“Will we be safe there?” the boy asks.
The roar of the powerful outboard motor echoes through the flood-ravaged s6treets of Old Manhattan as I pilot the boat down the center of what used to be 5th Avenue. Water laps at the facades of the submerged structures, spraying a fine mist into the cold night air.
I glance down at the child. He’s young, no older than ten, with straight black hair and dark brown skin. The way his bangs flop over his forehead reminds me of myself as a child.
“Of course,” I lie. “You’ll love it.”
The boy’s mother shoots me a nervous glance, then puts her arm around her son and whispers into his ear in a foreign tongue. The boy nods. He rests his head on her shoulder. She hugs him tighter and kisses the top of his salt-crusted hair.
A gust of freezing wind whips between the buildings. All around, the remains of skyscrapers jut from the water like ancient monoliths—hollow paeans to long-dead gods—their once-towering heights clipped short by the rising tides. An empty flagpole protrudes from one of them, a spear in the heart of a dying giant. Smears of rust cascade down the stone from the corroded metal base like bloodstains from a mortal wound.
I look up at our destination, a black glass facade looming in the distance. It’s dark except for a ring of light spilling from the top-floor windows.
Floor-to-ceiling shades in every window prevent people outside from seeing in and people inside from having to see out. Behind the shades, a pair of silhouettes move fluidly past the glass: separating, spinning, then coming back together again, arms intertwining, bodies swaying, dual shadows merging into a single multi-limbed form.
Christ, I think. Are they dancing?
I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone dancing. It seems almost sacrilegious after all that has happened. The floods. The droughts. The fires. Millions dead. Millions more starving.
And yet those bastards up there are dancing.
As if everything is okay.
As if all this is normal.
As if it’s just another day.
“Unbelievable,” I mutter.
A ghostly white glow briefly illuminates the boat as it passes a giant Do Not Enter sign. The warnings are everywhere, cautioning people against entering the flooded city. The water is getting deeper—that’s the first problem. A few months ago, it was a foot or two below the sign. Now, half the sign is gone. It won’t be long before the whole city is underwater, penthouses and all. And then what?
My hand unconsciously brushes the gun tucked in my belt. I’ve never needed to use it, but I carry it just in case. The rising tide isn’t the only risk. There are looters. Hijackers. Junkies. But what truly worries me aren’t the dangers above the water. It’s the ones below.
I’ve never seen the things, but I’ve heard about them, about what they do to anyone who strays too close to the water’s edge. Nobody knows what they are or where they came from. There are plenty of reasonable theories, ranging from previously-undiscovered ocean predators to mutant strains of known species to long-extinct dinosaurs thawed from the Arctic ice. Then there are the crackpot rumors. Escaped genetic experiments. Government bioweapons. Mermaids. Aliens. Zombies.
I don’t know what to think. Part of me wants to believe that the things don’t exist at all, that they’re just boogeymen that parents wield to warn their kids away from the water. But another part of me finds it hard to ignore the screams that echo through the city at night or the blooms of blood and viscera that sometimes bubble up from the depths.
A gruff voice breaks me out of my reverie. It’s my business partner, Alex. He’s standing with one foot perched on the bow of the boat like George Washington crossing the Delaware River. “Yo, Jeremy! Slow it down!”
The beam from a flashlight strobes in my eyes. I wave it away. “Relax. I’m on it.”
I kill the motor. Its dying rumble ricochets off the walls of the urban canyon and rolls into the distance. The only sound that remains is the soft slap of water against the hull and the occasional cough from one of the twenty refugees crowded into the overloaded transport. The faint strains of what sounds like a waltz filter down from the penthouse above.
The boat bumps against the 46th-floor window of the skyscraper with a squeal like the death throes of a dying machine. Moving quickly, Alex loops a heavy, mildew-blackened rope in through one broken window and out the next, lashing the boat to the wide steel beam that separates them. Then he turns and faces the passengers. Twenty hopeful faces look up at him expectantly. They’re starving. Desperate. Scared. They’ll believe anything.
And they have.
Alex clears his throat and projects his voice. “Alright, everyone, listen up,” he says. “I’m gonna run inside to see if your rooms are ready. You’re all paid up, right?” Heads nod. Alex points at the boy who talked to me earlier. “You too, little man?”
The boy looks up at his mother. She nods her approval. He gives Alex a thumbs up.
“Great!” Alex claps his hands together. “Then I’ll be right back!” He grabs the rope ladder dangling against the side of the building, then smiles down at the faces below. “You’re gonna love it here.” With that, he climbs up the ladder and disappears through a window a few feet above the water.
Fucking asshole, I think. Why’d he have to do that, with the kid? What was the point? It was just cruel.
Alex seemed to have a twisted need to prove that he was still an alpha male. Still a captain of industry. Still at the top of the food chain.
In a way, he is.
We both are.
I’ve known Alex for years. We met as freshmen at Texas A&M University, joined the MBA program at Wharton together, traded commodities at the same investment bank, even dated some of the same girls. Alex was an asshole back then too.
I’m originally from Texas. I majored in geological engineering, with plans to join the oil industry when I graduated. But then, a recruiter for a major investment bank convinced me that I could make way more money trading oil futures in the stock market than I could make drilling holes in the Texas desert. The recruiter was right.
Alex grew up in Nebraska, spending most of his childhood on his family’s cattle ranch. He, too, had heard the siren song of Wall Street calling after graduation, and he, too, ultimately fell back on what he knew best. For him, it was livestock.
Instead of herding cows on a farm in Nebraska, he was trading cattle futures from an office tower in Manhattan. It didn’t matter to him. Either way, the livestock ended up in the same place: the slaughterhouse, then the dinner table. The beef industry was a big machine, a meat grinder that ingested living things on one end and spat gushers of money out the other. Alex was all too happy to collect it.
When the shit hit the fan, Wall Street was one of the first things to go. The economy collapsed. Commerce broke down. Supply chains disintegrated. Food became scarce for everyone but the wealthiest few. Housing too. Soon, it was every man for himself.
It was Alex who came up with the plan. To him, it was obvious what we needed to do to survive—it was just an extension of what he was doing before the world went to hell. It was the same machine, just smaller. And we’d have to operate both ends.
“Think of them like commodities,” Alex had argued when he pitched the idea to me. “Like livestock.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was insane. “Livestock? They’re people!”
Alex walked over to the window of our darkened apartment, his shoes squelching on the waterlogged carpet as he crossed. The rug was sodden and mildewed. Black mold climbed the furniture and walls. The smell of rot was nauseating.
He looked out across the darkened cityscape. Like most of the city—except for the penthouses—our place had no electricity anymore. We were lucky enough that it was still above the water. It wouldn’t be for long, though. The high tide was already sloshing against the bottom of our windows.
“This place is fucked,” Alex said. He thumped the toe of his sneaker against the glass, at the waterline. “We need an agent. And agents cost money.”
Alex was right. There were only so many buildings still above the water, and more were being flooded every day. An agent would find us a new place and would do the dirty work of evicting the current occupants. But that kind of service didn’t come cheap. The higher the apartment, the higher the price. Plus, there was the cost of eviction and the resulting cleanup. If the occupants left peacefully, it wouldn’t be too bad. But if they didn’t, well, they would have to be convinced. The agents would do what they had to do to clear the property, but it could get messy. And that was expensive.
I joined Alex at the window and gazed out at the remains of the darkened skyscrapers. Their penthouse lights glowed like the tips of lit cigars. “You think it’s true what they’re eating up there?”
“I know it is.”
“You remember Gary Benjamin?”
I nodded. Gary Benjamin had been the head chef at Prime Cut, one of the city’s premier steakhouses. Alex and I used to wine-and-dine our Wall Street clients over fist-sized cuts of Gary’s divinely-marbled $300 Wagyu steak. We had gotten to know him over the years. He was a smart guy. Talented. The best chef in the city, if you believed the critics that ranked that kind of thing.
“He’s a personal chef now, in that one.” Alex pointed at the black glass skyscraper towering over the drowned remains of 5th Avenue. “And he’s buying.”
I sit alone in the boat, waiting and listening. I’ve made the trip enough times to recognize the sounds of what’s happening inside. It’s always the same thing. First, there are murmurs of confusion and concern as the refugees begin to realize they have been lied to. Someone—usually a man—starts shouting in protest. There’s a struggle, then gunshots. The screams follow. Sometimes there are more gunshots, sometimes not. It depends on how unruly things get.
Eventually, the panic simmers down to a steady drone of quiet weeping and whispered prayers. The adults are shuttled up the dank stairwell to the 49th floor for immediate processing. The kids are herded into individual pens on the 48th, where they’re held until they are needed. None of them really know what’s in store for them. They’re kept in the dark, literally and figuratively.
I’ve never been inside the building—I don’t have the stomach for it. Alex does, though. Somehow, he’s unfazed by the whole thing. He goes up to the kitchen to chat with Gary Benjamin as Gary preps the penthouse’s next meal, knowing full well where the cuts of meat on the chopping block came from.
A flash of movement overhead catches my eye, and I look up. The boy from the boat—the one who spoke to me only minutes earlier—is in the window, pounding on the glass. His face is a mask of pure terror. Panicked, the boy looks over his shoulder, then down at me. Our eyes connect. The boy screams, his lips forming two words that I easily understand, even through the thick, soundproof glass.
Before I can react, Alex appears behind the boy and grabs him by the arms. The kid struggles to break free, but Alex is too strong. He drags the boy kicking and screaming away from the window and into the darkness.
A few minutes later, the rope ladder rattles against the side of the building as Alex climbs down.
“Sorry about that,” Alex says as he lowers himself onto the boat. “Damn kid slipped away when we weren’t looking.” He wipes his hands on the back of his pants, then begins untying the rope that secures the boat to the building. I notice a spray of blood splattered across the front of Alex’s yellow rain slicker. Crimson streaks that look like finger tracks are smeared down one of his sleeves. “Good news, though,” Alex continues as he coils the rope. He’s beaming. “We’re in.”
I don’t respond. I’m still staring at the bloodstains, my eyes unfocused.
“You hear what I said?” Alex asks. “They have a vacancy.” He loops the coiled rope onto a rusted metal hook protruding from the side of the boat. “Isn’t that great?”
“Yeah,” I say quietly, groggily, as if waking from a deep slumber.
Alex frowns. “Hey. What’s your problem?”
I look up at the window, where I saw the kid calling for help. It’s dark. I glance back at Alex. “I’m done,” I say. I stand up and press the outboard motor’s electric starter. The engine sputters but doesn’t catch.
“Done? Done what?”
I motion to the building. “This.” I press the starter again. “Everything.” The engine roars to life, spitting a cloud of pale gray exhaust into the air.
“Hang on, hang on,” Alex shouts over the noise. “Shut that shit off.”
I ignore Alex, revving the engine louder and piloting the boat away from the side of the building in a U-turn.
“Shut it off, I said!” Alex shouts over the noise. He pushes past me, slams his hand down on the starter, and kills the engine. “What the hell are you talking about, you’re done?”
I look down at my shoes. “I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Alex glares at me for a moment, his arms crossed over his chest. The muscles in his jaw ripple as he clenches his teeth. Then he nods. His tone lightens. “Okay.”
“Okay?” I lift my head, my eyebrows raised in surprise. “Really?”
“Sure. We’ll just stop. And then, when our apartment floods, and one of those things comes swimming through the door looking for its next meal … I’ll make sure it knows where to find you.”
My eyes narrow. “Fuck you.”
“Don’t you get it?” Alex asks. “We’re this close to making it up there.” He points to the penthouse.
I snort derisively. “They’re not going to help us. They don’t give a shit about us. We’re just useful to them.”
“Yeah, exactly. That gives us leverage. We can make a deal.”
A laugh bursts from my lips, echoing off the buildings towering around us. It’s a hollow, joyless sound. “They’re dancing up there.”
“So, you don’t get to where they are by sharing. Hell, that’s why we’re in this shitshow in the first place.” I gesture to the water that has overtaken the city. “They didn’t know when to stop, when enough was enough, and now we’re stuck in this mess that they created. But them …?” I look up at the penthouse. “They’re still dry. They have electricity. Clean water. Food. They’re above it all, literally.”
“Exactly. Which is why we need to be up there too.”
“But that’s their whole scam! The American dream, right? If you just work for us hard enough, someday all this can be yours. It’s bullshit. It was always bullshit.”
“What’re you, Karl Marx, now? Christ. Listen to you. You sound like a fucking communist.”
“Look, do what you want,” I sigh. “But like I said … I’m done.”
I try to step around Alex and back to my position by the engine. Alex moves to block my way. His lips curl away from his teeth in a snarl.
“No,” he growls. “You’re done when I say you’re done.” He moves forward until we’re almost nose-to-nose. “Got it?”
I plant a forearm in Alex’s chest, pushing him away to create space between us. “Back off,” I warn.
“What’re you gonna do?” Alex shoves me. “Huh?”
The blow unleashes something deep inside of me. Before I can stop myself, I thrust my head forward, crushing my forehead into Alex’s face in a vicious headbutt.
Alex grunts as blood erupts from his busted nose. He spins around and bends forward over the boat’s railing, leaking bright tendrils of blood into the jewel-green waves. “The hell, man! You brope by nose.”
As Alex tries to staunch the bleeding with his shirt, the water beside the boat begins roiling and foaming. A cluster of ghostly white blurs materializes in the oily darkness, like wisps of gauze dancing lazily just below the surface.
Suddenly, a mottled, grayish-white hand shoots out of the water. It clutches Alex’s arm and yanks, causing his midsection to crash against the railing and knocking the wind out of his lungs. Another hand shoots from the water. Flaccid ribbons of flesh are strung between its bony fingers like party streamers. Its yellowed nails dig into the shoulder of Alex’s jacket and pull him headfirst into the water.
Alex’s startled screams turn into muffled gurgling. His arms flail helplessly at the thing in the water. He tries to tear away the limbs gripping him, but the rotting flesh sloughs off in his hands.
Overcoming my initial shock, I lunge forward and grab Alex’s belt, digging my heels into the bottom of the boat and leaning back, putting all my weight into pulling Alex away from whatever is attacking him. I can feel the thing tugging hungrily at my friend, trying to draw him fully out of the boat and under the waves.
My grip begins to slip. Veins in my neck and forehead bulge as I struggle to hang on. The muscles in my back and shoulder scream from the strain. The belt tears at my fingers.
Then, suddenly, the things in the water let go. With the resistance gone, I topple backward, landing flat on my back, with Alex’s body on top of me. I roll to the side, gasping for breath, then push Alex away and struggle to my knees. I look down at my friend.
His face is gone.
All that’s left is a shredded red-black hole, just a masticated mess of flesh and bone. The remnants of his lower jaw hang toward his neck, his bottom teeth poking up through the torn flesh of his lips and gums like broken seashells in a rising tide of gore. Torrents of blood bubble up from his severed arteries and pool in the cavity where his mouth used to be.
I recoil with revulsion, vomit spewing from my lips. Alex is making gurgling sounds, his legs and arms twitching weakly. Somehow, he’s still alive. His head lolls toward me. Blood spills from his ruined face and swirls into the water around my boots. The mangled stump of his tongue pokes and wiggles obscenely over the entrance to his torn esophagus. He seems to be trying to say something. One of his arms lifts, reaching in my direction, fingers grasping blindly. They find my arm and tighten around it.
My feet slip on the blood-slicked metal floor as I stumble backward from Alex’s grip. I fall hard, my head cracking painfully into the edge of the bench behind me.
The floor under me begins to tilt, sending a noxious mixture of water, blood, and vomit sloshing past my cheek. Just above my head, a rotting hand grips the railing. Another arm emerges from the depths and latches a hand onto the rail, further tipping the vessel. Then another arm emerges. And another.
One of the arms is still clad in the moldering remnants of a long-sleeved shirt. It reaches for me. I kick at it, hearing the crunch of brittle bone and the squelch of rotting flesh as my boot connects with the outstretched appendage.
One of the moldering creatures manages to pull itself over the railing, toppling into the boat with a splash. It’s a woman. Or was, at one point. Clumps of long, braided hair dangle from the thing’s skull like seaweed. A tangled necklace is entwined around its exposed vertebrae. Shreds of what appeared to be a McDonald’s uniform cling to its torso, a name tag still pinned to the shirt.
The realization of what I’m seeing washes over me. I never considered what happened to the millions of people who drowned in the city—the poor, the working class, the homeless—the ones who had been unable to escape the rapidly-rising floodwaters, their waterlogged bodies bloating with gases and floating toward the surface, only to be forever trapped by the ceilings of whatever room in whatever building they were in when they died.
I watch in numb horror as several once-human forms pull themselves out of the water, flopping like fish over the railing and into the boat. Their skin hangs like rags from their algae-blackened bones, catching on the rivets lining the railing and sliding off into doughy piles that remind me of sodden toilet paper spat from an overflowing sewer. Their flesh teems with worms. Barnacles crust their skulls. The low-tide smell of rot and decomposition fills my mouth and nose.
Once in the boat, the things slither hungrily on their bellies toward Alex’s dying body, pulling themselves forward with their arms like infants who haven’t yet learned to crawl. Their legs drag behind them, flaccid, seemingly useless.
I backpedal away from the things in front of me. Something grabs my shoulder, and I feel the icy wetness of necrotic flesh graze my neck. With a wild yelp, I jerk away, then spin to find more skeletal hands curling over the railing behind me. In the reflection of the black glass skyscraper, I can see a dozen or more of the things climbing up the side of the boat. More are surfacing from the water in all directions.
I look up at the building. The rope ladder Alex descended only minutes earlier is still dangling from the broken 47th-floor window.
I climb onto one of the boat’s wooden benches and reach for the ladder. My fingers graze the bottom rung. The ladder swings away from me. I reach for it again as it swings back in my direction, but I miss. The ladder seems to be getting shorter. Further away. There’s no way I can reach it from where I’m standing.
I look down, remembering the rope Alex used to lash the boat to the building. Maybe I can leverage that to snag the ladder. I grab the rope, uncoil some slack, then turn back to the building.
The ladder is gone.
In the 47th-floor window just overhead, Gary Benjamin peers down at me.
“Gary!” I plead. “Help me!”
Gary doesn’t respond. Instead, he steps back into the shadows, drawing the remaining length of the ladder up through the window.
“No! Gary! Wait!” I shout. “The ladder! Please!” I reach desperately for the retracting ladder as it disappears into the darkness, but it’s too far gone.
I turn around, searching desperately for another way to escape. The creatures are swarming the boat from all directions. They have completely covered Alex’s body and are feasting on his remains, greedily tearing the flesh from his limbs with their teeth. Some plunge their bony hands into his body cavity, pulling out dripping handfuls of viscera and shoveling it into their disjointed maws. Others are crawling toward me, their teeth gnashing, their arms reaching.
There’s nowhere for me to go. I only have one option.
My hand settles on the butt of my gun.
It’s an unconscious movement driven by pure instinct. I had forgotten that I even had the thing. I draw it from my belt, aim at the advancing horde, and fire. The bullets pass cleanly through flesh and bone, doing nothing to slow the creatures’ approach.
The things are almost upon me. I feel their hands close around my ankles. Around my calves. They began to pull at me, drawing me downward.
With a faraway stare, I press the barrel of the gun under my chin, then look up at the sky. My eyes fall on the penthouse. Its lights cast a soft white halo around the skyscraper’s top floor. The lazy strains of the waltz have been replaced by something more uptempo, a swing. The silhouettes behind the shades twirl and spin, joining and separating and joining again, oblivious to the horror unfolding below.
I pull the trigger. The gunshot reverberates off the buildings’ algae-slicked facades as my lifeless body tumbles forward into the waiting jaws of the undead horde.
In the penthouse, the silhouettes never miss a beat. They keep dancing, as if all this is normal.
As if it’s just another day.
As if nothing has happened at all.
This story first appeared in ParSec #5, 202.2.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Warren Benedetto writes dark fiction about horrible people, horrible places,
and horrible things. He is an award-winning author and a full member of
the SFWA. His stories have appeared in publications such as Dark Matter
Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and The Dread Machine; on podcasts such as
The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, and The Creepy Podcast; and in
anthologies from Apex Magazine, Tenebrous Press,
Eerie River Publishing, and more. He also works in the video game
industry, where he holds 35+ patents for video game technology. For more
information, visit Warren Benedetto and follow on Twitter @WarrenBenedetto and Instagram.