It was gridlock across the island all points south-east of Port Authority. Osborne’s feet ached with the cold. Blackouts had put the south-bound subway off limits. There were crowds blocking the avenues and cross streets, but the scene below Chambers was like nothing he’d witnessed before. There were people everywhere, spilling out into stalled traffic, moving in a type of zombie automatism. It reminded him of a scene from Dawn of the Dead, except it wasn’t. It’d been different when the Twins burned. There was no panic this time, only the sense of a great spontaneous migration, spiralling towards the Zero.
After Chambers, progress became almost impossible. Osborne tried heading towards Cortlandt, but it was the same story. Then quite suddenly he found himself being swept along by the crowd, trapped by competing cross-currents. For a while the transition left him completely disorientated. Then, as he entered deeper into it, he became aware of the crowd as a complex entity with its own mind, its own stream of consciousness: thought-objects knotted together, eddied, spread out. He searched for the flows, the still points, seeking to make headway towards the impact site.
As he drifted east Osborne gradually sensed a change in the atmosphere. The crowd grew more diffuse, less of a mob and more like a gathering of the tribes, each with its vaguely defined zone. It reminded him of the park enclosures on Tomkins Square. Winos, punks, hustlers, old guys playing chess.
At Sixth Avenue the peddlers, sniffing a buck, had set up along the sidewalk. The first one he saw was a black woman, hunched under a blanket in a wheelchair, selling bits of Martian rock behind a makeshift stand. A tiny bleached-out version of Old Glory fluttered at the end of a car aerial taped to the back of her wheelchair and a black-and-white portrait of Buzz Aldrin. It jived weird. Flashback to the old man’s blizzard balls on 181st street. Flash forward to people standing on the roofs of parked cars. Over the sound of whistles and sirens, a stereo was blasting out a retro Public Enemy track. 911’s a Joke. Some of the people on car roofs were dancing to it.
Osborne persisted southbound. Three blocks down, a UPS van had been rolled and set on fire. A mob of office clones gathered around it stamping patent-leather shoes against the cold, shouting into cell phones. A prophet of UFO doom ran through the crowd screaming religious nut gobbledegook. In the distance a police loudhailer, rippling with feedback, repeated an order to stand clear. It was impossible to tell where it was coming from. Up above, the black wasp-like silhouette of a helicopter moved silently in and out between the tops of buildings.
Osborne veered left and found himself in a narrow cross-street, a backwater the human tide had almost passed by. Abandoned lorries blocked most of it. Under a scaffolded overhang, a dozen or so dead souls were gathered in front of a storefront window, transfixed. Osborne edged by. Behind the window, TV screens flared in unison. Images cascaded. A fireball falling through night sky. Helicopter searchlights above a trademark Manhattan skyline. Aerial views. Smoke rising from the impact site. Crowd shots. Hysterical. Car horns blaring. Someone flipping the camera the bird. Talking heads on fast rotation. Then cut to a patched-in view of what looked like some post-apoc excavation site, flooded up to the knees of emergency workers, circa Ridley Scott’s Alien, only this one was real.
The Zero. A mile-wide hole in the ground. It’d been that way since Al-Q kamikazied a pair of 737s into the Twins a decade-and-a-half previous. It seemed like ancient history already. Archaeology. Across the bank of TV screens, a team of army engineers in radiation suits were sifting through debris above the water-line. The remains of a ruined subway train hung from a wall of exposed girders. Tilting up, the camera revealed the smashed façades of neighbouring monoliths, their windows blown in.
Osborne pushed-on again, circling, cutting back, navigating by indirection, past makeshift barricades, across St Paul’s cemetery and almost getting within sight of the Fulton Street station before being forced back again by a scrum of Krishnas in yellow bedsheets. Half an hour of shouldering through the peaceniks he found himself at Broadway and Liberty, at the lower end of the Zero. A street preacher was standing in the middle of the intersection howling into a megaphone. “And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth. and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake!” The crowd-mind had opened a space around the preacher. On one side of the intersection, the riot squad lined up behind striped blue and white barriers. On the other, a procession of flagellants stalking back and forth like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, weirdly menacing. The crowd dug the scene. Bottles flew. Cops stroked truncheons and tear gas canisters, expectant. The preacher ranted. The chorus threw up their arms and writhed.
Published by Equus Press.