscraper opened into a giant hallway that could once have been a parking lot.

With a grace that a coated piece of steel should never have possessed, the sleigh arched over the edge of the missing floor

 

SH_screens_29-10-2015 15-02-22-335 Amidst crumbling ceilings and dust devils raised by the sheer speed of the sleigh blasting over ancient floors, a hole in the floor gaped like a maw, its crooked metal teeth bent out of shape by time, but still hungry for the metal and flesh of rider and sleigh. The Salvager’s lips tightened at the corners in what might have been a smile. With a flick of his wrist, secondary thrusters roared to life on the belly of the sleigh.

The diamond-shaped cluster of bright lights lifted the sleigh’s nose and slowed it down, making it rear like a rebellious nightmare, but not enough to stop before the gaping hole. Then again, they were never meant to.

With a grace that a coated piece of steel should never have possessed, the sleigh arched over the edge of the missing floor, avoiding twisted rebar without a scrap, and curved down into the hole without ever quite succumbing to gravity. The thrusters balanced the metal frame as the maglev generator whined into overdrive nearly twenty floors below, where the massive hole ended. The main thrusters fired up again at full intensity, propelling the Salvager’s chariot through some of the lost maintenance shafts below the hundredth floor of the buried skyscraper.

Old Red, instead, he came once a year, looking for something he would not disclose.

 

SH_screens_29-10-2015 14-59-52-231 “Control to Old Red, Control to Old Red. You’re going to ignore this as usual, but you haven’t shut off your radio, so I have to transmit. You’re about to head into a high risk area with no known exits. You are advised to turn around right now.”

The sleigh was a hundred floors down, deeper than most pilots ever reached on their quest for artefacts of the old world. Most just stayed in the top reaches, and came back with knick-knacks and shiny metal materials. Some went deep, to explore and bring back the best they could, driven to plumb the depths of the ancient buildings of a civilisation long gone.

Old Red, instead, he came once a year, looking for something he would not disclose. He blasted through to depths that most people would not consider exploring for any amounts of money, and more often than not returned without salvage, cloudy expression on his face. He dove once a year only, regular as clockwork.

This floor was indeed a challenge. The sleigh coursed its length and width, looking for a suitable exit, but most had been filled with collapsed ceilings or the rusted corpses of fallen sleighs. Control was about to chirp a cheerful goodbye when Old Red skidded his sleigh to a near halt – a remarkable feat on a device that was essentially a rocket without brakes – and dropped a small metal package on the floor.

The sleigh barely rocked as it rode the shockwave.

 

 As the small led light on the bundle of coiled metal started to blink, the sleigh sped away from it at full speed, putting more distance between itself and the blinking light. Two hundred metres ahead, when the light was flashing at full speed, the sleigh pinned a perfect about-face, and sped back towards the blinking light. The mine erupted in a cloud of combustible chemicals, and then a single spark turned the world into fire as the vacuum bomb pulverized anything solid within its blast radius.

The sleigh barely rocked as it rode the shockwave. Air rushed in through the sphere of void left behind by the explosion, and Old Red plunged head-first into the newly created passage into the lower levels of the building.

“Control to Old Red. That was one hell of a blast, Old Red. Salvagers will love the new exit you dug for them, but listen: the explosion jarred some old machinery back to life. We can feel the vibrations, but have no idea what it is. Control advises caution.”

This far down, the walls were thicker, the structures of the former skyscraper more solid. 120 floors under current ground level, the Salvager had reached one of the waste disposal sections, the source of the noise Control had reported. Old Red had to rein in his sleigh again, pulling on brakes and reducing his thruster output to a minimum, the magnetic locks glowing bright red with the sustained effort of keeping the craft still.

 It bit nothing but the back end of the exhaust’s fiery tail.

 

SH_screens_29-10-2015 15-00-06-403 The section ahead was barely hundred yards long, but it was segmented by clanking security doors gone haywire. Each was opening and closing madly, regularly but at random intervals from the others. Old Red stared at the doors, his hands absent-mindedly managing the controls as he watched the rhythm. With no warning, at a seemingly random configuration of the doors, he gave gas.

His sleigh surged forward, all thrusters temporarily on overdrive, which propelled the levitating mass of iron and hard will into the air, and forward, dashing through the first, closing door. The next three passed without incident, and by the time the fifth came slamming down, it bit nothing but the back end of the exhaust’s fiery tail.

The sleigh did not slow down again, but rushed forward and downwards, continuing its mad descent into the bowels of the ruined habitat that had once housed people, their dreams and hopes.

“Control to Old Red, Control to Old Red. Be advised that you are heading for a massive leak of radioactive gases. Do not descend. I repeat, do not descend”

The radioactive gas pockets were remnants of the skyscraper’s old reserves – actual olden-time air that had been exposed to radiation from the Fall’s impostor second sun. It had sweltered and glowed for decades until the sleigh parted tore them to nimbus shreds with its relentless advance.

Old Red puffed, annoyed. It was the first emotion his face broadcast since the start of his descent.

“Control to Old Red, Control to Old Red. Do not head into that level. There are valuable, intact old-time computers on your floor – enough to make you as rich as a king. Collect them and abort! We have the rescue craft on stand-by”

Old Red sighed, and ripped the oxygen mas off his face

 

SH_screens_29-10-2015 14-59-04-256 The warnings went unheeded, and the sleigh performed another elegant swan dive into the irradiated floors. The tanks of oxygen under the hood started hissing instantly, under the strain of keeping the engine supply line pure. As well as using oxygen to power the engines’ cold fusion, the on-board electronics struggled with trying to keep the percentage of irradiated air low enough that it wouldn’t cause an explosion in the reactor.

The oxygen level dials dove fast, heading for zero, and it was clear that the pilot oxygen and engine oxygen circuits would drain the shared supply quickly.

Old Red sighed, and ripped the oxygen mask off his face, terminating the pilot life support system.

“Control to Old Red, Control to Old Red. For God’s sake, man, you and your crazy rules. There are better ways to kill yourself than to attempt this run every goddamn year on the same night! Let us send down the rescue pods..”

Control squeaked dead as the pilot turned off the radio. The oxygen supply ran into the red, but because it wasn’t trying to keep its pilot alive, the system focused on fuelling the engines only, and the sleigh made it through the irradiated section successfully, glowing a little perhaps, but functional.

Old Red was alive. For the first time in the 84 years he’d been trying this run, he was smiling. He could sense his destination ahead, and colour was returning to his cheek, in a perverse reversal of what should have happened to a human being exposed to those radiation levels without protection.

Out of habit more than anything else, Old Red ran the sleigh through a few clean air patches, shimmering bubbles of air trapped against all odds in the catastrophe, to fill up his tanks and keep ploughing on.

The sleigh was approaching an enormous crater

 

SH_screens_29-10-2015 14-58-28-546 The sleigh righted itself as it landed on the next level down, which housed a bank vault protected by a dozen security turrets, still active after all these centuries. There were three shocker turrets and nine high-powered laser blasters powerful enough to punch through a solid steel wall. In the crimson glow of the vault’s emergency lights, the sleigh sped through before the the turrets’ tracking lasers could even turn around to face their target.

There was a strange air around the rugged metal of the sleigh’s body, a glow that wasn’t caused by the radiation, shimmering in the air like a trail. The craft picked up speed beyond even what its mighty engines should have provided, and Old Red’s jumpsuit looked freshly starched.

Control would have shrieked down the line when they saw that the sleigh was approaching an enormous crater left behind by the explosion of the building’s heating tanks. Old Red just smiled and slapped his dashboard. The sleigh blurred, and sped forward, dashing as it had through the bulkheads, clearing a chasm nearly three hundred metres wide with a graceful, soft arc that defied physics. It flew through the air as the thrusters burned pure white for a moment. Then, it landed on the other side, and did the only thing it was never designed to do: it stopped.

They were both gone, one set to rest, and the other made whole.

 

Old Red stepped out of the craft, and took a small burlap sack from his seat. It was a small thing, the size of a shopping bag, and it didn’t look like much, but like Old Red itself it was gaining definition, becoming more itself with each step towards the Salvager’s destination. A few steps from where the sleigh gently levitated waiting for its master, was a pile of bones. It was a pathetic bundle of dust and calcium left behind by three people. They weren’t even corpses anymore, but a knee-high mound that had once been a family. One set of bones was small, and you might be forgiven for thinking it belonged a pet.

Just above the little bones, a blue blur shimmered in the air. Like a small flame, it burned brighter as Old Red approached. The grim, smiling old man reached into the bag, which was still a small sack but at the same time it was enormous and bulged in impossible ways. He took out a small present, a book-sized package wrapped in blue paper with satin ribbons around it.

The disturbance was still a small glitch in reality, and it also was a six-year-old boy frozen in the act of holding his hand out, which is exactly how he’d stood almost a hundred years ago when the massive EMP waves blasted forth by the bombs had interrupted Old Red and shattered him to a million quantum shards.

It was a simple act, the passing of a book from someone who didn’t exist to a child who shouldn’t have lingered. There was a small sound as if reality itself had been holding its breath, and then a gentle, soft wave of light. Then, they were both gone, one set to rest, and the other made whole, and ready to roam the night again.

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