Art Pact 57

Her stories were incomprehensible - tales of climbing the sides of buildings that stretched from the ground up into the clouds, of riding on carriages that flew in great columns of traffic that criss-crossed the night sky. Those were the more palatable parts of her history, the ones we allowed the children to hear. Later at night, in the darkness around the glow-lamp, she told us about the war, about being onboard a ship that had floundered, drives destroyed, and fallen on a city.

"When I got out," she said, "I mean, it took me a long time to get out, you know. I was in the drop capsules in the middle of the Anthracite. I had to shoot my way out of the capsule, climb all the way down to the lower levels."

Her timeline was confused, I knew that. She demonstrated how she had lowered herself using her bionic arm to grip on while the flesh one sought out the next handhold, but she'd told the children that she'd lost her arm just before she caught the ship here. Anne and I exchanged glances, but said nothing.

"I saw a lot of the other soldiers in their capsules. Most of them dead, of course. There were some that I helped free, others I - well, I didn't have the key to open the capsules properly, and I only had so many bullets, you understand. I had to save some, in case."

She drummed the metal fingers of her right hand nervously, and I saw the little finger flick out as if to move towards the ruined gun at her side. I wondered again whether it would be better to try to remove it from her when she slept, but the thing looked more dangerous to her than it would be to us. Still, good to get it away from the children's sight. And Lotta herself seemed to become more and more morbid when she glanced at it. Her tales of the wars had all been precipitated by Anne's comment about it, and whenever she talked of the battles she unconsciously touched it - a little click of metal against metal.

"When we got out, you wouldn't believe how bad it was. The fires were out - long out - but you could see what they'd done. It was a city when we fell on it, but now it was just long-abandoned rubble. The tower-blocks had all been flattened by the impact, the roads twisted up like so many black ribbons, our ship was so deep in the ground that although I had to climb down to get out of it, I had to climb back up to get to the ground again. There were animals in the pit - dogs, or something like dogs. I'd kept my bullets back, so I was able to protect myself. There were others who'd been more generous, they'd freed others and used up their bullets. They weren't so lucky. I saw a man - his field had failed somehow, his right arm was just a withered husk. No meat on that, but enough on the rest of him to make him a meal. Hold on, I need a piss."

She got up and wandered into the tree line. When she was out of sight Anne leant over to me.

"But how did she get here?" she asked, in a low urgent tone. I shrugged. It was the question we'd asked, but there was no telling whether Lotta had remembered that she was supposed to be answering it. Perhaps she'd got sidetracked, or perhaps she'd decided that that story was not for us. With the sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves, Lotta emerged into the campsite again.

"I'm getting too old," she said. "I thought I heard someone talking out there."

"We were talking," I admitted.

"No, not you. Someone else. In the dark. Someone who couldn't be there. Listen, how long have you and your children been coming here?"

"Five years," Anne said. "Every summer, we come down here by bus from the town."

"And you've never met anyone else from the - like me?"

"No."

She looked around, and the lights on her arm flashed up and down red for a few seconds.

"Do you know what the stupidest thing was?" she asked, "about the whole business? We dropped out of travel speed too early. I measured the stars when I got out. We fell on a city, we killed everyone in it, and it wasn't even the right city." She pointed across the lake, to the mountains around the devil's cauldron. "Tomorrow I'll show you something," she said.

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